On the drive from the Leonardo da Vinci International Airport to the centre of Rome, a visitor will pass St Paul’s Basilica, the only one of the four ancient major basilicas or papal basilicas (others being St John Lateran, St Mary Major, and St Peter’s) that lies outside the walled city. Inside the Aurelian walls, built to protect Rome from barbarian invaders, lies a rich and centuries old culture that has continued to fascinate visitors from around the world. As headquarters first of the Roman Empire and then of the Roman Catholic Church, the city itself retains layers of buildings spanning over two millenia.
Of hills, piazzas and fountains
The Capitol, the southern summit of the Capitoline Hill, was the symbolic centre of the Roman world and home to the city’s three most important temples. Below the Capitol lies the Roman Forum, once the focus of political, social, legal and commercial life and the central area around which ancient Rome developed and the Colosseo, the centre of entertainment where gladiator fights used to sometimes last for days.
According to legend, Rome was founded in 753 BC by twin sons Romulus and Remus who were raised by a she-wolf. Overlooking the Forum is the Palantine Hill, where Romulus is said to have founded Rome and emperors lived for over 400 years. Julius Caesar ruled for a time as dictator, and his nephew Octavian became Rome’s first emperor, assuming the title Augustus.
As one passes the Largo di Torre Argentina or Argentina Square where Caesar was assassinated, and the amazing Pantheon which houses the basilica of Santa Maria ad Martyres dedicated to St. Mary and all the Christian martyrs, the baroque architecture, the huge columns of marble brought from different continents especially Africa, the larger than life sculptures of gods and goddesses, it is not just a reminder of the skilled craftsmanship of the golden era of the Roman Empire but a cauldron of art and culture that has been restored and painstakingly kept alive.
A short walk from the Pantheon, you will find Piazza Navona, an oblong square with three fountains. In the centre is the Fountain of Four Rivers by 17th century sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini, where each of the four rivers (Nile, Ganges, Danube and Rio del Platas) represent the peoples from the different cultures of the world as the Romans knew it then. The other two fountains are the Neptune Fountain and the Moor Fountain, at both ends of the piazza. Piazza Navona takes its oblong oval shape from the Stadium of Domitian, built by Emperor Domitian in 86 AD. The stadium was known as Circus Agonalis (competition arena), which then became ‘n’Agona’ and eventually Navona. In addition to a market, processions and spectacles were held here – including ‘naumachiae’ or mock naval battles when the stadium was flooded with water.
Another short walk and you reach the famed Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps, which were constructed in the 1720s. The steps lead to the Piazza di Spagna where to the left, you’ll see the Keats Shelley Museum, an homage to the two poets, who spent their final years in Italy. Right across the piazza is the beginning of Via Condotti, perhaps Rome’s most famous shopping street where Bulgari, Giorgio Armani, Valentino, Prada and other global brands can be found and also homegrown Italian brands like Kiton, famous for their customised suits.
Nearby in the centre of Piazza del Popolo, site of the one of ancient Rome’s northern gate you’ll see an ancient Egyptian obelisk, brought to Rome in 10 BC by Emperor Augustus. The two baroque churches that rise up on either side in perfect symmetry were designed by Carlo Rainaldi and finished by Bernini and Carlo Fontana in the 1600s. The highlight of the piazza is the Church of Santa Maria del Popolo which was the setting for author Dan Brown’s pre-Da Vinci Code novel, Angels and Demons.
A unique tourist stop is the La Bocca della Verità or the Mouth of Truth, a marble sculpture of a man-like face, located in the portico of the Church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin opposite the Temple of Hercules on the banks of the river Tiber that flows through the city. The sculpture is believed to be part of a first-century ancient Roman manhole cover, portraying one of the pagan gods, probably Oceanus or as most Romans believe, the ancient god of the Tiber. It was believed that if one told a lie with one’s hand in the mouth of the sculpture, it would be bitten off. The Mouth of Truth was made famous in the 1953 film Roman Holiday starring Katherine Hepburn and Gregory Peck.
Roman ruins – a peep into the past
Rome is an archaeological delight and one can spend hours walking around ancient sites that have been restored and opened to the public. Vicus Caprarius or The City of Water is one such site just south of the Piazza di Trevi which was uncovered in 1999 during construction of the Cineteca Nazionale’s Sala Alberto Sordi in the former Cinema Trevi. Archaeologists have excavated 4,300 square feet of ruins of what used to be a fourth century Roman mansion (built on the site of two insulae, or apartment buildings), and a section of an aqueduct – the Aqua Virgo – that connects to the nearby Trevi Fountain. A must see for any history enthusiast. On the outskirts of Rome is another of Rome’s hidden treasures, Ostia Antica. It was the ancient harbour city built on the banks of the Tiber. The well preserved remains of ancient insulae, an open air amphitheatre and shops (with intricate tiled mosaics in front) where commercial business was transacted gives an insight into life in ancient Rome. The ancient city is mentioned in the 2000 film Gladiator, when the protagonist Maximus (played by Russell Crowe) learns that his army is camped at Ostia and awaiting orders. Ostia also has a beautiful beach where the view of the Mediterranean Sea is scenic.
Inside the city, you find the Villa Borghese estate and gardens, a gift from Pope Paul V to his nephew Scipione Borghese. The Villa houses the Galleria Borghese where we can find one of the most important collections of sculpture and paintings in the world including works by Bernini and Raphael. The statue of Scipione’s wife Pauline (Napoleon Bonaparte’s sister) has been in the villa since 1838. Many of the art collections from the Villa were sold to Napoleon and now constitute the Borghese Collection in the Louvre. In 1903 the city of Rome obtained Villa Borghese from the Borghese family and opened the park to the public.
A visit to Rome will not be complete without seeing the famed Roman baths. The baths provided two basic functions for ancient Romans – they were necessary for sanitation as most of the population of Rome lived in crowded tenements without running water or bathrooms. At the same time the baths provided an opportunity to socialise. A recent archaeological find is the Terme di Caracalla or the Baths of Caracalla named after Emperor Caracalla.
The Baths of Caracalla like all bathhouses in ancient Rome included three basic rooms: frigidarium (a cold pool), the tepidarium (a lukewarm pool) and the calidarium (a hot pool). These baths could have held up to 1600 bathers. The Baths also had two libraries and extensive gardens.
Before leaving Rome, a walk on Via Veneto must be included. Named to commemorate the Battle of Vittorio Veneto, the street was designed at the end of the 19th century with many cafes and shops lining it. Via Veneto is home to the famous Café de Paris and Harry’s Bar, immortalised in Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, the favourite haunt of celebrities in Rome.