Thursday, October 30, 2008


NB: There are a ton of photos to accompany this post. They aren't linked up yet because I haven't gotten around to it yet, but you can see them for yourself by going here.

So I arrived in Rome on Friday night. I found the convent where I was staying easily enough* and wasted a large number of my minutes by calling home.

Saturday morning I set my alarm clock for a ridiculously early time (6 a.m.) and was still trying to convince myself to get out of bed when the sound of the nuns singing Lauds came echoing up from down stairs. That right there is a better alarm clock than any electronic device.

I started the morning in St. Peter's (if you get to the cathedral before 8:30 you beat the crowds, any later and you spend the rest of the day standing in line). I thought that I remembered that photography isn't allowed inside the cathedral, but a review of my hard drive revealed that isn't so. Photography is allowed inside the cathedral (as it is most places in Rome), but none of my photos from two years ago where any good. This time I had a little bit better luck with the photography, but not much. Taking photos inside a space that large is tricky at best. I loitered around the cathedral for a while, went down to the tomb of the popes (no photos allowed in there, which is a change from last time), and then loitered around the piazza for a while. Piazza San Pietro is a good place for people watching. There's plenty of free seating (anywhere along the colonnade), and tonnes of people day or night.

To that end, I have formulated the following theory**:
For every four normal tourists (t) visible, there is/are also: 1 priest or monk (p) or 3 nuns (n, any order).

4t = p where p = 3n

(Buy this you can see that one tourist is only worth 3/4 of a nun, and if you really want to enjoy your trip to the Vatican City, you should bring a priest with you to act as a tour guide and read the Latin signs.)

After St. Peter's, I went to Piazza del Popolo (a large piazza in the north of the city) and started walking south, map in hand***. I did a lot of wandering, saw a few things that are on the normal tourist crawl, and a lot of odd things that aren't really. Some things were old favorites, others were things I can't believe I didn't see before, and others that had opened since I left.

Just in the churches around Piazza del Popolo I saw two Caravaggios and a 3rd century martyr. A little south and east of the Piazza, along the Tiber, there is the recently (re-)opened Altar of Peace, one of Caesar Augustus's many monuments to himself. The museum is pretty simple: there's the altar (which is about the size of my parent's living room), a model of the altar with all the people in the exterior panels neatly labeled, a row of plaster busts of Augustus and his family, a chart showing the line of succession from Julius to Augustus, and through the next few generations of his successors (which makes it all look a lot more tidy than it really was), a model showing the Campus Martus (i.e. the local area) at the time of the altar's construction, and a sign giving some back ground information. The building itself was a shiny modern glass box, which I disprove of in general, but like in this instance. It was all marble and glass, the former always looks natural in Rome and the latter is by nature transparent, and does not obstruct the view. As for the museum itself... well, there's also a gallary in the basement, so if you're interested in whatever the temporary exhibit is (I wasn't), then it's worth the price of admission (6 Euros, 4.50 for a student). If you're not interested in the exhibit, then the glass and stone architecture of the museum means that you can stand outside and see the altar for free.

Also, the church across the street from the altar was celebrating St. Rocco's day (no, I've never heard of him either), and the crowd was big enough that the festivities were being held outside. That was pretty entertaining too, but since I could only understand every fourth or fifth word of the homily, I went back to the Via del Corso (one of the longest streets in the city, built over the top of the Via Flaminia that Augustus had built) and headed south again. I paused at the column of Marcus Aurelius (the forward thinking emperor's alternative to the triumphal arch) long enough to take a photo and do a map recon before continuing to the Pantheon.

The Pantheon continues it's long tradition of being really cool looking and really crowded. It was the first pagan temple in Rome to be converted into a Christian church, but certainly not the last (and officially, it's name is St. Mary's of the Martyrs). It's home to the graves of two kings of Italy (Vittorio Emanuele II and Umberto I) and Raphael (the artist, not the ninja turtle). It's dome is made of concrete and features a giant hole at the center that would confound architects until the Renaissance (and it's still the largest un-reinforced concrete dome in the world), which is even more impressive when you consider that the modern building was built in the time of Emperor Hadrian (c. 125 AD, you may also have heard of a wall in Scotland he had constructed) and has been in continuous use ever since. The original bronze roof tiles were taken in the 7th century (some to Constantinople, must to Castel San Angelo) and most of the exterior marble went soon afterwords, but the brick and concrete are still holding strong.

Next I stopped for lunch. Most of the eating type places around the Pantheon (or any other landmark, for that matter) are ridiculously crowded and over priced. I would however recommend a place around on the back side of the Pantheon called Pizza Minerva. Despite being surrounded by tourist traps on all sides, this place serves good pizza at reasonable prices (pizza in Italy should be sold by weight, if it's not, you've made a bad choice in restaurants, try again), and the crowd inside is composed entirely of Italians. I discovered this place two years ago (in fact, it's the pizzeria mentioned in this story) and I was happy to see it still thriving.

My next stop was catercorner to the Pantheon: Santa Maria Sopra Minerva (St. Mary over Minerva). There are a lot of St. [pick your favorite] over [pagan god] churches in Italy, the name just means that it is a pagan temple converted into a Christian church. This particular church is home to a Michelangelo statue and the relics of St. Catherine of Sienna, both of which were new discoveries for me.

From there, I hit Largo Torre Argintina (where Julius Ceasar was assassinated, now home to a large bus stop and a lot of stray cats) and the Campadolio, as I attempted to enter the forum. I had been for warned that the forum now charges admission, but I didn't get instructions on how to enter it, so I spent some time wandering the back side of the Capitoline Hill, looking for a way in (as opposed to an exit, of which I found several).

As I was looking for the way into the forum, I found the Marmetrine Prison, something that had been around for 2 millinia, but which I still unaccountably failed to visit the last time I was here. You might recognize it from the write-up it got in the best selling book of all time. It's teeny-tiny, with a ceiling so low I felt like I had to duck. All the signage is in Italian and Latin, but as there are only tow rooms (upstairs and down in the cell), even if you don't know either, it's not hard to figure out what's what. It's not crowded (cause it's tucked into an out of the way corner) and admission is only whatever you want to give as a donation (give generously, that hand-rail needs fixing). If you go, take a moment to sit down in a quiet place out of the sun, and think about whose footsteps you've following.

I never did get into the forum, because the entrance was blocked by a political rally (It's always and election year in Italy). the signs posted all around town said that the event would be in Piazza Republica early in the afternoon and at he Circus Maximums later in the day. Italy being Italy, there was only one rally and it was sort of between those tow times, and sort of at the half way point between the two locations (sort of, I say, If I were walking from the one to the other, it's not the route I would have taken, but if you've got a mob to direct you have to stick to the main streets).

Instead, I went to Trajan's forum/markets. There's a museum explains a little of what's what, and a whole swath of Roman ruins I'd not been able to see before because they weren't open to the public the last time I was here. Unlike the forum, which is mostly official Rome -- temples, the senate, and law courts -- this area is public -- shops and public gathering places. I spent the rest of the day exploring. It's interesting to me how archeologists are able to piece so much together from so little information. For instance, they know from 'contemporary' accounts (i.e. ancient letters home, "Dear Mom, I have arrived safely in Rome. Today I went to the forum and I saw...") that there was colossus of Caesar Augustus at the site, and that copies (existent today) were made in the colonies. What have they found of it in Rome? 3 pieces of one hand, and a foot print. The original bits are on display, while replicas have been attached to a wire frame skeleton to give some idea about what the original hand would have looked like. You did read that right, one foot print. the building it was in was built around the statue, so they didn't bother paving the floor under it's feet. The statue is gone now, but the floor remains with a footprint where the colossus once stood. It's about as long as three of my paces.

I did lots of climbing, even though heights make me nervous and just because something has stood for thousands of years doesn't mean that it hasn't just been waiting to collapse when I get there. Also, the stairs were installed by Mussolini's architects in '36 and the railings are an even more recent addition. Prove to me that they are stable.

After that it was dinner time and back to the convent. the next day, I had just enough time to go to the Trevi fountain at the crack of dawn and toss in a coin before collecting my luggage and heading to the airport.


*By "easily enough" I of course mean that I did far more walking than I needed to because I got tired of waiting for a bus that only comes twice a,n hour (if the driver feels like it) and re-routed to a bus that dropped me off on the other side of the Vatican City. It wasn't that bad, except for the fact that suitcase wheels and cobblestones don't like each other. [back]
**If you, or anyone you know is heading to the Vatican City in the near future, I invite you to collect more data, so I can refine my theory. [back]
***I purchased this map at the train station on my way into town. Fully unfolded it's over a yard long, and, at a scale of 1 to 17,000 (the units arn't specified), it's appropriate for use in planning your invasion of the city.[back]

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