Schizophrenic Rome (1982,2005,2010)

Schizophrenic Rome (1982,2005,2010)

Visiting Rome can be a schizophrenic experience.  The city is a modern metropolis striving to establish its contemporary identity in a largely antiquated and often crumbling edifice of immense historic value.  The sprawling cityscape is dotted with gorgeous ruins and exquisite monuments – familiar images from posters, picture postcards and pages of history books now coming alive in the earthy hues of brick and sandstone. The ruins form an incongruous backdrop to unabashed commercialism symbolised my mega malls and designer boutiques. Gleaming automobiles speed through Rome’s winding and cobbled alleyways originally designed for horse-drawn carriages.  Glass facades and trendy awnings perch uneasily on architectural gems of awesome grandeur and beauty. A giant billboard featuring Aishwarya Rai endorsing a brand of perfume hangs over a historic square with a fountain that pre-dates Christianity.  Smart men and women in business suits stride purposefully past tourists gaping at the numerous sights, guidebook in hand.  Rome is a study in contrasts, not unlike our very own national capital where centuries of history peers out of every turn and corner providing a compelling backdrop to a metropolis that has moved on.

Artistic Spirals Abound
Can’t do What Romans Do

Congruence may be at a discount in today’s Rome, but Romans know very well that it is their history and architecture that draws visitors to their city and bring in the precious euros in these days of economic downturn.  Millions of tourists visit Rome during summer months every year and naturally, one has to be prepared for snarled traffic, teeming humanity and serpentine queues outside virtually every monument, not to mention sizzling temperatures, which at midday, can be on the wrong side of forty degrees Celsius.  As we make our way through the city we realise that it is impossible to do in Rome what the Romans do –  look well-groomed and unscathed even as you dodge unruly traffic dressed in designer suits. That requires a degree of skill that only a true-blue Roman can master.

All roads may not lead to Rome anymore, but all roads in Rome seem to converge on that single monument that has become the iconic face of Rome today – the Colosseum.  The half-intact circular structure tantalizes from every turn and bend when you are driving through the streets of Rome.  The sheer grandeur of the structure, even when in a ruined state, might have taken one’s breath away had it not been for the knowledge that this was the venue of many a gruesome gladiatorial fight, the favourite blood sport of Roman nobility. Lions, leopards and other wild animals used to be kept in cages in the basement of Colosseum, brought up by mechanical lifts and let loose on gladiators while the princes and Generals cheered from their vantage galleries, savouring this contest of gore and glory between beast and man. Even today, there are many gladiatorial schools in and around the colosseum, offering courses ranging from a few days to a few weeks.

The Infamous Colosseum
No Colossus, Only Colosseum

Colosseum, which derives its name from Colossus, the huge bronze statue that stood beside it, was a public amphitheatre built during the time of the Flavian emperors Vespasian (69-79AD), Titus (79-81 AD) and Domitian (81-96AD). Of the 80 entrance arches, four were reserved for the emperor, senators and other dignitaries. The amphitheatre could hold 40,000 to 70,000 spectators, not unlike our modern-day sports stadia. It contained several chambers, storeroom for weapons (armamentarium),  hospital (saniarium), mortuary (spoliarium), storerooms for stage equipment (summum choragium), barracks for the sailors of the Misenum fleet (Castra Misenatium) etc.  While the shows were generally free, strict social rank was maintained by regulating the seating arrangements according to one’s position in the social hierarchy.  Rising to a maximum height of 50 meters, the galleries were arranged around an arena made of wood.  The Colosseum has been either destroyed by earthquakes or demolished and rebuilt several times over the ensuing centuries by successive Roman emperors.  The amphitheatre hosted its last show between 519 and 523 AD.  Throughout its history, the Colosseum has served several purposes – as foodstores, toolshed, stables, even as homes.  At one stage, there was even an avenue carved out through the amphitheatre for papal processions! Frangipani, the noble family that took over the Colosseum after the fire of 1083, even built its own fortress within the premises.

Roman Forum
Roman Malls

Adjacent to the Colosseum are the Palatine and Capitalino hills, two of the seven hills on which Rome was built originally. The Roman Forum, first a symbol of the Roman Republic and subsequently of the Roman Empire, is a sprawling complex of walls, pillars, gates etc now overgrown with grass and weed.  It was the centre of the ancient empire and contains skeletons of several temples including one to Vesta and another to Castor and Pollux, the twin brothers of Helen of Troy.   It was built primarily as a forum for exchange of goods and ideas. It was a place where people met for political and trading purposes.  The Palatine hill that rises above the forum houses the remnants of some of the Republic’s most luxurious villas and is believed to have been the village of Rome’s mythological founder, Romulus. The home built for Augustus’ wife Livia was surrounded by gardens, and the wall frescoes offer an idea of what it might have looked like in full bloom.

The Roman Forum served as the centre of Rome’s politico-religious life till 100 AD, but lost its significance somewhat in the following centuries as the Roman empire split and  Constantinople (today’s Istanbul) usurped its place as the imperial, religious and cultural capital of the ancient world.  Eventually, the Roman Forum degenerated into a marble and limestone quarry,  a refuge of criminals and vagabonds and finally, even as a pasture for cows, (Campo Vaccino)  inspiring some of the brilliant masterpieces of artists like Turner and Poussain

Across the road from the Colosseum is the Imperial Forum built between 46 and 110 AD, by none other than Julius Caesar to celebrate his ascendancy to power.   As the name suggests, it was meant for Roman royalty and nobility, as distinct from the Roman Forum, meant for the public. The area is home to the Arch of Constantine and Trajan’s markets, a 2nd century AD shopping mall with office space upstairs. The imposing Arch of Constantine depicts the victory of Rome’s first Christian emperor.   We meander through both the Forums, stopping to admire views of Rome from atop the hills. The walk takes us through Rome’s Jewish Quarter with its synagogue and residences built nonchalantly around impressive ruins of columns and arches. There is a pile o f artichokes outside a Jewish eatery that offers Kosher food.  Strolling through the fora offers several vantage views of the entire city of Rome.


The next day, we make our way to the Pantheon,  first constructed by Emperor Agrippa in 29 B.C as a temple to all gods Roman, although what we see today is a restored rotunda put together by Emperor Hadrian when the original structure was destroyed by fire in 80 AD.   The Corinthian columns on the outer perimeter are cylindrical, massive and tall. As in Hagia Sofia in Istanbul, the central dome, massive in girth seems to stand without any obvious support. The top of the dome is open to the sky, letting in cylindrical shafts of sunlight that keep shifting position as the day advances. The structure has served various purposes during its long life – from a Christian Church called Santa Maria to a fortress in the Middle Ages and was even cannibalised by Pope Urban VIII who melted down its bronze roof to provide metal for Bernini’s masterpiece in St.Peters Like all Pantheons everywhere, this one too serves as a tomb for the great sons and daughters of the soil, the better-known among them being painter Raphael,  King Vittorio Emanuele II,  Umberto I and his queen Margherita.  Outside the Pantheon is a lovely fountain with an Egyptian Obelisk as the centre-piece. Crowds throng the square and ice-cream vendors do brisk business.

Wish for Water

Those who want to return to Rome are advised to make a wish at the Trevi Fountain where they turn their back to the fountain and throw a coin over the shoulder.  The fountain and the little pond around it are filled with coins of all nationalities. The fountain is a striking piece of art, but one with a purpose. Like all major civilizations, Rome too is situated on a river – the Tiber – but then, a rapidly expanding imperial empire soon turned the river into a sewer unfit for drinking.  In fact, the water of Tiber is said to have become undrinkable even in the centuries before Christ.  Potable water had to be coaxed out of virgin springs from the neighbouring hills, channelled underground to palaces and townships and made available to the citizens and subjects through fountains and faucets installed at convenient intersections.  Trevi, derived from tre vie, meaning junction of three channels or aqueducts got its water from the Baths of Agrippa, approximately 22 kilometers away.  It lasted for four hundred years before it was destroyed. The fountain was revived during the Renaissance period and had undergone quite a few transformations as various architects and sculptors experimented with it from time to time. Finally, it was finished by Pannini.

The Spanish Steps

From Trevi, it is a short walk to the famous Spanish Steps, leading up from the Piazza di Spagna to the church of Trinita dei Monti. This where the tired tourists as well as the locals come in the evenings to watch the world go by. The fountain at the base is believed to have been built by the elder Bernini.  The house where Keats used to live is now a museum, also located near the Spanish Steps.  In 1986, the first Mc Donalds in Rome was established near the Spanish Steps leading to huge protests against fast food culture eventually leading to the ‘slow food’ movement founded by Carlo Petrini.


Vatican City, said to be the smallest sovereign state with an area of 44 hectares and a resident population of 800, is just a bus ride away from central Rome.  The Rome skyline is dominated by the exquisite dome of St.Peters basilica, a beacon for millions of pilgrims and worshippers who throng its massive square throughout the year as much for a glimpse of the Pope as for worshipping at one of the holiest shrines of Christendom.  Designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini under the direction of Pope Alexander II, the forecourt of the basilica is awe-inspiring in scale and proportion.

The Basilica built during the Renaissance, is the largest Catholic church in the world with a capacity to seat 60,000 worshippers within its interiors.  Nuns and monks from different orders, all dressed in their habits are a perennial presence in the square and the basilica. Built originally to inter St.Peter, one of the twelve apostles, the basilica is also the final resting place of a number of popes and bishops many of whom have their own dedicated altars within its precincts.

Grandiose in conception and magnificent in design, St.Peters is a marvel of architectural perfection, credited to the genius  Michaelangelo, the master artist, architect, sculptor and painter all rolled into one.  The dome, The entire interior is lavishly decorated with marble, reliefs, architectural sculpture and gilding. There are also a number of sculptures in niches and chapels, including Pieta, that inimitable masterpieced of Michaelangelo, a veritable magnet for all lovers of beauty and art. The central feature of the basilica is a  baldachin or canopy over the Papal Altar, designed by Bernini. Climbing up several flights of very narrow steps we reach the dome from where one gets a sweeping view of all of Rome.  The wind is so powerful that it does not permit you to linger on the ledge for long.

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We wrap up our visit to Rome after a whole day at Sistine Chapel with its priceless collection of the finest in Renaissance art.  Vatican is believed to be home to some of the richest treasures in the world and it is easy to believe this when you’re here. This is not our first visit to Sistine Chapel, but one can never claim to have seen everything in this museum of treasures. It will take us many visits to complete our tour. Our legs complain at all that climbing and our necks ache from craning to see the gorgeous dome and the stunning paintings on the roof of the chapel but we feel privileged to have been able to glimpse so much beauty under one roof.  Having made our wish once again at the Trevi fountain, we’re hopeful we will return to Rome again!


(Published in Frontline dated July 3, 2010)

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