Dr. SkySkull in Rome: Walking the city

My recent trip to Europe was officially work-related, as I was an “opponent” in a PhD defense for a student of my former postdoc advisor in Amsterdam.   We decided some time ago, however, to add a trip to Rome after the defense, and spent a lovely 4 days in the Italian city together with the graduating student.  Between my cellphone and my 35mm camera, I took some 1000 photos, and of course I wanted to share a bunch of them here!

I’ll break up my tour of Rome into several posts.  Of course I’ll dedicate entire posts to major sights such as the Colosseum, the Vatican Museum, and the Appian Way, but in this first post I thought I’d share some of the sights as seen just walking around the city on the first day.

Our trip started on Wednesday, June 21st, and we started reeeeeally early. Our flight from Amsterdam departed at 7:20 am, and thanks to the long queues at Amsterdam Schipol, we all ended up waking up at about 4:00 am.  Now, thanks to an excess of wine drinking, I had trouble falling asleep and probably only really fell asleep around 2:00 am, so I was pretty wiped out. I wasn’t the only one.

My postdoc advisor and I at the Fiumicino Airport, discussing plans for our new book, “How to Enjoy Rome on Less than 2 Hours of Sleep Per Day.”

Our flight was smooth and our taxi trip to the hotel was uneventful.  We booked a hotel near the train station, Roma Termini, and later realized how much cheaper and easier it is to take the Leonardo Express train which is a direct connection from the airport to Termini.

Our hotel rooms weren’t ready yet when we arrived so Taco (my postdoc advisor) led us on a whirlwind tour of the city, as he was the only member of our trio who had been there before.  Right outside of Termini we encountered our first monument, one which would really set the tone for the entire trip.

2011 statue of Pope John Paul II, by Oliviero Rainaldi.

The shadow of the Catholic Church hangs heavy over the entire city, and many ancient structures were repurposed through the centuries as churches.  Many of the old monuments, including the Colosseum, have inscriptions placed by a former pope.  It is a challenging idea to come to terms with, because this “meddling” by the church in the city’s history is also a major reason so much of that history remains.

A great example of this was given at our very next stop: the Baths of Diocletian, the largest imperial baths that were built from 298-306 C.E.!

The Baths of Diocletian.

Off to the left of this photo, out of sight, is the basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri, ordered built by Pope Pius IV in the 1560s within some of the baths to commemorate the lives of Christian martyrs.

Right across the street from the baths and basilica we encountered the first of many, many fountains in Rome, the Fountain of the Naiads in the Piazza della Repubblica.

Fountain of the Naiads, in the Piazza della Repubblica.

The fountain, and the surrounding buildings, were completed in the late 1800s. The fountain itself was built as the terminus of the Acqua Pia, an aqueduct restored from ancient Roman ones — on the order of a Pope, of course.  The original fountain featured four lions, but these were replaced with naiads in 1901.

Rear view of the fountain, with the basilica in sight behind to the left.

From this piazza, we turned left onto the Via Nazionale, which leads directly to some of the major historical and sightseeing landmarks in the city. It is also one of the more touristy streets, naturally.

View from the Via Nazionale.

Along the way, it is easy to overlook a very small basilica on the right, which is easy to overlook due to its position below street level.  This is part of what makes it interesting, however: its low position indicates that it is a very old building which has survived the centuries of building up that the rest of the city has undergone.  This is the Basilica di Santi Vitale e Compagni Martiri in Fovea, built in 400 B.C.E. and consecrated by Pope Innocent I soon after.

The Basilica di Santi Vitale e Compagni Martiri in Fovea.

Rome is very much a city of contrasts, I would say: ancient and quaint side by side with magnificent and modern, and many permutations of those features.  Right next to the small basilica is the Palazzo delle Esposizioni, a grand exhibition hall first opened in 1883 which, as can be seen from the photo, does exhibitions on the arts.

Palazzo delle Esposizioni.

A few blocks back we had encountered another church — of which Rome of course has many — which is connected to some significant history. This is San Paolo dentro le mura, or “St. Paul’s Within the Walls.”

St. Paul’s Within the Walls.

This Episcopal Church was completed in 1880, and was the first Protestant church built in Rome.  Building a non-Catholic church in the city only became possible after the capture of Rome from the Papal states by the unified Kingdom of Italy in 1870.  It didn’t take long for other Christian denominations to place roots: St. Paul’s was commissioned in 1872.

At the end of the Via Nazionale, we encountered another clash of very old and “just old.” The church in the foreground is Santa Caterina a Magnanapoli, built in 1575, while the tower behind is the Torre delle Milizie, which was built around the year 1200. Myth holds that the tower is much older and is the place where Nero fiddled while watching Rome burn, and it held the nickname “Nero’s Tower” for that reason.

Santa Caterina a Magnanapoli and the Torre delle Milizie.

Passing down a short flight of stairs, we came into view of one of the wonders of ancient Rome: Trajan’s Column.

Trajan’s Column.

This magnificent column was completed under order of the Emperor Trajan in 113 C.E. to commemorate his victory in the Dacian Wars of 101-102 and 105-106 C.E.  The bas relief that spirals upwards around the column tells the story of those wars.  The column itself is around 100 feet tall, and it contains a spiral staircase inside by which one can reach the top platform.  The top of the column originally had a statue of Emperor Trajan, though it was lost in the Middle Ages; in 1587, Pope Sixtus V had a bronze statue of St. Peter installed.  This again is one of those conundrums in the history of Rome: on the one hand, one doesn’t like to see ancient history co-opted in this way, but on the other hand making it into a Christian monument probably improved its chances of survival.

In the background of Trajan’s column, you can already see the magnificent and massive Altare della Patria, “Altar of the Fatherland.”

Altare della Patria.

Remember the “capture of Rome” we mentioned a little while ago? That was the end of the campaign to unify Italy, led by eventual King of Italy Victor Emmanuel II.  The Altare della Patria was built to honor Victor Emmanuel II, and the design was done in 1885; the monument was finished only in 1925.  The base of the building holds the museum of Italian unification (which we didn’t visit — perhaps next time).

An equestrian statue of King Emmanuel II stands proudly in the center of the complex.

King Emmanuel II.

The monument is apparently somewhat controversial for its size, gaudiness, and the amount of historical space that was destroyed for it.  My postdoc advisor Taco recalled it being known as the “typewriter,” though apparently locals also refer to it as the “wedding cake.”

Front view of the “typewriter.”

Even here some old Roman ruins remain; a piece of wall stands proudly next to one of the Altare’s fountains.

Fountain and ruin.

We stopped for lunch at this point, and I had my first genuine Italian espresso. I’ve never been a coffee drinker before, so this was quite the new experience!  By the time I left Rome, I was addicted to cappuccino.

My first espresso.

Across the Via dei Fori Imperiali, one encounters a spectacular set of Roman ruins: Trajan’s Market.

View of Trajan’s Market, with the Torre delle Milizie behind.

The market, constructed around 100 C.E. on order of Emperor Trajan, is considered to be the world’s oldest shopping mall, containing shops, apartments, and offices.  Today, the building houses the Museo dei Fori Imperiali, a museum of the Roman forum. And speaking of which…

Ruins of the Roman forum.

Across the street from the market are the first visible ruins of the Roman forum. To describe the importance of this I cannot summarize better than Wikipedia:

It was for centuries the center of Roman public life: the site of triumphal processions and elections; the venue for public speeches, criminal trials, and gladiatorial matches; and the nucleus of commercial affairs. Here statues and monuments commemorated the city’s great men. The teeming heart of ancient Rome, it has been called the most celebrated meeting place in the world, and in all history.

It is difficult to put a date on such a vast complex with such a long history, but apparently its origins can be traced back to the 7th century B.C.E., and new additions continued until 608 C.E., when the Column of Phocas was erected.  We will discuss the forum in more detail in an upcoming post, which will be based on the tour of the site we did a few days later.  For now, here is another street level view.

Another view of the Roman forum.

Carrying on down the Via dei Fori Imperiali, we finally came to the most famous landmark in Rome, albeit with a bit of an ominous foreground.

First view of the Colosseum.

In light of recent terror attacks in Europe, it was clear that the Italian authorities were taking no chances.  There was a strong police and military presence at all major landmarks.  This was not a particularly troubling thing, but it was definitely noticeable.

The Colosseum is huge, y’all.

Panorama of the Colosseum.

It is estimated to have held some 50,000 to 85,000 spectators who came to see a variety of activities, many of them bloody: gladiatorial contests, animal hunts, executions.  Something I did not know before: the name “Colosseum” apparently comes not from the amphitheater itself, but from a “colossal” statue of Nero that was built nearby.  The stadium became associated with the statue.

I’ll have much more to say about the Colosseum in a future post dedicated to it, as we went inside a few days later!

Next to the Colosseum is the Arch of Constantine, which was built to commemorate Constantine’s victory over then Emperor Maxentius at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312 C.E.  Tradition says that on the eve of battle, Constantine received a divine vision telling him that he would win if he accepted the protection of Christ.  The inscription of the arch does not get quite so specific but does mention being “inspired by the divine.” Constantine started to support Christianity right after the battle, however, and it may be thought of as the start of Christianity in the Roman Empire.

The Arch of Constantine.

We had reached mid-day at this point, and the heat was getting to us — it was 35 C, or 95 F, for most of our trip!  We opted to follow in the Italian tradition and take an extended afternoon rest, and only came out after 4 pm, when the sun was low enough in the sky to provide us with some shade.  We headed back towards the center of town by a slightly different path, passing by the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, which was originally built under Pope Sixtus III around 431 C.E.!

Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore.

One thing that is magnificent about Rome is the vast number of little streets lined with restaurants.

One lively little street.

We were working our way towards the second most famous landmark in Rome, though we encountered other churches along the way.

Santa Maria in Via Lata.

This church, Santa Maria in Via Lata, apparently started in the 5th century in the remains of an old Roman building beneath the current structure, which was erected in the 9th century.  Working our way through small streets we stumbled into another architectural wonder, whose significance I did not learn until writing this post!

Galleria Sciarra.

The Galleria Sciarra is part of a late 19th century palace, of which I cannot find much information. It was quite lovely, however, though not as lovely as..

The Trevi Fountain.

Like the Fountain of the Naiads seen earlier, the Trevi Fountain was constructed as the terminus of a renovated Roman aqueduct, in this case the Acqua Vergine.  The work was commissioned by Pope Clement XII in 1730, with the architect chosen by a contest. It was not completed until 1762.

Another view of the Trevi Fountain.

It is truly a magnificent sight, and was quite crowded with spectators when we arrived. With a little patience, however, we were able to get clear views of the fountain for photographs.  The Trevi Fountain is featured in a famous scene in the 1960 Italian film La Dolce Vita.  If you’ve never seen the scene, here it is!

Not far from the Trevi Fountain, I had to stop to take a photo of a shoe store.  Art and design feature heavily in retail establishments, as well as monuments.

I would be afraid to go into this place, personally.

It was getting later in the day, and we started hunting for a place to have dinner.  Along the way, however we passed the famous Spanish Steps.

The Spanish Steps.

Leaving the Spanish Steps, we finally sat down for a lovely dinner at an outdoor restaurant.  Street musicians set the mood as we ate, including this charming accordion player who graciously allowed me to photograph her. (And of course I tipped her.)

As dinner ended we had an experience that I considered somewhat magical and very much in the spirit of an international city.  We were sitting next to a British couple at dinner and had some nice chats with them over the course of the meal.  As we finished up, we all noticed that there was a large group of Dutch folks looking for a place to eat, and we “joined forces” with the British couple to get the restaurant to prepare our pair of tables for the group.  In the process, we had people of 5 nationalities — American, British, Italian, Dutch, Chinese — speaking 3 languages — Dutch, English, Italian — and working together to help some folks out!  It was a fun and friendly interaction, and represents the sort of world I would like to see more of.

As we were leaving, I turned to take a photo of the restaurant, and one of the Dutch fellows spontaneously posed for me! I automatically switched to counting in Dutch to take his photo, which is the first time I think I’ve ever felt vaguely multilingual.

Dinner and a new friend.

We next followed a general path from the Spanish Steps towards the river, and as the sun was setting we walked past the massive and ancient Mausoleum of Emperor Augustus, built in 28 B.C.E. It was apparently under renovation while we were there, but the lighting on it at night was quite lovely.  There were plenty of restaurants around the place, and I found it fascinating that you could eat a nice meal in sight of such an ancient and somber landmark.

The Mausoleum of Augustus.

Sunsets in Rome are lovely, by the way.

Our first Roman sunset.

We were now in sight of the Vatican, and across the river could see the massive Basilica of St. Peter, the largest church in Christendom.  We will describe it in more detail in upcoming posts, as we would go into it on a later day.

St. Peter’s Basilica.

We crossed the river here and walked down to the Castel Sant’Angelo, which was originally built as the mausoleum of Emperor Hadrian between 134 and 139 C.E. and has been used at various times as a fortress, castle and prison, as well as a refuge for the Pope in times of trouble.  There is a statue of the Archangel Michael on top of the castle, sheathing his sword; legend has it that a vision of Michael appeared there, with his action representing the end of the plague of 590.  Today the castle is a museum.

The Castel Sant’Angelo.

We wanted to make one final stop before the end of the night; along the way, however, we came across a shop with this massive hunk of chocolate in the window.


We at last arrived at Piazza Navona, which contains the Fountain of the Four Rivers, designed in 1651 by Bernini for Pope Innocent X.

The Fountain of the Four Rivers.

The figure in the foreground here seems to be horrified, or cowering, from the sight of the church before him, which is Sant’Agnese in Agone, designed by Bernini’s rival Borromini.

“Aaah! My eyes!”

Legend has it that Bernini deliberately did this to show the figure shielding his eyes from the ugliness of Borromini’s work, though in fact the church did not even begin construction until 1652, a year after the fountain was completed.

After that, we caught a taxi back to the hotel.  We had had a long, grueling day in the sun, walking some 9 miles, with very little sleep!  I hardly felt it, however, due to the excitement of being in such a beautiful city.

This post got a little long — upcoming posts, which are on specific monuments, will (hopefully) be a bit more manageable!

This entry was posted in Personal, Travel. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Dr. SkySkull in Rome: Walking the city

  1. Bradley Kjell says:

    Nice pictures, from angles I’ve not seen. Maybe I’ll get to Rome someday; you nudged me in that direction.

    This is the Basilica di Santi Vitale e Compagni Martiri in Fovea, built in 400 B.C.E. and consecrated by Pope Innocent I soon after.

    >> 400 CE

  2. kaleberg says:

    That sounds like a great trip. Rome truly seems the eternal city.

  3. Blake Stacey says:

    Catching up on my blog reading… That’s a serious block of chocolate!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.