Spotlight on Rome, Italy


             Rome has everything.  It is romantic — outdoor cafes on elegant piazzas; narrow streets perfect for strolling; a beautiful, lyrical language which evokes amore.  It is historic — remnants of perhaps the greatest and most powerful civilization of all time are everywhere; walking the streets provides a lesson in art and architecture. It is maddening — traffic is horrendous, and watch out for those scooters!  It is charming — where else can you turn the corner onto a famous square, find a beautiful fountain, or practically bump into a 3,000 year old Egyptian obelisk? 

            Rome is packed with major attractions: the Colosseum is an image known throughout the world; walk the streets that Caesar and Augustus walked as you stroll through the Roman Forum; Vatican City, with all its religious significance and priceless Art, is within the city limits.

            The Colosseum seems to represent all the glory that was Rome.  It was built in 79 AD and held deadly gladiatorial fights as well as bouts involving wild animals for the crowds of up to 55,000.  What’s left is much of the oval exterior and many of the bleachers.  The floor of the arena is only partly restored, which allows the visitor to see into the basement where the combatants and animals were housed and where equipment necessary to stage the programs was kept prior to the event. Visitors are treated to a miniature model of the Colosseum as was in its prime.  The white travertine marble which covered the structure has long since been pillaged and carted away, but the mystique still remains.  It even had a retractable awning to shade spectators from the sun.    It is a particularly moving experience to walk around inside where so many gave their lives for sport.

            The Roman Forum was the political and social center of Ancient Rome and the seat of power at that time in the history of civilization. Here one can walk the streets where Julius Caesar, Cato, Augustus, and other great Romans may have strolled and conversed.  It’s a bit eerie, and it certainly takes some imagination to have an idea of what this area looked like in 50 BC, because it is now in ruins.  However, excavations and restorations provide some semblance of the past, and labels and models of the area help. .

            Piazza Navona is one of Rome’s largest and most beautiful squares.  Built on the site of a 1st century stadium, it is oval in shape and is lined with sidewalk cafes and palaces. However, it is the three gorgeous, Baroque fountains which make it a Mecca of both tourists and locals. 

            Directly in front of the Church of Sant’Agnese in Agone is Bernini’s famous Fountain of the Four Rivers.  The rivers symbolized include the Nile, the Ganges, the Plata, and the Danube.

            At one end of the square is the Fountain of the Moor (which was also designed by Bernini), another beautiful Baroque fountain.

            The piazza is one of the major gathering places in the inner city and is often crowded with people, especially at night. 

       The Pantheon of Rome is the Eternal City’s best preserved ancient building.  It dates to approximately 100 AD and is a testament to its Roman builders.  Pantheon means “temple of all gods” but it became a Christian church in the 7th century.  Although services still take place, it is more a tomb than a church, now.  The interior is a circular hall with an incredibly high (as high as the radius of the dome, which gives it an elegant proportionality) scalloped dome with an “oculus” (circular opening) at its top that allows the only light into the building.  The marble floors, vestibules and altars around the edges of the hall are harmonious and muted in color, but beautiful as well.

            The Trevi Fountain is certainly one of the most elaborate and beautiful fountains in the world.  It was, of course, made famous by the song, “Three Coins in the Fountain”.  It has become a major gathering place, especially at night, when the fountain is attractively lit, for people of all ages and, of course, tourists who perpetually throw coins into the fountain and wish to return to this “eternal city“. It is surprisingly large, half a city block, with numerous sculptures of sea creatures spewing water.

            Rome’s Spanish Steps, located in the Piazza di Spagna, is one of the most popular gathering places in all of Rome.  Crowds hang out here at all hours of the day and night. It is one of the places to see and be seen.  The steps lead upward from the square and the “Fontana della Barcaccia”, designed by Bernini’s father.  They are extremely crowded with people just sitting or taking pictures, and are often adorned with beautiful flowers. At the top of the stairs is the lovely Trinita del Monti Church and one of Rome’s many obelisks.

            Other sights of the city which deserve mention are the Victor Emmanuel Monument, which commemorates Italy’s first monarch and beginning of Italy’s unification.  Italians call this the “wedding cake” for obvious reasons, and it was considered an unworthy addition to the city when constructed in the late 19th century, but it is more accepted today and certainly impressive to the tourist, anchoring the busy Piazza Venezia. Nearby are steps leading to the Campidoglio, the beautiful square, designed by Michelangelo, which now allows access to the Capitoline Museum.

            Another important Roman museum is the Galleria Borghese, in the Villa Borghese, a large park north of the city center. This huge complex is the former estate of Cardinal Scipione Borghese and showcases his art collection.

            The Campo de Fiori (literally, “field of flowers“) can be an interesting change of pace for the visitor to Rome. Here, every morning, there is stall after stall of fresh fruit and produce, as well as crafts and trinkets, and, of course, flowers.  It is a voyage back in time to an earlier and slower-paced Rome.

            A visit to the small, Santa Maria sopra Minerva Church, near the back of the Pantheon, is rewarded with an up close examination of Michelangelo’s Risen Christ along with some frescoes by Lippi, Botticelli’s teacher. In front of the church is a statue of an elephant, done by Bernini, on top of which is another of the seemingly ubiquitous Egyptian  obelisks.


            Gary’s Gem:

                        1.  In the Piazza di Spagna, visitors should check out perhaps the most beautiful Mac Donald’s restaurant in the world — it is decorated in typical, classic Roman style, and is at least worth a peek.

                        2.  For a quieter side of Rome, stroll through the Trastevere section of the city, across the Tiber River from the main tourist area.

                        3. One of Michelangelo’s most celebrated sculptures, Moses, can be seen in the church of San Pietro in Vincoli, near the Colosseum, but go in the morning or late in the afternoon since the church is closed from 12:30 P.M. to 3:00 P.M.

                        4.  One of several possible excursions from Rome is to the famous Abbey at Montecassino, south of the city. It was the site of one of the bloodiest battles of World War II. The Abbey was considered a high priority target since its location at the top of a mountain was a German observation post and headquarters. Although almost completely destroyed in the bombing and subsequent fighting, it has been lovingly restored and also contains a memorial cemetery to commemorate those who lost their lives in its liberation.

                        5.  Pick up an audio guide in the Forum which will direct the visitor to major sights and also provide some background.

                        6. There are other Fora which are still being excavated, most notably Trajan’s Forum, which boasts what was probably the first shopping mall in the history of the world.

                        7. I have posted two (2) walking tours of Rome. You can find them in the archives for 9-1-08.


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