(Fun!) Books for Readin’ Up on Rome

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So you're coming to Rome… but you don't know much (or maybe at all!) about its history or art or sites, and the idea of digging into that thick old Rough Guide you've got is less appealing than gelato in a snowstorm. What do you do?

Crack the books — the fun ones, that is.

Really. There are fun books about Rome that you can actually (gasp!) learn from. And even if you don't remember the ins and outs of what you read by the time you get here, hopefully all that educational entertainment will have done something every bit as important: made you excited to see the forum, the Vatican, or whatever it is that you only originally put on your list because, well, it sounded important.

A caveat: I'm only recommending books here that I've read. And I know I'm missing lots of great ones. So, have you read an excellent book or novel about Rome? Put it in the comments!

Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling, Ross King. I still haven't read The Agony and the Ecstasy (I know, I know)… but I have to say that, for me, it'll be hard to beat King's version of the Michelangelo-versus-the-pope knockdown. King is the guy who wrote Brunelleschi's Dome — also a recommendation, if you're heading to Florence. And he has a knack for narrative that will have you hanging on every twist and turn in the Sistine Chapel saga.

Cleopatra: A Life, Stacy Schiff. This brand-new take on the woman history loves to hate wasn't quite as groundbreaking as it promised to be. After all, it's hard to completely reset someone's reputation when the only surviving sources about them come from their enemies. Even so, Schiff gets pretty close, trying to shine a light through the sources' (fortunately predictable) biases to illuminate who the real woman would have been. But all that aside, Cleopatra is, on its own, an addictive biography. You know how it all ends, but you can't help turning the page for more, more, more of this confident, extraordinary, anything-but-promiscuous woman Schiff paints for us. Plus, while most of the book deals with Alexandria, its section on what Rome would have looked like to Cleopatra on her visit (in brief: a backwater) is pretty entertaining.

Basilica: The Splendor and the Scandal: Building St. Peter's, R. A. Scott. She's been slammed for some historical inaccuracies, but there's no denying that Scott's a storyteller. And deserves major kudos for telling the sweeping 200-year history of St. Peter's Basilica with both page-turning speed and colorful details (Michelangelo didn't just "make his escape"; he made it "wrapped in a lavendar cloak the color of dusk, riding headlong against a sharp north wind"). The enormity of the basilica, and its history, here comes compact (less than 300 quick-read pages). That's a downside if you plan to be the next big St. Peter's Basilica expert… but a positive if you don't want your head to hurt.

Caesar: Life of a Colossus, Adrian Goldsworthy. He's the most famous Roman to have lived, and Goldsworthy does him justice. In this fat (632-page) but readable biography, he delves into the man behind the myth, from the stand-up to Sulla that got the 18-year-old banished from Rome right up to the world-rocking murder… with all of the juicy betrayals, affairs and shenanigans in between. Better yet is Goldsworthy's deftness in contextualizing Caesar and exposing the Republic's "rot". Be warned, there's a lot of detail here, and it might be little much for anyone who's not already drawn to the Roman Republic or Caesar himself. But for geeks like me those who want a real grasp on the guy who changed it all, it's just right.

Rome: The Biography of a City, Christopher Hibbert. For those who want the whole history, told in a relatively comprehensive and non-textbook kind of way, this is the big daddy. Hibbert's book takes you right through from 753 B.C. to the 20th century. It's hefty, but readable — although this is one I wouldn't go for until you're already pretty interested in the city. It also comes with a handy section on the history of individual sites in Rome, even the more minor.

The Smiles of Rome: A Literary Companion for Readers and Travelers, Susan Cahill. If you want something that you can pick up, put down, pick up, put down, look no further. This anthology of works by writers who lived in, or visited, Rome — from Ovid to Fellini, Henry James to John Updike — is full of by turns poignant, cutting, and witty impressions of the city. At the end of each piece, there are suggestions for a walk you can take that incorporates the sites written about.

Next on my list (what should I add?):

Livia, Empress of Rome: A Biography, by Matthew Dennison

The Pope's Daughter: The Extraordinary Life of Felice della Rovere, by Caroline Murphy

How Rome Fell: Death of a Superpower, by Adrian Goldsworthy

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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.

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Santo Stefano Rotondo, for Strong Stomachs Only

Santo Stefano in Rotondo, Rome
If you get nightmares — or nausea — easily, don't visit the Basilica of Santo Stefano Rotondo.

Think you can handle it? Then welcome to some of the most graphic frescoes of 16th-century Rome.

First, though, there's more to this church than its frescoes. Built on top of the remains of a 2nd-century Mithraic temple (currently being excavated), the church was built in the fifth century A.D. to hold the body of Saint Stephen, which just had been brought to Rome from the Holy Land. The church's architecture is particularly unusual. As Rome's first circular church, it was modeled after Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulchre. (Back then, with another entire ambulatory besides the two there today, it would have been much larger).

Santo Stefano in Rotondo also holds some odd treasures: a 6th-century mosaic of St. Primus and St. Felicianus; the tomb of Irish king Donough O'Brien, who died in Rome in 1064; a chair of Pope Gregory the Great from 580.

But if you go to the church, you could miss all of this for its frescoes.

Spiraling around the circular walls, the paintings depict 34 different martyrs — each being killed in gruesome ways. (Molten lead poured down the throat? Check. Breasts cut off? Check. Boiled alive? Check!) Commissioned by Pope Gregory XIII near the end of the 16th century, the paintings are naturalistic in their graphic displays, making anyone who looks closely enough wince. The peaceful expressions on most of the martyrs' faces go somewhat toward mitigating the"ouch ouch OUCH" effect… although in all honesty, I find that eerie calm a bit more disturbing than convincing.  Scenes of martyrdom at Santo Stefano in Rotondo.

Charles Dickens may have put it best, writing of his visit of the "hideous paintings" that cover the walls. He wrote,

…such a panorama of horror and butchery no man could imagine in his sleep, though he were to eat a whole pig raw, for supper. Grey-bearded men being boiled, fried, grilled, crimped, singed, eaten by wild beasts, worried by dogs, buried alive, torn asunder by horses, chopped up small with hatchets: women having their breasts torn with iron pinchers, their tongues cut out, their ears screwed off, their jaws broken, their bodies stretched upon the rack, or skinned upon the stake, or crackled up and melted in the fire: these are among the mildest subjects.

So, what do you think: Can you handle it?

If you can, remember that Santo Stefano Rotondo is closed Mondays and Sunday afternoons; otherwise, it's open from 9:30am-12:30. It's also open 3pm-6pm in the summers, and 2pm-5pm in the winter. The address is Via di Santo Stefano Rotondo 7, about a 10-minute walk from the Colosseum or from San Giovanni in Laterano, and right nearby the Basilica of Santi Quattro Coronati. For more information about the church, click here. For a map, click here.

You might also like:

Hidden Underground in Rome, an Ancient Sepulchre

Siena: A Gem of the Tuscan Countryside

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

 

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The Medieval Basilica of Santi Quattro Coronati

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Basilica of Santa Prassede: 9th-century Mosaics, 1st-century Relics, and Nearly No Visitors

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Lots of travelers visit the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore. Few know that, just around the corner, Rome boasts an equally precious, way older — and, in my opinion, more moving — church. Just don't be swayed by its unassuming exterior.

The Basilica of Santa Prassede stands on the site of St. Prassede's own house where, according to tradition, she put up martyrs including St. Peter. A church was first built here in the 5th century, although an oratory might have existed as early as 150 AD. The ruins of those earlier buildings haven't yet been excavated. Some day…

But in the meantime, you can explore the current church — which was built in the 9th century. And it has frescoes and mosaics from the same period,
Picture 623 something that (no matter how much really, really old stuff I see) still blows me away. Check out the glittering mosaics in the Chapel of St. Zeno, right. You can also descend into the crypt, which the famous Cosmati brothers decorated in the 13th century, to see the sarcophagi of Prassede and her equally-saintly sister, Pudenziana. The tombs have relics of the sisters, including a sponge they used to soak up the blood of 3,000 different martyrs.

But the most famous relic in the whole church is the Column of Flagellation. It's pretty safe to say this probably isn't the real deal… but then, that's not really the point with relics, is it?

The Basilica of Santa Prassede is open every day from 7:30am-12pm and 4pm-4:30pm. Don't forget coins to light up the mosaics. 

Click here for a map.

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