Monday, 30 January 2017

Rome 365 - Ara Pacis

The Ara Pacis is the most complete (and beautiful) monument to Emperor Augustus in all of Rome. The Altar was built in 13BC to celebrate the peace established in the Empire after Augustus's victories in Gaul & Spain. It didn't always stand on this spot , as we will see later, but fragments were reassembled here in the 1930's to celebrate the 2,000th anniversary of Augustus's inauguration as Emperor.

Before we look in detail at the altar itself, we should look at the museum in which it is housed. I personally love the Richard Meier designed building, the first modern architectural project to be built in the historic centre since the second world war. It did attract a lot of local criticism initially, despite being such a democratic design which allows passers by to look in and see the Ara Pacis in marvelous surroundings. It is constructed in Travertine marble, an historic Roman material.

The decorative reliefs on the screen that surround the altar are divided into two sections. The lower level is richly decorated with intertwined acanthus plants as well as birds, small animals and insects.

The upper frieze on the front wall shows the celebration of Lupercalia, the founding of Rome, with a procession of the Emperor's family, led by Augustus himself. 

 The upper back wall has a depiction of Mother Earth holding two babies, supposedly Lucius & Gaius - Augustus's grandchildren & planned successors.The veiled figure is believed to be their mother, Julia, Augustus's daughter. Both children died young.

The ornamentation on the inside walls are a series of esquisite garlands sculptured in relief that resemble the painted ones in the House of Livia on the Palatine.

The Ara Pacis originally stood in the Campus Martius, in what is now Piazza San Lorenzo in Lucinda. It was positioned near a huge obelisk sundial, the shadow from which fell upon the altar on Augustus's birthday.

The aforementioned sundial was moved in the 18th century to
Piazza Montecitorio. The obelisk on which the sundial is mounted was one of the first that Augustus brought back from Egypt and is the fourth biggest of the thirteen obelisks now standing in Rome.

All this would be reason enough to visit Ara Pacis but now there is an added bonus that enables you to go back in time with augmented reality. Slipping on a visor, the fully glory of the monument with its original bright colours comes to life right in front of your eyes and you also get to see its transformation over time. Details here


The exterior wall of the museum contains the Res Gestae which lists all the achievements of Emperor Augustus throughout his reign.

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

St Paul in Rome

Today, in the Basilica of St Paul Outside the Walls, Pope Francis will celebrate the Conversion of St Paul.

Caravaggio depicted the event in a painting which can be seen in Santa Maria del Popolo and monuments to the life of the saint can be seen around the city.

The church of Santa Maria in Via Lata, just off the Via del Corso, was, according to legend, built over the house of the centurion who guarded the imprisoned St Paul on this spot.

Continuing along the Via del Corso will bring you to Piazza Colonna, dominated by the Column of Marcus Aurelius. The column was built to commemorate the triumphs of Marcus Aurelius in battle and was originally surmounted by a statue of the emperor himself but in the 16th century it was replaced by a statue of St Paul.

The Pyramid of Caius Cestius was built as the tomb of the wealthy official in 12BC and would have been one of the last monuments that St Paul would have seen as he was led to his execution along the Ostian Way.

 The small church of San Paolo Tre Fontaine was built in the 5th century over what was believed to be the site of St Paul's martyrdom. Legend says that as he was decapitated, his head bounced three times and fountains miraculously sprang up at each place where his head touched the ground.

Close by, in the crypt of Santa Maria Scala Coeli, can be seen the cell where St Paul was supposedly held before his beheading.

These two churches can be found within the shaded paths of the Tre Fontaine Monastery, not far from EUR. The Trappist monks here are well known for producing chocolate & honey.

The Basilica San Paolo Fuori La Mura (St Paul Outside the Walls) was built over the Apostles tomb. The building we see today was reconstructed in the 19th century after a great fire destroyed the basilica.

Gifts from all over the world were given at the time of the rebuilding, including malachite and lapus lazuli from Czar Nicholas 1 which adorn two of the altars.

The Paschal candlestick is one of the few things to be rescued from the fire and dates back to the 12th century.

The mosaics of every pope dating back to St Peter are copies of those from the original basilica.

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.

A good tip before touring the Pantheon is to get a free app designed to help you make the most of your visit.