Rome wasn't built in a day... but Rome was built!

Trip Start Feb 15, 2008
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44
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Trip End May 31, 2008


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Flag of Italy  , Lazio,
Sunday, April 27, 2008

During our trip from Florence to Rome we made a short stop at Orvieto. This small Tuscan town with its narrow streets, pizzerias, cafes and souvenir vendors features a large renaissance style basilica at its highest point. It is recorded that a travelling Catholic Priest had doubts about the church's doctrine on transubstantiation (the belief that the bread used in the mass to represent the body of Christ actually become flesh). It is recorded that while the priest was conducting a mass, blood dropped from the host (or bread) on to a piece of cloth. The priest was now convinced of his faith, a miracle declared, the piece of cloth became a relic which people travelled from far and wide to see and Pope Urban IV ordered the construction of a new basilica to commemorate the miracle. Inside I found this cathedral to be much like the cathedral in Florence; a big empty space... but maybe that's just me... Entry to the basilica is free but if one wishes to see a relic one must pay, and the cloth is no exception.

That afternoon we arrived at Rome and our guide took us on a walking tour to see the city's main points of interest. We began at Plazza da Spagna which features the famous Spanish Steps. There are 138 steps to the top and were a gift in the 18th Century from the French. Once a year the stairs are covered in pots of azaleas to celebrate the arrival of the new spring and the day of our visit just happened to be that day, which also meant larger than normal crowds. The Plaza also features a high column called Colonna dell'Immacolata which celebrates the immaculate conception of the Virgin Mary; there was a rather large bunch of flowers or roses at the feet of this statue when I saw it and I have no idea how someone would have got them up there as it would not have been possible to scale this pillar. This location used to be closer to a river and it's said that on a particular day in the 16th Century a group of Romans found a boat full of bottles of wine... so they celebrated by constructing a fountain in the shape of a boat which still stands today. The fountain is called Benini and the interesting thing is that the fresh spring water which comes from this fountain and others around the city never stops and the water is clean and clear, so fill up your bottle!

The Monastery of the Capuchin Monks features a crypt which is open for public viewing for a donation. The monks take a vow of poverty when they enter the order and renounced the pleasures of life devoting themselves to repentance and asceticism. The catacombs illustrate the fleeting nature of life which is insignificant and brief compared to immortality. This point is underscored by the inscription you will find in the final crypt: "Quello che voi siete noi eravamo, quello che noi siamo voi sarete." What you are, we once were, what we are, you will be.

The display features the bones of over 4000 monks who died there between the 16th and 19th Centuries and have been arranged into patterns, artworks, displays and even chandeliers. What is a little disturbing are the bones of someone's five year old daughter which were donated to monks and have been displayed in the form of a grim reaper. I found the whole thing a little creepy.

Trevi Fountain is a popular meeting place and the statues of this fountain feature two tritons on horses; one at each side of the fountain. The triton's horse on the left is distressed and bucking; while the horse of the triton on the right is calm, representing the ocean's varying temperaments. It's said that if you throw a coin in to the fountain you'll have a safe return home; the money is collected every day and assists the Red Cross.

The Pantheon was the temple of all gods built in 27 BC by Marcus Agrippa. The walls are 6 metres thick, and the dome has an exceptional diameter of 43.3 metres. The dome's central aperture is 9 metres in diameter and was achieved without the use of a central support by incorporating a ribbed skeleton into the dome's design; a technique which has since been copied elsewhere. This is an impressive original Roman building and was fortunately spared from demolition by being converted into a Christian church in the 7th Century. The Roman pillars which support the front annex are inspiring; these buildings were made to last forever. The Colosseum may have 80 arches for getting in and out quickly but the pantheon has only one, so it's a major squeeze getting in, but don't worry, just push your way in like everyone else. Once inside there's plenty of room and you'll also be able to see where they buried Raphael.

The Piazza Navona is situated on the site of an ancient Roman circus and retains the shape of the Stadium of Domitian which was once the scene of chariot races. These were exciting events where fireworks and spikes were used on the sides of the chariots. At the end of the race everyone'd be hungry, so why eat the losing horse... the meat is probably no good... they ate the winner! The chariot racing circuit would also be filled with water on weekends so people could sail small boats around. To the centre of the Piazza Navona now stands the Church of St Agnes. Agnes was not actually a good girl and following her acts of mischief she was commanded to publicly reaffirm her faith in this Piazza... naked! Though it's recorded that as she was stripped down to the toosh, her hair miraculously grew to cover her private bits, so it was declared a miracle, a church was built to commemorate the event and she was later made a saint. The Piazza also features the fountain of Moor and the fountain of Neptune.

The Victor Emmanuel II monument is also called the wedding cake. This obtrusive white building was constructed from 1885 to 1925 and commemorates the first king of the unified Italy. The monument features Europe's biggest equestrian statue and it is said that the moustache of the rider has a width of 3 metres! Many of the locals dislike this monument and say that it blocks their view of the Colosseum.

Construction of the Colosseum began in the year 72 by Vespasian and was finished just 8 years later by his son Titus who set aside 100 days of celebrations to commemorate its completion. The stadium seated 50,000 people who could all clear out of the building in just eight minutes through its 80 arches. The Colosseum is not round as often thought, but elliptical and was built for the entertainment of Rome's blood thirsty residents. The Games, as they were called, featured fights between hunting of animals bought in from all over the empire, an execution or two followed by the main course: gladiator battles. Gladiators were slaves who had the opportunity to gain fame, fortune and freedom by winning enough battles; though most gladiators rarely lasted more than 2 or 3 confrontations.

Once inside you can observe the various corridors and chambers which were once used to bring the animals and gladiators up into the arena and were concealed by a wooden floor which was covered by sand. The building was once gloriously covered in a veneer of marble though fell into ruin after it was affected by earthquakes and was later robbed of its valuable materials for the construction of basilicas and other projects. It was previously believed that the early Christians were martyred in the Colosseum though this is now disputed. I went inside this site the following day with a guided tour which allowed us to skip the queue that can waste up to two hours of your day. Tours don't require pre-booking and leave every 15 to 20 minutes from outside the main entrance.

The following day a number of our group took a guided tour of the Vatican City. This is the world's smallest independent state and the Pope is in charge. There are simply too many amazing works of art and sculptures to comprehend. Constantine defeated Maxentius in the battle of Milvian Bridge in 312 after seeing the sign of the cross in the sky and the words meaning 'By this sign you will be victorious'. Up till this point in time Christianity was not regarded as more than a sect of Judaism and Christians were persecuted for their faith and generally did not meet publicly. Following his victory Constantine set Christianity as the new state religion and established the Roman Catholic Church as we know it today. Twelve years after capturing Rome, Constantine constructed a basilica on the site where it is believed that St Peter was martyred. By 1506 this basilica had become so dilapidated that the decision was made to rebuild it completely. The project was mostly funded by the selling of indulgences which are certificates that claim to guarantee the purchaser entry into heaven. The majority of people being sold the certificates were the poor; this took food off people's tables and angered many within the church who believed the project to be extravagant. These events became contributing factors of the Protestant Reformation of the early 1500s.

I was completely overwhelmed by this complex; there is nothing else like it on earth. The various buildings which make up the Vatican City are beyond impressive and there are so many priceless works by history's most famous artists that one is unable to absorb it. Our tour of the facility took us into the city's central courtyard and onwards through what seemed like kilometres of corridors and rooms displaying sculptures, artefacts, paintings, tapestries and all other manner of art imaginable from all over the world. Two fifths of the facility consist of botanical gardens which are visible through many of the windows. A guided tour is the only way of gaining a true insight into the history and meaning of the buildings and the artefacts contained within them. Joining a tour also allows you to skip the queue which can also take up to two hours.

Our tour of the Vatican continued through the Sistine Chapel with the famous frescoes by Michael Angelo which line the ceiling and on to St Peter's Basilica. This building is the height of opulence. Flash photography is permitted inside the basilica as the building's interior features no painted surfaces. What you see has been made to last forever. What appear to be paintings are actually mini mosaics which involve the use of very small pieces of tiles placed together to create pictures. All other interior surfaces are marble, bronze or gold and where one can see gold on the ceiling it is solid gold not gold leaf. It is said that there is enough gold on the ceiling of St Peter's to take India out of poverty. We completed our tour by wandering around St Peter's central plaza where the faithful masses gather to be addressed by their leader.

Following this amazing tour, four of our group took a horse and carriage trip across to the site of the Roman Forum which is situated alongside the Colosseum. Horse and carriage rides in Rome are not cheap so bargain your way down, stick to your price and you can reach something far more realistic. It's a fantastic and quick way of getting across town. The Roman Forum was originally a swamp and the Romans didn't know how to drain it. The Etruscans from the north did know how and constructed some kind of dredging system which allowed the area to be used as a civic plaza where the Romans and Etruscans would meet and trade. The area was a popular meeting point and soon became the heart of the city and a location where religious ceremonies took place. As the city grew the plaza became inadequate to cope and other centres were constructed elsewhere reducing the plaza's significance. In 283 the forum was ravaged by fire and despite attempts at restoration the forum continued to decline as a result of barbarian attacks and was later reduced to grazing land. But the biggest threat to these structures and others like it across the city was the Renascence period of the 1500's where original Roman buildings were quarried for their marble and other materials to construct new cathedrals, basilicas and public buildings. The guide who showed us around the forum suggested that this period was more of a recycle than a Renaissance.

Palatine Hill is situated alongside the forum and was the original nucleus of the city. The site once featured a village, castle and temples and later became the site of the principal palace for Rome's Emperors. Other than a couple of walls and some foundations, there is not much left of the buildings which once occupied the site; therefore one really needs a guide to provide some commentary and put things into place. It is possible to view the forum from the street above though there is nothing quite like walking amongst these 2000 year old Roman columns, arches and structures. Entry to the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill are included in your Colosseum entry and guided tours often include both sites. The following day we made our way to the city of canals, Venice.
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