The Temple of Venus and Rome: Worth a Visit, But Missing the Best Part

Temple of Venus and Rome, Rome, Italy It was a big, big deal when the Temple of Venus and Rome opened this month after a 26-year restoration. And so I was pretty psyched to go see it.

But I should, maybe, have been a little more tempered in my excitement.

First: Let me just say that the Temple of Venus and Rome is beautiful. It's also massive; at 350 feet long and 150 feet wide, it's thought to have been ancient Rome's single biggest temple. And it's impressive that so much of it is around today, given the fact that it was built by the emperors Hadrian and Antoninus Pius from 121 to 141 A.D.

I also love the cleverness of the temple. One side of it was in honor of the goddess Venus, the other in honor of the goddess Roma, which doesn't seem that clever — and might even seem a little odd — until you think about how Venus mothered Aeneas, whose descendant founded Rome. Not to mention that Venus was the goddess of love, or "amor" in Latin, so you have "Roma" and "Amor" back-to-back. Literally. (Cute, huh?)

More gushing goes to the fact that the restoration is (finally!) finished. It took €264,034.80 (although after €100,000, who's counting that €.80?) and 26 years, and it's done… and done well.   

So what was I slightly-less-excited about than I otherwise would have been? Well, the fact that I was expecting, from the hubbub of media articles surrounding the temple's re-unveiling, the visitable part to look something like what you see below. Cella of the Temple of Venus and Rome, from MIBAC, Rome

In fact, though, that part is closed to the public: All you can do is peek through the window, getting a glimpse of the floor (although not of the apse). (The photo is the promotional photo used by Rome's culture ministry). An archaeologist at the Sopraintendenza office around the corner from the temple told me it's because the marble is just too delicate. And, as a big proponent of, you know, keeping old stuff preserved, I can completely support the choice to keep that section roped-off to the public. Still, after seeing articles like this one with images of people walking around the cella, I couldn't help but be disappointed. Just a little bit.

Then again, I know I'm just being greedy. And picky. And wouldn't even feel this way had I not seen photos of people walking around the area, which must have come from the opening ceremony.

So if you're paying a visit to the ancient forum, don't misunderstand — the temple is well worth a stop. It's impressive even for its sheer scale alone. So I don't want to talk anyone out of going. You absolutely should. After all, entrance to the temple is included in your ticket to the forum and Colosseum, so what's stopping you?

Entrance to the Temple of Venus and Rome is to the left of the Arch of Titus as you face the Colosseum, before leaving the forum.

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This Week, the Eagle and the Dragon in Full Force

Two Empires: Eagle and Dragon teaser in the Forum, Rome Anyone who's visited Rome's Curia in the Forum over the past month has seen China's terracotta warriors, strutting their stuff across the 1,700-year-old Roman marble and porphyry floor.

But as I wrote in early October, that exhibit comparing the Chinese and Roman empires was just a taste. This weekend, the full exhibit opens at Palazzo Venezia.

[Update, Nov. 18: It's also free on its opening day on Friday and is open from 10am-7pm. Very cool!]

Opening on Friday, Nov. 19, the exhibit boasts more than 400 different pieces from the ancient Roman and Chinese empires. It's the first time the two empires have been compared in an exhibit, and it's about time: both empires were extraordinarily influential, as well as contemporaries, with their heights from about the 3rd centuries B.C. to 4th century A.D. 

It's bound to be a fascinating game of compare-and-contrast. As soon as I see it, I'll report back. In the meantime, if you can, go yourself.

The exhibit is at the Palazzo Venezia from Nov. 19 daily until Jan.9, except for Mondays, Dec. 25 and Jan. 1. It's open from 8:30am-9:30pm daily. Entrance to the exhibit is at Via del Plebiscito 19; for a map, click here.

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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…

 

 

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The Colosseum’s Subterranean Level…Is Now Open!

Hypogeum of the Colosseum, which will open to visitors in October
Back in May, the ministry of cultural heritage said it would open the subterranean level of the Colosseum — the section below the arena where gladiators and animals would have waited for their turn to fight — by the end of the summer.

That didn't exactly happen on time, but it is happening. The (still-provisional) opening date, which was just announced, will be Monday, October 11. Update, Oct. 14: On October 14, the ministry announced that the subterranean and third-level area is now open to the public. (Yay!) You can access the subterranean area via guided tours, which start on Oct. 19. To book, click here.

The hypogeum, as the underground area is called, has never been open to the public before. A series of two-level passageways and rooms beneath the area, it would have been dark, dank, and filled with terrified animals and (perhaps also terrified) gladiators. If walking through where bloodthirsty spectators would have sat doesn't give you chills, exploring these underground chambers certainly should.

The restoration of the hypogeum is part of a much bigger plan for the Colosseum, which the ministry plans to restore by 2013. That is, if they can find private sponsors for the $33 million renovation. Hey, you get advertising space on one of the world's most iconic monuments in return. Anyone? Anyone?

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Night Tours of the Baths of Caracalla, in the Guardian

Baths of Caracalla at night After posting about the opportunity to take night tours of the Colosseum and the Baths of Caracalla, I took a night tour of the baths myself — and wrote about it for the Guardian newspaper. You can read my piece, which posted today, here.

And let me tell you, grabbing night photos of those ruins while following a tour guide around was not the easiest….I’m glad my forgiving editor decided that at least one of the snaps was up to snuff. Here are a couple more.Ancient ruins of the Baths of Caracalla at night. Baths of Caracalla, Rome, at night

 

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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

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The Ancient, and Roman, Ruins of Istanbul: Part II

Hagia Eirene, Topkapi Palace, Istanbul

We've got the basilica cistern and the Hippodrome, the Column of Constantine and the Valens Aqueduct. But there are other not-to-miss ancient Roman (or Byzantine) sites in Istanbul, too. Below, three others not to miss — and one more (perhaps the most major!) coming tomorrow.

5. Walls of Constantinople. One line of fortifications was
built by Constantine in the fourth century; a second row of walls was added by
Theodosius II in the fifth century. Although they saved the city from some eleven
invasions, they couldn’t withstand the invention of gunpowder and the Ottoman
conquest of 1453. Remnants of both the walls remain visible along their
original lines. (To see what the walls would have looked like, check out the great reconstruction done by Byzantium 1200).

2nd-century AD Roman sarcophagus, Archaeological Museum, Istanbul6. Archaeological Museum. If you're searching for antiquities in Istanbul, there's no missing the Archaeological Museum. One of the world's preeminent archaeological collections, the museum is replete with some 60,000 artifacts from a swath of ancient empires, from Greek to Egyptian, Phoenician to Hittite — and yes, Roman too. Some of the stars of the Roman collection include a series of beautiful sarcophagi, including this tomb with elaborate carvings of the story of Phaedra-Hippolita, dating to the second century A.D. (left).

The museum's absolute show-stopper, though, is a Hellenistic piece: the Alexander sarcophagus. Because photos simply don't do it justice, I considered not posting one. But to give you an idea of what the piece looks like, here's just one detail of part of the sarcophagus. Seriously, though: This is something you have to see in person.
Alexander sarcophagus in the Archaeological Museum of Istanbul Dating back to 332 B.C., the sarcophagus comes from Sidon, a successful Phoenician city-state that today lies about 25 miles away from Beirut. Despite the name, it belonged not to Alexander (we don't think), but probably to Abdalonymos, who Alexander made the king of Sidon in 332 B.C. Alexander, Reliefs from the Ishtar Gate, Babylon, in the Archaeological Museum of Istanbulthough, is prominent on the tomb, immediately recognizable for his curly and once-blond locks. The scenes that sprawl across the sarcophagus — two war scenes, two hunting scenes — tumble with vigorous action and expression. Not until the Renaissance, more than 1,000 years later, would sculptors reach this level of skill. To top it off, the sarcophagus is still scattered with the paint traces of its once-colorful past, giving the viewer a real sense of how this piece — and all Hellenistic sculpture — would have looked. That's pretty rare.

All of this leaves out, by the way, hundreds of other treasures in the museums: the Sarcophagus of the Crying Women, also taken from the necropolis at Sidon; animal reliefs taken from Babylon's Gate of Ishtar, built by Nebuchadnezzar in the 6th century B.C.; and the Treaty of Kadesh, the world's oldest known recorded peace treaty, signed in the 13th century B.C. by Ramses II and the Hittites. 

Not bad.

7. Hagia Eirene. A bit sightseeing-weary after three full days in Istanbul, I almost didn't go into this church. But I'm glad I did. Today part of the Topkapi Palace, the Hagia Eirene (top of the post) stands on the oldest spot of Christian worship in Istanbul.

The first church, built here in the fourth century by Constantine, burned to the ground; the current one dates back to an 8th-century restoration. (Not bad, really, as far as longevity goes). And, incredibly, it somehow missed the Ottoman sweep of turning churches into mosques — meaning even its 8th-century mosaic, depicting a black cross, was left intact.

And it has nothing to do with St. Irene. Instead, its name meant
the "Basilica of Holy Peace." (It was designed in harmony with the
"Church of the Holy Wisdom," or the Hagia Sofia, and the "Church of the
Holy Apostles").

There's another major ancient Roman site in Istanbul that I'm still missing. Any guesses?

Check back tomorrow for the final installment of this three-post series.

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The Ancient, and Roman, Ruins of Istanbul

Basilica cistern, IstanbulAt first glance, Istanbul appears anything but a city tied to ancient Rome. Mosques and minarets, not ancient temples, dot the Turkish capital's skyline; its forum is hard to find, most of its imperial monuments long gone.

For a city that became part of the Roman empire in 73 A.D., and was turned into the capital, and dubbed "Nova Roma," by Constantine in 330, it can seem surprising—but to find hints of the city's classical past, you have to look more closely.

Searching for Roman ruins in Istanbul? Here's where to find them. I'll post this in two sections, so look out for the second installment tomorrow (here it is!).

Medusa column, basilica cistern, Istanbul

1. The basilica cistern. Even if you're not all that interested in Istanbul's ancient ruins, the cistern (shown above) is a must-see, if only for its eeriness: Descend down 52 stone steps, and you’re suddenly in a
cavernous chamber filled with ancient columns, each lit with a dim light, echoing
with splashes, the whispers of tourists, and (unfortunately, I think) “atmospheric”
music.  

The cistern was built by Emperor Justinian I in the early 6th
century, on the same spot as a basilica that had been first built by
Constantine two hundred years earlier. More than 105,000 square feet in area
and capable of holding 100,000 tons of water, the cistern provided water
filtration for Constantinople’s palace. More than 7,000 slaves were used to
construct it.

 And all of those columns holding it up? There are 336 in
total, and they’re all ancient, too—most of them taken from even older structures
elsewhere in the empire. (Sound familiar? That kind of recycling is something
Rome, too, is known for, from the ancient Egyptian obelisks that dot the city
to, later, the use of the Roman ruins themselves in Renaissance-era buildings
like St. Peter’s Basilica). Most of their origins are mysterious, but some—like
the two upside-down Medusa heads—are particularly intriguing.

2. Column of Constantine. Erected in 330 A.D. by Emperor
Constantine to commemorate his new capital, the 115-foot column would once have
been another 50 feet tall. It also boasted a statue of Constantine on the top,
carrying an orb with a piece of the True Cross. A sanctuary at the column’s
foot included a number of relics, including an alabaster ointment jar that
belonged to Mary Magdalene, the basket from Christ’s miracle of the loaves and
fish, and a statue of Athena from Troy.

That’s all long gone, and the column
isn’t quite as impressive today
. But there's no beating it as a (conveniently central) reminder of how integral Constantinople
was to the ancient Roman empire.

Valens Aqueduct, Istanbul3. The Valens aqueduct. Spanning one of Istanbul’s main
thoroughfares, the aqueduct is such a matter-of-fact part of the fabric of
modern Istanbul that it’s easy to forget it’s an ancient ruin. But it is. Built
in 368 A.D. by Emperor Valens, the aqueduct once ran for about 3,200 feet. The
surviving section today, at 3,020 feet, is nearly as long—not bad for a 1,600-year-old
structure. Just as the popes in Rome restored ancient aqueducts, so, too, did the
Ottoman sultans in Constantinople, meaning the aqueduct remained the city’s
main distributor of water through the Middle Ages. 

Serpent Column with the Obelisk of Theodosius in the background, Istanbul4. The Hippodrome. You could walk right through
Istanbul’s ancient hippodrome—built for chariot races by Emperor Septimius
Severus in the early 3rd century, and restored and enlarged by
Constantine 100 years later—without realizing it. Today, all the seats and
most of the structures are long-gone. The only hint you have that the site once was a
stadium able to hold 100,000 spectators is in the shape and dimensions of
Sultanahmet Square, which more or less follows the lines of the ancient circus.
(Just as Piazza Navona in Rome today has the same shape as Domitian’s first-century
Circus Agonalis).

But some monuments do remain. Perhaps the
most evocative is the Serpent Column, brought by Constantine from
the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. Also known as the Plataean Tripod of Delphi, the
column was cast in 479 B.C. to celebrate the Greek victory over the Persians. Persian
armor and weaponry was melted down for the column, and all of the names of the
Greek city-states that fought in the battle were etched into the sides. A gold
tripod, later lost, initially sat on top, supported by three serpent heads.

For a visual of what the chariot races once would have
looked like, the Obelisk of Theodosius is a must-see, too. The obelisk itself is
actually ancient Egyptian, dating to the reign of Tutmoses III around 1450 B.C.
In Alexandria until 390, it was moved to Constantinople by Emperor Theodosius
I. Underneath, a marble pedestal shows scenes including the chariot race
itself, and Theodosius giving the winner the laurel crown of victory. And then
there’s the typically-imperial inscription in which the emperor lauds none
other than himself—in this case, for supposedly moving the obelisk and
re-erecting it in just 32 days.

Here's where to find Istanbul's ancient Roman sites, part II

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