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, ©

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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Saturday, October 4, 2014

Rome's Artistic Treasures .... Hidden in Banks

Dome of the chapel of Palazzo del Monte di Pietà

As if Rome didn't possess enough spectacular sights to satisfy the greedy eyes of her art-loving visitors and residents, today we'll get a chance to see even more, like the eye-popping gold-leaf and stuccoed chapel at Palazzo del Monte di Pietà above, near Campo de' Fiori.

Since even the wealthiest of Rome's old noble families can no longer afford the upkeep on their ancestral palaces, the ones that haven't been turned into museums, embassies, or cultural associations, are mostly in the hands of the banks. While I cringe to think that there are so many works of art hidden away and out of sight for the average Roman, at least one day a year, we get a chance to see them. The event is called Invito a Palazzo, and it's not just happening in Rome. All across the Italian peninsula financial institutions are opening their doors to reveal their treasures today, 4 October 2014, and the best part is, it's free!

One measly day a year is a pittance, but I don't know about you, I'll take what I can get. I have participated in Invito a Palazzo in previous years, and one of the most spectacular Roman institutions participating has its headquarters in Palazzo Altieri near the Chiesa del Gesù. This baroque wonder, closed to the public 364 days a year, is packed to the gills with glorious frescoes, paintings, and tapestries by the likes of Guido Reni, Carlo Maratta, Giulio Romano, Domenico Maria Canuti, Domenichino, Paolo Veronese, Coreggio, and many more.

If you only have time to visit one site today, this should be it!

The Allegory of Mercy, Carlo Maratta, Palazzo Altieri

Pompeian Salon, Palazzo Altieri

Apotheosis of Romulus, Domenico Maria Canuti, Palazzo Altieri

Palazzo Altieri

Also opening its doors today is Palazzo de Carolis on Via del Corso. This early-18th-century palace features a gorgeous oval spiral staircase by Alessandro Specchi (of Spanish Steps fame), very similar to (and possibly inspired by) Borromini's staircase at Palazzo Barberini.

Spiral staircase by Alessandro Specchi, Palazzo de Carolis

Palazzo Ronadanini, near the Pantheon, will also be open to visitors. The most noteworthy aspect of this palace is the sublime courtyard, decorated with ancient busts and sculptures, as well as intricate stucco and bas-relief details. Also on display are the sumptuously appointed rooms of the piano nobile, that some lucky bankers out there get to use as their conference rooms.

Courtyard of Palazzo Rondanini

I will be visiting the Banca di Sassari, which occupies the site of a converted monastery of Santa Susanna Church (coincidentally the American national church in Rome), not far from Piazza della Repubblica.

Sardinian Tapestries (Banca di Sassari)
In addition to a collection of Sardinian tapestries above (who knew the Sardinians made tapestries?), visitors will be able to visit the underground Roman domus upon which the monastery was built, a site that has only recently been excavated.

Roman domus under the Monastery of Santa Susanna (Banca di Sassari)

If this event sounds like your cup of tea, hurry up, it's only on today! You can find more info here

All images provided courtesy of MiBACT
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Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Augustus's Rome, 2000 Years Later

Modern bronze copy of the Augustus of Prima Porta, Via dei Fori Imperiali,
© Alice Barigelli

I love anniversaries and meaningful dates, and this year has been full of them. Back in February we commemorated the 450th anniversary of the death of the great Michelangelo, in April we celebrated the 450th birthday of Shakespeare and remembered the 300th anniversary of the passing of El Greco. This year has also seen important anniversaries of events that have changed history, from the toppling of the Berlin Wall (25 years ago), to the passing of the Civil Rights Act (50 years ago), to D-Day (70 years ago), to the opening of the Panama Canal and onset of World War One (both 100 years ago).

But the most awe-inspiring and moment-of-silence-worthy of all, particularly for those of us who love big, round numbers (and happen to live and breathe ancient Roman history), is the 2000th anniversary of the death of Emperor Augustus.

Detail of the Augustus of Labicana, Museo Nazionale Romano a Palazzo Massimo (source)

Exactly 2000 years ago today, on 19 August A.D. 14, Emperor Augustus, born Gaius Octavius and the first emperor of Rome, breathed his last. Throughout his long life, Octavius wore many hats, and carried many titles. He was known as Princeps (the “first” citizen of Rome), Divi Filius (the son of the divine, in reference to his great-uncle and adopted father, the deified Julius Caesar), Augustus (illustrious one), Pater Patriae (father of his country), and, of course, Caesar, a family name that would eventually become synonymous with the term “emperor.” His official roles were just as varied, from Consul (Rome’s highest elected office) to Pontifex Maximus (high priest) and eventually Imperator (military commander).

During his 41-year reign (the longest of any Roman emperor), Augustus built enduring monuments, developed the city’s infrastructure, and established the Pax Romana, the empire’s most enduring period of peace. If you’re in Rome today and have nothing more important to do (and really, in the middle of August, what else could you possibly have to do?), I suggest commemorating the extraordinary man’s death with a tour of his greatest monuments and portraits.

Ara Pacis (source)
The best way to appreciate Augustus’s footprint on the fabric of his city is to take a tour of the works he built. He was credited with the line, “I inherited Rome a city of brick; I left it a city of marble,” and whether or not he actually said it, the words certainly ring true. Perhaps the most recognizable of the monuments in his legacy is the Ara Pacis (Lungotevere in Augusta). Although the first years of his reign were marred by war, Augustus’s dedication to restoring peace to the empire was what set him apart from the leaders who would follow him. The majestic white marble Altar of Peace was inaugurated in 9 BC to celebrate the peace brought to the empire by Augustus’s military victories in Hispania and Gaul. Although partially reconstructed, the altar nevertheless possesses much of its original bas-relief decoration, depicting Roman myths, scenes of ritual sacrifice, intricate garlands, and a procession of Augustus and other members of the imperial family. 

Ara Pacis illuminated (source)

Despite the modern misconception that ancient Rome was a city of gleaming white marble, in actual fact, Roman marble buildings were generally painted in bright vibrant colors, and this was certainly the case with the Ara Pacis. In honor of this big anniversary, the exquisite monument will be illuminated with colored laser beams to recreate what it most likely looked like in the emperor's day. This is not the first time this technique has been used (see my post: Real Rome: The Ara Pacis in Technicolor), but it is always spectacular to behold. You can visit tonight from 9pm to midnight without a reservation.

Il Viaggio nel Foro di Augusto, © Andrea Franceschini, courtesy of Zetema Group
In the heart of the Imperial Fora, found partially excavated alongside right and left of Via dei Fori Imperiali, the Forum of Augustus was the physical representation of Augustus’s power. The forum incorporates the Temple of Mars Ultor (the avenging god of war) and was at the time considered “greater than any in existence.” While not completed until 2 BC, the temple was first planned by Augustus after he successfully avenged Caesar, killing his assassins Brutus and Cassius in 42 BC. Just in time for the big anniversary, the forum comes to life in a summer-long project that helps visitors experience the site as it once was. 

Il Viaggio nel Foro di Augusto,
© Andrea Franceschini, courtesy of Zetema Group
Every night, a digital multi-media show recreates the original appearance of the forum before your very eyes. Audience members are provided with earphones with audio in six languages, while the images and animation are projected directly onto the walls of the forum. Visit for more details.

Interior of the House of Augustus, Palatine Hill (source)
Unlike the emperors who would succeed him, Augustus lived not in an opulent palace but a comfortable, tasteful home. He chose to live on the Palatine Hill (as would his successors) to underline his connection to Romulus and Remus, the twin founders of Rome who were raised, according to legend, on the very same hill seven centuries earlier, and where Augustus himself was born. Despite its relatively small size, the House of Augustus is celebrated for its superb second-style Pompeian frescoes in vibrant red, black, yellow, purple, and green. See the glorious and well-preserved works in several rooms, including the mysterious Room of the Masks and Augustus’s own study, an intimate haven he called “Siracusa.” When visiting the Palatine Hill, keep in mind that this particular site is only open Mon, Wed, Thu, Sat, and Sun, from 8:30am to 1:30pm. (It’s always a good idea to call and double check if it’s open: 060608.)

Mausoleum of Augustus (source)

Built in 28 BC, the Mausoleum of Augustus (Piazza Augusto Imperatore) is perhaps the most neglected of Rome’s ancient sights. Over the centuries, it has been the victim of cannon fire, earthquake, abandonment, and vandalism, and during its long life has been used as a fortress, a bullring, and a concert hall. But thanks to sturdy defensive walls, some 15 feet thick and 50 feet tall, the site has survived against all odds. Although the mausoleum has been closed for decades, this year’s milestone has been the impetus for the city to pledge €12 million to its restoration and eventual reopening. Although this site is *never* open, it is today! To commemorate this once-in-a-millennium anniversary, the city of Rome is opening the mausoleum for three guided tours this morning. I’ll be there at 9:30, and documenting my visit on Twitter (if I’m allowed to take photographs, that is). If you see this in time, call 060608 and you might just be in time to join one of the groups.

Theater of Marcellus (source)

A few other sites that shouldn’t be missed and are all within walking distance of one another: the Theater of Marcellus (Via del Teatro Marcello), an imposing performing arts center and the second-largest theater in ancient Rome, was built by Augustus in 13 BC and is crowned by a still-inhabited palace built in the Renaissance. (All month long, the theater’s purpose is revived with classical musical performances staged just outside the towering structure. Check out for a full list of performances.) The Portico of Octavia (Via di Portico d’Ottavia) is another Augustean site, once a vast cultural and religious center, although sadly little survives today beyond its entrance gate, which is currently hidden under a dreary layer of scaffolding. The Obelisk of Montecitorio (Piazza Montecitorio) (originally from Heliopolis and dating to the 6th century BC) was brought from Egypt to Rome by the emperor in 10 BC to be used as the pointer of his massive sundial that spread across the Campus Martius neighborhood. The 70-foot monolith cast a shadow across the Ara Pacis on Augustus’s birthday (23 September), a not-so-subtle hint that he was born to bring peace to the empire.

Augustus of Prima Porta, Musei Vaticani, Source: Wiki Commons

Get to know the man up close by studying one (or more) of his many portraits, located in museums across the city. By far the most famous is the Augustus of Prima Porta. This larger-than-life-sized marble sculpture depicting Augustus in the role of imperator, or military commander, was discovered in 1863 in the ruins of the Villa of Livia, in an area that was once countryside and is now on the northern outskirts of the city. The commanding work now has its residence in the Braccio Nuovo section of the Vatican Museums (Viale Vaticano).  

Bust of the Divine Augustus, Musei Vaticani,
© Nick Thompson

Also displayed at the Vatican, in the welcoming Pinecone Courtyard, is an enormous posthumous portrait of the Divine Augustus, discovered in the 16th century on the Aventine Hill. Another celebrated portrait is the Augustus of Via Labicana. Located today at the National Roman Museum at Palazzo Massimo (Largo di Villa Peretti, 1), this moving work represents a togaed Augustus in his role as Pontifex Maximus, Rome’s spiritual leader. The Hall of the Emperors at the Capitoline Museums (Piazza del Campidoglio, 1) displays the Ottaviano Capitolino, an important early bust of Augustus, showing him as a determined, ambitious, yet vulnerable young man. But you don’t have to visit a museum to find a portrait of Rome’s favorite leader. A modern bronze copy of the Prima Porta statue stands in front of Augustus’s forum along Via dei Fori Imperiali.

Ottaviano Capitolino, Capitoline Museums, Source: Wiki Commons

“If I have played my part well, clap your hands and dismiss me with applause from the stage.”
Augustus’s last words
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