We have been to Rome a number of times before, but for some reason we have never been in the city in the spring. Big mistake – April in Rome is glorious.
We spent a few days in Rome last week, partly with some friends from Boston who were here for the first time. We visited some places we had seen before, and some that were completely new to us.
We booked a full-morning tour to the Coliseum and Roman Forum, which was a big win — lines are very long, especially for the Coliseum, and with a hired guide you not only skip most of the lines but you are able to navigate more efficiently.
It’s been a long time since we’ve been to the Forum — the last time we went, it was free. These days, you pay to get in, but they’ve improved the signage a lot — even without a guide, you can get some sense of what you’re looking at. I’m always impressed by the size of the place – in the 1st C, this was the civic center of a city of 1,000,000 people. After the fall of Rome, no other European city would reach that size again until the 18th C.
A major “renovation” of the Coliseum was done about 10 years ago. The word is in quotes because obviously it’s still an ancient structure. But they’ve improved the access a lot, reconstructed some of the ancient arena floor, and provided a lot more information about how the animals and gladiators got on and off the stage. It’s a fascinating place.
We visited the Capitoline Museum, a place with amazing collection of ancient Roman statuary that somehow we’ve never gotten around to visiting before. We tend to think of naturalism in art as something invented in the Renaissance, but some of these works, including a boy picking a thorn out of his toe and some of the portrait busts, convincingly demonstrate that the Romans knew how to do this too.
Most of the art in Rome is either ancient or Baroque, but there’s some medieval art too if you know where to look. I was particularly impressed by the 6th and 7th C mosaics in the church of Sts. Cosmas and Damian, a church in the Roman Forum built on the ruins of some imperial-era Roman buildings. The mosaics were quite a bit more colorful and lifelike than the 9th C mosaics in the church of Santa Prassede, which are also masterful but are done in the more formal Byzantine style.
I was blown away by the church of San Carlo alla Quatro Fontane, which was designed by Francesco Borromini, a 17th C architect whose work is often overshadowed by his more famous contemporary Bernini. That’s unfortunate, because Borromini was a genius in his own right. This church, with its undulating convex-concave facade, is strikingly original. Borromini was a master of trompe l’oeil (tricking the eye), which is hard to convey accurately in photographs, although this remarkable oval dome may give you some sense of it.
We took advantage of the gorgeous weather to make our way up the Gianicolo hill, which offers some spectacular vistas.
Of course, no trip to Rome is complete without some visits to works by Bernini and Caravaggio. I never get tired of looking at these.
I also said hello to one of my favorite paintings in the Villa Borghese, a depiction of John the Baptist by Bronzino . The model for this portrait is believed to have been Giovanni de Medici, second son of Duke Cosimo I de Medici. Bronzino, who also painted Giovanni as a toddler (in a portrait now in the Uffizi) here portrays him as a virile young man. There were to be no mature portraits of Giovanni, though – he died not long after this portrait was completed, probably of malaria. I think it is the poignancy of the unfulfilled promise of this young man that keeps drawing me back to this work.
Rome is a remarkable place although, as one of our Ascoli neighbors (and long-time Roman resident) recently remarked, no one who understands Rome really wants to live there. The city is poorly administered, public transportation is poor, and (especially in the summer) it’s unpleasantly hot and incredibly crowded. With a little advance planning, though, you can see a lot in a few days, and I hope to be able to visit the city regularly as long as we’re here.