A Roman Ramble

Wednesday was overcast and rainy. Perfectly in tune with the elements, the touts of Rome had swapped sunhats for umbrellas and stood on corners thrusting them at passersby. In spite of hurrying out of the hotel without a jacket, I ignored all offers since it was warm. Besides, the rain was more of a dew than a downpour.

Still seized by enthusiasm for Rome, I was out to see as much as possible and to burn off excess energy. Although I had a vague notion of seeing the Ghetto and Trastevere, my real plan was just to keep walking until something interesting cropped up, and then to start walking again. I mainly wanted to breathe the air and pound the streets of a city that, a week ago, had seemed a mere abstraction. With only two days to go, I had to enjoy the brevis lux and carpe the diem!

Turning down Via Nazionale towards the Trajan Market, I became just one more drop in a great human river. Joining a huge tourist flow is part of the pleasure and interest of Rome. There are obvious annoyances in crowds, but having seen my share of deserted back-waters, visiting a popular tourist attraction has its appeal. Everyone was dressed up and in a good mood for the occasion (at least this early in the day), and there was a feeling of community–we were all here to see the great beauty and intricate systems and huge monuments created by outstanding examples of our species. It was a kind of festival.




The bottom of Via Nazionale is particularly dense with attractions: Trajan’s Market; Trajan’s Column; the Palazzo Veneto (currently showcasing works by Donatello); the huge white monument to Vittorio Emanuele II topped by racing charioteers; and, up on its private hill, Campodoglio. Looking at all this made me feel weak at the knees.  Keep walking…I told myself, determined not to get involved in any one site so early in the expedition. But just one block along, in Via di Botteghe Oscure, I saw a sign: Museo di Crypto Balbi.

It is a romantic word– Romeo and Juliet ends in a crypt, after all. I fantasized that this unassuming museum was like a gate to the Underworld, that all the great corpses of the past would be neatly laid out for inspection, perhaps occasionally sitting up to dispense wisdom or gossip like the shades of Dante’s Inferno or in The Aeneid. One of the first things I gleaned, though, after paying the entrance fee of 8 euros, was that ‘crypt’ did not mean tomb. It meant, rather, something like ‘theatrical storeroom’. One block away from me, crowds of smiling customers were photographing Donatello masterpieces and I was in the ‘Old-Theater-Cupboard Museum’. Never mind.




The Italian-language signs were a too technical for me to understand. What I can tell you is that there was an ambitious man of the name Balbus who had a theater built. Over time, other things were built on top of that theater and then it all got dug up. In short, this museum is an archeological cross-section of a tiny part of the city of Rome. You can go underground and see the original Roman brickwork, a packed road of the Middle Ages and other later architectural additions. Admittedly, to the untrained eye one era looks very similar to the other and the whole seems a big old basement or sewer. Upstairs, more interestingly for boors like me, you can see some of the debris from the site, which has been conveniently sorted into historical epochs. I particularly liked the Medieval stuff, especially these metal objects so suggestive of daily life: spurs, a dagger, buckles, a copper ring, small rectangular plaques, a brass cockleshell (symbol of a pilgrim), a thimble and brooches.




Leaving the so-called crypt, I strolled along in Via Arenula towards Ponte Garibaldi, noticing that the tourist hordes had already petered out. There was a cute little park with some old fountains and, glancing through a gate, I saw a nice statue of Venus–the kind of thing that happens every five steps in this city.




On the Garibaldi Bridge I paused to get a shot of Tibertine Island. In her recent book SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome, Mary Beard includes a paragraph about how the Romans thought it originated:


“Many Romans knew, as well as modern geologists do, that the island in the middle of the Tiber where it flows through Rome was in geological terms a relatively recent formation. But how, and when, did it emerge? Even now there is no definitive answer to that; but one Roman idea dated its origin to the very beginning of Republican rule, when the grain that had been growing on the private land of the Tarquins was thrown into the river. Because the water level was low, this piled up on the riverbed and gradually, as it collected silt and other refuse, formed an island. It is as if the shape of the city was born only with the removal of the monarchy.”


Tibertine Island


Over the bridge and past Largo Gotevere Anguillara, I came to a large medieval-looking building labelled Casa di Dante. Funny they should commemorate his house in this city, since Rome is where he learned of his exile from Florence and was home to several of his least favorite people including Pope Boniface VII, whom he placed in the eighth circle of Hell, stuck face-first in a rock.

Continuing along the main street of Via Trastevere, I caught a glimpse of a big church complex and went to have a look. This turned out to be Piazza di San Francesco di Assissi. As there was no mass going on in the church just then, I slipped inside. There was only one other person there, a man in a beige coat looking reflectively down at the saint’s effigy in its glass tomb. I padded up to the altar, glaned to my left and caught my breath. There was a marble sculpture of a woman bathed in sunlight, conveying softness, folds of fabric, but also pain, vulnerability and tenderness. It was an pleasing experience, and I thought how very lucky I was to be there and see it. Later on I found out that it is called The Ecstacy of Saint Ludovica Albertoni by Bernini. Saint Ludovica was a Roman woman who joined the order of Saint Francis and worked for the poor in the Trastevere neighborhood.




The day before, John and I had gone to the Villa Borghese Gallery, a palace whose ground floor was designed to entertain dignitaries and important guests. The sculpture that impressed us most there was Apollo and Daphne by Bernini, showing the very moment that Daphne is changed into a laurel tree whilst being chased by the lustful god. Here is a translation of Ovid’s version of events:


In flight, in fear, wind flowing through her dress

And her wild hair — she grew more beautiful

The more he followed her and saw wind tear

Her dress and the short tunic that she wore,

The girl a naked wraith in wilderness.

And as they ran young Phoebus saved his breath

For greater speed to close the race, to circle

The spent girl in an open field, to harry

The chase as greyhound races hare,

His teeth, his black jaws glancing at her heels.

The god by grace of hope, the girl, despair,

Still kept their increasing pace until his lips

Breathed at her shoulder; and almost spent,

The girl saw waves of a familiar river,

Her father’s home, and in a trembling voice

Called, “Father, if your waters still hold charms

To save your daughter, cover with green earth

This body I wear too well,”  and as she spoke

A soaring drowsiness possessed her; growing

In earth she stood, white thighs embraced by climbing

Bark, her white arms branches, her fair head swaying

In a cloud of leaves; all that was Daphne bowed

In the stirring of the wind, the glittering green

Leaf twined within her hair and she was laurel.

Even so Phoebus embraced the lovely tree

Whose heart he felt still beating in its side;

He stroked its branches, kissed the sprouting bark,

And as the tree still seemed to sway, to shudder

At his touch, Apollo whispered, “Daphne,

Who cannot be my wife must be the seal,

The sign of all I own, immortal leaf

Twined in my hair as hers, and by this sign

My constant love, my honour shall be shown

It was hard to imagine how anyone could have created this statue from a chunk of rock—Bernini changed dead earth into something moving and living. Although I’d seen the statue in photographs, there were details whose power was increased when you could see it from all different angles. The leaves are the thin-ness of real leaves; Daphne’s torso where it is changing into a tree is rough bark, contrasting with the luminous, supple skin of her nymph body; woody vein-like roots sprout from her toes; the ground is a matte texture, highlighted by a little polished square pebble; Apollo’s tunic whirls in a vortex behind him; Daphne’s mouth is open in a scream you can almost hear.




There are four other Bernini statues in the gallery, including Aeneas carrying his father and son (and the household gods) away from Troy, and Hades carrying Persephone to the underworld. In the first statue, Bernini helps indicate the three ages of man with the texture of the skin of each figure—Anchises has the dry, coarse skin of an elderly man; Aeneas’ is softer and more supple; Astynax the baby has the smoothest of all. In The Rape of Persephone, Hades’ powerful fingers press into Persephone’s thigh emphasising her softness and his force.




Incidentally, The Rape of Persephone includes a figure of Cerberus that is, frankly, disappointing. Not one of its three heads looks anything like a real dog. The canine form seems to have been beyond even the most masterful artists of the past millennium. Look, for example, at this execrable wolf on one of the ceilings of the same gallery:




Then there is the dog next to Circe in the ‘metamorphoses’ hall near Daphne and Apollo. Granted, it probably used to be human but that’s no reason to make it look even more like Ron Perlman than that cat.




Perhaps the worst of all is this eighteenth-century rendition of Anubis as a body builder with pigeon wings and the head of a Cocker Spaniel.




But I digress.

Leaving the church of Saint Francis all aglow at the vision of Ludovica, I decided to make for Gianicolo Park. Climbing steps and steep, narrow streets, I glimpsed lofty mansions through veils of greenery and over the tops of high walls and eventually came to Fontana dell’Acqua Paola, an unusual looking structure with a big round pool at the bottom.




Just to the side of it was a path, surprisingly overgrown, muddy and jungly. It eventually led to Terrazza del Gianicolo, presided over by Garibaldi on a horse. It was clearly a good spot for panorama views, but because of the drizzly weather it was practically deserted. I made a bee-line for a forlorn Indian vendor at a covered drinks cart and got some water and a walnut brownie before going on.

A little way down the road was a lighthouse. I didn’t know what a lighthouse was doing here since the sea is lebbenty kilometers away. Then I saw a plaque commemorating the Argentine coup. It was all a bit confusing. Anyhow, I finally got a decent shot of the city.




Still further down the road was a little park in front of a children’s hospital. Nurses gathered smoking on their break, parents rushed down sandwiches, a man chatted earnestly on his cellphone using what a friend calls ‘the question mark’ gesture, with the fingers of one hand joined together to make a beak as the hand moves up and down.




Suddenly I felt guilty about my touristy ebullience and scuttled down a leafy little staircase. This was called ‘the Ramp of the Oak’ and near the bottom I saw why: there was a plaque to which a burnt log was attached. Another mystery.

Back at the bottom of the hill, I crossed the Principe Amadeo Savoia Aosta Bridge, drifted towards a main street and found myself back in the tourist river heading to Navona Square, a long piazza containing three impressive fountains with Neptune cavorting with nymphs. I’m not sure why, but these fountains, even the massive Trevi fountain, don’t do much for me. La Barcaccia, at the bottom of the Spanish Steps, looks little more than a bathtub—quite disappointing since my favourite Italian radio show dedicated to opera is called La Barcaccia.

Striding through, I passed into Parliament Square, a vast space where people stood in military dress uniforms and business suits. Hidden in the shade, several soldiers in camo gear quietly surveyed the area with loaded weapons. The atmosphere was rather ceremonial and chilly—I had somehow left the tourist zone and felt like a reef wrasse that has unwittingly strayed into deep open water. I bustled past the parliament gates and escaped into a nearby church.



This particular church featured large paintings of the life of Mary. Unfortunately, I don’t remember the artist’s name except it reminded me of cannelloni. The large, dim church interior was restful, and helped check my frenetic enthusiasm. I could see how it might be beneficial to have a space dedicated to contemplation and calm, to focus on a figure who represented a common ideal. It then occurred to me that ‘Mother Mary’ had an ancient precedent in the ‘Great Mother’ goddess Cybele. Describing the sudden expansion of Roman power, Mary Beard describes an ancient example of culture clash, a moment when Rome is suddenly confronted with the strangeness of its own origins:


“Livy…tells of how the Great Mother Goddess was brought into Rome with tremendous fanfare from Asia Minor in 204 BCE, towards the end of the Second Punic War. This was a very Roman occasion. A book of Roman oracles that was supposed to go back to the reign of the Tarquins recommended that the goddess Cybele, as she was also known, be incorporated into the Roman pantheon. The range of deities worshipped in Rome was proudly elastic, and the Great Mother was the patron deity of the Romans’ ancestral home—Aeneas’ Troy—and so, in a sense, belonged in Italy. They sent a senior deputation to collect the image of the goddess and transport her back, and they chose, as the oracle had insisted, ‘the best man in the state’ to receive her in Rome…He was accompanied in the welcoming party by a noble Roman woman, in some accounts a Vestal Virgin, and the image was taken from the ship and passed from the coast to the city, hand to hand, by a long line of other women. The goddess was temporarily lodged in the shrine of Victory until her own temple was built. It would be the first building in Rome, so far as we know, constructed using that most Roman of materials, and the one on which so many of the Romans’ later architectural masterpieces relied: concrete.

Nothing could have pleased Cato more—except that not everything was quite as it seemed. The image of the goddess was not what the Romans could possibly have been expecting. It was a large black meteorite, not a conventional statue in human form. And the meteorite came accompanied by a retinue of priests. These were self-castrated eunuchs, with long hair, tambourines and a passion for self-flagellation. This was all about as un-Roman as you could imagine. And forever after it raised uncomfortable questions about ‘the Roman’ and ‘the foreign’, and where the boundary between them lay.”


There is something about this story that I really like. It’s as if a small-town congregation sent a mail order for a church monument and ended up with an alien egg or with the black monolith from A Space Odyssey 2001.



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