Roaming thru Rome
What can be left to write about a place that’s been called “The Eternal City” for most of its nearly 3,000 year history?
The city’s been so widely photographed and the world has come to know it so intimately through films ranging from Biblical epics to Fellini that no stone seems to have been left unturned.
What came alive for me as I walked its streets was not only a sense of Rome as the thread upon which so much of Western history is strung, and its unending paradoxes.
There are few places in which the past co-exists with the present so seamlessly as in Rome.
Here it’s common to see trendy new boutiques and restaurants installed in centuries-old buildings. Legions of Vespas circle Baroque fountains and Classical ruins.
Romans seem at once an unconscious extension of the rich past which surrounds them and at the same time casually indifferent to it.
The cruise line has booked everyone into the Excelsior Hotel as the trip winds to a close. The Excelsior is famous as the travel residence of choice for celebrities from Mark Twain to the Rolling Stones.
As I walk through its lobby and out onto the Via Veneto I can’t help but recall scenes shot here for Fellini’s La Dolce Vita.
Many of ancient Rome’s surviving structures – worn, weathered, and vandalized for nearly two millennia - stand in stark contrast to the architectural grandeur of Renaissance Rome, some of which is built of marble stripped from their facings.
The Roman Forum survives only as a disappointingly bare skeleton.
Even stripped of its façade, though, the Coliseum engulfs visitors walking the arena floor with its sheer size.
I can’t help but reflect on the fact that it was not until the latter part of the twentieth century that man first built stadiums to eclipse it in scope.
A notable exception to ruined Classical Rome is the Pantheon.
Its simple, geometric perfection seems to leave nothing left unsaid, and to stand beneath its dome looking up through the circular eye open to the sky was for me a far more spiritual experience than walking among the gilded angels of St. Peter’s.
Almost two thousand years after it was built, the Pantheon is still the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome.
The Vatican is an embarrassment of riches.
It’s impossible not to be awed by the endless tableau of master works in St. Peter’s basilica.
It’s also hard not to be left with a sense that the intent of this place is to dwarf its awestruck human visitors and to glorify not so much the deity as the institution of the Church.
Only the Louvre can compare with the Vatican Museum for the number and quality of its works, and the building itself is a work of art, solid and imposing and classical in its detail.
Here the works of old masters seen before only in art books leap out of the frame, larger than life and richly colored.
It seems that every inch of every ceiling is covered in art, ornately framed in gold leaf.
The Trevi Fountain, popularized in the U.S. by the movies Three Coins In A Fountain and Roman Holiday, seems ever so familiar. I’m startled, though, to see this monumental structure rising out of a residential neighborhood rather than as the anchor of a grand piazza, which was planned but never built.
The fountain also famously appears in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, and when he died in 1996 the fountain was turned off and draped in black… a testimony to the way in which Rome’s old and new not only coexist, but constantly intermingle.
The spire of Trajan’s column, adorned with carvings depicting Rome’s Dacian Wars victory, instantly evokes an image of the similar column erected by Napoleon in the Place Vendôme.
The walk back to the hotel leads up the Spanish Steps, which on this day look more like the Spanish Bleachers, buried as they are in a sea of seated tourists.
With the date of a return visit in some vague future and my time in Europe drawing to a close, I make the decision to skip Rome’s catacombs in order to carve out time for a day trip to Naples and Pompeii before flying back to the States.
Ruins of the Roman Forum
The Pantheon, Rome
St. Peter’s basilica
The Vatican Museum
Trevi Fountain, Rome