Orvieto, Umbria, Italy – April 2015

I returned to Rome this Spring for a week+ of casual hanging out and visiting new and old sights. Things have changed a lot since my last visit; nowadays one can buy a sight visit pass and make reservations on line for a whole host of new and improved Ancient Roman excavations and tours. I also saw my Roman friends and visited the Tuscan hill town of Orvieto. My trusty Canon 6D came along for the ride and never let me down.

Orvieto, Umbria

Orvieto is a classic Italian medieval hill town but it is a mere 90 minutes from Rome. It has Etruscan roots, was a Roman settlement and then a center of medieval Italian education. It was part of the Papal Territories until Italian Unification. It sits on a nearly impregnable throne of volcanic tufa 300 meters above the valley floor a few minutes’ drive off the Autostrada del Sole. Orvieto’s main attraction is the Duomo, a 13th century masterpiece of Sienese school architecture. It was built in that typical style; with alternating white and dark gray/black marble layers, similar to the duomo in Siena and contains a chapel decorated with breath-taking frescoes by Fra Angelico (the ceiling) and Luca Signorelli (the walls and lunettes). It has a beautiful façade as well and truly is a masterpiece of medieval architecture and construction.

The Façade

The Duomo of Orvieto, Umbria, Italy

Construction started in 1290 and lasted 40 years. The façade was started in 1310 and continued for nearly 300 years, finally completed in its current form in 1609.

The Madonna of San Brizio Chapel

As masterful and beautiful the facade is, though, the real treasure is inside in the San Brizio Chapel. The chapel is covered with incredibly beautiful frescoes. The ceiling was created by Fra Angelico in 1447, the walls 50 years later by Luca Signorelli. Signorelli then painted the lunette frescoes from 1500 to 1503.

The ceiling has two themes – “Christ in Judgement” and “Angels and Prophets.” Signorelli’s walls’ themes are scenes are of the Choir of the Apostles, of the Doctors, of the Martyrs, Virgins and Patriarchs. But the lunette frescoes are the true masterworks here; considered to be among Singorelli’s best work, the lunettes display a riot of color and of human figures in all sorts of poses, contorted and otherwise.

Signorelli’s fresco “The Antichrist Preaches” in the San Brizio Chapel in Orvieto, Italy’s Duomo.

Every square inch of wall, ceiling and lunette surface is covered with these gorgeous works, truly stunning, and the amazing thing is you can get right up to them.

The Organ

Above the entrance of the Chapel of the Corporal and directly opposite the entrance of the San Brizio chapel stands the organ. It contains 5,585 pipes and was originally designed by Ippolito Scalza and Bernardino Benvenuti in the fifteenth century.

The 14th century organ in the Orvieto, Umbria, Italy Duomo

The Maurizio Tower and Clock

In the Piazza Duomo, the square next to the duomo, is a building with this fantastic clock, complete with a 1.7 m tall bronze automaton “Maurizio” that rings the bell every hour. Built in 1347, this was the time clock for the workers of the duomo. It was a true innovation; medieval timekeeping and even sense of time itself was very fluid; having a clock mandate start and stop times was revolutionary and very practical; the workers were paid by the hour, so the necessity of a clock to track each worker’s time is obvious.

A clock tower next to the Orvieto Duomo built in 1347 to provide time for the shifts of workers building the duomo. The figure shown there is 1.7 meters tall (nearly 6 feet).

Rome, Lazio

Of course, my days in Rome were spent walking around my second home, the city I most feel at home in when I am not here. I visited my favorite spots, sat at my favorite cafes and saw my favorite Roman people. I am always struck by how strong my ties are to the Eternal City and to my friends there. Even when I feel blasé about the trip at my departure, inevitably I feel happy and excited when I land.

I almost always come to Rome these days with a specific photographic agenda. A few trips ago I was interested in working at night or early morning. One trip I was focused on the apse mosaics in the early Christian churches. This time I decided to look for the unusual, or at least the lesser seen.

Rome, Italy’s Pantheon viewed from an unusual perspective

I visited the stadium superstructure ruins at the north end of Piazza Navona (Piazza Navona is built on the foundations of Domitian’s Stadium); for years all I could do was gaze longingly from the sidewalk down to the exposed ruins in front of the bank building that was built around them, but now they are open for close examination. At the Colosseum, I was excited to see that the third floor (as we Americans would say, the second level above ground level) is now open. That has always been a goal for me because until recently that level was off limits. There is also an excavated palace near Trajan’s Forum that is supposed to be very good as well. But I was unable to get into any of these because I had failed to make reservations weeks in advance. :-/ So, next time, I swear.

Link to the photo gallery

New Zealand and French Polynesia – January 2013


I do not typically use this blog to discuss personal events except as a framework to discuss the photographic techniques I used to create the images I discuss about a particular photo trip. However, I will make an exception in this case and discuss my vacation to New Zealand and French Polynesia in January, 2013 with as much focus on photography as I can.

Here is a direct link to the New Zealand photo gallery.

New Zealand

I departed LAX on Saturday January 5 around 10 PM and landed at AKL on Monday January 7 at 8 AM or so. From there I waited a few hours and then boarded a flight to Queenstown on the South Island. The overnight flight and morning arrival coupled with my extra-cost super economy seat meant I was not jetlagged in any way. I carried my new camera, a Canon 6D, which is an “affordable” full frame sensor D-SLR with both WiFi and GPS built-in. I also brought my trusty 24-105 f4 IS lens and my 50 mm f1.4.

South Island

Queenstown is the center of the NZ action sports/activities universe. In winter it is a ski resort destination, in the summer it is the bungee jumping, jet boating and zip-lining capital. It is also in the middle of some utterly spectacular scenary – the Remarkables mountains and Lake Wakatipu. Nearby is Lake Wanaka and Mt Aspiring with the Rob Roy glacier – very alpine.

Mountains and clouds above Lake Wakitapu

Queenstown is at roughly the southern latitude as Portland, OR is north – 45.5 degrees – and has the same weather. This meant that the weather was cool and cloudy with rain and snow at the higher elevations for part of the first week. It was nice weather for hiking and roadtripping, but not for photography. The only exception was some forest images I took while hiking a trail (Kiwis call them “tracks”) to Mt Creighton near Lake Wakatipu. Forest light filtered by rain clouds is less intense and allows for interesting light and dark interplay due to the low contrast environment.

Rain-swollen stream near Mt Creighton, New Zealand

My first few days were in the Queenstown area, driving along Lake Wakatipu to the western end at Glenorchy, taking a cable car up a mountain to get an alpine overview of the entire town, the lake and the surrounding mountains and then later when the weather cleared for a few days driving to Lake Wanaka and Mt Aspiring National Park. I also went out Fiordland National Park and Lake Manapouri.

The Remarkables mountain range above Queenstown, New Zealand

I had planned a cruise on Milford Sound but the weather did not cooperate and that activity had to be cancelled.

Ultimately the South Island weather cleared up and presented many opportunities to explore, be awed by and photograph some of the most incredibly beautiful scenery I’ve ever experienced.

North Island

After a week of fun on the South Island I flew from Queenstown to Auckland and then went by car to Cambridge, a town near Hamilton. Cambridge is near a town called Te Awamutu, the home town of a favorite musician of mine, Neil Finn. The main library in that town includes a small museum, and in the museum is a “shrine” to the Finn brothers, Neil and Tim. I went there for an hour or so one day. I also visited a very pretty seaside beach town called Taurunga, whose main geological feature besides the coastline is a small dormant volcano cone called Mt Maunganui. The North Island is still volcanically active; not only is Auckland surrounded by dormant volcanoes but there is a small thermal public bath at the base of Mt Maunganui.

Eroded rocks – Mt Maunganui, Tauranga, New Zealand

I learned to drive one day and then took a borrowed car on my own out to a region called The Coromandels, which is a lightly populated peninsula of vacation beach towns and beautiful rain forest. A few days out there was not enough time, but I managed to drive the entire paved highway (highway 25). The rest of the peninsula is reachable only by gravel road, something I was not willing to drive on with the car. If you click on the linked map, you’ll see that this sparsely populated, very wild and natural area is only about 20 or 30 miles across the bay from Auckland. Highlights of this part of the trip were definitely Cook’s Beach and Hot Water Beach and Mercury Bay.

Looking west from the top of Hwy 25 in the Coromandels.

I wrapped up my second week in New Zealand by seeing Elvis Costello and the Imposters live in Auckland, staying in the city through the weekend then flying to Papeete, Tahiti, French Polynesia that Monday morning.

View of the harbor from Auckland Sky Tower

French Polynesia

Here is a direct link to the French Polynesia photo gallery.


I flew from Auckland, New Zealand to Papeete, Tahiti, French Polynesia. I departed Monday morning 10 AM and arrived in Papeete (Faa’a International Airport) at about 4 PM Sunday afternoon. Papeete is the capital city and is the “Honolulu” of French Polynesia. Tahiti itself is the largest island. I stayed overnight on Tahiti and in the morning I took a puddle jumper aircraft from Faa’a to Moorea’s airstrip, a 12 minute flight.


Moorea is 12 million years older than neighboring Tahiti and the volcanic crater erosion and barrier reef demonstrate its age. I was staying on Cook’s Bay. I was visiting French Polynesia at the lowest of the low season; there were a grand total of 6 people in my hotel. It meant I had the place to myself, basically and no one seemed to really care. The weather was not very good; it rained in a monsoon the night of my arrival and it was gray and drizzly the first full day on Moorea, but eventually the clouds dissipated and the sun came out. I was able to get a lot of beautiful images by renting a car and driving around the island and taking a boat ride. I even did some long exposure timelapse images one night. I was on Moorea 3 nights and had a good time.

Under a Tahitian Moon – timelapse of the Moorea reef

Bora Bora

I then flew to Bora Bora, which is the classic South Pacific tropical island but was a bust for me. The weather did not cooperate at all, the island was under a hurricane warning (it was 500 km away but it meant the hotel reduced some of their services) and it wasn’t as much fun as Moorea. Eventually I got sick, probably from drinking the water. I was there two nights and flew back to Papeete and then home the same day.

The Bora Bora lagoon from the airport dock

Death Valley November 2012 Photo Trip

Earlier this month I again went out to what has become a favorite location for photography of mine – Death Valley National Park. The goal was to once again work on low-light, night and long exposure techniques for the most part at night and do fun exploring and typical dawn, dusk and HDR work during the day.

The technique I was most focused on this time was exposure stacking, which is a Photoshop technique where a series of short-ish long exposures of the night sky are layered together to achieve the same visual effect as a single long exposure. The image below is the most successful example I have from the trip; a mesquite bush on a sand dune with a series of 60 20-second-long exposures to give a total exposure effect of 20 minutes. The mesquite bush was lit for a few minutes with a hand-held flashlight using a painting-with-light technique.

A Moonlit Scene Looking West to the Panamint Range from Death Valley National Park’s Harmony Borax Works site

The stacking technique is superior to the single long exposure technique for me now for several reasons. First, the sky stays black since the 20 seconds at f4.5 and ISO 100 exposure used in this case is not enough to lighten the sky. Second, sensor noise does not build to a detectable degree with a 20 or 30 second exposure. I believe my workhorse Canon 40D may be getting “old” because it seems that longer (multi-minute) exposures are much noisier now than they were even 2 years ago.

This next photo is a late afternoon 3-image HDR shot looking east across the valley at the Amargosa Range from 6400 ft (2000 m) high Aguereberry Point in the Funeral Range very near Telescope Peak. This was a 6 mile improved gravel road drive that my 2005 Camry was able to do, much to my surprise and delight. I arrived at the overlook about an hour or so before the sun dropped below the Sierras and Panamint Ranges and I was able to get a few panoramas and HDRs of the views.

Another site visited was Trona Pinnacles, which I visited on the drive out to the park. Trona Pinnacles is in the California Desert National Conservation Area and is an unusual set of tufa formations. They have been the site of many film and advertising shoots and are unusual looking. They were formed from between 10 000 and 100 000 years ago, when the area was a large Pleistocene Era lake.

A multiple image panorama of the Tronas Pinnacles

A three image HDR photo of the Tronas Pinnacles in Tronas, CA

I have an album of photos from this Death Valley trip in my photo gallery immediately next to the Anza Borrego night sky photo.

Death Valley February 2012 Photography Trip

Earlier this month I spent a long weekend in Death Valley National Park on a photo safari. Death Valley is a favorite destination for me because it is typically fair weathered and clear skied during the day and night. I had timed my visit to correspond with a waning full moon with the idea that I would do a lot of long exposure work using the light of the moon to illuminate the desert floor and mountains.

Unfortunately the weather was not cooperative; beautiful cloud-filled skies during the day and complete overcast at night (!) meant that my primary goal was not met. Instead I did a lot of panorama and HDR photography during the day and experimented with flash and “painting with light” techniques at night.

This is the overlook from Dante’s View of the Badwater Basin area – it’s looking due west. The moon had risen just a few minutes prior to opening the shutter. The image is 1408 seconds, roughly 25 minutes. The cloud cover has already moved in, blocking the stars and the sky to the west. But it is worth noting that even under these conditions there is sufficient light to expose the floor of the salt pan at Badwater and to illuminate the sky. Star trails are faint but visible in larger versions of this image, too. So, this is a failed image but a success at proof-of-concept.

This is a 3-image +/- 1 f-stop HDR image of a mesquite tree on a sand dune near Stovepipe Wells. I deliberately went for a more surreal look to the HDRs I took here.

Rhyolite, Nevada’s Cook Bank Building in silhouette

The Cook Bank Building at the ghost town of Rhyolite, Nevada. 3 image +/- 1 f-stop HDR image.

A 10 image panorama of Death Valley’s Badwater Basin area.

An old pulley on mining equipment at Death Valley California’s Warm Springs Campground

Some Depression-era mining equipment at Warm Springs Camp. Accessible by Jeep, Warm Springs is a former mining camp nestled in a small valley in the middle of the Funeral Mountains on the western side of Death Valley. The spring there is constantly flowing and was used as a source to fill a large swimming pool (visible in the Google Maps link) at the camp.

I have an album of photos from this Death Valley trip in my photo gallery immediately next to the U2 Joshua Tree photo.

The 50th Anniversary of the Berlin Wall

1988 Visit

Today is the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the building of the Berlin Wall. I made my first trip to Europe in 1988. I went with my “pre-wife” who was the US-born daughter of (West) German immigrants. The countries on our itinerary were France and the then West Germany with a quick stop-over in London on my way home. As part of our trip planning I told her that the only things I really wanted to do were 1) see a stage of the Tour de France and 2) see the Berlin Wall.

We did both of those things.

Train Travel

To get to West Berlin we took a train from West Germany. We crossed into East Germany where East German soldiers greeted us with machine guns and German Shepherds. While they thoroughly inspected the train inside and out the East German passport control officer worked his way down the train aisle. When he arrived at our cabin he threw the door aside and very sternly demanded our passports. He examined them and us very closely and then stamped them, allowing us therefore to continue. It was almost comical in its presentation. We were supposed to be intimidated but the appearance and behavior of the passport control officer was quite comical and stereotypical.

Fifteen or twenty minutes later we were underway again. We pulled into Zoo Station, at the time the main train station for West Berlin. We exited and made a bee line for Wilhemstrasse, which our trusty Lonely Planet guide assured was the place to see the Wall. Looking at Google maps of Berlin now we must have walked several kilometers at least.


Wilhelmstrasse was a good place to go because one could see the Cold War and the then last 50 years of European and geo-political history in one location. The location of the Prinz Albrecht Hotel was at the intersection of Wilhelmstrasse and Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse.  The Nazis used it as SS headquarters before and during WWII. It was bombed to rubble at the end of the war and was then (and now) an open field.

When we arrived into the area the Wall was unmistakeable. Covered in graffiti it loomed easily 12 feet (4 m) high. A few wooden observation platforms were near it. I climbed up and took a few photos (July 1988 Berlin Wall Wilhelmstrasse 1, July 1988 Berlin Wall Wilhelmstrasse 2) into the East. I could see men moving around in the observation tower and assumed they were looking at me. I could see the No Man’s Land area with the trip wires and maybe even land mines.

The Berlin Wall at Wilhelmstrasse
The Berlin Wall at Wilhelmstrasse

Potsdamer Platz

We walked to Potsdamer Platz, which was nearby and prior to the war had been the center of Berlin’s social and cultural life. It too now was just an empty field. I took a few more photos and then we walked back to Zoo Station, walked down the Kurfürstendamm (aka the Ku-damm and the then center of West Berlin’s retail activity) and then caught our train back to West Germany.

It was a profound experience for me. I was able to look Communism and Totalitarianism in its face and see it for the horror that it is. That experience has stayed with me ever since and at times fueled my opinions of things that have happened in this country, as well. When the Wall came down in 1989 and Communism with it I was ecstatic for East and West Germany and for all of us.

2006 Visit

In 2006 I went back to the now-united Germany and to Berlin (I went to Germany in 1996 as well but was unable to get to Berlin on that trip). The Wall had been down for many years now and it was quickly fading into history. As part of a bus tour we drove down Niederkichnerstrasse, the street immediately behind the Wall at the Wilhelmstrasse site. Strangely enough this was one of the last remaining sections of Wall in the city. We got off the bus at the next stop and I went back to Wilhelmstrasse with prints of the photos I took in 1988.

The site has a visitors center now, the young woman behind the counter and I had a nice discussion of my photos and the possible location of the second set. I forgot where I took them but it was somewhere along the walk from Wilhelmstrasse to Potsdamer Platz. I took some photos from the same general location. The wooden observation platforms were gone now (July 2006 Wilhelmstrasse Berlin 1, July 2006 Wilhelmstrasse Berlin 2, Niederkichnerstrasse). I showed a guy selling water and snacks my 1988 photos and told him in German that I took them. He looked at them and gave a low whistle.

We later went to Potsdamer Platz, which is once again a center of social, cultural and retail life in Berlin. All through the city there is a marker in the pavement that shows the path of the Berlin Wall. The marker runs right through the middle of Potsdamer Platz.

A panorama of Berlin, Germany’s Potsdamer Platz, a revitalized area flattened in World War II and isolated after the Berlin Wall was erected.


I have always felt enormously grateful for that day in West Berlin in the summer of 1988. It was truly a life-changing day for me and an experience that is very difficult to get nowadays. Communism and totalitarianism are either veneered with Favored Nation trade status or extremely remote. I suppose the only equivalent place with as obvious a divide is the DMZ between North and South Korea. Not being able to post to Facebook from my hotel room in Shenzhen, People’s Republic of China does not have quite the same impact as seeing a 12 foot high graffiti-covered testimony to the failure of an entire political and governmental philosophy and a symbol of oppression of basic human rights and murderous violence.

Here is a map of the Berlin Wall’s route overlayed on a map of Berlin. Scroll down to Group 127 and then zoom in to see the location of my Berlin Wall photos.

The History of Rome – The Trevi Fountain

.The Trevi Fountain

The Trevi Fountain’s location at the junction of three roads (tre vie) marks the traditional point where an ancient Roman aqueduct called the Aqua Virgo – the Virgin Water – made a hard right turn to get to the ancient city center after flowing south for many miles. Legend has it that a young woman showed some thirsty Roman soldiers a spring.

This spring, located approximately at the 8th milestone on the Via Collatina from the city’s 0 milestone in the Roman Forum became the source for the aqueduct. The aqueduct supplied a major bath complex. Marcus Agrippa financed both the aqueduct and the bath in 19 BCE. The source was only 8 miles (15 km) away but the run length of the aqueduct was over 20 km. It’s end-to-end drop was only 4 meters.

The Goth invaders cut the aqueduct in of 537/538 AD. Late Antiquity Rome’s citizens lost their last fresh water supply for 1 000 years. Pope Nicholas V repaired the aqueduct in 1453 and built a small simple basin at it’s terminus.

Commission and Construction

Pope Clement XII held a competition in 1730 for a fountain design to cover the entire back wall of the Palazzo Poli. Roman citizen Nicola Salvi won the competition and work commenced in 1732. It is in the Baroque style. The very last touches were applied to the fountain 30 years later with the installation of the statue of Oceanus (the god of all water) in the central niche.


The fountain is 20 meters (65 feet) wide and 26 meters (85 feet) high at it’s highest point. It is the largest Baroque fountain in Rome.


The central niche contains a statue of Oceanus.

The left niche has a statue of Abundance pouring water from her urn

and the right niche a statue of Salubrity with a snake drinking from her cup.

The bas relief panel above the right side niche shows the young girl (the virgin of the spring) showing the Roman soldiers the spring.

Tossing the Coins

Various stories about tossing the coins in the fountain exist. The most common one is that one tosses a coin to ensure another visit to Rome. Extensions of that say 2 coins means one will fall in love and 3 coins means one will marry in Rome. Approximately 3 000 Euros are tossed into the fountain every day. The city of Rome collects the coins and gives them to various charities.

If you are planning a visit to Italy soon I have written 2 walking tour guide books to Rome that you can purchase here or at Amazon or Barnes and Noble.

I have an album of photos from Rome and other places in Italy in my photo gallery.

Joshua Tree National Park Full Moon Photography

Lunar Apogee

This weekend was a lunar perigee full moon. These don’t happen all that much together; perigee is the moon’s closest point to Earth in its orbit so the net result is an ever so slightly larger and therefore brighter moon. I decided to take advantage of this situation by driving to Joshua Tree National Park, a roughly 3 hour trek. I left the house around 12:30 PM and arrived at the Visitor’s Center at the northern edge of the park at 3:00 PM. A quick discussion with a ranger, a purchased entrance fee and off I went into the park. I drove on Geology Tour Rd and Queen Valley Rd (both unimproved) before deciding on hanging out along a stretch of Geology Tour Rd. The ranger assured me that area would very dark and pretty much devoid of people.

I stopped at the very southern corner of Geology Tour Rd and shot this panorama looking north of Pleasant Valley.

Setting Up and Weather

I found a good turn-off next to the road and set up. The moon rose above the rock formations and I took this image.

The full moon is behind a cloud. This was an ominous beginning; the clouds were coming in from the coast in front of the rain storm that hit us the next day. The clouds cut down the light available and made exposure estimation that much harder.

This was a multiple-minute exposure of a granite rock outcropping just off the road.

Eventually the clouds became so heavy I had to abandon the activity; the light was less than half what it was at the beginning of the evening.

Lessons learned:

1. Bring extra batteries. I went through a double battery pack in 3 hours of shooting. The long exposures really drain the batteries.
2. Next time I’ll get a hotel room out there and work all night instead of feeling like I had to get done by a certain time so I could safely drive home.
3. Give more time for location scouting.
4. Improve my autofocus management technique.

The History of Rome – Beware the Ides of March

Beware the Ides of March – The Assassination of Julius Caesar

The Day

March 15, 44 BC (the Ides of March in the Roman calendar) was a bad day for Julius Caesar. He was murdered by a group of 40 Roman Senators (including a Senator he considered an ally, Marcus Brutus to whom as Shakespear famously wrote he said “Et tu, Brute?” (You, too, Brutus?) as Brutus approached him to stab him) as he was walking to the Roman Senate building in the Roman Forum. The place he was murdered was a meeting room in the back of a structure called Pompey’s Theater. He was later cremated in the Roman Forum after a eulogy given by his friend Marc Antony, who said “I come not to bury Caesar, but to praise him.”

He was murdered because he had recently been declared “Permanent Dictator,” thus threatening the existence of the Roman Republic. This was in response to his military victories in Gaul after which he returned to Rome, crossed the Rubicon River with his personal army – an illegal act – and declared “The die is cast” (or maybe more likely “Let the dice fly”) as he did it.

Important Sites in Rome

The Rubicon

The Rubicon’s original location is now lost (a river in the Emilia Romagna region, 300+ km north of Rome was determined to be the Rubicon in 1991). This river as with many in the Po Valley, underwent a great deal of civil engineering over the centuries and so its original natural flow has been erased.

The other places – the Roman Senate building, the site where he was cremated, the site where his eulogy was given, Pompey’s Theater and the meeting room where he was assassinated – all still exist and can be visited in various ways.

Pompey’s Theater

Largo di Torre Argentina

Pompey’s Theater was a permanent stone theater in Rome. Pompey was a powerful Senator who skirted the rules forbidding permanent theater structures by putting a small temple on the top and a few meeting rooms in the back and calling it a temple and convention center. It exists today south of Piazza Navona as a series of centuries old apartment buildings built upon the theater superstructure; you can follow the semi-circular curve of the building.

You can also have a meal in a restaurant called Ostaria Costanza thereby sitting inside the support structure with the original brickwork and archways.

The meeting room where Julius Caesar met his demise is at the eastern end of the complex. You can see it if you visit the excavated temple complex of the Largo di Torre Argentina. The room remnants can be seen by standing in the right location on the eastern side and looking west. The area is a cat sanctuary and the room is now, believe it or not, a lavatory. In the photo above, the room in which Caesar was murdered is past the archways visible in the near background below street level. What survives of Pompey’s Theater is beyond and behind those large-ish buildings in the background.

The Roman Forum

The Roman Forum includes a rebuilt-restored Senate building and a small ruined temple room with altar that is the claimed site of his cremation. The spot where the eulogy was given is called the Rostra. The Rostra was the site for giving important speeches to the Senate building and to people gathered in the Forum’s open square.

His cremation site can be seen in the photo above but just barely; locate the well-preserved Temple of Antoninus and Faustina on the far left of the photo. Follow the front stairs down to the dark gray “lump.” That lump is the ruins of the memorial and cremation platform. The Rostra is not visible but it is beyond the lower left part of the frame.


The result of Julius Caesar’s assassination was a years long civil war between Marc Antony and Caesar’s nephew Octavian. It resulted in the defeat of Marc Antony’s army and the death of Cleopatra and Marc Antony via snake bite. Octavian became Augustus and was the first emperor of the Roman Empire. He was also the guy who commanded the Biblical Slaughter of the Innocents census that caused Joseph and a pregnant Mary to return to Bethlehem.

The Roman Calendar – Calends, Nones and Ides

Wikipedia has a great explanation of the numerous calendars Romans used during the course of their time on Earth, but basically the Romans described only particular points during the month with a title. The calends was the beginning, the nones was somewhere around the 5 to 7th days and the ides was usually the 13th but in March and a few other months it was the 15th. These points are generally thought to be based on moon phases (Calends = new moon, Nones = half moon, Ides = full moon). Other days were represented by “days after calends” or days before nones.” It seems that the Romans’ calendar is, like their numbering system, a lot more complicated than it needs to be.

So, from this one incident on the Ides of March more than 2 000 years ago we get several common sayings (“Et tu, Brutus!” for betrayal, “Crossing the Rubicon” for an act that can’t be taken back) and even once in a while someone will substitute a well regarded individual’s name for Caesar in the famous eulogy. We can still visit the places at which these events occurred.

The History of Rome: Santa Cecilia and Santa Maria in Trastevere

Another article in a series on the history of Rome, Italy.

Rome’s Trastevere District

Trastevere is a district of Rome to the west, officially Rione XIII. “Trastevere” (trahs TAY veh ray) means “Across the Tevere.” “Tevere” is the Italian name for the Tiber, the large river that flows through Rome. It is an ancient and medieval district full of narrow lanes and twisting alleyways. It is also home to two interesting very early Christian churches, Santa Cecilia and Santa Maria in Trastevere.

Santa Cecilia

The church is dedicated to St Cecilia, a 2nd century Roman martyr and patron of musicians. The Italian pronunciation is “chay CHEE lee ah.”

The first church on the site was built in the either 3rd or the 5th century, during excavation work its baptistery was discovered beneath the present Chapel of Relics.

The church was rebuilt in the early 9th century and St Cecilia’s remains were brought from the catacombs of St Calixtus to the church. It was rebuilt-remodeled again in the 18th century.


The front façade was designed in 1725; enter through the monumental entry and into the courtyard. In front of the church building proper is a garden courtyard with an ancient water vessel adapted as a fountain.

The campanile is from the 12th or 13th century.

The 24 Corinthian columns are from the first church.

Stefano Maderno’s beautiful sculpture of Cecilia is in front of the sanctuary. The discovery of her body by Pope Paschal in a catacomb in the 9th century is depicted in a 12th or 13th century fresco at the end of the aisle. Her body was brought to the church and re-interred after the discovery. Her tomb was reopened in 1599 and her body was apparently found intact and incorrupt. Maderno made a sculpture of her; his inscription can still be seen on the floor, testifying that she was depicted just as he saw her.


The Gothic canopy was made, and signed, by Arnolfo di Cambio in 1292. It is supported by four columns of black and white marble and has Cosmatesque decoration.

The Byzantine style apse mosaic dates from 820 and depicts Christ in Roman clothes being crowned by the Hand of God. He is wearing lati clavi, which was a sign of high rank in Roman society. He is flanked by from left to right; St Paul, St Cecilia, Pope Paschal I, St Peter, St Valerian and St Agatha. Below them on the band 12 lambs surrounding the Lamb of God are seen leaving Jerusalem and Bethlehem. The church’s upper gallery was originally a women’s gallery and is now the nun’s choir


Santa Cecilia is built upon an Imperial Era house. You can see the excavations; the ticket office is at the rear of the church on the left side as you enter.

Roman houses from the 2nd and 3rd century have been excavated. One of them is supposedly St Cecilia’s. Evidence of Republican period buildings have also been found. Back then this area was a commercial district; the brick basins uncovered indicates that it was owned by a craftsman; possibly a tanner.

Santa Maria in Trastevere

Some sources say this is the first church where Mass was celebrated openly. Legend surrounds this church’s founding; some information puts its construction at 221, although mid 4th century is more likely. It was rebuilt in the mid 12th century and again in the mid 19th century. Santa Maria in Trastevere contains an odd mixture of Ancient Roman artifacts and construction and early, medieval and relatively new Christian art and architecture.


The façade was rebuilt in 1702; the four Baroque statues above the portal depict Sts Calixtus, Cornelius, Julius and Calepodius. The mosaics are 12th century. They depict the parable of the wise and the unwise maidens. The Blessed Virgin is in the center. The right side maidens are crownless and have allowed their lamps to extinguish.

The door has recycled Imperial Rome stone cornices and the narthex contains a collection of pagan and early Christian inscriptions (3rd century) on the wall and fragments of 9th century sculpture and medieval paintings. The sarcophagi are from the 3rd and 4th centuries.

The campanile is 12th century.

Apse and Arch Mosaics

The spectacular main apse mosaic is also from the 13th century remodel project and is attributed to Pietro Cavallini. Christ and St Mary are enthroned and flanked by saints and popes. The mosaic’s left side shows Pope Innocent II holding a model of the church, St Lawrence and Pope St Callixtus. On the right side are Peter and Pope St Cornelius, Pope St Julius and St Calepodius.

The panels between the windows are also mosaics and are late 12th century. They show scenes from the life of the Blessed Virgin. From the left they are: The Birth of Our Lady, The Annunciation, Nativity, Epiphany, Presentation in the Temple and The Falling Asleep of Mary. The last one shows the soul of Mary in the arms of Our Lord.

The triumphal arch’s frescoes are 19th century, the episcopal throne in the apse is ancient.

Weird Stuff

And now for some of the oddness that is Santa Maria in Trastevere.

Inside the church in various places are the Latin words “Fons Olei (oil spring).” Legend has it that a crude oil spring bubbled up here during Augustus’ rule. The local Jewish community interpreted it as a sign that God’s grace would soon flow into the world. Later, because of this interpretation, this location became a meeting spot for the first Roman converts to Christianity.

Another oddness; at the steps at the end of the right aisle you can see some black marble weights. These are ancient standard weights, which the Romans first kept in the temples and later in the churches.

The History of Rome: Papal Basilica Santa Maria Maggiore

Another article in an occasional series on the history of Rome.

Founding and Construction

, Santa Maria Maggiore (St Mary Major) built in the 5th century AD. One of the four Papal basilicas in Rome. Its ceiling is covered with gold brought back from the New World.

Santa Maria Maggiore (St Mary Major) is one of 4 papal basilicas in Rome. The others are:

San Giovanni in Laterano (St John in the Lateran)

San Paolo Fuori le Mura (St Paul Outside the Wall)

San Pietro in Vaticano (St Peter in the Vatican)

It is one of the 4 churches the Pope holds Mass in and each church’s plot of land is a little piece of the Vatican.


Built in 8 years from 432 to 440, Santa Maria Maggiore sits on the summit of the Esquiline Hill, on a place that legend says was the location of an August snowstorm in 358. A childless couple was visited by the Virgin during their sleep and were told to build a church on the spot where snow fell the next morning. This led to the church first being called Santa Maria della Neve (St Mary of the Snow). Every year in August the legend is re-enacted by Rome Catholics who drop white flower petals from the dome during the feast day festival.

Over the centuries the church was expanded and remodeled but its interior remains true to its original construction; its layout looks very much like a 1st century Roman basilica, which for them was not a church but in fact a shopping mall/civic center building. It has a long tall nave, two aisles (one on either side) and a semi-hemispherical dome at the far end. Its overall length is 92 m, its overall width is 80 m and the nave is 30 m wide. It’s 75 m high. The ceiling is said to be gilded with gold brought back from the New World. The columns inside are recycled from an older Roman temple.

Mosaics and Art

Interior apse mosaic in the basilica Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, Italy. Mosiac depicts Mary and Christ and dates from the 9th century AD.


The mosaics in this church are nothing less than spectacular and should be the main focus of a visit. The dominant work of art in Santa Maria Maggiore is doubtlessly the apse mosaic. Created in 1295, it features Jesus and Mary surrounded by representations of the Tree of Life, the Apostles and other liturgical symbols. A truly stunning work, it set the standard for representations of Mary in Catholic art for centuries.

Interior of Rome, Italy’s Santa Maria Maggiore basilica with the baldachino and mosaics.

Triumphal Arch

The Triumphal Arch is also similarly beautiful. It illustrates scenes from Christ’s life and its theme is The Infant Savior. Because these works are older than the Council of Nicea, the Triumphal Arch in this church includes a scene that didn’t make the cut in the official New Testament (Christ as a baby is brought to a temple but His holiness causes the temple statues to crack and fall from their pedestals). Thus Santa Maria Maggiore’s Triumphal Arch mosaic is the only example of Christian art that contains a scene of Christ’s life not in the Bible.


Standing in the back of the nave you can see directly above the columns and architraves and underneath each window mosaics of Old Testament history. Research has dated them to circa 432-440, in the pontificate of Pope Sixtus III. Since the natural light in the church is very low, the best way to see them is to be in the church just prior to a service. They are then lit with artificial light and they absolutely glow! Some of them were heavily restored with paint during the Middle Ages, and some were reconstructed in 1593 and later.

Of the original 42 panels, 27 have survived to today. Fifteen have been lost through the ages; some of those when the Pauline and Sistine Chapels were built (you can see the archways at the end of the nave built for their entrances).


The Sforza Chapel is interesting because Michaelangelo designed it in 1564 (and completed in 1573 by Giacomo della Porta). Because so many of his works are now “off limits” to the general public it is nice to be able to not only walk up to one of his creations but actually walk into one. The original entrance to this chapel was a large arch, but it was demolished in the mid-1700’s.

This church also has a Sistine Chapel, but this Sistine Chapel is nothing like the famous one in the Vatican. Any chapel built by a Pope named Sixtus (there were 5 of them) is named “Sistine.” Laid out in a Greek Cross plan with a magnificent dome capping it, the Sistine Chapel known officially as Blessed Sacrament Chapel is a truly outstanding creation. Domenico Fontana designed it and work began in 1585. It is the burial place of Pope Sixtus V.