To see Rome in a day is a crazy notion but we tried it. On the third port of call into Civitavecchia on my Western Mediterranean cruise I decided not to go sketching but to take the train into Rome and return to old haunts. It was an opportunity to revisit the time when, for me, over fifty years ago Rome turned art and history into a reality. I took Tony Slater, the artist on the cruise and his partner, Doreen; for both of them it was their visit. My plan was to start at St Peter’s and then cross the Tiber to broadly follow the direction of the Corso Vittorio Emmanuele through the medieval and renaissance quarter of the city, crossing the Corso back and forth to visit points of interest.
We got off the train at the station for St Peter’s and approached the square through the side streets to burst upon Bernini’s colossal enclosure of Doric columns with its two fountains and central obelisk. We stood on one of the two spots which are the centres of the radius of the semicircles of the two columns. Then we entered the basilica as the crowds were moving sufficiently not to waste time. The scale of the interior is so vast it is difficult to grasp. Immediately to the right is the Pieta of Michelangelo, that masterpiece carved when he was only 25 years old. We only had time to walk down the nave for a closer look at Bernini’s bronze baldachino over the high altar, fashioned from the metal taken from the Pantheon.
We left the basilica and headed for the Tiber down the Via della Conciliazione, built by Mussolini in an act of vandalism, to pass over the river with a glimpse of the Castel di Sant’Angelo. Originally the mausoleum of Hadrian, it was soon turned into a fortress and during its history has been connected with many murky stories, including the Borgias. Our next stop was a visit to St John of the Florentines, designed by Sansovino who won a competition against Raphael and Michelangelo. The church lies at the beginning of the Via Giula, the most fashionable street in Rome during the Renaissance.
From here, we made our way to the Piazza Farnese with the palazzo designed by Sangallo and Michelangelo, catching glimpses of inner courtyards including the one where I lived on and off for some six years. We stopped for coffee in the adjacent Campo dei Fiori with its brooding central statue of Giordano Bruno, philosopher, theologian, mathematician and Dominican monk burned for heresy on the spot in 1600. The morning market was in full swing and just in front of us was a man on a bicylcle sharpening knives. This area is the centre of life of old Rome. After coffee we headed towards the Piazza Navona, stopping on the way to enter the cortile of the Palazzo della Cancelleria, the first Renaissance palazzo in Rome. It was built for cardinal Riario, allegedly on the proceeds of one night’s gambling and for a period housed the exiled members of the royal Stuart family.
The Piazza Navona is built on the site of the stadium of Domitian and still retains its shape. In the centre of the west facade is the church of Sant’Agnese with its facade by Borromini. This is one of my favourite buildings for here Borromini has achieved a truly iconic structure which a forms a climax and completes the enclosure of the piazza. In front is the central fountain by his arch rival and enemy Bernini. The figures in the fountain denoting the four great rivers of the Nile, Danube, Plate and Ganges are variously hiding their heads or holding up their arms in horror at the building they believe is about to collapse on them. Just off the piazza is the church of Santa Maria della Pace with its delightful semicircular portico looking down a narrow street of local restaurants.
From here we crossed back through the Piazza Navona to go to the Pantheon but stopped on the way to visity the University of Santa Sapienza with its church of Sant’Ivo, also by Borromini, whose campanile has the form of a spiral. Borromini came from Brione, a little vallage on the shores of Lake Lugano in the Swiss canton of Ticino, the last to join the federation. So both the Italians and the Swiss claim him as a nation architect.
On, then, to the Pantheon, Built by Hadrian in 125 AD with its coffeerd dome of a hemisphere, 18 feet thick at the base and 6 feet thick at the open oculus. The interior is still covered in its original marble, preserved as an original Roman building because in the sixth century it was converted to a Christian church. Behind is the Piazza of Santa Maria sopra Minerva where Bernini erected an obelisk on the back of an elephant. The church itself is the only Gothic church in Rome, although there are traces of the Gothic in the Trinita dei Monti at the top of the Spanish steps and in Santa Maria in Aracoeli.
We then went towards the Trevi fountain, stopping on the way to call into the Jesuit church of Sant’Ignazio, overlooking a Rococo piazza with its curved buildings. The Trevi is also a Rococo design, built on to the facade of the Palazzo Poli and fed by the waters of Agrippa’s aqueduct, the Aqua Vergine. This aqueduct also feeds the fountains of the Piazza di Spagna, Farnese and Navona. Agrippa was the son-in-law of Augustus and brought in the first two aqueducts and built thirty reservoirs. These were added to so that by the time of Trajan there were more than ten aqueducts feeding some thirteen hundred fountains. At that point we decided to have lunch of a traditional pasta and local wine at L’Archetto in a side street near the Trevi.
After lunch we made our way throught the Piazza of the Apostles to the Piazza Venezia, where Mussolini used to harangue the crowds in front of the awful ‘Wedding Cake’. This gigantic white-stoned monstrosity, erected on the site of the Temple of Juno as a monument to the kindgom of Italy, far surpasses in vulgarity anything the Caesars or the Popes had ever inflicted on Rome.
At this point I had intended to visit the nearby church of the Gesu, that seminal Baroque building erected by the Jesuits in their fight-back of the Counter-Reformation: the tiny Piazza Mattei with its delightful bronze Tortoise Fountain: and the Theatre of Marcellus, the forerunner of the Colosseum, erected by Augustus and named in honour of his nephew. However, time was running short, so we gave those a miss and went straight to the Capitoline hill, or Campidoglio, the smallest of Rome’s seven hills.
As we mounted the ramped steps to pass between the giant statues of the Dioscuri, Castor and Pollux, we passed the flight of steps to our left rising to Santa Maria in Araceoli. According to legend, Augustus asked Apollo who would succeed him and was told, ‘A Hebrew child, a God Himself’. So the emperor set up an altar to the Divine Child with the inscrtiption, ‘Ara Filii Dei’, and it became known as the Altar of Heaven -‘Ara Coeli’.
On the summit stood the Capitol proper with the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus. The Piazza del Campidoglio is the square laid out on that site by Michelangel. In the centre he placed the bronze equestrian statue of the philosopher empereor Marcus Aurelius (161-180 AD) which had stood for five hundred yeaars before in front of the basilica of St John Lateran. At the back of the square is the Palazzzo del Senatore, referring to just one senator because Adrian IV, or Nicholas Breakspeare who was the only English pope, had abolished the senate. On one side is the Palazzo del Museo Capitolino and on the other is the Palazzo dei Conservatori, both buildings designed by Michelangelo and now a magnificent museum containing the finest examples of Roman sculpture.
Going down the left side of the Palozzo del Senatore we were able to overlook the Forum with the Arch of Septimius Severus in the foreground, the Arch of Titus commemorating the sack of Jerusalem in 70 AD, the Via Sacra and the Temple of the Vestal Virgins clearly visible with the Palatine hill in the background. This hill was the desirable residential quarter of the emperors which in its decayed, romantic state inspired the artists Pousin and Lorrain and subsequently the design of English gardens.
We then descended to the Via dei Fori Imperiali, another of Mussolini’s cretions, now thundering with modern traffic. Here, at the beginning stands Trajan’s column, covered in 2,000 figures, commemorating his conquest over the Dacians whose territory is now Romania. Trajan is the only pagan mentioned by Dante in his description of the sixth heaven. The column stands in front of the twin circular Renaissance churches of Santa Maria di Loreto and Nome di Maria. As we walked towards the Colosseum we stopped to view the Forum again.
The Colosseum is a staggering construction illustrating the engineering genius of the Romans. It was an arena capable of holding 50,000 spectators with 80 entrances. It was constructed in less than four years on marshy ground and cost less than the Dome at Greewich. Yet its purpose is beyond our comprehension. Here, human agony and death were turned into a spectacle of public entertainment on a massive scale.
From here we took a short cut up on to the Via Cavour, from where one can glimpse the Basilicas of St Mary Major, to visit the church of St Peter in Chains. In this church is housed Michelangelo’s great sculpture of Moses. It was one of the pieces intended for the tomb of pope Julius II but by the time Michelangelo had spent six months in Carrara choosing his marble, Julius had lost interest in his tomb and put Michelangelo to work on the Sistine Chapel.
I had intended to walk along the Via Quirinale to visit Berenin’s own favourite work of architecture, Sant’Andrea al Quirinale, an oval church with a rich interior and simple exterior. Further along is the church of S. Carlo alle Quattro Fontane by Borromini, followed by the church of Santa Maria della Vittoria. Here is located what Bernini considered to be his best sculpture, the ecstacy of St Theresa. It is then only a short walk to the station, passing through the Piazza Esedra in front of the Baths of Diocletian.
However, by this time foot weariness had taken its toll so we took a taxi straight from St Peter in Chains to the station and caught the train back to Civitavecchia. In six hours we had still managed to see many of the famous sites and also experienced the intimacy and particular character of some of the back streets of Medieval and Renaissance Rome.