Coming to the Beatification in Rome? Here’s What to Expect

Beatification ceremony of Pope John Paul II, Rome
Whether you're one of the brave souls coming to Rome for the beatification ceremony of Pope John Paul II on May 1, or someone who will just happen to be here anyway, be warned: You're not the only one. It's been estimated that 2 to 3 million pilgrims will alight on the city — doubling Rome's population.

Obviously, we won't know if that happens till it happens. But it's probably smart to plan ahead. So anything you can book far in advance, whether hotel or Vatican or walking tour or restaurant, do. And bring your walking shoes: If this many people will really be here, that means cabs will be full and the bus and metro systems, already full during rush hour, will be packed all day along. But even if you're all booked,  remember that even the best-laid plans can go awry. That's true on the best of days in Rome. It'll be even more true now.

One thing that you should be able to count on, though, is the schedule of events for the beatification ceremony itself. The detailed schedule was just announced a couple of days ago. Here it is:

Saturday, April 30

8pm. Prayer vigil, Circus Maximus. Speakers will include Pope John Paull II's closest aide, Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, and his  spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls; Pope Benedict XVI will recite the final oration and bless the people.

Sunday, May 1

9am. St. Peter's Square. Hour of preparation, when the faithful pray the Chaplet of Divine Mercy together.

10am. The liturgy of the beatification, followed by a mass. At the end, a tapestry of Pope John Paul II will be unveiled. After, the Pope and cardinals will pray before John Paul's body in St. Peter's Basilica.

Evening. John Paul II's remains will continue to be in front of the basilica's main altar (known as the "Altar of Confession"), and pilgrims are welcome to venerate there.

Monday, May 2

10:30am. St. Peter's Square. A thanksgiving mass will celebrate John Paul II, with music by the Choir of the Diocese of Rome, Choir of Warsaw and the Wadowice Symphony Orchestra of Poland.

Here's a more-detailed schedule of events from the Vatican.

Continue Reading

In San Lorenzo, One of Rome’s Best Churches

San Lorenzo fuori le Mura, interior, Rome

Today, the neighborhood of San Lorenzo is known for its students, grungy atmosphere, graffiti… and as a place you might not exactly want to wander around alone late at night.

But it should be known for something else, too: the magnificent church that gave the quarter its name.

First off, San Lorenzo fuori le Mura (or "St. Lawrence outside the Walls," because it is — justbarely — outside the city center) is ancient. Literally. Better yet, more of the ancient design has survived here than in Rome's (admittedly many) other ancient churches. Emperor Constantine, the first Christian emperor of Rome, first built an oratory here in the 4th century; the church itself came in the 5th century and was reconstructed by the Byzantines in the 6th.

And there are more than traces of the 5th- and 6th-century structures today. Walk up to the very front of the church and around the altar, and you're exploring the same aisles and chancel that the ancients built (below). Not only that, but the mosaic above you — restored in the Renaissance to the brilliant colors you see today — dates back to the Byzantines, too. Altar and Byzantine construction of San Lorenzo fuori le Mura, Rome

Okay, so the church is ancient, and it's beautiful. Yeah, yeah. What else?

Well, it's built on the spot where St. Lawrence himself is buried. One of Rome's most important saints, Lawrence met his fate during Valerian's persection of Christians in 258 A.D., and — the story has it — was grilled to death. (The Vatican has a sense of humor about the whole thing: Today, he's the patron saint of cooks and chefs).

Lawrence was buried in Christian catacombs here, and when Constantine became emperor, he  built a shrine and funerary hall at Lawrence's tomb. That's all directly under the church's altar today. And if you peek through one of the grates under the altar, and bring a flashlight (or a flash camera!), you can see some of the ancient tunnels that, presumably, lead down into those catacombs. Down into the catacombs at San Lorenzo fuori le Mura, Rome

If that doesn't do it for you, make sure you also check out the mysterious marble slab behind the altar: According to tradition, this is where Lawrence's body was laid after he was grilled… and it left a stain that would never go away.

Not a big fan of St. Lawrence? Hey, it's okay. The church also has the remains of the martyrs St. Stephen and St. Justin, also beneath the altar. And if none of these ancient folks do it for you, then try the gloriously-decorated Chapel of Pope Pius IX, where the longest-reigning pope in history — as well as the pope who convened the First Vatican Council and decreed the dogma of the immaculate conception of Mary — is interred. The pope, who died in 1878, has been kept visible for the faithful today, with just a silver mask covering his face.

All this, of course, is leaving lots of things out. Like the gorgeous 13th-century episcopal throne and marble screen, inlaid with precious porphyry and granite. Or the 13th-century frescoes, still in good condition, on the exterior of the church as you enter. Or the lovely 12th-century cloister, complete with fragments of ancient inscriptions and sarcophagi… and with the remnant of an all-too-modern bomb, courtesy of the Allies, that hit the cloister in World War II.

I could go on. Instead, I'll just leave you with one last gem: a 2nd-century sarcophagus depicting a pagan marriage feast. (Today, incongruously, it holds the 13th-century remains of Cardinal Guglielmo Fieschi). Ancient Roman sarcophagus, San Lorenzo fuori le Mura, Rome

The church is open daily from 7:30am-12:30pm, 3:30pm-7pm, and on Sundays from 7.30am-12.30pm and 4pm-8pm. It's located at Piazzale del Verano, 3, in the heart of San Lorenzo — a 20-minute walk from the Termini train station, or a 10-minute walk from the Policlinico metro stop on line B. Click here for a map.

You might also like:

How Safe is Rome… Really?

For Cucina Romana Done Right, San Lorenzo's Il Pommidoro

Rome's Best Archaeological Museum: Have You Been?

Continue Reading

Twelve Days of Christmas, Twelve Ways to Get in the Spirit in Rome

Christmas Market at Piazza Navona, Rome Like everything else, Christmas in Rome may not be quite what you expect. You won't see a Santa Claus on every corner or hear Christmas carols in every shop, and the city's Christmas markets are lacking compared to those in northern Europe. But Christmas spirit is alive and well in Rome — you just have to know where to seek it out.

And so, I give you: Twelve ways to get into the Christmas spirit in Rome. (Try humming along while reading. Believe me, it helps).

1. On the first day of Christmas, Rome gave to me… one Santa house. Over the next month, Rome's Auditorium transforms into a holiday extravaganza, with 40 Christmas trees, visits with Santa, a Christmas market, and an ice-skating rink. A full calendar of events includes a gospel festival from Dec. 19 to 26. The Christmas festival runs until Jan. 9; the Auditorium , located near Stadio Flaminio, is easily accessible by bus (the 910, 217 and "M" both go there from Termini) or the number 2 tram from the Flaminio metro stop. For more information, click here.

2. Two ice skates. Slipping and sliding Skating underneath the iconic silhouette of Rome's Castel Sant'Angelo, the ancient-mausoleum-turned-castle-of-the-pope, is a holiday tradition. Click here for more information on the Castel Sant'Angelo rink. Other skating rinks in Rome include those at Re di Roma, Tor di Quinto, and Villa Gordiani. 

3. Three…thousand Christmas cribs. Along with its dozens of other museums, Rome even has one devoted to presepi. Featuring more than 3,000 scenes from all over the world, the museum — which is closed in the summer — is open every afternoon from Dec. 24 to Jan. 6, as well as during other limited hours throughout the winter. It's located under the church of Santi Quirico e Giulitta, nearby the Colosseum. For more information, call 06 679 6146.

4. Four (bites of) panettone. Rome's food traditions are incredibly seasonal — and if you want to taste some of the city's best cookies and cakes, Christmas is the right time to come. Try panettone, a traditional Christmas cake (although it tastes more like sweet bread) filled with candied fruits. Other sweets to taste include panforte (a much heavier, denser Christmas cake that's akin to fruitcake) and torrone (chocolate bars filled with nuts or nougat).

5. Five nights of Christmas music. The internationally-renowned academy of Santa Cecilia hosts holiday-themed concerts on five different nights in December, starting on Dec. 7. Make reservations in advance.

6. Six silks a-saving Sudan. It's a Christmas market with a twist: The goods include everything from Nepalese hats to Cambodian silks to Italian panettone, and the proceeds go raise money for the Pediatric Centre in Nyala, Sudan. The Emergency Christmas Market takes place this year at Palazzo Velli on Piazza Sant'Egidio 10, in Trastevere, until Dec. 23.

The Pope at the Spanish Steps for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception 7. Seven chances to see the Pope a-flying by. Getting a rare ticket to Christmas Mass isn't your only option.

8. Eight (thousand) toys a-hanging. The goods at Rome's main Christmas market at Piazza Navona aren't anything to write home about — they're mostly mass-produced toys, decorations, and candies. Still, there's something about seeing Piazza Navona all done up for Christmas, and seeing so many Italian families out and about and in the holiday mood, that's worth making a stop. There's also a carousel for little ones.

9. Nine Lessons and Carols. To celebrate the 4th Sunday in Advent, St. Andrews' Presbyterian Church of Scotland is having its Service of Nine Lessons and Carols — followed by, the website says, "mince pies and mulled wine in the manse." Yum! (And, a "manse" sounds pretty cool). The Nine Lessons and Carols service, in English, is at 11 am on Sunday, Dec. 19.

10. Ten(-squared) cribs a-…cribbing. Now in its 35th year, Rome's "100 Presepi" exhibit of Christmas cribs — including both traditional cribs and the more creative, made out of every material from ostrich eggs to tea bags. The exhibit also has a crib-building workshop for children called "Nativity as a Game" (reservations required). The exhibit runs until Jan. 6 and is located at Piazza del Popolo's Sala del Bramanta. For more information, click here.

11. Eleven pipers piping. It's the time of year when sheepskin-clad bagpipers and flutists from Abruzzo and Calabria come to Rome, playing traditional Christmas songs in the streets. They're performing for free, so if the sheepskin didn't give it away, you'll be able to tell the difference between them and Rome's usual hordes of buskers! Look out for them around the Spanish Steps, Piazza Navona, and St. Peter's.  

12. 12-and-unders singing. This (English) service will retell the Christmas story through activities and carols. It's at the All Saints Rome Church at 5pm on Dec. 24.

Whew!


 

 

 

 

Continue Reading

What Is Open on Christmas in Rome? (Updated for 2018)

What is open on Christmas in Rome?

If you’ve booked your trip to Rome over Christmas, a couple of things normally happen. First, there’s elation. And then there’s an, “Oh no. What’s open on Christmas in Rome? Is anything open on Christmas in Rome?”

There’s reason to wonder. Many Romans do leave the city for their family homes over the holidays. Even so, there are still plenty of people left in this city of 3 million. Here’s what is open on Christmas in Rome… and what won’t be. (New Year’s, too). (For more tips and tricks, don’t miss my ultimate guide to Christmas in Rome!).

Will sites and museums be open during Christmas in Rome?

While some museums and sites will remain open even on Christmas Day and New Year’s, most of the biggies will be shut. The forum, Colosseum and Palatine will be closed Dec. 25 and Jan. 1, for example, but open every other day as usual, including Dec. 24.

The Vatican’s a tougher one: The Vatican museums and Sistine Chapel are closed on Dec. 8, Dec. 25, Dec. 26, and Jan. 1. They’re also closed every Sunday in December and January, as usual, except for the last Sunday of each month, when they are open and free.

What is open on Christmas in Rome?

Check with other sites individually. Here’s where you can find (in English) the hours for all of Rome’s major museums and archaeological sights. Outdoor sites like Piazza Navona and the Trevi Fountain, along with churches, also will be open.

Will the bus and metro be running over Christmas in Rome?

Yes. Often, the city even has an expanded service on Christmas Eve until the early afternoon. Service tends to end at about 9pm that night, though, and cabs are in very short supply, so if you need to be somewhere, give yourself lots of time to get there. On Christmas Eve, walking will probably be your best bet, so dress warmly!

Will restaurants be open on Christmas and New Year’s?

Most restaurants will be open every day except for Dec. 24, Dec. 25, and Jan. 1. Some others might close on Dec. 8, Dec. 31 and Jan. 6.

But many places will also be open on even those holidays themselves, including both classic Italian favorites and the kosher restaurants in the Ghetto. Just remember to book in advance.

What is open on Christmas in Rome?

Katie Parla has a nice little list of good Rome restaurants that are open over the holidays, including Metamorfosi, Romeo and Roscioli.

I want to go shopping over the holidays. Can I?

Throughout December and January, yes. However, most shops will close early on Christmas Eve and will not be open on Christmas Day. Other days some might be closed or have shorter hours include Dec. 8, Dec. 26, and Jan. 1.

If you want the saldi, you’ll have to wait — usually, these after-Christmas sales kick off throughout Lazio on the third Saturday of January.

And what about churches?

Ah, churches! They will, of course, be open on Christmas; many will offer mass at the same time they’d usually have their Sunday service. If you’re interested in attending mass, check with the church in advance. Otherwise, you’re fine to visit most churches as usual, being, of course, particularly respectful and refraining from taking flash photographs if a service is going on. And don’t forget to check out the church’s presepio (Nativity scene) — a particularly Italian handicraft (see below) that is only on display this time of year.

What is open over Christmas in Rome?

Also: Rome’s best Christmas markets, and 11 etiquette mistakes not to make eating in Italy.

Want more great tips and tricks for Rome? Check out The Revealed Rome Handbook: Tips and Tricks for Exploring the Eternal City, available for purchase on Amazon, below, or through my site here!

Continue Reading

How to See the Pope During Christmas in Rome (Updated for 2018)

Pope Benedict XVI at the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, Spanish Steps, Rome

Over the Christmas holidays, many visitors to Rome have one goal in mind: how to see the Pope. (Note: This post has been updated to reflect 2018 dates and information!).

The brass ring of the experience is, of course, midnight Mass at St. Peter’s. While that’s a very, very special (if crowded) experience, it’s also tougher to book than a scavi tour. If you want to take a shot, then fax or write the Prefecture of the Papal Household at +39 06 6988 5863 with your information; here’s where you can find out how to book midnight Mass at St. Peter’s.

Keep in mind that this is best done at least a couple of months in advaance. By December, it’s pretty safe to say there won’t be any spots left—unless, that is, you’re in with a parish that can try to work their magic for you.

Luckily, though, there are other ways to get a glimpse of the Pope over the Christmas holidays. These include:

On December 8, see the Pope at the Spanish Steps. Each Feast Day of the Immaculate Conception, the Pope goes to Piazza di Spagna in an act of homage to Mary (see photo at top… previous pope, same idea!). (Get there early to get closest to the column erected in honor of the Immaculate Conception, which is where the Pope will be for his blessing). It’s at 4pm, and no tickets are required.

Even if you don’t have tickets to midnight Mass, you can still attend. You’ll just have to stand out in the piazza and watch the ceremony on Jumbotrons; not quite the same, okay, but still pretty neat with thousands of people packed into the square. Just remember that it’s actually at 9:30pm, not midnight. (Pope Benedict changed it a few years ago, apparently wanting to get to bed a bit earlier, and Pope Francis has followed in his stead).

Go to “Urbi et Orbi” on Christmas Day. This is the special blessing the Pope gives the crowd — and gives all Catholics watching or listening through T.V. or radio worldwide — that happens only twice a year, at Christmas and Easter. The Pope appears at the loggia of St. Peter’s Basilica at St. Peter’s Square for the blessing at noon. Tickets aren’t required.

Pray the “Angelus” with the Pope throughout December. For 2018, in December the Pope leads the faithful in prayer from his window at noon on Dec. 2, 9, 16, 23 and 31. For January dates, check here as we get closer. Tickets aren’t required.

Attend a Wednesday papal audience. The general audience will occur every Wednesday in December and January, as usual. Tickets are required (but free); send your information to the same fax number as listed above for the midnight Mass.

Get tickets to another Pope-led mass. In December 2018 and January 2019*, these include:

  • Dec. 12: Mass for the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, St. Peter’s Basilica, 6pm
  • Dec. 24: Mass for the Solemnity for the Birth of Our Lord, St. Peter’s Basilica, 9:15pm
  • Dec. 31: The First Vespers and “Te Deum,” St. Peter’s Basilica, 5pm
  • Jan. 1: Holy Mass, St. Peter’s Basilica, 10am*
  • Jan. 6: Holy Mass for the Epiphany, St. Peter’s Basilica, 10am*
  • Jan. 12: Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, Sistine Chapel, 9:45am*

*January 2019 details have not yet been released; when they are, they’ll be here. However, they’ll be the same dates and likely the same times and locations as what’s shown above.

Remember that, again, you need tickets for these Masses in advance. (For less popular ceremonies, you can turn up two or three days in advance and get them directly from the Swiss Guards, without having to fax in advance. Truly. But for special ceremonies like these, I’d recommend doing the advance booking).

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.

Continue Reading

A Medieval Church with More than Meets the Eye: Rome’s St. George in Velabro

Church of St. George in Velabro, Forum Boarium, Rome St. George in Velabro is one of the most-overlooked churches in Rome…in one of the city's most-overlooked central areas, the Forum Boarium. That's a shame, because it's one of Rome's loveliest small-church gems. And, located between the Aventine and Palatine hills, it's hardly far from Rome's major sights.

The church isn't elaborate. If you're used to seeing Rome's Baroque masterpieces or Mannerist frescoes, it can seem somewhat plain. But that's all part of its charm.

And, more importantly, its age. St. George in Velabro dates back to the 5th century, and most of the brick facade is 7th century. The apse and much of the rest of the interior were built in the 9th century; the campanile, the 12th century (though rebuilt in 1837); the present portico along with the interior frescoes, the 13th century. As a result, St. George in Velabro is a thoroughly Romanesque church — and beautiful in its seeming simplicity. 

But don't let the style, or small size, fool you: The basilica is rich in history and treasures. For worshipers coming here for 1,300 years, the most important are the relics that give the church its name… the bones of St. George. (Yes, the same saint who slaid a dragon and is the patron of not just England, but Genoa, Venice, Barcelona, Portugal, Lithuania, Georgia, the Crusaders, and the Boy Scouts. Really. That means this is one saint who has a lot of bones in a lot of churches worldwide, something of an issue for skeptics). St. George's (supposed) cranium is kept in a red-lined case under the 12th-century altar, one of the most beautiful altars of its day. Interior of St. George in Velabro, Forum Boarium, Rome

That's not it for this church. Don't miss the frescoes in the ceiling of the apse, done in 1300 by Pietro Cavallini, Rome's best-known artist of the time. (If his style looks familiar, then a) you have a good eye and b) you've probably been to the Church of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, where his fresco of the Last Judgment is considered to be his masterpiece).

Note, too, all of the ancient Roman remnants tucked into this church. The 16 columns inside, for example, date from the first to seventh centuries and were taken from ancient structures on the Palatine. (Medieval recycling!) Don't miss, either, the ancient arch seemingly built into the left side of the church's exterior. The arch dates to 264 A.D., and the church was actually built into it. Called the arco degli argentari, the arch was a gate on the road between the main forum and the forum boarium, where moneychangers (argentari) worked.

Finally, there's one last thing to this church that doesn't meet the eye: its toughness. I don't mean in terms of its mere age. On July 27, 1993, a Mafia-set car bomb exploded just outside the church's portico. (Two other simultaneous bombings took place at Rome's San Giovanni in Laterano and Milan's duomo; six people were killed). The 13th-century porch of St. George in Velabro was shattered. A hole blew through the wall. More than 1,000 fragments left from the bombing were pieced carefully together in the ensuing repairs. But take a closer look. The damaged capitals of the columns on the porch, along with other details, haven't been fixed, a testament to the crime.

San Giorgio in Velabro is located is located on Via del Velabro 19, a short walk from the Mouth of Truth and Circus Maximus. Click here for a map. For more information, click here.

Continue Reading

Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, Rome’s Gothic Gem

Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, Rome Most visitors wander right past Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, intent on getting to the Pantheon, just a stone's throw away. While you can't necessarily blame them — from the outside, Santa Maria looks rather plain — they're missing out.

Because Santa Maria Sopra Minerva is one of Rome's most beautiful churches. It's a fresh experience after the dozens of Baroque and Renaissance buildings that populate the rest of Rome. And it boasts a number of treasures, from the body of St. Catherine of Siena to a (supposed) Michelangelo statue.

Built from 1280 to 1370, the church is the only Gothic church in Rome, at least in style. That's not the only different thing about it. There's also the name, which literally means "St. Mary on top of Minerva"; it got that title because it was built on top of an ancient Roman temple to Minerva. And it's here — well, in the Dominican monastery next door — that Galileo was tried for saying the earth revolved around the sun.

Inside, the interior opens up in all its pointed-arches, blue-sky-with-gold-stars Gothic glory. (It's particularly vibrant thanks to 19th century restorations). Walk all the way to the apse, and you'll see, on the left, "Christ Bearing the Cross," a marble statue started by Michelangelo in 1521. It was finished by a student of his — who was later fired from the job for his inadequacy — and it's no clear exactly how much of a hand the master really had in it. Still, pretty neat. Look out, too, for the tomb of Fra Angelico, the beatified early Renaissance painter, on the left.St. Catherine of Siena, Santa Maria Sopra MinervaMeanwhile, the altar holds something really precious: the body of St. Catherine of Siena (above). The patroness of Europe, the saint is credited with having convinced the popes to return to Rome from Avignon in 1377, and her reams of political and religious writing — and their influence — have made her one of only three female Doctors of the Church. Her body is here, not far from the nearby house where she died at the age of 33. (Her head is in Siena). 

But that's not all for Santa Maria Sopra Minerva's treasures. Don't miss the Carafa Chapel to the right of the apse, which was frescoed by Filippino Lippi from 1488-1492. Look out for the dark-garbed man who seems out of place in frescoes, like the central one of the Assumption: He's St. Thomas of Aquinas.The Assumption, Filippino Lippi, Santa Maria Sopra Minerva

Remember: Next time you're going to the Pantheon, stop here. You won't be disappointed.

Santa Maria Sopra Minerva is open from 7am-7pm on weekdays, and from 8am-7pm on weekends. It does close, though, from 1pm-3:30pm on weekends and holidays. It's located on Piazza della Minerva, right near the Pantheon. For a map, click here

You might also like:

Where to Eat in Rome's Most Touristy Areas: The Pantheon, Colosseum and Spanish Steps

Crypta Balbi, Hidden Gem of a Museum in Rome

Santo Stefano Rotondo, for Strong Stomachs Only

Continue Reading

Travel Virtually to Rome’s Top Sites

School of Athens by Raphael in the Vatican museums Memories fade, and photographs don't always do justice to Rome's top attractions. Now, though, a spate of virtual tours allow travelers to explore some of Rome's most popular buildings and art, from the Sistine Chapel to the Capitoline Museums — all from the comfort of home.

Below, some of the best of the virtual lineup. Prepare to want to start planning your next trip to Rome!

St. Peter's Basilica, now visitable virtuallySt. Peter's Basilica. Gorgeous virtual tour by the Vatican itself. Highly professional and stunning.

The Sistine Chapel. Also by the Vatican.

The Vatican Museums, including the Pinacoteca (below), Raphael Rooms, Etruscan Museum and Egyptian Museum.

San Giovanni in Laterano, or St. John Lateran, the official ecclesiastical seat of the Bishop of Rome (i.e. the Pope) and the mother church of Catholics.

St. Paul Outside the Walls, founded in the 4th century on the burial place of St. Paul and one of Rome's four papal basilicas.Raphael's paintings at the Pinacoteca, Vatican museums, Rome

The Capitoline Museums. They're the oldest public museums in Rome and boast some of Italy's best ancient, Renaissance, and Baroque art. Now, you can visit all 45 of their rooms… digitally.

The Pantheon. Rome's single best-preserved ancient building; the tour isn't as professional as the previous virtual tours, but still pretty great.

Church of Santa Maria del Popolo, a beautiful example of the blending of the Baroque and Renaissance styles of architecture. It's famous for its Caravaggio paintings — which, bummer, you can't see in the tour — but also for its Chigi Chapel designed by Raphael, which you can.

The Ara Pacis, the altar made from 13-9 B.C. to commemorate Emperor Augustus' victories and the Pax Romana. (Scroll to the bottom of the page and click on "Ara Pacis").

Circus Maximus, where ancient charioteers once raced (make this full-screen for a better image)

Largo Argentina, with the remains of four ancient Republican temples

And, yes… the Colosseum! Colosseum, Rome
Finally: Yes, virtual tours of what actually exists are all well and good — but virtual tours of what ancient Rome would have looked like? Maybe even better.

UCLA's Digital Roman Forum includes both modern and ancient views of the forum, including the basilicas Julia and Aemilia. Pick a time between 700 B.C. and 500 A.D., click on the map, and see what that spot looks like in 360 degrees today — and an image of what it would have looked like then rotates with you.

It's a work in progress and only shows you what the sites look like today, but this other virtual tour of the Roman forum features 360-degree views of a dozen different spots in the ancient landscape.

Now, if only you could also virtually enjoy the taste of pasta alla gricia or the feel of the warm Roman sun on your neck…

 

 

Continue Reading

Siena: A Gem of the Tuscan Countryside

Siena at night, Tuscany, Italy

Less than three hours from Rome, the city boasts some of Italy’s best medieval and early-Renaissance art and architecture, winding stone streets, beautiful views of the Tuscan countryside, and a breathtaking duomo. And no, it’s not Florence. It’s Siena.
View of the Piazza del Campo, Siena, Tuscany(Warning: I think Siena’s so darn lovely, there may be photo- and gush-overload ahead).

One of Italy’s strongest city-states by the Middle Ages, Siena today still appears much as it would have at its height in the 13th and 14th centuries. But while merely wandering around could keep you occupied for a full day, the city has a great deal of things to do jam-packed into its medieval walls, particularly for art and architecture lovers. And since the city reached its height so much earlier than Rome, Siena’s style is a nice antidote to Rome’s Baroque glory.

One of Siena’s can’t-miss sights is the Duomo. It took my breath away — and that’s saying something for someone who’s lucky enough to live in Rome and see St. Peter’s Basilica several times a week. Built from the 13th to 14th centuries, the list of those who contributed to the cathedral reads like a who’s-who of Italy’s most influential artists: Michelangelo, Donatello, Bernini, Nicola and Giovanni Pisano, Baldassare Peruzzi, Pinturicchio and, perhaps, even Raphael. Wow.

Duomo of Siena

Unsurprisingly, the result is a triumph of every kind of art. Take the floor alone: The floor boasts 56 different panels of marble inlay, depicting sibyls, Old Testament scenes, allegories, and virtues. You could easily spend an hour simply admiring and puzzling out the scenes at your feet. And that’s just the floor. (If you want to see this, keep in mind that the cathedral’s floor is uncovered for only part of the year, usually a month or two starting in September, so check in advance.)

You can’t miss the Piccolomini Library, either, almost the Duomo’s version of the Sistine Chapel for its vibrancy and incredible story-telling through beautiful scenes (below).

Piccolomini Library, Duomo of Siena, TuscanyBut once you’ve done that, you’re not even done with the Duomo yet. That’s because there’s still the baptistery (boasting a baptismal font with reliefs by Donatello, Ghiberti, and Jacopo della Quercia, among others), and the Museo del’Opera del Duomo, with such gems as Duccio’s famous Maestà (1308–1311).

Even more incredibly, there’s the narthex underneath the current Duomo. Part of the even older cathedral that had been on this spot first, it was discovered and excavated only ten years ago. The 13th-century frescoes from the then-entrance of the church are still incredibly vibrant.

Seriously: Go to Siena for the Duomo alone.

But the city boasts lots of other gems, too. There’s the Palazzo Pubblico, the late 13th- and early 14th-century palace built as the seat of the city’s republican government, which boasts room after room of medieval and Renaissance frescoes, including the famous frescoes of good and bad government by Ambrogio Lorenzetti, 1338-1340 (below, the allegory of good government). Effects of Good Government, Palazzo Pubblico, Siena, Tuscany

There’s also the Pinacoteca Nazionale, with its collection of beautiful medieval and Renaissance paintings. And there’s the Piazza del Campo, the world-famous scallop-shaped central square where the equally-famous Palio of Siena is held.

All of those gems, though, mean that you won’t be the only traveler in Siena. It’s no Rome or Florence (yet), but still, if you’re heading there from spring to fall, expect massive tour groups. This also means it’s a little tough to find, say, classic, non-touristy Tuscan restaurants (although we managed). But the sheer beauty of the city’s offerings is worth it.

You can get to Siena by car or train. Driving from Rome will take about 2 hours, 45 minutes. There’s no direct train, but even with the change, the train takes only 3 hours; to check the Trenitalia schedule, click here. It’s doable for a day-trip, but to be able to see everything Siena has to offer, plan at least two days there.

*The photograph of the allegory of good government comes via the Web Gallery of Art. All other photos mine.

Continue Reading

The Hagia Sofia: Roman Ruin, and Symbol of a City

Interior of the Hagia Sofia, Istanbul

There’s a reason why the Hagia Sofia is so
evocative of all of Istanbul: It’s a microcosm of the city's entire history, from Roman origins to Ottoman Islam to today’s (relatively) secular
nationalism. 

DSC_0235The site initially held an ancient temple, some remnants of
which remain in the current structure — like the dolphin design on the column to the right. The first Christian cathedral was built
on the site in 360 A.D.; it was rebuilt twice, both times after being destroyed by riots. (To see what the older Hagia Sofia(s) would have looked like, check out Byzantium 1200's digital reconstructions).

The current
building, which dates back to 537, was the largest church in the Roman empire. It also remained the biggest cathedral in the world for almost a millennium, beat out only by
the Seville Cathedral in 1520.

In 1453, with Constantinople’s seizure by the
Ottomans, the Hagia Sofia was turned into a mosque. And in 1935, at the height of Turkey’s
secularization under Ataturk, it became a museum.

See what I mean about it being a microcosm of Istanbul — and Turkey — in general?

You could write a book on the Hagia Sofia. (Many have). But among the many treasures not to miss are
its gorgeous Byzantine mosaics, which date back as far as the 9th century. Also
make sure you check out the seraphim (above) who was only recently uncovered: Although
his three compatriots are still plastered over, his face was revealed this year after
being hidden for centuries by the Ottomans.

Coronation disk of the Hagia Sofia, IstanbulFor a clear tie to the city of Rome, meanwhile, look no further than the gray granite disk set into the floor, on the right of the middle of the church (left). Placed here by Justinian in the 530s, this is where the Byzantine emperors knelt to be crowned as early as 641. If you've visited St. Peter's Basilica, you know that the Roman basilica boasts a similar disk in red porphyry; that's the rota porphyretica, set into the old St. Peter's Basilica and the spot where the pope crowned Charlemagne as Holy Roman Emperor in 800. The similarity in the two stones is no mistake. Charlemagne was setting himself up in direct opposition to the "other" successors to the Roman empire, the Byzantines, and by crowning him, Pope Leo III was showing that the papacy had wriggled from Byzantine control and was choosing the Holy Roman Empire as its protector instead. It's also no mistake that the St. Peter's Basilica disk is red porphyry, a precious stone that "one-upped" its sister stone in the Hagia Sofia. (Take that, Byzantines!)

On a broader, architectural note, of course, it's no surprise that the Hagia Sofia looks — almost — reminiscent of that seemingly divinely-inspired building in Rome: the Pantheon. Both structures innovated in setting a circular dome on a square, rather than circular, shape. And both awed contemporaries by building domes on such a large scale: The Hagia Sofia's original dome, which collapsed in 559, was thought to be slightly bigger in diameter but shallower than the current one, built in 563. Even so, the Hagia Sofia's dome today is 102 feet in diameter — just 40 feet smaller than the Pantheon's. (Check out the difference between the two in the images, below).

Don't miss the garden of the church, either. There, in an unassuming tumble that reminded me of abandoned bits of column in Rome's Forum, lie several marble blocks from the second church, dating back to 415. The most striking among them depicts twelve lambs, each symbolizing one of the twelve apostles. Many more remnants of the ancient church remain in the area — but they're still buried underneath the ground, excavations ending in the 1930s after it was realized that continued work could harm the current structure.

Even without that, though, there are enough treasures in the Hagia Sofia to keep a history or archaeology geek satisfied — and maybe a little bit awed.

Dome of the Hagia Sofia, Istanbul
Dome of the Pantheon, Rome

Continue Reading