Rome: Introduction

  • © editha,

    © editha,

Discover Rome!

What is that man with the smart pith helmet and long white gloves doing in the middle of the chaotic roaring traffic of Piazza Venezia? He is leaning a little from the waist, has bent his arm and is pointing his hand like Michelangelo’s Adam. An orchestra conductor in uniform. Will we hear violins starting to wail, the drums roll and an overture by Verdi begin? Troommh! No, nothing can be heard but a discordant droning of car engines, the buzzing of mopeds and the rattling of buses.

They are going in all directions at the same time, and the piazza is gridlocked once again. 50 traffic offences clocked in spite of the new Italian highway regulations. Poor traffic conductor! If however you bear the madness on the roads with the necessary pazienza, patience, as the policeman does, and move on to sit on the wonderful Piazza Navona, where the waiter will serve you a creamy cappuccino and the obligatory glass of water with an elegant flourish, then you will realise that, for all its chaos, Rome is simply a fabulous place. And lots of things have improved there in recent years.

The historic city centre, the Centro Storico, hasn’t looked so splendid since the days of the Baroque architect Gianlorenzo Bernini. Soot-blackened façades have been made radiant with fresh paint, atmospheric pop concerts are held at the Colosseum and in the Circus Maximus, and the Galleria Borghese has been kissed awake from its long slumber after a 17-year restoration. Aphrodite and other divine sculptures are back where they belong in the new museums of antiquity, Palazzo Altemps and Palazzo Massimo. For the Foro Romano, the heart of ancient Rome, you have to pay an admission fee, but on some Sundays and holidays the Via dei Fori Imperiali and most of the Via Appia Antica are traffic-free, and walkers rejoice. Rome is wonderful! 

Where Italians go about their favourite pastime

If you want to discover this city, you have to go out onto a piazza. For Romans it is a substitute for the salotto, the front room at home, as many of them live in noisy and uninviting places on the edge of the city or in cramped circumstances with their mother-in-law. But the piazza is where life is lived: it’s a market, fair, a forum for gossip, demonstrations and religious services, a court where judgement is passed on matters of taste and a Circus Maximus of the vanities where the Italians pursue the pastime that is dearest to their hearts: cutting a bella figura. This means standing around with incomparable elegance, above all the banalities of everyday life, while keeping an eye open for good-looking female tourists. 

In Rome there is a piazza to suit everyone. Pope Benedict XVI looks out onto the largest, most pompous and photogenic piazza, St Peter’s Square – but for most Romans Piazza Navona is a favourite place to meet and spend time: a long but enclosed open space, lively, colourful and intimate for all that. This Baroque stage for secular passions is however a work of the papacy, like many of the most decorative squares and streets in Rome.

On the site of Emperor Domitian’s arena for games, built in AD 86, Pope Innocent X had the Baroque circo agonale built in the 17th century, a name the locals corrupted to ‘Navona’. Patricians and princes of the church took delight in the spectacle of furious contests from the windows of their palaces. Horses raced around the piazza circuit as in the Palio at Siena and bullfights were held in the classic manner. Long before Bernini created his Fountain of Four Rivers in the middle of the square, the Roman nobility staged water entertainments there with naval  battles. 

Today painters of kitsch display their sunrises and sunsets here, and artists will draw your portrait if you pay them a handsome price. A monsignore in black robes hurries over to the nearby S. Agostino church, two young nuns wearing flimsy sandals sit in the sun on a bench next to a white-haired man in a threadbare jacket and his mongrel. It could be a scene from a film. If you wait long enough you might see two carabinieri, a handsome man and a good-looking woman, ride past on well-groomed chestnut horses. The woman’s hennaed ponytail, a perfect match for the colour of the horse, swishes behind her. The piazza is a place to see and be seen – and to enjoy life’s cocktail, one sip at a time. 

Roman stars, starlets and politicians

After dark the chic set of Rome gathers on Piazza della Rotonda in front of the Pantheon: stars and starlets, politicians and other VIPs wearing black shirts and white linen jackets for the summer heat, while teenagers and students, young men from the concrete suburban wastelands on scooters, with their girls clinging to them riding pillion, come to Via del Seminario to get their tramezzini (sandwiches) and panini (rolls) before they sit around the fountain by the Pantheon.

Some people’s favourite square is Campo de’ Fiori, Rome’s most colourful produce market, though sadly it is increasingly being taken over by clothes stalls. There are flowers here too, but the dominant smells in the air come from oranges, fish and seafood. Around Campo de’ Fiori and in the narrow streets nearby there are lots of restaurants that give you a good meal and a good place to sit. 

Rome’s biggest village, Trastevere – the word means ‘across the Tiber’ – is worth a visit not only to dine in a trattoria. Even though Trastevere has been artificially smartened up since the 1950s and has lost much of its patina, you will still find leafy corners with splashing fountains, alley cats snoozing on walls and dustbins, and old residents who sit in their doorways on hot summer nights in dressing gown and slippers to have a chat. 

But where is the Rome of the clergy to be found? Just behind the Pantheon, between the ivy-covered Piazza dei Caprettari and Piazza di Minerva, where a small elephant bears the weight of an outsized obelisk, in Via S. Caterina da Siena and Via dei Cestari. Here you will see the showrooms of clerical fashion. High-class shops sell everything that a pious fashionista could desire, from purple bishops’ robes and grey underwear for nuns to well-cut soutanes and golden crucifixes. 

If you haven’t taken holy orders, you will probably prefer to hunt the latest fashions around Via del Corso, the Spanish Steps and Via Tritone, a kind of Bermuda Triangle where money disappears, though not without trace, in a stylish shopping spree in boutiques bearing all the big names from Armani to Zegna. The younger generation have got their own bargain fashion heaven on Via del Corso, where the latest music throbs while decisions are made about which cool leather jacket, jeans, skates or feather boa to buy.

Rome has 3000 years of history

But of course you haven’t come to Rome only for the shopping. The Eternal City presents its 3000-year history in the shape of emperors’ busts on the Capitoline hill, the Colosseum, Michelangelo’s Moses and Bernini’s Triton Fountain. You will be moved to tears – or possibly collapse from exhaustion – at the sight of the entwined figures of the antique Laocoön sculpture. You will find this amazing work about a mile and a half into the Musei Vaticani, which were designed to test tourists to destruction.

You will gasp at the beauty, and the press of bodies, in Raphael’s Stanze and the Sistine Chapel. Everyone should have the opportunity to see the Sistine Chapel, but since the huge restoration and cleaning programme that gave Michelangelo’s smoke-blackened depiction of the Creation and his wonderful Last Judgement their bright and cheerful colours once again, the throngs of visitors have been so great that the idea of limiting numbers is now being considered.

And what about modern Rome? Contemporary architecture has a hard time of it in a city with a surfeit of Baroque palaces, where the marble, rubble and ruins of millennia are heaped up in layers. Until now avant-garde buildings of the kind seen in London, Paris or Berlin were regarded as an insult to the history and heritage of Rome. ‘Everything that’s new here first has to face comparison with Bernini’s colonnades or the Colosseum’, says Carlotta Mismetti Capua of the daily newspaper La Repubblica. 

To see that a few architects have met this challenge, look no further than MAXXI, for example, Zaha Hadid’s revolutionary museum for the 21st century in the Flaminio district. It seems to float like a summer cloud above the old barracks on the banks of the Tiber. Everything is in flow in this building. Even inside the museum, forms sway and swirl, staircases rear up as if in a cartoon film, gently sloping ramps appear and wedge-shaped corners lead visitors in new directions all the time. Renzo Piano’s futuristic Parco della Musica auditorium, too, was not taken seriously at first, but now music lovers from around the world heap praise on it. The Romans have even come to accept the modern structure above the ancient Ara Pacis, the altar of peace commissioned by Emperor Augustus, after Richard Meier, a star architect from New York, triggered off a cultural controversy in Rome with his design. 

'La dolce vita' at the Fontana di Trevi

For all the progress, any died-in-the-wool Romano Romano – that’s a ‘Roman from Rome’ as opposed to a immigrant to the city – will enthuse about how marvellous life in the capital of Italy was thirty or forty years ago, just as colourful, crazy and romantic as told in the films of Federico Fellini. On the day when Marcello Mastroianni died, even the foaming waters of the Fontana di Trevi fell silent, and mourning weeds were placed over the fountain where, in an immortal scene from Fellini’s film ‘La dolce vita’ in 1960, the actor took a bath with the voluptuous Anita Ekberg. A bouquet of white roses floated on the water, and the sound of sobbing could be heard.

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