I had a conversation with a guy at my hostel about people who ponder for a long time at historical sights. He thought these people are “full of shit.” Although he enjoys going to historical sights and recognizes the significance of them, he sees no reason to spend a long time thinking about them, and he thinks that people who do so are being pretentious.
I used to believe that, but now I think that it requires a lot of mental effort to take in historical sights the right way. When looking at a centuries-old structure, our instinct – or mine, at least – is to think “that’s cool” or “that’s pretty.” We admire the craftmanship, then we get bored and want to move on. It takes more thought to realize that what we’re looking at once meant a lot to people, and to figure out how.
When I went inside the Coliseum six years ago, I admired the magnificence of it for a few minutes before I got bored and wanted to leave. When I visited it last Wednesday, I forced myself to consider that it was the site of millions of human experiences over centuries – experiences that ranged from that of a Roman senator and his family enjoying good food and entertainment in reserved seats in the front row, to that of a criminal whose last moments of life were spent being attacked by an exotic animal in front of a bloodthirsty crowd of forty thousand people. I wondered what people were thinking when they walked into such a beautiful, perfectly-proportioned building to watch people and animals die.
Wednesday was my “ancient Rome” day. After going to the Coliseum, I went to the Roman Forum and the Palatine Hill. Unfortunately, so little remains of the buildings that it’s hard to imagine what they originally looked like. I just got a sense of an area that was neglected and pilfered for a thousand years. I would like to think that the fact that the forum area was not built over, at least, means that medieval Romans showed it some respect, but it seems more likely that it was too difficult to remove the ruins so that new buildings could be put there.
One building in the forum is still intact, however – the Roman senate building, which was converted to a church after the empire fell.
The only other ancient building in Rome that is still in use – the Pantheon – also survived because it was converted into a church. It makes you wish there had been a greater need for churches in the dark ages so that more of the Roman buildings could be saved. Of all the ancient Roman buildings I’ve seen, the Pantheon is the best reminder of the brilliance of Roman engineering. It still holds the record for the largest unreinforced concrete dome, although its almost two thousand years old. The dome is so large that it was visible in Rome’s skyline from every viewpoint I visited – an honor shared by only a few other churches and the reviled Monument to Vittorio Emmanuele II (popularly called the “wedding cake building”) that you can see jostling its way into the picture above. I sat down inside for a while to watch the sunshine from the oculus at the top of the dome make its progress across the ceiling.
After consulting the Wikitravel article on Rome, I decided to visit all of the four basilicas that pilgrims to Rome were expected to visit – St. Peter’s (which I had already visited), San Giovanni, Santa Maria Maggiore, and St. Paul’s Outside the Walls. They were all as spectacular as you would expect major churches in Rome to be. My favorite of them was St. Paul’s Outside the Walls, which was originally founded by the emperor Constantine over the burial place of St. Paul. It has a beautiful facade with a colorful mosaic, surrounded by a courtyard. It’s on the outskirts of Rome, so there aren’t as many tourists inside.
On Friday I took a train to Ostia Antica, which was once the port of Ancient Rome, but is now over a mile from the shore due to silt from the Tiber building up over the centuries. Ostia is astonishingly well-preserved for an ancient city that wasn’t buried in ashes. Some of the buildings have exteriors that are fully preserved, making it easier to imagine what the town was once like. I spent an hour reading at the town’s theater, where high schoolers from various countries were goofing around.
By the time I left Ostia, I was tired of wandering around ancient ruins and imagining what they originally looked like. I was also tired of visiting churches. I thought I was giving myself a big treat when I booked ten nights at a hostel in Rome, but by the seventh or eighth day there I wished I could move on. The density of historical sites in Rome makes it one of the greatest cities in the world, but also makes it crowded and touristy. I missed the feeling I got in Istanbul, Athens, and Palermo, of being a guest in the city, instead of being just one of a horde of tourists, as I felt in Rome.
I also didn’t like my hostel much. It was obnoxiously crowded and loud, especially on weekends, and you had to leave from 11-5 every day so they could clean. These characteristics made it hard for me to make close friends like I did in other hostels. It also seemed to attract a different crowd from the other hostels I’ve stayed in. The guests weren’t the backpacker type; more the American college student studying abroad taking a quick trip around Europe and partying it up type.
I spent my last day in Rome reading in the Villa Borghese park. The day I left, I got up really early to go to St. Peter’s before it got crowded. Then, I went to the train station and boarded a train for Florence.
Uncle Jim posted a comment on my last entry asking where I post from. Usually, I post from internet cafes, which are common in the cities I’ve been to. It’s difficult writing in them because they are mostly visited by immigrants who use Skype to call their families, making them very loud and crowded.
To use internet cafes in Italy, you have to supply your passport. The first time I was asked for mine, I thought I was being scammed, but then I noticed a photocopy of an Italian newspaper article on the wall that had “terrorismo” and “passaporto” in it a lot, and I realized that they take down your information because internet cafes are thought to be used by terrorists to communicate with each other.
Fortunately, the hostel I’m staying at in Rome – the Happy Days hostel – has computers that are free to use, although the owners like to play loud music in the hang-out room, which makes it hard to write here too. It’s hard to complain about a hostel that gives you a room a few blocks from the Vatican for 18 euros a night, though.
I arrived in Rome on Friday morning. After getting stuck in a few slow-moving crowds of tourists, I decided that I would wait until the weekend was over to go to any of the main tourist sites. I’m spending ten days here, so I have plenty of time. I spent a large part of Friday buying groceries and doing other errands. After getting all that out of the way, I wandered around the city to get a sense of where the major sites and the major roads are. I also checked out the Circus Maximus, where they held chariot races in Ancient Rome. You might remember its depiction in the famous scene from Ben-Hur. None of the original structure is left, but the impression of the track is still in the ground, amazingly.
I spent most of Saturday at the Villa Borghese park, which an English guy in my hostel recommended to me. It is behind the Spanish Steps and the Piazza del Popolo. I’m surprised I didn’t notice it the last two times I was here; it is so large (226 acres) that it looks like a big green stain in the middle of my map of Rome. The park was crowded, but mostly with real Romans just spending time with their families on a Saturday. I walked to each part of the park and read a little bit there, discovering some beautiful areas. My favorite area had lots of an elegant-looking kind of tree that I’ve only seen in Italy. The trunks of these trees are really thin, with no branches until the top, where the foliage looks like a cloud. However, I think the lower branches are cut off to make it look this way.
I planned to spend Sunday relaxing in a different park, but I started worrying that I was wasting my precious time in Rome, so I set out for the Baths of Caracalla, which I correctly assumed would not be crowded because they are on the outskirts of the old city and are relatively unknown.
I sort of got what I originally planned for the day anyways, because the baths were like a park (there were even lots of the trees I mentioned above) that included magnificent ruins. I actually took out my book and read on a bench there for an hour. For some reason, the act of relaxing somewhere that was once a place of great importance – that was built at great expense and with a lot of thought and hard work, that was a setting in the lives of thousands of people, and then spent centuries in disuse and decay – really appeals to me.
According to one of the plaques there, the baths were abandoned after the Visigoths blocked Rome’s aqueducts in the early 6th century. It must have been a blow to the Romans that their society, which was capable of such brilliant, ambitious engineering, could be defeated by a bunch of barbarians.
That afternoon, I trekked over to the National Roman Museum, which was included in the 23-euro Rome Archeological Card I bought at the baths. The museum had an interesting collection of early Latin writing, showing how it derived from the Greek alphabet. Also on display were many gravestones and sarcophogases. It is amazing how much you can infer about people’s lives from these. I remember one of a freedman, his wife and his son. The writing next to it explained that the fact that the freedman’s son was shown in his toga shows that the man wanted to emphasize that his son was born free. The boasting in the description of his career, as well as the fact that his grave had elaborate carvings in it, made it clear that he was proud of his success after being freed from slavery.
I drank some wine and had a political discussion with two German medical students that evening at my hostel. Around 11, some Americans asked us if we wanted to go to bars with them, and I went, despite the fact that it was already past my usual bedtime and I had pledged to limit my spending in Rome, where everything seems to have a 150% “being in Rome” tax. I planned to buy a single beer for 4 or 5 euros, but I ended up buying one of the many 15 euro pitchers of beer we consumed over the night.
I woke up the next morning hungover, and I already had plans to go to the Vatican with Bryanna, the American I hung out with in Palermo. I thought the Vatican wouldn’t be crowded at 10 AM on a Monday, but I was wrong. The entire city was one big sea of people that it took skill and stamina to navigate. To enjoy Rome, you have to learn to like being in a crowd of tourists – to like watching them, hearing the different languages, appreciating their energy and the fact that they just want to experience Rome like you do. Unless you make peace with them, you will be frustrated all the time, because they are everywhere.
First we went into St. Peter’s. Like the previous times I visited the cathedral, I was struck by how massive and opulent it is – which is not really to my taste. The real jewel of the Vatican, from a tourist’s standpoint, is the Vatican Museum. My body seemed to sense how awesome the museum is, because my hangover temporarily abated while I was inside.
The amount of amazing stuff in the museum is overwhelming. After walking down a hallway of classical sculpture, satisfied that I had read the plaques for all of them and given them all due thought, I would turn the corner to see that I still had three more hallways to go.
Like in the National Roman Museum, I was moved by many of the examples of Roman stonework. I took a picture of a sarcophagus of a young Roman boy that shows his parents giving him food to take on his journey to the underworld. There were walls and walls of busts and statues of determined-looking Roman statesmen. There were also many busts of Gauls, Parthians, etc., with looks of anguish on their faces, which I suppose the Romans made out of a sense of pride from having defeated them.
Some of the statues I admired just for the craftmanship and detail, such as one of a man that represented the river Nile, reclining on a Sphinx, holding a thick batch of wheat, with crocodiles and cherubs swimming around him. I also admired the famous statue of Laocoon and his sons being crushed to death by snakes after he tried to persuade the people of Troy not to let in the Trojan horse, against the will of the gods.
There are also rooms of Greek and Etruscan art that could constitute the entire collection of a different museum, but that seem sandwiched between the classical sculpture and Renaissance portions of the Vatican Museum.
The Raphael rooms contain dozens of beautiful paintings that illustrate important moments in Christian history and serve as a reminder of the Church’s role in supporting the Renaissance. The four walls of the first room tell the story of the Roman emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity: his vision that he would defeat the enemy in battle if he adopted the sign of the cross; his subsequent victory over Maxentius in the civil war; his baptism by the pope; and his bestowal of Italy to the Church (which was cited by the Church to justify their political power, but didn’t actually happen).
My favorite Rafael room is probably the most well-known. Used as the pope’s study, its four walls are painted to represent philosophy, poetry, justice, and faith, respectively. The philosophy wall is the famous School of Athens painting. The room makes you feel the love that Renaissance scholars had for knowledge, and the way they connected it to their faith.
We then made our way to the Sistine Chapel. The chapel is at the end of the museum, so once you get there you are exhausted from walking so far, taking in so much information, and being around so many people. Yet, your exhaustion is nothing compared to that which Michelangelo must have felt every day of the four years he toiled to make the ceiling into a moving story of humanity’s downfall that I actually found entertaining to look at. I don’t think Michelangelo had a high opinion of the human race. In the famous Creation of Adam portion, Adam’s posture and facial expression seem to me to be those of a spoiled, lazy brat. The Last Judgement painting on the wall at the end shows Jesus casting most of humanity into the darkness of Hell, where they are tortured by demons with cruel smiles on their faces.
After leaving the Vatican, my hangover returned stronger than it was in the morning. I spent the rest of the night laying in bed. I always feel stupid when I’m hungover, but I felt especially stupid when it was preventing me from making good use of my time in Rome.