I was fortunate enough to be invited to give a lecture in Rome a couple of weeks ago, and made it into a long Valentine's Day weekend with Anne. I was speaking to students of the University of Washington in the Palazzo Pio near Campo de'Fiori. The building itself in 15th century, remodelled in the 17th century, but it incorporates parts of the temple of Venus Victrix built by Pompey as part of his theatre in 55 BC. Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44 BC at the other end of the building complex, ten minutes' walk away. So it was rather thrilling to speak to students in a building that had been in use, off and on, for over two millennia.
We did a number of the usual tourist things, but also went a little off the beaten track. If you want to do the standard attractions, even in February which is not exactly top tourist season, you have to do a bit more forward planning than we did and get your tickets in advance. (Next time, I want to book a guided tour of the Forum.) Even so, we were very lucky with the light and I think we got some good pictures of:
Panorama at St Peter's Square
The Portico of Octavia
Marcus Aurelius, not meditating
The Wedding Cake
The Great Synagogue
So we made a strategic decision to concentrate on the earlier Christian monuments in Rome; and gosh, there are plenty of them. I should say that we were tremendously helped in this by the Churches of Rome Wiki, which has a very engaging combination of erudition, enthusiasm and snark.
We started with Santa Maria in Trastevere, partly because I had misremembered it as the burial place of the Irish Earls (actually they are ten minutes away up a steep hill in San Pietro in MontorioMadonna della Clemenza, one of the oldest known icons in existence, rather worn but believed to date from around 700.
(Just to add some snark of my own – we had gone over to Trastevere for a Valentine's Day dinner, at a mid-range place on Via della Pelleccia. There were two American women at the next table, and from body language and overheard scraps of conversation it became clear to us that one of them thought they were on a romantic date and the other didn't. The less romantic one made her excuses and departed just as their main course arrived, leaving her friend furiously texting. We've all been there.)
Now that we had got into the early Christian vibe, our next stop was Sant'Agata dei Goti, built (or reconstructed) by Ricimer, the power behind the throne in the mid fifth century (as the Western Empire staggered to its end) as an Arian church for his followers. Rather obviously, it was renovated in the 17th century, but the ground plan and the pillars are still those that Ricimer would have known, and the white structure above the altar topped by a pyramid (the baldacchino) is 12th century. The 17th century paintings at the top depict the life of St Agatha, who was gruesomely mutilated for her faith. The little gold roundels just above the pillars depict Irish saints – the church was part of the Irish College of Rome from 1836 to 1926, and in a weird bit of history it is believed to be the final resting place of Daniel O'Connell's heart, though they have unfortunately mislaid it.
One thing in the church that was not mislaid but destroyed in a ceiling collapse in 1589 was Ricimer's original mosaicfor above the altart, showing Christ holding an open book and enthroned on a globe. Fortunately Alphonsus Ciacconius had made a copy of it. Even in the fifth century, the Arian heretic Goths knew that the world was round; don't believe anyone who tries to tell you otherwise.
San Bartolomeo all'Isola, in the middle of the Tiber, was built around 998 – so not quite as palaeochristian as some of the other places we looked at, but it is based on the ruins of the ancient temple of Asclepius, and has always been a place of healing (there is a direct link with Rahere and the founding of Barts in London). The peculiar stone structure on the altar steps is the well-head for the ancient well which would have been used to draw water by the priests of Asclepius. I am struggling to think of another Christian church which actually has a built-in holy well. The Orsini side-chapel was rather lovely.
Going back to the old stuff, the church of Santa Sabina on the Aventine Hill dates from 432, as the dedicatory inscription implies, and was restored to what was believed to be its original state in the early 20th century. As with Sant'Agata dei Goti, we were almost the only people there – it showed the extent to which Rome concentrates tourists in some places but not others. It is lovely and tranquil, and has one superb and unique asset…
The church's wooden doors are the originals, dating from the early fifth century. The top left panel (not very visible in my pictures, unfortunately) is reckoned to be either the oldest or second oldest depiction of the Crucifixion in existence. The single panel detail in my photo is the Exodus – the 19th-century restorer reshaped Pharaoh's head to look like Napoleon. It is thrilling to look at these beautiful panels still where they were first put almost 1600 years ago.
No pictures, but also worth visiting:
Crypta Balbi Museum – brilliant city centre presentation of life in Rome over two millennia, through archaeology and art; however NB we did the upstairs part backwards, which was a mistake caused by our lack of understanding of the signage
Catacombs of San Sebastiano – we had wanted to do the Catacomb of Callixtus, but it was closed; however this was a very acceptable substitute, including many ancient Christian bits and pieces but also three pagan mausolea, the frescos still as sharp as the day their owners were buried; across the road is the country estate of Maxentius. No photos allowed, but very good guided tour.
San Clemente – a 12th century church with much older crypts which we were frustrated from getting into; the opening times for the downstairs bits were not clearly displayed and I think we missed the window by minutes. However, even so there was plenty to see, the schola cantorum and sanctuary screen having been reassembled from the originals bought by Pope John II during his brief reign in the 530s. Again, no photos allowed, and rather grumpy staff.
Food and accommodation:
Hotel Campo de'Fiori, pleasant boutique place and very central.
Tuesday and Friday dinner at Obicà, Campo de'Fiori, recommended by a friend,nice food, grumpier service on Friday than Tuesday for some reason.
Wednesday dinner at Visconti 2.0, looks a bit unprepossessing but really fine dining.
Thursday dinner at La Tavernetta Di Tony E Andrea, not quite as special as I had expected given location and price, but as noted above we had fun people-watching and it was a busy evening.
I hope they'll invite me back.