The History Channel’s “Caligula: 1400 Days of Terror” Premieres in the U.S.

Caligula copy
Rumor has it he made his horse a consul, his palace a brothel, and his sisters his, erm, “girlfriends.” Two thousand years later, the jury’s still out on how crazy Emperor Caligula really was.But one thing’s for certain: He was, and remains, a fascinating character.

That’s why I was thrilled to be a host/”story-teller” for the History Channel’s 2-hour documentary on the Roman emperor, produced by North South Productions. And, having premiered in Australia and New Zealand, the documentary is finally coming out in the U.S.

So mark your calendars: The U.S. premiere date for “Caligula: 1400 Days of Terror” is Tuesday, Oct. 9 at 9pm. Tune in to hear me and other friends in Rome, including Katie Parla and Darius Arya, share the latest theories behind this still-mysterious figure!

Update, Oct. 4: The preview has just been put online! You can get a glimpse of the show here.

Update, Nov. 5: You can now buy the documentary for instant download from Amazon for $2.99; get it here.

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Correct Your Tour Guide: Two Major Myths About Ancient Romans

Myths about ancient Romans

Over the years, I have heard a lot of misconceptions about ancient Rome (and ancient Romans). From guidebooks. From tourists. Even from (some) tour guides.

My favorite myth about ancient Rome might be what I spotted in the Fodor’s Rome guidebook: The holes in the Colosseum come from the fact that it was shelled by Nazis. WTF? That’s just false. Thankfully, I later became a contributor for Fodor’s… so it’s one error that was removed starting in the 2012 edition.

Bikini girls mosaic Sicily
These 4th-century Roman mosaics, located in the Villa Romana del Casale of Sicily, show women throwing a discus, running, even lifting weights – and may show an actual athletic competition

Still, lots of other misconceptions are hanging around — and way harder to correct. Here are two that I find most irritating, and what the truth is behind them.

Misconception #1: Ancient Romans had very short lives, and if you made it to 35, you were old 

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard this: “The life expectancy of the average Roman was 35.” What people, including many tour guides, usually draw from this is that 30- and 40-something Romans must have been very venerable indeed.

Here’s the problem. Aside from the fact that the data is terrible, this 35-year life expectancy is the average. Meaning it factors in the ancient world’s very high child mortality rate: Up to half of all Roman kids died before the age of 10. If you did reach 10, you could expect to live into your 40s or 50s, at least. Then there’s all the Roman men who died in military service… and the women who died in childbirth.

If you jumped through those hoops and survived your teens, 20s, and 30s, you’d have no reason to think you wouldn’t lead a nice, long life. In fact, those who reached the age of 60 would, on average, die after their 70th birthdays.

Did people really all die young in ancient Rome
No, not everyone was this age, and looked like this, in ancient Rome (although a girl can dream!)

So no, someone at 35 wouldn’t have been seen as an “old person.” “From around the first century B.C. onwards, the age of 60 or 65 was commonly mentioned as the threshold of old age,” writes Karen Cokayne in her book Experiencing Old Age in Ancient Rome. That’s also the age when you got out of previous public obligations, like jury duty (yay!). And if everyone was dead in their 30s, how would justice ever have been served? Exactly.

For more, don’t miss my story written in October 2018 for BBC Future: Do we really live longer than our ancestors?

In other words: In the ancient world, child mortality sucked. But if they survived their childhood, childbirth, and military service, Romans could expect to live as long as we do today.

Misconception #2: Ancient Roman women had, like, no rights whatsoever

What rights did women really have in ancient Rome?
The House of the Vestal Virgins in the Roman forum

Let me make one thing clear: In no way would I rather be an ancient Roman woman than an American/Italian one (although, as a huge history nerd, making the trade for the chance to see the empire in its glory would be tempting…). But I might rather be a woman in ancient Rome than, I don’t know, a 21st-century woman in some other countries in the world.

First, the bad news: Ancient Roman women were citizens, but they couldn’t vote or hold political office. (Like America less than 100 years ago). And, technically, their father held patria potestas, or ultimate life-and-death power, over them until they died. (Eek!).

Still, some other things might surprise you. Ancient Roman women:

  • could own property, engage in business, and loan money
  • served as some of the empire’s most important priests (think: the Vestal Virgins, who weren’t under their father’s technical authority and who, thanks to those vows of chastity, didn’t have the usual obligation to marry and raise children)
  • had the legal right to split their father’s property, 50-50, with their brothers
  • fought as gladiators (…a rare occurrence, but it did happen!)
  • went to public primary schools, and either received the same education as, or learned alongside, the boys
  • worked out in gyms and may have participated in athletic contests (see the photo at top!)

In other words: Men and women were hardly equal in ancient Roman society. But, compared to other ancient societies — and even to some modern ones — Roman women had it pretty well.

Intrigued? Here’s some further reading:

Daily Life in the Roman City: Rome, Pompeii, and Ostia, a close look at the inner workings of urban Roman life

Ancient Rome: The Autobiography, an entertaining look at what it would have been like to live in ancient Roman times

Roman Women (Cambridge Introduction to Roman Civilization), a great, comprehensive, and easy-to-read overview of women’s roles in ancient Roman society

Rome’s Vestal Virgins, a thorough, and fascinating, look at the cult of Rome’s most powerful priestesses

Roman Women, a collection of essays about Roman women who were active in politics, theater, culture, and religion

Experiencing Old Age in Ancient Rome, on how Romans experienced and dealt with aging

Also: Rome’s most cutting-edge ancient site, 11 etiquette mistakes not to make at an Italian meal and can Rome’s ancient world be saved? (my 2016 video with the BBC).

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 Appian Way, Rome: Why You Need to Add It to Your List (Updated for 2019)

The Appian Way often gets overlooked by visitors to Rome. And that’s an extraordinary shame. A stroll on the Appian Way (or, to Italians, Via Appia Antica) is more than a mere walk. It’s a time machine that takes you back to ancient Rome, a way to experience the Italian countryside without leaving the city, and a twist on a passeggiata all in one.

The Appian Way was built all the way back in 312 B.C. (hence why Italians call it Via Appia Antica). And it was crucial. The first road linking farther-flung parts of the Roman empire with the capital, it first ran to Capua, just north of Naples. Since it allowed Romans to transport soldiers and supplies, the Appian Way proved integral to the Romans conquering the Samnites of southern Italy. In 191 B.C., the Romans extended the road all the way to Brindisi, in modern-day Puglia.

The really cool part?

You can still walk on the Appian Way today. On stones ancient Romans would have walked on. Again, it’s called Via Appia Antica for a reason.

Appian Way Rome

Or even take a bike ride. Check out my video of bicycling down the Appian Way (and hold onto your handlebars — those paving stones make for a rocky ride!).

Not to mention that the Appian Way boasts ancient catacombs, tombs, mausoleums, and even fragments of villas that once would have lined this all-important entrance to the city — a way for Romans to flaunt their wealth and status.

On the Appian Way in Rome

But let’s put the Appian Way today aside for a moment. Even if this were just a dirt road — no ruins, no ancient stone paving — it would give you shivers to walk on this path. Let’s just think about what’s happened here:

  • Spartacus, the famous leader of Rome’s largest slave revolt, was crucified on the Appian Way along with 6,000 of his followers in 71 B.C. Just imagine the bodies lining the 125 miles between Rome and Capua. Shudder.
  • St. Peter took this road out of Rome, fleeing Nero’s persecutions, in 64 A.D. According to legend, he saw Christ — crucified years earlier — coming into the city as he left, provoking his famous phrase “Domine, quo vadis?” (Lord, where are you going?), a question immortalized in the name of the church built on the spot.
  • In the villas along the road, early Christian converts allowed their fellow Christians to worship and, ultimately, to be buried beneath their gardens; catacombs sprung up along (and beneath) the Appian Way of Rome.

That’s all, of course, aside from the fact that this was a busy thoroughfare that would have been used by soldiers and plebeians, patricians and consuls, throughout the Roman empire’s existence. In other words: Yes, Caesar walked here.

And in a lot of ways, the Appian Way hasn’t changed much. As it would have been in earlier times, the Via Appia remains a chic address, one that shows wealth and breeding. Villas are still set off from the main road, gated, just as they would have been 2,000 years ago.

Villa on the Appian Way, RomeOf course, there are also lots of sights to see along the Appian Way, too.

Like the Tomb of Cecilia Metella (shown below). The best-preserved tomb along the Appian Way, this was built for the daughter-in-law of Marcus Licinius Crassus — a guy who suppressed Spartacus’ slave revolt, entered the First Triumvirate with Pompey, and who was the richest man in Roman history. In the early 14th century, Pope Boniface VIII acquired the tomb for his family, and it was turned into the fortress you see today.

Tomb of Cecilia Metella on the Appian Way Rome
Or the Villa dei Quintili, a huge villa built by the wealthy Quintilii brothers in the 2nd century… so huge that, when it was first excavated, locals thought it must have been a town. In fact, the villa was so incredible that Emperor Commodus put its owners to death — just so he could get his own hands on it.

Or the Circus of Maxentius (below). Erected in the early 4th century, its fragments still give an idea of the grandeur of what was once the second-largest circus in Rome, after only the Circus Maximus.

Circus of Maxentius along the Appian Way in Rome

Or the Capo di Bove, an archaeological site that’s just a sliver of an enormous property; the villa was built in the 2nd century by Herodes Atticus, the tutor to future emperors Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus, and Aspasia Annia Regilla, his aristocratic (and 25-years-younger) wife. The excavations today reveal what would have been the villa’s thermal baths, complete with original flooring and mosaics.

A murder mystery is hidden here, too: Annia was kicked to death at eight months pregnant… and it’s thought her husband may have been responsible for her murder.

Capo di Bove on the Appian Way RomeOr the Basilica of San Sebastiano fuori le Mura, the church of the Catacombs of St. Sebastian. It’s most fascinating — at least to me — for having a Bernini sculpture no one seems to know about: the “Salvator Mundi,” a bust of Christ that art historians think was Bernini’s very last work. (It’s on the right as you enter the church, beside the Relics Chapel).

That’s not to mention the catacombs themselves, including the Catacombs of Callixtus and the Catacombs of St. Sebastian.

Still not convinced? I’ll say it again: If you can’t tell from the photographs, the Appian Way is a peaceful, surprisingly rural-feeling part of Rome. It helps that after the first part of the Via Appia, the road becomes closed to most traffic, so it’s perfect for pedestrians. 

And it’s not far. The best way to get to the start of the Via Appia is to take a bus. From the Colosseum, for example, it’s just 15 minutes on the #118. The 118 also stops close to the bike rental at Via Appia Antica 42, if you’d rather bike than stroll. (If you’re using Google Maps, don’t just put in “Appia Antica”, which takes you to a random spot far down the road. Instead, put in “Appia Antica regional park” as your destination).

Just remember not to take your stroll on a Sunday if you want to enter the sites, as that’s when the catacombs are closed.

Also: two facts about ancient Rome you probably didn’t know, why you should visit Rome’s only pyramid and why you might want to visit Naples.

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 Mausoleum of Santa Costanza: Ancient Mosaics and a Round Church

Church of Santa Costanza, Rome

One of Rome's most ancient churches, the Mausoleum of Santa Costanza is more than a building. It's a treasure trove of some of the earliest Christian art in Rome.

According to tradition, the mausoleum was built in the 4th century for Costanza, one of the daughters of Emperor Constantine (you know, the guy who legalized Christianity). In reality, it was probably built for her younger sister Helena, and Costanza's body was transferred here to lie with her. (Details, details).

Most importantly, though, the mausoleum was decorated opulently—as would befit the daughter of an emperor. (Helena also was married to the emperor Julian the Apostate, so she was doubly important). That explains the mosaics that decorate the church's ceiling and walls, which, as 4th-century mosaics, are some of the most important early Christian art in the world.

Mosaics in Santa Costanza, a church in Rome

Interestingly, the ancient mosaics also illustrate the shift from pagan to Christian art, and how heavily the early Christians were still leaning on pagan traditions. The scenes of grape harvesting and the details of peacocks, amphorae, and vines all had their roots (no pun intended) in pagan art. (Since a major part of Constantine's policy was adapting pagan traditions to the new, Christian ideas, this, of course, is a fitting symbol of the empire's politics at the time).

The other cool thing about the mausoleum is its shape. It's round, with twelve columns and twelve arches holding up a twelve-windowed dome (yeah, twelve is kind of symbolic). In fact, Santo Stefano in Rotondo only wins the title of being an "older" round church in Rome because of a technicality: It was built in the 5th century as a round church, not as a mausoleum, while Santa Costanza became a church officially only in the 13th century. Either way, the whole round-church aspect is pretty neat.

And if you're wondering where the sarcophagi of Costanza and her sister are today, well, you have to get to the Vatican.The one you see here is a copy of the red porphyry original in the Vatican museums, probably for Helena (pictured below), while Costanza's tomb is probably in St. Peter's Basilica.

Sarcophagus of Costanza, once in the mausoleum in Rome

Santa Costanza is located at the intersection of Via Nomentana and Via di Sant'Agnese; here's a map of the location of the Church of Santa Costanza. The mausoleum is open Tuesday through Saturday from 9am-12pm and 4pm-6pm, Sunday from 4pm-6pm, and Monday from 9am-12pm. Since it's right next to the Basilica of Sant'Agnese fuori le Mura and the Sant'Agnese catacombs, coordinate your visit with a stop there, too.

You might also like:

Rome's Coolest, Most Cutting-Edge Ancient Site 

The Newly Renovated Palazzo Barberini: The Verdict 

The Medieval Basilica of Santi Quattro Coronati


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The Renaissance’s Bloody (and Papal) Borgia Clan… Makes for Super-Fun Reading

Borgia apartments built by Pope Alexander VI, vatican

Cunning, cruel, fickle, and anything but religious, the Borgia family hasn’t exactly gone down in history as one of Rome’s more-honorable noble clans. Making matters more scandalous, though, is that the Borgias contributed two popes — and the second proved to be one of the most scandalous leaders in the Church’s history.

When you go to Rome today, you’ll hardly see any signs of the family that kept Rome in its grasp for some 15 years. The Borgia crest has been wiped off of the walls in Castel Sant’Angelo, where Pope Alexander VI hid in mourning after his son was found murdered — perhaps by his other son. The once-sumptuous Borgia apartments, despite retaining some of their frescoes by Pinturrichio and their beautiful Spanish floor tiles, are all but ignored by the Vatican. (Some of the rooms now host the Vatican museum’s collection of modern art; others are supposed to be opened to the public soon, but they haven’t been opened yet, including the room in the picture above).

Ceramic tiles in floor of Borgia apartments, Vatican

Even the tomb of Pope Alexander VI — along with that of his uncle, Calixtus II — is relatively understated and unknown, in the rarely-open Spanish Church of Santiago y Monserrat.

Let’s face it: Pope Alexander VI’s rule, from 1492 to 1503, was pretty bad. People thought it was bad even at the time. And when you’re talking about an era when it was pretty commonplace for cardinals and the pope to be masters at nepotism, simony, and, er, illicit liaisons (Pope Julius II fathered three, or perhaps five, children while cardinal), that’s really saying something.

The good news? If the Borgias were bad, then learning about them — and, by proxy, about Renaissance Rome and Italy — is pretty, well, fun.

One way to do this: reading The Borgias and Their Enemies: 1431-1519, by Christopher Hibbert. It’s too bad the title is so dry, because the content is anything but. I recently devoured it like a beach read. (The only thing that makes a story about a ridiculously dysfunctional family even more fun… is when it’s true!).

Don’t believe me that the Borgias have some juicy stories? Some of the book’s best tidbits:

Portrait of Lucrezia from Borgia apartments, Vatican-When Lucrezia, Pope Alexander VI’s daughter, was just 13 years old, she was married to 24-year-old widower Giovanni Sforza. Reason: Giovanni’s cousin happened to be the ruler of Milan. Three years later, when the alliance between the Borgias and the Sforzas of Milan became less useful, the Pope decided to dissolve the marriage. How? By having Lucrezia sign a declaration saying it had never been consummated — and forcing her soon-to-be-ex-husband to declare, publicly, that he was impotent. The furious Giovanni, in turn, hinted that the Pope and Cesare wanted Lucrezia for themselves. (Above, a fresco from the closed Borgia apartments that shows Lucrezia, in blue with a scarlet cloak, on the left).

When the divorce was signed, Lucrezia was six months pregnant. But not by Giovanni: During the fracas, she’d been staying at a convent… where she’d received frequent visits from a Spanish valet who worked for her father. When Cesare, Lucrezia’s possessive older brother, discovered the affair, he went berserk, chasing the young man with his sword. The boy ran to Pope Alexander VI, who wrapped his robes around him — only for Cesare to slash at his father’s robes, staining them with blood.

A month before Lucrezia’s child, a son, was born, the young father’s body was fished out of the Tiber. As the prolific recorder Johannes Burchard, the Pope’s Master of Ceremonies, wrote, he “fell, not of his own free will, into the Tiber.”

The baby, a boy, was stillborn. At the same time, though, another baby was born to the Borgia clan. This one was the son not of Lucrezia, but of Pope Alexander VI himself. This, of course, led to whispers of incest, with gossips saying that the two sons were one and the same. (Below, the Borgia family crest — one of the rare ones that remains in the Vatican).

The Borgia family crest, in the Vatican-When the French invaded in 1494, Rome experienced its first major outbreak of… syphilis. (Fun!). Entertainingly, it became known as the “morbo gallico” or “mal francese” by the Italians. As for the French? They called it “le mal de Napoli”. Regardless of its origins, syphilis felled not only thousands of Romans, but no fewer than 17 members of Alexander VI’s family, including Cesare (who had been made a cardinal by his father). In fact, Cesare was such a frequent sufferer of syphilis, his personal physician wound up writing a treatise on the disease — and dedicating it to Cesare. 

-In 1497, Juan, another of Pope Alexander VI’s sons, disappeared. The circumstances couldn’t be more mysterious. What we know: That night, Juan dined with his brother Cesare before saying he wanted to “pursue pleasure” for the night. He left with only a footman and a masked man — identity unknown — who had been visiting him at the Vatican nearly every day for the past month.

At the Piazza degli Ebrei, Juan told the footman that he and the masked man would go on alone. Later that night, the footman was found in a puddle of blood, badly wounded, and brought into a nearby house — whose owner was so frightened, he didn’t report what happened until the next day, when the footman was dead.

When Juan still hadn’t returned, the Pope, anxious, started to investigate. A timber merchant, who unloaded his wood from boats on the river, told him he’d seen five men throw a corpse into the river on that night. When the Tiber was dredged, Juan’s body — stabbed multiple times, and with a purse with coins within — was found. The kicker? When the merchant was asked why he hadn’t reported what he’d seen earlier, his response was simple. Since he’d seen at least 100 bodies thrown into the river, he said, he hadn’t thought twice about it.

Castel Sant'Angelo and the Tiber, Rome

Told you it was juicy.

Now, of course, there’s a way to learn about the Borgias… beyond books. Showtime just had its first season of “The Borgias,” starring Jeremy Irons, and while the facts aren’t all 100% (or even 75%), it’s a great glimpse into the weirdness of the time — especially the opulence of the Vatican compared to the gritty crime in the streets. And how the Borgias toed the line between the two. If you don’t get Showtime, consider Netflixing it (or you can purchase the first season on DVD below). Just be careful… the show is addictive.

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Crypta Balbi, a Rome Museum with an Underground Secret

Part of the underground of Rome's Crypta Balbi, a national museum of Rome

It’s probably the most-overlooked museo nazionale Romano — but for a history buff, or someone simply trying to wrap their head around Rome’s many, many years of evolution, the Crypta Balbi deserves a stop.

The museum’s big claim to fame is that it stands on remains of the Theater of Balbus (13 B.C.), and you can still go down and see the ruins, today hidden beneath the modern museum (above). While that’s cool — and, after such neat underground experiences as the columbarium of Pomponio Hylas or the Mithraic temple beneath the Circus Maximus, I’m aware I might be a bit jaded biased — it wasn’t, for me, the best part of the Crypta Balbi. Particularly as the signs for the underground section were rudimentary and confusing, making it near-impossible for anyone but an archaeologist to be able to figure out what was what.

So why go to the Crypta Balbi?

In all honesty, because it’s the first museum I’ve found that lays out what the historical center of Rome looked like in ancient times, in the Middle Ages, and through to today. With accompanying artifacts.

No, it’s not with cutting-edge technology. But those maps and pictures? They’re pretty darn helpful. Now, when I walk past the Largo Argentina or by the Theater of Marcellus, I have a much, much clearer image in my mind of what not just particular buildings, but whole neighborhoods, would have looked like. (Below, the Crypta Balbi area in the late-antique and medieval periods). Map of Crypta Balbi and ancient Rome in Museo Nazionale Romano

Map of Crypta Balbi and ancient Rome in Museo Nazionale Romano
The artifacts in the museum, meanwhile, are actually much more extensive than I’d expected, with artifacts like the Forma Urbis Romae, a 60-by-45-foot marble map of the city that Emperor Septimius Severus mounted in the Forum to help 3rd-century visitors to the city. (Today, obviously, only fragments remain. But it’s still cool to see).Forma Urbis Romae, marble map of ancient Rome, in Crypta Balbi, Rome

Despite its treasures, the Crypta Balbi isn’t a particularly large museum. And that’s kind of nice. It means you can easily see the underground, look at all the artifacts, and wrap your mind around ancient Rome in about an hour and a half. And, after a day at the Vatican or an afternoon at the Palazzo Massimo, don’t discount the merit of not being exhausted after a museum trip.

The Crypta Balbi is open daily from 9am to 7:45pm, except Mondays. The ticket (€7 full, €3.50 reduced) is valid for three days at not only the Crypta Balbi, but also the Palazzo Massimo, Palazzo Altemps, and Baths of Diocletian. It’s located at Via delle Botteghe Oscure 31. Here’s a map of Crypta Balbi’s location.


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Happy Birthday, Rome!

Roman forum, Rome, Italy

Happy birthday to the world's most fascinating, historic, and beautiful city (yes, I'm biased): Rome! Tomorrow, April 21, marks the city's 2,764th birthday. (Although by now, who's counting?)

That means, of course, that Rome's going to celebrate in style. Including with free museum openings, shows, and other festivities.

At the top of our list of free, fun ways to celebrate Rome's 2,764th:

All day. Free museums. Rome's municipal museums are free, including great, off-the-beaten-path gems like the MACRO, Montemartini, and Ara Pacis. Here's a complete list of free museums on April 21 (in Italian).

9am. Ceremony with Rome's mayor, Gianni Alemanno. Rome's mayor lays a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the Vittorio Emanuele monument, Piazza Venezia. Pomp and circumstance ensues.

11:30am. Concerts at the Campidoglio. Today it might be best known for Michelangelo's architecture, but back in the day, this hill was one of Rome's most sacred. Stop by for some music while the Granatieri of Sardinia look on.

11:30am. Reenactment of Rome's founding. At the Circus Maximus, the Gruppo Storico Romano performs the tale of Rome's 753 B.C. founding. Who will you root for: Romulus or Remus?

3:30pm. Inauguration of the "Bridge of Music." The bridge, in the Flaminio neighborhood near the MAXXI and other cultural gems, gets inaugurated to the sounds of the band of the metropolitan police corps.

4pm. Concert at the Capitoline museums. At 4pm, the Orazio Vecchi choir will give a free concert in the Pietro da Cortona room. Arrive early to get a seat.

6pm. Historical reenactment of Palilia. In front of the Bocca della Verità, the Gruppo Storico Romano will "perform" the pagan Palilia ceremony, a celebration of spring's arrival that Romulus himself was said to have participated in.

9pm. A "spettacolo" of light projections, performances and music. At 9pm at the Forum of Augustus (in the Imperial Forums), there'll be a show called "Roma/Amor, the birth and resurrection of the Eternal City," celebrating Rome from 753 B.C. right up until today. 


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The Rome Palazzo You Have to Visit… By May

Annibale Carracci frescoes in Palazzo Farnese, Rome

If you haven’t been to Palazzo Farnese for its once-in-a-blue-moon opening to the public yet, then go — by April 27.

Here’s why: The palazzo is an architectural gem, designed in the 16th century by Antonio da Sangallo, Giacomo della Porta, and that guy everyone’s heard of, Michelangelo. It’s a treasure trove of art, including Annibale Carracci’s world-famous frescoes of romping gods and goddesses (pictured above — since no photos were allowed in the exhibition, courtesy of the Web Gallery of Art).

And Palazzo Farnese is a key piece of juicy Renaissance history: It was built by Alessandro Farnese (later Pope Paul III) after he got his start in the Church thanks to his sister, Giulia. Why was she so influential? Well, she was sleeping with Pope Alexander VI. That helps.

Did I mention the travesty fact that this lovely papal palazzo is closed to the public? Since 1874, it’s been the home of the French Embassy. That means you can’t just wander in off the street. Unfortunately.

Now, you can… or almost.

Since December, Palazzo Farnese has hosted an exhibit titled, quite simply, “Mostra Palazzo Farnese.” Because that’s exactly what it is: a rare display of the palazzo’s gems, not least of all its rooms and galleries themselves. The gorgeous courtyard alone boasts ancient sarcophagi and sculptures, many on loan from the Naples Archaeological Museum; for those who can’t get to Naples, the exhibit also has copies of the fabulous Farnese Hercules and Farnese Bull, both just too big to be moved. (Darn them for being so impressive!)

My favorite? The Venus Kallipygos, a 1st-century B.C. marble (based on a 3rd-century B.C. Greek bronze), as much because I get a kick out of its name — literally, “Venus of the beautiful buttocks” — as because it is, well, beautiful. From top to, er, bottom.

Venus Kallipygos in the Naples Archaeological Museum, currently at Palazzo Farnese, rome

That’s not to mention the glittering tapestries, Renaissance paintings and portraits of the Farnese family that make up the rest of the exhibition.

As far as rooms go, though, there’s nothing quite like the salon frescoed by Annibale Carracci, the famous High Renaissance painter from Bologna. Now, his frescoes are little-recognized compared to, say, those by Raphael or Michelangelo in the Vatican, but that’s a shame: Art historians always have considered them an incredible blend of both styles, and they’re usually seen as the best frescoes of the High Renaissance. What Raphael lacked in power, muscularity and dynamism, Carracci’s got. And what Michelangelo didn’t quite grasp in terms of harmony, beauty, and elegance, well, Carracci’s covered that part, too.

Don’t believe me? Just check out this image (courtesy of the Web Gallery of Art):

Annibale Carracci frescoes in Palazzo Farnese, Rome

Here’s a close-up of that great fresco you see at the far end, the Cyclops Polyphemus:

Cyclops Polyphemus in Annibale Carracci's frescoes in Palazzo Farnese, Rome

Pretty great stuff. But if you don’t get your bottom there before April 27, there’s no guarantee you’ll get a chance to see any of this again.

The cost of the exhibit, which includes a (unsurprisingly dry, but informative) audioguide, is €12, plus reductions. Don’t wait in line for your ticket — book your spot in advance. (Especially since the lines will probably get longer as the exhibit nears its end date!). Call 0632810 to book, or — easier still for those already in Rome — stop by the Feltrinelli bookstore at Largo Argentina. There, they have a “box office” where you can buy your tickets for one of the available time slots.

And if you’re still not convinced the Palazzo Farnese is worth beelining too — let me repeat, before it closes to the public once more — check out The Economist’s enthusiastic take on the Mostra Palazzo Farnese. (After all, if The Economist says it, it must be true).

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Rome’s Best Archaeological Museum: Have You Been?

Boxer, ancient statue at Palazzo Massimo, Rome

If you haven’t been to Palazzo Massimo, then — even if you’ve seen the ancient statues in the Vatican and the ruins in the Forum — you haven’t seen the best of Rome’s archaeological finds.

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

At this museum around the corner from the Termini train station, you’ll find some of Rome’s most famous bronze and marble sculptures — and then some. Treasures like ancient mosaics. Elaborately-carved sarcophagi. Incredibly-preserved frescoes taken from some of Rome’s most opulent ancient villas. Even the super-cool Fasti Praenestini, an enormous marble calendar set up in the forum of a nearby town.
Fasti Praenestini, ancient Roman calendar, Palazzo Massimo

First things first, though: Palazzo Massimo’s two most famous statues. I first encountered “The Boxer” in a college art history class. And lemme tell you, it’s even better in person. You can practically feel the exhaustion and melancholy emanating from the first-century B.C. bronze, slumping after his (unsuccessful?) match. Both this piece (above), and the magnificently-muscled “Prince,” were found at the Baths of Constantine in 1885.

But those aren’t the only (rightfully famous) ancient statues. The collection boasts not one, but two, ancient Roman copies of the 5th-century B.C. “Discobolus” (that super-classical athlete tossing a disc). Several beautiful Venuses. A statue of Augustus in the hooded guise of Pontifex Maximus.

And, from about 200 A.D., this fantastic sarcophagus:

Portonaccio ancient sarcophagus, Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, Rome The only sarcophagus I’ve ever seen approaching this one is the Alexander Sarcophagus. That one’s in Istanbul.

As much as I could go on and on about the Palazzo Massimo’s sculptures and sarcophagi, though, that’s not the real reason why you should go. The real reason is the ancient fresco collection. Not just because it’s fantastic, but because the museum has a whole section devoted to the Villa of Livia, Augustus’ wife. (Confused? Maybe it’s because I just wrote about the House of Livia and said that you can see it, and its frescoes, on Palatine Hill until March 30. But this is her other house, the one at Prima Porta).

Better yet, it’s set up more or less like the villa itself. So you can actually see how the rooms would have looked — complete not just with the frescoes on the walls, but delicate, detailed molding on the ceiling and mosaics on the floors.
House of Livia frescoes at Palazzo Massimo

One of my favorite rooms, though, is this one, taken from the ancient Villa Farnesina:

Garden frescoes of Villa Farnesina

Pretty sweet. Not quite as incredible as the Naples Archaeological Museum… but almost. Since it’s right next to the Termini train station, you have no excuse not to go. I promise you won’t regret it.

Palazzo Massimo is located at Largo di Villa Peretti 1. It’s open every day but Mondays from 9am to 7:45pm; the ticket is €7 adults, €3.50 reduced, and also includes entrances into Palazzo Altemps, Crypta Balbi, and Diocletian’s Baths.

Also: the 2,000-year-old sepulchre hidden underground, the “other” Pompeii and Rome’s very own pyramid.

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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An Empress’s House Opens… Only Through March

House of Livia on the Palatine Hill, Rome

Rome's just unveiling all kinds of incredible ancient sites. Case in point: the House of Livia — a gloriously-frescoed, 2,000-year-old structure thought to belong to Emperor Augustus' wife. After being closed to the public for years, then open on Saturday mornings only last fall, it's reopened this month.

But go quickly. Because, so far, it's only open this month.

Why is it worth visiting? Well, two reasons. First, if you're wandering around the ruins of the Palatine and curious how any of these ancient houses actually would have been decorated, here's your chance. The House of Livia still boasts (fragments of) mosaic floors and beautiful frescoes — not quite as pristine as those in the House of Augustus, but almost. (Below, the well-preserved frescoes of the garlands that symbolized Octavian Augustus' victory — you can see them on his Ara Pacis, too).

Ancient frescoes from the House of Livia, Palatine, RomeSecondly, the house is thought to belong to Livia. Augustus' wife. The woman that Octavian fell in love with so immediately he divorced his wife the day she was birthing his child in order to marry Livia. Who he remained married to for 51 years, even though she never bore him a child, and even though she was the daughter of a man who had been killed in battle fighting against her now-husband. Who was, herself, the mother of the second emperor Tiberius, the grandmother of Claudius, and the great-grandmother of Caligula.

And who was so powerful, the Senate tried to bestow her with the title of Mater Patriae ("Mother of the Fatherland") — and, supposedly, such a powerful meddler that her son Tiberius retired himself to Capri just to avoid her. In short? She was a bad-ass.

How could you not want to see where she lived, loved, and plotted… or the decorations that she chose? (Note: The tour guide said the frescoes were chosen by Augustus. Why this has been assumed, I'm not exactly sure. I doubt a woman who was powerful enough to make the emperor retire would have let somebody else pick out her home's decor.)

So, go. And go now — before the House of Livia shuts once more, to open who-knows-when.

As per the Pierreci site, the House of Livia is open only for tours that run, in English, at 9:30am and every hour thereafter until 3:30pm. That said, I was there yesterday and the house was very clearly simply open, with people wandering in and out, at 3:15. The tour guide did come in at 3:30 and gave a 15-minute tour, but it didn't seem to be necessary to view the house's offerings. The price of entrance is included in your 12 euro forum/Colosseum/Palatine ticket.


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