Off to Istanbul, the Other Rome

You can visit Rome, tour the forum, Pantheon and Colosseum, even visit the Baths of Caracalla, Hadrian's villa at Tivoli, and the ancient aqueducts — and you still won't get a full sense of the Roman empire.

The only way to do that is to visit Istanbul, founded as Constantinople — the new capital of the ancient Roman empire — in 330 A.D.

When people say the Roman empire "fell" in the 5th century, they're wrong. The eastern half soldiered on. It was later dubbed the "Byzantine empire" by historians who wanted to make a nice, clean break for the timeline… but those living in Constantinople at the time would have considered themselves Romans.

Constantinople continued as the empire's capital for nearly another millennium. And many traces of the city's Roman past still remain. Both the Hagia Sofia and basilica cistern, two must-see sites, were built in the 6th century by Emperor Justinian, who wanted to bring the Roman empire back to its former greatness and reconquer the western half. Then there's the hippodrome built under Emperor Septimius Severus in the 3rd century, and Constantine's inaugural column of 330, and the classical sarcophagi, mosaics and other artifacts of the Archaeological Museum.

In a sense, Istanbul is Rome, its successor and its heir. I'll be traveling through Turkey for the next week, and as I go, I'll be posting about what to do, see and eat. Please enjoy this brief break from the eternal city. I'm sure I will!

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A Half Hour from Rome, Hadrian’s Villa and Renaissance Gardens

View from Villa d'Este, Tivoli, Italy

When asked about day trips from Rome, most people recommend Tivoli. Just a half-hour's drive from Rome, the town boasts the Renaissance-era Villa d'Este and the 1,850-year-old ruins of Hadrian's villa

I finally made it there this weekend, my hopes high. After all, I love the Renaissance and ruins. What could possibly go wrong?

Nothing went wrong. But given all the hype, I was a little underwhelmed.

First, Villa d'Este. A UNESCO World Heritage site, the villa, built by Cardinal Ippolito II d'Este in the mid-sixteenth century, is like a fairyland-gone-slightly-to-seed. The gardens are filled with grottoes, fountains, and odd touches of whimsy: a fountain of Artemis of Ephesus, the goddess of fertility, her breast-like decorative gourds spouting; an organ hid within an elaborate sculptured fountain; grottoes once  filled with movable wooden cut-outs of creatures. Odd stuff, but with some of the sculptures missing and mechanization not working, a little less enrapturing than it would have been, say, for Ippolito.Mannerist frescoes in Tivoli's Villa d'Este

The palace itself, too, feels a bit Alice-in-Wonderland. A wander through yields room after room of colorful Mannerist frescoes and examples of tromp l'oeil, that tricksy French attempt to make you think that the flat surface you're looking at is three-dimensional. But despite the sheer amount of paintings, if you're more of a Renaissance or Baroque lover — or you've simply been spoiled by, say, the quality of frescoes at the Vatican — the palace seems better-suited for a fairly quick walk-through than an in-depth artistic experience.

Then there's Hadrian's villa. Built as the emperor's retreat from Rome in the flat valley below Tivoli, it's a sprawling, 250-acre complex of ruins, olive tree groves, and, well, dust. Hadrian designed much of it himself, and its buildings and fountains drew on styles he saw across the empire, from Egypt to Greece.

But walking through the villa almost felt like walking across the empire itself. Even getting from the parking lot to the first section of the ruins takes about 15 minutes; getting a full overview of the villa would mean a half-day of wandering, or more.

The pay-off didn't seem quite worth it. Much of the area remains unexcavated, while a lot of the ruins themselves are surprisingly unassuming. Nor is the signage that helpful — a common complaint at archaeological sites, but all the more frustrating in a site this sprawling. Some of the descriptions of structures didn't even say what they were used for.

Villa Adriana, TivoliEven so, some parts of the ruins are striking. The Serapeum, designed after the Egyptian city of Canopus, features a long, green pool, ending in a domed grotto, lined with classical statues. And if you're a sucker for the personal, the (barely-there) ruins of the temple and tomb of Antinous, Hadrian's young lover whom he deified after his death, are poignant.

Still, it was hard to get a feel for what the entire villa would have felt and looked like. And as with so many ruins around Italy, all the "good stuff" was gone: The best statues, mosaics, and frescoes have all been moved elsewhere… particularly to Rome.

In short: Villa d'Este's appealing, particularly on a nice day, but not one of the top-five daytrips I'd recommend from Rome. (Unless for convenience only). And unless you're a big Hadrian fan, or are going to Tivoli anyway and want to fill out your day, I'm not sure that Hadrian's villa would be one of my top recommendations. For huge ruins that pack more of a punch in a smaller space, check out the Baths of Caracalla, in the heart of Rome; for a better-preserved sense of Hadrian's architecture, visit the Pantheon; to see the artistic treasures themselves, head to the Capitoline and Vatican museums.

For more information about Villa d'Este, click here. For more information about Hadrian's villa, click here. Entry to each site costs €10. To get there, you can take a train from Rome's Tiburtina station to Tivoli (about 30 minutes), then a shuttle bus to the town center and Villa d'Este. Another shuttle would be needed to take you to Hadrian's Villa.

 

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Ancient and Modern at the Park of the Aqueducts


Runners in the Parco degli Acquedotti, with the Claudian acqueduct behind.
For those who really geek out on Rome's ancient past, there's no better monument to the Roman empire's engineering skill than its aqueducts.

(Okay, okay, there is the Colosseum. And the Pantheon. But to fully grasp how ancient Romans made everyday life easier for their citizens — like by bringing thousands of liters of water into the city each day — you can't beat a glimpse of the ancient aqueducts).

You can still see the Claudian aqueduct, in all its slightly-degraded glory, at the Parco degli Acquedotti, 5 miles outside the city center. The Aqua Claudia cuts right through the park as it reaches the end of its 45-mile run. Most of the aqueduct is underground; here, though, you can see it above ground in all its arch-on-arch glory. That's not to mention the technical skill it required: Romans designed their aqueducts to drop precisely 6 inches per Roman mile. Imagine doing that, for miles and miles… without computers.

The result? The Claudian aqueduct carried 2,200 liters of water per second into the city of Rome. That made it alone able to serve every single Roman district. Yet there were at least 10 other aqueducts (18 if you count the separate branches) leading into the city.

Aqua Claudia strikes history lovers for another reason, too. Some of Rome's most famous emperors had a hand in the aqueduct. Emperor Caligula started building (38 AD), Claudius completed it (52 AD), Vespasian restored it (71 AD) and Titus restored it again (81 AD).

Do the Romans still use the ancient aqueducts? Yes. And if you go to the park, here's your proof. Look closely at the aqueduct, and you can see that modern piping lays on top of it.

All that aside: Unless you love ancient Roman engineering and are really keen to see aqueducts, this isn't one of the sites I'd recommend doing if you have, say, fewer than four or five days in Rome. There's simply too much else in the center to see. But if you have a little more wiggle room, or perhaps are returning to Rome for a second or third time, consider taking a picnic lunch out to the park or doing a bike ride. The park's biggest draw, especially during high season? It's a great way to appreciate ancient Rome… but the without crowds or costs of more central sites.

The Park of the Aqueducts' Claudian aqueduct, Rome.

To get to the Parco degli Acquedotti, take the metro out to Cinecittà on the A line. For a map, click here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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