30th September 2014
I land at Fiumicino airport just outside Rome at about 10.30. I grab a taxi to my hotel in an excited rush, I have a packed itinerary for the next ten days and need to start ticking places off of my list as soon as possible.
I’m travelling alone for the second time in my life following from my Athens trip in May this year. I have been to Rome before, my now husband and I visited in October 2007 for a 4 day break and I thrilled at showing him some of the places that have fuelled my Classics passion since my childhood. Even though we crammed a lot in, (including a day trip to Pompeii and Herculaneum,) Rome is a city that a nerd will never tire of and I’ve been itching to get back ever since.
Seven years later, the coin I threw into the Trevi fountain has finally worked, I am back. I wasn’t planning on travelling by myself so soon, in fact I had planned to take my husband on a tour of Malta. I’ve been to Malta many times for business and pleasure and the fact that I know the island very well would have led to a far more relaxed experience for my long suffering husband! However as usual planning anything whilst married to a soldier is pointless. No trip for him this autumn. Malta will have to wait. I, however, can’t. After a long summer dealing with tourists the best way for me to unwind is to be a tourist myself. So, leaving hubby at home, I alter my plans and jump on the opportunity for a study trip. As with Athens, I fully intend to take advantage of not having to accommodate anyone else into my plans. I can nerd out at my own (admittedly punishing) pace without worrying that my companions will get Ruin Fatigue.
After a bumper summer I can afford to splash out on a slighter longer trip so I book for 9 nights instead of 6. After weeks of highlighting and annotating a few guide books I have managed to draw up a pretty full itinerary for myself. I have a brand new pair of sturdy walking boots with the memory of how a week in Athens killed my beloved Skechers fresh in my mind. I devour a pile of books and rewatch some favourite documentaries as Trip Prep, I’m ready to rock and roll.
I make my first mistake before I reach my hotel. The guidebook has warned me that a flat rate is charged my taxis dropping to/from airports. Visitors to Rome be warned – this flat fee only applies outside of rush hour and also if your hotel is situated within the Aurelian city walls. My hotel is predictably just outside the walls, enough to add another 20 euros to the bill. However, my mood is still buoyant as my hotel is on Via Ottaviano (Octavian Street) and 2014 is the 2,000th anniversary of Octavian’s death. He is better known as Augustus but I’m not going to quibble. In fact the area in which I’m staying, Prati, has streets named after all kinds of fascinating Romans including Julius Caesar, the Scipios and Cicero.
Due to budget reasons I stayed at a guesthouse also named after Octavian. Apart from the tariff, the name and the short walk to the nearest metro station I can’t think of anything else to commend the place for, but as long as my hotel is functional I don’t mind forgoing a few creature comforts when travelling solo.
Having checked in and had a quick freshen up it was time to head to the first museum of my trip. Having macabre tastes I plumped to start my holiday with the Capuchin Crypt, which is next to the church of Santa Maria della Concezione not far from Piazza Barberini. Capuchins are a Franciscan order of monks who live a life of poverty and charity. Perhaps most interesting is what has happened to nearly 4,000 deceased monks. When the monks moved to this site in 1631 they brought 300 cartloads of the bones of deceased friars with them. The bones were artfully arranged throughout several chapels and the displays of bones have been added to as the centuries have gone on. When a monk died they were buried (sans coffin) underneath the dirt floor of the chapels. After 30 years or so the skeleton would be exhumed and added to the patterns on the walls and ceilings. The grave would then be recycled for the next recently deceased monk to decompose in.
There are bigger and more intricate ossuary chapels, the one that comes to mind being another Capuchin chapel in Palermo, Sicily, but this is my first visit to one and I was suitably impressed. The mind boggling arrangements and patterns of bones are designed to remind one of how our time on Earth is short and that death will come to us all. I was also to be reminded of this theme in my next stop…
I have no photos of the Crypt. Having enforced no photography rules in my professional life at various places I’ve worked I am not going to break the rules of the places I visit. For a start, I can never bring myself to be that disrespectful and secondly, I have too much empathy for the poor bastard who has to enforce those rules a hundred times a day.
Happily, my next stop only has a No Flash rule and having again borrowed a brilliant Canon camera from my brother I have no problems. After stopping to admire Bernini’s Triton Fountain in the centre of Piazza Barberini I walk the short distance to the Baths of Diocletian, opposite Termini train station.
The frigidarium of the Baths are now occupied by the Church of Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri which I make a mental note to return to, but for now I want the parts of the Baths now occupied by the Epigraphic and the Protohistoric sections of the multi-site Museo Nazionale Romano.
The Baths, finished in 306BC, are the main draw for me, the museum exhibits are an added bonus. But what a bonus they are! There are funerary monuments, sarcophagi and hidden gems such as this slave collar.
This mosaic, displayed in a hall once used to store water for an enormous open air swimming pool (natatio) depicts a skeleton at a dinner party. He is pointing to the motto of the Oracle at Delphi – “Know Thyself.” The mosaic actually comes from a funerary monument and, like the Capuchin crypt over 1,000 years later, is designed to remind one of the brevity of life. In fact Romans would sometimes place little models of skeletons (larvae conviviales) on their dining tables as a reminder to enjoy life whilst they could.
My guidebook has snarkily referred to this branch of the National Roman Museum as the least interesting, yet I am fascinated. I’m therefore curious to see what wonders I shall see in the Palazzo Massimo across the road. All of the museum sites are included in a single ticket (if you can squeeze them into 3 consecutive days!) so it was a logical step to finish my first afternoon in Rome there.
If I had been impressed by the Baths I was knocked for six by the Palazzo Museum collections. I saw a few pieces I’ve been dying to see up close and a few I’d not yet heard of and fell immediately in love with. The immediate thing that struck me, wandering through the galleries, was the beautiful lighting. Whoever was responsible for the lighting design here needs a raise. The statuary appeared to glow and was a joy to photograph, even to a novice such as myself. Forinstance, I got very excited to finally come face to face with this pugilist:
The museum also houses an excellent numismatic collection, but more exciting for me was the collection of frescoes and mosaics salvaged from grand ancient villas. Take this bedroom, found in an Augustan era villa in the Trastavere area of Rome. Isn’t it gorgeous? It’s from the palatial house thought to have been the marital home of Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa and his wife Julia, daughter of the Emperor Augustus.
Or this ‘garden view’ fresco, found in the Villa of Livia (wife of Augustus). I was really impressed with the curators here, the fresco is lit at changing levels to mimic the changing sunlight throughout a day.
Whilst I’m still on the Viminal hill I quickly pop into the Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels and the Martyrs, the church which occupies (and subsequently saved) the frigidarium of the Baths of Diocletian. And it is beautiful! It’s not difficult to imagine how grand the baths must of been in their pagan heyday.
With three museums and a church done and dusted in my first afternoon, I am aware that this trip is a marathon and not a sprint. I reluctantly leave the church and head for a quick supper and home. Day 1 done, 9 more to go!