Rome and ruins

Print edition : July 16, 2010

A VIEW OF the city. Picture postcards and pages of history books come alive in the earthy hues of brick and sandstone.-

VISITING Rome can be a schizophrenic experience. The city is a modern metropolis striving to establish its contemporary identity over a largely antiquated and often crumbling edifice of immense historic value. The sprawling cityscape is dotted with gorgeous ruins and exquisite monuments familiar images from posters, picture postcards and pages of history books come alive in the earthy hues of brick and sandstone.

The ruins form an incongruous backdrop to unabashed commercialism symbolised by mega malls and designer boutiques. Gleaming automobiles speed through Rome's cobbled alleyways originally designed for horse-drawn carriages. Glass facades and trendy awnings perch uneasily on architectural gems of grandeur and beauty. A giant billboard for a brand of perfume hangs over a historic square with a fountain that pre-dates Christianity. Smart men and women in business suits stride purposefully past tourists gaping at the numerous sights, guidebook in hand. Rome is a study in contrasts, not unlike New Delhi where history peers out of every turn and corner providing a compelling backdrop to a metropolis that has moved on.

Congruence may be at a discount in today's Rome, but Romans know that it is their history and architecture that draw visitors to their city and bring in the precious euros in these days of economic downturn. Millions of tourists visit Rome during the summer months every year and, naturally, one has to be prepared for snarled traffic, teeming humanity and serpentine queues outside virtually every monument, not to mention sizzling temperatures, which can be on the wrong side of 40 Celsius at midday.

All roads may not lead to Rome anymore, but all roads in Rome seem to converge on that single monument that has become the iconic face of Rome today the Colosseum. The circular structure, half intact, tantalises from every turn and bend one encounters when driving through the streets of Rome.

THE TIBER RIVER on the banks of which Rome is situated. A rapidly expanding empire turned it into a sewer.-

The sheer grandeur of the structure even in a ruined state might have taken one's breath away had it not been for the knowledge that this was the venue of many a gruesome gladiatorial fight, the favourite blood sport of the Roman nobility. Lions, leopards and other wild animals kept in cages in the basement of the Colosseum were brought up on mechanical lifts and let loose on gladiators while princes and generals cheered from their vantage galleries, savouring this contest of gore and glory between beast and man. Even today, there are many gladiatorial schools in and around the Colosseum offering courses ranging from a few days to a few weeks.

The Colosseum, which derives its name from Colossus, the huge bronze statue that stood beside it, was a public amphitheatre built during the time of the Flavian emperors Vespasian (A.D. 69-79), Titus (A.D.79-81) and Domitian (A.D. 81-96). Of the 80 entrance arches, four were reserved for the emperor, the senators and other dignitaries.

The amphitheatre could hold around 70,000 spectators, not unlike modern-day sports stadia. It contained several chambers, including storerooms for weapons (armamentarium) and stage equipment (summum choragium), a hospital (sanitarium), a mortuary (spoliarium), barracks for the sailors of the Misenum fleet (Castra Misenatium), and so on.

THE COLOSSEUM, THE iconic face of Rome today. The venue of many a gruesome gladiatorial fight, the favourite blood sport of the Roman nobility, retains its sheer grandeur even in a ruined state.-

While the shows were generally free, strict social rank was maintained by regulating the seating arrangements according to one's position in the social hierarchy. Rising to a maximum height of 50 metres, the galleries were arranged around an arena made of wood. The Colosseum has been either destroyed by earthquakes or demolished and rebuilt several times over the centuries by successive Roman emperors. The amphitheatre hosted its last show between A.D. 519 and 523.

Throughout its history, the Colosseum has served several purposes as food store, tool shed, stable, and even as home. At one point of time, there was even an avenue carved out through the amphitheatre for papal processions. The Frangipani, the noble family that took over the Colosseum after the fire of 1083, even built its own fortress within the premises.

Adjacent to the Colosseum are the Palatine and Capitalino hills, two of the seven hills on which Rome was built originally. The Roman Forum, first a symbol of the Roman republic and subsequently of the Roman empire, is a sprawling complex of walls, pillars, gates, and so on, now overgrown with grass and weed. It was the centre of the ancient empire and contains skeletons of several temples, including one to Vesta and another to Castor and Pollux, the twin brothers of Helen of Troy. It was built primarily as a forum for exchange of goods and ideas.

A PAINTING IN the Vatican Museum.-

The Palatine hill that rises above the forum has remnants of some of the Republic's most luxurious villas and is believed to have been the village of Rome's mythological founder, Romulus. The home built for Augustus' wife Livia was surrounded by gardens, and the wall frescoes offer an idea of what it might have looked like in full bloom.

The Roman Forum served as the centre of Rome's politico-religious life until A.D. 100, but lost its significance in the following centuries as the Roman empire split and Constantinople (today's Istanbul) emerged as the imperial, religious and cultural capital of the ancient world. Eventually, the Roman Forum degenerated into a marble and limestone quarry, a refuge of criminals and vagabonds and even as a pasture for cows (Campo Vaccino, or cattle field), inspiring some of the brilliant masterpieces of artists like William Turner and Nicolas Poussain.

Across the road from the Colosseum is the Imperial Forum built between A.D. 46 and 110, by Julius Caesar to celebrate his ascendancy to power. As the name suggests, it was meant for Roman royalty and nobility, as distinct from the Roman Forum, meant for the public. The area is home to the Arch of Constantine and Trajan's markets, a 2nd century A.D. shopping mall with office space upstairs. The imposing Arch of Constantine depicts the victory of Rome's first Christian emperor.

ST. PETER'S SQUARE as seen from the dome of the basilica.-

Rome's Jewish Quarter impresses with its synagogue and residences built nonchalantly around the ruins of columns and arches. There is a pile of artichokes outside a Jewish eatery that offers Kosher food. Strolling through the fora offers several vantage views of the entire city of Rome.

The Pantheon, first constructed by Emperor Agrippa in 29 B.C. as a temple to all gods Roman, is today a restored rotunda put together by Emperor Hadrian when the original structure was destroyed in a fire in A.D. 80. The Corinthian columns on the outer perimeter are cylindrical, massive and tall. As in Hagia Sofia in Istanbul, the massive central dome seems to stand without any obvious support. The top of the dome is open to the sky, letting in cylindrical shafts of sunlight that keep shifting position as the day advances. The structure served various purposes during its long life, including as a Christian church called Santa Maria and a fortress in the Middle Ages, and was even cannibalised by Pope Urban VIII, who melted down its bronze roof to provide metal for Bernini's masterpiece in St. Peter's Basilica.

Like Pantheons everywhere, this one too serves as a tomb for the great sons and daughters of the soil, the better known among them being the painter Raphael, King Vittorio Emanuele II, Umberto I and his queen Margherita.

THE IMPERIAL FORUM built between A.D. 46 and 110 by Julius Caesar to celebrate his ascendancy to power. It was meant for the royalty and the nobility, as distinct from the Roman Forum (below), which was meant for the public.-

Outside the Pantheon is a lovely fountain with an Egyptian obelisk as the centrepiece. Crowds throng the square and ice-cream vendors do brisk business.

Those who want to return to Rome are advised to make a wish at the Trevi Fountain where they turn their back to the fountain and throw a coin over the shoulder. The fountain and the little pond around it are filled with coins of all countries. The fountain is a striking piece of art, but one with a purpose.

Like all major civilisations, Rome, too, is situated on a river the Tiber but then, a rapidly expanding empire soon turned the river into a sewer. In fact, the water of the Tiber is said to have become undrinkable even in the centuries before Christ.

Potable water had to be coaxed out of virgin springs from the neighbouring hills, channelled underground to palaces and townships and made available to citizens and subjects through fountains and faucets installed at convenient intersections.

Trevi, derived from tre vie, meaning junction of three channels or aqueducts, got its water from the Baths of Agrippa, approximately 22 kilometres away. It lasted 400 years before it was destroyed. The fountain was revived during the Renaissance period and underwent quite a few transformations as various architects and sculptors experimented with it from time to time. Finally, it was finished by Pannini.

From Trevi, it is a short walk to the famous Spanish Steps, leading up from the Piazza di Spagna to the church of Trinita dei Monti. This is where tired tourists as well as the local people come in the evenings to watch the world go by. The fountain at the base is believed to have been built by the elder Bernini. The house where Keats used to live is now a museum, also located near the Spanish Steps. In 1986, the first McDonalds in Rome was established near the Spanish Steps, leading to huge protests that eventually resulted in the slow food' movement founded by Carlo Petrini.

THE EXQUISITE CUPOLA of St. Peter's Basilica, seen from inside the grand structure.-

Vatican City, said to be the smallest sovereign state with an area of 44 hectares (109 acres) and a resident population of 800, is just a bus ride away from central Rome. Rome's skyline is dominated by the exquisite dome of St. Peter's Basilica, a beacon for millions of pilgrims and worshippers who throng its massive square throughout the year as much for a glimpse of the Pope as for worshipping at one of the holiest shrines of Christendom. Designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini under the direction of Pope Alexander VII, the forecourt of the basilica is awe-inspiring in scale and proportion.

Built during the Renaissance, it is the largest Catholic church in the world, with a capacity to seat 60,000 worshippers within its interiors. Nuns and monks from different orders, all dressed in their habits, are a perennial presence in the square and the basilica. Built originally to inter St. Peter, one of the 12 apostles, the basilica is also the final resting place of a number of popes and bishops, many of whom have their own dedicated altars within its precincts.

Grandiose in conception and magnificent in design, St. Peter's is a marvel of architectural perfection, credited to the genius Michelangelo, the master artist, architect, sculptor and painter all rolled into one. The entire interior is lavishly decorated with marble, reliefs, architectural sculpture and gilding. There are also a number of sculptures in niches and chapels, including Pieta, that inimitable masterpiece of Michelangelo.

The central feature of the basilica is a baldachin, or canopy, over the papal altar, designed by Bernini. Several flights of very narrow steps lead up to the dome from where one gets a sweeping view of all of Rome. No amount of time is enough to spend at Sistine Chapel (Frontline, December 2, 2005) with its priceless collection of Renaissance art. It will take several visits and hours to see everything in this museum of treasures.

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