The bunch of us – Dan, Charlie, Mark, Jim, Laura, and Elizabeth – in Piazza Navona
Traveling can be full of surprises, one of the reasons I love to travel. Even traveling to places you’ve been lots of times before.
I wasn’t too keen on coming back to Rome, particularly in August. Been there several times, too hot, too many tourists. A lot of old rocks. But how could Dan & Laura come to Italy and not show Elizabeth and Charlie Rome? So from Venice we hopped on a high-speed train for a comfortable ride south. Or at least, it was comfortable for me. I had headphones on and was listening to music while a baby cried and cried in the back of our car. And then apparently some guy got up and started brow beating the mother about getting that kid to be quiet. According to Dan & Laura, who were sitting closer to them, the fight went on and on and on. And I missed the whole thing, blissfully enveloped in music.
Rome, the Eternal City, sometimes changes. This is the Via die Fori Imperiali, a major street that runs between ruins of the Roman Forum and the comparatively newer Imperial Forums. It used to be clogged with traffic but apparently now it’s car free. Not only makes it more pleasant but fundamentally changes your perspective on the two-thousand year old ruins on either side of you.
To my surprise, I loved Rome. Yes, it was unbearably hot, well up into the 90s every day. And yes, over the years – I first came to Rome in 1975 when I was stationed just a little south in Naples, and this was the fourth time Mark & I have been there in the last 20 years – I’ve seen the Roman Forum and the Colosseum and St. Peter’s too many times.
What I discovered, though, is that after you’re done with the regular tourist haunts there are amazing churches and museums that aren’t remotely crowded. I discovered I love Renaissance Rome perhaps even more than ancient Rome. You can just stumble into some church that you’ve never heard of before and find some Caravaggio or Raphael or Bernini or Filippo Lippi or something that just grabs you. Similarly, some of the lesser-visited museums are extraordinary. So despite myself, I loved Rome, though to be clear August is not ideal.
Last time we were in Rome the Trevi Fountain was blocked off and under renovation. Now it’s clean and all but new.
It’s worth noting that we did the usual stuff: we went to the Colosseum, the Roman Forum, St. Peter’s, the Trevi Fountain, and up to the Palatine Hill. Thanks to Laura & Dan’s planning efforts we had tickets to the Sistine Chapel and Vatican Museums. We even had a tour of the Vatican crypt, with St. Peter’s alleged burial site. As interesting as those things are, though, there are only so many times you need to see them. Yeah, definitely a First World problem. So what was it that I found this time that made Rome great?
There were two museums that were really great. The Capitoline Museum isn’t quite off the beaten trail; it’s a pretty standard “must see” destination. Still, it was not at all crowded and had lots of good stuff – great old statues; a beautiful painting gallery with all the Titians, Tintorettos, and Caravaggios you’d expect; a spectacular view of the Roman Forum. And it had one of the best audio guides I’ve ever used. Then there was the National Museum of Rome (Museo Nazionale Romano: Palazzo Massimo alle Terme), all but empty except for a great collection of statues and mosaics. Totally worth the sweat I worked up walking to it in that god-awful heat.
From the Capitoline Museum, Mark and I both loved this old statue of a drunken woman clinging to her wine bottle
The lesser-known churches were certainly some of my favorite stops. The Church of Santa Maria del Popolo, built on the spot where Emperor Nero was supposedly buried and where his ghost was still haunting Rome, with two Caravaggios and a Raphael chapel. The Church of San Luigi dei Francesi with three Caravaggios. The Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, with 13th century mosaics and a piece of the baby Jesus’s manger; the real one! The Church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, built on an old temple to the goddess Minerva, with a statue by Bernini outside, a little-known Michelangelo inside, and the (headless) body of St. Catherine of Siena under the alter; recall that we saw her head in Siena, so now we’ve got the whole picture covered. The Church of the Jesuits (Chiesa del Gesù), where Jesuit-founder Ignatius Loyola lived the last 12 years of his life and where he’s buried in an opulent tomb. The Basilica of St. Peter in Chains with its stunning Moses by Michelangelo and the very chains that held St. Peter in prison. The Basilica of St. Andrew della Valle, with a couple old pope tombs and just general awesomeness.
Caravaggio’s “Crucifixion of St. Peter”, hanging in the Basilica of Santa Maria del Popolo, is one of many great paintings strewn about churches in Rome
You get the idea. It seemed as though any church we went into just drew us in and gave us something to gawp at. And we’ve seen a lot of churches over the years!
So we loved Rome. Our hotel was a few rooms in a residential building right smack on Piazza Navona, perhaps the best location we’ve ever had in Rome. The hotel wasn’t perfect – on our first night we got stuck in a brutally hot and airless elevator for 40 minutes or so – but the location was ideal. Then there was the 50-minute wait at a store for a five-minute transaction to add time to our phone SIM cards. It was classically Italian in the confusion, the absence of any idea how long it would take, the staff taking repeated cigarette breaks while there were huge numbers of customers waiting.
A morning view of the Piazza Navona from our hotel room. In a few hours it would be packed with people but in the morning and evening it was beautiful
And then there was that perfect moment, when you saw Italians had learned a thing or two about tour groups. At Michelangelo’s statue of Moses, a dazzling work of art intended for the tomb of Pope Julius II, there was a sign that read in Italian, English, and French
It is forbidden to stop in front of the statue of Moses to give explanations to the groups.
We were so impressed; Rome really does change. Everyone should do that, we thought. Until Dan and Laura went there the next day … and said there was a tour guide standing right there with her group blocking everyone else’s view while she droned on and on about the statue. Damn, and they almost got it right.
From Rome we’re off to a week-long “vacation” in the Loire Valley. But first here are more of the reasons I fell in love with Rome all over again.
Yes, we made it to the Colosseum. Brutally hot. But I learned where the name came from. Near the entrance there had been a replica of the great Greek statue, the Colossus of Rhodes. Long after it had fallen into disuse, the site became known as the Colosseum in memory of the now long lost Colossus statue.
Laura & Elizabeth
Oh yeah, there was food in Rome, too
Michelangelo’s stunning Moses, where tour guides are not supposed to block your view
Michelangelo’s “Last Judgment” in the Sistine Chapel. For centuries art critics have been dazzled but Mark thought it was ugly. I think history is going to have to rethink Michelangelo’s genius.
A bigger view of the Sistine Chapel. Mark & I went there late in the day and by the time we got here it wasn’t quite as empty as this makes it look, but there weren’t many people in it.
The Vatican Museums have a whole bunch of Raphael, including this one showing the world’s great philosophers discussing stuff
A random Michelangelo – a very masculine Jesus – in the Church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva
The Museo Nazionale Romano: Palazzo Massimo alle Terme had an enormous and grand selection of statues, including this classic discus thrower
An athlete, another original Greek bronze from the Museo Nazionale Romano
Arguably the most ornate sarcophagus I’ve ever seen. Note that in the middle there is a face that’s unfinished. That was left to display the person who ultimately was going to buy and pay for it.
This is a small part of a fresco taken from the walls of the country home of Livia, Augustus’s wife. The fresco covered all four walls of the room.
And finally, one last piece from the National Museum of Rome. This ivory face has a room of its own in the museum and a great story, to boot. It was found in the 1990s in a barn in Italy. As officials investigated they discovered that it was being hidden there by a cabal of archeologists who sell to secret collectors in violation of all sorts of national laws. This particular group was busted, but apparently sales of this sort of stuff to secret collectors is quite a thing.
The body – minus the head – of St. Catherine of Siena, from the Church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva
A wooden Baby Jesus that’s supposed to be great at healing. Now, though, a replica, as the original was apparently stolen a few years ago. And there’s a little basket next to it where you can leave a message. There are even note cards available that start with “Dear Baby Jesus”. Isn’t that just precious?
A view of the Roman Forum
Part of Jesus’ manger!!
Statue of Giordano Bruno in the Campo de Fiori just south of the Piazza Navona. Every evening we’d meet here for a drink before dinner and admire his gloomy face. He was a most unusual Dominican Friar, since he didn’t believe in the Trinity, the virginity of Mary, the divinity of Christ, or transubstantiation. You know, so he was a heretic. Who was burned at the stake but is now considered a martyr to science. Cool guy.