Rome is magnificent and brutal, painfully historical and modern, wonderfully peacefully and maddeningly bustling, captivating and repulsing … at all at the same time.
To us, it’s not nearly as serene as Venice, nor as romantic as Florence, but it is more so than both a showcase of Western civilization.
If you’re careless you can be run over or pickpocketed. And, with the wrong attitude I suspect you could quickly become frustrated.
As Rick Steves says, “While Paris is an urban garden, Rome is a magnificent tangled forest.” But, we’ve found that with pacing and organization, you can love this jungle and find many, many treasures in her.
Today, Sunday, May 22, we began our day at some beautiful, ancient churches not far from the train station (Santa Maria Maggiore, Santa Maria del Angeli, and Santa Maria Vittoira). Many of the churches in Rome, even in hidden squares and corners are more ornate than most cathedrals in the U.S. – and all are adorned with fabulous art work.
Santa Maria del Angeli – designed by Michelangelo and contained in the old baths of Diocletian
Santa Maria Maggiore, which claims to have pieces of Jesus’ manger below the main altar …
Beginning our day with a quiet time of reflection and prayer has been a several decade habit for us – but, to exercise that discipline in churches like this – amazing indeed.
We then took a bus to the south of the TiTibergres River, to slowly savor the Trastevere area – what one guidebook called “the crustier side of Rome.” It was a delightful tangle of small streets, ancient churches, secret nooks and crannies … and mostly a chance to enjoy the city, her people and shops, and, well, smell the roses a bit …
Well, one of us smelled them …
… while the other mugged for the camera!
We crossed the Tiber River at the Isola Tiberina (Tiberina Island), where Rome got her start 3000 years ago. This was as far upstream as big boats could sail and the first place the river could be crossed by a bridge.
At the high point of the bridge we found an ancient stone with a faded inscription said to date from about A.D. 370, when this then-400-year-old bridge was rebuilt …
Note, just above Barb’s hand the word “Caesar” (now that’s history)
We passed a small church celebrating a fiesta holiday. It’s bell tower dates from 1069 and is the oldest working bell tower in Rome.
And we still saw some pretty amazing knockers …
We happened into the Church of St. Cecilia at about noon, and were blessed to be able to listen to the nuns and sisters singing a meditation. Beautiful.
The church is named for a wealthy Christian convert who was martyred for her faith (along with her husband). They had used and then bequeathed their home to their local Christian community for worship services (remember, there were no church buildings before A.D. 312).
In the days when Christianity was illegal, wealthy converts would often host church services for the local community in their homes. When Christians were finally allowed to build churches, they often did so on the sites of these homes.
Church of St. Cecilia
After our relaxing morning, we caught a cab across town to the Villa Borghese Gallery – a cacophony of Bernini sculptures, as well as paintings by Caravaggio, Raphael, and Titian – in an obscenely beautiful Baroque palazzo built and owned by an a-religious Cardinal who clearly had plenty of money.
If I was to show you pictures of many of the statues, you would recognize them, for they are world-famous. But, the most interesting to me was carved by Bernini when he was 11 years old …
Bernini’s “Two Babies Milking a Goat”
I was astounded. I think I was doing paper mache or some sort of primitive sand sculpture crucifixes at age 10-11, but nothing like this. No wonder when Pope Paul V saw sketches made by little Gian Lorenzo (Bernini’s real name), he announced, “This boy will be the Michelangelo of his age.” And, so he was.
After our art tour, we spent an hour or so strolling through the massive gardens of the Villa. It’s kinda like Rome’s Central Park. There were thousands of lovers walking and sitting, multigenerational families picnicking, playing, and walking … it was a lovely Saturday afternoon and we had a wonderful time people watching and enjoying the walk.
One of the avenues we walked down, the Avenue of Magnolias, reminded us of our Louisiana days. The Magnolia flower is the state flower of Louisiana.
As we descended the hill from the Villa Borghese, we entered the Piazza del Popolo (which contains the tallest of the 13 Egyptian obelisks in Rome – Egypt only has 5 left), we decided to stop in to the three churches bordering the piazza. In the first one we visited, the beautiful baroque Santa Maria Del Popolo, we discovered a small chapel, called ‘Raphael’s Chigi Chapel,’ that was designed by Raphael and inspired (as Raphael was) by the Pantheon.
In a second chapel, the Cerasi Chapel, we found two amazing paintings, both by Caravaggio.
The Conversion of Paul by Carvaggio
In this painting, Paul is sprawled on his back beside his beautiful horse, while his servant looks on. The startled future saint is blinded by the harsh light as Jesus’ voice asks him, “Why do you persecute me?”
And, in response, Paul receives his faith with open arms.
Ever had God knock you back a step, knock you to the ground, knock the breath out of you? He can sure get our attention if he wants to, eh?
The second painting was even more captivating to me than the first — and these two paintings are of two sides of a small chapel — not 12-15 feet from each other.
The Crucifixion of Peter by Caravaggio
I agree with the art professor who wrote:
Although most art scholars prefer the Conversion of St. Paul, I must confess that this is my favorite picture. It shows the moment when Peter, the first Bishop of Rome, is crucified, upside down, in Nero’s Circus.
Three shady characters, their faces hidden or turned away, are pulling, dragging and pushing the cross to which Peter has been nailed by the feet with his head down.
This St Peter is not a heroic martyr, nor a Herculean hero in the manner of Michelangelo, but an old man suffering pain and in fear of death.
The scene, set on some stony field, is grim. The dark, impenetrable background draws the spectator’s gaze back again to the sharply illuminated figures who remind us, through the banal ugliness of their actions and movements — note the yellow rear and filthy feet of the lower figure — that the death of the apostle was not a heroic drama, but a wretched and humiliating execution.
I just observed it for a while – stunned. It’s moments like this that I think capture what great art is. It stops you in your tracks. It sobers you. It makes you think – reconsider who you are and why you are doing what you are doing.
Peter’s always been my favorite Apostle, but even more so, now.
We spent the evening just walking through the central portion of the old city. There are many pedestrian boulevards and we had a wonderful time stopping at shops, watching street performers, looking over the wares of artists and street vendors.
We found a lovely restaurant for dinner and sat at a street-side table to people watch, before finishing our meal at yet another superb Gellatoria (pistacchio, coconut, and dark chocolate all deserved a trial this evening).
Then as dusk settled, we stopped by the magnificent Trevi Fountain (who can go to Rome and not stop here?). As it always is, it was packed with tourists all marveling at it and tossing coins into the fountain over their shoulder. It’s a tradition that’s supposed to guarantee the person tossing the coin will return to Rome.
Walt and Barb at the Trevi Fountain
Part of the magic of the fountain is that the square on which it is found is approached directly by no street. So, you can hear, but not see the excitement until you actually enter the small square.
Barb and I went through the ritual of tossing the coins when we were last here in 1978. But, we didn’t feel led to do so this evening. We weren’t, at first, sure why.
But, after we visited another amazing church, just above the fountain, we came out, and took another picture. See if you can see what caught our eyes …
Although we didn’t see him when we took the picture, when we walked down the steps there he was. A young boy with severe clubbed feet, scoliosis, and apparent mental retardation.
Having raised a wonderful child with several physical handicaps, our hearts always break to see kids who have these special needs.
So, with tears in her eyes, Barb bent over, spoke to the child, prayed briefly for him and blessed him, and then left our coins for him.
We hugged on the corner for a few moments. “If we were home,” Barb said, “he could have the surgery he needs to stand and walk.”
“Just like our Kate,” I thought, whispering a prayer of thanks that Kate was able to get the care she needed.
We walked from the Trevi Fountain to the world-famous Spanish Steps (named for the Spanish Embassy to the Vatican, which has been here for 300 years) and just sat for a while as the sun set on Rome.
History books say John Keating pondered his mortality here and then died in a building next to the steps at age 25. Fellow Romantic Lord Byron lived for a while on the square. And, in the 1700’s and 1800’s, when young British and Continental aristocrats took their “Grand Tour” of Europe, stopping here to contemplate Rome’s rise and fall was always considered a must.
As the sun set, and we pondered those weighty questions, what came to my mind was a verse of Scripture … “What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul?” rather, “Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.”
For me, that’s pretty sage advice.
Well, I hope you’ll join us for our last day in Rome, tomorrow. We’ve still have some pretty cool stuff to see.
Here’s the entire series:
Dr. Walt and Barb’s Italian Adventure — May 8-25, 2010
If you’ve ever wanted to go to Italy (or even if you have in the past), you’ll want to come along with us and enjoy the sites, sounds, food, and art.
Hopefully, this blog will stimulate you to put visiting these amazing cities on your to-do list. Just click on any of the days or cities you want to visit with us.
We’ve hoped you’ve had fun accompanying us on this trip to Italy, and that one day you’ll be blessed to experience and enjoy her yourself.