Sunday, 22 January 2017

Rome 365 - Piazza Navona

Piazza Navona was built over the Stadium of Domitian, used as an athletic track in ancient Rome. The buildings surrounding the piazza follow the exact outline of the stadium which was built in the 1st century.
The piazza was the scene of shows and celebrations well in to the 19th century, including a summer water festival.

During the celebrations the square was flooded and carriages would drive around through the water. This echoes the Naumachia, mock naval battles, which would have been held on this spot in ancient times.

Today's entertainment is made up of artists, performers and living statues.

The church that overlooks the piazza is dedicated to Saint Agnes and it played an important part in WWII when a clandestine wireless transmitter was hidden in one of the belfries.
The magnificance of the piazza that we see today is thanks to the Pamphilj pope, Innocent X. He commissioned Borromini to work on the family palace, Palazzo Pamphilj, now the Brazilian Embassy as well as the aforementioned church of Sant'Agnese. Pope Innocent also bought the waters of the Acqua Vergine to feed his planned fountains as well as resurrecting Domitian's obelisk which was found in fragments near the Via Appia. This was used by Bernini as the centrepiece for his Fountain of the Four Rivers.

The fountain depicts the Nile, Ganges, Danube & Rio de la Plata rivers. They represent the longest rivers in each of the continents recognised at the time of construction of the fountain & are surrounded by plants & animals native to those 


It is the only fountain in the piazza designed in its entirety by Bernini and is the subject of a story of rivalry between Bernini & Borromini. According to the story the figure representing the river Nile is blindfolded to avoid having to look at the facade of Borromini's Sant’Agnese (in reality the Nile figure is hooded probably because the rivers source wasn’t known at the time) The figure of Rio della Plata who also faces Borromini’s church raises his hand in terror as if expecting the facade to collapse. Sadly, this story has no basis in fact as Bernini had completed the fountain before work on the church had begun.

Bernini also designed the central figure holding the dolphin in the Fontana del Moro at one end of the piazza.

The Pamphilj family symbol, the dove, is in evidence throughout the piazza.

If you exit the piazza at the top end, near the tourist office, and turn left on to Via di Tor Sanguina you come to the entrance of the ruins of the original stadium. Here you can see a small section of the grandstands and also statues, decorations and the original floor.

Opening times and ticket prices for the ruins can be found here

Thursday, 19 January 2017

Biscotti Innocenti

Stefania runs the family biscuit business that was started by her grandfather in 1920. Like Roberto from the previous post, Stefania is well known on the foodie tour map of Trastevere. The wonderful biscotti are produced in an oven from the 1950's and indeed the shop has an air of a past era about it.

Nothing dated about the produce though. Stefania, aided by her daughter Michela not only serve up seasonal treats such as frappe, bigne and castagnole at carnivale time but also regular flavours and shapes. My favourite are the brutti ma buoni ('ugly but good'), little  mounds of nuts in a chewy meringue. There are over fifty kinds of biscotti produced here so you are sure to find your own favourites.

We always make a point of visiting to pick up a little selection of all that is on offer, presented to us on a gold cardboard tray & wrapped in the signature Innocenti paper. The intention is to bring them back home as a gift. Somehow they have never made it that far.
Check out their Facebook page @BiscottificioInnocenti

Saturday, 14 January 2017

Rome 365 - Pantheon

The Pantheon is the best preserved of all the ancient Roman buildings and it is amazing to think that it has been in continuous use for over 2,000 years. It is high on the list of favourite sights for visitors to the city, with the oculus inspiring a special awe. In 2016 seven million tourists passed through the doors, making it Italy’s most visited monument.

The building we see today is the third on the site, the first built by Marcus Agrippa, as acknowledged by Emperor Hadrian who was responsible for rebuilding the Pantheon after the second temple was destroyed by fire.

Marcus Agrippa originally built this Temple to all Gods as part of an enormous layout of baths and public gardens. Huge remains of the baths can be seen on a nearby street.

The Corinthian columns of the porch are each cut from a single stone of grey and red granite, transported here from Egypt. The bases and capitals are white Greek marble. If you look closely at the colums you will see holes. These were cut into the columns to support the huts of the poultry market that existed here in the 14th century. The piazza outside with its Egyptian obelisk & Renaissance fountain was once a fish & vegetable market - the fountain was useful for keeping the fish fresh!

The columns were designed to hide the dome from view. Obscuring the dome provokes a sense of wonder as you walk in & see the perfect hemisphere inside. The diameter of the dome is exactly the same as the height of the building.

The construction of the dome took advantage of the most advanced building techniques of the time , including the clever use of concrete. Various mixes of concrete were used, the heaviest basalt mix at the bottom & the lighter volcanic ash mix at the top. It still remains the world's largest unreinforced concrete dome.

The central oculus is almost nine metres in diameter and is said to 'allow the sky to descend into the Pantheon so that prayer may freely rise'
It also acts as a sundial. Stand facing the entrance and the ray of light will tell you the time. If it is hitting the entrance then it is midday.

Originally the recesses inside the Pantheon would have held statutes of the gods including Mars and Venus. The latter was famous for her earrings, made by cutting in half the pearl that Cleopatra did not swallow when she bet Mark Anthony she could spend 10 million sesterces on a meal (she had drunk its twin dissolved in vinegar) 
The statues were replaced by tombs, including those of Raphael...

.......and the Italian monarchy

Queen Margherita is also buried here. Pizza Margherita was created in her honour.

I think the best approach to the Pantheon is to stumble upon it by accident as we did on our first visit to Rome in 2001. Whichever way you arrive that first glimpse still enthralls.

We were lucky enough to experience Pentecost at the Pantheon a couple of years ago. Well worth timing your trip to coincide with the rainfall of rose petals floating down from the oculus, symbolising the descent of the Holy Spirit, that occurs on this particular Sunday.

The rose petals gathered up after the service & subsequently dried, make a lovely souvenir of a very special moment spent in this extraordinary building.

Thursday, 12 January 2017

Roberto and his cheeses

We first met Roberto in 2010. Our stay in an apartment on Via Benedetta had been extended by a week, due to the now infamous Icelandic volcano, and we had settled into a routine of a daily shop at San Cosimato market followed by a visit to Antica Caciara, Roberto's food emporium in Trastevere.
Roberto spoke little English & our Italian was woefully poor (even after years of study!) but even so we managed a conversation every morning.
Roberto has worked in the shop over 50 years and is unfailingly courteous & kind to all, whether neighbours or strangers.
Antica Caciara was founded by Roberto's grandfather in 1900. Local farmers would bring their cheeses, made from sheep's milk, in from the countryside surrounding Rome, to be sold in the shop.
Cheese still is the main feature here and we always make a point of purchasing ricotta from the little plastic baskets to make fluffy pancakes - yet another Rome ritual of ours. We serve these with local honey, also purchased from Roberto.

Sometimes we deliberately visit on a Monday to buy the creamy burrata that comes in from Puglia. We pair this with semi sun dried tomatoes to replicate a famous Roscioli dish

Perhaps the star of the show are the wheels of ricotta from the farm of Roberto's uncle. This wonderful salty hard cheese is made from sheeps milk and is used in the classic pasta dish, cacio e pepe. It is also delicious eaten with pears.

We have returned to see Roberto every year since 2010 and each time he greets us as long lost friends.

Visit Antica Caciara's Facebook page at Antica Caciara Trasteverina for more information on this delightful Trastevere institution.

Saturday, 7 January 2017

Rome 365 - Trevi Fountain

The Trevi is a 'Mostra' fountain, which is a showpiece fountain signalling the entrance of an acquaduct into the city - in the case of the Trevi the acquaduct in question is the Acqua Vergine.
Built in 19 BC by Marcus Agrippa, this acquaduct runs mainly underground but can be glimpsed briefly on Via Nazareno. 

For over 2,000 years this acquaduct has supplied water to the city and is the only one remaining that still does so today.

Nicola Salvi won the commission, against all odds, to build the fountain, probably because his design was the least expensive.
The inauguration took place in 1735, as the inscription shows, but work continued until 1762 when it was officially opened.

The fountain itself is a sublime Baroque fantasy which includes figures of Oceanus, Tritons, Abundance & Health. The Tritons are in charge of two horses, one calm, one restless.

The figure of Abundance holds a horn of plenty,

While Health holds a cup and snake.

Above these figures you will see a depiction of the legend of the founding of the source that fed the acquaduct - a young woman shows the spring to Roman soldiers.......

 ....... and Agrippa approves the plans.

Four figures at the top of the facade represent the good effects of rain upon the earth.

From left to right they are holding a horn of plenty, symbolising the abundance of fruits, next a wheat sheaf, symbolising fertility, then a cup & bunch of grapes representing autumn and finally a wealth of flowers representing gardens.

Many plants are depicted on the facade and amongst the rocks including a garland of figs along the top balustade, capers on the cornice of Via dei Crociferi and an oak tree below the statue of Health. There are also prickly pear, artichokes and bunches of grapes to be found. 

The facade is Travertine marble from a quarry in Tivoli. Marble from the same quarry was used in the constuction of the Getty Cente in Los Angeles. The statues are Cararra marble.

The architect of the Trevi , Niccolo Salvi never saw the completed fountain - too much time spent in the dank waterworks affected his lungs & hastened his death.

The water from Aqua Vergine is supposed to be the purest in all of Rome. In the 18th century tourists would dunk their kettles in the fountain to make tea.
A much more romantic way to take the water is to drink from the 'Lovers Fountain' which is found to the left of the main fountain. The legend says that those couples that drink from the fountain together will remain faithful forever.

Because every visitor to Rome wants to return, everyone takes part in a well-known tradition: to throw a coin into the Trevi Fountain. And this is the way to do it: stand with your back to the fountain, hold the coin in your right hand, throw it over your left shoulder.
The origins of leaving a coin in the Eternal City are very old: early Christian pilgrims, who were leaving Rome, would place a coin on St. Peter’s tomb. Coin tossing in the Trevi was a tradition started by the film ‘Three coins in a fountain’. One coin will ensure a return visit to Rome while a second makes a wish come true.

Around €3,000 per day is collected from the Trevi and donated to charity.The photo above shows how this is done! 

Escape the crowds

Just around the corner from the fountain is La Citta dell'Aqua. This archeological site contains remains of an apartment block or insula, originally built at the time of Nero but converted in the 4th century into a wealthy residence. There is also a large distribution tank which dates back to the 2nd century and for which the water would have been supplied by the Acqua Vergine.

La Citta dell'Acqua is open Tuesday - Sunday and costs a bargain €3 to enter.