“I fairly egged him on, as far as my powers in Italian permitted, so keen was I to see with my novelist’s curiosity how far he would go. The tenant had to be an American, he said. I was a Scot, I informed him, and I doubted that he would find an American to pour capital into his property with a tenure of only one year. He replied that the apartment was in a famous 15th-century building in which many famous lords had lived, which was true enough. So he went on, while I looked out the window, watching the baroque fountain playing in the fine October light of Rome. The theatrical figure representing the Nile, his great hand held up as if to ward off some falling masonry, seemed apt to my situation. ”Speak to me,” Michelangelo is said to have challenged his Roman statue of Moses; and indeed, the sculptures of Rome do speak.”
-Muriel Spark, The New York Times
It’s a drowsy Sunday morning. We start off leisurely, picking up hefty sandwiches from a bakery and four bus tickets from a tabacchi, with the aim of seeing the Appian Way on the one day of the week it is closed to traffic. The 118 bus takes so long that I start to worry it isn’t running, but eventually it picks us up. We pass the Pyramid of Caius Cestius, an Augustan-era tomb, on our way. This would have been in the open countryside when it was built, and the miracle of its survival is chiefly down to its being incorporated into Aurelian’s city walls in the C3rd. Why a pyramid? With the obelisks making their way to Rome, and the fall of Anthony and Cleopatra, all things Egyptian were the fashion. One story I read, which must be too good to be true, was that Caius Cestius chose this shape because his wife told him that her greatest wish was to dance on his grave.
After the Baths of Caracalla, which are staging a concert, there is a lengthy diversion before we stop at San Sebastiano church, descend from the bus and walk away from Rome on that great ancient road, here since 312BC, which took the troops of the Republic all the way to the Puglian port of Brindisi. We find little rural bars and garden restaurants about the place, and the roadside slopes are dotted with cypresses and umbrella pines. The sun is shining and a proficient busker is playing ‘Summertime’ on jazz guitar. It’s one of those golden moments when everything feels just right and all is well with the world. There are a couple of monuments from ancient times; the rotunda mausoleum of Cecilia Metella, and the villa of Maxentius. The round shape reminds me of the tomb of Theodoric in Ravenna (and, I suppose, of Hadrian). The woman in question was the daughter-in-law of Crassus, the super-rich third man in Caesar and Pompey’s triumvirate, which explains why she got something big and fancy enough to have lasted two millennia. One of Crassus’ tricks is that he founded the first fire service. They would go round to the burning house, and only put out the fire if the owner agreed to sell to Crassus for a small fraction of its value.
The remains of Maxentius’ villa take up as much land as a village, and include what’s left of a large stadium. Maxentius controlled Italy for a time, and he was the foe whom Constantine faced at the battle of Ponte Milvio, just outside Rome (and which he later cited as his reason for conversion to Christianity, having had ‘Constantine’s Dream’ the night before). Both their fathers had been in Diocletian’s tetrarchy, when the Empire was split between four colleague emperors. Diocletian wanted to break with the tradition that the purple could be inherited by spoilt sons, and did not bring these two in when he retired, which made them rallying points for any rebels or malcontents. Maxentius found himself championed by the Roman Senate, whom Diocletian had done just as much to disinherit. Walking around the now peaceful grounds, you see how wealthy the man was and realise that the battle, and all that followed it, were by no means foregone conclusions.
After a coffee at one of the bars we press on up the Appian Way. It is lined with occasional chunks of Roman tombs and I wish we had Mary Beard with us to translate the scraps of text. Off the road are tiny farmhouses and very posh-looking country homes. The road seems to be used more by Italian cyclists and joggers than tourists, although the old C4th BC paving stones, which resemble the slabs of the Giant’s Causeway, don’t look very tyre-friendly. One of the guides I saw said that the tomb of Seneca was somewhere along the road, but I suspect this may be erroneous information.
After a wide road cuts through the Appian Way, we stop to eat our packed lunch outside the grounds of a hotel where a wedding band are playing in the garden. It’s easier to visualise the ancient world out here than it is on the Forum; everything looks much as it would have done when Cicero was staying at his villa, or Cinncinnatus tending to his fields.
We walk back, stopping to see the relics and shrine in San Sebastiano church, then visit the Catacombs of San Callisto. It is a pretty slick operation; ticket-holders are split into five groups based on language. The Anglophone guide is a jolly old Filipino man who is very nice to the Americans and has something to say about every American state, however obscure (I get a blank stare when I tell him I’m from Northern Ireland). He tells us that the word ‘cemetery’ came from ‘cemeterium’, the Latin word for ‘dormitory’, because the early Christians fully expected to rise again in the near future. The pagans opted for ‘Necropolis’- city of the dead. We get a quick tour through the periods of persecution, including the parties where Nero’s gardens were lit by screaming Christians being burnt alive. Early Popes and martyr saints were buried here, but all lost when armies of Ostrogoths and Lombards rifled through the tombs, and smashed them apart in anger when there was no treasure. We then descend into the tombs (no photos allowed).
The soil is soft tuff rock, as in the wells beneath Orvieto, and most tombs are simple rectangular shapes (the semi-circular ones denote wealth). It is evident that people used to be significantly smaller and skinnier. Some scraps of fresco remain, with the Last Supper and loaves/fishes recurring motifs. The tour is not too long, but includes a cavern called the ‘Little Vatican’, where Pope Sixtus II was beheaded by Valerian’s soldiers who broke into the catacombs during mass. The last chamber on the tour contains some disintegrated human bones, which look like charcoal after a barbeque. All of this has always been very popular with Christians, I’m sure. As ISIS want to recreate the C7th, the early church no doubt seems more authentic and closer to Christ (and being further from us, easier to idealise). On our way out we stop at Quo Vadis? church, built on the spot where Jesus appeared to St Peter as he fled Nero -carrying the cross, and answering that he was going to Rome to be crucified again; Peter took the hint- then face another long wait for the 118 (which is so cramped we can’t validate our tickets). We walk back to Trastevere and try the highly-rated Fior de Luna gelateria, which does not disappoint; flavours include ginger, pumpkin and persimmon.
On day six, after crossing the river and scoffing a quick café breakfast we dive into the Capitoline museums on Piazza Campidoglio. The itinerary starts in the courtyard, with the famous fragments from a colossal statue of Constantine (a served head, hand and foot).
We decide to go straight the top floor for the paintings, which are mostly too late to be my thing. There are some great friezes and the like from Ancient Rome on the stairs and landings, however.
Caravaggio and Pietro da Cortona dominate the paintings, as does Guido Reni.
The last two rooms are my favourite, with good stuff from the Este court of Ferrara and some very early Tuscan paintings (large numbers of which remain unattributed).
The next floor down contains a vast, light and airy exhibition space for the original equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius that used to sit on the piazza outside, now replaced by the replica. It’s fascinating to look into the face of the last of the ‘five good emperors’, the author of the Meditations, and then to see his egregious son Commodus, who many experts from Gibbon onwards have fingered as the worst emperor ever, dressed up as Hercules. His fuck-ups are too many to mention but one of the most infamous is that he became an emperor/gladiator, which was something like the Queen or the Pope becoming a stripper, and all the senators were forced to spend all day in the Coliseum watching him slay men and animals that had been maimed beforehand to ensure an unfair fight.
There are statues and varied bits and bobs from the villa gardens of ancient Rome, including those of Caligula and Maecenas, and exhibitions about the pre-historic origins of Rome.
Following these is a succession of grand, stately rooms with frescoes depicting legends from the age of the seven kings and the early Roman republic (the Sabine women, Numa, and the Horatii). We see world-famous sculptures such as the she-wolf suckling the twins, and the boy with a thorn in his foot.
A fascinating feature is the Fasti of Rome, recovered from the Forum; a great big list of the city magistrates that run from 483BC to the end of Augustus’ reign. I can’t really ‘read’ them but they must have been invaluable to the historians who had to reassemble the story of this civilisation.
The museum café is reasonably priced, so we have prosecco and salmon baguettes for lunch before delving into the basement. As on the Appian Way, there are many funeral slabs; but thrillingly, these come with translations, and leap into life. Ordinary folk from 2,000 years ago are speaking to us directly.
There is also a balcony with spectacular views of the Forum and Palatine.
At the end of the basement a staircase leads up into the palazzo on the other side of Piazza Campidoglio, which contains the other half of the museum, and which cannot be entered through the piazza itself. It is quieter over here, and I wonder how many people leave the museum without realising they have missed half of it. The courtyard features a huge reclining river god (who became the talking statue ‘Marforio’ when the Pope’s posted guards on Pasquino), and the hall next to it has Egyptian artefacts from the old temple to Minerva/Isis.
Upstairs are a few more grand rooms with the cream of Roman sculpture. A miniature Pantheon houses the Capitoline Venus, and there are halls with busts of the great Greek philopsophers/dramatists and the Roman emperors. It’s always fun to look the emperors in the eye and decide what you make of each of them; who is vain, who is cruel, who is cunning, who is self-aware. The Dying Gaul, who sits Christ-like with his bleeding wounds, is particularly impressive.
We cross the forums and markets of antiquity and walk into the Monti district; it was a toss-up whether we were going to stay in an apartment here or Trastevere. It’s all very pretty streets and alleyways and has the feel of a Roman Hackney. We have a couple of drinks in Ai Tre Scalini, where we are served by cool tattooed staff playing old soul records.
The most famous church in Monti is San Pietro in Vincoli, built to house St Peter’s chains from Jerusalem but rebuilt by Pope Julius II.
There is a famous Michelangelo statue of an indignant Moses at the moment he catches his people worshipping the golden calf, originally intended to be one of a group of 47. Moses has horns, which comes from a mistranslated play of words.
There’s also a C7th mosaic of St Sebastian, and a ceiling fresco shows a Pope using the chains to heal a woman’s neck goitre.
We walk through the Park of Trajan, which I think I recognise from Fellini’s Roma, to get to San Martino in Monti and its Mannerist paintings, which at this point of extreme fatigue were probably not worth the walk I’m afraid. There is a C3rd Roman house in the crypt, which is closed for restoration.
Next morning, the cigarette lighter has run out of fluid so we have to get out of bed without the compulsory espresso, for which we turn to Checco er Carettiere. We pick up sandwiches from Renella and Sicilian cannoli from the famous old Trastevere chocolatiers, Valzani. I know they’re going to be good when the lady fills the cones to order and tops them with slices of candied orange and cherry.
Staying on the Trastevere side of the river, we walk up the Gianicolo hill and into the park, past the with-bells-on fountain built by Pope Paul V that features in the opening of Sorrentino’s La Grande Bellezza, as well as a modernist war memorial relating to the newly-unified nation’s taking of the Papal States.
On the way, we stop at San Pietro in Montorio, built on the spot where St Peter was reported to have been beheaded. The church is just closing for its lunchtime siesta, but an adjoining Spanish college institution allows visitors to come through and access the courtyard, which contains a small building probably more famous than the church; Bramante’s Tempietto. Built in 1502, some say this is the first building of the Renaissance, and it got Bramante the very prestigious gig of working on the new St Peter’s. Rounded like a pagan temple, it looks like something from those Renaissance Ideal City paintings actually made real. A small crypt can be viewed at the back, with a grille between it and the temple.
On the summit of the Gianicolo itself there is a wonderful view of the city -and less crowded than most viewpoints across the Tiber- where you can see across to the Spanish Steps, the many church domes of the city and the rounded, flying-saucer structure of the Pantheon. The white Brescian marble of the Wedding Cake, as many before me have pointed out, clashes with everything around it.
After lunch at the flat we buy some more bus tickets, and catch the #63 from Via Arenula to the Barberini area just as the churches reopen. We visit the ossuary of the Capuchins on Via Veneto, on the site of their old monastery. You are sent around an exceedingly dull museum on the history of the Capuchin order that features hagiographies of all their top boys (Padre Pio, plus lots of priests you have never heard of before and never will again) before you get into the ossuary. This is a narrow corridor that faces onto five small chapels, with staff sitting at either end and patrolling up and down, and watching like hawks for surreptitious photography- so none from me.
The chapels are all built from human bones, along with a few corpses that have mummified. Skeletons wear Capuchin habits and are posed against mountains of leg bones, pelvises or skulls, with chunks of verterbrae arranged into pseduo-floral patterns. Bones are arranged to form clockfaces with numerals, foliage, or ornate coats-of-arms. This is not unusual in Catholic ‘what you are now we once were, what we are now you will be’ attempts to focus the mind, but it is very rare for someone to grab the idea and run this far with it. The ossuaries of Czechia and Poland were inspired by this place and the Marquis de Sade called it ‘the most striking place I have ever seen’. The level of decoration is quite Rococo, and all of it made from human remains. What does it tell us? However much we prefer not think on it, we will die, and we are all essentially the same underneath our skins. The church is not as striking, with paintings by C17th figures like Guido Reni and Domenichino. The son of the great Polish king John Sobieski is buried inside.
We make the short walk to Santa Maria della Vittoria next, Vittoria being one of the martyrs in the persecutions of Decius who is depicted in the line of virgins at Ravenna’s Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo (her bones rest here). It was built as a celebration of sorts, after Protestantism was crushed in Bohemia and the Ottoman armies were repulsed from the gates of Vienna. Domenichino found one of those popular ‘sleeping hermaphrodite’ sculptures in the foundations (now in the Louvre) and it paid for the building of the church. There is an astonishing quantity of marble, all streaked and all in different colours; black, white, red, yellow, green. Thin layers of marble coat everything, even the doors. It is very theatrical.
One of the side chapels contains the object which has made the church famous, Bernini’s sculpture of the ecstasy of St. Teresa of Avila. It depicts the moment of her spiritual marriage to Christ, with a dart driven by a cherubic angel piercing her heart. It is hot-blooded and overt, and given a staging of epic proportions, with golden rays behind her and underneath a stained glass cupola. In boxes to the side, there are even watching Cardinals who practically nudge one another and snigger. What a flamboyant auteur he was.
Further down the road is the church that was Borromini’s first big job, San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane (which sits on a busy, narrow crossroads with a grand fountain squeezed into each corner). Given a tiny space in which to place a church, Borromini went concave; everything is oval, undulating, and in a crisp celestial white. 16 columns frame a nave said to be the size of one of the big columns in St Peter’s. We notice tiny golden doors, four openings on each side of the oval, and a tall dome with geometric ovals and crosses within. It is serene, accomplished and celestial.
The impatient janitor clears us out, and we get talking to an Australian visitor to urges us to carry own down the street and see Bernini’s Sant’Andrea al Quirinale. It is larger, but again given an oddly-shaped space to work with Bernini creates a wide and shallow oval for his church, with huge chapels in the wings and opera boxes in the upper gallery. There’s more bling, with lots of coloured marble and floor mosaics. A Pantheon-like oculus hangs above an altar surrounded by group sculptures.
From the Quirinale we descend to the Trevi fountain area, and have ice cream from San Crispino; highly-rated artisans from Alto Adige. It’s the classy kind of gelateria which keeps the flavours in metal tubs with lids and we enjoy meringue, plum, cinnamon and apricot. From here we walk to Triton, and catch the #63 back to the river.
In the evening, we try another Trastevere trattoria, Da Augusto. This one comes recommended too, so we arrive at 7:50, ten minutes before the doors open. People are already sitting at their outdoor tables and an informal queue of sorts is gathering around the door. Anyone who tries opening the door before 8pm is loudly rebuked. When we get in, we find just the unpretentious Roman experience that you hope for; the tablecloth is absorbant chip shop paper, and the menu is a very faded photocopy in a plastic wallet. When we come to ask for the final bill, they write out what you have eaten on the tablecloth and count it manually. The menu is short, and half the dishes are only offered one night per week.
Two or three stately, assured middle-aged ladies wait all the tables and an older lady in the kitchen seems to do all the cooking, working frenetically over huge vats of ragu. We start with two plates of rigatoni, with cacio e pepe and sugo di carne. The cacio e pepe has a small pool of water at the bottom, and you mix the ingredients yourself. Our seconds are braised veal and chicken alla romana, with puntarelle and potatoes. Their puntarelle are far less manicured than the ones we’ve had elsewhere, raw rather than braised. The potatoes are done in a fatty oil with lots of rosemary. The meats have been slow-cooked and fall apart when your fork touches them. Altogether, the final bill is a splendidly low €46. We retreat to Da Biagio for more red wine before bed.