A Week in Rome
Posted on November 14, 2015
We’ve just finished a week’s visit to Rome.
It was a gift to Pat’s father Fred, 81-years-old and recently made a widower, and came from a conversation about places he’d like to visit. We have taken him on annual trips to Europe in recent years and he said he wanted to go back to Italy (he accompanied us to Milan, Turin, and Florence over a year ago), back to see Rome this time. So off we went.
We had visited Rome before and never liked it that much. Sure, the blockbuster sites are still among the world’s great cultural treasures – the Colosseum, St. Peters, the Roman Forum, the Panthenon, and so much more – but our trips were always short and thus a race from place to place, and the city seemed chaotic and sprawling and we never really got our arms around it. Subsequent visits were always about getting a rental car and zipping off to places we have come to love, Tuscany or Umbria or, more recently, Sicily, and always out of Roma as quickly as possible.
We did Rome in a much different way this time and, in the end, fell in love with it. We rented an apartment for a week, bought pastries from the same shopkeeper each morning, procured guides for our visits so we could really understand what we were seeing, walked a lot, and spent time getting to know the city. I realize now that Rome is that kind of city, one that demands patience and exploration and a little more work. It yields its charms over time.
Also, visiting in November, when the summer crowds have left and the weather was perfect, meant that we found ourselves alone with Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne at the Borghese Gallery, and able to walk into a popular restaurant without a reservation, and wandering Pompeii’s ruins with just our guide (who, in turn, spent an unhurried extra hour with us).
Certainly, Romans themselves. We had a wonderful evening with the family of Roman friends now living in the US, a multi-generational dinner in their aunt’s art filled apartment. The dinner rivaled anything we had in a restaurant, but better yet was the story telling, the laughter, the hospitality and warmth showered upon us.
We also received a warm welcome from Raymondo, owner of our favorite restaurant, when we returned for a last night’s dinner. And our guides, Stephania and Santiago, were so gently solicitous of Fred, they reminded us that Italy remains a place where the elderly are still respected. While Italians retain a kind of formality and walk with that look of insouciance and style that Americans can’t muster, in every interaction they were quick to smile and talk and help.
A taxi driver who loves America, and who had done multiple driving trips all over our country, told us that people from Sicily and Campania immigrate to the US, but Romans rarely do. He explained that they are too tied to their families and their city. He said, “We are like Brazilians. We cry a lot. We are emotional and it is too hard for us move away from here, as much as we complain about Rome.”
While the city is full of the aforementioned blockbuster sights, it is embarrassingly rich in small treasures around every corner. Duck into this church to see a small side chapel with three stunning Caravaggio masterpieces. Enter the old Roman baths to discover a church built inside, and designed by Michelangelo.
While the newly restarted Trevi Fountain remained a mob scene, St. Paul Beyond the Walls, resting place of St. Paul, was a serene and lovely setting and on the way we passed a 3rd C. pyramid built as a tomb for an Egypt-loving Roman nobleman. At every turn there is a discovery to be had, too minor to merit more than mention in many guidebooks and worth every minute.
Those treasures extended to food. Oh, did they ever. There was perhaps the best pizza I’ve ever had in Trattoria della Francesca in a small piazza (or square) where old men played chess under a tree.
There was the Roman specialty, cacao e pepe, a pasta dish that has few ingredients (two cheeses, black pepper) and endless debate about how to get it just right.
There was Trattoria Monti, featuring dishes from the Marche region, prepared by the mother of the two brothers who work the room. There was a simply prepared sea bass – grilled with olive oil and lemon – that was just about perfect. It reminded me that so much of Roman cooking is about really superb ingredients prepared with a light touch. Very different than most of French cooking, which is so much about technique and preparation. Raymondo goes every morning to the fish market and picks out the fish, one by one, that he will serve that evening. People care deeply about food and quality. Did I mention gelato?
There was also ample food for the mind all week. I had never visited the Borghese Gallery, one of the greatest small museums in the world. It has the largest number of Caravaggios in one place, Titian’s famous Sacred and Profane Love, and Raphael’s Deposition. The Caravaggios were a revelation and our guide made each come alive. For example, how his Madonna of Palafrenieri was never hung in the Vatican because the young Jesus is stark naked and his model for Mary was Rome’s most beautiful prostitute, his mistress.
Caravaggio never shied from the messy human realism that makes him feel so modern, finding the sacred in everyday people and life, often uncertain and always infused with that amazing light that characterizes his work.
But the real revelation was the sculpture of Bernini. We found ourselves almost gasping at the virtuosity of his work, scarcely believing that he could render in marble the press of fingers in flesh, the delicacy of windblown hair, the single tear on a cheek.
I think we all had to resist reaching out to touch the works, to really reassure ourselves they were in fact marble. And he did some of this work at only 20 and 22 and 24 years of age – true genius. I’m almost embarrassed to admit how little I knew of his work (and I love the Italian Renaissance) – somehow I had never learned enough about Bernini and it turns out to have been a huge gap in my knowledge of art. It was work that makes one knees buckle it was so moving.
We did a day trip to Pompeii. This seemed ripe to fall into a certain category of historical/artistic attraction: one that you feel you’ve heard so much about that it can’t live up to the hype. My expectations were low. Wow, was I wrong.
Pompeii, buried in ash and thus preserved, is a time machine. It takes us back to the 1st C Roman Empire, but not in the monumental buildings of the Forum or other Roman sites like Ephesus, but in the everyday life of people in a modest size Roman city. Santiago, our guide and passionate about Pompeii, brought to life the lives of those people. He didit in walking us through ancient shops, the baths, a beautiful villa, the theater, and even a brothel (phew, those were some obscene pictures painted on the walls – ancient Romans were a kinky lot).
We marveled at Roman engineering: orderly grid patterns of streets, water management, even reflective bits of marble imbedded in the stone streets to reflect light at night. There were guard posts on street corners so chariots wouldn’t ride up onto sidewalks and injure pedestrians.
(Grooves from chariots still show on each side of the stepping stones.)
There was in one theater an amazing microphone system that amplified a speaker’s voice (pots buried beneath the stage floor to create natural amplification). The backstage had a piston system for managing scenery. The baths had an ingenious sub-floor method of heating water, running steam through the walls, and managing natural light. So much of modern urban life from a city design perspective seems anticipated by the ever practical Romans.
At Pompeii we also saw evidence of the corruption, waste, and political failure that plagues Italy today. Pompeii has 3 million visitors a year, yielding millions of Euros in ticket revenue, yet there was little restoration and preservation work underway, the grounds were unkempt, and there were few guards protecting the site. We routinely watched Santiago chastise other visitors who touched paintings, leaned against walls, and trampled over the site. We heard the same complaint from almost everyone: pervasive corruption, mafia infiltration throughout government, genuine economic hardship (44% of young people are unemployed), unyielding and outdated bureaucracy, and one failed leader after another.
In some ways, Italians have always lived with some level of this dysfunction, as we learned. Roman rulers were always vying for power (and some were downright crazy), Popes kept prostitutes, the Borghese is full of art simply taken from owners who held out at their own peril, and the “bread and circus” appeasement of the peasantry and plebeians was always about suppressing the civic unrest and unhappiness that bubbled just below the surface. Michelangelo’s disturbing Last Judgment reflects in some large measure the corruption and venality he saw all around him, and especially in the Vatican at the time. Pope Francis’s current attempt to clean up the Vatican, with stories of palatial apartments for cardinals and misdeeds in the Vatican Bank, suggest that things have not improved as much as we’d like to think.
It’s what makes Italy and Rome that much more miraculous. This is the culture that gave us Bernini, Michelangelo, DaVinci, Caravaggio, Galileo, Tesla, Marconi, and so many others. It gave us the slow food movement. Puccini and Verdi. Its fall in the 5th C. led to a 1000 years of darkness in Europe (by the 8th C Rome’s population had gone from 1.2m people to just 30,000 and wolves prowled the Vatican at night) and its rediscovery and resurgence brought European culture back into the light, in a dazzling way. It leads the world in design. It creates the greatest cars and motorcycles and yachts. Few cultures can match its contributions to humanity. It is also a culture that knows when to slow down, to enjoy life, to revel in the company of each other, friends and family.
This is a people with resiliency and energy that somehow overcomes all that is so wrong with Italy and has been forever. Rome, with its insane scooter drivers and frustrations, embodies that energy. I think what we discovered on this trip that as wealthy and orderly as is Milan and gorgeous as is Florence and as charming as is Tuscany, Italy’s heart still beats in Rome. It’s a place that takes a little more work than the others, but its rewards are ample and we fell in love with that great city on this visit.
(Pat and Fred on our last evening in Rome)