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Rome - a Microcosm of Cultures Extending over More than 2000 Years

September 02, 2020


Grazie Roma - Antonello Venditti sings his gratitude to his native city. Many visitors also wax lyrical at the splendor of the Italian metropolis on the Tiber. It is a microcosm of cultures extending over more than 2000 years, seen as through a magnifying glass.

The remains of the ancient city are impressive in their size and endurance; the Pantheon, the largest self-supporting dome in the world, is in excellent condition, the Forum Romanum, the center of power of the Roman Empire, shows its mighty outlines. A center of power of another kind, the Vatican, with its wonderful St. Peter's Basilica and its priceless art collections, attracts not only Catholics.

This venerable city state may lack a little in vivacity, but you can be sure to find that in the old city. On the Piazza Campo dei Fiori, Romans meet to chat, to eat in one of the convivial taverns, or to do some leisurely window shopping and admire the famous designers in the Via Condotti. There are also innumerable other piazzas, churches, quarters and gardens that are well worth a visit, not to mention the works of Michelangelo. Don't forget to throw a coin into the Fontana di Trevi to make sure you come back to Rome.

Forum Romanum

The hollow in which the Forum Romanum was built was originally a swamp, which could only be developed once it had been drained by the Etruscans. This was the power center of the Roman Empire, and the seat of government, with its court, temples and businesses.

The complex extends over roughly a quarter mile along the Via Sacra between the Triumphal Arch of Septimius Severus at the lower end and the Arch of Titus at the upper end. The well-preserved curia was the seat of the Roman Senate. Town meetings were held on the square in front to help determine the city's destiny . The round Temple of the Vestal Virgins is also a popular attraction. The virgin priestesses of the goddess Vesta tended the temple fire, and also had a great political influence since they were permitted to contradict the emperor.

The Colosseum

The Colosseum, the largest stone amphitheater in the world, is also known as the Flavian Amphitheatre because it was built under the imperial dynasty of the Flavians. The oval arena and the 164-foot high stands accommodated more than 70,000 people – the largest building of the ancient world. The Roman emperors staged shows here, mostly animal baiting and gladiatorial combat, to keep the people happy under the motto “panem et circenses” (bread and games).

An enormous sailcloth was rigged over the spectators to protect them from the sun and rain during performances. For centuries the Colosseum was used as a quarry, yet enough of the stadium remains to convey the effect of the Doric, Ionic and Corinthian columns supporting the arches of the three lower floors. The Colosseum is the premier landmark of Rome, and only St. Peter's Basilica attracts more tourists.

The Pantheon

The monumental temple building of the Pantheon is impressive, with its fascinating combination of plain elements and its consummate overall design. The largest brickwork dome in the world dates back to 27 B.C. and was built by the Roman Consul Marcus Agrippa. Its 142-foot diameter is encompassed by five rows of paneled ceiling tapering to the 30-foot opening in the center, the Pantheon's sole source of light.

The dome was originally covered with gilded bronze, which was removed by popes in the Renaissance and Baroque era, and used to decorate St. Peter's, among other things. The temple was probably dedicated to the gods of the planets, whose statues stand in the seven niches of the side walls of the circular space. One of the bays contained the graves of the Renaissance painter, Raphael, and two 19th-century Italian kings.

St. Peter's Square

St. Peter's Square, the heart of the Vatican in front of St. Peter's Basilica, is one of the most important baroque structures in the world. It was created by Gian Lorenzo Bernini between 1656 and 1667. The piazza is oval and surrounded by colonnades four columns deep with a gently rising, trapezoidal extension running towards the Basilica. The 56-foot wide walkway is supported by 284 Doric columns, and the statues of 140 saints look down upon the square from the balustrades.

In the center of the oval stands an obelisk that was allegedly brought to Rome from Egypt in 37 A.D. Round disks set in the ground form the focuses of an ellipse from which the rows of columns in the colonnades blur into a single row. From the benediction loggia of St. Peter's, the second largest church in the world, the Pope marks religious festivals by bestowing his blessing on those gathered in St. Peter's Square, and on the world at large ("urbi et orbi").

Sistine Chapel (Cappella Sistina)

The Sistine Chapel in the Vatican is world famous for its frescoes by Michelangelo. Experts describe the decoration of this church as the greatest work of art of the Renaissance. Restoration work under the supervision of Gianluigi Colalucci, completed in 1994, has revealed in unimagined splendor the story of the Creation depicted in the vault, and the Last Judgement in the chancel. No one suspected such power and freshness beneath the layer of soot and dust that had built up over nearly five centuries.

Michelangelo painted the entwined figures of the ceiling fresco between 1508 and 1512 lying on his back. Even though the 391 breathtaking figures in the chancel overwhelm visitors, they should still look at the walls, which depict the lives of Moses and Christ as painted by Perugino, Botticelli and other masters.


Trastevere literally means “on the other side of the Tiber”, and indeed the established residents, whose district used to lie outside the city of Rome, still regard themselves as Trasteverini rather than Romans. The almost village-like atmosphere of the quarter, which was once home to the common people and became a refuge both for the early Christians and more recently for artists and students in the 20th century, has become more gentrified in recent years, as many of the older buildings have been taken over and renovated by wealthy owners. But the artisans' workshops and innumerable bars preserve the typical flair of the district, which many Romans like to visit for a stroll and a meal in the evening.

Trastevere is home to the earliest recognized Christian church in Rome; Santa Maria in Trastevere dates back to the 3rd century A.D, and together with the square of the same name forms the center of the district. The fresco of the Last Judgment in the Santa Cecilia Church in Trastevere is especially worth seeing.

Vatican Museums (Musei Vaticani)

It would take several days to view the extensive art collections housed in the 180,000 square feet of the Vatican Palace complex, unless you restrict yourself to a small section of the exhibitions. The public museum, founded by Pope Benedict XIV in 1756, was the first in the world.

The collection of modern religious art is a good example if you want to picture the sheer scale of the Vatican Museums: 800 works of art by over 250 artists are exhibited in 55 rooms. They also house the world's most extensive collection of classical art. Sculptures of Roman and Greek influence are displayed around the Cortile Belvedere. Raphael's famous stanze were created in the early 16th century.

Villa Borghese

The Villa Borghese in the park of the same name is home to a gallery and a museum. They were built in the early 17th century for Cardinal Scipione Borghese to house his extensive collection, which ranks as one of the world's outstanding private art collections. Along with famous paintings such as 'The Entombment of Christ' by Raphael and Titian's 'Heavenly and Earthly Love', the gallery also displays works by Rubens, Lucas Cranach and Giovanni Bellini.

The highlights of the museum include both classical art and sculptures by Bernini. In the early 19th century, Paolina Borghese, Napoleon's sister, was immortalized as a reclining Venus by the sculptor Antonio Canova. With its artificial lake, children's carousel, zoo and race course, the Villa Borghese park is one of Rome's most popular leisure amenities. Numerous fountains and statues make it one of Rome's most beautiful open spaces.

Ostia Antica

Ostia Antica lies southwest of Rome, not far from the mouth of the Tiber. It is one of the best-preserved excavated ancient Roman sites, and it conveys a sense of what everyday life was like in those days. Ostia Antica used to be on the coast, and long served as the harbor supplying Rome with goods from all over of the empire. Up to 100,000 people may have lived here at one time.

You can still see where they lived and worked, especially in the insulae (four-story residential buildings), in shops, workshops and baths. In the Via della Casa di Diana there is still a tavern, the Thermopolium, where you can still see the bar and a fresco depicting food and drink. The mosaics on the floor of the Piazza delle Corporazioni have immortalized the everyday activities of the artisans and merchants. Many finds are on display in the Archaeological Museum.

The Capitol (Capitolino)

In ancient times, political power was already concentrated on the smallest of Rome's seven hills, which is still where the mayor's residence, the Palazzo Senatorio, is located. The Capitol Hill is where the principal shrines were built. It is where sacrifices were made to the gods, and where triumphal processions were held. At that time the buildings, the temples of Jupiter, Juno and Minerva, were aligned towards the Forum. After the 5th century, the Capitol regained eminence as the seat of the city's governing authority.

The complex, as it now stands, originates from the 16th century, and was mainly designed by Michelangelo. On the spot now occupied by the richly decorated church of Santa Maria in Aracoeli, once stood Arx, the citadel of ancient Rome. The steep steps up to the church are flanked by the less steep Cordonata, the path up to the Capitol. The eye is drawn to the copy of the equestrian statue of Emperor Marcus Aurelius (138–161) in the center. In the middle of the back part of the square stands the clock tower over the Palazzo Senatorio, Rome's city hall.

Piazza Navona

The best way to feel the pulse of the city is to spend an evening on the Piazza Navona. It occupies the oval of the former stadium of Domitian from the 1st century. Jugglers and fire eaters, pantomimes and solo entertainers use the piazza on mild summer evenings as an open-air stage for their performances. The enclosed atmosphere of this space with its palaces, churches and fountains, is probably the most striking of Rome's baroque piazzas.

The fountains Fontana del Moro and Fontana del Nettuno lend movement to the space. The Fontana dei Fiumi is the star attraction, a real water landscape. With its four water courses, this fountain is one of the masterpieces of the baroque architect Bernini, allegorically representing the four waterways of the world, the Ganges, Danube, Río de la Plata and the Nile. The work was commissioned by Pope Innocent X of the House of Pamphili, who also built the family palace Palazzo Pamphili and had the church Sant'Agnese in Agone renovated, revitalizing the work of Borromini, a contemporary and competitor of Bernini.

Via del Corso

Between stylish baroque palaces and churches, the Via del Corso runs in a straight line from the Piazza Venezia to the Piazza del Popolo. There can be few places in the world where political and economic power, tradition and modern life rub shoulders in such a confined space as here. Within a few miles there are ministries, banks, and parliament. The road is lined with innumerable clothes shops and souvenir stands, antiques shops and bars, so there is a noisy hustle and bustle of Romans and tourists. The route to the main sights of the old city lies through this shopping strip.

If you turn onto the Via Condotti with the Spanish Steps at the end, you find yourself in the realm of world-famous fashion designers. Further south, the Via del Corso opens up into the Piazza Colonna, which takes its name from the column in honor of Emperor Marcus Aurelius, standing in the middle of the square. From there, you can turn off to the most popular fountain in the city, the Fontana di Trevi.

© Berlitz Publishing/Apa Publications GmbH & Co KG, Singapore Branch, Singapore