Category Archives: Rome

Not so mean streets

We had a tour today with Context, a company that we have enjoyed for its knowledgeable, intellectually stimulating guides, and small groups.  Our first was a fabulous food tour of Paris, and to this day I am Facebook friends with one of the participants.   Since then we have visited the food stalls of Padua, met Rembrandt in Amsterdam and learned history in Venice, and enjoyed each one.  Today’s topic, “The Mean Streets of Caravaggio,” was led by Dr. Lauren Golden (left), laurenan excellent guide and a force of nature.  She was dressed in a long skirt, an elegant scarf and golden sneakers.  Besides being glamorous in an artsy way, she was incredibly knowledgeable and full of great stories.  She also had a remarkable ability to get us to SEE the pictures and tell each other what we were seeing.  

We met in the Piazza de Popolo, a large square with striking statuary at each end. piazza-del-popolo piazza-del-popolo-3In the middle was yet another Egyptian obelisk,

piazza-del-popolo-2moved here in 1589 from its original location in the Circus Maximus.  

There was just one other person joining us, Deborah from California who was small and smart and quiet. As the only Catholic in the group, she had secret inner knowledge about what we were seeing and was often told by Lauren not to answer the questions because of her advantage. 😉  

We started out at Santa Maria del Popolo, which features two stellar Caravaggios, The Crucifixion of St. Peter and Conversion on the Way to Damascus.


Lauren encouraged us to look at where the light came from, the muscularity of the figures, the angles of the composition, and not least the man’s behind brilliantly lit at bottom left.  Facing this incredible painting is this one: 800px-conversion_on_the_way_to_damascus-caravaggio_c-1600-1

Again, the light, the angularity, the muscles and not least the horse’s behind.  Is it just by chance that the behind is facing the third painting in this altar, The Assumption of the Virgin by his rival Carraci?  It is powerful in its own way but much sweeter and more pastel, everything Caravaggio hated, so perhaps he really was making a statement.  I wouldn’t put it past him.

The northern end of the piazza is anchored by one of the original gates into Rome, while the southern end  leads to the “trident,” three streets which angle out from here into Rome.  Rather than the ancient Via del Corso, we followed the Via di Ripetta, a street where Caravaggio lived and painted.  He was a difficult, violent, wildly talented man, easy to characterize as a bad boy but more complicated than that facile assessment.  I had read Graham-Dixon’s biography, so it was wonderful to see the building where Caravaggio had, according to his landlady, poked a hole in the ceiling to get more light.  Lauren spoke movingly of the few details we know from public records about him, including the number of books in his library that was left behind and sold after he was evicted – if only we could know just which books they were!

As we walked along Lauren pointed out the simple fountains that are found everywhere in Rome, along with the bigger and more famous ones.  To this day, Romans are proud of their clean water that is still transported into the city via aqueducts.  This everyday fountain is the kind called nasone, or big nose.  fountain

 Do you see that little hole at the top of the spout?  The trick is to put your finger on the spout, and the water will come straight up from the little hole, just perfect for bending down and drinking!  Otherwise, you can fill your bottles from the spout, and enjoy fresh, clean, free water.  (And notice the SPQR that is found on each fountain to this day.)

As we walked, we went by the Mausoleum of Augustus, side_of_mausoleum_of_augustus

and the Ara Pacis, or Altar of Augustan Peace, enclosed in a glass box, but we just strolled by these great momuments on our way to the next church.

Sant’Agostino was on the list because of this painting of the Madonna of Loreto.madonna-of-loretto

This is such a classic Caravaggo:  the elegant Madonna in the doorway of a broken-down building, her delicate features and velvet top contrasting with her bare feet and the dirty soles of the feet of the pilgrim.  Lauren made us really LOOK at the painting, again where the light comes from, the contrast among the figures, the lines.  Stimulating!

San Luigi dei Francesi, or the church of St. Louis of the French, was our last destination.  Our main interest was in the trio of St. Matthew paintings.  First is The Calling of St. Matthew, with this dramatic lighting and diagonal lines.  Lauren let us through an interesting discussion about who’s who in this painting.  Is Matthew the bearded man, or perhaps the boy slumped at the end of the table?  Theories differ.  calling-of-st-matthew

Lauren managed the churches really well, chastising those who used flash or were too noisy but never quite being obnoxious about it.  Along the way, she showed us where Caravaggio probably worked, railed against the Italians who are constantly on their mobiles (she’s right, even security people and guards are looking at them all the time) and envied us for our Malta trip and our Caravaggio views.  You know it’s a good tour when you are still talking about the ideas and opinions at dinner that evening!

After an afternoon rest (our MO on this trip), we walked up to the Trevi Fountain, which was TEEMING with people on this sunny Saturday afternoon.  We just gave in to the good-natured crowd, forced our way to the front and snapped away.  Here’s an idealized phototrevi-without-people

and here’s the reality.  trevi-with-peopleLots of selfies and selfie sticks, women throwing coins over their shoulders into the fountain, and generally the teeming masses enjoying themselves hugely.  Us, too.

Dinner was in the Campo again, fish again, delicious again.  Notice the little votive inside the


A relaxed, churchy kind of day

We had a leisurely start to the day, with no tours booked, so we took our time with coffee, news and breakfast.  Then we walked through the Campo to buy dinner for this evening – eggs, sausage, bread, arugula and a strange green called puntarelle that the nice vendor taught me how to cook  with garlic, oil, anchovies, salt, pepper and aceto (vinegar, pronounced ashetto, not achetto).puntarelle

There were lots of other delicious vegetables we could have bought,

but we tried to keep it simple because, by the end of the day, we have no energy for major cooking.

Today is a church day, because churches are where the art is.  We started with Bernini’s famous St. Teresa in Ecstasy in the high baroque church of Santa Maria della Vittoria.  The sculpture depicts the moment when the saint was pierced by the sword of an angel as she was overcome by the love of God.  Whew!  Tucked up in a chapel, it was not as visible as I had hoped but still filled with delicate tracery, a gold smile and throbbing joy.  st-theresaI can only imagine that the photo is a bit blurred because of the ecstasy.

The baroque ornamentation is just as gold and frou-frou as can be, as you can see from this view of the ceiling.della-vittoria

Dazzled but not tired, we walked on quite a way to the church of Santa Maria Maggiore.  The highlight here was seeing a few planks from Christ’s crib – just imagine!  cribYou can see the humble planks behind all the gilt.  It was right up there with the holy blood that we saw in Bruges.

Other highlights were Bernini’s tomb berninis-tomband more beautiful tile work.  Roman tiles really deserve their own post, but here’s a good one for now.  star-tilesAfter so much art and religion, we were ready for lunch.  We stopped at a cafe just across from the church and enjoyed watching the clericals go by – men in robes, women in habits, the real significance lost on me.  Oh, that Uncle Buzz had been with us to explain it all!  We enjoyed our delicous salads and for me a Campari soda, for Alison an Aperol spritz.  Refreshing for the weary art-lovers.

We had stopped earlier at a mosaic tile shop near our apartment, and the artist there told us that if we liked mosaics we should visit St. Maria in Trastevere.  We taxied over to the other side of the Tiber and enjoyed a very old church trastevere-churchwith beautiful gilt mosaics above the altar.  You can also spot them above the portico outside.trastevere-mosaicsMuch as I love the baroque, a little bit of sparkling mosaic was refreshing after our morning travels.  

Walking back home across the Garibaldi bridge we had a great view of St. Peter’s looming above the river.  We’ll be there in a few days…st-peters-and-tiber

Dinner was our market catch.  I have to confess that this picture makes it look slightly disgusting.  But in real life it was warm, fresh, and comforting.  Yum!dinner-at-home

The Heart of Rome, but first, a crisis

colosseumToday began with a crisis:  because there is no cell service inside the apartment, Alison tried to open the front door to go outside to the courtyard and check her messages.  The front door was locked, of course.  Uh-oh!  The long elongated key broke off inside the lock, leaving us locked in with no way out.  And having no cell service made it impossible to call Lucia.  First we emailed her, and then we had a brainstorm: we went up to my room, which overlooks the courtyard, and leaned out the window, where luckily Alison (but not me) had cell service.  We tried to explain on the phone what had happened, and the wonderful Lucia promised to come as soon as she could. However, she was afraid that only the locksmith would be able to help and he was not available until 8:30 or 9:00.  Meanwhile, this morning we had a Colosseum tour starting at 8:30.  We frantically emailed the tour hoping to be able to reschedule.

Lo and behold, Lucia turned up in about 30 minutes and just put her key in the lock from the outside, which caused the broken bit to slither out and fall on the floor.  You can see the remains at the top of the picture, and the truncated key on the left. keyShe gave us a replacement key, carefully explained how to use the key CORRECTLY and with no recriminations whatsoever left us to get ready asap for the tour.

We arrived at the Colosseum Metro stop via taxi (too worried to wait for the bus, which we just barely missed) and it turned out that we were the only ones – a private tour!  Andrea had a heavy accent but was very knowledgeable and friendly.    He led us into the Colosseum and, well, there we were. colosseum-interiorLooking down at the arena, we could see the reconstructed floor over part of it, while the underground areas where performers and animals stayed until needed were just beyond.  (An underground tour of the Colosseum is available and would be interesting for those who want all the details.)  I was glad I had read Mary Beard’s book about the building, its meaning, and how it actually worked.  What I remember most, aided by Andrea’s commentary, is that it was designed for quick exits (literally a vomitorium); that women could sit only at the tippytop; that there was a nineteenth century fad for visiting the Colosseum by moonlight and reciting poetry; that the life of a gladiator was not a pretty one; and that the logistics of obtaining, transporting, and maintaining wild animals was, to say the least, daunting.  Andrea filled in the blanks and gave us enough time – but not too much – to linger over a few details, including this section of original brick flooring.   colosseum-floorThere was only a little bit of danger:colosseum-danger

Leaving the Colosseum we made our way past the Arch of Constantine, the last triumphal arch built in Rome and, like so much in Rome, made up partly of bits from other monuments.  arch-of-constantineFrom here we walked up the Palatine Hill, which is one of the earliest inhabited places in Rome, but now home to the ruins of imperial palaces (plus some sort of temporary art installation).palatine-palace We wandered along, seeing very few other people but some beautiful trees (maybe an Atlas cedar?).  palatine-treeWe headed downhill to the Forum, where it all made so much more sense than reading about it ever could.  First off, the Arch of Titus, commemorating the siege of Jerusalem.  See the menorah?arch-of-titus

Then one monument after another (but not in a boring way), including the lovely garden and temple of the Vestal Virgins (they took a vow of chastity, and those who strayed would be buried alive).  vestal-virgins The temple of Antoninus and Faustina is quite imposing, antoninus-templeand it has a striking bronze door.   At the time it was used, they say, the door was at ground level but excavations later have left it suspended in space. One reason so much of it survives is that the temple was turned into a church in the Middle Ages. 

This beautiful doorway is from a neighboring temple…antoninus-door We enjoyed walking and talking with Andrea, but it was time to say goodbye.  It had been a bit drizzly all morning, and we were stripped down in anticipation of the Colosseum’s new rules about no backpacks (exaggerated, as it turned out).  Plus, it was not supposed to rain!  But rain it did: as soon as the tour ended it began to stream down.  We darted here and there trying to make our way out of the Forum, buying an umbrella on the way from one of the men who magically appear in Rome when it rains, but it was our second trap of the day.  Every path was a dead end.  Hither and yon we struggled in the rain until FINALLY we found the exit and took refuge in a nearby restaurant for restorative vegetable soup and a margherita pizza.  It was not photo-worthy, but it hit the spot and gave us the strength to go on, or at least have a rest.

Since the nearby churches were closed for another two hours, we took the bus home and had a little lie-down to restore ourselves.  After that, we valiantly bussed to San Clemente, which is famous for its many layers of religion.  One of the earliest is the Mithraic Temple, from a cult much favored by soldiers (there are Mithraic remains in London, for example). The remains are, of course, underground, with many stone corridors, steps and mysterious stone altars.  Unfortunately, the signage was not very illuminating but we checked it off the list.  (This would have been a good candidate for a guided tour.)  I was most taken with the tile floors on the main level.  More quilt patterns!tiles-from-san-clemente

From here we trudged up a small hill to the church of St. Peter in Chains.  This is famous for housing the actual chains (!) that held St. Peter when he was jailed, chainsas well as the Michelangelo Moses.  michelangelo-mosesThe latter was covered in scaffolding while we were there so we had to crane our necks, but here’s what it looks like normally.  (Both photos from the web since I failed to take any pictures.)  From here we walked down to the Via Fori Imperiale for the bus home, the 76 as I remember, which has become our old friend.  

After a quick drink and a peek at the news (CNN International, so we cannot escape Trump), we meandered over to the Campo for dinner and some delicious

And so to bed.

An afternoon with the prince

pamphlijNext on the agenda was the Palazzo Doria Pamphilj, which in typical Roman fashion was not on the corner as depicted on the map but several buildings in.  Never mind, we found it despite the map.  Here is its serene courtyard.courtyard

Its attraction is that it is a family collection of paintings and sculpture, started  in the sixteenth century by the Pamphilj family and its complicated set of descendants – the current inhabitants are the adopted English step-children of the late, beautifully named Princess Orietta Pogson Doria Pamphilj. Over the centuries, the palazzo was expanded and redecorated and sports plenty of baroque ornamentation.  The sculptures, by the way, were assembled in the style of the times – you have a headless torso and a torso-less head?  Glue them together and call it done! This photo by a TripAdvisor visitor gives you the idea.pamphlij-sculptures

We rented the audioguide narrated by the Prince, who adds charming details such as the way he and his sister were chastised for roller skating on the newly beeswaxed ancient terracotta tiles in the ballroom. tilesThe big attraction  to us was the Caravaggios, many of which can be found in Rome  (as you will see in a later post) and two of which are famously found in Malta.  The Flight into Egypt from the Pamphilj may be my favorite.  michelangelo_merisi_da_caravaggio_-_rest_on_flight_to_egypt_-_wga04096The musical angel’s black wings divide the picture in half – on one side the mother and child, on the other Joseph and the big-eyed cow (he does animals exceptionally well).  The music Joseph is holding was played in this gallery at a concert not too long ago, according to the Prince.

The Penitent Magdalene is the other star.  So many Caravaggios are dramatic, even violent, but these two are calm and beautiful.  (Both images from the Web Gallery of Art)michelangelo_merisi_da_caravaggio_-_magdalene_-_wga04094The model for Magdalene was one of Caravaggio’s favorites, a prostitute who was perhaps his mistress.

Now here’s a mystery:  we had already seen Caravaggio’s St. John at the Capitoline yesterday, and then we saw TWO  almost identical St. Johns here.  Neither of them was mentioned in the audioguide, although the Flight into Egypt and the Penitent Magdalene, hung right next to one of the St. Johns, were made much of.  The second St. John in an adjoining gallery  was bigger than the other two we saw and included a dove in the top right corner that’s not present in the first two.  So what’s going on? The nice man in the gift shop explained to us (with some difficulty) that the smaller St. Johns in the Capitoline and here were real, and the larger St. John in the Pamphilj is a copy. More research must be done!  (Note: our tour guide for the Borghese pretty much said that both St. Johns here were likely copies but that no museum likes to admit it.  So we did see the original at the Capitoline…)  This is Caravaggio in his frisky, playful style.michelangelo_merisi_da_caravaggio_saint_john_the_baptist_youth_with_a_ram_c-_1602_wga04111

By now, we were thoroughly saturated in art, and it was time to head back to the apartment.  Dinner tonight was at a small hole in the wall famous for its spaghetti carbonara.  We arrived right at opening time – 6:30 – which was clearly a tad bit early for the staff despite the open door.  Soon enough the place began to fill up (mostly with other tourists) and we enjoyed our absolutely delicious pasta and house wine, then wound our way back through the streets to home and bed.

Greatest hits of the Forum and the Capitoline Museum

After yesterday’s drizzle and rain, today dawned clear and cool and sunny. We walked from our apartment to the Vittorio Emmanuel monument, which has got to be the silliest memorial to a dull man that ever was. (Though when I mentioned this to one of our guides she pointed out that the monument is as much about Italy’s independence as about VE himself.) Nevertheless,  it gleamed in the sunlight and the flags unfurled beautifully in the slight breeze.  vittorioNearby is Trajan’s column, though it’s almost impossible to see the details from any distance, especially the higher areas.  But having read about it somewhere, I was able to imagine the images of the Dacian conquest curling around the column from bottom to top.  The statue of Trajan was replaced by a pope some 500 years ago with a statue of St. Peter, oh, well.   trajanFrom here we made our way up and up the steep Capitoline Hill to the Capitoline Museums.   Along the way were good views of the Roman Forum, which I am only now beginning to understand despite reading about it for months.  Here is the first view, showing the remains of the temple to Castor and Pollux (lots of twinning in Rome) and the ubiquitous umbrella pines.  castor-pollux Next up is the Arch of Septimius Severus, celebrating victories over the Parthians.septimius-severus

Even when you’re not entirely sure what you’re seeing, the scale and mass of these arches and columns are arresting.  This is the the remains of the Temple of Saturn, I do believe.  temple-of-saturnWhen you finally reach the top of the Capitoline Hill, you are rewarded with Michelangelo’s Campidoglio, featuring the marvelous statue of Marcus Aurelius (a copy) in the center.  marcus-aurelius-copy Once inside the courtyard of the museum, we saw bits of the enormous statue of Constantine (we saw the original location of the statue on Thursday) and posed next to a foot, a bicep, a toe.  constantines-foot

Inside the Capitoline are some iconic sculptures, including Romulus and Remus with the she-wolf (the twins are apparently not original, added later according to one account); romulus-and-remusoh, and a view of the city through an old wavy window; wavy-windowa death mask of Michelangelo; michelangelos-maskand Bernini’s Medusa.dedusasc07391Walking further along, we came to a modern wing that houses the original Marcus Aurelius, beautifully displayed in a vast open space with lots of light pouring in.  Note that his hand gesture indicates that he is pardoning the barbarians, one of whom originally was crouched at his feet.  Stirrups had not yet come to the Roman Empire, so you will see his feet dangling free.marcus-aurelius He really is breathtaking.

From here we went to the adjacent tabularium, Rome’s archive, which affords some of the best views of the Forum anywhere, especially on a clear day like Returning to the Capitoline, we revisited the Dying Gaul (whom we saw in the National Gallery in DC when it was on loan a few years ago), complete with his Gaulish hair and torc; dyding-gaulsome gorgeous ladies with very special hair;

the delicately beautiful Capitoline Venus, slightly blurred here;capitoline-venus and the mosaic of doves from Hadrian’s villa.doves

We rewarded our art study with a good sandwich lunch in the cafe and enjoyed beautiful views over the old city.  city-viewOn our way back down from Michelangelo’s Campidoglio we saw the insulae tucked under the hill.  These were the original apartments lived in by so many Romans.  The higher up you were (some were more than five stories high), the poorer you were – less safe in case of fire, for example.  Like so many ancient buildings, these are now many feet below the current ground level.  insulae

We were not done with our day, but let’s stop here for now and catch our collective breath.

Rome and Malta!

We had to go to Rome, because, you know, Rome.  We were a little intimidated by the size, the potential crowds, and the complexity of finding our way, but we persevered nonetheless.  I don’t remember quite when Malta was added to the mix, but I’m sure it was in part because of Dorothy Dunnett.  At any rate, we made arrangements for a week in Rome, five days in Malta, and on October 10 we flew away.

We arrived on a Tuesday morning and the pre-arranged driver met us at the airport.  At the apartment, our landlady, the lovely and charming Lucia, explained everything to us (well, almost everything).  Here is the entrance.  But first you must unlock the big wooden door that gives out directly on to the street, then go down a passageway with a tiny elevator for the other apartments, then through a heavy metal gate, then finally the front door to the apartment.  Very safe!  (Though there is a key crisis yet to come.)rome-aptIt was not quite ready, so after our tour Lucia gave us the keys and we went out for a short wander through the Campo de’ Fiori nearby.  We stumbled around the beautiful market for a while, puntarellemarket-vegetablescampothen returned to eat the two kinds of delicious pizza Lucia had left for us, welcome pizza.jpgfollowed by a deep two-hour nap.

It was drizzling just a bit but we made our way along Rick Steves’ walk to the Pantheon.  The maps do not make much sense but we persevered nonetheless and along the way visited  Bernini’s Four Rivers fountain in the Piazza Navona.  Here is one of the four rivers, the Rio de la Plata, gesturing in fear at St. Agnes’ Church.piazza-navonaAt least, that’s the story.  As Wikipedia says, “A legend, common with tour-guides, is that Bernini positioned the cowering Rio de la Plata River as if the sculpture was fearing the facade of the church of Sant’Agnese by his rival Borromini could crumble against him; in fact, the fountain was completed several years before Borromini began work on the church.”

At one end of the piazza fontana-del-morois the Fontana del Moro, featuring the Moor sculpted by Bernini.  A whole book could be written (and undoubtedly has been) about the fountains of Rome.  They are justly proud of their abundant water, much of it still arriving via aqueducts, and you can find fountains monumental and simply useful, all over the place.

 Then on to the Pantheon. There it is, just around the corner, pantheonbecause Rome has gradually built up around all these amazing places.  It was full of people but we still loved the space, the ceiling, the oculus, the pillars, the floor pattern.  pantheon-pillarpantheon-flooroculuspantheon-in-the-rainFrom here we went to Santa Maria sopra Minerva with the delightful elephant and obelisk out front.  The elephant is by a student of Bernini, and the obelisk is is yet another Egyptian one, this one uncovered during excavations in the 17th century.santa-maria-sopre-minervaOn the wall outside were markers of floods through history (the Tiber frequently overflows its banks). tiber-floods Inside was  Rome’s only Gothic church, built on a previous temple to Isis (not actually Minerva).  Michelangelo’s muscular Christ is the star of the interior.  Someone famously said the knees alone are worth all the art in Rome – me, I didn’t quite see it.muscular-christ

Dinner on this first day was panini from a local market and then an early bed.