15 February 2014

Roman walks, 1

The Forum and The Vatican

Clearing my mother's house the other day, I came across a slim A4 folder booklet.  The last page was signed and dated, by me, on March 12th 1987.

The title of the piece is A Week of Walks - Roman Perambulations, and it was an attempt, at that time, to record some suggestions for friends and family visiting the city.

Unearthing it now is a little like coming across an old gravestone, brushing away the moss and lichen, to read an inscription.  I hesitate to clean it up, but, inspired by a friend's recent request to offer some advice on a trip to Rome, perhaps it still has some worth?  After all, the majority of places mentioned are hundreds or thousands of years old, and, remarkably, they are still there!  So here are the first two days' suggestions, with a touch of updating (there were no websites in 1987!) but no apologies for the errors that may have crept in over a quarter of a century!

I lived in Rome, in Trastevere (my  blog Roma Trastevere Revisited  (http://www.richardpgibbs.org/2011/12/dance-to-music-of-time.html has more on that) from 1976 but left Italy for family reasons in 1995.  One authority on Rome is David Willey, BBC Correspondent in Rome, and when he moved out to Trevignano Romano in 2009, after about twenty years living in the Palazzo Doria Pamphilj in central Rome he wrote this on the 'Dolce Vita' Rome:

Over the years I have witnessed the growing degradation of the inner city, the mindless graffiti which now deface even newly-restored buildings and the disappearance one by one of the small local shops and artisans - the butcher, the greengrocer, the barber, the antique seller - as their rents became too costly.
They have been replaced by trashy and tasteless trinket and souvenir stores, spreading like a fungus, particularly in the area of the Trevi fountain just across the Via Del Corso, Rome's noisy, busy and crowded high street.
I remember as a student half a century ago in "Dolce Vita" Rome, seeing with astonishment a flock of sheep being driven through the city centre by their shepherd along the then semi-deserted Corso early one Sunday morning.
Today the Corso with its narrow sidewalks can be dangerous for pedestrians venturing to cross the road and the other Saturday afternoon it was the scene of a knife fight between rival gangs of youths.

By coincidence, I too moved from central Rome to Trevignano Romano, similarly tired by the traffic fumes, the noise, the heat in summer and cold in winter, and, again by coincidence, one of my first acquaintances was an ageing shepherd who recounted driving a flock of sheep along the Lungotevere near Castel Sant'Angelo in his youth (and a bloody encounter with a truck at the time). 

Since then I have returned to the heart of the city many times, and, fortunate to have friends there, I feel as at home there as I do in London.  Yes, there have been many changes, and some wonderful places have been opened up (such as the Scuderie del Quirinale, https://english.scuderiequirinale.it/categorie/categoria-17) while others have been closed (per restauro....) but the underlying history, architecture and art remains.  I still think that Georgina Masson (aka Babs Johnson)'s Companion Guide to Rome is the best introduction, though there are plenty more up-to-date and comprehensive books these days, including my friend and ex-colleague Bryn Jenkins's Roaming through Rome (ISBN 978-88-96889-39-8), but as I said then, and still believe, the most important things to take to Rome are a curious mind, a good pair of shoes, and a map.

If you look at a map of Rome, it is immediately apparent that old Rome is really pretty small.  Another thing you'll notice is that almost every street has something of interest - a church, a renaissance palace, a fountain or a museum of some kind.  What won't be so obvious is the ancient history, or the underlying geography.  The famous seven hills of Rome are now buried under two thousand five hundred years of various architecture, and rubble (literally buried - look down into the Largo Argentina, for example, to see the difference in street level between then and now).  In the north-east rise Monte Quirinale and Monte Viminale; Monte Esquilino and Monte Celio are to the east; Monte Avellino occupies the south and south-west, the Palatino the south-centre and the Capitolino sits at the heart, near the river, the once vital Tiber.  At the height of her power the Republican walls and ditches surrounded this tightly defensible area, from the modern Terminus station to the Tiber island.  Later developments pushed the defences out to the Aurelian walls and in some cases beyond.  Now the ring road, the raccordo anulare, is barely the limit.

Apart from the classical seven hills, Monte Gianicolo, above Trastevere, is worth ascending; it offers a fine viewpoints from which to see the city in the evening light, with, if you are lucky, the towering walls of the Monti Prenestini and the Apennines surprisingly close.  Monte Pincio is also a popular spot for a passeggiata in the dusk, and from here you may see the sun set behind the dome of St Peter's.  There is also a glorious night view from the Zodiac Bar (http://www.zodiacoroma.it/public/IT/); 139 metres above sea level on Monte Mario, and serving cocktails with one of the best views in the world since 1956.

One has only to see Vittorio de Sica's Bicycle Thieves to see how transport in Rome has changed in a lifetime.  But with trams, metros, buses and taxis public transport is good, despite the almost continuous rush hour from seven am until late at night.  I really would not wish to ride a push-bike around this town, but walking, for the most part, is fine.

The foremost sights/sites in Rome are still the Vatican and the Roman Forum.  Both are open every day from 8.30am, but booking is advisable, especially for the Vatican (http://www.tickitaly.com/tickets/rome-ticket-booking.php).  The Forum is the best place in which to start, and to acclimatise.  Take a picnic and immerse yourself in the tranquillity of the Palatine ruins.  Wander amongst the broken walls and pillars, breathing the piny air.  Explore the crypto-portici of Nero under the Orti Farnesina, and then look down from the Domus Augustana to the vast race-track of the Circo Massimo.  This is a visit that should not be hurried, for here you need to adjust your imagination, to absorb some of the atmosphere of history.  This was once the centre of the world:  Wall Street, the Kremlin, Westminster and all the rest rolled into one.  Tiberius lived here; Claudius died here, painfully poisoned by a plate of mushrooms.  Romulus, so they say, is buried here.

When you are satisfied, however, there's one more thing to do on your first day.  Stroll down through the Arch of Titus and make your way to the top row of seats in the Colosseum, otherwise known as the Flavian Amphitheatre.  This must be one of the, if not the, most famous building in the world, and despite earthquakes, material despoliation, overgrowth and restoration, it is still a place to take your breath away.  Just the thought of one lion pulling at the limbs of one Christian, or the harsh fragment of time, suspended in the intake of thirty thousand breaths, as a consul turned his thumb down to the upturned appeal of a wounded gladiator, is enough to make my head spin.

After that, if you have the energy, wander back along the Via dei Fori Imperiali, at first on the left-hand side, where you will see a series of maps, portraying the spread of the Roman Empire, then cross over and walk along the Forum of Augustus.  Look up at the beautiful medieval additions to the Roman walls, and see the Casa dei Cavalieri di Rodi (House of the Knights of Rhodes) with its wonderful loggia, and then pass on to admire the architecture of Apollodorus of Damascus in the Mercati di Traiano (Trajan's Market, http://www.mercatiditraiano.it/).  This massive hemi-cycle, of brick with marble lintels and doorposts, does more than any other building, in my opinion, to bring the Roman past to life, for these boutiques and stores and shopping arcades are just temporarily disused, and given a few neon signs and some baskets of fruit and veg, you would not think it was two thousand years old.

St Peter's Square, the Basilica and the Vatican museums with, if time, Castel Sant'Angelo (the Mausoleum of Hadrian) make up another series of visits that cannot be missed.  If your first day in Rome was spent in the Forum, then I recommend your second is spent around the Vatican.

As Castel Sant'Angelo closes at two every day, it is worth starting here, and working upwards towards the heights of the Dome of S Pietro.  Castel S Angelo has two particular associations for me.  One is the gripping escape story of Benvenuto Cellini as he tells it in his autobiography.  He was imprisoned here in 1538 after upsetting Pope Clemente VII, and with craft and patience he took out the nails from his cell door, replacing them with dust and spittle, until he was ready to make an escape.  He then clambered down knotted strips of sheet in the darkness and jumped to freedom.  He miscalculated the drop, however, and broke his leg, but still managed to crawl to the shelter of a friend's house and survive.

The other association is that of Floria Tosca, who at the end of Puccini's opera flings herself to her death from the battlements after her lover, the artist Mario Cavaradossi, has been shot  at dawn by firing a squad, who were supposed to use blank cartridges.  It is a moment of the highest drama; a shocking climax - or at least so should it be.  On one infamous occasion, however, a slightly overweight heroine hurled herself to her fate onto a rather springy trampoline, and consequently continued to reappear above the parapet to the amazement of the audience, until the final curtain covered her embarrassment.

In Piazza Pia, resist the temptation to enter San Pietro yet, but turn right into Borgo S Angelo and follow the covered corridor that enabled frightened popes to scuttle to safety.  Follow the fortress walls of the Vatican along Via di Porta Angelica and around the entrance to the Vatican Museums (http://mv.vatican.va/3_EN/pages/MV_Home.html).  Once you are in there are miles to walk, and thousands of exhibits, but do not miss the so-called Torso del Belvedere in the Sala delle Muse (Museo Pio-Clementino), the writhing Laocoon just off the Cortile Ottagono, the Stanze di Raffaello and the Sistine Chapel, which is stunning, despite the hushed awe of crowds, listening spell-bound to their whispering guides through headphones.  You will suffer from a residual polyglot hum in the head, punctuated by occasional instructions from ushers, reminding people of the need for silence, but your eyes will feast.

Once you have been through this mill, if you have the strength, climb the 537 steps to the top of the cupola of St Peter's.  If you are less energetic, the lift to the terrace is easier, and from here you can admire the arms of Bernini's colonnade reaching out to embrace the faithful.  Fountains splash and the central obelisk takes you back to the beginning of history.  It was brought from Heliopolis by Caligula in 37AD and stood on Nero's circus until Sixtus V had it moved in 1586.  For the record it took nine hundred men, forty-four capstans, one hundred and forty horses and five months to shift it, and if some quick-witted worker had not thrown water on the ropes at the last moment (to shrink them tighter to stop it toppling - all had been ordered to keep silent) they would have dropped it.....  At the top, inside the bronze emblem (of the Chigi family) is a relic of the holy cross.

There was a time when it was, or seemed to be, cheaper to eat a meal out in a trattoria than to shop and cook at home, and so, when a newcomer, my habit was to go out to dine pretty much every evening with friends.  In this respect, Rome has changed considerably, however, and it can no longer be said that it is cheap to eat out.  OK, but it is still good, and though almost all the traditional places have changed beyond recognition, and there is no shortage of choice in finding places to eat.  One of my favourite places, in Piazza dé Ricci, across the street from the Venerable English College and only a few steps from Piazza Farnese,  was the Ristorante Pierluigi (http://www.pierluigi.it/).  Founded in 1938, and for a long time a relatively simple place, specialising in fish, but with paper table covers, rough bread and straw-coloured wine from Marino in flasks, it is now run in sophisticated manner by Roberto Lisi, and, though it is quite expensive, the quality is first rate and the risotto alla crema di scampi is still to die for.  If you are only in Rome for a few days, and have had a hard day walking round the Vatican (and providing it is not a Monday), treat yourself......

Francis Bacon - Study for Velásquez Pope II

da Pierluigi

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