Rome Part II
Sunday 24th September
In the afternoon we visited the ancient Roman port of Ostia, now cut off from both sea and Tiber. We walked through the Necropolis, where they buried their dead, saw yet more lovely black and white bath mosaics, this time of Neptune, and the theatre. Then we walked round the square, with a temple to Ceres, goddess of the harvest at the centre, which housed the offices of the foreign merchants, each identified by their mosaics, including several ships, and even an elephant. We also saw a bar, a Mithraeum, or temple to Mithras, and some lovely wall paintings, and a house with an opus sectile floor and marble still on its walls, giving an idea of how grand it must once have looked.
In the evening we went into the centre of Rome to celebrate someone’s birthday. We had pizza in a very nice pizzaria down a backstreet near the Spanish steps. Afterwards we joined the crowds that throng the steps at night whilst eating chocolate cake.
Monday 25th September
Unlike the blazing sun of the previous day, this was a grey morning. Fortunately the Colosseum metro station sells coffee, and even one of the fake Roman soldiers who stand outside the Colosseum for photos was having one. We walked to San Clemente, a multi level basilica. The modern level is twelfth century, and has a lovely wall painting showing early perspective. Then we descended into the fourth century building, which also has some surviving frescos. Below this there is a well-preserved Mithraeum, an underground stream, and the remains of what may once have been the imperial mint-it is very thick walled. After this we nipped briefly into San Pietro in Vincoli, which has a reliquary containing the chains that bound St Peter at various points and the tomb of Pope Julius II, which features statues by Michelangelo of Moses, Rachel and Leah. The next two churches: Santa Prudenziana, and Santa Prassede, have, like San Clemente, beautiful mosaic apses, in the iconography of which the Last Judgement features heavily. Santa Prassede also has a lovely decorated side chapel. Unfortunately the mosaic at Santa Prudenziana has been cut down by later decoration of the apse. Finally we visited Santa Maria Maggiore, which has a fifth century interior in an eighteenth century shell, with mosaics of the Old Testament, the life of Christ, and a fine late thirteenth-century apse mosaic of The Coronation of the Virgin and later papal tombs in the side chapels.
In the afternoon I went to St John’s Lateran, which is not dedicated to St John. It is the Cathedral of the Pope as Bishop of Rome. This also has an apse mosaic, although most of the decoration stems from the 1600 remodelling for the jubilee year. The heads of SS Peter and Paul are housed in a large structure in the crossing, and there is a lovely cloister. When it finally reopened after lunch I went to the Baptistery, where the font seems a little like a bath. However, it was also raining very hard in the afternoon, and my shoes got rather wet trying to circumnavigate the large puddles outside the Basilica.
Tuesday 26th September
This morning we took the metro across the Tiber to Castel Sant’Angelo. This building originally started life as a mausoleum for the Emperor Hadrian, and was later converted to a fortress by the papacy, indeed the pope lived in some beautifully decorated rooms on the upper floors during the Sack of Rome, and it was also used as a prison. As there is currently an exhibition on the baroque in some of the rooms, we toured this-Bernini was obviously fond of self portraits-and it was very interesting. The view of St Peter’s from the roof terrace was wonderful. We then made our way to the back streets round St Peter’s for lunch, followed by joining the Vatican museums queue, which fortunately wasn’t too long. However, once we had got through the courtyards, the tour groups did become very noticeable, especially in the Gallery of Maps. This has wonderfully accurate sixteenth century maps of Italy-Venice is on the wall as you leave the gallery, with pictures of saints and events from the different regions. Unfortunately, the direction one walks through the gallery makes it impossible to properly admire the ceiling, but the guides are hurrying you through. It is also the hall used by tour groups to explain the Sistine chapel. From here one can enter the Raphael stanzae. Having seen many of the preparatory drawings and prints of the frescos, especially for the Stanza della Segnatura. The Raphaels are beautiful, and as ever, nothing beats seeing a painting in the flesh. I preferred these paintings to the Sistine Chapel because I thought that had too many different images to really work as an overall decorative scheme. Finally we reached the Sistine Chapel, which is a large and stunning room, if somewhat crowded. It really helped to find a seat round the edge of the room to contemplate the pictures without serious neck ache. The following rooms also included some interesting works-Roman mosaics, a variety of ancient globes, and two maps of the world c. 1530. Finally we came to the Vatican library with its impressive ceiling, before heading for a VERY crowded metro, so we stopped off for ice cream near the Trevi Fountain until the rush hour crowds had died down.
Wednesday 27th September
Today we went to Travestere courtesy of the metro and the bus, stopping off en route for coffee. We visited the Tempietto of St Peter, constructed by Bramante over what was then thought to be the sight of his crucifixion, on classical lines carefully adjusted to fit the needs of a church. The classical frieze contains symbols connected with the Eucharist, and it is a charming little building, which stands in the courtyard of St Pietro in Montorio, with some lovely paintings, including a Flagellation by Sebastiano del Piombo. We then descended to Santa Maria in Travestere, which contains some more medieval mosaics, showing the slow progression towards the use of space in art.
Next we visited the Villa Farnesina, built by Agostino Chigi, one of the papal bankers, as his suburban villa near the Vatican. It was designed by Peruzzi, who was responsible for a lot of the decoration, which has references to classical mythology. In one of the rooms there is a large head and scenes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses by Peruzzi, a picture of Polythemus by del Piombio, juxtaposed with Raphael’s Triumph of Galatea. However most of the decoration is later pastoral scenes, giving it a very odd look. Another room has a Raphael–designed ceiling fresco of Cupid and Psyche. Upstairs there is a room with an early example of trompe l’oeil, showing Rome, although the perspective is a little odd, and a Sodoma cycle of the life of Alexander the Great.
Finally we made our way to St Peter’s basilica. This is one of the world’s largest churches, and took over 100 years to build, the influence of the many changes of architect showing in the Latin cross plan. It is ornately, perhaps too ornately, decorated inside, mainly by Bernini, who is responsible for some dramatic statues. However the most famous statue is the Pietà by Michelangelo.
The central dome is dramatic, and the ornate baldacchino underneath it is in part decorated by bronze taken from the Pantheon. The most interesting tomb is that of Alexander VII, with the Pope kneeling on carved marble drapery, which has ensnared a memento mori skeleton with an hourglass. After lunch I went to the Vatican bookshop, to the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, which has a statue of an elephant carrying an obelisk outside and a Michelangelo sculpture of Christ Bearing the Cross inside, and went window-shopping at the ecclesiastical outfitters. In the evening some of us went to a very nice local bar for a drink.