A pre- Holy Year visit to Rome and Vatican City, accompanied by my companion Rufus—my first trip to this city—and it seemed on the one hand an excellent time to visit and on the other exactly a year too early.
Part One: The Holy Year
The January weather was brisk but continuously sunny—and comparatively warm compared with our winter here in Northern Europe. Still, the city was delightfully free of tourist crowds and museums were empty and restaurant reservations easily made. Indeed, the only place in all of Rome where we encountered a crowd was inside the Sistine Chapel. It was, as expected, fairly wall-to-wall with visitors. Even here though, there was no wait to enter—we actually passed through twice, making a second, accidental visit, in our search for another part of the vast Vatican galleries!
This is all expected to be rather different next year, as the Catholic Church begins its Jubilee, or Holy Year, on December 24th 1999 and this once-every-twentyfive-year event coincides with the frenzy of the millennium. Record numbers of visitors are subsequently expected in the year 2000—but they will have an opportunity to see much of Rome that we could not. (Everyone has heard of the millennium of course—far too much at this point; but this was the first I’ve heard of the Holy Year. Even with six years in Catholic schools, I don’t remember any mention of it, but apparently it is quite the big deal. The Pope opens a fifth door in the façade of St. Peter’s—a door that is kept bricked up in the intervening 24 years—and those who make the pilgrimage to Rome and pass through it…well something good is supposed to happen, though I’m still a little vague on what. I believe you get an indulgence—and if I have to try to explain that we’ll never get to the trip!)
In preparation though for the Jubilee and the year 2000, many of Rome’s most famous ancient and Christian sites are undergoing cleanings, renovations or major restorations. For us this meant galleries closed, artworks off exhibit and dozens of facades, mosaics and church interiors buried behind scaffolding. It got to the point that when we entered a church, EyeWitness guide in hand, after a long trek only to find everything covered in plywood and accompanied by the roar of power tools, we would begin to laugh.
Still, there was plenty to see and do in this city whose monuments span more than 2 millennium, and we spent seven days being quite the tourists.
We arrived in Rome late on a Sunday evening. Checked into he Hotel Campo de Fiori—cute sixth floor room, but no lift. (our retribution for putting my mother in a similar room in Venice last year). It’s quite a hike! Adjacent roof terrace with nice views though—especially of the garishly huge Victor Emmanuel Monument. Arrived a bit after 10pm and had a walk around to the Pantheon, then a couple of pricey compari/sodas at the swanky Hotel Minerva.
Up early Monday morning: breakfast in the basement and off to the Vatican. The Vatican museums close at 1:45(!) so we had no choice but to get an early start. A short walk really from our hotel on the Campo de Fiori across the Tiber to St. Peter’s square. The Bernini colonnade had just been cleaned—they were just finishing the last few columns—but the facade of St Peters was completely hidden behind scaffolding. In the square, next to the obelisk, the pope still had his Christmas Tree and larger-than-life Crèche up! And it’s 24th night! I am a bit appalled. The tree looks pretty sad at this late date.
It’s a further, rather longish hike around the Vatican walls to the museum entrance (despite the fact that one end of the complex actually adjoins St. Peter’s.) Not too busy at the museums—we breezed right in and up the long spiral staircase. Stayed from 10am or so until the 1:45 closing—saw quite a bit, but still only a fraction of the galleries: The Sistine chapel of course, the Rapheal Rooms and the Pinacoteca galleries. Also a fab great long hallway with huge frescoed maps of Italian towns from the 16th century. Highlights included a fantastic Rapheal fresco of St. Peter being sprung from jail by an angel; An amazing Carravagio (deposition of Christ) and a last judgement from the middle ages. The last judgement panel was circular and had beasts spitting up the limbs of people they had devoured and angels waking the dead with trumpets! Of course the Sistine Chapel’s frescos are amazing—though one wishes for a catwalk so one could get a bit closer to them. We had the CD audio tour, which in addition to detailed art history, also managed to work in quite a lot of Catholic theology as well!
We had planned to have a long lunch as a reward for our Vatican tour; but instead just grabbed a slice of pizza, so we could take a guided tour of St. Peter’s at 3pm. Actually it was quite a good tour; an hour and a half and quite a bit of information. Our guide was Penny, a smart Englishwoman who has lived in Rome for 32 years—and has been conducting tours for 17 years! She was quite fun, in the manner of ‘English Lady’ tour guides and, it became evident, a devout Catholic, a fervent Papist and quite the fan of John Paul II. She even gave everyone on the tour cards with a picture of the pope on one side and the lord’s prayer in Latin on the reverse, which she apparently has printed up of her own volition! She’s also in the Vatican choir and a regular at mass at St. Peter’s. (We learned a lot about her.) We also learned a lot about the church, particularly about how huge it—and everything in it—is! It’s a behemoth; certainly an amazing construction feat for it’s time. I’m not sure how they managed it. It is also the most immaculately maintained church I have ever seen—it looks like it could have been finished yesterday. All the paintings were replaced in the 18th century with copies made of mosaic tile (amazing copies that are so finely detailed that at the distance one views them they look like paintings) so they would not crack or discolor! There is marble everywhere, and gold, and statues 22 ft tall! And all of it gleaming! I guess the façade will be as clean as the inside when the scaffolding comes down for the holy year.
Dinner was at a little place near the hotel recommended by travel writer Rich Ruben (as was the hotel)—Hostaria Giulio. We had a mixed antipasto (cold meat and vegetables), ravioli with ricotta , butter and sage; and I had grilled anchovies on arugula. Then we had an artichoke because they were having them at the next table and they looked so good—it was. Desserts were tiramisu and a really good flan type thing in caramel sauce. Of course we were starving after 10 hours of walking and standing! It wasn’t at all busy, but reassuringly, the other diners were all Italian.
Part Two: Christians and Lions
Rome offers irrefutable proof of the incompatibility of the automobile and the city. Here we have a large and vibrant urban center that functioned without cars for some 2500 years—and is now dominated by the internal combustion engine. Boulevards have been bulldozed through ancient sites; beautiful squares and courtyards turned into parking lots; and everywhere, at all hours of the day and night, there is a chaos of traffic with driving that borders on anarchy.
Drivers actually do stop for pedestrians, though in our seven days there I never came to accept this idea. The necessity of stepping into a traffic circle swirling with automobiles or crossing a six lane Via at an uncontrolled intersection continued to fill me with fear. We would often wait at the sidewalk until some unconcerned Romans stepped nonchalantly into the maelstrom of traffic and then cross in their shadow…following as closely as possible. We found the most effective escorts to be old women in fur coats and soldiers in uniform…they parted traffic like Moses at the Red Sea.
On our second full day in Rome, Rufus arranged for us to go on a walking tour which met at the Coliseum. We set out to toward it, but found ourselves trapped behind the excavations of the Forum. We walked all the way round the outside of the Forum, then down along the long grass covered oval marking the site of the long-vanished Circus Maximus, and back along the other side of the Forum to the Coliseum. Fortunately we were still about an hour early for the tour so—after several wrong turns—we located another stand-up pizza place recommended in the Cheap Eats in Italy guide.
The tour was amusing—actually rather interesting, and quite long—over three hours. The company is called “Enjoy Rome” and is owned, or run, by an American woman named Suzy. She actually accompanied us for most of the tour—checking up, I think, on our guide, a young, fun-loving Australian. The guides all seem to be young, just-out-of-college types who have drifted to Rome on a lark. We met a couple of the others before the tour. We got lots of information on the coliseum (and the bloody slaughter of men and beasts that constituted the entertainment there. There was a fair amount of Roman history and social organization as well. (The coliseum dates from 74 AD, well into the empire, and stands on the site of a lake in front of the hated former Emperor Nero’s palace. It takes it’s nickname, probably, from a colossus of Nero—and subsequent Emperors, they just changed the heads—that stood on a square adjacent the stadium. Things we probably learned in high school and have subsequently forgotten). Also got a bit of information on the Forum, The arch of Constantine and Hadrian’s Markets and Column, all nearby.
Mussolini built a huge boulevard thought the archaeological site to connect the Arch of Constantine and coliseum with the Victor Emmanuel monument; a place to parade his (briefly) victorious armies. We waked on to the V.E. monument and the adjacent papal palace that was Mussolini’s HQ. From there it was on to a more pleasant monument—both historically and architecturally—the Trevi Fountain. This is the fountain of’ “three coins in the fountain” fame; as the tradition goes, if you toss one coin in the fountain you will return to Rome, a second and you will fall in love on your return, and a third and you will be wed in Rome. It is one of the most pleasing examples of baroque architecture: a lovely grand fountain on a tiny, intimate square filled, even in January, with happy people—and many of the coin throwers were Italian!
We made brief stops also at the Temple of Hadrian—a surviving colonnade now embedded in the façade of the stock exchange, the Pantheon, and the Piazza Navona, laid out on the ruins of a Roman foot-race track. There is a rather impressive Bernini of fountain of the Four Rivers in the center. (Nile, Danube, Ganges, and one recently discovered in South America, FYI)
It was a particularly great day to be outside: striking deep blue skies, a few muscular white clouds and, to end it, a pastel sunset.
That night we had a delicious dinner at Al Pompiere, one of the Roman-Jewish restaurants near the Campo de’ Fiori. We had the house specialties as our antipasto—one of each, all deep-fried—artichoke, zucchini flowers stuffed with cheese and anchovies, and salt-cod. Next we had pasta e fagioli (it was good, but everyone else in the place was having a different pasta—and all were having the same thing.) To follow Rufus had saltimbocca (tasty!) and I had some lamb cutlets roasted in salt, also really good. And a simple, perfectly dressed salad. We had an assortment of pastries for dessert—but everyone else was having the lemon sorbet! I recommend: go a little late, and watch what comes out of the kitchen before ordering! Everyone seems to be in on what’s best—the place was obviously packed with regulars. OK, I confess, I sneaked back two days later for lunch so I could try the pasta and the sorbet—I hate feeling left out! Other favorites included the deep fried vegetables, oxtail (I think) and some kind of salad with slices like big celery that I never did figure out what it was.
After dinner we walked back to the Trevi fountain, to see it lit up at night and to toss in our coins—just one each of course!—and to walk off some of our huge dinner.
Wednesday we were up early again for our breakfast, and then walked over to see the interior of the Pantheon. It’s the place I most wanted to visit in Rome. It really is a magnificent building, if a bit unfortunately tarted up inside with Catholic iconography (it was given to the pope in the 6th century—which is though why it has been preserved in such good condition) and tombs of Italian kings. The dome is amazing—a perfect hemisphere in coffered cast concrete.
The Romans managed some fantastic architecture and engineering. The buildings are on a vast scale and the water system is apparently still in use today. Little spring-fed fountains run continuously all over the modern city. Rome, we are told, had the same population at the time of the empire as it does today—and covered a somewhat smaller, but still vast area. And the subsequent buildings—renaissance, baroque and modern, are largely built on Ancient foundations.
From the Pantheon, we walked on to the daily print market and then to the area of fancy shops around the Spanish Steps. There was one shop I liked that sold prints form 19th century photos of Rome—they even had very pretty little mass-produced prints on watercolor paper. We walked up the Spanish steps, with all the tourists and Italian youths lolling about on them, admired the view—of the city and the youths—and then walked back down.
We had made a lunch reservation at Fraterna Domus, an inn run by Nuns, who also serve lunch and dinner six days a week. This was written about with some enthusiasm by Sandra Gustafsun in Cheap Eats—and it seemed so charming as to be almost irresistible. (We also loved the fact that there is one seating per meal and one daily menu—absolutely no choices. Are we the only people who absolutely relish this absence of choice where food is involved? Sit us down, bring us food, ask us no questions—that way you completely avoid that nagging feeling that someone is feasting away on something far better than what’s on your plate!)
We arrived at Fraterna Domus and were seated at benches of highly polished dark wood at a table covered with a plain white cloth, two simple white plates, two simple wine glasses and a big pitcher of water. The room was plain, but very pretty, and possibly the cleanest dining room I have ever seen. The place began to fill quickly—primarily with neighborhood folk—shopkeepers, workmen, a few old people, mostly quite lively though. Wine was brought to the tables—a half liter for us, several liter bottles for some of the larger parties! It was cheap and screw-capped, but not at all bad. Lunch began with bowls of pasta: penne sparingly sauced with a tomato/pancetta sauce. It was delicious, and impossible to say no when the nuns returned with big serving bowls offering seconds! The secondi was a perfectly roast quarter chicken with absolutely heavenly (no pun intended) pomme frites. Then a simple salad of greens in oil and lemon, and a bowl of blood oranges for desert.
The workers, who obviously ate there all the time, had a great time. I noticed that they frequently went up stairs to the toilet; after lunch, the bowl full of cigarette butts explained why. This is probably the only restaurant in all of Rome where smoking is prohibited—the men had to sneak up to the toilet to smoke—undoubtedly just as they did when they were children in Catholic Schools!
Lunch was great, and cost (for 2 persons with wine) 43.000 lira—a grand total of about $26.50! The nuns were very sweet too, it’s enough to change my whole feeling about nuns—if only the ones that ran my elementary school alma mater St. Dominic Savio had been able to cook like that!
Well, we liked it so much we immediately arranged to return Sunday night. The atmosphere at night is less lively—guests of the inn (mostly American retirees) instead of workmen—but the food was no less tasty; a soup of tortellini in chicken broth, pot roast, green beans, and those french-fries—which must be the nun’s signature dish—and salad and fruit.
Oh, how I do go on. This installment is just all about food—are you hungry yet? After lunch, more browsing in shops. We climbed the Spanish steps yet again and then spent some time walking and sitting in a big park overlooking the city. It was once the grounds of someone’s villa of course. There were very many busts of famous Italians, mostly with their noses broken off. From the park we climbed down to the Piazza del Popolo, one of the entrances to the old city. We visited the church of Santa Maria del Popolo, which has two important Caravaggio paintings; of course they are located on the side walls of a tiny private chapel—not the spot for optimal viewing. The church also has a wonderful Bernini sculpture of Daniel in the lion’s den. Daniel is depicted as a nearly nude, very attractive youth with a lion licking his foot!
We walked back to the Piazza Di Spagna and had an exceedingly expensive pot of tea at Babington’s, a well regarded sort of English tea room in Rome (leaving aside the question of why one would want British food in Rome—they do have a full menu—it was nice to have a cup of tea). The place was (predictably, I suppose) full of Japanese ladies with bulging bags from the designer shops. Rufus mitigated the price somewhat by lifting one of their very cute ashtrays!
(Note from Rufus: I am such a bad thief. I was a nervous wreck. I fully expected to get busted and began imagining myself dragged down to police headquarters—which probably ain’t too pretty in Rome. I suppose my crime was inspired by reading too much Jessica Mitford on our trip. Her tales of her madcap British upper-crust upbringing—complete with the favorite nanny who taught the children how to shoplift—must have had undue influence on me. After getting the ash tray back to our hotel safely, I was struck with a raging fever that kept me in bed all the next day. I imagined I was being punished for my crime. Rome’s Catholic guilt must have rubbed off on me.)
Part Three: Scaffolds and Bones
Rufus, with his fever, spent a day in bed, with his Isherwood and a view of the rooftops of Rome.
I went out wandering alone that day, first down to the Tiber. I crossed the oldest bridge in Rome (1st century BC but completely covered in scaffolding of course, with just a narrow girdered passage to walk—or ride your scooter—across!) on to the little island in the Tiber, which has a church and a hospital. Not much to see really. I crossed back, walked around two intact temples from the Roman republic (well the round one was completely covered in scaffolding, but the other was quite lovely—a small, rectangular, well proportioned roman building.)
There were a several Romanesque churches in the area I had in mind to visit. (I prefer the Romanesque to the gaudiness and grandiosity of the Baroque—especially since the baroque is so ubiquitous in Rome; it seems most of the churches in Rome were built, re-built or at least redecorated in the baroque style during the Papacy’s time of great wealth and anti-protestant excess. I also love the layering of the very old churches—the way they incorporate parts of ancient buildings, and I think it quite interesting how technology vanished with end of the Roman empire and the buildings become smaller and less accomplished.) One church of course was completely covered in scaffolding—closed of course, and another was closed for a wedding; but I did get to go in one very old and dark church, and I had the place all to myself. It was gloomy and cold and deserted—but rather beautiful in its solitude. The roof of the nave was supported by mismatched columns, scavenged from various Roman temples. In a side room that might have once been a chapel, an old friar kept a lonely vigil over a small shop of plaster saints and extremely inexpensive postcards.
Though unplanned, my wanderings led me back to the spot where Rufus and I had been trapped behind the Forum excavations on. Today, being much earlier, the Forum was open and I found my way in through the back gate. One is allowed to roam rather freely through the excavations and the ancient site—and although all that remains for the most part are the merest fragments of the once massive temples and basilicas, it is none-the-less fascinating to walk through the site. and From the midst of the site, you really can get a feel for it’s enormous scale, the beauty and technology of the architecture—and the fact that it would take many centuries before anyone in Europe could build structures like these again.
I wandered some more, no real destination, and when I got hungry I got an irresistible craving for those deep fried artichokes and stuffed zucchini flowers. Of course, I was some distance now from the Jewish quarter, so I had a brisk march across town. I had a late lunch back at Pompiere—the above mentioned antipasti and the house pasta. Plus a half liter of wine all to myself! It was late afternoon when I returned to check on Rufus. He was feeling better—he had gone out for pizza—but still rather weak. We spent the evening reading and playing computer scrabble, took a short stroll and went to bed early.
Next morning Rufus was much better—up early and fairly energetic. We had to pack up after breakfast as we were being moved that day to a different room. We left the hotel and walked the short distance to the Gesu—the first Jesuit church. The exterior is unremarkable, but the interior is a spectacle of the Baroque—and this in spite of a good two thirds of it that was completely covered in scaffolding! (Rufus’ favorite part of the church was it’s nativity scene—a diorama behind glass that when you pushed a button real water flowed down a stream and s shooting star crossed the sky!) I was impressed by the sheer excess of the decoration, and a particularly bloody near life-size crucifix.
From there we crossed the terrifying traffic of the Piazza Venezia, and made our way to the other side of the Vittoriano. Here, behind this hideous and massive monument is a lovely little hilltop piazza design by Michelangelo. Flanking the piazza are the Capitoline Museums. Though one of them is completely closed for renovation the other was a dusty delight. A bit of a hodgepodge, the collections run the gamut from some very famous paintings and sculpture to a great many really kitchy porcelains. There is the famous Caravaggio of St. John the Baptist—St. John depicted as a nude and very sexy adolescent! In fact, there are quite a few teen John the Baptists and sexy young St. Sebastians in the Capitoline collections. (It may be possible to discern the sexual orientation of Italian artists by observing whether they depict St John as a youth or an old man.)
The museum has a wonderfully dusty, untouched for 50 years quality—and it is completely empty of visitors, which makes it quite fun to explore. No doubt it will get a modernizing in the not too distant future, as this is already underway at its companion across the Piazza.
We used the cheap eats guide to pick a little lunch spot on the other side of the Quirinal Hill, and wound our rather convoluted way through heavy traffic around the presidential palace. The little tratorria was pretty good…I had a big plate of gnocchi in tomato sauce. It was decorated oddly with these big lighted signs of puti pissing into champagne glasses….I’m not sure why. After lunch we walked into the Via Veneto area…a 19th century section of the city that is very Paris-like with grand boulevards and hotels. Apparently it was extremely chic in the 60’s but has now fallen out of favor with the truly hip. The main site here is the madly macabre crypt of Santa Maria della Consezione—where the Capuchin monks have decorated chapels entirely from the bones of dead monks. Bones, skulls and jaws are arranged on the walls in elaborate patterns. The overall effect is ridiculous and gruesome all at the same time.
We decide to walk back to our hotel via two churches we had yet to visit. The first of these was Santa Maria Maggiore—an enormous basilica famous for its mosaics. Naturally, the mosaics, and indeed most of the interior, were buried beneath scaffolding. Not only that, but all the interior lights were turned off, and the gloom was so absolute that one could see nothing of even those portions of the interior not covered up!
From ere we moved on to San Pietro in Vincoli—famous as the home of Michelangelo’s Moses. We found the church at the end of an alley, up a steep flight of stairs. The façade was covered in scaffolding and inside workmen were performing some rather loud and extensive renovations. Moses was in a little side chapel, behind a construction barricade. You could see him there, beyond the tour group crowds, who had to keep feeding lira coins into the meter that kept the light on! Such poor conditions for viewing an art object, one wonders how these things even become an attraction. An adjacent gift shop sells miniature reproductions—so poorly executed that you can actually choose from rather astonishing variations on the pose and facial expression of old Moses!
Returning to the Hotel Campo de Fiori, we were introduced to our new room. Though it had two french windows and a nice view over the city, by night it was a bit glum, owing to being covered in midnight blue wallpaper and lit by a few bare low-wattage bulbs. The most frustrating aspect was that there was no electric outlet in the room—not even one—so I couldn’t plug in the computer! Oh well, no guilt about not making notes!
(Yes, I too have become quite the pitiful slave to technology. No pencil and paper for me—no way. But I am hardly alone in my addiction to the marvels of the microchip. The rooftops of Rome are a sea of TV satellite dishes and in every café you hear the ubiquitous chirp-chirp of the mobile phone. At the sound, everyone within earshot begins rooting in unison in their bags. Outside the excavations of Hadrian’s Markets, boarding a school bus at the end of a tour, I saw a boy no older than eight pull one from his pocket.)
That evening we went to the Taverna Campo de Fiori in the square and drank prosecco (a very nice and rather inexpensive sparkling wine from the Veneto) and ate toasted sandwiches with the lively Italian crowd. We stayed there quite a while, then went next door to “The Drunken Ship” (yes, I know, the name says it all) where a crowd consisting almost entirely of American college students was drinking beer at prices exactly double that of the Taverna. We stayed for one drink, greeted our fellow hotel guests from USC, and fled.
Part Four: Saints be Praised (and Preserved)
The school I attended, grades one through six, was named for a saint: Saint Dominic Savio. Though he was an Italian saint, the unfortunate lad was born too late to be immortalized in the golden age of Italian religious art. He was a nineteenth century saint, and a bit of a country bumpkin too as I recall, living far from the centers of art and power. So alas, I have seen no paintings of young Savio. Had he been born a few centuries earlier, he might have been a popular subject—as I recall he died at the age of nineteen, and in a book at our school he was portrayed in dreamy watercolors. I don’t recall why he was made a saint—the road to sainthood has become a bit vague in the last two centuries; the requisite miracles become less impressive the nearer to our own era they occur. A patina of great age suits the miraculous. I recall only that St. Dominic Savio, son of a prosperous family, would trade the white bread from his lunch each day for the black bread of a poor peasant youth. This oft repeated tale was intended to inspire both guilt and gratitude as we all went out to eat our Wonderbread sandwiches. But I have to wonder now, was Dominic an unselfish, saintly child or a budding gourmet, ahead of his time? I also recall that he was the favorite pupil and special friend of St. John Bosco (namesake of the all-boy high school next door) who I believe, founded a religious order. Though for six years we studied the lives of these two very minor saints to about the same extent as we studied St. Peter, Charlemagne and George Washington, my memory of them is now rather vague, and I may have made a hay of their stories…alas, my volume of Lives of the Saints is in Los Angeles. But there are other saints in Rome, as you will see.
Saturday morning we strolled the Campo de’ Fiori market, a daily spectacle (excluding Sundays) just outside our hotel. The large square is lively with buyers and sellers: produce, fish, spices, flowers and counterfeit football jerseys. The vendors make bonfires from produce crates and shoppers retire to cafes for espresso. I wander the market, making still life photos of vegetables.
For our daily museum visit, we had selected the Palazzo Doria-Pamphilj, partly because the collection was housed in a Palazzo built between the 15th and 18th centuries, and partly because of a Caravaggio painting we wanted to see.
Interestingly, it turns out that the art and the Palazzo are still privately owned by the Pamphilj descendants, who still live, at least some of the time, in some part of the vast building. We learn this, and quite a bit more about the family, the ancestors, the Palazzo and the art collection from one of the cleverest and most delightful museum audio tours I have come across. The audio tour is included in the modest price of admission; its one of those nifty CD players that allow you to control the pace and the sequence of your visit. From the introduction we are hooked: the tour is narrated by a present-day Pamphilj heir and resident. He refers to it as his home, tells anecdotes about his family, recounts scandalous gossip about his ancestors and very quickly you get the feeling that Mr. Pamphilj is actually there, taking you through the house. We half expected him to pop out through a door and ask us to tea.
(Naturally the question arises, is this dashing Oxford accented voice on the English version of the audio tour really Mr. Pamphilj? Not outside the realm of possibility…and he does sound awfully sincere.)
Mr. Pamphilj takes us first on a tour of the 17th century public rooms of the villa, nicely restored and reopened in the late 20th century by his mother. There is a long series of these rooms, ranged in a row and culminating with my favorite—the private chapel. It’s a mini-baroque church which houses the Pamphilj family’s most sacred objects: the whole preserved corpses of two early Christian saints! These saints and many more were removed from the Roman catacombs, where they had rested for over a thousand years, and their relics handed out by the church to the faithful. According to our host and narrator, whole and intact bodies were rare and highly prized and it is a mark of the power and influence of the Pamphilj’s that they were given two such complete relics. One of the saints entrusted to the family is Justin the martyr, a relatively well known 3rd century saint. One of the female Pamphilj ancestors apparently prized the relic so highly that she obtained permission form the pope to allow the saint to travel, and took him with her on her journeys! The papal decree allowing the saint to travel is hanging on the wall; Justin gets out less these days I suspect, he and a female saint rest in glass cases in the chapel. (And all the nuns ever gave us were plastic saints!)
Beyond the public reception rooms is the wing of the Palazzo that houses the galleries. The extensive art collection dates from the 15th through the18th century. The current heirs have focused not on collecting but on restoration, and the galleries have been restored to their original appearance, the paintings re-hung salon style in their original positions. This approach to exhibiting art has been out of fashion for a century, so one really does get a feeling of being in another era. The context also, in some cases, becomes more important than the individual works: pictures were purposefully hung with and eye to contrasts and juxtapositions.
Of course there are some marvelous individual pieces in the collections as well: the aforementioned Caravaggio, Titian, Claude Lorrain.
There is a Velazquez portrait of Pope Innocent X that is considered by many to be one of his greatest, and two identical busts of Pope Innocent X by Bernini—when the original was chipped, Bernini himself made a copy.
Innocent X was the Pamphilj pope, and the source of much of the family’s wealth. Our host and guide takes us into his confidence and gives us the dirt on his most famous ancestor! It seems he was rather under the thumb of his brother’s wife (her rather formidable portrait hangs in the gallery) who rather likely was also his mistress. She made a fortune for the family by convincing the pope that it was immoral to collect taxes on Rome’s brothels—which she coincidentally owned! She finally become so powerful and demanding that poor Pope Innocent had to have her exiled from Rome.
There are plenty more amusing anecdotes, which make the visit to the Palazzo quite entertaining. The galleries are not at all busy—there couldn’t be more than a dozen visitors in the whole place—so viewing the art is a pleasure. There is also a collection of (heavily restored) ancient sculptures, and a suite of art and antique filled ‘private’ apartments that can also be toured.
The afternoon found us exploring Trastevere, an old and densely populated working class enclave on the opposite bank of the Tiber. It is district also recently popular for its restaurants and trendy nightlife. None of this was in evidence on a Saturday afternoon however—shops were shut, streets were deserted and an air of siesta pervaded the district. The main square is quiet too, save for a few boys kicking a ball around the fountain. The square is dominated by Santa Maria in Trastevere, a lovely Romanesque church. Inside, there are Roman columns supporting the nave, and real candles burning, not electric bulbs. The church is most famous for its 12th century mosaics; as the church was not currently undergoing a major restoration, and constituted our second scaffolding free site of the day we counted ourselves very lucky indeed!
Trastevere is reputed to have the most churches per area than any district in Rome—a city where there are no shortage of churches. We visited only a few; mostly they are Romanesque structures remodeled in the baroque style—and now quietly falling apart. Sad places in a lovely sort of way. The simple Romanesque can endure a fair amount of neglect, but the extravagant baroque ornamentation requires a level of maintenance that is quite beyond the resources of these neighborhood congregations. They are not being renovated. But each one has its works of art, its odd relics, and its stories to tell.
That evening, we had dinner reservations at Tratorria Checchino dal 1887, a restaurant famous for serving some of the best—and most unusual—food in Rome. The tratorria, sits on the edge of the wholesale food markets and established its reputation by preparing delicious food from the, well, discarded parts of the animals. It’s a tradition that carries on today. It gets rave notices, and we don’t mind a little adventure, so we had to give it a try. It was a longish walk from our hotel, through parts of town that were only intermittently interesting, and with plenty of Rome’s notorious traffic to deal with. The Testaccio markets, oddly are also home to a number of rather gaudy discoteques—meat market by day, meet market by night I guess. The restaurant itself is at the top of the hill, and inside it is another world; a small room of restrained elegance and smartly dressed diners.
We dined on headcheese—which I have never dared try before; and which I probably still don’t know want to know exactly what’s in it—two thin slices of a delicate flavor. Pleasant enough but not thrilling. The other antipasto was fantastic though—a salad of beans, carrot and shredded pig’s trotter. The pasta was even better—fettuccine with ewe’s cheese and pigs cheek—the cheek like tiny pieces of bacon. For main courses we passed on the testicles, hearts, and other organs on offer and had the less daring oxtail and the specialty of the house, chunks of lamb in a white wine sauce. Excellent and extensive wine list too—I know too little about Italian wines, so I had the waiter select something appropriate and affordable. They have a fantastic assortment of cheese as well—it’s expensive though, and I’d skip it next time; it’s a bit much after all that anyway. A good, and unusual meal—though not a place for vegetarians or even those leaning in that direction. We skipped the discos, and took a taxi back to the hotel.
On Sunday, our last full day in Rome, we returned to where we began our tour, the Vatican. We explored the Castel Sant’ Angelo, the Pope’s fortress.
The original building was built by the Roman Emperor Hadrian as his tomb. It was turned into a fortified castle by the Church and used both as a treasury for the church’s wealth and a refuge in times of siege. A corridor built into the city wall connects the fortress to the Vatican. As weaponry became more sophisticated, the castle’s fortifications kept pace; the partial remains of an elaborate star fort enclose its square medieval walls. The entire complex is open to visitors—even the Pope’s private bath—and there are great views of the city from the upper walls.
Spanning the Tiber in front of the Castle, the Ponte San Angelo is perhaps Rome’s most beautiful bridge. It is lined with a colonnade of Bernini angels—delightful baroque fantasies in stone. Each angel holds one of the attributes of Christ’s passion: a cross, the crown of thorns, the spear, the three nails and so forth. Never have the instruments of torture looked so beautiful! It’s the paradox of religion: the joy of suffering and the shame of pleasure. The saints do so enjoy their martyrdom.
We returned to St. Peter’s for a second visit. Finally the Christmas tree had been removed from the square. The Pope traditionally makes an appearance at his window on Sunday morning, but he was touring America.
We walked back across the river and had some gelato at Giolitto’s near the Piazza Rotunda. It’s a very famous place for ice cream, but this was January, and it was mobbed. Fantastic stuff though.
We left Rome the next morning, with a lot of sites still unseen: The Appian way, the catacombs, The Lateran and the sancta sanctorum and everything that we couldn’t see because it had been behind the scaffolding…but we did toss our coins in the Trevi fountain…so we’ll be back.