Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Rome's Unsolved Mysteries

So you think you know everything there is to know about Rome? Ok, maybe that’s asking a lot. Do you believe you can find the answer to any Rome-related question with a simple Google search? Are you convinced your heaving library of books on Rome holds all the answers? Think every facet of this city’s past has been asked and answered? Well, think again. There are, in fact, many question marks that surround Rome’s fascinating history. Let’s go on a little treasure hunt of sorts to look at some of the most intriguing unanswered questions:

Pantheon Rome light shaft
The Pantheon on Rome's birthday, © Tiffany Parks

Is the Pantheon a sundial?
The Pantheon is one of the most recognizable monuments in the Eternal City and receives millions of visitors every year. Any guidebook will tell you that the temple was built by Emperor Hadrian around 126 AD, that it’s the best-preserved ancient Roman building in the city, and that the early Renaissance architects studied it for insight on building domes. Its most characteristic aspects include a coffered ceiling, the largest unreinforced concrete dome in the world, and an oculus—or open hole—in the ceiling that illuminates the dark interior with dramatic shafts of light.
But recent studies have hypothesized that the iconic site is even more than meets the eye. Historians Robert Hannah and Giulio Magli claim that the true purpose of the Pantheon was nothing less than an enormous sundial, having been oriented so that the sunbeam from the oculus lights up certain areas of the interior at significant times of the year. And in fact, the light beam shines directly out the door at noon on 21 April, the legendary founding of the city, and in other striking ways on solstices and equinoxes. Other scholars disagree, saying that the purpose of the oculus was to cool the building in the heat of summer, or lighten the weight of the immense dome to prevent collapse. But without concrete evidence, the true purpose of the Pantheon will remain one more of Rome’s unsolved mysteries.
Piazza della Rotonda. Open Mon–Sat, 9am–7:30pm; Sun, 9am–6pm.
Basilica Neopitagorica

What was the Basilica Neopitagorica used for?
Located directly below the tracks of a railroad line that connects Rome and Naples and buried entirely underground, the Basilica Neopitagorica is one of the most mysterious and little-known sites in the city. The mysterious building lies nearly nine meters under Via Prenestina, and is laid out in the classical basilica plan, with three naves, an apse, an atrium, and a dromos. The barrel-vaulted ceilings are decorated with stucco reliefs depicting mystic symbols, the floors are covered with traces of black and white mosaics, and frescoes along the walls depict scenes from Greek mythology.
But no one knows for sure what this cryptic space was used for, and multiple theories have been put forth since its accidental discovery in 1917. Some claim it was a nymphaeum, others insist it was a mausoleum or funerary complex dating to the late-Augustan period. The most widely held belief is that it was a sanctuary of the Neo-Pythagorean cult, a philosophic and religious movement inspired by the teachings of the Greek thinker Pythagoras. The cult eventually died out in favor of Neo-Platonism, and the basilica appears to have been destroyed during the reign of Emperor Claudius.
Although it is now entirely excavated, the site has long been inaccessible to the public, mostly due to its precarious position beneath the railway line. However, it opened its doors for a limited series of visits this past fall, and although those visits are now over, we can only hope that they decide to do so again in the near future. Especially as this one’s on my bucket list.
Piazzale Labicano. www.coopculture.it

San Lorenzo Fuori le Mura

Is the Holy Grail in Rome?
Everyone knows the story of the mystical Holy Grail and the numerous lifelong quests to discover its location, or even confirm its very existence. From King Arthur to the Knights Templar to Indiana Jones, every great adventurer has dreamed of holding the sacred chalice in his hands. But what if this most sought-after of artifacts were right here in Rome, under our very noses? That’s what archeologist Alfredo M. Barbagallo claims. Christian tradition would have it that the treasures of the early church were entrusted to St. Lawrence by Pope Sixtus II in 258 AD. Was it a coincidence that the saint was martyred just four days later (famously grilled alive) during the persecution of Emperor Valerian? Barbagallo says no. He believes that St. Lawrence took the grail with him to his grave, on top of which was built a small shrine, and later the Basilica San Lorenzo Fuori le Mura. Go ahead and visit for yourself, but keep in mind that the catacombs under the church remain sealed. Until they are opened, we’ll never know for sure.
Piazzale del Verano, 3. Open daily, 7:30am–12:30pm and 3:30–7pm.

The Colosseum by night, © Alessandro Silipo

Is Rome truly haunted?
In a city that has seen as much death as Rome has, there are bound to be a few ghosts flying around. From the thousands of people slaughtered in the Colosseum, to the medieval plagues that carried away 90% of the population to the Sack of Rome of 1527 that claimed up to 12,000 lives, the scent of death has been a constant in the Eternal City since its inception. For centuries, it was believed that the Colosseum was one of the seven portals to hell, rife with demons. Artist Benvenuto Cellini wrote in the 16th century of his experience consulting with a necromancer at the Colosseum, seeking to discover the fate of his missing lover. As late as the turn of the last century, the Colosseum was thought to be so polluted by the noxious fumes of its countless murders as to be fatal to anyone who breathed them, particularly at night. (Just read Henry James’ Daisy Miller if you don’t believe us.) Decide for yourself if it’s truly haunted by taking an after-hours tour, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Piazza del Colosseo, 1. www.coopculture.it
Want more solid proof of the existence of ghosts? Pay a visit to the Museum of the Souls in Purgatory, a tiny museum that displays messages from beyond the grave: fingerprints burned into prayer books, a charred handprint on a wooden table, and other creepy evidence that heaven’s unpleasant waiting room might actually exist.
Lungotevere Prati, 12. Open 7:30–11am and 3:30–7:30pm.

David Oakes as Juan Borgia and Francois Arnaud as Cesare Borgia in Showtime's series, The Borgias

Did Cesare Borgia kill his brother?
The infamous Borgia clan: they were rich, powerful, corrupt, violent, and Spanish. Led by the charismatic and sensual patriarch Rodrigo Borgia, who was elected Pope Alexander VI in 1492, they were the most hated and feared family in Renaissance Rome. Scandal followed wherever they went, and not without good reason. The Pope had at least 11 illegitimate children and celebrated his ascension to the throne of St. Peter by acquiring a new teenaged mistress. Two of his children, Cesare and Lucrezia, were accused of having an incestuous relationship, and his Master of Ceremonies Johannes Burkhart reported elaborate orgies taking place inside the Pope’s apartments. But by far the greatest scandal of his papacy was the death of the family golden child, Juan Borgia, when his body mysteriously washed up on the shores of the Tiber with its throat slit and nine stab wounds to its torso. He was hated by so many people that it was impossible to identify a killer, although many scholars believe one of his own brothers did the deed, most likely Cesare, jealous of their father’s favor and their sister’s affections. After more than 500 years, the trail has gone a bit cold, and it’s unlikely we’ll ever know for sure who killed Juan Borgia. But a visit to the Borgia Apartment (part of the Vatican Museums), with the nefarious family members immortalized in frescoes by Pinturicchio, will make the mystery come alive. And keep your eyes peeled for the trap door that reportedly exists somewhere within it, a hatch that emptied directly into the Tiber, making it all too easy for the Pope to dispose of his enemies.
Viale Vaticano. Open Mon–Sat, 9am–4pm. www.vatican.va
Pope John Paul I, August 1978

Pope John Paul I, September 1978

Was John Paul I murdered?
A slightly more recent Vatican whodunit concerns the fate of Pope John Paul I, whose pontifical reign lasted a mere 33 days. Elected on 26 August 1978, he was found dead in the early hours of the morning of 29 September, barely a month later. Official Church spokespeople insisted his death was natural, although some reported heart attack and others said pulmonary embolism, others still claimed an accidental overdose of his medications. It would later be impossible to confirm, as his body was embalmed immediately, with no autopsy. Not only that, but the Pope had no history of heart issues, his personal items disappeared, never to be seen again, and it eventually came out that the nun who had discovered his body was placed under a vow of silence. Many suggest there was, in fact, a more sinister explanation behind his untimely demise, perhaps because Papa Luciani (as he was affectionately known) did not always adhere to the conservative Vatican line, and his fervent goal was to rid the echelons of the Church of its wealth and power. Not very convenient for the big dogs in the Vatican curia. To learn more, pick up a copy of In God’s Name, a work of nonfiction by investigative journalist David Yallop.

Johanna Wokalek as the title character in Pope Joan (Constatin Film)

Was there really a female pope?
A mystery that is sure to remain unsolved, probably for all time, is that of Pope Joan, the supposed female pope. The story goes that, during the early Middle Ages—the 9th century according to most accounts—a young Saxon woman who was unusually well educated for the time, disguised herself as a man and became a monk. She later travelled to Rome where she ascended the church hierarchy and was eventually elected pope. She ruled for two and a half years, but was discovered when she gave birth unexpectedly during a papal procession, and died shortly thereafter. The earliest reports of this extraordinary tale don’t appear until the 13th century, and for this reason, many naysayers reject the story out of hand. But while the story of “la papessa” officially holds legend status, there are those who wholeheartedly believe she existed. Their number one piece of evidence is a wooden chair—reportedly hidden away in the archives of the Vatican Museums—with a keyhole shape cut out of its seat. During the middle Ages, newly elected popes would be asked to sit on the chair, while a cardinal checked to make sure they were indeed male. Intrigued? Pick up Donna Woolfolk Cross’s historical novel Pope Joan, or the 2009 film based on the same.

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Saturday, April 25, 2015

Rome's Top 10 Piazzas for Hanging Out

Campo de Fiori, (c) Michael Foley

The weather in Rome is finally getting warmer, dear bloglings, so it's time to get outside and do what Romans do best: hang out, people watch, take a passeggiata, sip an aperitivo, soak up the sun, in other words: see and be seen. And where is the best place to indulge in this Italian of all activities? In a piazza, of course.

So many tourists who visit Rome neglect to make time in their busy sightseeing schedule to participate in this utterly Roman activity: the dolce far niente, the art of doing nothing, that Italians do so well (too well sometimes!). Schlepping yourself from one tourist attraction to the next means you'll get a lot of important sites crossed off your list, but you might just miss out on getting to know Rome on a deeper level. Immerse yourself in the city's way of life, and you'll find that you'll go home with a greater understanding of this incomparable city.

The Italian piazza is the ultimate urban living room, a visually stimulating public space (preferably void of traffic) where the city’s residents can relax, and its visitors can take a well-deserved break from the demands of the day. Bright, airy, full of glorious works of architecture, and nine times out of ten with a fountain splashing in the center, Rome’s piazzas can sometimes feel like open-air museums. Most of the city’s major piazzas can also boast a café, a bench, or at the very least some convenient church steps, upon which to enjoy a few minutes or hours of sweet idleness.

If you’ve flipped through a guidebook, you’ve doubtless heard of (and probably already visited) Rome’s most famous piazzas, such as Piazza Navona with Bernini’s magnificent Fountain of the Four Rivers, Piazza di Spagna with the iconic Spanish Steps, Piazza della Rotonda in the shadow of the Pantheon, Piazza del Popolo with its towering obelisk, and Piazza di Trevi with its eponymous fountain. These must-see squares are undeniably spectacular, but during the height of tourist season, you’d be hard-pressed to find a free place to sit, let alone a corner of tranquility to soak up Rome’s unique atmosphere. Luckily, the city has a seemingly endless supply of piazzas, each offering its own distinct character.

Just a few steps from the Pantheon, Piazza di Pietra is one of Rome’s most surprising squares. As you step into the piazza from one of the narrow side streets, the Corinthian columns of the Temple of Hadrian rise to greet you. The 2nd-century AD temple was erected on occasion of the deification of Emperor Hadrian, by his heir and adoptive son Antoninus Pius. Today, what remains of the temple has been incorporated into a 17th-century building, although the effect is no less arresting. Snag a table at chic Salotto 42 or opt for aperitivo or a full meal at Osteria dell'Ingegno, or if it's coffee hour, your best bet is La Caffettiera, a delightfully old-world café.

Piazza di Pietra, [source]
Piazza Farnese is the epitome of elegance and nobility. Dominating the rectangular piazza is Palazzo Farnese, the largest and most opulent once-private palace in the city. Designed by Antonio da Sangallo and Michelangelo, the palace is now the seat of the French Embassy, and features exquisite frescoes by the Carracci brothers. The two fountains that flank the square were repurposed from enormous ancient Roman bathtubs from the 3rd-century Baths of Caracalla, and the long travertine bench that runs the entire length of Palazzo Farnese makes the square a great place to park with a book and a gelato. Caffé Farnese is ridiculously overpriced, but you can't beat it for a Sunday afternoon of sunning yourself in one of the most beautiful piazzas in Rome. Ar Galletto is a historic restaurant (they claim to have been the official osteria of the Borgia family back in 1500!) with a large outdoor seating area to soak up the gorgeous square. And if you feel like splurging, there's no where to go but Camponeschi.

Piazza Farnese (c) Sébastien Bertrand [source]

If you’re more interested in people watching than sightseeing, Rome has many piazzas offering opportunities to do just that. Piazza San Lorenzo in Lucina is a triangular wedge in the heart of the Campo Marzio neighborhood where the well heeled can be seen browsing in shops like Louis Vuitton, Bottega Veneta, and Pomellato, or stylishly sipping cappuccinos in one of the open-air cafés. While you’re there, be sure to visit the eponymous church, with works by Bernini, Guido Reni, and Carlo Saraceni, and an underground section that includes fragments of the original 4th-century church. Vitti in Lucina and Ciampi are both convenient spots to enjoy anything from coffee or tea, to gelato and pastries, to a full meal.

Campo de’ Fiori is a truly 24-hour square. Activity here starts around 5am when stalls selling fresh produce, spices, honeys, jams, cheese, fish, cured meats, and more set up as part of Rome’s most famous outdoor market. When the market winds down around 3pm (and after the street sweepers have done their work), the square becomes a magnet for the city’s social butterflies. Enjoy a lazy aperitivo at one of the square’s many outdoor bars, stick around for dinner, or join the rowdy drinking and amorous mingling that continues here long after midnight. Just try not to be intimidated by the ominous glare of the statue of Giordano Bruno! With so many eating and drinking choices, you won't have trouble finding refreshment. I'd recommend Obicà, a slick mozzarella bar serving more types of mozzarella than you knew existed, and Aristocampo, perfect for a quick sandwich if you want to stay on budget.

Across the Tiber River in trendy Trastevere, Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere is the indisputable meet-up spot for Rome’s young international crowd, who can be found chatting on the steps of the fountain (the oldest in the city, according to legend) or milling around the square at any time of day or night. Lively 5-piece street bands, mimes, dancers, and other entertainers can be found performing for tips here any night of the week. But don’t be so distracted by the performers that you miss the stupendous church of the same name, decorated with medieval mosaics by Pietro Cavallini and 22 ancient Ionic and Corinthian columns. If you're in Rome in orange season (late fall, winter, and early spring), be sure enjoy a spremuta (freshly-squeezed orange juice) that is as tall as your forearm at the aptly named Caffè delle Arance. (Beware: the price matches the size!) Another option for lazing around and enjoying a tea or coffee is Caffè di Marzio. Try to score one of their wicker sofas, perfect for a tete-à-tete while you sip.

Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere [source]
Recording an episode of The BitterSweet Life with Katy Sewall in Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere

In the hip, happening neighborhood of Monti, Piazza Madonna dei Monti is home to a battered fountain with plenty of place to sit with a good book, a crossword puzzle, or your favorite hipster friend. The area is a great mix of both the you and older locals sho have called Monti home for decades, generations even. Lots of little bars and hot spots surround the square, with outdoor seating spilling out onto the cobblestones. La Bottega del Caffè is great for an informal glass of wine and tempting fingerfood just steps away from the picturesque fountain.

Piazza Madonna dei Monti [source]

If what you’re looking for in a piazza is character and charm, Rome will certainly not disappoint. A magnificent oak tree (quercia in Italian) gives its name to this adorable square just a few blocks from Campo de’ Fiori. Piazza della Quercia, home to the minuscule Santa Maria della Quercia, is so quaint in fact, that if you didn’t know any better, you’d think you were in a small Italian country village instead of the capital city. The only place to eat in this piazza is Osteria della Quercia. It's Rome at its most characteristic and adorable, but I've experienced inconsistent levels of cuisine there. 

Piazza della Quercia [source]

Although Piazza Mattei is a favorite square for many Roman residents, it is more often than not missed by the average tourist, since it is buried within the tangle of narrow backstreets that make up the Jewish Ghetto. The piazza’s crowning glory is the Fountain of the Turtles, a small but exquisite fountain by Giacomo della Porta, decorated with four bronze turtles that were, according to popular belief, added by Bernini. Bartaruga, a funky bar and a Roman institution, sadly closed recently (apparently the rent was becoming outrageous and they simply could no longer afford to stay in business). Luckily for us, a new locale has opened in its place, Le Tartarughe, a café/restaurant that also serves freshly squeezed fruit and vegetable juices. For a full meal stop at Pan Vino e San Daniele.

Piazza Mattei (c) Jeroen van Luin [source]

Piazza di Pasquino, just around the corner from Piazza Navona, is famous for its “talking statue,” who gave his name to the tiny square back in the mid-16th century when it became an unofficial posting board for the complaints of an oppressed citizenry (long before freedom of speech or press had caught on in Rome). It is also the gateway to Rome’s best street for vintage and boutique shopping, Via del Governo Vecchio. If you're an enophile, grab a table (outdoor if you can manage it) at Cul de Sac, one of the city's trendiest wine bars that also serves scrumptious dishes carefully paired with their countless wines. Lovers of Tuscan cuisine should opt instead for Terra di Siena right next door, and those looking for lighter fare can try Bar Caffetteria Pasquino across the tiny piazza.

If there’s a single piazza in the Eternal City that will make you feel you’ve stepped back in time, it’s Piazza de’ Mercanti. Located on the quiet side of Trastevere (east of Viale di Trastevere), the square is lined with medieval buildings, dripping with ivy and lit by flaming torches come sundown. Two famous (if exceedingly touristy) restaurants, La Taverna de' Mercanti and Meo Patacca, vie for dominance on either side of the piazza.
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Friday, February 20, 2015

Long Time No Blog, or What I've Been up to for the Past Four Months

Oh, my darling bloglings! It's been too long! My guess is that you're either asking:

Where in the world have you been in the last four months?


Who are you again?

Of course, there's a third option, that no one is actually reading this since I have all but abandoned my poor, dedicated bloglings.

I will try not to dwell on such unpleasant possibilities, and attempt instead to rectify the situation by catching you up on what's been going on in my life since I last posted four months ago, because, well, it's been one hell of a season. If you've followed this blog for any length of time, you'll know that I rarely talk about my personal life. I'm not a naturally shy person, yet for some reason I have censored myself when it comes to revealing details about my life.

This is all about to change. You may also know that I started a podcast in the past year (one of the soon-to-be-mentioned reasons for my lengthy absence). I don't seem to have the same bashfulness when it comes to podcasting, and I'm pretty open about my life when I'm on air, so I figure, all my personal business is already out there and it's too late to get it back, so I might as well mention it here too from time to time.

So without further ado...

This winter has been one of the busiest, most exhausting, and most exciting in recent memory. It started out with a bang as I threw a bridal shower for a dear friend in early November. She's mad about the Etruscans (and in particular bronze Etruscan hand mirrors) and so it made perfect sense to throw her an Etruscan-themed bridal shower! I may have had more fun planning this shower than the bride-to-be did attending it. To put it briefly, I went a bit overboard, making Etruscan-themed decorations, treats, and even an Etruscan Bridal magazine.

Can I tell you how much I geeked out when I discovered the Etruscan font? For those of you who aren't lucky enough to have a close friend obsessed with the Etruscans, I'm here to tell you their language reads right to left.

Most of the shower games were Etruscan-themed as well, but I think the piece de resistance was the cupcakes decorated with fondant bronze hand mirrors. These beauties, which were as delicious as they were adorable, were made by the uber-talented Alexandra of Cupcakes in Rome. I made the red currant scones you see on the left. Also very yummy, if not quite so pretty. The recipe for those came courtesy of my fellow Rome blogger, the fabulous Trisha Thomas, aka Mozzarella Mamma.


Later that same day, I had the pleasure of participating in a segment that will be aired on the Travel Channel later this year. The hour-long feature on Rome is part of a several-part series on some of the world's greatest cities. The series is called Metropolis and should air sometime in June.

The segment I was featured in was on the art of aperitivo in a glorious piazza. Here I am with three friends enjoying Aperol Spritz in Piazza di Pietra at one of my favorite spots in the city, Salotto 42. I'll be sure to let you know when it airs so you can hear me trying not to embarrass myself on camera.

Aside from these fun events, what I really dedicated myself to during the month of November 2014 was something called National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, as its participants affectionately call it. If you've ever dreamed of writing a book, but just can't seem to find the discipline to sit down and do it, NaNoWriMo is for you. The idea is, you and literally hundreds of thousands of other writers around the world make a commitment to write a 50,000-word novel in just one month, the month of November. That works out to 1667 words per day if you manage to write every day. I didn't start out too strong, so felt like I was constantly playing catch up. But I eventually got into the groove, and seeing the number of words I needed to write to stay on track shrink every single day was enough impetus to force myself out of bed well before six am most days to get my writing in before heading to work.

I earned this badge with early mornings and lots of Earl Grey.

It was an exhausting month, and I'm not one who functions well on too little sleep, but it was worth it when, by November 30th, I had an (incredibly rough, aka nearly unreadable)  first draft of my second novel. Yes, that's right, my second. My first novel took a great deal longer than 30 days to write. I'm actually not sure if I've mentioned it on the blog before, but I wrote an art mystery for young readers that takes place in Rome (where else?). It's for the Middle Grade age group, which is roughly between 9 and 12, give or take a year on each end. I'll leave the details of the book for a future post, but I will confess that I have been working on this labor of love on and off for the past five years. And while, no, I didn't write the first draft in a month (closer to a year, actually), the revision process was a good four times longer. No one warned me that writing the first draft of a book is the easy part! It's the (seemingly endless) revisions which test a writer's mettle and perseverance.

But persevere I did, and by the summer of 2014, I finally had what I believed to be a draft that was in good enough shape to send out into the world. I started querying literary agents last summer. After several months of this disheartening process (which tests a writer's perseverance even more than revising, I'd wager) without any offers, I took a break from querying to participate in NaNoWriMo. It was just what I needed to get my creative juices flowing again after months of stagnation and rejection letters. I dove back into querying in December, and that brings me to my next big accomplishment of the winter, which happened just after the New Year. Excuse the all-caps but I can't help shouting:


For any other writers out there, or for actors, performers, and musicians too, you know what a life-changing accomplishment this is. In a writer's case, signing with a successful agent is probably the most important step in their career, maybe even more significant that that elusive first book deal.
And mine is not just any agent, but one of the best in the business, the legendary John Silbersack of Trident Media Group. I am so incredibly honored and thrilled to have him representing my work that it's honestly hard to put it into words (a worrying sign for a writer!). Suffice it to say, there are a lot of happy dances going on in my apartment these days.

As I expected, my agent (my heart still does a mini-swoon when I write the words "my agent") had a long list of revisions for me, and I have dived head-first into those. I've given myself the Ides of March as a deadline, I spend all weekend, every weekend chained to my desk attempting to wrestle what I thought was a final draft into an even final-er draft. I hope that this explains why, although one of my only New Year's resolutions of 2015 was to WRITE A BLOGPOST AT LEAST ONCE A WEEK, it's already the 20th of February and I'm just finally getting around to my first post of the year. Mea culpa!

The other thing that has been taking up a lot of time, but in a very enjoyable way, is my podcast, The BitterSweet Life. It's hosted by myself and the amazing radio producer extraordinaire, Katy Sewall, who just happens to be one of my closest and oldest friends in the world. When she moved to Rome last year, we decided to do a podcast all about what it's like to be an expat, either for the long-term or the short-term. It's casual, light-hearted, and most of all, non-scripted. We chat about lots of different topics that expats encounter such as homesickness, foreign language, visa problems, integrating, becoming alienated from your native culture, and dating the locals. Oh, and our mutual obsession with Caravaggio, which is slightly off topic, but we don't care.

We finally started a Twitter account, @BitterSweetPod, so be sure to follow us there if you want to be kept up to date with new episodes. Katy, who is currently back in Seattle, recently posted a photo from a recent interview she did that has somehow taken Twitter by storm. Katy interviewed a little girl earlier this week who loves and feeds crows. They bring her shiny gifts in return and this is her collection.

Here's the original tweet:

When Katy posted the photo three or four days ago, I thought it was wonderful, but I had no idea it would go viral. And viral it has gone, with over 4600 retweets, 4800 favorites, and hundreds of comments to date. Not bad for an account that had (at the time) just 100 followers. People across the world are so moved by this story, not to mention an entire sub-culture of people out there who are absolutely passionate about crows! Who knew? I'm starting to develop a soft spot for them myself!

My last big project of the winter is my collaboration with an awesome new app called VoiceMap. If you love to dig deep when you travel but don't always have the time or money to hire a private tour guide, this app will make you squeal with glee. The app is the brainchild of some very enterprising and creative people down in South Africa. The idea is that storytellers in cities around the world take listeners on a tour of a neighborhood by way of a smartphone. If you're the listener, all you have to do is walk where the storyteller indicates, and listen to him or her bring the city to life right in front of your eyes.

This video explains the project better than I could:

If you haven't guessed already, I am narrating a walking tour of Rome's Trastevere neighborhood. It is exciting to be a part of a project that I find so meaningful and useful at the same time, although my lack of technical skills has slowed me down more than once, and it's taking me a bit longer than I had expected! I will report back as soon as my walk is ready. I hope you will download it and let me guide you through this neighborhood I adore the next time you're in Rome.

If I have learned anything in these last four months is that synchronicity is real, and that working on projects that push you in the direction of your dreams bring more and more opportunities and amazing people into your path. Leaving The Pines of Rome blog out of this equation just isn't acceptable to me anymore. I'm lucky enough that all my passions intermingle in such a beautiful way, each one inspiring another. So I'm going on the record and making a commitment to post once a week from here on out. The posts will probably be shorter than usual, simply out of necessity, but since I'm not convinced anyone reads through to the end of my novel-length posts anyway, that might be a good thing for all concerned!

All photos by author except where indicated
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Friday, October 31, 2014

10 Spookiest Places in Rome

Halloween is here! What better way to celebrate All Hallow's Eve, the night that spirits freely roam the earth, than with a tour of Rome's most sinister sites?

Those Artful Bones
For lovers of the macabre, there’s no more deliciously creepy place in Rome than the Museum and Crypt of the Capuchins, where the skeletons of more than 4000 monks have been used as eerie decoration. Hipbones become moldings, chandeliers dangle with leg and arm bones, and vertebrae make intricate cornices. In the last room, over a pile of bones and three reassembled skeletons sporting the famous Capuchin hood, an ominous sign reads, “What you are we once were; what we are you will become.” Via Veneto, 27.
Crypt of the Capuchin Monks, Santa Maria della Concezione

Crypt of the Capuchin Monks, Santa Maria della Concezione [source]

Messages from Beyond the Grave
A tiny church in Prati has found a way to communicate with souls suffering in purgatory, and their tiny annexed museum has proof. The Museum of Souls in Purgatory displays fingerprints burned into a prayer book, a charred handprint on a wooden table, clothes marked with mysterious signs, and other creepy evidence that heaven’s unpleasant waiting room might actually exist. Lungotevere Prati, 12.

Fingerprints burned onto a prayer book, Museo delle Anime in Purgatorio [source]

Handprint burned onto wood, Museo delle Anime in Purgatorio [source]

Dungeons and Death
Although today Castel Sant’Angelo is a magnificent palace and a fascinating museum, it wasn’t always so. Up to the late 19th century, the dungeons of the castle were used as the papal prisons, and more often than not, once you went in, you rarely came out again, unless to mount the scaffold. Famous prisoners have included Benvenuto Cellini, Giordano Bruno, and Galileo. The bridge right outside, with its copies of Bernini angels, may look uplifting, but it was here that countless public executions took place, including the infamous decapitation of 22-year-old Beatrice Cenci in 1599. Her ghost is said to walk the bridge every September 11th, the anniversary of her death, with her severed head in her hand. The bridge was also the site of a stampede during the Jubilee of 1450, when more than 200 people were trampled to death or drowned. Lungotevere Castello, 50.

Passageway leading to the dungeons of Castel Sant'Angelo [source]
Angel Statue (copy after Bernini), Bridge of the Angels, © Fabiana@Flickr.com

Bridge of the Angels, Rome © Kathleen Waters

RIP John Doe
In Renaissance Rome, murder was practically considered a sport, and bodies floating in the Tiber were far from rare. From its convenient position just a few steps from the riverbanks, the church of Santa Maria dell’Orazione e Morte would fish the bodies out of the river, stack them in the cellar, and bury any that went unclaimed. The church is decorated with ghoulish images and boasts a cross made of skulls. A chilling sign on the door reads, “Today for me, tomorrow for you.” Via Giulia, 262.

Decoration on the doorway of Santa Maria dell'Orazione e della Morte @Toni Bruguès

"Me today; you tomorrow" inscription outside Santa Maria dell'Orazione e della Morte © Tiffany Parks

Death’s Portal
St. Peter’s Basilica has five sets of Bronze Doors, the most noted being the Holy Doors (open only on occasion of a Holy Year) and the massive central Filarete doors, the only set original to the Constantine Basilica. Less well-known, but no less intriguing are the Doors of Death, to the far left of the portico, used as the exit for funeral processions. Cast in the 1960s by Giacomo Manzù, the doors feature morbid scenes of crucifixions, hangings, and other martyrdoms, as well as the heads of vultures looking out ominously. When I used to give tours of St. Peter's basilica, I refused to walk through these ones, even though they are one of the two main exits. Piazza San Pietro.

Left "Door of Death," Giacomo Manzù [source]
Detail of "Doors of Death," Giacomo Manzù [source]

The Art of Torture
If you find torture even creepier than death (and let's face it, who doesn't?), make a timely visit to Rome's Museum of Criminology. Learn about medieval torture techniques and see many of the gruesome devices used to elicit "confessions". Perhaps the most disturbing thing about this place is realizing some of these torture techniques were used until the 20th century. This museum is not for the faint of heart, especially if you've got a good imagination. Via del Gonfalone, 29.

Screw chair (reproduction), Museo di Criminologia, Rome [source]

Female skeleton discovered shacked in Poggio Catino in the 1930s, Museo di Criminologia, Rome. [source]

Human-shaped cage, discovered with real skeleton, Museo di Criminologia, Rome [source]

Doctors of Death
If the image of an old abandoned hospital or insane asylum conjures up your worst nightmares, this is the place for you! Even the name of it is enough to make a grown man squirm. The National Museum of Sanitary Art is one place that will make you glad to be living (and getting sick) in the 21st century. Located in a wing of a hospital founded in the 1400s, this museum displays such unappetizing objects as pickled fetuses, child skeletons, and many, many more atrocious sights. Lungotevere in Sassia.

Exhibit at Museo dell'Arte Sanitaria, Rome [source]

Exhibit of child skeletons, Museo dell'Arte Sanitaria, Roma [source]

Death Lives Here
Miles and miles of dimly lit, underground burial chambers? I think that would qualify as spooky. Perhaps the most terrifying thing about the Catacombs (besides the fact that thousands of souls were buried here, some of whom suffered horrifically violent deaths) is knowing that one wrong turn could lead you into utter darkness and you could easily end up lost for days in the maze of narrow death-soaked passageways, as happened to a few French kids in the Paris catacombs a few years ago. There are many (some say upwards of 40) Catacomb sites in Rome. The most popular is probably The Catacombs of San Callisto, Via Appia Antica, 110.

Catacombs of San Callisto, Rome [source]

Catacombs of San Callisto, Rome [source]

Death is in the Air
As the site of the brutal deaths of an estimated 700,000 people, is it any wonder the Colosseum is considered one of the most haunted places in the world? In the Middle Ages it was believed to be a gathering place for souls at unrest, and as late as the early 20th century, it was thought that the noxious fumes of the countless murders that took place here could be fatal to anyone who breathed them, particularly at night. Such was the fate of Henry James’ heroine Daisy Miller, whose nighttime visit to the Colosseum proved fatal.

Colosseum by Night [source]

On Hallowed Ground
Although it is a cemetery, I'm not sure this site can really be described as spooky. In fact, it could just as easily be included in a list of the 10 Most Beautiful Places in Rome. Dubbed by Oscar Wilde “the holiest place in Rome,” the exquisite Non-Catholic Cemetery is reserved for Rome’s Protestant, Orthodox, Jewish, and otherwise non-Christian dead, and is famously the resting place of John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Goethe’s only son. With its view of the ancient Pyramid of Cestius, towering cypress trees, and tombstones and mausoleums that are veritable works of art, this might just be the most enchanting cemetery in the world. Via Caio Cestio, 6.

Non-Catholic Cemetery, Rome @Rmishka Singh

Non-Catholic Cemetery, Rome @Rmishka Singh

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