Posts Tagged ‘Rome’

09 May 2011 

Italy had always been a draw since my very first official trip there. The combination of history, culture and art makes Italy a great vacation destination. After much planning and waiting, we flew out of Bangalore early in the morning and reached Rome late in the evening, after transiting at London. We were quite tired by the time we reached our hotel as we had been travelling for the whole day; even though I have to say that the taxi driver tried his best to inject some excitement into us by living up to all I had heard about the driving skills of Italians. I must say that I found myself in full alert when this guy was just ten feet behind another car at a speed of 140 kmph but soon got used to it.

10 May 2011

We got up bright and early as we had planned a full agenda and were trying to squeeze in Rome and Vatican within just two days. Given the history of the city, that is quite a difficult task. Rome was once the centre of the civilized world and evidence of that is to be seen everywhere in the city. Italy was actually a collection of warring cities and Rome gained prominence by around 500 BC by winning many important wars. They set up a democratic form of governance, which was based upon a Senate which was elected from the people and then the Senate elected two Consuls from within the members of the Senate. Membership in Senate was for life whereas the Consul was for one year and could not be re-elected. They had a concept of emblazoning monuments and civil buildings with the initials SPQR which stood for Senatus Populusque Romanus (Senate and People of Rome). Quite obviously, their democratic traditions were very strong; of course, the rich and the powerful did get privileges and they controlled the Senate and the Government but even then to think they had such a form of governance 2500 years ago, with the foresight to put in a clause that one could be a Consul only for one term, is quite amazing. Probably, they understood the maxim that absolute power corrupts absolutely. In any case, the ambitious Julius Ceasar put an end to the Republican dreams of Rome. Ceasar had been growing in power because of some of his military victories and he wanted to be the supreme ruler without the restrictions imposed by the Senate. In those days, the Roman army was forbidden from entering the city and had to stay beyond the river called Rubicon – this was probably to minimize the interference of army in government. Ceasar crossed the Rubicon with his army in 49 BC (and hence the idiom “crossing the Rubicon”, which means crossing a point of no return) and that was the end of Rome as a republic. A group of Senators led by Brutus, rebelled and assassinated Ceasar in 44 BC but that was in vain as emperors continued one after the other.

These Emperors understood that they needed to keep their subjects entertained and engaged and so they built huge sporting arenas, the most famous of which – probably because it is still around – is the Colosseum. The Colosseum had a capacity of about 40,000 to 70,000 people and had 80 arches for people to enter. It was in the shape of an oval and had many levels of seating with the most important seats being closer to the action.

The floor where the gladiators fought was made up of wooden planks with sand spread over it. Under the floor, was a complex of rooms, cages for animals etc. These animals were brought up using a sophisticated system involving pulleys.

Today, the floor is completely destroyed as is the South side of the outer wall. The outer walls were 187 feet high and the arches in the higher levels were all filled with statues. There was also a bust of Emperor Nero inside the Colosseum.

After the Colosseum was shut down in the sixth century by the Christian emperors, it fell into a state of disrepair and it was used as a source for raw material for other projects. So, all the statues, marble etc. were ripped out and reused.

The Colossuem is proof of the engineering skill of the Romans. They seemed to be more adept at practical matters like building palaces, temples, houses, markets, sporting arenas, aqueducts etc. and not very advanced on arts, philosophy etc. The population of Rome in 100 AD was estimated to be 1.2 Million (it is 3 Million today, after 2000 years) and they had a stadium, Circo Massimo, which could seat 240,000 people!

Next stop was Trevi Fountain (Fontana di Trevi), the most famous fountain in Rome. Fountains were a feature of Rome while the empire was still functioning and were fed by many aqueducts. After the fall of the empire, many of the fountains and aqueducts fell into disrepair and it was only in 15th century that several projects were started to make these functional again. Trevi Fountain gained its name from the simple fact that it is at the junction of three roads. The idea for a fountain was conceived to mark the termination point of an aqueduct that brought water to Rome. After the aqueduct was repaired, a famous sculptor of those times, Bernini, was commissioned to redo Trevi Fountain but he did not finish it as the Pope, who was the sponsor, passed away. It was later torn down and rebuilt by another architect but some of the Bernini designs are still there. The fountain is very beautiful and is a must visit item on every tourist’s list. The water looked very clean and I guess it is possibly drinkable. There is a belief that if you toss a coin into the Trevi Fountain, you will return to Rome and many coins were seen inside the fountain. I read that the total money collected from the fountain in an average day is Euro 300!

From Trevi, we strolled on to the Pantheon. The ancient part of Rome is not very large and you can walk to most attractions. Pantheon is the oldest building in Rome, which is still quite intact. It was commissioned by Roman statesman Marcus Agrippa but it was ruined and later rebuilt in its present form by Emperor Hadiran around the year 126 AD.

It was meant as a temple for all the seven gods of Rome and hence called Pantheon. It is a very large circular room with a dome at the top; the dome is finished in concrete and has a hole in the centre. The hole at the top lets in sunlight and particular positions of the light that comes through the opening marks the days of summer and winter solstices.

It is the largest dome in Rome and has a diameter of 43.5 metres at the base, which then reduces to about 9 metres at the top. It is said that Michelangelo visited the Pantheon many times when he was rebuilding the dome at St. Peter’s Basilica and he was so impressed by the dome at Pantheon that he built the dome of St. Peter’s to be smaller than the one at Pantheon. The dome is built by using heavier materials at the bottom and thinner materials at the top – the base is about 6 metres thick and then falls to less than 2 metres at the top. The walls are made with handcut bricks and the columns are made of marble imported from Egypt.

In the seventh century, Pantheon was donated to the Pope Boniface IV and that marked the transition of Pantheon into a church – it is now the church of St. Mary and the Martyrs. There are many illustrious personalities buried in the Pantheon – this is a consistent theme with churches wherein they seemed to bury dignitaries in churches. The tombs in Pantheon include those of the great artist Raphael, first king of unified Italy, Vittorio Emanuele II etc. Raphael’s tomb has a statue of the Virgin and the Child and it seems Raphael had specifically asked the sculptor to make the statue for his tomb, before his death.

There are several important art pieces within the Pantheon including a 15th century statue of Christ on the Crucifix by Michelangelo, a 4th century image of the Virgin and the Child etc. The altar at the Pantheon is also an impressive sight.

We then proceeded to a 4D movie show, which was based on the history of Rome. This was a kind of cheesy thing to do but it did give a quick 20 minute perspective, in an enjoyable format.

After a brief rest, we proceeded to the Spanish Steps. This is the widest staircase in Europe and was built in the 18th century to connect Spanish embassy at the bottom of the steps with the church at the top. The embassy is in a square called Piazza di Spagna. This is a grand staircase and seems to attract a lot of people that visit the steps and the piazza for meeting and spending time together. Italy is full of these small squares that have a significant role to play as public spaces. I was quite impressed by this concept, may be because I was used to such public spaces when I was growing up. In our cities today, we are cooped up and there are very few public spaces and malls and shopping centres are taking over as poor substitutes. We saw many such squares throughout our stay in Italy, in all cities and small towns and people seemed to throng these places in the summer evenings. In the piazza, right next to the steps is the house where the poet John Keats lived and died.

There is a nice little church on top of the Spanish Steps and we went in for a quiet look. A service was in progress as we went in and I was most surprised to see that the dresses of the nuns and the priests resembled the Arabic traditional dress (dish-dash), quite a lot. May be there is a connection somewhere.

The last stop of the day was Piazza Navona, another one of those delightful public spaces. This was a circus (stadium) before and was converted to a square in the 15th century. The most important feature of Piazza Navona is the Fountain of the Four Rivers (Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi) by Bernini. The fountain has a basin as a base with a rock on it and an Egyptian obelisk that rises from the rock. There are also four river gods depicted on four sides of the rock. These rivers were supposed to represent four continents to which the Roman Catholic Church had spread – Ganges representing Asia, Nile representing Africa, Danube representing Europe and Rio de la Plata representing America.

This square was also filled with a lot of people with many artists displaying their wares and some playing music. Overall, the atmosphere was quite fun filled and enjoyable. We sat down at the piazza for some time and right next to us, an old man was singing Italian songs and his wife sat next to him. People were donating money to the couple. Even though the music did contribute to the ambience, one could not but help feeling sad for the old couple.

11 May 2011

We had made a booking for Vatican Museums for 9 am, as I was afraid of the possibility of a long queue. The advance booking saved us and we got in rather quickly. As you walked into the museum, the first thing that hit you was the vastness of the place. There was no way one could do justice to the place in a couple of days, let alone the couple of hours we had allotted for it. There are many, many art pieces here from various masters that Vatican acquired over the years. The lighting was not conducive to good photography and in Sistine Chapel, photography was not allowed at all.  Raphael had done a lot of work in Vatican and his last painting “The Transfiguration” can be seen here. Raphael was very a prolific artist and had produced many works and achieved great fame, even if he lived only for a short time (he died when he was thirty seven). In fact, in his sarcophagus, it is inscribed “Here lies that famous Raphael by whom Nature feared to be conquered while he lived, and when he was dying, feared herself to die.”

We saw an early work by Leonardo da Vinci and a painting by Caravaggio. As you see more and more art, one starts to appreciate the difference in the works of the masters but there is still a long way to go.

Ceilings of most rooms were painted with scenes from the Bible. The works were rather intricate and I could only wonder at the effort and time this must have consumed.

We did a whirlwind tour, pausing to take in views of some of the more important works. At some point we passed through the Gallery of maps, which had a splendid, ornate ceiling with rich carvings.

The most important attraction here is the Sistine Chapel. Sistine Chapel is well known for Michelangelo’s fresco “The Last Judgement” and this is considered as one of Michelangelo’s best works. After the Chapel was built, the walls were painted by famous artists like Botticelli, Perugino etc. Originally, the ceiling was a night sky scene but later, Michelangelo was commissioned to repaint the ceiling; a job that took him four years to finish. In the ceiling, he has captured the creation of Adam, the Original Sin and their punishment in the work named “Genesis”. It represents nine scenes from the book of Genesis: God separating Light from Darkness, Creation of the Sun, Moon and Planets, Separation of Land from Sea, Creation of Adam, Creation of Eve, Temptation and Expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, Noah’s Sacrifice, The Flood and the Drunkenness of Noah.

Twenty three years later, he returned to start work on another fresco – The Last Judgement. This was planned on a grand scale and occupies the wall behind the altar, rising to the ceiling. The Pope chose the subject as a kind of warning to the Catholics to stay committed and not stray from the line of the Church, by depicting the grisly things that awaited them should they do so. It took six years for Michelangelo to finish this painting and it is said that the work was a matter of constant friction between the clergy and Michelangelo. The painting was done in a style unconventional at that time with Christ being shown with a muscular body (like that of Adam before he committed the Original Sin), angels were shown without wings etc. and that led to a lot of criticism. To make matters worse, many figures were naked but Michelangelo refused to make any changes. It is also said that he tried to bring in Pagan symbols into the painting, much to the chagrin of the Pope. He even painted some resemblance of one particular priest that criticized him and showed him as the judge of the underworld. After Michelangelo’s death, the painter Daniele da Volterra was commissioned to cover the genitals of the nude figures and he seems to have done that job well. Michelangelo’s work is so outstanding that one hardly notices the other masters like Botticelli. I must say that I was awe struck by the patience and need for perfection of a man willing to spend six years on one painting.

Sistine Chapel is where the Papal Conclave is held. After the Pope passes away, the Cardinals meet here to elect a new Pope and they are locked in till they elect a new one. Overall, the Vatican Museums look very rich and lavish and I started to get a sense of why this is so. Any visitor to Vatican will be awed by the splendour and wealth and I am sure that helped the Pope to extend his power by reinforcing faith. Most ordinary people would feel good to be part of something so obviously rich and powerful.

Every Wednesday, the Pope meets people at the St. Peter’s Square from 11 am and we landed smack in the middle of that when we exited the Vatican Museums. Some sort of a function was going on there with the Pope speaking at times along with some other priests. There was a huge gathering to witness that and they were all sitting patiently under the rather hot sun.

The square is very large and can easily hold tens of thousands of people. There is an obelisk right in the middle of the square and is supposed to have been used by Nero in one his circuses. The Egyptian obelisk seems to have been a favourite of the Roman Emperors.

The facade of St. Peter’s Basilica is very impressive and has an interesting story behind it. St. Peter, who is considered to be the first Pope, was persecuted by Nero. It seems that Nero blamed Christians for the famous fire in Rome though some stories say that he had started the fire himself to bring down some old buildings so that he could start making better ones. Unable to face the persecution, St. Peter left Rome and on the night that he left Rome, he had a dream. He saw Christ going to Rome and he asked him “Domine, quo vadis?” (Lord, where are you going) to which, Christ replied that he was going to Rome to be crucified a second time. St. Peter got the message behind the dream and went back to Rome and he was duly crucified, killed and buried at Ager Vaticanus, a stadium of Nero. The first Christian Roman Emperor, Constantin, built a church here in the 4th Century in St. Peter’s memory. The church fell into disrepair after sometime and a restoration project was started in the 15th century and it took 150 years to complete. Many well known sculptors and architects were associated with the Basilica but the one that is most credited is Michelangelo, who rebuilt the dome.

St. Peter’s Basilica is the second largest church in the world but it is not a Cathedral as it is not the seat of a Bishop. There are a lot of frescoes and paintings in the Basilica and it also has a small museum that holds various treasures, including a relic with a piece of the original wooden cross on which Christ was crucified. St. Peter’s bones are buried in the Basilica and there is a statue of St. Peter and he is holding the keys to heaven in his hand. The suggestion of a physical gate to heaven, which is locked and the keys held by a Saint seems to be an effort to convince people that there is indeed a heaven and entrance is strictly regulated. Christianity seems to have many such material aspects in its practice, possibly because it is a relatively new religion.

There is also a statue of the Virgin and the Son, depicting the scene of Christ being brought down from the cross. Mary looks younger than her Son as she is supposed to have never aged as she never committed any sin, including the original sin. Possibly, Christ looks older because he had taken on the sins of all mankind. Unfortunately, the light inside the Basilica was very dim and I could not get any decent photo of this statue.

An interesting point that I heard was about the altar facing east and supposedly, this was to show that even the Rising Sun bows to Christ, the Son of God. Most Pagan religions worshipped Sun and this was supposed to be an effort to establish Christianity’s superiority but I am not sure. Most Pagan temples also face East and for all we know, this might have been copied from that and a story developed at a later stage!

As we were leaving Vatican, we came close to the famous Swiss Guard of Vatican. They are practicing Catholics from Switzerland and act as the body guards of the Pope. They have been guarding the Pope and the Vatican from the 16th century. Their uniform is very colourful and does not convey the traditional formal message that army uniforms tend to.

Vatican consumed almost all of the day and we spent the evening at Piazza Venezia, which was very close to the hotel. Mussolini’s residence, Palazzo Venezia, is in Piazza Venezia and a picture is given below. He used to address crowds from the balcony that can be seen in the picture.

Another salient feature of the Piazza Venezia is “Vittoriano” a monument in the memory of unification of Italy and the first king – Vittorio Emanuele II. Vittorio himself is shown as seated on a horse. The monument also houses the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.