Thursday, 3 July 2014

Days 459 to 467: Rome

Rome. It's quite a famous city. It may be the most influential city of all time. The Romans turned it into the most fabulous city in the world two thousand years ago, and ever since then it's been on a roll. The Catholic Church set up shop there, Renaissance art flourished, and spaghetti carbonara was invented. It was the very obvious capital for a unified Italy from 1870. It's had its ups and downs, but there's no doubt Rome has lived a very full life. The evidence is all around. Rome is packed full of history, monuments, ruins, all gloriously spread across the city like juicy currants in a hot cross bun.

Danielle and I visited Rome for three good reasons: two Wonders and a wedding. The two Wonders are St Peter's Basilica and the Colosseum, and perfectly capture Rome's importance to the world, as home of the Romans and home of Catholicism. The wedding perfectly captured what happens when Scottish people descend upon a city for a week.

The wedding was between Louise and David, Louise having been Danielle's bridesmaid at our wedding last year, and one of her oldest friends. I'll save details of their wedding till this weekend, as their reception takes place on Friday and Louise has requested that photos on Facebook of the Rome leg are held back until then, and I guess this extends to my blog. So for this entry, I'll concentrate on what I know best: big buildings. And Rome has lots of big buildings. And old buildings. And sprawling ruins of big old buildings. Everywhere.

The first photo is the view from our apartment, a simple one-room plus bathroom that was certainly over-priced but in a cracking location. It overlooked the Largo di Torre Argentina, one of Rome's many squares, which contained an area called the Area Sacra, or the "holy area". It is a prime of example of what happens in Rome when you dig. It was only discovered during work in 1927, and is the ruins of four unnamed Roman temples, dating as far back as the 4th Century BC. So that was some 2300-year-old temples just outside our window. But in case that's not your thing - in which case, you really shouldn't bother with Rome - it also hosts a cat sanctuary. If you're a homeless cat in Rome, that's where you go for some shelter. If you're a tourist who likes cats, that's where you can find a whole bunch of cats and a quite overpowering stench of cat piss.

Roman ruins are everywhere in Rome. My opening photo on this entry is of the Roman Forum, which is right next to the Colosseum. It's basically where the Romans hung out, and is packed with temples, basilicas, truimphant arches, government buildings, a prison, and some residences, all intertwined with streets and built over the course of centuries. These days, it's all very ruined, but makes for an interesting stroll. Warning: the Roman Forum does not include a cat sanctuary, so for cat lovers who hate ruins, it offers very little.

You don't need to go very far to find more ruins - right next to it is the Palatine Hill. It's got all sorts of old Roman ruins on it, mostly the old palace where the emperors lived. Indeed, the word "palace" derives from here. The palace must have been pretty damn big - the ruins are very extensive.

It comes with a great view of the Colosseum, something Roman estate agents no doubt never failed to mention.

I have my own theory about the masterplan of this whole area, which includes the palace, the Roman Forum, and the Colosseum. The Romans loved a bit of sex and fertility - check out this list of Gods. Then look at the overall plan of the Palatine area - looks like woman's ovaries, doesn't it?

My theory appears to be entirely unsubstantiated by any evidence or expert opinions, but you can't argue with the plain facts, can you?

If you like your Roman buildings a little less ruined, then happily Rome is able to deliver too. One of Roman architecture's greatest achievements is the Pantheon. It's a true masterpiece of architecture, and should really have had a place on my list somewhere. The most distinct feature is the giant dome, which was unprecedented for its era, and was massively influential for Western architecture. The height and diameter of the dome are the same, at 43.3 metres, and it remained the largest dome in the world for around 1200 years. The version we see now is a 2nd Century rebuilding of a roughly 0 BC/AD original. It's in great condition because it's been in continuous use, as a Roman temple and then a Christian church. It's still a church today, although it's mostly just a tourist site. As it's free, you better believe plenty of tourists visit.

The hole in the ceiling is deliberate. It's called the oculus, and it lets light and air in, as well as making the dome more structurally sound.

Getting a bit fed up of Roman architecture? Tough, there's loads more. I'll give you a small reprieve by showing a Roman building not traditionally associated with the Romans - a pyramid. The Pyramid of Cestius is a couple of subway stops from the Colosseum, and in proper Egyptian pyramid style was a tomb, for an important Roman guy called Gaius Cestius, built around 12 BC. At 37 metres high, it's pretty big, but there used to be an even bigger one, until a 16th Century pope dismantled it to use the marble for the steps of St Peter's. It had rather a lot of scaffolding during our visit, but you get the idea.

Scaffolding was a bit of an unfortunate theme of Rome during our visit. I guess that's what happens when you have a city full of old things. The Colosseum, as seen in my review (to follow this entry) had quite a bit. Trevi Fountain, renowned the world round for its Baroque beauty, looked like this:

And the top of the Spanish Steps - which to me is just a bunch of inordinately popular steps, I really don't get the appeal - looked like this:

What you may have seen in some of these photos are obelisks. Egyptian obelisks. Rome has rather a lot of these, eight in total, out of thirty remaining in the world. The Romans quite liked the Egyptian obelisks and went to great efforts to transport them over. The above one at the Spanish Steps is actually a Roman copy, at a "mere" 1800 years old. The Pantheon has the real deal though, built in Ramses II time, about 3300 years ago.

The obelisk in St Peter's Square is perhaps the most famous. It happens to be around 4400 years old, which is pretty much at the dawn of time in terms of human civilisation. But hey, no big deal.

There are many others, but I'm not on an obelisk world tour, so didn't take any other photos. But in case you're still in the mood, here's another Roman era Egyptian-style obelisk, in the Piazza Navona. It was commissioned by Emperor Domitian, son of Vespasian, who commissioned the Colosseum, and brother of Titus, who oversaw its completion. Domitian was responsible for all the underground chambers beneath the arena, where slaves and wild animals were kept. This obelisk was put on top of the fountain in 1651 by Bernini, who's the guy who designed the interior of St Peter's, as well as the entire square.

Right, I guess you're fed up of obelisks now. You're probably fed up of ruins, the Romans, and scaffolding too. So to close, here's something that isn't an obelisk, has nothing to do with the Romans, isn't ruined, and only has a tiny bit of scaffolding if you look really close. While we were in Rome, we called it the "wedding cake", as that was how Louise referred to it, but I gather the Italians like to call it "the typewriter".Its real name is Il Vittoriano, but it is also called the Altare della Patria, or the Altar of the Fatherland. As all these names might suggest, it's pretty ridiculous and bombastic.

It was built from 1885 to 1925 in honour of Victor Emmanuel, the first king of the unified Kindgom of Italy. It's huge - 70 metres high and 135 metres wide - and utterly over-the-top, with statues and fountains and rows of columns. It's 19th Century nonsense, but it's great fun, and kind of pompously impressive. Nothing subtle whatsoever is contained in the building. Additionally, it's right in the middle of Rome, not far from the Colosseum and walking distance from most of the city's highlights. 

Somehow, I'd never heard of it before. In any other city, despite veering into the territory of tasteless, this would be regarded as one of the main monuments. In Rome, it's just one of many, and a lesser in a city of many superiors.

That's Rome, as viewed through some of its buildings. In truth, I spent much more of my time eating, drinking, watching the World Cup, and attending the wedding and wedding-related matters. But you don't want to see a bunch of photos of pasta, do you? (If you do, you must have figured out by now that you're on the wrong blog.)


  1. I was in Rome in 2001 and if I were doing a project like yours, but of cities rather than monuments, Rome would be number one for me, based on all the cities I have visited so far. I really liked the wedding cake typewriter too.

    I know it's not recommended by serious historians to go along the alternative history route, but if Rome had never existed, the world we live in today would be unrecogniseable, from languages spoken to architectural styles, legal and political systems, cultural references etc. Of course that kind of thing can be said about many cultures and cities around the world, but Monty Python really nailed it with their "What have the Romans ever done for us" scene.

    1. The wedding party I was with for much of Rome referenced the Monty Python scene a number of times during the week, so it feels very familiar right now.

      Rome is clearly one of the best cities I've ever been to. The New7Wonders people who inspired my own project in a bout of righteous fury, are now doing the 7 best cities of the world.

      From their final shortlist of 21, neither New York, Paris, or Rome are included... Just shows how much you can trust a public vote.


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