Thursday, March 13, 2014

Ah, Roma

Rome took me completely by surprise.  It is magnificent.  I usually reserve that word for mountain vistas, but this is one magnificent city.  Everything is on a grand scale.  Beautiful, big, old  buildings, with huge arcades along the ground floor (we’d seen arcades in Florence, intended to protect citizens from the sun as they strolled from place to place, but none with such high arches and ceilings), most of the apartment buildings with balconies, many with awnings that can be dropped down to protect from the morning or afternoon sun,  lovely, tree-lined boulevards, the real, live Colosseum,  which is surely, like the Eiffel Tower in Paris, the universal symbol of Rome, the astounding Vatican (which, I realize, is actually its own little country, but when you’re there, it’s just a part of Rome), the legendary Tiber River (Tevere, to the Italians), which is crossed by numerous lovely stone bridges, both palm trees (which surprised me) and what we learned from one of our guides are called umbrella trees, because they look like opened umbrellas (we saw many of these on the drive down from Florence, evenly spaced, marching like soldiers along the tops of ridges), lots of roofs gardens, here and there lush greenery spilling over garden walls.  Also, of course, lots of traffic.  Tourists everywhere – and tour buses – but also lots of locals, who somehow manage to look both intense and blaze.   

The Hotel Rose Garden Palace, where we stayed, is across the street from the U.S. Embassy, which should give you an idea of our neighborhood.  Very nice.  Trees lining the streets, providing valuable spots of shade when one was out walking in the bright, hot sun (except for about an hour in the middle of the day in Venice, this was the hottest weather we had thus far encountered).   A few blocks away, the  large and lovely Villa Borghese Gardens, a park we were to drive through on our way to somewhere or other, and which features lots of folks jogging, riding bicycles – and horses! – pushing baby carriages, relaxing in the grass.

The hotel itself was a bit on the coldly elegant side for me – white marble everywhere, but not enough furnishings or decorative touches to give it any warmth.  And we were all dismayed at the failure to provide wake-up calls – there was an automated system on the room telephones, but it never worked.

The first place on our agenda was the Colosseum, visited the afternoon of our arrival.  After something of a drive through the streets of Rome, we found ourselves on a street that looked down at this universal symbol of Rome.  Oh, wow, there it was.  As we curved down and around the ruin, we saw that part of it was simply not there.  Indeed, the whole outer wall, which is four stories high, rises up along only half of the structure.  Large brick wedges have been built to shore up the outer wall at each end of its curve.  We learned from our guide that long after the Colosseum had ceased to provide Rome with gory entertainment, it had served as a convenient quarry for the citizens of Rome.  They would simply come and cart away whatever kinds of building materials they might need.  When you see pictures of this truly colossal celebration of the worst aspects of ancient Roman culture, they usually do not show the missing bits.  

The Colosseum was built of limestone, brick, something called Tuff or Tufo (no, not tofu), which was a porous stone used for some minor pillars, and in the preparation of cement, which the Romans had only recently discovered – that was used for the vaulted arches holding up the ceiling of the corridors that encircle the arena.  And there was marble, for the seats, statues and drinking fountains (!), all long since gone.  Back in the day, each of the hundreds of arches you see facing the street on the second and third levels would have contained a marble statue.  That’s a lot of marble statues.  When you’re up close and personal, you can see this mishmash of building materials...everything but the marble.

Inside the Colosseum
Back in the day there were also 80 entrance arches, which was certainly a good way to get up to 50,000 people in and out efficiently.  No such efficiency today: all the thousands of people who pour into the structure every day must pass under the same arch, in line, then move slowly around the curve of the building – still essentially “in line,” with security guards regarding them blankly-- until they reach an open area, from which they are free to go where they will, or where their tour guide takes them.  We made our way up a couple of flights of stairs, and came out at the second viewing level.  From here you can get a good overview of the whole.

For all that it is very much a ruin, it is still impressive as hell.  Probably especially so because the floor, which would have covered the cells and corridors beneath, is no longer there, and you can see those cells where animals and doomed humans were kept, the corridors along which they were led to their deaths.

Cells and cages, beneath floor of arena
Reconstruction of part of floor can be seen in rear
A bit of floor has been rebuilt at one end, so you can get an idea of what it looked like.  There would have been sand on it, for gladiator fights, and animals tearing into human beings, but there might also be an imitation jungle, with animals being “hunted,” and slaughtered.  Indeed, more animals than humans were killed here, and in other amphitheaters throughout the Roman Empire.  And by the way, the Colosseum was originally named the Flavian Amphitheater, in honor of  the emperors who built the thing, who were of the house of Flavius.  This was long after the days of Julius Caesar, or Augustus Caesar, or any of those emperors we’re all familiar with; the building was completed in 80 A.D.

It came to be called – one might say nicknamed  -- the Colosseum because of the colossal bronze statue of Nero that stood out front.

One thing I wondered about were what looked like concrete roofs slanting down to open archways.  Turns out those “roofs” once upon a time lay beneath the marble seats.  The black holes you see every now and then among the roofs are where people would enter the arena from the stairs that climb up from the corridor on the ground floor.  Where the mysterious substance is missing, you can see the evenly spaced slanting brick walls that held up the slanting tiers of seats.  You really miss the presence of seats, but a book I purchased in the gift shop on the third level does a good job of showing you what the place looked like then – complete with seats – and now. 

"Roofs" that once supported marble seats
No question: a great place to visit.

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