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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House of the Vestal Virgins, Open for Business

House of the Vestal Virgins, Forum, Rome

In the days of the Roman empire, you never would have been able to enter the House of the Vestal Virgins — unless you were one of the six chosen women, that is, or the Pontifex Maximus, Rome's religious leader who oversaw the cult.

Now? You can stroll right in.

After a long restoration, the House of the Vestal Virgins is open for visitors. No special status needed. (It's in the forum, so the normal forum/Colosseum/Palatine ticket gets you in).

It's a neat opportunity to access one of ancient Rome's most historic, and much-mythologized, cults. The Vestal Virgins likely dated all the way back to the Etruscans in the 8th century B.C.; they hung on right up until Theodosius, who had abolished pagan cults in 391, forcibly shut down their temple three years later.

But they weren't just any pagan cult. They were one of ancient Rome's most important… and elite. A Vestal was picked between the ages of 6 and 10 — largely for her beauty — and committed to 30 years of service: ten years learning the rituals, ten actively serving, and ten tutoring the new priestesses. Throughout that time, she had two big responsibilities. She had to tend Rome's sacred fire. And she had to guard her virginity. If either was extinguished, it was thought, Rome would fall. (In return for this sacrifice, a Vestal was one of the most powerful women in Rome, allowed to own her own property, make her own will, and intercede on any prisoner's behalf).

That's why the punishment, if they did screw up (…or screw around), was so severe. "Vestals who are guilty of lesser misdemeanors are scourged with rods," wrote Dionysius of Halicarnassus in the first century B.C. "But those who have suffered defilement by unchastity are delivered up to the most shameful and miserable death."

The method? Being buried alive. Eek.

(It's worth noting, though, that this terrible punishment only happened 18 times throughout the Vestals' 900-year tenure — and almost always in times of great political upheaval, making blaming-the-Vestals probably a last-ditch effort to restore normalcy in a time of crisis).

House of the Vestal Virgins, courtyard, Rome, forum Now, though, you don't have to take a 30-year vow of virginity in order to visit the House of the Vestals. Just stroll right in. The version you see today (above) dates back to the 2nd-century. (The fire that wracked Nero's Rome also destroyed the earlier house in 64 A.D.!)

As with the rest of the forum, of course, you have to use your imagination to picture what this house would once have looked like. Historians say it was up to 4 stories tall, its rooms were spacious, its decorations opulent. Evocatively, though, some of the original statues of vestals still remain, lining the courtyard.

There's not quite enough here to make a trip to the forum just for this. But if you're in there anyway, or haven't paid a visit to Rome's forum in a while, then don't miss it.

 

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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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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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