We arrived in Civitavecchia, the port for Rome, on the morning of April 29. Unlike our last few ports, this one involved intense sightseeing rather than lovely vistas. There is so much to see in Rome that you can’t do more than touch a few high points in a one day visit, particularly when you have to factor in about 1.5 hours each way in a bus between the port and the city. To top it off the ship was leaving before dinner time, so getting back before its departure was an issue. For all these reasons we decided to take a HAL excursion, which was more expensive than it ought to have been but still well worth it (after all, who knows when/if we will get back to Rome?). While there was a lot that we would have liked to see but didn’t, it was amazing to us how much one could see in this short time. Inevitably, there are a lot of pictures in this episode taken through a bus window as we drove by places where we didn’t stop, but the sights we did get to visit were all very satisfying.
There really isn’t much to see in Civitavecchia, which doesn’t seem to be much more than the busy port for Rome, which is some 45 miles away. There are some Renaissance era fortifications, including an imposing fort designed by Michelangelo, but not much else to see.
Rome, of course, was the capital of the dominant empire of ancient times, controlling most of the Mediterranean area from about 100 BC to 200 AD. It was founded in the 7th or 8th Century BC, either by the Trojan prince Aeneas fleeing the disaster of the Trojan war (he must have been old since the Trojan War was a few centuries earlier), or by the twins Romulus & Remus who were suckled by a wolf, or by a slow process of several villages on neighboring hills growing together into a single city. The first two are more literary but the last one is most likely true. I will skip discussing its history here since it is readily available & most people have already learned about it in school, except when relevant to the places we visited.
We left early on the bus and arrived first at the Vatican for a tour of St. Peter’s Basilica. Established by a 1929 treaty with Mussolini, the Vatican is an independent sovereign state wholly enclosed by the city of Rome, the smallest state in the world. Interestingly, although St. Peter’s is the largest of all churches in the world it is not a cathedral. Cathedral is defined as the seat of a bishop, and the seat of the Bishop of Rome (the Pope) Is the Church of St. John Lateran, not St. Peter’s.
Emperor Constantine, who legalized Christianity in the 4th Century AD, built the first church here because it is traditionally considered the place of burial of the Apostle St. Peter, who was also the first bishop of Rome. The current structure was built in the 16th and 17th Centuries and many other Popes have been buried here over the centuries. The dome on top is the tallest in the world and is visible from a distance (although not from directly in front of the church). It is illegal to erect a building in Rome that is taller than this dome.
The vast open space in front of the Basilica is bordered by long colonnades on each side, with numerous sculptures lining their tops as well as the top of the façade of the Basilica itself. In this courtyard there are two fairly lavish fountains, a 13th Century BC Egyptian obelisk with a cross on top, and huge statues of St. Peter and St. Paul. The obelisk was once in the Circus of Nero that was in this area & is thought to have been a witness to the martyrdom of St. Peter there. Oh yes, there were a whole lot of people there as well, even though it was morning and not yet tourist season (although far fewer than in the summer months). Our guide told us they were getting an unusually large number of visitors this Spring because of the election a month earlier of a very popular new Pope. As a result we had a very long wait (close to an hour); there is no line or charge to get into the Basilica (how refreshing after all the fee charging churches we had seen) but you have to go through a metal detector security check first & that was very slow & backed up. Many visitors apparently felt they were not bound to follow the church rules & simply cut in near the head of the line, making the wait that much longer for the rest of us, but no one was there to stop them.
Having finally finished the security check we headed for the massive entrance to the church. It was framed by huge pillars and bronze doors with pictures; one set was made in the 15th Century and was part of the original basilica and another was made in the 20th Century. Stepping into this massive interior space is pretty awesome.
Our first stop inside was at Michelangelo’s Pieta. Michelangelo was only 24 when he sculpted this masterpiece & it was only his 3d sculpture. After a deranged guy caused some serious damage to it in 1972 they repaired it, mostly with the pieces that had been hammered off although Mary’s nose is entirely new, & surrounded it with bulletproof glass. There was a crowd around it and you couldn’t get close, but the glass is so clear you wouldn’t know from the pictures that it is there at all.
The ceilings of the basilica are (if I understand correctly) carved stucco decorated with gold leaf. To give an idea of the scale of the building, the words on the gold ribbon at the top of the walls are more than 6 feet tall. There are several smaller domes in the church which appear to be oval in my pictures, but I think that may be a result of camera angle and that they are actually round. They are decorated inside by what looks like frescoes but are actually mosaics. In fact there are very few paintings in St. Peter’s (our guide said there are none but I have since read about a couple of very small ones); all of the large pictures that are actually mosaics executed with such tiny glass tiles that you really have to get close to see that they are not paintings. Many of them are mosaic copies of important paintings however.
We walked on past several tombs of popes, many of whom are entombed here, and innumerable statues of saints, martyrs & popes in niches in the marble walls. In the center of the church, directly under the primary dome, is the Baldachin created by the sculptor Bernini in the early 17th Century to mark the spot where St. Peter’s remains are thought to be. It is a gigantic bronze canopy covering the altar, on which only the Pope is allowed to celebrate mass.. Although it doesn’t look outsize in the context of this space, it is actually 96 feet high (more than 10 stories if it were a building). Most (if not all) of the more than 100,000 pounds of bronze used to build it was looted from the roof of the Pantheon (which we will see later). Its helical pillars were copied from the marble pillars supporting a canopy in the original St. Peter’s; they are called “Solomonic pillars” because the originals were thought to have come from the Temple in Jerusalem, but in fact they were made in the 2d Century AD, probably in Greece. In the large picture below two of the original pillars can be seen on the balcony on the left. The top of the Baldachin is designed to look like the cloth canopy that was on the original in the old church.
In the apse behind the Baldachin is the Cathedra Petri, also by Bernini. It was built as a reliquary for a chair long thought to have been used by St. Peter, but which actually appears to have been a gift from Charles the Bald to Pope John VIII in 875. The chair is encased in the object at the center of the structure, which is chair shaped if you see it in person. The chair holder has a gilded picture of Jesus giving the keys to St. Peter & the elaborate gilded gloria above is carved stucco covered in gold. The light in the middle is from a pre-existing window in the wall that Bernini effectively incorporated by including a yellow alabaster window in the gloria that lets in the outside light. The dove in the window represents the Holy Spirit & the chair is supported by sculptures of four “Doctors of the Church.”
Above the Baldachin is, of course, Michelangelo’s great dome. On the outside it is the tallest dome in the world and on the inside it rises almost 400 feet from the floor. It is filled with mosaics designed by Michelangelo. The inscription at the top memorializes the pope at the time of its completion rather than the artist who designed it: “To the glory of St. Peter, Pope Sixtus V in the year 1590, fifth of his pontificate.”
Each of the four massive supports of the dome displays a sculpture of an individual associated with an important relic that lies below it. Here is St. Helena, the mother of Constantine, who is considered the finder of the True Cross, a fragment of which lies below her sculpture. Here also is a picture of people standing by the base of one of the columns of the Baldachin, which gives you a better idea of its scale. The relief on the base of the column is the coat of arms of Pope Urban VIII.
So then we headed back toward the door, walking through several side chapels. The floors of the church were beautiful inlaid marble. I think the bronze door through which we exited is the one made in the 20th Century & that the picture to the left is Pope John XXIII bowing before the martyred St. Peter.
As we left the Basilica and headed for (yes) the Vatican souvenir store, which thankfully had a restroom & some cold water, we passed the Swiss Guards on duty by the church. Very colorful.
Leaving the Vatican, our bus headed for the Colosseum, our next stop. To get there we crossed the Tiber River and drove past Trajan’s Column & an architectural site that shows how the current city street level is about 25 feet higher than it was in classical times. Trajan’s column is hollow & has one of the first spiral staircases inside it. It originally had a statue of Trajan on top but a statue of St. Peter has been there close to 500 years. The reliefs spiraling up the sides portray Trajan’s military engagements with the Dacians, who lived in roughly the same area as modern Romania.
The Colosseum was commissioned by Emperor Vespasian in 72 AD. Its elliptical design was derived by combining two amphitheaters. It could hold about 55,000 spectators, all admitted free of charge, for the gladiatorial combats & wild animal fights that were its stock in trade. We were told, however, that contrary to popular belief Christians were martyred in the Circus Maximus and not in the Colosseum, which wasn’t built until after Nero’s reign. Originally called the Flavian Amphitheater (Vespasian was the first of the Flavian dynasty), it is thought to have obtained the name Colosseum after a colossal statue of Nero, some 30 yards tall, that stood nearby.
Only about a third of the original structure is still there. It was damaged by earthquakes, but mostly it was used as a quarry for already-cut stone, a large portion of which was used to build St. Peter’s Basilica. The stone blocks used to build the outer walls were fitted together without mortar and connected by iron pegs. In the pictures immediately above you can see the walls covered with pockmarks, which were made by people drilling into the walls to extract the iron pegs. We entered the Colosseum through the outer arched passage while the guide explained that the crowd flow was so well managed by the system of entrances and passageways that the entire stadium could be emptied of its 55,000 spectators in just 15 minutes.
The Colosseum was constructed on the inside mostly of concrete and brick. When the Empire disintegrated in the 4th & 5th Centuries AD the secret of making concrete was lost and not rediscovered until the Renaissance. Quite a lot of the brickwork evident today in the building was added in the 19th Century in an effort to prop up what was left of the structure. Its not too hard to tell the modern from the ancient brickwork.
The floor of the Colosseum was a huge wooden platform covered with sand. Beneath this floor was a two story complex of animal cages, gladiator rooms, storage rooms and hallways. It was outfitted with elevators, operated by winches, that could raise animal cages to arena level. where they would suddenly appear in dramatic fashion. Archers stood by at all times just in case an animal escaped.
The archways and structures of the building provide some nice views. And, oh yes, Mary & I were both there!
Right next to the Colosseum is the impressive Arch of Constantine. It was built in 315 (the last of the triumphal arches) to commemorate his victory in a battle against a rival for the Imperial crown. It was before this battle that Constantine is supposed to have seen a vision of the cross, which led him to legalize Christianity when he then won the battle (Constantine himself did not become a Christian until he was on his deathbed, if then, although his mother and wife were Christians). Most of the decorations on this arch were actually scavenged from earlier monuments, in particular statues and reliefs relating to the campaigns against the Dacians which, we have already learned here, were actually conducted by Trajan. Even so, it is well worth examination.
Near the Colosseum we passed an elaborate marble gate to the Palatine Hill, where the Emperors had their palaces (the word palace actually derives from Palatine). Actually, the inscription says it is the gate to the Farnese Gardens, built in the 16th Century by Alessandro Farnese, whose grandfather Pope Paul III made him an Archbishop at the mature age of 14. A little later we drove by the edges of the Palatine hill, where we saw what is left of the Circus Maximus (not much) & the palaces of Augustus & Septimus Severus. We also saw Roman soldiers outside the Colosseum who I am told will let you take their picture for a steep fee.
On the opposite side of Constantine’s Arch from the Colosseum was the Via Sacra (on which processions were held) leading to the Arch of Titus & behind it the Forum. The Arch of Titus was erected in 82 AD to commemorate the Emperor Domitian’s deceased brother Titus and his Palestinian victory in 70 AD. Inside the arch is a well known relief showing Roman soldiers carrying away the contents of the Temple they destroyed, notably a large menorah, but we didn’t see that since our tour did not go to the Forum. To the right of the Arch in the picture is a row of columns from the Temple of Venus & Roma in the Forum, which we glimpsed as we drove by some of the Forum in the bus. Built by Hadrian, this large temple had statues representing the love goddess Venus & the city of Rome sitting back to back. It has been suggested that this was a bit of humorous wordplay by Hadrian, since the word for love was “amor,” which is Roma spelled backward, & the goddesses were sitting back to back. I doubt it, but it’s a clever point. We also saw the Basilica of Julia (the Roman legal courts) and the Temple of Saturn on our drive by the Forum.The Basilica was originally built with spoils from Caesar’s Gallic wars, but was burned down & rebuilt several times before its final destruction by the Visigoths when they sacked Rome in 410 AD. Later in the day we drove past the 4th Century Arch of Janus (a name it was given about 1,000 years later), which is not in the Forum but is the only four sided arch still extant in Rome.
After a long morning we stopped to eat at a very nice restaurant where we had a delicious lasagna lunch. On the way there our guide pointed out the pink American Embassy.
After lunch we walked to the Trevi Fountain. Built in the 18th Century on the site of the terminus of an ancient Roman aqueduct, the fountain is about half as long as a football field. Its central figure is Neptune, flanked by two Tritons with seahorses (half horse half fish). There is a tradition that if you throw a coin in this fountain (over your left shoulder with your back to the fountain) you will be sure to return to Rome. This was featured in the movies Roman Holiday and Three Coins In A Fountain. Lots of people must believe it, since the fountain collects about 120,000 Euros a year for charity. Our guide stopped us about a block away and told us to take out any coins we want to throw in the fountain before we got there, because this square is always frequented by thieves & pickpockets.
At this point we were given about an hour of free time to go where we liked & meet back at the fountain. There had been a very interesting lecture on board by an Architecture professor about the Pantheon so we decided to walk down and see that. It was not a short walk but it was a nice one through several squares with sidewalk cafes and street artists and across one of the main drags, Via Del Corso.
The Pantheon sits on a square called Piazza della Rotundo. First built in 27 BC by Augustus’s son in law Marcus Agrippa, the original building burned down and was completely rebuilt by Emperor Hadrian in the early 2d Century AD. Showing a humility unusual in a Roman Emperor, Hadrian (who may have helped design the building) kept on the new building an attribution to the original builder: “Marcus Agrippa, son of Lucio, three times consul made this.” It sounds like Agrippa may not have been so modest. As its name suggests, this was originally built as a shrine to all of the Olympian gods. But at the end of the 6th Century it was consecrated as a church, which saved it from the kind of destructive looting that was applied to other ancient buildings like the Colosseum (although we have noted that the bronze roof was recycled at St. Peter’s & the gold leaf that originally adorned the interior of the dome was also taken by a Byzantine Emperor). As a result, this is the best preserved building from ancient Rome. I remember visiting it in 1970 and not being impressed, but looking back I think that was because it wasn’t a ruin so it didn’t seem as authentic (and really I didn’t know anything about it at that time). Only when one gets older does one realize how stupid he was when young!
The portico is Greek in style. Those 40 foot long granite pillars are single pieces of stone, quarried in Egypt, unlike the Greek pillars that were made of round blocks stacked on top of each other. The main building is exactly as tall as it is wide (142 feet) & its shape is designed as a sphere inside a cylinder. We were told that this dome is, even today, the largest concrete dome in the world, but it looks less impressive than others on the outside because much of it is hidden by the cylinder. As you can see from the pictures above, the dome isn’t even visible from the front of the building. In the pizza in front of the building is a 16th Century fountain topped by an obelisk originally built by Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses II for the Temple of Ra in Heliopolis.
From the inside the dome is much more magnificent. It was made by pouring concrete into a wooden mold. It is more than 20 feet thick at the base and tapers to less than 5 feet at the top. The coffered pattern in the ceiling makes the structure much lighter by reducing the amount of concrete without reducing the strength of the dome. The opening in the top, some 30 feet in diameter, further reduces the weight of the dome and is also the only source of light in the building (other than the front door when it is open). Of course this opening also lets in the rain, so the beautiful marble floor has holes under the opening and also slants down toward the sides to permit the water to drain.
The opening in the dome cast a dramatic spotlight on the walls that moved as the sun travelled across the sky.
The walls were covered with a pink marble pattern including pedimented decorative windows, framed panels & columns.
As mentioned before, this is a church. It has a very nice altar integrated into the niche directly across from the entrance. And several favored people are entombed here, notably two kings of Italy (and Queen Margherita of Italy after whom the pizza is named) as well as the great Renaissance artist Raphael.
Well, there was a little time left before we had to be back at the Trevi Fountain, so we decided to push on for a quick look at the Piazza Navona which appeared to be nearby. To be more accurate I wanted to see the Piazza Navona & Mary was more worried about getting back in time. It was a longer walk than I had expected & we got lost enough that we asked a policeman for directions. By the time we arrived at this gigantic piazza there was only time for a very quick walk through. The Piazza Navona is very long and narrow because it used to be a racetrack. The Domitian Stadium was built here in the 1st Century AD & held 33,000 spectators. Considered by many Rome’s best Baroque area, the piazza has three outstanding Baroque fountains and the Church of Saint Agnes on one side in the middle. We entered the piazza on one end where we encountered the 16th Century Fountain of the Moor, containing a Bernini sculpture added later. We walked up to the center of the piazza where Bernini’s Fountain of the Four Rivers sits in front of the Church. This is considered one of Bernini’s masterpieces. The base displays sculptures representing four prominent rivers in the continents then subject to papal influence: the Nile in Africa, the Ganges in Asia, the Danube in Europe and the Rio d la Plata in South America (visited last year in Uruguay & Argentina). On top is yet another obelisk, this one dating only from First Century Rome.
Have I mentioned it was getting late? So we hurried back as best we could (the route was a little confusing). We never found a public library in Rome, but on the way back to the Trevi Fountain we stopped briefly to look at a lovely little fountain just for bibliophiles that we happened to encounter. It was built in 1927 in the wall of what is now the national archives & commemorates a university that once was here. I was also interested by what appears to be a water pipe cover with the ancient designation “S.P.Q.R.” that the Romans carried into battle (standing for Senatus Populusque Romanus or “Senate and People of Rome").
Well, we made it back before our group left the Trevi Fountain, although we were the last ones back. Sadly, we didn’t have time to buy a gelato from the vendor there as we had planned, but I think I would trade a gelato for the Piazza Navona any day. We got back on the bus & drove to the Piazza Venezia where the gigantic Monument to Victor Emmanuele II, the first king of Italy, stands to glorify the unified nation. The equestrian statue of Victor Emmanuele at its center is almost 40 feet long; his mustache alone is 5 feet long. This monument has always been controversial, not only because many consider it an outsized eyesore (Romans sometimes call it “the wedding cake” or “the typewriter”), but because part of the Capitoline Hill and a medieval neighborhood were cleared to build it in the first decade of the 20th Century. Across the piazza is the 15th Century Palazzo Venezia which served as Mussolini’s headquarters. It was from the window pictured below that Mussolini harangued the crowds, making more than 60 speeches from that spot.
From here we walked behind the monument for a brief look at the Cordonato, Michelangelo’s stairway leading up to the Capitoline Hill. This was Rome’s first citadel and its center of government. It was redone during the Renaissance pursuant to a design by Michelangelo. Surrounding the square on top of the hill today are the Capitoline museums on each side & the Palazzio Senatorio, which is now the mayor’s office. In the center of the square on top of the hill is a bronze equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius (actually a copy, the original is in the museum). This is the only equestrian statue to survive from ancient Rome & the only reason it wasn’t recycled like the rest is because it was erroneously believed that this was Christian hero Constantine the Great. On either side of the bottom of the stairway is a granite Egyptian Lion spouting water & at the top are statues of Castor & Pollux, considered the protectors of ancient Rome after they appeared to assist the Romans in an important early battle and then appeared again in the Forum to announce the victory. All four of these statues were dug up in pieces then fitted back together, as you can plainly see on the lion below; the head of Castor was entirely new since the didn’t find the original, and is a copy of the head on the Pollux statue. Unfortunately, it was getting late and we didn’t have time to walk up to the square, so all we have are pictures from below the staircase.
That was it for Rome. We climbed back on the bus for the long drive back to the Prinsendam in Civitavecchia. To get there we passed through the massive city walls of Rome & drove past the Basilica of St. Paul Outside The Walls, which was built over what is thought to be the grave of St. Paul (actually just his body is supposed to be here, since his head is in St. John Lateran). The first church was built on this spot by Constantine in the 4th Century, but it has been destroyed & rebuilt several times, the most recent at the turn of the 20th Century. Still, it is considered a faithful rendering of what was there before & has many artifacts from the old Basilica. Of course we didn’t see any of them because we just glimpsed the building through the woods as our bus flew by.
One last note of importance (at least to us). All of our companions at the “fun table” at dinner left the cruise in Rome. They had all boarded in Istanbul and you can see their jolly pictures in that episode, so I won’t put them here again. It is always sad when good friends depart, but in Rome we got a whole new set of table mates who also proved to be interesting & congenial. But this has been a very long posting, so I think I will wait until the next episode (much shorter, I assure you) to post their pictures. So that was the end of our visit to Italy, a very rich and rewarding portion of the cruise.