We reached Rome from Florence in less than two hours. Having read so much and having seen numerous Hollywood movies featuring Rome produced during what is termed as the Golden Era of Hollywood the anticipation was great. Who can forget the film Roman Holiday with Audrey Hepburn and that handsome, huge hulk of a man, Gregory Peck? Then that musical featuring Frank Sinatra singing in his deep voice “Three coins in the fountain” shot at Travis Fountain of Rome; as also the film La Dolce Vita featuring Anita Ekberg and Marcello Mastroianni with his histrionics. That we were going to be there soon excited us no end.
Booked again in a pension that was located in a more than hundred-year old heritage building which, if I recall, was around three storeys tall but retrofitted with a communication system from the main door on the ground floor to the second floor where the lady of the house was mostly available. She would operate a lever to allow access to the building. It also had a retrofitted small lift which could at best take three people with their bags. Regardless of its small dimensions it was quite a relief as otherwise one would have had to climb those numerous steps to get from one tall floor to another. From outside, the building gave a gloomy look painted in a drab grey but inside it was bright and very well appointed. This only shows how heritage structures are taken care of by people and the government in Italy. This is what seems to be true in most European cities where heritage is conserved and it sells.
I do not think there would be any point in writing about Rome much as most of us are familiar with it – its history, its culture, its beautiful architecture and that it also has the Vatican within its confines, the only instance in which a state is located within the municipality of a city. It probably was the only city after which an empire and a civilization were named. That was in the hoary past, before and after Christ which, in fact, is described as the Roman Imperial Period. Centuries later, however, Rome added aesthetics to its military prowess and spiritual attainments. It became the centre of that socio-cultural movement that is called Renaissance, a movement that started in Italy in the Late Medieval period and spread to the rest of Europe. Rome became one of the centres of Renaissance as most popes “pursued a coherent policy along four hundred years an architectonic and urbanistic programme to make the city the world’s artistic and cultural centre”. Famous artists, painters, sculptors and architects made Rome the centre of their activity, creating masterpieces throughout the city. That is precisely why the city is so attractive – full as it is of architectural and sculptural wealth. On every street one would find a marvellous structure, a slim aesthetically designed column or even an obelisk and in every piazza a running fountain surrounded by a host of sculptured religious or historical figures.
Inevitably our Rome visit commenced with a trip to the Colosseum. Situated, more or less, at the centre of the city the first impression of it strikes one with awe followed by incomprehension and incredulity. That such a huge multi-tiered structure of large stone pieces could be made more than 2000 years ago was simply unbelievable. No wonder it is still treated as the largest amphitheatre ever built. It could seat at least 50000 spectators at a time. Seating arrangement was in tiers and strictly in accordance with the social stratification that was prevalent then in the Roman society. Huge numbers of stairways were provided for jostle-free entrances and exits. Underneath, there was a network of tunnels cages and rooms for temporarily housing wild beasts and the gladiators who were to fight them generally to death. Standing there one could only imagine the gory sight and even hear the excited roar of the crowd followed by wild clapping as a big, burly man fell to a beast or to a bigger, more muscular beastlike man.
We wandered around the city generally in awe. In all directions there seemingly was a sumptuous visual feast of art on stone – in architecture or sculpture. As was planned we took the Fontana di Travis first where we remembered Frank Sinatra chucking coins into the pool singing “Three coins in the Fountain”. It is an amazing place – a fountain with a huge backdrop of sculptures framed in stone with columns on their sides. It is perhaps the largest Baroque fountain in the city and one of the most famous in the world. Built by architects who won a competition for its design, it took around 30 years to complete in 1762. Its massive proportions are incredible - around 90 ft. tall and 150 ft. wide. The backdrop is a palace that is now a museum and the sculptors went to work on it creating figures flanked by Corinthian free-standing columns and down below a jumble of figures seemingly playing around in water. The central figure represents Oceanus. The water, apparently, comes from a stream a few kilometres away from Rome to which, the legend has it, thirsty Roman soldiers were led by a virgin as far back as in 19 BC. We literally tore ourselves away from the captivating ambiance after chucking a few coins in the fountain.
Piazza di Spagna again has a fountain and from here the Spanish Steps, a broad stairway, climbs a hill to a church which, I later learnt, was the church of Trinita die Monti. The stairway up the hill was constructed again on the basis of a competition and the architect considered best was allotted the work. In Italy during the Renaissance almost all aesthetic works were assigned to an artist on the basis of merit. Spanish Steps are also credited to be one of the widest stairways in the world. The church on the hill above is French and the area around it is controlled by French authorities. Just below it stands a tall an obelisk brought perhaps from Egypt.
Not everything that we saw can perhaps be described but one more piazza that was impressive was Piazza Venezia. It takes the name from Palazzo Venezia which is in the neighbourhood and, at one time, used to be the embassy of the Republic of Venice in Rome. It is practically the centre of Rome and criss-crossed by several arterial roads. The piazza is dominated by the very impressive monument built in the 19th Century to honour the first King of Italy, Victor Emanuel II. It features stairways, Corinthian columns, fountains and an equestrian statue of King Victor Emanuel.
On the last day of our stay we went to Vatican City. Vatican is a walled enclave inside Rome with an area of 100-odd acres and a population of less than 1000. That makes it the smallest state in the world area-wise and population-wise and yet it confines within itself an unparalleled cultural wealth. Not only does it have, the St. Peter’s Basilica and the Sistine Chapel it also has a few museums where some of the world’s most famous paintings and sculptures are in display. Alas, all that was not for us as we had neither time nor the money to visit so many sites that included galleries, museums and places of interest. My wife and her sister, did, however, go and visit Sistine Chapel. I satisfied myself by visiting St. Peter’s Basilica and hanging around St. Peter’s Square.
A renowned Italian Renaissance church, St. Peter’s Basilica was designed, among others, by Michelangelo and Bernini. The Basilica’s dome is known as Michelangelo’s dome. It is one of the biggest churches in the world that holds an unique position in the Christian world as the greatest of all churches in Christendom and the holiest of the Catholic shrines. It was constructed to replace an earlier one and it took more than a hundred years to build during the sixteenth an seventeenth centuries. The shrine takes the name after St. Peter who was one of an apostles of Christ and was also the first pope. He was crucified somewhere near the obelisk within the St. Peter’s Sqaure and is interred directly below the altar in the church.
Built in Renaissance style the Basilica’s interior is lavishly decorated with marble reliefs, architectural sculpture and gilding. It is approachable from St Peter’s Square, a huge area colonnaded in two sections on two sides. While presiding over what are known as liturgies the crowds generally spill over from the Basilica into the St. Peter’s Square. The popes generally speak to the pilgrims in the Square from a first floor balcony in the Basilica. The dimensions of the Sqaure are very impressive with as many as 284 columns, a depth of 320 metres and a diameter of 240 metres. The architect of the Square was Bernini whose students built 140 statues of saints mounted on the balustrade above the columns. Similar statues we happened to see on the balustrade of the bridge on the River Tiber as we were coming away from Vatican City sadly to end our Roman sojourn.