Rome and Venice
Visits to Rome and Venice preceded my
Dalmatia motorcycle meander abroad.
I’d never been to Italy before,
despite Rome, in particular, being a long-standing focus of aspects of my life
– both classical and ecclesiastical.
Rome, therefore, was a must-experience destination. Venice fell into
place as the second choice, partly because of its unique attraction and partly
because it was the obvious and easiest stepping stone to Ljubljana, Slovenia,
from where the motorcycle tour would start.
Having done many years of Latin and
Ancient Greek, inevitably delving into the ancient history, literature and
philosophy that centred for centuries on Athens and Rome, the classical side of
Rome has always held a fascination for me. To complement that, my many additional years
engrossed in matters ecclesiastical, with their rock foundations in Rome, made
Rome a special place, even though now it’s mostly academic.
I was greeted on arrival in Rome with
thunder and lightning! I wondered if the gods – both classical and
ecclesiastical – were trying to tell me that I wasn’t welcome. It wouldn’t have
surprised me on a number of counts.
It’s just as well I’m not
My first day didn’t go quite as planned.
Long delays in getting off the plane in Rome, getting into the centre, finding
my hotel and checking in meant I’d lost several hours that had been otherwise
mapped out for my first foray in classical Rome. The weather didn’t help; and
neither did the strains in my foot, injured during my Old Mail Routes trip and
aggravated on the Endeavour Voyage, that
seemed to have been further aggravated by many kilometres of airport and
railway station walking.
Fortunately, one of Rome’s great
basilicas, Santa Maria Maggiore, was in the near neighbourhood of my hotel, so
I settled on a visit there for the day’s sight-seeing. Amongst its claims is
the “most successful blend of different architectural styles,” each of which
has contributed significantly to the contrasting and complementing components of
its structure and decoration. Its impressive gilded ceiling of the 12th century
is said to have been constructed from gold first brought by Columbus from
America. It’s said to have been founded in 356AD, making it one of the earliest
churches in Christian Rome.
Continuing rain the next day dictated
a day dedicated to Christian Rome, which would involve more indoors.
The first task was to master the
local transport. The Metro is usually the easiest, but, as always – like
putting up a tent – the first time always seems complicated.
The goal was the Vatican Museums. A
reasonably early start was designed to beat the crowds, but an hour twenty
minute queue awaited, constantly badgered by touts for guided tours “with no
queue” and a variety of hawkers with everything from souvenirs to umbrellas.
The wait, however, was rewarding.
The Vatican Museums consist of a
network of buildings, rooms, galleries, chapels and the Vatican library (of
old). Every aspect constitutes a treasure in its own right. Many of the floors,
barely visible under the mass of tourists, are intricate mosaics from ancient
Roman temples or buildings. Walls and ceilings throughout are highly decorated,
many by huge frescoes (painted on the plaster walls while still wet) and
paintings from a succession of great art schools and famous artists such as
Rafael and, of course, Michelangelo. These often depict momentous historical,
theological or biblical events. The Sistine Chapel is undoubtedly the
centrepiece, with its ceiling and wall frescoes of the creation and last
The Vatican seeks to retain an
ambience of silence and respect within the Sistine Chapel. Visitors are asked
to remain silent. A tall ask for the hundreds that would be in the chapel at
any one time. In fact, the greatest disturbances to the tranquillity were the
shouts of the attendants and the blaring speakers calling for silentio.
The day came a little unstuck after
three hours in the museums. A ham and cheese roll wasn’t what it looked like. I
started to suspect that half way through and dropped the rest in the bin.
After about 10 mins on the queue for
entry into St Peter’s Basilica, a few hundred metres from the museums, I
retreated to a resting spot near a bin. Just as well! Back on the queue, which
had grown by over a 100m, I lasted there about a half hour and retreated again.
This was a far more serious retreat! Fifteen or so minutes later, I felt
sufficiently ok to tackle the queue again, but this time I found where I had
been and joined it there. It was probably only another half hour to reach the
The interior of the Basilica is, as I
expected, breath-taking. I was instantly reminded of a conversation I had had
on the queue for the museums. I happened to be behind a Victorian couple who
had just visited “a very impressive church around the corner”. I gleaned they
were talking about St Pater’s Basilica. They were certainly impressed. In fact,
they were insistent that it was even more impressive than the Catholic Church
in Bairnsdale (Victoria), which was their sole point of reference.
The interior includes Michelangelo’s
Pieta, secured behind armoured glass to protect it from odd-balls, like the
Australian citizen that took to it with a hammer some years ago. Pilgrims and
other devotees file past a statue of St Peter and rub their hands over his
shoes, although I was unsure what their expectations were. People stand in awe
at the overwhelming statue of Pope St Gregory (of Gregorian calendar fame).
Marble of intricately woven colours and gilded embroidery confront you in every
direction, but do so with a refinement and calmness that enhance the experience
of being at the very heart of Christianity.
I succumbed to a taxi for transport
home and was in bed by 5.30pm!
Sunshine and a better feel the
following day got me going reasonably early with Classical Roman in my sights.
Getting to my starting point of the Colosseum was an experience. I struck the
Metro at peak hour and stood shoulder to shoulder on the platform while the
first train filled to overloading and until the second one came; thence being
carried along into the carriage to prepare for the scrimmage to exit.
The Colosseum was magnificent. We’ve
all seen our fill of photos shot professionally from helicopters or other
vantage points or with maxi-pan lenses; but to wander through its corridors,
climb its steps, appreciate its grandeur and efficient people-moving design, be
amazed at the depth and complexity of the structures that operated under the
wooden floor (yes, the floor was wooden, covered in sand (Latin for which is arena),
and understand both the happenings there and the social structures that
dictated seating were revelations of the ingenuity, sophistication and
barbarism of ancient Rome.
From the Colosseum, it was a short
but for me a very slow walk up the “Colosseum Valley” to the Roman Forum – the
other great exhibition of ancient Rome. I managed to stay on the entry queue
for about ten minutes before I decided that I couldn’t do it. I had already
been forced to sit for a half hour at the end of the Colosseum visit.
I quit the Forum queue and all but
dragged myself to the Metro and home. It was such a relief to get to the hotel,
with a few bottles of fizzy mineral water I bought along the way. I was in bed
by 12.30pm and stayed there until next morning. No more happy bucket scenarios
– just beat!
After 18 hours in bed I was anxious
to test the floor. It was fine. I had a lot of time to make up and a ticket to
Venice to purchase for the next day. So it was an early start.
It was back to the Roman Forum to
pick up where I had left off the day before. I had discovered that my ticket to
the Colosseum also got me into the Forum – and it had a two-day validity. At
least that was some small consolation!
The Roman Forum was the heart of
ancient Rome – the ‘down town’ part of the city. That’s where everything
happened. It spread out from the Colosseum, at one end of it, like a slowly
spreading oil slick on water. Along one side was the Palatine Hill – where the
nobles of Rome had their mansions; a trend continued into the middle ages.
Along the other side – but now across a main thoroughfare – was another of
Rome’s famous seven hills. While the seven hills have great significance for
the origins and founding of Rome, I wasn’t tempted to trace or visit them.
The forum itself is a mixed bag when
it comes to structures – some standing, some displaying the design and size of
their former glory, others little more than foundations or less.
The Curia, the ancient meeting place
of the Roman Senate is there, but it’s a 3rd century re-building greatly
restored in 1937. It was first built by Julius Caesar, who made sweeping
changes to the lay-out and structures of the Forum as he amassed popularity and
influence. Unfortunately, he never got to sit in it as a senator, having been
declared ‘too ambitious’ by his fellow senators and disposed of. In fact, it’s
only been relatively recently that excavations a couple of kilometres away have
unearthed the remains of four republican-era temples and the remnants of the
brick steps of the baths of Pompey where Caesar was assassinated on the Ides of
March in 44BC. “Beware the Ides of March!”
You might recall it was Calpurnia who
reputedly pleaded with him: I said, “Julie don’t go,” I said. “It’s the Ides of
March!” I said. “Julie don’t go!” No doubt, Julie dismissed her – and probably
chided her – as being ‘negative!’ (Bonus point if you identify the source of
the quote – and it wasn’t Shakespeare.)
Back to the Forum. There are the
ruins of the rostra (the platform used for public oratory), which Caesar had
only recently reorganised and from which Marc Anthony gave his rousing speech
of “Friends, Romans, Countrymen” (although he would have said it in Latin – the
Shakespeare version, being only a translation). Nearby, there’s the place,
which became a shrine, where Caesar’s body was burned. The whole sorry saga, of
course, brought the republican era to an end, signalled the demise of the
Senate and ushered in the imperial era. I imagine the senators wished they had
sought out a more conciliatory option, involving, perhaps, more negotiation
rather than only consultation!
From the Forum, it was a short walk
to the Capitoline Museums, consisting of two buildings – one from the Middle
Ages used as the seat of the city magistrates; the other designed by
Michelangelo, who renovated the complex of three buildings, which have become
Rome’s premier museum for antiquities and other secular treasures, inevitably
including religiously themed paintings.
Every ‘next destination’ seemed close
enough to walk, but by the day’s end I felt I had walked half way around Rome.
The Pantheon was a must-see. It
started life as a massive Roman temple to all the gods and has become a church.
The height of its huge rotunda is equal to its diameter (43m). A hole at the
top – the oculus – provides the only light (and lets in the rain). The design
and structure of the dome are considered architectural wonders. The Pantheon is
often seen as a symbol of Rome itself.
Then the Trevi Fountain. I couldn’t
let that slip by. I even threw some coins into it. But I couldn’t remember
whether throwing coins into it meant you would fall in love again or return to
Rome. I knew it was one or the other. So I took a punt. Then I couldn’t recall which way I bet! But I did remember to
throw three coins in the fountain. However, they totalled only 50 Eurocents,
so, I guess, either way, I’ll get only what I paid for!
I also stopped by several churches
highlighted in the guide books as significant examples of art and architecture.
They all lived up to their descriptions and worth visits.
Walking so much also brought me to
several sights that I had resigned myself to missing because of lost time, such
as the Spanish Steps and the column of Marcus Aurelius. So I got a few ‘extras’
Slide Show of Rome
Here is a slide show of my days in Rome: