THE FORUM, PALATINE HILL & ST. PETER’S
Here I go again....but how to describe The Forum and Palatine Hill? We were there on what was a perfect sunny day, with temperatures in the low 20s, it was a day to remember. By pure dumb luck, we bi-passed the long line-up, where people with a variety of different pre-paid ticket options were shuffling their way in through the main entrance. We had no ticket, so we had to go around the block to a side entrance to pay - and we were in!
From the entrance and the usual gift shop and toilets, we walked past a few information boards and the remains of a villa and baths, before reaching the top of a small hill - with great views of The Colosseum. Various Roman building techniques were also explained along the pathway before we rounded a corner and encountered the first large arch. The Arch of Titus was built in 70 A.D. to commemorate the victory over Judaea (Israel) who had rebelled against adopting the emperor as their God. Defeated quickly by the Romans, their temple was destroyed and 50,000 Jewish slaves were brought back to Rome....many of them were forced to build this arch that celebrated their defeat. One side of this arch shows the crowing of Titus by the goddess Victory, the other side shows the sacking of the temple in Jerusalem.
We turned our back to the Arch, descended a few steps - and there it all was...down in the valley - Rome’s political and legal centre, and the place for public gatherings and celebrations......think about it.....Julius Caesar lived, and was assassinated here! In the distance is Capitol Hill, to the left is Palatine Hill and straight ahead is Via Sacra which runs past the Senate and under another Triumphal Arch which stands at the far end of this street. A vast space where, with people milling around in different areas and on different levels, it was not hard to imagine daily life going on here.
We passed the Temple of Romulus - a round building, which is now used as a museum. It was built in 307 A.D. by Emperor Maxentius to honour his son, who died in childhood. It still retains the original bronze door....and the lock still works!
Not far away is a huge building - The Temple of Antonius Pius and Faustina - with 10 Corinthian columns at its entrance that are 50 ft high - it’s impressive - as it was designed to be! This temple was built to honour the Emperor and his wife who lived during the 2nd century. A staircase leads up to a large porch and the columns. Now worn and grey, the outside is still in good shape....in it’s time of glory, the columns would have supported a triangular pediment which was richly decorated with brightly coloured statues. The whole building would have had a bronze roof that gleamed.
Difficult as it was to pull ourselves away....we turned our backs on this huge temple and walked just a little way to one side to the Temple of Vesta. Originally circular, less than half of this most sacred Temple remains today. Although somewhat decadent, the Romans valued family - and this temple honoured that....it represented a family home and its values, plus the importance of keeping a fire burning in its hearth. The temple had a fire at its centre - the Romans believing that as long as this sacred flame burned, Rome would keep standing. The flame was tended by six priestesses known as The Vestal Virgins, who lived nearby. Revered by Romans, girls between the ages of 6-10, were chosen from noble families to serve for 30 years. Taking a vow of chastity for these years, once completed they were given a huge dowry and allowed to marry. Unfortunately many women did not make the 30 years...if not chaste, they were shamefully paraded through the streets then given a loaf of bread and a lamp - before being buried alive in a crypt!
A quick note here....this layout of an open-air courtyard surrounded by covered walkways and living quarters for the Vestal Virgins provided the model for medieval Christian convents. After taking a look at what was left of the two-storey building where they lived - and the line of statues that honoured them, we moved on.
To the side of these living quarters, rising up Palatine Hill are the remains of the Palace of Caligula....although not a nice guy, he did add to the beauty of this place. Also in this area are 3 tall columns connected across the top...this is the Temple of Castor and Pollux - one of the oldest in the city.
The whole area then opens up into the Forum’s Main Square - the original Italian “piazza” where people gathered to socialize. Julius Caesar’s house was at one end of the square and after his assassination a temple was built next to it. Emperor Augustus dedicated the temple in Caesar’s name, making him the first Roman to become a God.
Continuing on, there is so much to see - columns of Honorary Bases - dedicated to illustrious individuals in the 3rd century, temples to various Gods......and then there’s The Senate, which unfortunately for us, was closed for repairs.
We ended our time here at The Temple of Saturn and Column of Phocas. Eight of its columns still remain - they originally framed the entrance to the Forum’s oldest temple - around 500 B.C.
After leaving, we found a place to look down on the whole of The Forum - a good spot to contemplate and marvel at it all....as did the Englishman, Edward Gibbon. Although in the 1700s he only saw a few columns poking up from the ground, he was inspired to write the “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”......all six volumes of it!
Although The Forum and Palatine Hill are a “hard act to follow,” we spent some time afterwards in the nearby Piazza del Campidoglio which can be approached from an elegant staircase. Designed by Michelangelo, the square was commissioned by Pope Paul III in 1536, along with a redesign of the buildings surrounding it. Facing each other across the square is the Palazzo Dei Conservatori and the Palazzo Nuevo - these museums replaced previous structures - making them the oldest public museums in the western world. The trapezoidal design, which now includes the mayor’s office, plus the oval shaped ground pattern, makes the area appear larger than it is.....clever! Michelangelo’s design also included the staircase, which was started in 1546, but only this and the entrance to the Palazzo Senatori (the mayor’s office) were done when he died in 1564. The Piazza is beautiful - from the two large, ancient statues of Castor and Pollux at the top of the staircase, to the equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius in the centre and the three lovely Palazzos on its side, it is truly a masterpiece.
The next day our visit to St Peter’s was a bit of a wash out....but after weeks of gorgeous weather, how could we complain? Following almost the same route from the metro that we’d taken for our Vatican visit, we headed for St Peter’s Square. Along with the usual “tour guides” and selfie-stick sellers, on this rainy day there were also a fair amount of umbrella salespeople too!
We reached the square and were able to take shelter underneath the columns that surround part of its perimeter. After assessing the line-up that circled almost the whole way around - from the entrance to the exit of the basilica - we regretfully decided that today was not the day for us to go inside.....but kudos to the hardy people who stood in the pouring rain and patiently shuffled their way forward.
We did spend some time enjoying the outside - admiring Bernini’s design of the Piazza and his 90 statues of saints at the top of the colonnades. We also took a look at the obelisk in the centre - originally from Egypt but brought to Rome by Caligula in 37 A.D. Everything looked familiar, especially the balcony from which the pope gives his blessings....in reality it’s all so much more beautiful than film or TV can ever capture. Also in the square, thanks to Christian charity, the public toilets are free!
We finally walked away from St Peter’s, after checking the line up a few times to see if it was any shorter - it wasn’t. About half a kilometre from St Peter’s square,
down Via della Concillazione (Road of the Conciliation), is Castel Sant’Angelo - known as Hadrian’s tomb - he built it as a tomb for himself and his family. It later became a military building and in 1277 a fortified corridor was built connecting it to the Vatican. Apparently in 590 Pope Gregory I had a vision of Saint Michael on top of the castle announcing the end of the plague that was devastating the city.....so...the building now has a statue of an angel on top! We left this somber structure behind us and headed over the Tiber via the pedestrian bridge - Ponte Sant’Angelo - which also has statues of angels along both sides.
After walking alongside the Tiber for a while we were in the Trastevere area of Rome. While dodging rain showers, we walked this area of meandering medieval streets, making our way under old arches while admiring the buildings along the way. We took a quick look at Villa Farnesina, built in the early 16th century as a home for a rich banker, but bought at the end of that century by Cardinal Alessandro Farnese. Considered one of the best designs of the Italian Renaissance, unfortunately it was closed for an art exhibition the day we were there - we were only able to take a quick peek at the front garden!
Making our way back along the route we’d travelled, we did a last check of the line up outside St. Peter’s - it was still too long for our liking - so we boarded the metro and joined the wet and soggy commuters making their way home. After drying out, we were In need of comfort food, so grabbing the raincoats and umbrella again, we did a quick 5 min dash to our “local” pizza place where we were greeted as though we were regulars. After splitting a yummy pizza and some lightly battered calalmari, it was handshakes all round when we left.....maybe we could actually become regulars?!