Arrival and Awakening
Flying over the Swiss Alps the turbulence just about threw me out of my seat. It was a gorgeous
day - not a cloud in the sky anywhere along the peninsula, but the ride nearly knocked the
water glass off my tray and into my lap. The seat belt sign came on. No duh. Finally we were on
final approach into Fumicino, aka Leonardo da Vinci Aeroporte. Less than one hour later I was
on the train into the city.
I walked out into the train station and was immediately assaulted. "Taxi? Taxi,
meester?" No, no taxi. "Hotel? You need a hotel?" No, I don't need a hotel,
either. "No hotel?" came the incredulous reply. I found the steps to the Metro and
walked down. I waited for the train and got on. It was past rush hour now and there was plenty
of room. Two stops later I got off and walked out onto Piazza di Spagna, site of the famous
Spanish Steps. The piazza was not too heavily occupied, and here are the steps, right here!
Thank God I didn't have to walk up them. And the charming fountain was right there too.
Neat! This is Rome!!
A quick check of my map to get my bearings... OK, Via Condotti to Via del Corso, make a right,
the hotel is about 100 meters down from there. Via Condotti turns out to be a shopping
"street" no wider than a typical alley. I walk down it to Via del Corso and all of a
Bzzzzzzz!!! Beeeeepppppp!! Bzzzzzzz!!!!!!!
Bzzzzzzz!! It's the Attack of the 50 cc motorinis!!!
Via del Corso ends up being a major thoroughfare with a 1 meter wide sidewalk. Perfect.
*I'm* 1 meter wide and I've got a garment bag, a duffel and a laptop! The Vespa
and Piaggio mopeds (the motorini) are zipping by at full throttle no more than a meter or 2
from me as I walk down the street to my hotel. Mercifully, it's just a few steps away.
Seeing the Sights - The Colosseum
I had well over half a day left to me, so I
almost immediately went out again. First stop: the Colosseum. I walked down to the end of Via
del Corso to Piazza Venezia and then looked down the main drag. There it was, filling the space
on the horizon created by the Via dei Fori Imperiali, just like Mussolini wanted; the 2 000
year old stadium! More about Mussolini later.
The Colosseum can't really be described - you simply have to see it to believe it. It was
finished in 80 AD. When it was opened it held 50 000 screaming (and non-screaming) fans. The
city had a 100 day long festival with events everyday to celebrate. They killed thousands of
wild creatures (and not a few gladiators) as part of the games. The stadium was used for
several hundred years, until the gladiators went on strike and demanded luxury skyboxes for
their next-of-kin. The owners responded by having "Replacement Gladiatorial Games",
but the people boycotted and then the whole system collapsed. See? Those who ignore history are
doomed to repeat it.
Which reminds me of a joke... What do you call a Roman with hair between his teeth? A
Two Facts About the Colosseum That You Think Are True, But Aren't
- Christians were sacrificed to wild animals or gladiators in the Colosseum.
False, the Christians were martyred in Dometian's stadium (although Dometian
himself never did that, either), which is now Piazza Navona. During the
Colosseum's heyday Christians weren't being systematically martyred
(probably because there weren't very many of them). However, because of the
BELIEF that this occured, a Pope in the 7th century decreed that the Colosseum
should be preserved, and so it's use as a mediaeval marble quarry halted. This
is why it appears as it does today; the outer ring used to encircle the complex in
its entirety, but half of it was removed for other uses.
- They used to fill the Colosseum with water and stage mock naval battles there.
False. Dometian did that, in the stadium he built that is now Piazza Navona. The
"sailors" were convicts. The losers didn't have to go back to
You can walk inside the Colosseum and check things out from the ground floor, and it's
free2. The entrance you use was the VIP entrance. The floor of the stadium is gone,
so you can see the storage rooms, staging areas and the elevator shafts that were used to bring
up the animals and equipment for the contests. If you want to go to the upper deck, it'll
cost ya. I walked around the outside of it one night and tried to imagine what it was like back
then. I wondered if the Romans had to pay as much for a beer there back then during a contest
as we do at the ballpark now... Do you think Roman fans wore the reproduction team togas, or
painted their faces in the gladiator team colors? Or chanted "We will, we will rock
you!" or "Na na na na, na na na na, hey, hey, hey, goodbye!" (in Latin, of
course) to the opposing team?
These are the sorts of things I think about when looking at a 2000 year old Roman ruin. And all
the time there was the constant Bzzzzzzz!!! Beeeeepppppp!!! Bzzzzzzz!!!!!!!
Bzzzzzzz!!from the 50 cc motorini Attack.
2 - As of early 1998 the Colosseum has an entrance fee, but the Roman Forum is
Seeing the Sights - St Peter's Square and Basilica
St Peter's is in Vatican City, which was
created in 1929 (yes, it's just 70 years old) to get the Pope out of the Mayor's hair.
The deal was the Pope got the Vatican and a few other important churches in town and the Roman
mayor got some peace from that meddling priest - the Pope is no longer allowed to make
statements about local or national politics, except as a moral compass. He's not supposed
to say, "Well, I am the man/God interface on earth and the Big Guy said that the streets
need repairing out in front of my place, Mayor, so you'd better do it or all manner of
plague and pestilence and maybe even a stock market collapse will happen."
St. Peter's Square is absolutely enormous - it is an ellipse, flanked with rows of columns
and with two fountains near the ellipse's foci. The foci themselves are marked; if you
stand on them, the 4-rowed columns surrounding the piazza resolve perfectly into one row. This
is where the people gather to hear the Pope speak - if you've ever seen newsreel footage of
masses of people waiting for the Pope this is the place. He speaks from a window of his
apartment overlooking the square to the north. The approach to St. Peter's was altered by
that paragon of urban architecture, Mussolini. The original design required you to wander
amongst the Renaissance neighborhood, with it's crooked and winding streets until suddenly,
without warning, you were in this huge open area. Thus, the impact of it was greater. Nowadays,
there is a wide boulevard that starts at the river and just heads arrow-straight into the
square, so the dramatic impact is lost.Bzzzzzzz!!! Beeeeepppppp!!! Bzzzzzzz!!!!!!!
The Basilica itself is, of course, the largest Christian cathedral in the world; inside are
markers showing the limits of other churches in the Christian world. St. Peter's is built
on the site of Apostle Peter's tomb; the Vatican quietly did some digging in the 1930's
and actually located a tomb underneath the church. A great big sigh of relief emmanated from
the Borgia Apartments and so now they can make a legitimate claim to that story.
Michelangelo's Pieta is there, behind bullet proof glass. You may remember it was attacked
over 20 years ago. The Pieta is the only sculpture Mike signed, but even more remarkable is the
fact that he was all of 25 when he was commissioned to create it.
You theologians and Catholics and Protestants out there should make note of the following; St.
Peter's was financed by the sale of indulgences. You know what those are, right? Yes, they
are the things that pissed off Martin Luther and finally forced him to nail his theses to the
door of the cathedral in Wittemburg and then go off and start Lutheranism and all those other
Protestant Reformation churches. An indulgence is an admission ticket into heaven. See, if you
have enough money apparently you can buy your way past the pearly gates.
Seeing the Sights - The Pantheon
The Pantheon was erected by Emperor Hadrian
(the same guy who built the wall across Britain to keep the Scots out) in 118 AD as a temple
for all the Gods. It has stood there ever since, with it's huge dome (43 m across, one
meter more than the dome in St. Peter's), marble columns and the original bronze doors.
Yep, the original doors. The construction of this beautiful building remains a mystery; the
dome is made of concrete but modern architects/archaeologists are not sure how it was actually
constructed. It is one of the few ancient Roman buildings that was left pretty much alone for
the last 2 millennia; Emperor Phocas gave it to Pope Boniface IV in 609 AD to preserve, who
then turned it into Church Santa Maria ad Martyres. Pope Urban VIII in the 17th century removed
the bronze roof tiles and melted them into cannon for his castle (Castel S'Angelo, which is
right next to the Vatican).
That was pretty much it for my first day. I had to go to work on Tuesday through Friday. We
rode the Metro and hung out with our potential partners and had a great time. We all went to
dinner one night and had the epic 4 hour long Italian dinner. Saturday was free for
sightseeing. I woke up early one morning and walked over to the Trevi fountain, which was maybe
1 km from my hotel. I had it all to myself - not a single soul anywhere nearby. One other
morning I went over to the Spanish Steps and climbed them - I think there was maybe one or two
other people in the Piazza. It pays to be an early bird in a late night city sometimes.
Seeing the Sights - Piazza Navona
Piazza Navona is a long rectangular shaped piazza with semi-circular ends. It looks remarkably
like the outline of a Roman Circus, which is what it was originally. Dometian built it for
chariot and horse races and eventually it was used to martyr Christians as well. It is in fact
the site of St Agnes' martyrdom. Agnes was a young girl who had refused the advances of an
emperor's son (I don't know which emperor, OK?). As a result, since she was a
Christian, she was brought to the stadium for her martrydom. When she was stripped naked before
the crowd, her hair miraculously grew to cover her nakedness. Then, she was tied to a stake and
BBQed, but she miraculously survived that, too. So, in a last desperate attempt to show this
girl who was boss, she was beheaded. That worked. The Piazza was eventually built on the
foundation on the stadium stands and a Church (St Agnese in Agone (St Agnes in Agony)) was
built on one side. Part of the ancient stadium can still be seen in a bank building at the
northern end (behind some glass).
Seeing the Sights - The Sistine Chapel
The Sistine Chapel is a part of the Vatican Museum tour - you buy a ticket and you see all the
cool stuff the Popes have collected and then you go into the Sistine Chapel. The Chapel was
built by Pope Sixtus IV in the dimensions of the Ark (which makes it about 10 meters wide and
40 meters long, I think) and is used by the College of the Cardinals as a meeting room to elect
a new Pope. I kept looking for the chimney where the white smoke comes out, but no luck. Maybe
next time. Oh, and there's some paintings and stuff on the ceiling and the front wall. I
didn't really look at it too much though. Pretty colors, naked people, fairly interesting.
No photos allowed.
Did I fool you? Nah, I didn't think so. Is the ceiling the greatest work of art ever
created by Man? Well, I don't know, but it is an incredibly breathtaking work. The fact
that it is some 20 meters up helps add to the dizzying sensation when you see it. I can't
imagine WHY some people thought the ceiling and the "The Last Judgement" on the front
wall shouldn't be restored. Leave it as is to slowly flake away and be lost forever?
Sheesh! I think you can imagine how difficult it is to describe the Sistine Chapel. You'll
just have to go.
Seeing the Sights - The Roman Forum
Beeeeepppppp!!! Bzzzzzzz!!!!!!! Bzzzzzzz!! Scattered along
the Via dei Fori Imperiali are the ruins of the Roman Forum and the Imperial Forum. The Fori
were the central gathering place in ancient Roman times. They were the markets and the temples
and the town square and even on occasion held gladiatorial contests. Caesar built the Roman
Forum and his successors built other Fori. They are all ruins that you can wander amongst now.
It is strange to see these things in the middle of the Attack, but they are away from the
street for the most part and so you can easily imagine how life was in and around these
structures 2 000 years ago. At one place in the Forum, under a shelter, is a still-intact
section of geometric pattern of light and dark tile mosaic flooring. It's amazing that this
has survived all this time. The tiles are very small, maybe .75 cm on a side. I got the
impression this room was a bathroom. You can wander amongst the ruined temples and walk on the
original marble stones.
It's just mind-boggling to sit on the crumbling steps of an ancient Roman temple ruin and
imagine watching Julius Caesar's body being cremated (he was assassinated about 800 meters
I took some photos of some of these places. You can see them here.
Seeing the Sights - Santa Maria Maggiore (Mah JHOR ay)
This is a 4th century basilica that contains some of the best examples of mediaeval mosaic art
in Europe. The mosaics on the wall of the nave are 5th century, the huge ceiling mosaic is 13th
century. I happened to get there just before a Vespers service Saturday afternoon. As a result,
the mosaics were lit up (they usually aren't) and I was able to really take a good look at
them. The masterpiece is easily the ceiling mosaic; it covers several tens of meters square.
This basilica is part of the Vatican and is at the top of the Esquiline Hill. Santa Maria
Maggiore is one of the churches traditionally visited by Catholic pilgrims to the city.
Mussolini - Urban Architect
It must be nice to be the dictator - any half baked, wild-eyed idea you come up with is acted
For example, let's say you're Mussolini and you decide you need a good street to have
military parades on. Further, let's say that you are intelligent enough to grasp the notion
that the Romans were a great culture and you want to relate your government to that greatness.
So, what to do? Hmmmm... I know! Let's bulldoze the area between Piazza Venizia
(which contains a memorial to the first king of the united Italy) and the Colosseum! Who cares
if the Roman and Imperial Forums are in the way? Those are just boring old ruins. The
Colosseum, though, now that's a symbol!
So, that's what he did. He built Via dei Fori Imperiali to connect those two points in the
city geographically and symbolically, plowing under several acres of Forum ruins. And then he
had a very nice parade street. I wonder what he thought of the view as he was hanging by his heels in 1945?3
Of course, the result was not only the loss of those ruins but the construction of a large
plaza immediately next to the Colosseum, where the Attack goes by 24 hours a day, along with
cars and busses and trucks, all spewing out two-stroke, diesel or gasoline combustion
by-products and vibrating the stadium to dust. More damage has been done to the Colosseum in
the last 50 years than in the previous 1 000, I bet (the city suffered a rather large
earthquake in 855 which did extensive damage to the Colosseum).
Mussolini did a similar thing with Via della Conciliazione, which is the large boulevard one
takes to get to the Vatican and St. Peter's Square.
3 - OK, yes, I know he was hung in Milano, not Roma. But it is an ironic image,
is it not?
Unique Properties of Roman Light
I am convinced there is something special about the light in Rome, whether the sun by day or
the streetlights by night. It has the amazing ability to reflect off Roman women in a way that
makes them all look incredibly gorgeous. Roman women are easily the most beautiful women I have
ever seen. They are all classy dressers and they have perfect hair and makeup, too. They wear
these tight little miniskirts, even when it's 7 degrees (C). Lots of dark colors - black,
grey, dark brown. They wear pumps with heels or many of them wear these very sexy boots that go
up to their knees. Oh MAN!
Rome is loud, dirty, beautiful and eternal, and I can't wait to go back. Next time I'll
devote a few hours looking for Audrey Hepburn.