La Dolce Vita 2) Rome: A City in Renaissance

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Flag of Italy  , Lazio,
Tuesday, May 10, 2011

After the fall of the Roman Empire around 500 A.D., Rome entered a dark age that lasted a thousand years.  During this time the only stability and leadership was provided by the Catholic Church and the Pope.  But with the Renaissance, spilling from Florence into Rome, a period of rebirth began and a new Rome emerged which eventually developed its own unique Baroque style, fueled by the brilliant art of Bernini.  Renovations and new buildings, elegant fountains and art flooded Rome and, with time, it became the energetic city you can visit today.

You can spend weeks exploring today's Rome, but there's a lot you can see and do in a few days.  Some of what we saw included:

Victor Emmanuel Monument.  The building is despised by many Romans who know it as the "wedding cake" or "typewriter".  This massive monument was built in the 19th century in tribute to unified Italy's first King, Victor Emmanuel.  Located off the lovely Piazza Venezia, beside Capitol Hill and Trajan's Column, the white marble building is also home to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the eternal flame.  For a moderate fee you can take an elevator to the top of this monument (Rome from The Sky), offering the finest views of the city's skyline.

Borghese Galleria:  The former home of Bishop Borghese, whose wonderful collection of art is still on display.  Besides seeing superb art, you are treated to its original presentation, namely you see how the artist and owner of the villa had wanted these pieces to be displayed.  Highlights of the collection include several magnificent statues by Bernini, the artist who brought Baroque to Rome, including Bernini's David and Apollo chasing Daphne.  Paintings by Caravaggio (whose work we especially were moved by), Titan and Raphael are also highlighted.  Admission is as part of a group every two hours and you're only got 120 minutes to view the entire collection before you are required to leave (but that's enough).  Be sure you make your on-line reservation before you arrive in Rome or you won't be able to get in to this popular venue.

Villa Borghese Gardens:  The grounds of Bishop Borghese's home are now Rome's city park --  sort of the equivalent of New York's Central Park.  It is a wonderful shaded place to stroll on a warm day and features cafes, bike rentals, a kiddie park, and a man-made lake on which you can take a rowboat.  If you think Rome is too busy then take a day to decompress in the Villa Borghese Gardens.

Spanish Steps:  Probably the most overrated attraction in Rome, but a popular place for people to gather and sit especially towards evening. 

Trevi Fountain: A Baroque fountain visited by thousands each day, created as a celebration of the rebuilding of the aqueducts and the return of plentiful water to Rome.  The fountain is especially popular at nighttime.  It is an elegant sight. 

Trendy shopping streets:  There's a lot of great shopping in Rome, with the expected upscale brand names (eg. Gucci) and lots of opportunity to buy great Italian fashions and leathers.  We're not big shoppers but if you are then you'll find many opportunities to lighten your wallet.

The churches

Rome is the home of the Catholic church and my next blog post will specifically focus on our visit to the Vatican.  But there are dozens of beautiful churches throughout the city that offer not only great architecture but some of the finest art anywhere (usually still displayed where and how the artist intended it to be seen).  When you pass a church, poke your head in and take a look around if it's open (modest dress is required -- no naked shoulders or short shorts).  Some of the churches we enjoyed included:
 
1) St. Peters in Chains.  An old church renovated in the 17th century and located about a 15 minute walk from the Colosseum.   This Church is best known as home of Michelangelo's striking and memorable statue of Moses.  The statue highlights Michelangelo's wonderful technique -- it seems ready to stand up!  You can also see a set of ancient chains, traditionally said to be those that held St. Peter captive when an angel miraculously freed him (while his jailers slept). 

2) Santa Maria Maggiore.  It is one of Rome's oldest churches, dating to the 5th century but with Renaissance and Baroque face-lifts. It features the simple tomb of Bernini, the great Roman sculptor (who grew up and lived nearby). The church has numerous mosaics including some smaller panels dating to the fifth century.  There is an urn under the alter which contains several pieces of wood said to be from Jesus' crib. This is considered Vatican property, even though it is several miles from the main Vatican complex.

3) Gesu church.  Located between Capitol Hill and the Pantheon.  This is the original home of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits).  A lovely baroque interior, the church has the grave of St. Ignacious of Loyola, the founder of the order.

The food.  Among the finest in the world.  We never had a bad meal during our visit -- some certainly better than others but all good.  Be sure to try some gelato. 

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