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Heady Roma

Updated: Mar 3, 2020

Published in Sunday Herald Travel on November 11, 2014

The Frecciarossa (the Red Arrow) zips us to Rome from Milan in a mind-boggling two-and-a-half hours or thereabouts, and there we are at Roma Termini. Rome is the inheritor of profound beginnings made richer by legends. We are told it was the city of the brothers Remus and Romulus, born to the vestal virgin Rhea Silvia, and fathered by Mars, the God of War.

As the brothers were a threat to their grand-uncle Amulius, he promptly had them thrown into the Tiber, wherefrom they were rescued by kind fate, nourished by a she-wolf and reared at the home of a shepherd. Gaining manhood, they founded the city of what is Rome today, at the Palatine Hill. Thereafter, Romulus killed Remus in a brotherly battle and established himself as a ruler. Romulus became the first king of Rome, its founder and architect, and was known as an able ruler who took care of his people. That, in a capsule, is how Rome was born.

Birth of a world wonder

Getting back, these intervening years must have built an aura of grandeur around the Colosseum, for my first sighting of it had me slightly underwhelmed. But when you get into the history of the Colosseum, the details rivet. The quite barbaric gladiatorial duels, the ferocious and bloody challenges between humans and wild animals of the leopard, lion and bear variety, the milling humanity (nothing fewer than 40,000-70,000) that rejoiced at the sight of these gory challenges that ended in the death of a gladiator are possibly why Colosseum continues to draw thousands. There are elaborate seating arrangements (strictly hierarchical), intricate passageways planned for the entry of animals, the detailed mechanical structures such as pulleys and lifts that were used for the thrilling shows that followed the gory contests. The entry was free.

Started by the Flavian dynasty of rulers (69 AD - 96 AD), Vespasian and his sons Titus and Domitian, for entertainment of their family, it became popular among the royalty in the ensuing years. Titus, who was extremely capable, charismatic, ambitious and powerful, succeeded his father. His rule was as notable for his achievements as for enormous calamities: the eruption of the mighty Vesuvius, the consequent destruction of Pompeii and one of the worst epidemics of plague. Though short-lived, the Flavian rule was notable for hallmark changes in structural and economic policies. Of these was the construction of the Flavian Amphitheater by Titus, that later came to be known as the Colosseum.

When Rome stood…

Colosseum gets its name, a little undeservingly, from the gigantic statue of Emperor Nero, known as the Colossus Neronis, that stood close by and exists no more. The same Colossus that gave birth to Bede’s dark saying, ‘As long as the Colossus stands, so shall Rome; when the Colossus falls, Rome shall fall; and when Rome falls, so falls the world.’

Well, the world has stood! And we celebrate that at RomAntica with the finest of house wines, the Sparkling, to go with one of the best pastas ever served, by a stunning Italian waitress.

Constantine’s Arch (under renovation) is almost intact and parts of the temple of Venus and Roma, Palatine stadium, the Via Sacra, the residences of Royals, the temple of the vestal virgins, the temple of Vulcan etc are around as you walk along the Roman Forum. The Roman Forum or the ‘Forum Magnum’ as it was called, was in its time the centre of great political, religious and social activity for the Romans.

The Pantheon is the largest unreinforced concrete structure yet, some 2,000 years after its construction, and has an opening ‘oculus’ to the heavens. Begun in 31 BC to mark Emperor Augustus’s victory over Marc Antony and Cleopatra by Agrippa, his general and admiral and also husband to his daughter Julia, it is dedicated to Venus, Mars and the divine Julius, with sanctuaries devoted to the Twelve Gods and the reigning king. Its present structure is attributed to Emperor Hadrian, who had it reconstructed between 118 and 125 AD.

The Piazza Navona with the Obelisk of Domitian in the centre and the stunning sculptures of the four rivers (by Lorenzo Bernini): Fontana dei Quattro Fuimi (the Danube, the Nile, the Ganges and the Rio de la Plata) was originally Domitian’s stadium called Circus Agonalis, where competitions were held.

It underwent several transformations and is currently a Piazza where people spend time leisurely chatting and eating at the several charming restaurants that border it.

The Trevi Fountain stood dry and under repair with a ring of curious and disappointed tourists/onlookers around. The next day saw us at the Vatican, early in the morning, wisely beating the crowds that virtually surge like the tidal wave beyond the hour of nine.

St Peter’s Basilica welcomed us with open arms, as it is meant to (envisaged and built to represent the open arms of the Lord by the illustrious Bernini, Michelangelo, Bramante and Maderno et al), welcoming and embracing all who come seeking Him. The first impression as you enter St Peter’s Square is of awe. The vast ovoid surrounded by the impressive colonnade leads to the next section that is shaped a quadrilateral, and then you face the facade of the Basilica with the ‘giant order’ of columns and the grand entrance.

Everything about the inside of the Basilica is breathtaking and glamorous. It’s a statement in splendour of marble and relief, a poetry in sculpture and gilding, and a wizardry of architecture, lavish and ornamental to the highest degree. I lay my eyes on Pietà by Michelangelo, sculpted when he was just 24, in 1499.

When someone credited the work to Cristoforo Solari, he immediately carved his name (on the sash across Virgin Mary’s breast) rightfully crediting himself for its creation.

The bronze statue of St Peter, the statue of St Veronica with the veil that she used to wipe the brow of Jesus, the statue of St Helena, St Longinus and St Andrew, with his X-shaped cross, and the sculpture of The Cherub dizzy you with their lifelike appearances. And then there is the masterpiece of Lorenzo Bernini that he crafted, ably assisted by his chosen, talented group of pupils, the monument to Alexander VII, surrounded by the solemn figures of Truth, Prudence, Justice and Charity. The novelty to watch out for is the figure of Death in the form of a skeleton, holding up the hourglass (symbol of time running out) in one hand and the drape with the other and thus revealing the door to Eternity.

The Basilica is in the form of a cross with the long interior corridor leading to the Nave, the central structure that holds (below) the tomb of St Peter, one of the apostles of Christ and the first Pope of the Vatican.

At the altar and above the tomb rises majestically the Baldacchino of bronze by Bernini, exquisitely crafted with laurel leaves with clusters of grapes and olives, around which one can see a detailing of bees, lizards and birds. And then, one looks up to a thrilling sight of Michelangelo’s cupola, the crowning glory of the Basilica, a vision in blue. At the far end is the apse with the Chair of St Peter against the ‘Dove of Peace’ upon sunburst.

Rome is like old wine, a drop of which can be heady, and hence walking through the streets of Rome, I am pretty much intoxicated and mesmerised by the vintage cobbled streets, the charming buildings with shuttered wooden windows, the elegant doorways with quaint knockers.

The Italian people, carrying Romanic blood, have defined facial features. And, do they struggle with their English? Yes, sir! If you wish to torture an Italian, ask him a question in English and watch him tie himself in knots trying to answer it. You may put him out of his misery by tossing some hard-learned Italian his way and then there is no stopping the gush of native tongue. However, I found it very satisfying to the ear, for the Italian will never roll, nor swallow his ‘R’s, but crunch on it like crisp lettuce and finish it with the ‘E’s (pronounced ‘eh’ or ‘e’) quite musically. But for the ‘G’s that often fall silent.

We follow the age-old advice and while in Rome, do as the Romans do… speak English their way, have pastas night and day, and turn a wee bit Roman/Italian. And have some of the innovative, colourful and gigantic Gelatos of all time at Fassi’s (the oldest and the original Gelateria in Rome) and totter around glazed eyed for a good while after.

Could I cover all of what I wanted to in Rome? Well, let me put it this way, the affair with Italy has just begun and promises to be passionate and enduring. Besides, Rome was not built in a day.

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