I’m a sucker for history, specifically architectural and art history, which was why we chose to spend time in Rome over Venice or Florence for our first visit to Italy. I just couldn’t’ justify stepping foot in Italy without seeing both the Colosseum and Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel. Neither, however, ended up being my favorite site within Rome (and Vatican City).
The obvious: the Colosseum was massive. Pictures just didn’t do its size justice; it absolutely dwarfed the other buildings, arches, and surrounding ruins. The fallen inscriptions, the smaller marble bricks with dates and the names of emperors that couldn’t even have been read from across the Colosseum, were deeper than I am tall and weighed tons. Details, from sculpted crowns to etched flower petals, were visible on the bases and tops of columns, some fallen, some not.
The most harrowing aspect, at least for me, was the maze of underground tunnels that led to the gates where many men took their last walks, their last unencumbered (relatively) breaths before being thrust into a stadium full of people cheering their demise. There were informational placards and displays throughout the Colosseum halls discussing the gladiators, the prisoners’ torture, and the barbaric acts of the empire without glorifying the act or the means (which easily could have been done given its dramatic history).
Outside the Colosseum, the ruins of the Roman Forum beckoned. Portions of the Forum were less than spectacular – the area immediately inside the gate, for example – so we headed up Palatine Hill. The Hill wasn’t a steep climb and it was cluttered with ruins from the former castle, including the tunnel where an assassination was presumed to have occurred. Within the tunnels, though mostly overgrown with ivy and wildflowers, the ceilings retained the detailed engravings (flowers, dots, trim work) on white plaster. These were my favorite ruins: beauty confined in rundown spaces (not unlike my favorite books: beautifully-written, lyrical tragedies a la Fitzgerald).
Once at the top of the Hill we were rewarded with sweeping views of the Roman Forum, the Colosseum, and the surrounding city. There were other people, but for the most part the area remained peaceful and didn’t feel overcrowded unlike many of the city’s tourist attractions.
Crowded tourist attraction: the Pantheon and all of Vatican City. We accidentally landed at the Pantheon’s doorstep after searching the nearby alleyways for a certain leather shop (we found it) that handcrafts the most beautiful Italian leather handbags I have seen to date (Francisco Polidori). The front was already laced with vendors hawking cheap souvenirs and bottled waters at double the cost of a convenience store. People in white tennis shoes and shorts (PSA: please stop with the white tennis shoes.) milled about the entrance and clamored along the walls with their selfie sticks. It was a sight – and not in the good way. The structure itself was beautiful, but as I had just seen the Colosseum hours before, I was jaded and it failed to impress me the way it should have done.
We took a trolley out to the Vatican and St. Peter’s Basilica for an afternoon.* The sky was the clearest blue and the sun was a sweltering yellow-orange that seared through cotton shirts and painted my skin an angry red over layers of SPF120 sunscreen.
We toured the Vatican mostly to stand under Michelangelo’s masterpiece and wander about the Raphael Rooms, but were quite surprised by the modern collection that they housed in the lower rooms. I’ll talk about the Sistine Chapel tomorrow, so for brevity, let’s just say that the experience didn’t quite match the expectation I’d set.
We then set out for St. Peter’s Basilica with its gorgeous dome hovering above the trees and skyline view from the Vatican. The Basilica was set for a musical performance; chairs, speakers, barricades, and ugly white vans with black windows obstructed much of St. Peter’s Square. However, the two Corinthian column-lined walkways could not have been more beautiful than they were under that unforgiving sunshine.
– M. Ray Hall
*Allow yourself a full day if you don’t buy your tickets in advance. Also: buy your tickets in advance.