Why visit Rome? The Eternal City is chaotic--but a beautiful chaos. This isn't Kansas, Toto. Vespas buzz circles around Bernini statues, pick-pockets work the Metro, beautiful women catch a glance, Swiss Guards cross spears, businessmen in Armani suits squeeze past fat priests, skinny nuns, Africans selling purses on blankets, dodging the caribinieri and the outdoor tables of world class restaurants where oblivious lovers dine before strolling arm in arm in the passeggiata. Rome has had visitors for thousands of years. It can handle travelers--just as it's handled the Roman Legions, numerous religious pilgrims, Celtic and German invasions, Mussolini's March, Junior Year Abroad, Japanese tourists on photo tours, history buffs and art hounds, Americans searching for the roots of Western Civilization or just their own families, and chilly Northern Europeans searching for warmth of every variety--weather, culture, food, romance.
Watch Rossellini's Open City, or Fellini's La Dolce Vita, and try to resist this city's charms. Fellini used to hang out in the Piazza Navone, formerly a chariot track in Roman times built by Domitian in the 1st century and now a lovely piazza lined with palaces and outdoor cafes and good restaurants. The centerpiece of the piazza is a Baroque masterpiece by sculptor Bernini, la Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (the Fountain of the Four Rivers-- a detail is shown above). At night, there is a lively crowd, and this is the social heart of the city. As Fellini says in I, Fellini, "Rome became my home as soon as I saw it. I was born that moment."
The Pantheon is antiquity's best preserved building, and remained the world's highest dome until the Renaissance came along (also in Italy, of course, but up in Florence). As everything else in Rome, it exists in a time warp--you can imagine Hadrian's slaves hauling slabs of marble two thousand years back, or Romans strolling past as they do now, since the Pantheon has been in continuous use since its construction. Nowadays, it anchors a neighborhood of shops and cafes, with plenty of foot traffic. Across a narrow street from the imposing "house of the gods" is the brilliant Cremeria Monteforte, where they make impossibly delicious gelati in the traditional style. This unlikely combination "explains" Rome as well as anything.
Campo de' Fiori (Field of Flowers) is another favorite spot in Rome, a great place to eat outdoors (I remember a twenty-something gallery attendant at the museum where I work saying she couldn't get decent food in Rome--and I had to shrug and bite my tongue) and we ate at La Carbonara (where they invented the dish) under the watchful gaze of Giordano Bruno, a man who dared suggest the Earth was NOT the center of the Universe and was burned on the spot in 1600. This has always been a lively place. The painter Caravaggio killed a man here in a sword fight (Today, he'd be on Prozac and would probably paint a lot less). The Campo is a Roman street party at night, with kids hanging out, joking, making music, and most likely convinced that they are the center of the Universe.
Rome at night is magical, and lit dimly as if by torchlight. Stroll to the heartrending Trevi Fountain--where an iconic scene in La Dolce Vita was filmed--and toss a coin over your shoulder, assuring that you wll return. Walk to the Spanish Steps, where romantic poets swooned--Keats is buried here. Lord Byron lived across the square. Walk to the Roman Forum, if you really want to feel history.
The Roman Forum is ghostly. You feel the history as you trod the smooth stones of what once bustled with power and empire and the height of Roman splendor. The day we visited the Forum it rained, the only rain on our entire trip, and somehow that added to the experience, as strange as it may sound. These weathered ruins have withstood Time itself. As it sprinkled, we stood under grey skies before The Temple of Julius Caesar (Tempio del Divo Giulio) where Caesar was stabbed (though he never uttered "Et tu, Brute," those words were put in his mouth by an Englishman) and Mark Antony hailed friends, Romans, and countrymen (further elaborated by Shakespeare). Down the stone path, we walked among wildflowers and broken marble and visited the House of the Vestal Virgins, the Palace of Caligula, The Temple of Saturn, and the Curia, or Senate House. Rome is fascinating, and after so many swords-and-sandals epics we feel we know it, but there is no experience that compares with being there, among the broken columns and shattered temples of the Roman Forum.
Vatican City is a tiny independent country containing some of the greatest treasures on Earth. We saw them all--or nearly. There is such an abundance of riches you need to skip paintings and objects that would qualify as another country's greatest masterpieces, but time is limited so make your way through the crowds to see the Raphael stanza and the glorious ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. The cleaning has been controversial, but I saw it before the restoration, dark with soot from candles and layers of oil, and now it's absolutely luminous and as close as we can get to the way it looked to Michelangelo. The walls of the chapel were painted by other great painters, Ghirlandaio, Perugino, and Botticelli, so don't overlook these, but the frescoes overhead and accompanying lunettes by Michelangelo are truly overwhelming.
And to think, Michelangelo didn't want the job. He told Pope Julius II, "I'm a sculptor, not a painter!"
Down the way, probably jammed with tourists and priests and pilgrims from around the world, is the Basilica Papale di San Pietro in Vaticano, commonly called St. Peter's Basilica, the largest church on Earth. The basilica is unbelievable. Even by today's standards, in the Age of Special Effects, this place is a mind blower, and you can only imagine what a simple peasant must have felt five hundred years ago. There has been a church on this site since the 4th century, but construction of the present basilica was built over the old Constantinian basilica started in 1506 and continued until its completion in 1626. The dome and floor plan were designed by Michelangelo, who also contributed the sculpture, his Pieta, which he completed when he was just 24 years old.
The Colosseum is a remarkable feat of engineering, a muscular combination of a four story Roman facade decorated with all three types of Greek columns (remember? Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian?) representing the best and worst of Rome. The display of might and raw power captivated commoner and aristocrat alike (entry was free, and the same with the wine and food) as gladiators, criminals and wild animals fought to the death. The Roman poet Juvenal called this sort of display panis et circenses (bread and circuses) and the name has come to refer to entertainment used by politicians to distract the public and to gain popular support. Keep the people amused, goes the reasoning, and they won't rebel.
Throughout our Italian holiday, the entire country was riveted to the Giro d'Italia, a three week bike race throughout Italy that nearly paralleled our journey. We saw the signs and banners in the mountains and on the coast, we passed their staging areas in Florence and the hills of Tuscany, and now finally was the last day of the Giro and the finish line was at the Colosseum the day we visited. Beside the quiet, muscular ruin, sportscasters and fans ran around, televisions crews jostled for coverage, news helicopters flew overhead. The Colosseum stood its ground, having seen everything. At first, the bike race was a distraction, then I realized this is probably the same beautiful chaos that attended events at the Colosseum in days of old. Sure, this was a modern version, but I bet 50,000 drunken Romans attending gladiatorial combat on this very same spot also made a hellish racket. We walked through the arena, through passageways that honeycomb this iconic symbol of Imperial Rome where an estimated half million people and a million animals lost their lives, and looked up to see helicopters passing overhead. The crowd roared at the finish line. The stones remained, as always, cool and silent.