When in Rome

Ay, la cittá di Roma…

I anticipated its magnificence, but I also thought it would be busy and crowded and stressful. If it was any of the latter three, I was too awestruck to notice.

Friday, Jan. 27

9:45 a.m. Train arrives in Rome, Italy

10:30 a.m. Check into Hotel Navona (about a block from Piazza Navona, which holds the church of Sant’Agnese and the Fountain of the Four Rivers by Bernini)

11 a.m. Tour the imperial forums and the Colosseum

Florence may be the birthplace of the Renaissance, but the ancient history in Rome was so much more surreal to me. After years of photos in history and art classes, the Colosseum was pretty much as I expected, but it was still incredible to explore an amphitheatre built in the first century.

Throughout the city but especially in the Colosseum, I loved to look down and imagine scenes from the past. Because little remains of the original arena floor, you can see the subterranean network of tunnels and cages where gladiators and animals were held before contests began. Lions ripping apart commoners were typical lunch-time shows. Times have changed a bit…

I was most blown-away by the ruins of the imperial forums. Italian government workers were on strike Friday, so the forums were closed to tour groups, and I spent most of the day gazing over the sidewalk edge and thinking the ruins were just a few small valleys of rocks and broken columns. Fortunately I was able to get in Sunday and discover a much bigger valley of statues, palaces and temples.

The first photo below is the House of the Vestal Virgins, where the priestesses of Vesta lived in the first century. I stood here for a while, trying to see the palaces of Caesar and Augustus in the distance. I could hardly comprehend that I was standing in the place where republican government began, and that I walked through 2,000-year-old rooms to get there. There was something magical, surreal and funny about leaning over that fence, gazing across history while cars whizzed behind me.

House of the Vestal Virgins

2 p.m. Visit the Pantheon

As the weekend carried on, it became cooler and cooler to see famous slides from art history classes up-close and personal.

When I snapped this photo (below) of Rafael’s grave, I didn’t know who Rafael was. By Sunday evening, I was practically an expert. In essence, Rafael suggested Michelangelo paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican, hoping that Michelangelo — a rookie painter — would make a fool of himself. We can all see how that backfired.

Rafael’s grave, inside the Pantheon

Almost 2,000 years after it was built, the Pantheon’s dome is still the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome.

View from the Pantheon’s doorway

We paused at the Torre Argentina Cat Sanctuary — a no-kill shelter for homeless cats. There were hundreds dozing among the ruins. I can’t even describe how excited I was.

Friday evening, Kate and I had a romantic, torch-lit dinner under a tent in the Piazza Navona. While most of the group hit the bars, we decided to explore the city. We found the Trevi Fountain and the “fountain of love” from “When in Rome,” and tossed coins in each. We tipped an improv street-performer, whose show was hilarious in any language. We also discovered that maps are pretty much useless in that city — with its winding roads and lack of street signs. It’s funny how getting lost at home is a nuisance, while here, it’s an adventure.

The moon above the Piazza Navona (our view from dinner)

The Trevi Fountain

A piece of ancient Rome, below an average street side

These lights stretch more than a mile!

Plaza near the train station

“Fountain of love” from “When in Rome”

The closest thing we found to a street sign: an arrow with a paper airplane.

Saturday, Jan. 28

10:30 a.m. Tour the Vatican Museums

The Vatican Museums are like the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. — it’s impossible to see everything in one day. The museums display works from the immense collection built up by the Roman Catholic Church throughout the centuries, including some of the most renowned classical sculptures and most important masterpieces of Renaissance art in the world. Our art history professor/ tour guide showed us statues, paintings, maps and tapestries all worth millions upon millions of dollars. He called many of them priceless.

Laocoon and His Sons

This statue of Laocoon and his sons fighting off sea serpents was sculpted around 40 B.C., then lost for hundreds of years. It was unearthed in a Roman vineyard in 1506, and identified by Michelangelo. It is said that Laocoon influenced many of Michelangelo’s later works.

The Belvedere Torso

Hall of (ancient) Maps

The Battle of Milvian by Rafael

According to my art history professor, had Constantine (seen on standing white horse) not won the battle depicted in this painting, Christianity may never have taken off in Rome.

The School of Athens by Rafael

This painting, on what was the “philosophy/sciences” wall of the library of Pope Julius II, shows every great Greek philosopher, including Plato, Aristotle, Socrates and Pythagorus.

12:30 p.m. Visit the Sistine Chapel

No photos allowed…

It would have been pretty easy to sneak a photo, but our professor said one time a guard caught a student and erased his entire memory card. I was not about to risk that.

The Sistine Chapel is all it’s cracked up to be and more. For the immense space, the intricacy is stunning. Contrary to popular belief, Michelangelo painting the ceiling while standing, not while laying down. My neck was sore after just 15 minutes of admiring; I can’t imagine five years of painting!

1:15 p.m. Visit St. Peter’s Basilica

The entire Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore (the massive cathedral in Florence) can fit inside St. Peter’s.

St. Peter’s baldachin is 10 stories high!

Pieta by Michelangelo

7:15 p.m. Group dinner at Trattoria da Luigi

After a delicious, traditional Roman dinner, Petra (our amazing student adviser) took some of the girls out for drinks in Campo de Fiori. Then we treated her at an American bar called Sloppy Sam’s, and practiced our Italian with some of the locals.

Sunday, Jan. 29

9 a.m. Visit the Palazzo Borghese

The Palazzo Borghese was a suburban getaway for Pope Paul V, and our professor said the closest comparison today is the Playboy Mansion. The art collection was my favorite of the weekend, but unfortunately no cameras were allowed. I actually teared up when I saw Bernini’s Rape of Proserpina. Bernini made marble look like real flesh; no photo will ever do it justice.

11 a.m. Baroque walking tour

Casual sculpture on a casual street corner. Only in Rome.

We stopped by Santa Maria della Vittoria, one of the hundreds of churches in Rome.

Ecstasy of Saint Teresa by Bernini

By far the BEST gelato we’ve had so far. It was life changing.

I paused to sip from an ancient Roman aqueduct, still running near the Trevi Fountain.

5:20 p.m. Train departs

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