So my train pulls into Rome Termini (Terminus) and yet again I see yet again that here is a Latin word with English connections. So my etymologically inclined mind gets a kick out of so much signage here. It’s the Eternal City and it’s pretty much got its eternal fingers in all the pies around the world. I walk to my apartment passing magnificent grand buildings all now 5 star hotels. The road is straight, like all good Roman roads, as beating a path from place to place must be the most direct route when you’ve an empire to run. The wide street has a gentle incline towards Villa Borghese, Rome’s third largest park which feels very familiar to my eyes as I stroll through.
It’s laid out in the English manner around the 19th century. The original villa was designed by the architect Flaminio Ponzo after sketches by Scipione Borghese and was used as a party place and somewhere to store his art collection. The gardens originally a vineyard now contain several grand houses and museums. In the 1650s Diego Velázquez painted depictions of the Villa’s garden casino illuminated by torchlight. Everywhere here is drenched in layers of history.
My apartment is in Flaminio and the terrace overlooks just some of the many domes of Rome and to the right, with the most ethereal night lighting sits Vatican City and the great Dome of St. Peter’s. Just below my apartment is the Porta Del Popolo, the grand arched entrance to the Piazza del Popolo. This was once a main gate into the city of Rome.
What wonders of the ancient world await me through the great gate? It begins with an Egyptian obelisk rising tall in the centre of the square flanked by four lions spouting water.
The obelisk was requisitioned during the many moments Rome went out to conquer the capital of the Nile region. I find it rather incongruous that it is now crowned with a Christian cross however. It just doesn’t fit in with the hieroglyphics and the usual pyramid peak. I understand that erecting back home, the spoils of war demonstrates to the people Egypt’s capitulation to Rome but I’m not sure why a cross is later needed on the top? To me it either suggests an insecurity that the Egyptian gods might rise up and return to conquer Rome or perhaps just an overly zealous church stamping its authority everywhere in the past. Around the edge of the square are beautiful statues of Roman gods. Neptune has always been a favourite of mine.
Running from the Piazza di Popolo are three long roads that widen out gradually spreading further and further apart as they head south to the centre of ancient Rome. Each leads to magnificent buildings, monuments or districts of both ancient and recent Rome. Taking the middle path, Via del Corsa I stroll passed the many chic shops that line both sides of the street. The road is banked by tall buildings designed to offer cool shade in the summer months.
There are many splendid churches with Baroque and Rococo facades and of course domes by the dozen.
Grand palaces once the homes of Rome’s wealthy elite are now government ministries or giant regional banks or hotels. More and more squares appear with more and more ancient monuments taken as trophies during conquests. The variety and increasing ornateness of these structures makes progress along the road very slow as you stop to marvel at them all.
Reaching the Piazza del Venezia you are confronted at the bottom by the Altare di Patri, the Alter of the Fatherland. This vast white monument celebrating Victor Emmanuel the first King of the a unified Italy is Rome’s largest monument.
Designed by Giuseppe Sacconi in 1885 it is 70m tall and covers an area of 17000 square metres.
It’s snow white stone glows is the early dawn light as the sun rises to the eastern side making the umbrella pine trunks into twisted black silhouettes holding up black clouds. In the far distance I glimpse my first view of the Colosseum on the horizon.
As I head towards that most famous of old theatrical spaces I stumble into the heart of Ancient Rome and the Forums built by the various Emperors. Yes Forums plural! At first I thought it was just the one Julius Caesar had built but the area is vast and it turns out you need your own Forums for your own ideas.
The ruins spread out before you and your eyes cannot find peace. Your brain, naively tries to piece the city back together from the walls, fallen columns and stone fragments. It’s all just too complicated and experts have spent lifetimes understanding these fragments. You do however marvel at the staggering beauty of the stone carvings and the vast complex scattered before you.
As I continue towards the Colosseum I am struck by vast marble floors being uncovered as a new tube line is dug. Rome has few underground services and attempting to dig new lines is fraught with archeological difficulties as modern Rome is meters higher than the original SPQR city. In London we thought digging tunnels for Crossrail was complicated with the discovery of Roman London and plague pits.
Successive generations have built over the ruins of the past to create a continuously awe inspiring city in which to live. I love seeing the bare bones of new building projects. This new Imperial station is to help ferry tourists to the Colosseum and the ruins of the Imperial Forums. Most impressive is the series of poles and scaffolding erected to preserve the integrity of the ancient monuments all around as they dig and drill here.
And so finally rising high above the sea of tourist heads and raised continuously clicking cameras are the banks of arches that make up the Colosseum.
Nothing quite prepares you for actually standing next to this mighty structure. The complex patterns of the brickwork rising layer upon layer, arch upon arch.
The craziest thing to remember here is that this was a place of entertainment. Sometimes the arena was filled with water and dolphins and entire sea battles were recreated to show the people just how Rome made itself and it’s people the mightiest in the world at the time. It’s like live cinema or TV news for the masses. Genius really.
The difficulty in photographing the Colosseum is that it is a great oval and so some parts are always in shadow.
And all of this was once covered in marble. Emperor Augustus is quoted as having said that he found Rome a city of bricks and left it a city of marble.
The marble that once totally encased the Colosseum like pristine snow has long since been removed by successive popes to build the Vatican. Part of me thinks this is sinful in itself but it did mean that the glorious structures of the Vatican were erected. The extra wound for me is that removing the white stone wasn’t enough. They also had the audacity to erect huge marble plaques on the sides of the Colosseum with their own names carved on in a perpetual grand slab of Papal graffiti. But while this riled me, modern Romans shrug it off. The marble was put to good use as the icing on a new Roman cake.
All around there are other signs of the Imperial past and also original flag stone path ways. With the outsized cobble stones walking can be a tricky task. Watch your step or you’ll end up with an ankle injury. Sensible flat shoes are essential. No to these beauties from Prada.