A Special Opening of Villa Torlonia’s Jewish Catacombs

You've probably heard of Rome's Christian catacombs, but many visitors to the eternal city haven't yet discovered their older counterparts: the Jewish catacombs of Villa Torlonia. That's partly because they're not open to the general public.

That changes on September 5. Rome is opening the catacombs, which boast Jewish frescoes and tombs from the 2nd to 5th centuries AD, to visitors — for one day only. It's part of the city's participation in the annual European Day of Jewish Culture, celebrated by more than 25 countries. The free guided tours of the catacombs are available on the hour, all day.

Interested? Book now. Even though the announcement appears to be so new that those working Rome's main telephone line for cultural events and reservations hadn't even heard of it yet, most of the tours have already been booked up — leaving only those at 1pm, 2pm and 3pm. Call +39 3407368280 to book.

For more information about Villa Torlonia (in Italian), click here. For a map, click here. Hat tip: Katie Parla.

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This Fall, See the Sistine Chapel at Night

God2-Sistine_Chapel
Sad that Rome's many summer events are coming to an end? Don't fear — autumn brings a new roster of events. And from September 3 to October 29, the Vatican museums will be open at night.

If the September heat and crowds are getting you down, just book at the Vatican's online ticket office, print your voucher, and go. Since few people have caught on, the museums are usually almost completely empty. It's a much calmer, and cooler, way to take all the art in.

The details: The museums will be open each Friday from 7pm to 11pm (last entrance 9:30). Yes, fewer galleries will be accessible, but you'll be able to see all the greatest hits — including the Raphael rooms, Gallery of Tapestries, Gallery of Maps, and, of course, the Sistine Chapel. As for reserved tickets during the day, the cost is €15 (€ 8 reduced, including students and under-18s: college students, bring an ID), plus a €4 reservation fee.

And if you're planning a spring trip to Rome, don't worry. The Vatican Museums at Night should return in April through July, as it did last year. Stay tuned.

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Rome’s Best Summer Events: Go Before They End

 Baths
August is upon us — and with it, the winding-down of some of Rome's best summer festivals and events, or "Estate Romana". A recap of Rome's best summer offerings… and when they end:

Ending August 3. The saldi (summer sales). If you miss these, you'll have to wait until January!

Ending August 8. Opera at the Baths of Caracalla (shown above). This year: Aida and Rigoletto.

Ending August 9. The "Roma Incontra Il Mondo" festival with nightly concerts at the Villa Ada, a lovely, enormous park in Rome.

Ending August 15. Rock City, a festival in the Park of the Aqueducts featuring nightly concerts and restaurant stalls. (On the smallish side, but fun).

Ending August 19. Lungo il Tevere Roma, an enormous nightly festival at the Tiber River.

Ending August 31. L'Isola del Cinema, showing films nightly at the island on the Tiber River (both foreign and Italian).

Ending September 4. Nightly jazz concerts at the Villa Celimontana

Ending September 4. All'Ombra dell'Colosseo, a pool (with events like aperitivo and concerts) in the Colosseum's shadow.

Ending September 5. La Forma del Rinascimento ("The Shape of the Renaissance"), with works by Donatello, Bregno, and Michelangelo, at the Palazzo Venezia.

Ending September 5. L’Età della Conquista ("The Age of Conquest"), an exhibit on the founding and Greek influences of the Roman Empire, at the Musei Capitolini.

Ending September 8. Colori dell'Ara Pacis, a light show showing the Ara Pacis as it would have been. Wednesday nights only.

Ending October 3. The Colosseum's Gladiators exhibit.

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The Ara Pacis in Summer: As It Was Meant to Be Seen

Ara Pacis, colored with lasers
On Wednesdays throughout the summer, you can see the Ara Pacis — the elaborately-carved, beautifully-preserved ancient altar dating from 9 B.C. — as it was meant to be seen: with color.

It's hard enough to imagine ancient Rome as it would have been: marble temples, colossal monuments, extraordinary baths. But what most visitors to Rome don't realize is that you have to take something else into account, too. You have to imagine everything painted. That's right: everything. The monuments, the sculptures, the buildings. It wasn't all shining white marble; it was also reds and yellows and blues. And greens and purples and pinks. And….

Ara not coloredThe difference that color makes is dramatic. There may be no better example of that than the Ara Pacis. Created in honor of Emperor Augustus in 9 B.C., the monumental altar symbolizes the peace and prosperity that Ara coloredthe first emperor brought about. When you go to see it at the Museum of the Ara Pacis, it appears elegant and elaborate — but when it was painted, it would have been much more than that. It would have been striking in its vibrance.

Don't believe me? Here's the panel of Aeneas sacrificing to the Penates (the household gods), with color and without, left. The color makes a big difference, no?

From now until September 8, from 9pm to midnight (last entrance 11pm), on Wednesdays only, you can see the Ara Pacis colored as it would have been (or so the best guesses have it) with lasers. At € 8 for the entrance, it's pricier than the usual € 6.50 entrance. But unless you want to get a super-close look, you don't even have to pay: Standing outside the glass-walled Museum of the Ara Pacis might be good enough.

Either way, make sure you see it. It's a special event, and it ends soon.

For more information, click here. For a map, click here.

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Palazzo Barberini, Rome’s Most Underrated Art Museum

Palazzo Barberini in Rome

Rome’s Palazzo Barberini is one of the best places to go if you’re tired of Rome’s overwhelming art collections (think: Vatican museums), but want to see more of what Rome has to offer. A stunning art museum in a Renaissance palace, it’s an often-overlooked gem in the heart of the city.

Palazzo Barberini boasts works by some of Italy’s best painters: Caravaggio, Raphael, Tintoretto, Bronzino. Its stars include the lush and moving “La Fornarina,” Raphael’s portrait of his lover (and possibly secret wife), the baker’s daughter; Hans Holbein’s famous portrait of King Henry VIII; and Caravaggio’s startlingly realistic — and frightening — Judith Beheading Holofernes (above).

(Note: This post was last updated with current information in April 2017).

For fans of Baroque art, the building alone merits a visit. Started in 1627-1633 by Carlo Maderno with his nephew Francesco Borromini, construction was handed over to Borromini and his soon-to-be-rival Bernini. (Yes, that Bernini. Some of his sculptures are also inside). The palace’s frescoes include Pietro da Cortona’s famous “Allegory of Divine Providence”; a triumph of trompe l’oeil, it literally “tricks the eye” into thinking that the ceiling opens up to show the heavens and tumbling figures. But it’s also a political piece, a tribute to the Barberini family — the powerful clan whose Maffeo Barberini became Pope Urban VIII (and started construction on the building).

Palazzo Barberini, an art gallery in the heart of Rome, Italy
An underrated art museum: Palazzo Barberini

But the piece-de-resistance is Pietro da Cortona’s Triumph of Divine Providence, the fresco on the ceiling of the Grand Salon, mind-boggling for its size, its spot-on execution of trompe l’oeil, and its sheer over-the-top-ness — which benefited from a months-long restoration in 2010 and is now on full and stunning display.

The Palazzo Barberini is located just steps from the Barberini metro at Via delle Quattro Fontane, 13. It’s open every day but Monday from 8:30am-7pm, making it an ideal early-evening stop. The entrance price is currently €10. For more on Palazzo Barberini, click here.

Also: why the Borghese Gallery should also be on your list, the best places for gelato and Rome’s most fascinating archaeological museum.

If you liked this post, you’ll love The Revealed Rome Handbook: Tips and Tricks for Exploring the Eternal City, available for purchase on Amazon or through my site here! I’m also free for one-on-one consulting sessions to help plan your Italy trip.

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The Medieval Basilica of Santi Quattro Coronati

Chapel of St. Sylvester of the Basilica of Santi Quattro Coronati, Rome
The Basilica of Santi Quattro Coronati boasts a 12th-century church (with 4th-century origins), a lovely cloister, and beautifully-preserved 13th-century frescoes (above). And it’s only a short walk from the Colosseum or San Giovanni in Laterano. But I’ve yet to see more than a handful of visitors there.

I’m not complaining: The basilica does, after all, include a convent, and it’s nice to see it all undisturbed by hordes of visitors. But. The church is a gem — and a must-see for anyone interested in Rome’s off-the-beaten-path sites.

The first church here was founded in the 4th century. Its name, “four crowned saints,” comes from its original dedication to the four soldiers who were martyred by Emperor Diocletian after they refused to sacrifice to a pagan god. But in 1084, the Normans burned the church to the ground during their sack of Rome.

Pope Paschal II built the “new” version of Santi Quattro Coronati in the early 1100s, but at only half the size of the original. (Imagine!) Still, the structure remains impressive, particularly for the lesson that the pope seems to have taken from the Norman sack: If you’re going to build, might as well build fortified. Even today, Santi Quattro Coronati has the appearance, looming from atop the Celian hill and surrounded by thick walls, of a military fort.DSC_0138

There are two parts of the basilica that you shouldn’t miss — but would if you didn’t know what to look for. One is the Romanesque cloister (right). Once in the main basilica, ring a bell on the left wall. One of the Augustinian nuns will come to let you into the peaceful, lovely space. (Donations are requested, though not required, for the upkeep of the convent and the basilica. These churches aren’t so wealthy anymore, and much of their art is suffering. If you can, give a euro or two).

Once you’ve exited both the cloister and the basilica and are in the main courtyard, you’ll see a door to your left. That leads to the Chapel of St. Sylvester. Glorious but intimate, the chapel highlights the incredible narrative power of medieval frescoes, even those done by artists whose names have been forgotten. Don’t miss it.

To enter the chapel, ring the little bell on the left after you’ve walked in. A nun will appear behind the grate and ask how many you are. The fee is 1 Euro per person. Once you’ve paid, she’ll buzz you into the chapel. There, you’ll find an entire 13th-century cycle of frescoes commemorating the life of St. Sylvester (below); they’re charming (they hadn’t quite figured out perspective yet!), but breathtaking, too. Not to mention that they’re incredibly rare for their state of preservation, giving you a chance to see 700-year-old frescoes largely as they’re meant to be seen — vivid with color and detail.

It’s not all that often that you get to see medieval frescoes in Renaissance art-laden Rome. Especially not alone, as you’re likely to be. Enjoy it.DSC_0171

The Basilica of Santi Quattro Coronati is located at Via dei Santi Quattro 20; click here for a map. The basilica is open daily from 6:15am-8pm, but 6:45am-12:30pm and 3pm-7:30pm on Sundays and holidays. The Chapel of St. Sylvester is open from 9:30am-12pm and 4:30pm-6pm daily and from 9am-10:40am and 4pm-5:45pm on Sundays and holidays. In the Basilica, as in all churches in Rome, remember to bring some kind of covering for your shoulders and wear knee-length skirts or trousers; even if it’s not enforced, it’s a sign of respect for the church.

 

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La Notte di Caravaggio: On Saturday Night, Art for Free

Boy with basket

There may be no artist better suited to the night than Caravaggio — the tormented Baroque painter famous for his dramatic, almost theatrically-lit paintings.

And on Saturday night, Rome is offering up its Caravaggios to the public. From 7pm on Saturday, July 17 until 9am on Sunday morning (yes, all night), four different sites will be open and free: the Borghese Museum (right now, ordinarily a €10.50 entrance), with its "Boy with a Basket of Fruit" (above), "Sick Bacchus," and "Madonna of the Snakes," among other pieces; the Church of San Luigi in Francese, home to Caravaggio's first major commission, the three frescoes of St. Matthew; the Basilica of Saint Augustine, with its Madonna of Loreto; and the Basilica of Santa Maria del Popolo, with its Crucifixion of St. Peter and Conversion of St. Paul (open only until 1am).

Just be prepared for a queue at the Borghese, where Romans are most likely to flock… although the later you go (or the earlier Sunday morning), the more likely you are to to have the museum to yourself.

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On Palatine Hill, Ancient Frescoes in the House of Emperor Augustus

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For most of history, the home of Rome’s very first emperor and Julius Caesar’s grandnephew, Octavian Augustus, lay undiscovered. That changed in 1961 when Palatine excavations revealed a fragment of painted plaster. Further digging unearthed a house. But not just any house: the palace that Octavian lived in for 40 years, both before and after he became emperor.

Only in 2008, after decades of restoration, did the House of Augustus finally open to visitors. Even so, most tourists, even those who visit Palatine Hill, still don’t know about it. And that’s a shame.

The real draw of the House of Augustus isn’t its size or architecture; as Suetonius tells us, Augustus lived “in
a modest dwelling remarkable neither for size or elegance.” Instead, it’s breathtaking for its vibrant, well-preserved frescoes. Better yet, they date from a particularly poignant time in Rome’s history; they were done just a year after the Battle of Actium, when Octavian defeated Mark Antony and Cleopatra–bringing about their demise, the seizure of Egypt, and Rome’s eventual shift from republic to empire, in one fell swoop.

If you decide to visit, know that you might have to wait. Given the frescoes’ fragility, only a handful of visitors are allowed in at a time. But it’s worth the line to get to walk through Octavian’s dining room, bedroom, and reception hall.

And the upside is that, if you linger long enough, you can get Octavian’s house to yourself. Maybe, if you squint your eyes, you can even imagine him standing in the same spot where you are. Maybe he’d be weighing the merits of getting himself named emperor, which would happen three years after the frescoes are finished. Maybe he’d be trying to figure out how to handle Egypt. Or maybe he’d just be contemplating his brand-new frescoes, thinking that, given his wealth and power, he could reward himself with that much elegance. Little would he know that 2,000 years later, we’d be able to appreciate it, too.

The House of Augustus is open Mondays during the summer from 10:30am to 1:30pm, and on Wednesdays, Thursdays, Saturday, and Sunday from 8:30am to 1:30pm. It’s also open throughout the year. Entrance is included in your €12 forum, Colosseum and Palatine ticket price. Just make sure to double-check opening times at the ticket office, as in Italy, they’re often subject to change.

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Galleria Borghese: For the Art Lovers, Bernini, Caravaggio, and More

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Rome's Galleria Borghese is one of Italy's best art museums, filled with pieces by Raphael, Rubens, Titian, Caravaggio and Bernini… to name a few. But it tends not to be on most first-time tourist itineraries. Even though skipping the Borghese is like visiting Paris and dismissing the Musee d'Orsay. If that's you, stop here: maybe art just ain't your thing. And that's okay.

For those who love this kind of stuff, though, you can't miss it. First, there's the building itself. The Villa Borghese, built in the 17th century by Cardinal Scipione Borghese, is a rare gem: Never used as a home, it was built with the express purpose of showing off Scipione's art collection. With art and architecture intertwined, taking in the collection itself is a pleasant, unified experience. Look above you, and frescoes echo the themes of the pieces beneath. Look before you, and ancient and 17th-century sculptures of the same subjects intermingle.

013490_0320 But if there's any broad generalization you can make about the collection, it's that it was certainly borne out of passion: Borghese was such an avid collector that he had Domenechino jailed so he could get his hands on "Diana Hunting," sent henchmen to steal Raphael's "Entombment" from Perugia in the dead of night, and bargained so hard with Caravaggio in a game of 17th-century papal justice known as "Paintings for a Pardon" that he may have helped cause the artist's death. And it has the masterpieces to prove it.

Love Bernini's supple sculptures? Then you'll be blown away by the pieces here, some of the earliest and  Bernini2most famous from his long career: the "Apollo and Daphne," then thought impossible to render in stone (and so beautifully done that, I'll admit, it brought tears to my eyes); the "David," a self-portrait of the artist as he takes on critics and, perhaps, even Michelangelo's own world-famous "David;" "Aeneas and Anchises," done when Bernini was just 21 years old; the "Rape of Proserpina," so realistic you can see how Pluto's fingers indent Proserpina's plush skin — and feel her fear as he carries her to the underworld. Except that it happens to be marble. Right.  

But Bernini's not the only hotshot at the Borghese. Caravaggio, that 17th-century scofflaw who split his time between brawling, barfights and Baroque art, has gotten renewed attention this year with the 400th anniversary of his death. But at the Borghese, he's always been a big deal. One of his earliest patrons was Scipione Borghese, and the villa has his "Sick Bacchus," "Boy with a Basket of Fruit," and "Madonna of the Snakes," among other pieces.

That's not to mention the collection's pieces by Rubens. Raphael. Correggio. Lucas Cranach the Elder. The list keeps going.

The Borghese: There's a reason why it's my first post. It's fantastic.

Just remember that if you go, you must (must!) book in advance, as entrances are only on every odd hour (9am, 11am, 1pm, and so on). Do it a couple of days ahead of time as slots fill up quickly, especially in the high season. You can do it online here for an extra booking fee, or call 0039 06 8413979. A slight hassle? Yes. Worth it? Absolutely.

The Borghese is located at Piazzale del Museo Borghese, 5.

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