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

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