Archive for April 6th, 2009|Daily archive page

rome, march 2009

As if there aren’t enough blogs and pages about Rome. So I give you the 3.5 day whirlwind tour of Rome. I’ve been here before, but like coming back every so often for a dose of “La dolce vita”.

So I will rant first.

First thing is getting from the airport to Termini station. There are tons of places selling train tickets, except that they all happen to be closed, except for the Trenitalia ticket booth which has a hundred people lined up and 2 people manning the desk. Typical. So I braved the ticket machine which is another POS that doesn’t give change, and instead issues you a credit towards a future Trenitalia ticket. . . which means you get BACK IN THAT LINE with a zillion people to get the cash back. 

But anyhow, we do manage to get to Termini, where we’re faced with a 400 meter walk to the station entrance. Now you would imagine that with a load of luggage and a train to the airport, that the train would pull up closer to the station. But instead you still have to walk 400 meters to the main entrance. Oh, and the so-called Leonardo Express is not that express, and a ripoff at 11 Euro per person. 

Okay, with part of my rant out of the way, the city is a treat, although much more crowded with tourists than I remember it to be (having visited in the months of August and September in previous trips). This time it was probably spring break, so there were European middle school and high schoolers from everywhere, Germany, France, the UK, Spain. . . descending upon the capital of Italy. I wonder if they “get it” at that age. Maybe for 10 %, something registers with them, for the rest it’s just an opportunity to be with friends and away from parents.

Speaking of less than peaceful, there’s the Sistine Chapel. So I took a picture, and the lady next to me tells me not to take pictures. NONE OF YOUR BUSINESS, besides, I wasn’t using a flash, which is why they don’t want you to take photos. And yes, the paintings are incredible, but the ambience was more like that of a football match than a chapel for papal conclaves. Ditto for the Raphael Rooms, which were packed solid with schoolkids who probably didn’t care less about 16th century art. I certainly didn’t care about that stuff until I was maybe in my 20’s, and it’s admittedly just not my cup of espresso. Now honestly, do these guards yelling “Silenzio” have any effect on keeping a crowd of hundreds quiet? Didn’t think so.

So ranting over, now the good stuff.

The two main tourist sites that require $$$ are the Vatican Museums and the Forum / Palatine / Colosseum, and paying around 28 Euro for those sites was reasonable. What was not so nice is that since my last visit, the Forum is no longer free. I missed seeing families hanging out in the Forum, having a picnic, or just enjoying the day among 2000 year old stones. Alas, now it’s tourists like me without the Italians, and it’s not the same.

The rest of the sites, including churches with art from every imaginable master of painting and sculpture, were free. So here’s my one-minute, Cliff Notes summary of some churches, which was the ‘theme’ of my trip this time. I’m no architect, so let me know if I got my terminology all screwed up.

St. Peter’s: Well, you have to start here. The scale is nearly obnoxious, but also manages to spread out the crowds nicely. I have to say that I’m awed by the scale of the interior and the size of the church, but it’s far from my favorite piece of architecture in Rome. The square is massive, but somehow the scale is a bit misproportioned.


Rome, identify the landmarks.

Rome, identify the landmarks.


Pantheon: This is a thrill, the proportion of the dome is unequalled, except perhaps by Aya Sofia. The Baroque interior is nice, but I felt more of an affinity for the worn, nearly 2000 year old exterior.


oculus, Pantheon

oculus, Pantheon


Santa Maria della Sopra Minerva: Neo-Gothic interior, a result of bad remodeling, but the facade is what does it for me. Strikingly plain and unadorned facade, a noteworthy accompaniment to the nearby Pantheon.

Gesu: Spectacular inside and out. The facade is severe and formal, the interior is a riot of color and decoration that oozes out of every square inch of the ceiling. I’m not a fan of the yellowish color scheme on the columns, though. 

Santa Prassede: A jewel, it’s virtually invisible from the street level, and full of these sparkling mosaics over 1000 years old. A total contrast to St. Mary Major next door.


Mosaics, Santa Prassede

Mosaics, Santa Prassede

Santa Maria Maggiore: Well, as one of the extraterritorial properties from the Lateran Treaty, it’s massive in every sense, but the highlight are the apse mosaics. Too bad it’s not possible to see them up close, but you get a closeup view of similar mosaics at Santa Prasseda.


Mosaics, St. Mary Major

Mosaics, Santa Maria Maggiore

San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane: Borromini’s a genius, this is sheer brilliance, inside and out. The facade is well-known for the tangling convex and concave lines, and the sobriety of the cornice. The dome, though, is one tricky tour-de-force of geometry and mathematics, elliptical in shape, with alternating polygon and cross reliefs. Contrast that with his rival Bernini’s. . .


Dome of San Andrea al Quirinale

Dome of San Carlo alle Quatro Fontane

San Andrea del Quirinale: This one is less to my liking (personal taste), but he turns everything on its side, there’s no nave and transept anymore, now just replaced with a simple elliptical plan. The interior is Baroque, with a similar color scheme to the Pantheon, contrasting with the bulging, sober front of the building.

St. Ivo: A hidden church, accessible via a courtyard, another one of Borromini’s convex vs. concave works, with a unique spiral feature at the top of the dome, and a light, airy interior. Couldn’t admire the inside, since there was a service going on.

Now some of the other stuff.

Ancient Rome: I’ve seen this before, and artistically, the better stuff is in the Middle East and North Africa. But, this is probably the best idea of the city plan of Rome anywhere (except maybe Palmyra). The surroundings, though, are what makes it special, the sculpted pine trees, the superposition of two thousand years of the city on the ruins, and then there’s the giant hulk of the Colosseum standing above it all.

Capitol Square: Best major square in Rome, hands down. A great location, not on street level, but up above the din, with one window on ancient Rome and the other on the ‘newer’ Rome. The size is perfect, moderate and even intimate, with the elliptical pattern on the plaza contrasting with the trapezoidal layout of the square itself.


The Capitol

The Capitol


Farnese Palace: Well, this is one imposing, massive structure. It’s clearly special in some way, but I can’t quite place my finger on it. Perhaps it’s the fact that this is the ‘original’, and that hundreds of other buildings in Rome modify it in some way or another, but with less spectacular results. Couldn’t go inside, but someday.

I also highly recommend the Michelin guide for a mini-history lesson, excellent walking tours, and an emphasis on the history and architecture. I took this with me on my first trip to Rome back when I was 19, and still use it today.