01.06.2012 - 04.06.2012
The next leg of the European circuit was to the “Boot country”, well that’s how Italy looks on the map anyway! I was super thrilled when we reached Rome as this was the city I was looking forward the most to visit. The Leonardo da Vinci Airport is quite far away from the city as most airports are and the journey from the airport to the city was not very remarkable. I was hoping to get glimpses of ancient Roman buildings on the way but sadly, didn’t see any. The best part though, was that our hotel was within walking distance of the Termini train station which is the central station in Rome, from where both local as well as regional trains depart. The first thing you notice about Italy is that it’s quite similar to India! Littered streets (not as much as India though ;-)), numerous hawkers selling merchandise and unruly crowds!! In fact, most of the hawkers are Bangladeshis and Mom’s proficiency in Bengali got us some decent bargains everywhere. :-D
Since we didn’t have any guided tours planned for the first morning, we decided to take the underground train to the National Gallery of Modern Art. I should warn you that the Termini station should be entered at one’s own risk! The place is worse than a labyrinth!! We were following the signboards to our platform and one after the other, escalators and passages kept leading us further and further downwards till I actually thought we would reach the centre of the Earth!!! There is actually an interesting story behind Rome’s underground network. Rome is the capital and the largest city of Italy. It is also the fourth-most populous city in the European Union. But surprisingly, this city has only two underground lines crossing each other at the Termini Central Station. This network system is also designed in such a way that it goes around the city rather than through it. Each time that a new plan was made to upgrade the metro system and underground excavations would commence, some ancient Roman relic or archaeological artefact would be discovered and further work on the metro would stop! Hence, just the two lines!!
Anyway, so we took the train from Termini to Flaminio and made our way to the National Gallery of Modern Art.
This gallery mainly showcases neoclassic and Romantic (meaning ‘of the Roman period’!) artworks from the 19th and 20th century. Works of several Italian artists as well as international artists like Van Gogh are displayed here. Some exquisite sculptures which really stuck with me were “Cleopatra” and Canova’s “Hercules and Lichas”.
We didn’t even realise how quickly the morning flew by and very soon it was time to reach the Vatican. The experience of the Vatican is enjoyed only with a knowledgeable guide because this smallest state of the world is unimaginably crowded and it’s near impossible to stroll at ones’ leisure trying to find out the significance of each location! We booked two tours through "Dark Rome Tours" and they were splendid! I would definitely recommend booking through them to anybody planning a visit to Rome!
First, we squeezed our way into the ‘Musei Vaticani’ or the Vatican Museum. The highlights of the museum are most certainly Raphael’s’ Rooms and the Sistine Chapel. The four Stanze di Raffaello ("Raphael's rooms") are famous for their frescoes painted by Renaissance artist, Raphael and his students. The vibrant colours and the sheer finesse of the frescoes make it impossible for anyone to not appreciate the genius of these Renaissance artists.
The Sistine Chapel is certainly one of the best known chapels in the world and it is the location of the Papal conclaves, i.e the venue for election of the pope. On the occasion of a conclave, a chimney is installed in the roof of the chapel, from which smoke arises as a signal. If white smoke appears, created by burning the ballots of the election, a new Pope has been elected. If a candidate receives less than a two-thirds majority, the cardinals send up black smoke—created by burning the ballots along with wet straw and chemical additives—it means that no successful election has yet occurred. This chimney can be seen from St. Peter's Square.
Of course, the other reason for the Sistine Chapel’s fame is its extraordinary frescoes by artists like Michelangelo, Boticelli etc. The ceiling is entirely frescoed solely by Michelangelo which is in itself astonishing. This ceiling and “The Last Judgement” (the fresco behind the altar) by Michelangelo are regarded as his most famous works. The left and right walls of the chapel depict the life of Moses and Christ in a series of frescoed panels by other artists. Unfortunately, photography is strictly prohibited inside the Sistine Chapel!
Another must visit in the Vatican museum is the “Gallery of Maps”, a 120 m long gallery with topographical maps of Italy. Each frescoed panel depicts a region as well as a perspective view of the most prominent city in that region. There are 40 such panels in this gallery which is the world's largest pictorial geographical study.
The Vatican Museum has a huge collection and it was definitely not possible to see each and every room in one day, so after a tour of the most important rooms, we headed to the Belvedere Courtyard or ‘Cortile del Belvedere’. Designed by Donato Bramante, this courtyard is a link between the Vatican Palace and the Villa Belvedere. A large bronze pinecone, formerly a fountain, stands on one end of the courtyard, giving the upper terrace the name ‘Cortile della Pigna’ or Pinecone Courtyard.
In the middle of the courtyard stands a revolving ‘Sphere within a sphere’, a bronze sculpture by Italian sculptor Arnaldo Pomodoro. Several versions of this sculpture with varying diameters are found worldwide.
From here, we proceeded to St. Peter's Basilica, the burial site of St. Peter, one of the twelve apostles of Jesus. Peter is generally considered as the first Pope and was crucified by Emperor Nero with the cross being upside down at his own request, since he saw himself unworthy to be crucified in the same way as Jesus.
The St. Peter’s Basilica has the tallest dome and the largest interior of any church in the world. The beautiful dome of St. Peter's was designed by Michelangelo but the construction was completed only after his death.
The interior is beautifully decorated with sculptures and outstanding artwork. The famous sculpture ‘Pieta’ by Michelangelo can be seen here. Interestingly Saint Peter’s is not a cathedral as it is not the seat of any bishop nor is it the official church of the Roman Catholics. In fact, the Archbasilica of St. John Lateran is the mother church of Rome and the official seat of the Bishop of Rome, who is the Pope. Nevertheless, St. Peter’s is considered one of the holiest sites for Christians and due to its size a large number of Papal ceremonies & functions are held here. Another interesting fact about this basilica is that there is one door in the entrance hall called the Holy Door which is opened only once in 50 years. It is said that these special years of opening are years of remission of sins and universal pardon and people entering the basilica through that door will have the mercy of God.
Once outside, the Basilica opens out into the magnificent St. Peter's Square. This square was designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, a well known sculptor of those times. Four rows of columns, 284 columns and 88 pillars altogether, on the perimeter of the elliptical piazza hold 140 statues of saints over them, all designed by Bernini. An ancient Egyptian obelisk stands at the centre of this Piazza.
It is also possible to see the Pope’s residence from this square. Every Sunday at noon, the Pope makes an appearance at the window of his residence for public view.
The next day was a long long day. We had two guided tours planned. First stop was Piazza del Popolo for the Angels & Demons Tour. This is one of the most popular tours in Rome owing to the huge success of Dan Brown’s book by the same name. Now, for those who have read the book/seen the movie, this tour is a must! And for those who haven’t, you will still enjoy the tour because more than following the storyline, it’s all about learning the lesser known history of Rome & visiting some extremely interesting places. The tour started at the church of Santa Maria del Popolo (St. Mary of the People) containing some wonderful works by Bernini.
The story then took us to St. Peter’s Square followed by Santa Maria della Vittoria. This church is not very remarkable from the outside but the inside is beautifully frescoed and lavishly decorated. But what this church is most famous for is a masterpiece of Bernini called “Ecstasy of Saint Teresa”. This controversial sculpture placed in the chapel of the Cornaro family, depicts an episode from the autobiography of a mystical saint, Teresa of Avila. The two central sculptural figures of the swooning nun and an angel with a spear portray her experience of religious ecstasy that she describes in detail in her autobiography. The members of the Cornaro family appear to be watching and discussing this encounter in boxes on both sides of this central scene in an almost theatre like setting.
Next stop was the Piazza Navona. It is a beautiful square with a number of restaurants and shops all around & numerous local artists with their paintings on display. This square has three beautiful fountains, the most famous being the one in the centre, the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi or Fountain of the Four Rivers. Designed by Bernini, the fountain represents four major rivers of the four continents through which papal authority had spread: the Nile representing Africa, the Danube representing Europe, the Ganges representing Asia, and the Rio de la Plata representing the Americas.
The climax of the story brought us to Castel Sant’Angelo. When we reached this landmark, we saw a newly wedded couple and a shiny red Ferrari parked in front. Our guide had an interesting story to share about Italian weddings. Apparently, it is part of their tradition that once a couple gets married, they go to 5 different landmarks in the city for a photoshoot. All along the way, the bride’s long wedding gown trails behind and gets dirty. They say that this is a sign of commitment to her husband since once the wedding dress is dirty; she can never wear it for another man!! (I guess people back in those days never thought about the option of buying a new dress ;-) ) Well, coming back to the Castel Sant’Angelo, this building was originally Roman emperor Hadrian’s Mausoleum. Later on, the popes used it as a fortress and castle by building a further level on the existing structure. Legend has it that the Archangel Michael appeared atop the mausoleum, sheathing his sword as a sign of the end of the Great Plague, thus lending the castle its present name. The original statue of the Archangel erected to commemorate this legend was struck by lightning and later replaced by a new statue. Both the statues still exist in the castle.
From the terrace we can see the Passetto di Borgo. This is an elevated fortified covered corridor that connects the castle to the St. Peter’s Basilica and was used by popes to flee from the Vatican when in danger. Another interesting structure is actually the bridge, Ponte Sant’Angelo, that connects the castle with the city spanning across the Tiber river. It’s a pedestrian bridge with large statues of the apostles Peter and Paul at the entrance. Along the bridge, spaced at regular intervals, ten statues of angels holding instruments of the Passion (various items used during the crucifixion of Christ like Crown of thorns, nails, the Cross etc.) are found. Well, that was the end of a four & a half hour long superb Angels & Demons tour with our guide Robert. (Yeah! He was also called Robert, just like the protagonist of the story!! Strange but true :-D)
It was almost time for our next tour to Ancient Rome, so after a super quick lunch we hopped onto the bus and headed to one of the Seven Wonders of the World, the Colosseum. It is a huge elliptical amphitheatre that once upon a time held up to 50,000 spectators who came to watch gory games involving gladiators, wild animals, and prisoners. The construction of the Colosseum was started in 72 AD under Emperor Vespasian and completed in 80 AD under Titus.
The Colosseum's huge crowd capacity demanded that the venue be filled and evacuated quickly. To overcome this problem, a solution similar to the ones used in modern stadiums was adopted. The amphitheatre has eighty entrances at ground level, 76 of which were used by ordinary spectators. Each entrance and exit is numbered, as is each staircase. Spectators were given tickets in the form of numbered pottery shards, which directed them to the appropriate section and row. Most of the numbers are no longer visible, but we did see 51 written in Roman numerals over a doorway.
The spectators were seated in a tiered arrangement according to their status in society. Special boxes for the Emperor provided the best views of the arena. The main arena where the games were played was a wooden platform covered with sand, but most of it no longer exists. Below this platform is an underground area called the hypogeum which consisted of tunnels and passageways where gladiators and animals were held before contests began. The hypogeum is still clearly visible and the sight of it really makes one imagine how those days of gladiator fights would have been. It must have been truly a horrific sight to watch a weaponless prisoner being chased and finally killed by a blood thirsty lion!
With these disturbing thoughts in mind, we made our way to the next part of ancient Rome, the Capitoline Hill.
The approach to the top of the Capitoline Hill is through a stairway called the Cordonata leading to the Piazza del Campidoglio. Both the staircase and the piazza were designed by Michelangelo. Two erstwhile Roman government buildings stand in this piazza, the Palazzo dei Conservatori ("Palace of the Conservators") and the Palazzo Senatorio ("Senatorial Palace"). The Palazzo Nuovo, or "New Palace" was later constructed as an identical copy of the Conservatori. The facades of all these buildings were also designed by Michelangelo. These buildings have now been converted to museums.
At the rear side, the sudden view of the Roman Forum took us by surprise. A very ordinary looking alleyway leads into one of the most beautiful sights that I have ever seen. (It’s ironic because everything is in ruins but still looks so beautiful!!) The Roman Forum is basically a rectangular plaza surrounded by the ruins of several important ancient government buildings at the center of the city of Rome. (Wikipedia defines it like this :-D) It is the oldest part of Rome and a number of temples, the Senate house, government buildings were all located here. From what our guide told us, the citizens gathered here for all kinds of occasions ranging from elections to public executions.
After getting our hearts’ fill of the ancient Roman city, it was time to get back onto the bus and visit St. Paul’s Basilica. After the execution of Paul, one of the twelve apostles of Jesus, this basilica was constructed to mark his burial spot. The design of the interior is similar to other basilicas and like the St. Peter’s Basilica, a Holy Door is found here also. A very interesting thing to notice in this basilica is the medallions in the ceiling depicting pictures of all the Popes till date. 265 popes including the present Pope Bendedict XVI can be seen and a few extra empty medallions have also been placed since it’s believed to be bad luck if the existing Pope doesn’t have a succeeding medallion.
After the basilica visit we were on our way to the final destination of the day, in fact the final destination in Rome, the Fontana di Trevi or Trevi Fountain. A massive & stunning piece of work situated in an unassuming location with narrow alleys, the Trevi Fountain is a very popular tourist attraction in Rome. The Trevi fountain is actually the end part of the Aqua Virgo, an aqueduct constructed in 19 BC. It brings water all the way from the Salone Springs (approx 20km from Rome) and supplies the fountains in the historic center of Rome with water. This fountain was designed by Nicola Salvi based on a previous design for the fountain by Bernini. The central figure of the fountain is Neptune, the God of Seas riding a shell shaped chariot pulled by two horses. One of the horses is calm while the other one restive, symbolizing the fluctuating moods of the sea.
It is believed that tossing a coin into the fountain will bring the person back to Rome. I didn’t do that but I sure hope I will return to Rome someday! :-D