When in Rome...

When in Rome...
Stunning frescoes adorn the walls and ceilings of the Vatican Museums,

A magical and flamboyant city, where centuries of layered existence are visible at every turn

Chitra Padmanabhan
March 21 , 2014
13 Min Read

Our hosts, bless their hearts, had warned us of the trauma a Roman holiday could induce. Since Rome wasn’t built in a day, not even in four days, which was all the time we had in the Italian capital, why try and telescope centuries of sights and ways of being into undeserved travail — for us as well as for Roma?

Our itinerary anxiety subsided that very instant. The two Indians who alighted at the Leonardo da Vinci airport were intrepid wayfarers possessing an iron will to leapfrog centuries of stone and marble at times in favour of the tactile experience.


Like the first glimpse of what seemed like green clouds tangled in trees, the evocatively named umbrella pines with flat tops so typical of the Italian coast; churches big and small like a running motif on an intricate tapestry; contemporary buildings beside crumbling walls hinting at centuries of layered existence, just like in Delhi and a distinct crispness in the air. Something about the quality of light playing on trees and old monuments etched them luminously against the skyline while opening up space. It seemed at home with the idea of an architecture of vastness — of spectacle. Home was in the southeastern neighbourhood of Viale Giotto with leafy avenues and picturesque ruins.

It felt good to be in Rome, high octave city, anchored in an ancient past, revived by the plenitude of the Renaissance, and reputedly humming with the modern-day mantra of style and exuberant chaos. Friends described the city as a giant Fellini set, which could encompass two millennia and yet live flamboyantly in the moment.

That is what we wanted to experience.

A few hours into Rome we stood at the Piazza del Popolo (People’s Square), a vast oval ‘square’ in the bustling city centre, which challenged our visual span. More than 500 years ago, this northern entrance provided visitors their first sight of Rome.

We had stepped into the whorl of time. At the centre, a 3,000-year-old Pharaoh’s obelisk snaked to the sky. Brought to Rome by Emperor Augustus as a triumphal symbol of his conquest of Egypt in 10BC, it was installed here as part of a pope’s 16th century temporal plan. Memories of imperial ambitions die hard.

Beyond the obelisk, two significant 17th-century churches, solemn and sentinel-like, exemplified the church’s hold on the Italian psyche. A ramped up hill with a fantastic view and cafés completed the feel of a panoramic period set, as did the nugget that the piazza had seen public executions till the 19th century.

In this river of time and signs, the present surfaced forcefully. Style was second skin: men with a penchant for well fitting suits; women who demonstrated that being décolleté and dramatic was a way of life, for they considered themselves works of art. Some faces had aquiline noses usually found on ancient coins. But the frisson of movements was unmistakably of our times, as was the intimate entwining of lovers oblivious to the world.

Beyond was a piazza thronged by tourists as well as locals, especially the young: the Hitchcockian sounding Spanish Steps, its two giant, curved staircases leading up to a noted church. Flanked by buzzing market streets promising haute heaven and aromas to melt insides, the piazza was a crush of uninhibited spirits. It was easy to imagine how piazzas had evolved around intersections of buildings, bylanes, churches and market streets to become the passionate heart of Italian life. Not always as bonhomie; as a spectacle of protest too: our hostess described an artist’s 2008 ‘art attack’ of flooding the Spanish Steps with 500,000 multi-coloured plastic balls in support of an endangered Burmese tribe.

The piazza showed more ways to reach Rome’s heart, the ‘when in Rome’ kind. Cappuccino was a no-no beyond breakfast; life was all about espresso shots after a lunch that, preferably, ought to go on forever. It did too, right down to espresso at St Eustachio’s near the Pantheon. Rome is a good teacher; we learnt fast to be slow without fretting about ‘losing’ time. Coffee was a rite of passage, gelato a proud Roman obsession. Apart from sunny streetside cafés and motorcycles, that is.

Magically, as we slowed down so did time unfurl languorously for the rest of our sojourn. Vignettes of everyday life surfaced: in the Fontana di Trevi area, a message under a Madonna image, as if from her, beseeched passersby to refrain from throwing garbage; an official 350-year-old plaque on Via Monserrato forbade littering. A bar in Via dei Giubbonari (jacket makers’ lane in medieval times) stocked beer bottles with images of Il Duce, Hitler and Che alongside. From fountains big and small arose not dainty feminine sprites but muscular, male, nude figures exemplifying the ‘Renaissance man’.

The days became equally about how sunlight burnished streets paved with St Peter’s stones as they are called, warmed salmon walls and sculpted leaf, earth and monument in a vast continuum. The alchemy of light held us spellbound at the glorious Pantheon, which had been conceptualised as a sundial. A huge, nine-metre oculus or opening at the dome’s centre is its only source of light; in rhythm with the sun’s movement, streaming light sculpts anew the interior while marking the passage of hours. To ancient Romans it signified an architecture of belief, a ‘coming together of heaven and earth’; we exulted in a language of space communicating a no less magical, organic, open-to-sky principle.

As we stood under the oculus in the hall, the sun made way for clouds. A sheer curtain of pearly raindrops descended on us to pious exclamations from a devout Malayali Christian group.

We were at the site of a classic tussle of historical versus cyclical time: standing in a church that had originally been a ‘pagan’ temple; moreover, a structure stripped of material for centuries and now doomed to a claustrophobic skyline. Yet, sunlight showers continue to show us the shimmering ecology of structure.

The idea of spectacle born of monumental structures never dies out in Rome. You just look elsewhere, say, at the colossal scale of St Peter’s Church and Square and the consummate performative aspect underlying it. The lofty oval colonnades ringing the piazza were described to us as the metaphorical arms of the Church extended to embrace humanity. They seemed perfectly designed to make people feel part of an intense collectivity. Architecturally, the square and the church communicated the power of institutionalised religion; we glimpsed the delicate contours of belief in the artist’s craft inside, in the tenderness of Michelangelo’s Pietà, under his touch the marble becoming tactile flesh.

Fittingly, the work which overwhelmed us at the Vatican Museums, apart from the Sistine Chapel, was the force and dynamism of Athenian sculptor Apollonius’ male nude, which is said to have influenced Michelangelo’s style.

From the museum to the street, Rome revealed itself unaffectedly, if you but had the eyes. Near home, the flow of history surfaced in a roadside tap. The constant flow of cold, mountain spring water channelled through aqueducts bespoke an ancient lineage — faucets had been squirting cool water into large basins in the time of Julius Caesar.

As we tuned into the flow of ancient history surrounding our neighbourhood, we traced Rome’s enduring passion for monumental spectacles to a grid of empire rarely seen thereafter — the consummate creation of spectacle and diversion as statecraft. A universe of entertainments like gladiatorial games, chariot races and plays, an army of indulgences to pamper bodily needs, all showcased in epic architectural forms that became synonymous with the heights of empire. The Colosseum, Circus Maximus, Theatre of Marcellus and the Great Baths of Caracalla were all inspiring edifices of excess supported by good plumbing, masonry and concrete that the Romans were the first to use.

Flanked by a sports track, the lofty red-brick ruins of the Baths of Emperor Caracalla appeared like prehistoric creatures arching their necks. At a time they could pamper 1,600 citizens in aesthetic and marbled luxury: in baths, gyms, eateries, libraries, gardens and brothels.

The vast desolate meadow next to our train station, where the odd youngster emulated Italian league soccer stars, once thundered with two-wheeled chariot races on a 600m track known as Circus Maximus. About 1,500 years ago, its stands packed in 250,000 spectators, one-fourth of the population then.

The 1,900-year-old Colosseum, synonymous with spectacle, bloodsport and Rome, was something else. Under a gloomy sky, the ‘monarch of ruins’ seemed cloaked in deep isolation, as if the exploits inside the amphitheatre had forever placed it apart. Or was it chagrin that the empire’s showpiece which had treated crowds to choreographies of gore on an unparalleled scale had been reduced to a quarry for material by later generations?

Up close, the ruins receded in significance to reveal the immensity and poetic perfection of the elliptical façade; the filigree of tiered arches or fornices (where the world’s oldest profession was practiced, thus the word fornication). However, inside, as the precision of labyrinthine underground tunnels, cages and trap doors became evident from the ruins, the instinct was to surface for air. Only to find a soaked Roman soldier (an actor in regalia) tucking into a sandwich next to us at the metro station, while a Sardarji hawked Colosseum keyrings nearby!

The essence of Rome was continuity, even in rupture. Gazing at the quintessential Renaissance building, Palazzo Farnese, or St Peter’s, we pondered on the fact that they did not merely use material from the Colosseum, but also adopted the basic idea it embodied, of an architecture of spectacle.

Rome proved equally handy at showing the layers of time in a live installation built upon and around, seeming oddly light despite its solid structure. Once the imperial theatre of Marcellus built in Emperor Augustus’ reign (10 BC), it morphed into a private medieval fortress and is now an apartment complex. We squinted up to find a young girl in pigtails staring at us from her window, framed by ancient columns. That’s Rome for you, Eternal City.

The information

Getting there: The cheapest fare we could find between Delhi and Rome was Rs 33,000 return (all-inclusive) on Aeroflot.

Where to stay: The Eternal City offers a range of accommodation to suit every pocket and persuasion. The St Regis Grand is, well, the grandest hotel in Rome (from E347; http://stregisgrand.hotelinroma.com). 

The Hotel Eden (from E313; www.hotel-eden.it), near the Spanish Steps, is also luxurious and well appointed. The four-star Hotel Ponte Sisto (from E200; www.hotelpontesisto.it) is popular with families. 

The Inn at the Spanish Steps (from E200; www.atspanishsteps.com) was once the Roman residence of Hans Christian Andersen and is now an upscale inn. Within walking distance of the Stazione Termini, Rome’s central train station, is the more moderately priced Hotel Columbia (from E160; www.hotelcolumbia.com). 

La Residenza (from E110; www.hotel-la-residenza.com) is also good value for money. Stylish and contemporary, The Beehive (E25 for a dorm bed, E80 for a double; www.the-beehive.com) is a refreshing alternative to Rome’s usual budget hotels and hostels. 

Set in a quiet, residential area, the Hotel delle Muse (from E65; www.hoteldellemuse.com) is another nice budget option.

What to see: Rome wasn’t built in a day, and you’ll actually need years to take in all its sights. 

Ancient Rome: The Colosseum, centre of ancient Roman entertainment, is Rome’s most popular tourist sight. The Roman Forum is the central area around which ancient Rome developed. The Pantheon, one of Rome’s most impressive buildings, was a temple to ‘all the gods’, hence the name. Other important sights: Circus Maximus (Circo Massimo), Theatre of Marcellus, Great Baths of Caracalla and, in the suburbs, the catacombs.

Great Squares (Piazze): Rome’s squares are one its biggest draws, and great for shooting the breeze and people-watching. The Piazza del Campidoglio (on the Capitol Hill) is the HQ of the Italian government. ; At the very heart of the city is the Piazza Venezia. Piazza Navona displays the triumph of Baroque architecture while the Piazza di Spagna, with its famous Spanish steps, dates from the 18th century. At the centre of the Piazza del Popolo (People’s Square) stands a startling obelisk from Heliopolis, Egypt.

Vatican City: This sovereign papal state holds many treasures: St Peter’s Basilica and Square, the Vatican Museums (housed in palaces built for Renaissance popes), Michelangelo’s restored Sistine Chapel and the Vatican Gardens.

Fountains: Impressive fountains include the Fontana di Trevi and the Fountain of Four Rivers, the latter designed by Bernini and commanding the Piazza Navona.

Museums: Yes, Rome is a massive open-air museum, but it has several notable museums as well, like the Capitoline Museum, the Palatine Museums and the offbeat National Museum of Pasta.

Top Tip: Rome from the Sky

Built in the early 20th century, the Vittorio Emanuele II Monument is unanimously acknowledged as Rome’s ugliest building. Yet, rise to the newly opened terrace atop the monument and you will be rewarded with one of the finest views in all of Rome. The terrace is approached via a glass-sided elevator, which is at the rear of the building.

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