Friday, April 22, 2022

Roman Holiday, Part 10: Further Adventures With Buildings and Fountains

I never did get my bearings in Rome.

I usually have a pretty good sense of direction. Even if I don’t know the precise route I need to take, I can usually point in the direction I need to go and I almost always have a sense of where I am relative to the things I need to find. None of this applied in Rome. I was constantly turning the wrong direction, even when staring directly at GoogleMaps. I never even figured out the apartment we stayed in, which is impressive considering that it was a single hallway that had, as you traveled from the front door to the kitchen, a living room on the right, followed by a bathroom on the left across from the bedroom on the right, and finally the kitchen at the end. Every time I left one of those rooms I turned the wrong way down the hallway. It got to be funny after a while.

When I was putting this part of the story together for this post I called up GoogleMaps on my computer and traced out the route that we took on Andi’s tour. It looked nothing like what I thought it did in my head and it passed by things that I thought were in entirely different places. My mother spent her whole life this way – my dad once said that she made two separate trips any time she went somewhere, one to and the other from, and they had no overlap at all as far as she was concerned – and it grieves me that I can’t just call her and tell her that I understand how she felt now, after a lifetime of always having that sense of place and direction. She’d have laughed herself silly, and so would I.

When we left Piazza Navona we headed over to the Pantheon.

The Pantheon is a marvel of engineering. Completed somewhere in the early second century CE, it is still the largest unreinforced concrete dome ever built and in the middle of it there is the oculus – a hole that leaves the interior open to the elements – and it impresses me that they managed to build such a thing without it falling down right away, let alone having it last for millennia. The dome is exactly a hemisphere, as tall as it is wide, and it has been in constant use, either as a temple or a church, for nearly two thousand years. Andi pointed out that it is owned by the Pope even though it sits in central Rome, and there is a certain amount of tension there when it comes to revenue possibilities, general use, and maintenance.

We got there just as the light was failing, and it was a magnificent sight. Andi was kind enough to take our picture in front of it.

It was just as impressive the next day.

With Andi we mostly stood outside and talked about it, but the next day we were going in. We got in line – a very long line that snaked through the piazza and was full of tour groups speaking all manner of languages, but one that moved along fairly quickly – and eventually we were able to convince the security people that our vaccines were in order and our masks were up to par and they let us in.

The Pantheon is bigger than you think it is. You can go online and read the statistics if you want, but none of that will give you a sense of just how impressively huge the space is. Some of that is simply design – it’s a big, round, open space with no interior support structures, so you can see it all at once in a way that you can’t with the Basilica of St. Peter’s, for example, where you’re always peering around columns and buttresses. It’s just … space. They block off the middle of it so you end up walking counterclockwise around the edges, always with an eye to the dome above or the artwork that is never scarce in Roman sites like these, and when you look down you can see how small the rest of your fellow visitors are by comparison. There were a great many people in there with us, but it never felt crowded because everyone was simply dwarfed by it all.

I spent a lot of time just marveling at the dome and the oculus, because very few buildings I’ve been in have a hole at the top. It was a bright sunny day – on rainy days it just rains onto the marble floor below, which must be slippery – and you could track the progress of the sun by the bright circular light moving slowly along the base of the dome. We were there for a while.

Don’t lean on things when you’re there, though. They don’t like it when you lean on the ancient things. Let that be a lesson.

Like many churches and temples, there are some famous people buried there. Raphael, the artist, for example, and Victor Emmanuel II, the first king of united Italy. The one that I thought was fascinating though was Margherita di Savoia, who was the queen when Victor Emmanuel ruled and who is mostly remembered these days as the namesake of the Margherita pizza. And honestly? That’s a far better way to be remembered, I think, than as just one more in a long line of royals whose accomplishments never reached down to the level of ordinary people the way hers did. We spent all last summer trying to perfect our Margherita pizzas and it kind of felt like a pilgrimage there in the Pantheon.

After we left the Pantheon with Andi we walked over to Hadrian’s Temple.

Hadrian’s Temple is just a façade now – a massive row of columns that fronts a more modern building – and it sits on a little piazza that during the day is full of people hanging out and eating, which are two of the things that Rome excels at as far as I can tell. This is one of the many reasons why Rome is a grand place in my eyes and definitely worth revisiting.

When we went back the next day it looked like this.

We actually went inside the modern building because a) it had some interesting exhibits and b) it had public bathrooms, though in the grand European tradition you had to pay one euro to use them. It took me forever to find the gents’ and it was quite possibly the smallest such facility I have ever found that wasn’t going to be hoisted onto a truck and hauled off when the festival ended, but it was clean and functional and I feel I got my euro’s worth that way.

The sun had well and truly set by the time we got to Hadrian’s Temple with Andi the previous night and he insisted we wait a bit to see what was coming because Andi “knew a guy” and there would be interesting things happening soon. We stood there, staring at the columns and making conversation, and then suddenly this appeared.

The show went on for about fifteen minutes – a brief history of the structure with graphics that showed you how the building used to look like projected onto what remained now, which is a strategy that we first ran into at the Forum where it was used to show how the interior of one of the big churches had changed over time – and it was fascinating.

When it was over we went to Trevi Fountain.

Trevi Fountain is one of those impossibly gorgeous places that you really don’t get until you’re standing in front of it. 

It’s got blindingly white marble and clear blue water and it is always crowded no matter when you go because why wouldn’t it be. We’d actually gone there before going on Andi’s tour – it was one of the places we found while we were wandering around after getting off the Tourist Bus a day earlier – and there were all sorts of people just sort of milling about, watching the water splash, and generally having what appeared to be a grand time.

The place was also crawling with Instagrammers, all posing photogenically in front of the fountain with soulful expressions on their faces, and they were fun to watch. I hope they got good page views for their efforts.

We were no less susceptible to the Call of the Selfie than anyone else so we took a few to prove to doubters that we were actually there, and eventually some kind soul volunteered to take a picture of us as well.

It was dark when we got there with Andi and mostly we stood on the periphery while he told us stories about the place. My favorite of those was the one about the cup statue. We didn’t take any picture of it (it’s kind of off to one side so we missed it the first time and it was full night when we were there with Andi) but you can kind of see it in the photo of the right-side of the fountain, on top of the wall. It’s a bit obscured. There is, said Andi, some controversy over why this particular statue is there. He ran through some of the competing theories, but the one I loved was that it was placed exactly where it would obscure the view of the fountain from the barbershop behind it as part of a spat with the owner of the shop, and that is a level of petty to which one can only aspire these days.

Andi left us there and headed off home, and we moved on to other things at that point.

Most of the sights we saw other than these were things we stumbled across at random and I’m going to group those separately but there was one other thing that we went out of our way to see and that was the Piramide Cestia. This was not all that far from our apartment in Testaccio so it made a convenient side trip on the way home from somewhere else.

Getting there, it turns out, was an endeavor.

This was the day we went to St. Peter’s Basilica for the second time so we were a good hike away. Fortunately the Piramide is also a subway stop in Rome and therefore easy to get to if you take the Metro. Rome has two subway lines – the archeology that building those must have entailed would probably beggar the imagination – and we’d need to use both of them.

First this entailed a fairly long walk from the Vatican to the nearest Metro station, though it was a straight run down a single road with no turns and was clearly marked with signs helpfully suggesting that the Metro was just a little bit further, Montressor, so it went well. It was a lovely spring day and the walk was pleasant. Eventually we found the station, paid the fare (our bus tickets were good for the Metro as well), figured out what side of the tracks we needed to be on, and hopped on board. After transferring to the second line at the main station, we rode that one to Piramide Station and emerged into a giant flea market.

There were tables and more tables and yet further tables piled high with every conceivable item – clothing in heaps, kitchen gadgets, gizmos, whatsits, and more. It was full of people, and just getting through it all took some time but eventually we came out the other side and saw what looked like a castle across the street, along with a portion of the old city wall.

It turns out that the castle was one of the gates in the original wall. It’s called Porta St. Paolo these days – St. Peter’s Gate – but originally it was known as Porta Ostiensis since it was the gate that led to the road to Ostia, Rome’s port city where the airport is now.

The Piramide is an impressive building and it is, however surprisingly, an actual Roman construction. Like most pyramids it was built as a tomb, in this case for a man named Gaius Cestius who died somewhere around 15 BCE.

We walked around it for a bit – it’s taller than it looks, since the ground level has risen considerably since it was built – and it is deeply strange to see an actual pyramid in Rome, since last I checked Rome was not in Egypt.

Apparently Rome was going through a kind of Egyptian phase at the time though, which is one of those manias that happen to many civilizations across the world from time to time (if you’ve ever wondered why the Washington Monument in the US looks the way it does, well, now you know). It was a pretty impressive pyramid, it has to be said, there in the middle of a Roman neighborhood.

After we left the Piramide we walked most of the way home, hopped on a bus for the last few blocks, and then went back to our apartment.


Ewan said...

No pics of the dead popes? We enjoyed some of the commentary on their graves :).

David said...

Kim took a pile of pictures of them and she asked me the same question about the Basilica of St. Peter post, but you know, no. I couldn't figure out how to shoehorn them into the narrative without stretching it out of shape.

That is the joy of history. Even when you just list facts not objective, because you have to decide which facts are important enough to include and which aren't. This is a difficult lesson for students, I find, and one that is entirely lost on the current vigilante mob of right-wing culture warriors.

LucyInDisguise said...

"I never did get my bearings in Rome."

Perhaps that is because you were in the wrong country. Top three suppliers and a spare:

(From here: }

◊ Aisin Seiki leads the list in position 1, with annual revenue of $35.84B. Headquartered in Japan ...

◊ The Schaeffler Group is the bearing manufacturer in position 2, with $16.48B in annual revenue. With headquarters in Germany ...

◊ Japan-based JTEKT Corp. ranks at number 3, with revenue of $12.33B.

◊ Sweden is home to SKF, the bearing manufacturer in position 4.

A couple of those are kinda close, but none of them are even in Italy - let alone Rome - which would explain, to a certain extent, your difficulties in getting your bearings.

Oh, wait ... direction. Never mind.

The quality and quantity of photos accompanying your travelog are improving as you go along! One of my pet peeves with travelers' photography is the photographer utterly failing to include familiar objects in the frame for scale reference. Happy to see that this is not one of your failures.

Keep 'em coming.


David said...

Thanks! I found that scale was one of the most salient features of these things, to be honest. It continually amazed me how big or small things were.

If I wanted those sorts of bearings I'd have gone to my dad's old company in Philadelphia. He spent decades designing fluid-film bearings for power plants and navy ships. :)

LucyInDisguise said...

There now, see? I'm fairly certain that that is an interesting thing about your father that you've never revealed in this space. (At least, not since I started stalking you. That I remember. Sigh.)

People never seem to 'get' my rather warped sense of humor, but it does serve a purpose ... inscrutable though it may be at times.


David said...

There are so many stories I'll never get to them all. That's one of the lovely things about the world, I think.

I usually get your humor but I have found I'm not good at responding to it in a way that indicates that this has occurred.

Someday perhaps I will write the story of how my dad got his bearings. :)