Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Custard buildings, Jewish ghettos, dead poets...

On our second day in Rome, we decided to do walk described in B's guide book, that would show us the delights of medieval Rome.

It did do that, but it also gave me an enormous blister on the ball of my foot.  Ouchie.

First sight we saw on our sight-seeing tour (heh rhymes) was the Vittoriano, officially known as the Altare della Patria (Altar of the Fatherland).  In a city of medieval grandeur and debilitated but beautiful ruins, this rather garish marble monstrosity looks quite out of place.  Roman's often refer to it as the 'typewriter', referring to its boxy shape, or the 'zuppa inglese', after the custard-style Italian dessert.  Built in 1885 to commemorate King Vitorio Emanuele, the first king of unified Italy, nowadays it holds the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and so is policed by scary guards preventing you from sitting down anywhere on the site.

Opposite the Vittoriano is the Palazzo Venezia, the official residence of Mussolini.

From the Vittoriano we walked down the road to the Teatro Marcello, or Theatre of Marcellus, an open-air theatre completed in 12BC.  The upper storey was rebuilt in medieval times, and has now been converted into expensive apartments.

Next to the Teatro are three lone columns, the remains of the Portico d'Ottavia, which stands in the centre of the Jewish Ghetto.  In 1555 a papal bill forced the Jewish population of Rome to live in this area, surrounded by walls with gates locked at night.  When the Jews left the ghetto they had to wear yellow accessories to identify themselves, and they were forced to attend Catholic sermons on the shabbat.  Every year the Rabbi had to petition the city counsellors for permission for the Jewish people to stay another year, and every time he was literally kicked up the backside.  The laws requiring the Jews to live in the ghetto remained until 1882, and the walls were finally torn down in 1888.

Cutting through the backstreets, we wandered past Piazza Mattei, with it's Fontana delle Tartarughe (Turtle Fountain) centrepiece, and sat for a few minutes in Piazza Caircu.  There are many fountains in Rome, which were built to provide drinking water brought from the aqueducts.  Indeed, weary tourists still surround the fountains and taps around the city, filling up their water bottles and washing the sweat and grime from themselves.

We then got a little lost attempting to find the Gelateria Alberto Pica, which was named in my guidebook as one of the five best gelateries in Rome.  I had riso (rice) and torta omana e pinoli (ricotta cheesecake with pine nuts), while B had limone (lemon) and anguria (watermelon).

Refreshed, we walked to the Campo de'Fiori, via the Palazzo Farnese, a very imposing palace revamped by Michelangelo when Alessandro Farnese became Pope Paul III in 1534.  Apparently we also walked past the Palazzo Spada, but didn't notice it.

Campo de' Fiori, which means 'field of flowers', has housed an open air market every day since 1869.  In the square is a stature of Giordano Bruno, an Italian monk who was burned alive in 1600 at the exact location of the monument.  Bruno was a philosopher and astronomer, who proposed the theory that the Sun was actually a star, and that there were infinite 'Sun's in the universe, with infinite worlds populated by other intelligent beings.  He was a pantheist, believing that the Universe and God are the same.  This was not in keeping with the Vatican's view of a personal God, and so he was condemned to death for opposing the Church.  The statue was erected in 1887, facing defiantly in the direction of the Vatican, as a symbol of freedom of speech.

From the Campo we walked towards the river Tiber, and sat for a little while on its banks looking out at the Castel Sant'Angelo (Castle of the Holy Angel).  Originally built to house the tomb of Hadrian in 139AD, it was subsequently converted to a fortress for the Pope in 401, and a secret underground passage built from the Vatican to allow safe flight for the Pope when under attack.  Bruno, the chappie mentioned above, was imprisoned here for a while.  It also featured in Dan Brown's atrocity Angels & Demons, as a secret lair and church.

Continuing through the backstreets, which contained some very nice shops, including one dedicated solely to compasses, we ended up in Piazza Navona.  A spectacular open space (which completely lacks shade), it used to hold the city's market, but now mainly hosts street sellers peddling sun umbrellas and 'original' art work to tourists.  In the centre is the rather extravagant Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (Fountain of the Four Rivers), depicting the Nile, Ganges, Danube and Plate, surrounded by a palm tree, lion and a horse.  As if that wasn't enough, it is then topped by an obelisk.  There are two other fountains, but they do not compare to the extreme sight of the Four Rivers.

Next stop on our walk was the Pantheon.  Now a Catholic church, the current building was erected in 126AD by Hadrian, on the site of an earlier building, and was originally a temple to all the gods of Ancient Rome.  When you consider it is almost 2000 years old, it is astonishing that it is the largest unreinforced concrete dome in the world.  I cannot imagine how they built it.  The hole in the centre of the roof admits the only light, and the floor is slightly slanted to allow rain water to run into the near invisible drains in the floor.

Then it was lunchtime!  Our first Italian pizza from Zaza was very tasty, though we did have to endure a crowd of American teenagers as we ate.

After our first pizza experience, it was time for our first coffee experience, at Caffe Tazza d'Oro, widely regarded as having the best coffee in Rome.  As it was a boiling 36degrees, we went for the Roman speciality granita di caffe con panna option - frozen sugared espresso, served as ice chips with whipped cream underneath and on top.


En route to our next stop, the Trevi Fountain, we passed the Piazza di Montecitorio and the Piazza Colonna, which contain a very impressive obelisk and column respectively.  The Fontana de Trevi is one of Rome's most famous landmarks, and is really quite beautiful.  It's quite surprising in its size - its difficult to appreciate how big it is because the surrounding buildings are so close that it almost feels claustrophobic.  It lies at the convergence of three roads (tre vie, hence the name), and heralded the end of a great Roman aqueduct.  Neptune's chariot rides the stone waters that tumble from the walls of the Palazzo Poli, led by two Tritons on horses - one wild and one tame, representing the moods of the sea.

Traditionally you are meant to throw a coin into the fountain to ensure you will return to Rome, so obviously we did that.  Every day it is estimated about 3000 euros are thrown into the fountain, which are collected and given to charity.

From the Trevi Fountain we attempted to go to the Mausoleo di Augusto, got lost, eventually found it, were disappointed, and then went to the Spanish Steps, or Scalinata della Trinita dei Monti.  Designed by a French man, the steps are named after the nearby Spanish Embassy.  At the bottom right of the steps is the house John Keats died in, on a holiday to improve his health.  Clearly didn't work very well.

After washing my very sore foot in the fountain at the bottom of the steps (Fontana della Barcacciai, Fountain of the Old Boat, based on a sunken boat that washed up on the Piazza Spagna when the Tiber flooded in 1598), we ascended the steps and walked to the Villa Borghese gardens.

After the crowds and traffic of central Rome, stepping into cool tree-lined paths of Villa Borghese was heaven.  The Borghese family were very powerful, and started the gardens in 1605.  They were bought by the commune of Rome in 1903, and opened to the public.  The Villa Borghese Pinciana (Borghese villa on the Pincian Hill) was used by Scipione Borghese as a 'party villa', and to house his extensive art collection.  The collection was first opened to the public in the 18th century, and is thought to be one of best art galleries in Rome.  It is so popular when we got there they were only accepting pre-bookings for the following week, but fortunately a large group had cancelled so there were a few spare tickets for that day.  We took two of the last three.

Sadly, no pics, as you have to check in all your bags and cameras before entering.

After the gallery we wandered through the park, stopping for a short while by a shaded fountain.  A couple had also stopped there, and were very very close.  We continued on to the Pincio, where you can look out onto the skyline of Rome, towards the Vatican.

We descended from the Pincio, and headed to the nearby Piazza del Popolo, which contains the obelisk of Rameses II from Heliopolis, brought to Rome in 10BC.  It was overlooking this we sat and ate our dinner, washing down a spicy penne all'arrabbiata with a nice glass of vini di casa bianco.

Then it was home on the metro, to soothe my sore blistered foot :(

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Roman Adventures Part 2

In case our brains haven't recovered from yesterday's factual overload, I shall complete my tale of my first day in Rome with slightly less history.

After rehydrating, refueling, and re-UVB-protecting, we set off down the road to the Foro Romano, or Roman Forums.

A forum was a type of plaza, which was the heart of Ancient Rome, and the Empire.  It served as a marketplace, venue for public events, and meeting place for politicians and businessmen, as well as housing some of Rome's most important and religious buildings and statues.  It evolved naturally over the years, expanding as various structures were added, which is very different to later forums which were rigidly copied from Greek plazas.

Nowadays, it is a jumble of assorted ruins and bits of marble, and almost entirely impossible to navigate.  Sadly, Italians don't seem to believe in labelling things.  However, my guidebook reliably informs me I saw some very exciting ruins, such as:

  • Tempio di Saturno (Temple of Saturn), which dates from 42AD (an earlier temple standing there from 500BC).  This was very important as Rome's early power was attributed to its success with agriculture, Saturn's particular field of interest.  He was also seen as the god of wealth, so the city's treasury was housed here.
  • Tempio di Antonino e Faustina (Temple of Antoninus and...you get the picture), built in 161AD by Antoninus for his wife Faustina.  Faustina was...er...slightly less choosy about who she lay down with, but Antoninus was besotted and seemed to be the only person in Rome who did not know his wife was a bit of a floozy.
  • Tempio di Giulio Cesar, built in 29AD on the site of Julius Caesar's cremation.
  • A 1937 reconstruction of the Curia, the meeting place of the senate.
  • Arco di Settimio Severo, an archway dedicated to Professor Severus Snape...I think.
  • The site at which 'all roads lead to Rome' actually referred to, the Millarium Aureum.  This was a monument built in 20AD from which all distances to other city's was measured.  All Roman roads across the Empire converged here (in theory).
However, my personal favourite ruins was the Tempio di Vesta and the Atrium Vestae.  Vesta was the goddess of the hearth and family, and the Vestal Virgins were her priestesses.  The Virgins were selected from the wealthiest, most influential families of Rome at the age of between 6-10, and they served for 30 years; 10 years learning, 10 years performing rituals, and 10 years teaching new Virgins.  

They had two main jobs.  The first, was to keep alive the sacred fire, which burned in the temple.  This fire was so important that is was regarded as fundamental to Rome's security and the continuation of the Empire. Any Virgin allowing it to go out would be whipped by Rome's high priest, the Pontifex Maximus.

The Virgin's second job was exactly that: to remain a virgin.  If their cherry was popped, they were buried alive, as it was sacrilege to spill a Virgin's blood.  The man who popped their cherry for them was flogged to death.

In payment for their service/chastity the Virgins had special rights within Roman society, and could intervene in sentencing of criminals (in fact, they secured a pardon for Julius Caesar when he was younger, and saved him from execution).  They had right of way on all streets, and any injury or attack on them was punishable by death.  They were paid by the state's treasury, and upon completing their service they were awarded a pension and allowed to marry.

After the Forum, we climbed the hill to the Palatine, the oldest settlement of Rome.  It is supposedly the site at which the she-wolf suckled Romulus and Remus, the founders of the city of Rome.

Romulus and Remus were fathered by either Mars, the god of war, or Hercules, that well-known Disney actor.  Interestingly, their mother was a Vestal Virgin, and had been forced into this life of servitude by her uncle, to prevent her having male heirs who could overthrow her dastardly uncle and take their place as rightful ruler the city of Alba Longa.


After R&R were born, their great-uncle abandoned them to die at the side of the river Tiber.  However, the river bore the twins to safety, and they ended up on the top of the Palatine hill (yunno, because rivers are well known for flowing up hills).  Here they were suckled by a she-wolf and fed by a woodpecker until a shepherd found them and took them in.  When they had grown up, they discovered the truth about their birth, and killed their evil great-uncle.

Whoops again.

However, they wanted to form their own city rather than take over Alba Longa, but couldn't decide where to form it.  Romulus wanted the Palatine Hill, whereas Remus the nearby Aventine Hill.  They quarrelled and, as so often happened in those days, Remus was killed, and Romulus set up Rome on the Palatine Hill.  Even as Rome expanded, the Palatine remained the site of the grandest and most spectacular of palaces (Palatine...Palace...you get the gist).

As a side note, myth says that Romulus and Remus were descended from Aeneas, one of the princes of Troy, who fled when the Greeks jumped out of the Trojan Horse and killed everyone.  It is this flight of Aeneas which is recounted in Virgil's Aeniad, the first example of political propaganda in history.

We managed to get quite lost in the Palatine, and couldn't work out where the exit was.  However, our increasingly fraught wanderings did lead us to some sprinklers, where we joined another tourist in an impromptu shower.  Eventually we escaped, and set off home.

For tea it was rigatori cacio e pepe (short pasta with cheese and pepper), a rather biscuit-like focaccia and gelato - our first ice cream of many.  I had pistacchio Iranicchio (pistachio and Iranians) and ciacocchio fondente (the chocolatiest substance in the world).

And so began the creation of my newest layer of stomach fat...

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Buongiorno Italia! / Roman Adventures

Having gone literally to the other side of the world for last year's summer holiday, I decided to go a bit closer to home for my 2012 jaunt.  Hence, the beautiful country of Italy - home of pizza, pasta, the Renaissance, and smarmy Italian men on Vespa's.

Before I talk about the actual holiday, however, I would first like to mention how stressful it is to plan a holiday when you are a doctor.  First, you have to get hold of your rota for the rough time period you want to go.  Then you have to get hold of the rotas of the rest of your team.  Then you have to get hold of the rotas of everyone else on your ward, as they cross-cover when your team are all absent from the ward (annual leave, sick days, on call duties, nights, study leave, teaching etc).  Once you have identified possible dates for annual leave based on your own rota, you then have to cross reference it with everyone else's to make sure there will be adequate ward cover at all times.

The trick to this is to make sure you get your leave requests in before the rest of your team gets the chance to snatch the dates you want.  In the case of this particular holiday, there was a week of frantic texts and emails to swap an on call shift (with someone who subsequently broke his heel AFTER I'd booked the flights and accommodation, panicking me for a short while) and get everyone concerned to sign my leave forms.

You need annual leave to get over the stress of trying to organise annual leave.

So, after gaining a few grey hairs, I flew to Rome to start my summer adventure.

Most of Rome is like any other big city in Europe.  It has lots of traffic, lots of people, lots of the same high street stores, and plenty of street traders who will wander up to anyone looking vaguely touristy and attempt to sell you remarkably cheap Rolexs.  However, it is very different to any other city I've been to, as you can be wandering down a busy, shop-lined street, turn a corner and BAM!  Two thousand year old historical building.

The first stop on our rather packed Rome itinerary was the Colosseum, the largest surviving structure from the Roman Empire.

The reason for this impressive feat of architecture is purely political.

Commissioned in 72AD by Emperor Vespasian, the first member of the Flavian dynasty that ruled Rome for the next quarter of a century, it was placed on the site of Nero's palace.  Nero was the Emperor before Vespasian, and is on the whole considered to have been a bad guy (if you believe all the ancient texts recovered from the period).  As well as making weak Vanilla Lattes, Nero also executed his mother, poisoned his stepbrother, and possibly started the Great Fire of Rome to clear space for his palace.  He is widely associated with tyrannical ruling and civil discontent, but he also invested in Roman culture and promoted diplomatic relationships with other nations.

After Nero's suicide-to-avoid-assassination, there was a year of political uncertainty, before Vespasian emerged as the new emperor. Then began a programme of damnatio memoriae, or 'condemnation of memory', in which Nero's name was erased from monuments, statues of him had their appearances changed to look like other people, and his palace was demolished deliberately for Vespasian's Colosseum.  Being forgotten was believed to be the worst insult possible.

One such statue is responsible for the current name Colosseum.  Next to his palace, Nero had a giant statue of himself built, called the Colossus of Nero.  When Nero died, a sun-ray crown was added and the statue converted into one of the sun god.  Over the years the head was replaced a few times to one of the current emperor, but the statue remained called the Colossus.  It was in early Medieval times that the Colosseum developed it's current name, believed because of a shortening of 'the theatre next to the Colossus'.  It is a bit more roll-off-the-tongue than it's original name, Amphitheatrum Flavium.  

Sadly Vespasian died in 79AD, before the Colosseum was finished, but the new Emperor, his son Titus, inaugurated it in 80AD with a massive 100-day games killing 5000 animals and who knows how many gladiators.  The final touches to the building were completed by Domitian in 81-96AD.

The amphitheatre was the first of it's kind in the world, and showed extraordinary engineering.  The Ancient Greeks could only build semicircular theatres into the sides of hills; the Romans could build two theatres joined together and free-standing! (Amphi = double, hence amphibian meaning double life on land and in water.)  It was made with a base of light volcanic rock and cement, and surfaces were guilded with marble held in place with iron brackets.  The marble and iron was subsequently plundered from the structure in the Medieval period, to build new monuments and melt down for weapons, respectively.

A day of games at the Colosseum followed the same order:  firstly, the animal hunts, which included animals from all corners of the Empire, some of which had never been seen by your average Roman. This was followed public executions, preceded by a nice bout of torture, and often playing out scenes from Greek and Roman mythology.  Lastly, the gladiatorial games for which the Colosseum is most well known.

A series of understage tunnels, pulleys and lifts allowed dramatic entrances of contestants and animals.  There were even aquaducts to flood the arena for naumachi, or re-enactments of famous sea battles.  When not fighting in water, the floor of the Colosseum was covered in sand to reduce slipping and to soak up all the spilled blood.  Indeed, the Latin for sand has given us the term arena to mean any site of entertainment/sport.

The Colosseum could hold 50,000 spectators, and entrance was free, with free provision of food and wine (after all, what better way to control the masses and feed political propaganda by inviting them to spectacular events?).  There are four sections of the building - the average Roman pleb sat at the top, the citizens on the next tier, the knights the next, and at the bottom the senators.  There were special sections of this tier at each end of the amphitheatre, one for the Emperor, and the opposite for the Vestal Virgins (more on these exciting ladeez later).

There were 80 exits, which are rather hilariously called vomitoria.

The Colosseum was probably used for its original purpose well into the 6th Century.  After that it was used for many purposes, including cemetary, castle and rented housing.  At one stage it was proposed to be turned into a wool factory to employ the cities prostitutes, but this never came to pass.  It sustained significant damage from centuries of fires, earthquakes, and plundering.

In 1749 the building was consecrated by Pope Benedict XIV as the site of execution of many Christian martyrs.  There is no historical evidence that any Christians were executed there, but its sudden consecrated status was the Colosseums saviour - subsequent Popes restored the building and protected it from further plundering.  A cross still stands in the arena, and this is the starting place for the Pope's annual Stations of the Cross on Good Friday.

After a guided tour of the Colosseum by a very nice Italian archaeologist who told us very little of the above, we sat in the shade of the trees now standing at the old site of the Colossus and ate a very over-priced parma ham ciabatta.  We rallied our energy, reapplied our sun cream, and moved on to the Roman Forum, conveniently next door to the Colosseum, and the subject of my next blog post.

There's only so much history one can absorb before requiring a break.