Saturday, 26 April 2014

Cambridge

The Cambridge Blues

St John's College, set in Capability Brown's landscaped grounds

Recently I witnessed Cambridge floundering in defeat in their annual boat race against Oxford.  If the scene above is anything to go by, training for the big race in the Cambridge camp is leisurely to say the least!  But then, seduced, as you would be, by the Bruges-like elegance of the interaction between man and nature, it is a good place to take it easy.

Trinity Hall


Although the town (not a city - Cambridge is in the Diocese of Ely) is busy, it never seems as urban as Oxford, and while the centre is thronged with visitors (I love the excited buzz of Italian in the streets) and the market place fizzes with life (though Snowy and his mice are much missed), it is only a step or two to the cloisters and quads of the colleges, and the quiet of The Backs beside the tranquil Cam.


King's College Chapel (the Gibbs Building is on the right)

And, despite its East Anglian flatness, Cambridge seems loftier than Oxford, and more spacious. Oxford Cathedral, which is the College Chapel for Christ Church, seems cramped and cluttered in comparison with the late English perpendicular architecture and the largest fan vault in the world of the Chapel of King's College.  The foundation stone was laid on the feast of St James, July 25th, 1446, by Henry VI, but the vaulting was not finished until 1515, and the building was not complete until the death of Henry VIII in 1547. It is 88 metres long, 12 metres across and 24 metres high, making this 25,344 cubic metres of the most wonderful space in the United Kingdom.


The Chapel of King's College


It is a triumph of masonry, carpentry and glasswork, and rivals the greatest English Cathedrals.  And when filled with the sounds of choir and organ it is hard not to succumb to the glory that some believe is God. Even the embellished ceilings of the side chapels are breathtaking.




I must admit to an ambivalent relationship with Cambridge, and especially with King's College.  When I was seventeen, I was advised by an elderly Careers' Master, that I should go to Oxford or Cambridge. Being a little on the naive side, but also a stubborn boy, I took against Oxford as I was not keen on the obligatory Anglo-Saxon part of their English Literature course (as it was in those days).  In addition I did not want to be made to specialise in just one subject, so wished to combine English with Philosophy.  


Bodley's Court, King's College

Why Philosophy?  I knew nothing of the discipline, and had no idea what studying it entailed, and my Careers' Master either had no idea himself or perhaps didn't feel like arguing with me.  But so it was that I was invited to interview at King's College, where I disgraced myself in several ways, not least by asking the long haired young man who showed us around if he was there for interview too?  


Trinity College

When he interviewed me the following day, after I had sat an exam in Philosophy which made as much sense to me as a Sanskrit manuscript might have done, he asked me if I could feel someone else's pain? My answer, which went something along the lines of, I suppose so, yes, did not seem to break the ice, and we parted company, for ever, not very long afterwards.


Was that me in the shadows?


Subsequently two gentlemen interviewed me (in the Gibbs building, designed by James Gibbs in 1724: no relation) with a view to my studying English Literature at King's. They seemed mildly interested in my espousal of Jack Kerouac, but my explanation that I admired his sense of freedom did not lead to a lively discussion of On the Road.  When they asked if I had any questions, I enquired after their famous resident, Edward Morgan Forster (I had read Howards End) and asked if it was possible to visit him. Maurice was not published until after Forster's death, but by the Cambridge Don's equivalent of a smirk I knew something was awry.


The Wren Library (1695) - Trinity College

So I did not make it to the High Table.  I wasn't even below the salt.  I was airbrushed from Cambridge like a raindrop in the river.  My preparation was inept, and I have no one to blame but myself, but it does make me wonder about these glorious colleges.  I have met many since who have Oxbridge degrees whose intelligence does not seem so very different from mine, and I cannot help but think that if I had been groomed to get in, perhaps to a less highly esteemed college, things might have been different. But......


The Church of the Holy Sepulchre (The Round Church)

I have been back to Cambridge many times, for various reasons such as to attend conferences and courses, to meet friends, to take children to the excellent Fitzwilliam museum, and to buy books at Heffers. Once I visited to photograph the Round Church for L'Enciclopedia dell' Arte Medievale (published by Treccani), and on another I was invited to lunch in Peterhouse Senior Common Room.


Garret Hostel Bridge

But I still have a touch of the Cambridge Blues.  How wonderful it must be to bathe in the privileges of academic excellence, and to share that experience with other privileged young men and women.  How marvellous it would be to grow in the footlights of the great - Burgess and Maclean, F R and Queenie Leavis, John Cleese and Sacha Baron-Cohen, Sandi Toksvig and Sue Perkins......


Clare College (and Clare Bridge)

But then I remind myself of the team that came second by eleven lengths in this year's University Boat Race.  It's that Tim Henman feeling, I suppose, when you know that destiny has other plans for you. None of the most of us can be Queen, for example, which is part of the process of natural selection, if you believe that alumnus of Christ's College, Charles Darwin.  I could have been (and perhaps one day will be....) a small tortoiseshell butterfly on the wall of Clare College.....




And someone might stand on me and change the future. But that's as may be.  

Back to the material world..... You may have noticed from these pictures that there are no cars in Cambridge.  This is another of the great privileges of Cambridge.  There are no cars.  By law one has to be carried to one's college in a punt.....


The Mathematical Bridge (Queen's College)

Or, if you are exceptionally poor and live in a part of a house, in a street (and not in a palace overlooking the Cam) you have to move around on a bicycle.....




This is not in fact as bad as it seems, partly as there are no hills, and because there are many places to park, where your bicycle can enjoy reading the posters while it waits for your return.




And, if you are lucky, and especially if you don't wear a helmet, you might get to meet other cyclists, some of whom just might be very nice people.....




One last thing I can recommend about Cambridge is The Free Press.  As I mentioned to my interviewers a very long time ago, I commend freedom, and a free press is one of those privileges we can all enjoy, in this country.  Or so it used to be.....  Of course Good Food is another desirable ingredient of a happy life.




Some time ago someone told me that to get on in life (though I think that by Life he may have meant the Diplomatic Service) you were best placed if you were Oxbridge, CofE, a Mason and Gay.  I don't doubt that there may be some element of truth in this statement (ask Anthony Blunt), but at the same time I can honestly say that now I am in my sixth decade I am reasonably happy as I am - which is to say: none of the above..... Just sitting on the fence, as it were.....




Though I suppose I am not too old, yet, to change?  I may have the Cambridge Blues.  But they are light blues.....


Saturday, 19 April 2014

Roman walks 4

The Appian Way





When we looked at Monti Celio and Esquilino, we started from the obelisk (or stele) of Axum, in the Piazza di Porta Capena. If we return there for a moment we'll find, on the northern side of the Via delle Terme di Caracalla, opposite FAO, a time-worn lump of brick and stone. Set on the side of this is a simple inscription that says, Here begins the Via Appia. Once this was the limit of Rome: outside the Porta Capena you were on your own, on your way south without the city to protect you. Since then the Aurelian walls were constructed, and now, in name anyway, the Via Appia, or Queen of the roads as she was known, begins at the Porta San Sebastiano, or the Porta Appia as it once was.





The road was opened in 312BC, by the Censor Appio Claudio, and then it went to the Colli Albani and on to Capua. Later developments took it as far as Bari, in the far south-east of Italy. It has suffered a bit in its long life, and traffic and the Raccordo Anulare have definitely lessened its charm for one can no longer do what Charles Dickens and his family did some one-and-a-half centuries ago, which was to walk out to the Colli Albani along the road for a day out, returning by coach in the moonlight. We can see a bit of it, though, and recapture something of its glory.

Not far from the beginning or the Via, set back on the right, you'll soon see the massive walls of the Baths of Caracalla (Thermae Antoninianae). These walls and gardens provide one of the most pleasing spectacles of ancient Rome: it's not as romantic now as it was when Joseph Severn painted Shelley here, creepers and grasses trailing from the masonry, but it's probably a lot safer than it was then and much more is known about the building. Measuring 330 metres by 330 metres on the outside, the main edifice is 220 by 114. There were cold rooms, warm rooms, hot rooms, gyms, libraries and even a stadium, and it functioned from about 217AD until the Goths smashed the water supply complex in the sixth century. About one thousand six hundred people at a time could use these baths, whether they were being massaged with oils or just relaxing amidst the sculptures and mosaics.





Nowadays it is used in the summer for open-air productions of opera and ballets, and what is sometimes lost in the technical quality of the performance is more than compensated for by the magic of sitting among these huge shadows while the moon rises over the graceful Roman pines.

Enough of this! We need to get on, and crossing the Piazzale Numa Pompilio may take a while, since the traffic lights here seldom seem to favour pedestrians. However, once across, and into the Via di Porta San Sebastiano you are in a relatively quiet road that becomes one way and which functions a bit like the sewers of Vienna (in The Third Man): every so often you hear a rushing behind you and a flush of miscellaneous vehicles races past, almost tearing you from your handhold; then there is calm again.

Shortly, on the right, you will find the Casina di Cardinal Bessarione, which is a delightful fifteenth century house set in a happy garden.  At present the house is closed (having been restored it is now only rarely open to the public) but it is a lovely example of its kind even from outside, with frescoed walls and mullioned windows and it presents a picture of Renaissance Rome that is different, and refreshing.

Further up the road, on the left, at number nine, there is another peaceful oddity: the tombs of the Scipio family (Sepolcro degli Scipioni) which reopened to the public in 2011 after being closed for twenty years of restoration. These lie under a Roman house in the gardens of which is also the Columbario di Pomponio Hylas, which is a private, decorated tomb in the form of a dove-cote, from the first century, in perfect condition.  Unfortunately, while this used to be included in the entrance to the Scipio tombs, it is now separate and only available to pre-booked parties.

A little further on and you will pass under the Arch of Drusus (Arco di Druso), which is a third century adornment for the Appian Way and which helped to support the Antonine Aqueduct which supplied water to the Baths of Caracalla. After this you are inside the Porta San Sebastiano.  On the right is the entrance to an interesting museum (http://en.museodellemuraroma.it/)  and also to a tract of the Aurelian walls that takes you towards the Porta Ardeatina.  If you have the time, and access is permitted, a walk along the defences is worth it, with a remarkable amount of greenery behind, you, and occasional glimpses of the country outside the city through the slits.




Once outside the walls you are faced with a choice. Here begins the Appia Antica proper (see http://www.parcoappiaantica.it/en/) and you can get a bus down it if you want or you can risk the traffic as far as Domine quo Vadis (a small church that is on the spot where Christ met Peter on his way out of Rome). This is just less than a kilometre from the gate and from there you can take the coach entrance to the Catacombs of San Callisto (http://www.catacombe.roma.it/en/index.php), and then to the church and catacombs of San Sebastiano (http://www.catacombe.org/uk_info.html), from where you can catch the bus back. It really is not worth trying to walk up the Appia Antica past Domine Quo Vadis, as the traffic is horrendous and the road is narrow and. walled. There is an alternative, however, and that is to take the bus away from Rome to its terminus and then to explore the road beyond by foot, stepping from block to block under the pines, between glamorous villas and the rubble of ancient monuments.

Whatever you decide, however, you have to come back the same way and you'll quite likely be on the bus, so go a couple of stops around the walls and get off near the Porta Latina. Inside the walls again, and just near the entrance to the Columbario, if you didn't see it before, is a curious little octagonal Tempietto di San Giovanni in Oleo, to which great artists such as Bramante, Sangallo and Borromini have contributed. This marks the place where, according to legend, St John the Evangelist emerged, unharmed, from a pot of boiling oil into which he had been forced by the Emperor Domitian.  John's survival persuaded his tormentor to exile him to the island of Patmos instead, where he then wrote his Revelation.

Where would we be without stories?





A few steps from here, going down the hill first then right up the Via di San Giovanni a Porta Latina, you find a courtyard with a hundred-year-old cedar tree and an eighth-century well. Here is the simple church of San Giovanni a Porta Latina. It was first built in the fifth century, though it has been restructured and restored several times; the campanile is tenth or eleventh century. Inside it is light and plain with the lovely luminosity that comes from using onyx (according to the Rosminian Fathers who live there, though for some reason I thought it might be selenite as in Santa Sabina) instead of glass in the windows. There are various ancient columns of marble and granite, and some twelfth century frescoes depicting scenes from the old, and the new testaments. This church really looks and feels like it could have done eight hundred years ago or more, and, being in a cul-de-sac, in a quiet part of Rome, it is an ideal place to reflect on time and its vagaries.

I would leave you here, steeped in philosophy and early medieval Rome, but perhaps that's not fair. Life isn't like that, and there's just one more church, also dedicated to St John, that you ought to see. In fact you may have noticed it earlier if you walked along the tops of the walls, for you can see the backs of fifteen giant statues from almost everywhere in Rome that has a view roughly eastwards. San Giovanni in Laterano (The Papal Arch basilica of St John Lateran http://www.rome.info/basilicas/st-john-lateran/) and all its trappings - the park in front of it, the gates in the walls, the baptistery, the Scala Santa, the modern monument to St Francis of Assisi, the trams, the metro, the Coin supermarket and all - it's very much the heart, or perhaps the liver(?) of Rome, and that's where you should end your walks. So from the Rosminian haven slip back out the Porta Latina and follow the walls to the Porta Metronia, the next gate to your left. Then go inside and up the Via dell'Amba Aradam, and you are in Piazza Giovanni Paolo II, and next to Piazza San Giovanni in Laterano). The facade and main doors are round the other side, but here is the baptistery, and there's a palace, there's an obelisk, and all around is teeming Roman life. It may be tiring, but it is alive.





I will leave you here, amidst the confusion: you're not lost; no where's very far from anywhere else in Rome and you will have seen a lot of the city now. You may be overwhelmed, but you are meant to be.  They didn't build this city to have it ignored!


We will return


Friday, 18 April 2014

London 11 - Spitalfields

Hospital Fields



Spitalfields.  Like (in one way) St Martin in the Fields. The name is a lie, today.  But once......  Here, within a hop and a skip of Liverpool Street Station, and the monstrosities of Bishopsgate, unfolds a curious area, once this, and then that, now upcoming, smartening, but still with its curiosities and tales of the past; its young blades and faded flowers.....




Spitalfields takes its name from The New Hospital of St Mary without Bishopsgate, which became known as St Mary Spital. This was a Priory founded, on a Roman cemetery, in 1197, and then destroyed by Henry VIII in 1539. So not much remains of that for us to see (though archaeologists have turned up some very interesting finds). For the most part what we see today is only a few hundred years old, at most. The fan lights and gas lamps reaching back to days when Dickens might have wandered past.....





The model bus and letter box below being additions from the twentieth century, when this modest house (in Princelet Street, parallel to Fournier Street where Gilbert and George have lived since 1968) was probably last painted.....





Jack, the Ripper, stalked these stews, and the heritage walking tour that traces his footfalls stops in this pub, The Ten Bells, which has been here since the mid eighteenth century, so would have been a hundred and fifty years old already when Annie Chapman, and Mary Kelly, plied their trade here. Upstairs now hosts a chic restaurant, with no obviously murderous connections.....






The pub is just opposite the cavernous Spitalfields Market Hall (granted a charter by Charles I in 1638 for the sale of flesh fowl and roots to be sold on Spittle Fields) but this is now, since it stopped trading as a wholesale fruit and vegetable market in 1991, a strange affair, not quite knowing, I venture to suggest, whether it is fish or fowl.  If this were some other city, say Florence, or Paris, this would still be a vibrant, busy, food market, with fresh vegetables, live fish, bleeding meat, stinking cheese, and bar-stool cafes. But this is London, in the 21st century, and such places barely exist, and where they do they are travesties of their past.  




Also across the road from the Ten Bells is Christ Church, a Nicholas Hawksmoor production from 1729 (as a result of Queen Anne's Fifty New Churches Act, 1711, to impress and dominate the godless thousands - including all the non-conformist Huguenots who had moved to this area), though for a while in the 1960s it was in danger of dereliction.




After a ten million pound restoration it reopened its doors in 2004 and now hosts a thriving evangelical community, as well as claiming over 100,000 visitors since its reopening.  And of the things to note, a marble plaque bears the names of Jean and Margaret Rondeau, second generation Huguenots in the early eighteenth century......




And proudly telling the story is the charming and interesting Stanley Rondeau, great-great-great-great-great-great-grandson of the above (and for more about his story, please see the link at the end of this piece):





Not far away, on the corner of Brushfield Street and Gun Street, another local celebrity stands proud.  The novelist Jeanette Winterson nearly gave in to a coffee chain here, but decided to stand her ground (if you will excuse the pun) and her Verde and Company Ltd is a mark of the character and independence that is still typical of this area, if you scratch the surface a little.




Just round the corner, amongst the maze of narrow lanes, is Artillery Passage, where you will find one of Davy's Wine Bars, Grapeshots, the perfect place to watch the world pass you by.....





Whether it is in motion, or emotional:



Alternatively, if you would like to immerse yourself in the world of art..... the place to be is The Golden Heart, at 110 Commercial Street, where landlady Sandra Esqulant (The Queen of Spitalfields) serves her friends Tracey Emin, Lyn Barber et alios, in quiet, old-fashioned style.


It is as honest an old-fashioned pub as you will find, but do not be surprised if you rub shoulders with the Chapman brothers, or find Howard Jacobson mulling over a pint of Black Velvet with Gilbert and George, (as indeed I did not very long ago.....)

But not all art is high class, or fine, or haute cuisine, etc..  In the Brick Lane area, firstly a Jewish conclave and now Banglatown, the preserve of the Bangladeshi community and famous for sweets and curries, there is an exceptional street art culture, featuring work by Ben Eine, Alice Pasquini, Hunto, Anthony Lister, Malarky, Dan Kitchener, French artist C215, the Belgian Roa and Phlegm (from Sheffield), among others. There is great use of space and colour, even if it does not always purposely display wit or commentary:





However some works do comment on our powerlessness and vulnerability:




While others, like this by Paul Don Smith, touch on issues of common or national awareness:




And others are simply inventive and beautifully executed:


The Elephoctopus

There is a lot going on in this cramped and confused area, wedged between Liverpool Street and Whitechapel, once cramped with stews, now teeming with creative aspirations.  It may not be elegant, nor tidy, nor smart, nor beautiful, but it is full of life, and smells, and tastes, and sights.....




There is a wonderful publication, which I acquired from Stanley Rondeau at Christ Church, entitled The Map of Spitalfields Life, which lists a number of characters I have not yet encountered, and places to seek out on my next visit. Things will continue to change, but I would like to try and find Tom the Sailor, if he is still around. He, and his dog Matty, sleep in an old van, and he told the Gentle Author of Spitalfields Life that the best chance you can have is to have nothing

Wise words in these complicated days, when hospitals and fields don't always go together..... 

















Saturday, 12 April 2014

Roman walks 3

The Protestant Cemetery to the Fiddler's Elbow






One curious and romantic place that many English and American visitors to Rome want to see is the Protestant Cemetery (Cimitero Acattolico - http://www.cemeteryrome.it/), with its peaceful conglomeration of monuments and the quiet burial places of Shelley's heart and Keats's body, guarded by a million cats and the shadow of Gaius Cestius's pyramid.

To get here take the bus, tram, or metro to Porta San Paolo, one of the best preserved and most impressive gates through the Aurelian walls. The entrance to the cemetery is at No. 6 Via Gaio Cestio, behind the pyramid and down the inside of the walls. Ring the bell if the gate is shut.





After communing with the poetic spirits go back to the main road, the Via della Marmorata, and follow it away from the Porta San Paolo. Cross at the busy junction of several roads and go uphill to the left, up the Via Asinio Pollione and then, where that splits up, take the left again up the Via Porta Lavernale. This leads to the Piazza dei Cavalieri di Malta, quaintly designed by G-B Piranesi, in 1765, to resemble one of his own engravings. He also designed the Villa of the Priory of the Knights of Malta and it is at the gate here that you will probably find a huddle of people, seemingly playing 'what the butler saw.'  When it's your turn you'll see what the fuss is about: through the keyhole you see a gallery of trim trees and, floating in a bluish haze, at the end, the cupola of St Peter's. It's a fascinating trick, and since it cuts out all the impedimenta of modern Rome it is one that can set the imagination reeling.

You are now on the Monte Aventino, and if you walk down the Via San Sabina, passing San Alessio and his pleasant garden, you come to the little Piazza Pietro d'Illiria, named after a fifth century priest who founded the glorious church of Santa Sabina. Partly because of the beautiful proportions and partly because of tasteful reconstruction (in the 1930s) this basilica is one of the loveliest in Rome. The light filters through the selenite (a crystalline form of gypsum) and reflects on the friezes of polychrome marble, the mosaics, the frescoes, the Corinthian columns and the wooden ceiling - the effect is illuminating.

Outside the church, on the entrance, in the atrium, are carved panels of cypress wood from the fifth century that show biblical scenes. Connected by this atrium is the thirteenth century Dominican Convent, where St Thomas Aquinas once taught. Outside, in the piazza, there's a handsome fountain spouting through a great Roman mask into a bath of Egyptian granite, and behind this there is the attractive orange garden (Giardino degli Aranci) of the Parco Savello, from which there are views of Trastevere, the Tiber and much of old Rome.



Leading out through an iron gate you can take the cobbled path of the Clivo di Rocca Savella. At the foot, turn right and head for the delicate bell tower of Santa Maria in Cosmedin (http://www.sacred-destinations.com/italy/rome-santa-maria-in-cosmedin). If you like the clash of brass, the smoke of incense and the dignity of Byzantine Greek singing, this church is a wonderful place to pass a Sunday morning. At any time, though, it is pleasing to explore, though the rumble and scramble of traffic at the crossroads outside does not improve the peace.

In the portico is an old drain cover called the Bocca della Verita, named after an old tradition that it bites the fingers off liars. Inside, some of the building shows signs of its classical origin, as it was raised on the site of the Roman food depot, but the church was built for Greek refugees in the sixth century and then was adapted, added to, beautified by the Cosmatesque pavement and the choir, and than it was eventually repristinated to what it is today.

Across the road. are two other exquisite temples. The round one is know as the Temple of Vesta, but was actually dedicated to Hercules the Conqueror (or Hercules Olivarius - Protector of Olives). This is the oldest marble temple in Rome, having been erected in the second century before Christ, and restored in the time of Tiberius. The other one is also misnamed, bearing the title of the Temple of Manly Fortune, but which is now believed to have belonged to Portunus, the god of the river port.  It is about 2150 years old, constructed of tuff (tufo) and travertine.  Despite the roses and lawns that now surround them, these two little buildings among the trees can conjure the past in a way that often grander ruins fail to do.

Pressing on, past the vast, Kafkaesque Anagrafe (the public records office) you come to more evidence of the distant past in the form of the church of San Nicola in Carcere, which has been built on the remains of three temples, probably first as a prison and then as a church; then it was almost buried itself in medieval fortifications from which it was only liberated in 1912.



This area was originally where the Roman cattle market was held (The Forum Boarium), and a little further on was the fruit and vegetable market (The Forum Holitorium). In fact, these sites may pre-date Rome, as commercial gatherings happened before the fortification and development of cities. Here also you will find the remains of the Theatre of Marcellus, built by Augustus and dedicated to his nephew and son-in-law, Marcus Claudius Marcellus, who died in 23BC when he wasn't even twenty years old. The colonnades have been nicely capped by a renaissance palace (in place of an earlier fortress) now called the Palazzo Orsini and subdivided into many apartments (one of which belonged to Iris Origo, who died in 1988). Until the fascist period the arches housed many shops and the piazza was a busy market, but now it is an asphalt desert, watched over by the lonely remains of the Temple of Apollo, with its three columns and a trace of pediment.




Slipping past this you enter the Ghetto (https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/vjw/Rome.html#5), where in darker days Jews were forced to live within nocturnally fastened gates. Now there is a fine synagogue by the river and. a thriving community exists in the houses ancient palaces of this intricate area. At the beginning of the Via del Portico d'Ottavia is the porch itself, with the little church of Sant'Angelo in Pescheria, which gets its name from the ancient fish market (The Forum Piscium) on this site commemorated by a Latin inscription on a marble slab under the arch which says that The heads of fish longer than this stone must be given to conservators, up to the first fins. Ottavia, by the way, was Augustus's sister.





To the left of the gateway as you face it is a narrow alley which leads into an almost always silent back-street, seemingly stuck in time. Odd windows and festoons of washing catch your eye, and geraniums watch you from occasional brackets. Sometimes a door is open and you can glimpse the feet of stairs, but it's all dark and medieval. Keep to the right and you skirt the brick apse of a church and then cross over in front of the Palazzo Clementi to go down the Via dei Delfini to the Piazza Margana. Here five streets meet, in my day observed patiently by a police car that guarded the back of the PCI (Partito Communista Italiana) headquarters (though those days, like the communists, are gone now, subdivided and etherised into shades of what they once were) or perhaps the front of an elegant restaurant (http://www.latavernadegliamici.net/). 




All around is an architectural hotch-potch of medieval and renaissance as well as seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It's quiet and restful, and it seems a world away from the pouring traffic that mutters in the background, but you've only to follow the Via di Tor Margana a little way and suddenly you're back in it all, vying with the flood and the dis-harmony of the Piazza Venezia.





Now for the eastern hills of Rome. Although there are a number of well-known tourist attractions in this area, there is a surprising amount that is not so famous but which certainly merits attention. We will start outside the FAO building, the headquarters of the giant Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (http://www.fao.org/home/en/), easily reached by metro, tram or bus. There was (until it was restored to its original place under African skies in 2005) a curious obelisk here, called the Obelisk of Axum, a fourth century stone picture book that Mussolini plundered from Ethiopia in 1937. The Piazza here, named after the ancient Porta Capena that stood at the beginning of the Appian way, is like the confluence of mighty rivers. We want to climb the narrow lane by San Gregorio Magno, opposite FAO, and across from the denuded park of the Circus Maximus, so take care..... don't necessarily trust the green man walking sign, at a junction like this it doesn't always mean there won't be a filter turning your corner. Anyway, when you've made it, climb the narrow road below the steps of San Gregorio. It's an attractive travertine facade, which is in a sense false, because there is an atrium behind it before the church. Here there are a couple of interesting monuments to English men of the court of Henry VIII, one of whom, Sir Edward Carne, died. here in 1561; he had been sent by the king to discuss divorce from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. In the garden are three tiny chapels, one of which contains frescoes by Guido Reni and Domenichino.

Follow the Clivo di Scauro up the hill to Piazza dei SS Giovanni e Paolo, an elegant piazza with (one of) the best Romanesque campanile (1150) in Rome. The entrance to the church is impressive, but the inside is, for me, rather claustrophobic baroque. The main interest lies underneath. In the far right of the church a spiral stair leads down into the excavated remains of trio Roman houses from the second and third centuries, which have traces of paintings on the walls (http://www.caseromane.it/en/index_en.html). This is supposedly where two ex-officers of Constantine were martyred by beheading for refusing to obey the orders of Julian the apostate. Whatever the truth, it is fascinating to wander the rooms and corridors of buried houses, and it forms an interesting preparation for San Clemente which, time allowing, will be seen later.

Back in the fresh air, a turn in the park of the Villa Celimontana, which has an entrance opposite the church, is refreshing after the subterranean fustiness. This park is one of the most attractive in Rome, largely because of its rich vegetation and the care with which it is tended but also because it slopes gently southwards and catches the sun among the palms and conifers. Cats, who know a thing or two, often congregate here to bask a few hours away. If you are a picnicking type, this is a park to remember.

However, to proceed, take the exit that is also the entrance to the Villa itself (which houses the Italian Geographical Society) and turn left into the church of Santa Maria in Domnica, for a moment, just to admire the mosaics created by Paschal I in the ninth century.

Outside, in the middle of the road, is the Fontana della Navicella, made from a model of a Roman ship, which is a copy of an ancient ex-voto offering. Then to the left a little and then right is the Via di Santo Stefano Rotondo, and a few paces up here is the entrance to the church of the same name, which is the national church of Hungary in Rome as well as the seat of the German-Hungarian Papal College.  When I originally wrote this you had to ring a doorbell and ask a nun to let you in, as it was in a state of restoration and had been for many years, but now this treasure (dating from the fifth century this is one of the oldest circular churches in Italy) is open every day and is worth seeing, partly because of its horrifying frescoes, which show some of the atrocities inflicted on Christian martyrs.

Return to the main road near the fountain and turn right, strolling down the wide Piazza Celimontana past the military hospital. At the end turn right, then first left, and then first right again and up the steep, narrow Via dei Santi Quattro Coronati until you can turn into this corpulent, imposing building (http://www.santiquattrocoronati.org/index_enn.htm). There are two courtyards here, and in this medieval pile, where kings and popes used to take refuge and where there has been an enclosed order of Augustinian Contemplative since the sixteenth century, there is the loveliest cloister in Rome dating from the thirteenth century. You find it through the church on the left and you may have to ring a bell. There is also, through a room off the first courtyard, a fascinating chapel with byzantine-influenced frescoes that depict imaginative scenes from the life of Saint Sylvester, particularly his curing Constantine of leprosy. For this you once had to ask for the key at a metal grille; the key was then given to you through a revolving drum which is also used. as a dumb waiter to serve bowls of pasta to down and outs (and was also used to accept unwanted babies).  Nowadays you will be buzzed in electronically on receipt of a few euros. However, nowhere in Rome that I know has the same air of continuum, of the years rustling by like winter leaves. The goldfish in the cloister fountain, and the smiling, patient nuns don't look ancient or modern - they just are.  Recent restoration by the World Monuments Fund (supported by the J Paul Getty Grant Program) is ensuring that this place will not crumble and fade.

If you've not been bewitched on the way, and if you started. early enough, you may be in time to go underground once more in San Clemente (http://www.basilicasanclemente.com/). To get there go back down the Via dei Santi Quattro Coronati, then take the first right and the first left and you're there. It's an interesting, appealing church in its own right, and it is administered by Irish Dominicans so if you're tired of trying to speak Italian there is some respite here. The upper church has a marvellous mosaic, entitled, the Triumph of the Cross, as well as a fine choir among other treasures, but the lower church, and the Mithraeum, only discovered some hundred years ago, are what most people come here for. There is so much here that it is best to leave it to the guides to explain, but don't be discouraged if you've missed the morning opening, as it will open again after lunch. And do make the effort, and ask for explanation; few excavations in Rome hold as much excitement for the visitor.





Continuing down the Via San Giovanni in Laterano you have the Colosseum rising before you, and, just before that, the so-called Ludus Magnus on your right. This was one of the lodging and training centres for gladiators, a good percentage of whom would end their brief but glorious lives on the sands of the amphitheatre. Across the Via Labicana, if you enter the Parco Oppio, you begin your assault on Monte Esquilino. On the top of this are the remains of the Baths of Trajan, who tried to obliterate the memory of Nero by bull-dozing the Golden House of that infamous emperor and by building a monumental health centre atop of it. Well, he succeeded, in a way, except that in the long term he preserved it, and now we have, if you can take it, another quasi-subterranean visit, this time of a distinctly eerie and pagan nature. Poke your nose in, if you dare (and if you can, despite twenty-five years of restoration, recent floods have closed it again, and its future is uncertain); also be warned that not everyone finds it a comfortable experience - it is a peculiar place! Once it must have been so grand, partially clad in gold, with mosaics, paintings, sculptures, a water-staircase and a room with a moving ceiling; now it can touch the base of the spine with a damp chill, if you're not careful (the temperature is maintained at ten degrees Celsius.

When you've done with it - whatever you've done with it - carry on over the top, through the ruins of Trajan's baths, up the Viale del Monte Oppio to the church of San Martino ai Monti. You could have had enough of churches and subterranean sights by now, but this is a slightly different church in its appeal. It has ancient origins, and is built on classical blocks - you can see this best from outside - but it also has a couple of paintings of historical curiosity. They date from the seventeenth century and show St Peter's and St John Lateran as they were then. These are at either end of the left hand wall.

Behind the apse of this church is the great brick tower of the Capocci, which used to be part of a more extensive fortress. Go up the narrow Via San Martino ai Monti opposite and then (unless the Druid's Den - a bar that's almost sculpted out of ancient walls - is open http://www.druidspubrome.com/) turn left into the even narrower Via di Santa Prassede, and enter the rather unprepossessing door on the left. This church was built by Paschal I, the pope - later canonized - who created the magnificent mosaic in Santa Maria in Domnica that we saw earlier. Here there are more mosaics, especially in the exquisite chapel of San Zenone. This is byzantine art as can be seen nowhere else in Rome. It is also a church that seems alive, glowing with well-used life. It's the sort of place in which even the most dedicated atheist can feel at home, as it doesn't alarm with its greatness, nor intimidate with its philosophy: it is a human place, as well as an ancient temple.




It must be late now, and, though-you could continue and explore the great basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, you could relax and stroll up the rest of the lane of Santa Prassede and then turn left into the wide opening of Via dell'Olmata (Road of the Elm Tree). Here, on the right just after the Finance Police Headquarters, over the rise, you'll find an Irish Pub, the Fiddler's Elbow (http://www.thefiddlerselbow.com/fiddlers_rome/rome_eng/welcome.htm), where a pint of Guinness, and a chat in your mother tongue, should round off the day very nicely.

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