Monday, July 16, 2012

Our Italy Trip: Rome (Day 1)

Rome, Evening Arrival
It looks like I'll have to split Rome up. There was just so much to see and do!

We left Pisa and arrived at Rome just after dusk. Fortunately, our hotel was nearby, just southwest of Piazza della Repubblica. After checking in, we headed out for dinner near the piazza.

Rome, Day 1

We had a busy first day in Rome! We started by exploring the ancient Foro Romano. The forum sits between the Capitoline and Palatine hills, and was once the cultural and economic center of Rome. Structures were added to the forum for almost 900 years, from about 500 BC to AD 400. Eventually, the Romans would plunder their own "historic downtown" for building materials.

The Arch of Septimius Severus stands near the base of Capitoline Hill. It was dedicated in AD 203 to commemorate Emperor Severus' victories against the Parthian empire. It was eventually incorporated into the structure of a Christian church, so it remained well preserved. Close by lies the site of the Temple of Saturn. Unfortunately, this temple was not preserved. Only the front portico remains. The temple contained the republic's treasury.

The Temple of Antoninus and Faustina also remains largely preserved by way of being converted into a Roman Catholic church. The House of the Vestal Virgins sits across the lane. The Vestal Virgins tended to sacred fire in the Temple of Vesta, the goddess of the hearth. The fire was never allowed to burn out. Picture of the ceiling is from the dome of the Temple of Romulus.

We climbed Palatine Hill. There, we walked through gardens and admired the view it afforded us. I skipped mentioning ruined basilcas we passed as we traversed eastward, as all that remains of them are footings. However, the Basilica of Maxentius and Constantine still stands (center picture above). It's amazing to imagine how the forum must have looked when all the structures were still standing.

On Palatine Hill, we visited the house of Augustus and the neighboring stadium. There was also a massive earthen turntable on the hill. Apparently its purpose is unknown, but as you can see, it was quite a feat of engineering.

Finally, we made our way to the east end of the forum, where the Colosseum dominated the view. But first, we passed the Arch of Titus and the Temple of Venus and Roma. The Arch of Titus was built to commemorate Titus' victories, including the siege of Jerusalem. The temple was probably the largest in ancient Rome and was built under the direction of Hadrian.

When we had reached the end of the forum, we found ourselves at the Arch of Constantine. The elaborate arch stands astride the entrance to the city. Of course, the wide street must now divert around it.

At last, we came to the Colosseum. Its construction began in AD 72 under Vespasian, and was completed in AD 80 under Titus.

The stadium could seat 50,000 people. In addition to the well known gladiator fights, the Colosseum was also used for reenactments of noteworthy battles and performances of plays.

The Colosseum had an extensive subterranean level directly under the arena floor, where people, animals, and props could be held. Elevators lifted them up to the ground level when needed.

Next, we visited the Circus Maximus. This was the site of the chariot races. The house of Augustus looks down from Palatine Hill over the circus. The stadium could hold 150,000 people. Lining the center spine of the track were multiple obelisks. The Romans were known to build ships especially for the purpose of carrying back obelisks from conquests in Egypt. Most fell to the elements and earthquakes over the years, but two were later excavated and restored. The taller was erected in Piazza San Giovanni, which we did not visit. The other was placed in Piazza del Popolo, which we did. Look for it later.

Our last stop before lunch (yes, I told you we fit a lot into one day!) was Santa Maria in Cosmedin, to visit the Mouth of Truth. This sculpture was made famous (to us, at least) by Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck in Roman Holiday. The legend is that, if one tells a lie with his hand in the mouth, the sculpture will bite it off. Of course, Second made me go first. I don't recall what we asked each other. We probably should have spent more time preparing our questions.

After lunch, we climbed Capitoline Hill and visited the Capitoline Museum. The museum was loaded with sculptures and busts, including those of many philosophers and emperors. And yet, the museum was very open and exposed to the elements.

Apparently, there was some event that warranted a police sniper on overwatch? We figured we weren't getting into that room.

In the courtyard, we came across the massive head, hand, and foot of the famous statue of Constantine. We also met Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome, nursing from the wolf according to the legend. And here was also Marcus Aurelius, atop his horse. This statue used to sit out in the piazza, but now a copy is there. The legend says that this original bronze statue will one day have its gold finish return, heralding the end of the world. Fortunately, the tarnish looks like it will stay a while longer.

Next, we climbed the long stairway to the Basilica of St. Mary of the Altar of Heaven, situated on the highest part of Capitoline Hill. Behind the church, we rested at a cafe and treated ourselves to hot chocolate (it was still cold out!) and kiwi (yum!) panna cotta. Then we visited the National Monument to Victor Emmanuel II, or Il Vittoriano. The monument was built in the 19th century to honor Italy's first king and the unification of Italy. Some Italians demeaningly refer to it as "the typewriter" or "the wedding cake." Well, apparently renovations kept us from the front stairs.

Our last stop before dinner was the Pantheon. Though the Pantheon was built in AD 120, it is still the world's largest unreinforced concrete dome. Even with its size, though, it is remarkably beautiful and balanced. Its height (142 feet) is equal to its diameter. While the large oculus (to let light in) reduces the weight of the dome, the interior was originally lined with bronze plates adding even more weight, and reflecting the light. The dome has many square recesses to reduce the amount and weight of concrete used.

Here, we visited the tombs of Raphael and Umberto I.

Finally, after dinner, we saw the Trevi Fountain. The fountain marks the end of one of the ancient aqueducts that carried fresh water to the city. The theme of the fountain is, appropriately, taming waters. Legend has it that a visitor who tosses a coin into the fountain will return to Rome. We'll see.

After visiting the fountain, we had some gelato, and headed back to our hotel to rest. What a busy day! (I think the rest won't be so lengthy, but I'm not making promises.)