Dr. SkySkull in Rome: Working and walking

Part 2 of a series of photo essays on my recent trip to Rome. Part 1 can be read here.

Day 2 of our Rome trip was a combination of work and vacation. The choice of Rome as a destination was originally motivated by an invitation from an optics colleague to visit him at Roma Tre University, and my former postdoc advisor and I both volunteered to give short talks about our research.  We were scheduled for pre-lunchtime presentations, so we slept in a little bit and then took a taxi to the university.

Even a taxi ride in Rome can be interesting, though, as we passed several ancient landmarks of note along the way!  Three of them appeared in a single photo I snapped on the road.

The Piazza Bocca della Verità.

In the foreground of this piazza is the Fountain of the Tritons (Fontana dei Tritoni), completed in 1715 under order of Pope Clement XI as a monument in his memory.  Right behind that is a significantly older structure, the Tempio di Ercole Vincitore (Temple of Hercules Victor), which dates to the 2nd century B.C.E.!  The roof on the structure is not original, but was added later; the columns are original.  On the far right of the photo is the Tempio di Portuno (Temple of Portunus), originating in the 3rd or 4th century B.C.E. but rebuilt somewhere around 100 B.C.E. It, and the Temple of Hercules Victor, were both converted to Catholic churches at some point in their history and probably owe their survival to this.

The name of the plaza, Piazza Bocca della Verità, literally is the “Square of the Mouth of Truth.”  I didn’t realize it at the time, but if you could turn 180 degrees in the photo above, you would be looking right in the direction of the so-called “Mouth of Truth,” another iconic sight in Rome. The large marble mask is possibly a former drain cover for the Temple of Hercules Victor which was later moved across the street to a church.  Legend has it that the mouth will bite you if you tell a lie with your hand within it; it was featured in the 1953 film Roman Holiday. We didn’t get a chance to return to see the Mouth in person, so a scene from the movie will have to suffice.

Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck in Roman Holiday.  Note that he’s missing his hand.

This wasn’t even the only surprise we saw on the taxi ride.  A little further down the road we passed… a pyramid?

This is my favorite pyramid in Rome.

The pyramid is in such good condition, and so out of place, that I imagined that it must be a relatively new addition to the city. Not so: the Pyramid of Cestius was built around 18-12 B.C.E. as a tomb for Gaius Cestius, a wealthy magistrate.  The pyramid has steep sides, like pyramids in Nubia, and it is therefore thought that Cestius may have participated in a Roman military campaign in Nubia that occurred around 23 B.C.E.  The pyramid was considered an important sight for wealthy Europeans to see on their “grand tours” of the 18th and 19th centuries,  and luminaries such as Percy Bysshe Shelley and Thomas Hardy visited and wrote about it.

It didn’t take long for us to arrive at the university, and fortunately our gracious hosts gave us clear directions. Roma Tre, as the name suggests, was the third public university established in the city.  It is relatively new, having been founded in 1992, but services some 35,000 students.

We gave our talks in a lovely modern conference room/lecture hall in the school of engineering. As has become my tradition, I took an awkward selfie just before my presentation.

I talk now.

I won’t spend much time talking about the visit — our hosts were lovely, and we had a very nice lunch and coffee afterwards.  My eagle-eyed colleague Taco noticed something interesting in one of the buildings as we were leaving, and we stopped in quickly to take a look.  Roma Tre has a large wave tank, which can be used to generate and study waves, as well as the effect certain types of waves have on ships.  There were a number of ship models in the back of the room that I didn’t think to photograph!

Roma Tre’s wave tank.

That afternoon, we took another break from the heat for a few hours, and came out around 4 pm again to explore the city when more shade was available.  This time, we opted to head further west and take a look at Vatican City, the heart of the Catholic Church and its own independent state.

I had to photograph one stupid thing on the way. I had been taking Rosetta Stone Italian lessons in preparation for the trip, and one word I found particularly vexing: gioielleria, which means “jewelry store.”

One of many jewelry stores.

I finally decided that the word is best pronounced by imagining it as “joey-ella-ria.”

By the time we arrived at Vatican City, the crowds had already largely departed for the day, so we were able to walk into the massive Piazza San Pietro, “Square of Saint Peter,” without any lines or delay.

And it is massive — this is the square where the faithful gather to hear the Pope speak in person on special occasions.  The only way to truly do justice to it in photographs is through panorama views; I share two below.

Piazza San Pietro, iPhone panorama version.  (Be sure to click on the photo and view it full size.)

The Piazza was designed by the great architect and sculptor Bernini, whose work fills much of Rome, over the years 1656-1667.  At its center is an ancient Egyptian obelisk which was originally brought to Italy by the Emperor Augustus (63 B.C.E. – 14 C.E.) and which was placed in its current position in 1586.

Egyptian obelisk from Heliopolis, original provenance unknown.

The Piazza is more or less elliptical, and at the foci of the ellipse are a pair of fountains.  The sun was setting in such a way that I was able to get a nice shot of sunlight off of the northernmost fountain’s water.

Fountain, with the Basilica in the background.

On the left of the photo above one can see the gigantic Basilica di San Pietro, which as we noted in the last post is the largest church in Christendom.

Basilica di San Pietro.

I won’t say much about the Basilica right now, as we would go inside of it on our 4th day in Rome.  We will talk about it in more detail in post number 4!

Another view of the Piazza, using a 35mm camera and panorama stitching software.

There is a huge sense of history that is almost palpable when one is standing in the Piazza; nevertheless, there are things around that remind you that times have changed since the founding of the Catholic Church.

Holy Roman Kodak.

As we left the area of the Vatican, a few other curiosities caught our eye.  One was a reminder that the Vatican is, officially, its own country, and that there are embassies affiliated with it.

Canadian Embassy to the Vatican.

Another curiosity is the following calendar, which is exactly what it appears to be: a calendar of handsome Catholic priests, put out by the church.

Sinfully handsome.

I kinda regret not picking up a couple of these to pass along as gifts.

The most baffling thing we saw on the way out was a protest in front of the main entrance to the Piazza di San Pietro.

Protest, with the Basilica in the background.

We could not understand the issue from the signs present, but I took photos to look it up later.

Disappearance of Emanuela Orlandi.

Emanuela Orlandi, a citizen of Vatican City, went missing in 1983, and her disappearance remains a mystery. She was a high school student at the time.  Obviously, from the poster, she is not the only person who has disappeared.  There have been a number of theories as to Orlandi’s disappearance, and there is no evidence that the Vatican is directly involved, but clearly the protesters feel that the Church knows more than it is willing to admit.

The buildings and sculptures in Rome, which are always beautiful, look even more magnificent when illuminated with the glow of the setting sun.  As we left the Vatican, we passed the Castel Sant’Angelo again, which we had seen the night before.   A crane was lifting heavy boxes from the castle, apparently removing pieces from a closing art exhibition.

Castel Sant’Angelo.

The bridge leading directly across the river from the castle is the Ponte Sant’Angelo, an ancient bridge completed in 134 C.E. by Emperor Hadrian to connect the city to the castle — which we noted previously is also the Emperor’s mausoleum.

The Ponte Sant’ Angelo.

The statues of angels upon the bridge are obviously much more recent, and were sculpted in the 1600s on order of Pope Clement IX.  The statues looked lovely, and I couldn’t resist photographing most if not all of them, as the following series indicates.

Angel with the lance.

Angel with the cross.

Angel with the superscription.

Angel with the nails.

Angel with the sudarium.

Angel with the whips, and guest.

Angel with the whips, detail.

Angel with the column.

View down the Ponte Sant’Angelo.

Finally, we headed back into the city to scare up some dinner, hoping to see some more sights along the way.  We were not disappointed.  We happened to peek through a seemingly unexceptional open doorway along one street, and were greeted with the following sight.

Archivio di Stato di Roma.

The building itself that we were looking at, bathed in the golden glow of sunset, is another church, the Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza, designed by Borromini, the rival of Bernini and a master himself.  However, the entire complex is home to the Archivio di Stato di Roma, the Archives of the State of Rome.  This was emphasized by the small fountain we encountered around the corner of the building.

Fountain at the state archives.

We needed to see at least one more important landmark before the sun completely set; however, this is sometimes easier said than done in Rome’s twisting streets. One thing you realize after spending some time in Rome is that many important sites don’t have major thoroughfares leading to them — the city built up around them long before they became major tourist attractions!  After about a dozen looks at the map and a few wrong turns, we finally arrived at the Pantheon.

The Pantheon.

This massive and magnificent ancient Roman temple, now a church and national landmark, was constructed under the order of Emperor Hadrian around 126 C.E.  Curiously, it was long thought that the Pantheon was much older, as the inscription above the columns reads, “Marcus Agrippa, son of Lucius, made [this building] when consul for the third time,” which would place it around 20 B.C.E.  However, it turns out that Agrippa had built an earlier Pantheon, which was destroyed in a fire, and Hadrian kept the original inscription in his new construction.

Front view of the Pantheon.

Sadly, the church had closed for the day by the time we arrived, so we were unable to see its magnificent interior and dome.  But there was enough to see in the Piazza della Rotonda, including the lovely Fontana del Pantheon facing the building.

Fontana del Pantheon.

This fountain was first sculpted in 1575, but has undergone a number of modifications over the years since then.  You can’t tell from the above photo, but it is topped by an ancient Egyptian obelisk which dates from the reign of Pharaoh Ramses II, placing its construction somewhere around mid 1200 B.C.E.!  Below is a detail from the obelisk, showing some of the hieroglyphics on it.


Sometime around 8 pm we finally settled in for dinner at a nice outdoor restaurant.  I gave up on my avoidance of gluten (celiac disease) and ate a lovely lasagna.  For dessert, my colleague Taco ordered what we thought would be a simple biscuit and chocolate plate; we were unprepared for what arrived.

Biscuits and chocolate.

That guillotine-like blade in the middle is for chopping off pieces of the dark chocolate.  It was delicious and a rather unusual way to eat dessert.

We had some unexpected entertainment during dinner. I’m still not entirely sure what was going on, but from what we gathered a group of Scottish youth were in Rome with their priest, maybe for a pilgrimage to the Vatican?  They had decided to do a spontaneous performance of singing, dancing, and juggling for the crowd.

After the large group broke up, smaller pairs went around to perform songs for dinner guests. They were insistent on doing this for free, and refused people’s offers of money.

It was honestly a rather charming and magical way to end our evening! After dinner, we had just enough energy to head back to the Pantheon where we knew we could easily find a taxi back to the hotel.  In the morning, we would head to see the inside of the Colosseum.

The Pantheon at night.

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2 Responses to Dr. SkySkull in Rome: Working and walking

  1. Patrice Ayme says:

    Magnificently visionary, peering through the millennia, and heart wrenching!

  2. Blake Stacey says:

    User-maat-ra setep-en-ra, sa ra, ra-mes-es meri-amun…

    “My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings: Look on my works, and—ooh, is that gelato?”

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