Arrivederci Roma

As life is taking me to new shores, I have to (hopefully temporarily) say goodbye to Rome. I have just moved to Ethiopia from where I will continue writing this blog (on In the meantime, I will keep the Rome pages online in the archive section.

In way of a conclusion and since we live in a world restricted to top 10 lists of everything, I am going to wrap up this blog with my own personal list of top 10 (or more) reasons to live in the eternal city. I had originally prepared a similar list of reasons to leave Rome, but the distance already makes me feel nostalgic so I prefer to finish on a positive note.

My top 1-1-1 list:

1. the freedom of riding around on a Vespa

1. the stunning beauty of the city

1. the light

1. espresso coffee at café Eustacchio

1. umbrella pine trees

1. piazza Navona, Pantheon, Trevi Fountain, Fori imperiali at 5 am

1. puntarelle with anchovies

1. Bartaruga on piazza Mattei

1. St Peter’s cupola from viale Gregorio VII

1. Modica chocolate

1. Galleria Borghese

1. summer drinks at Isola Tiberina

1. raw artichoke and parmigiano salad

1. Raffaello’s School of Athens

1. Caravaggio’s Madonna dei Pellegrini

1. linguini con vongole

1. viale Cristoforo Colombo to the sea

1. the beach at cancelli 2 and 4 in winter

1. tasting the seasons at Mercato trionfale

1. pizza bianca piazza Mancini

1. lunch,  dinner and bakeries in the ghetto

1. Fatamorgana ice-creams

1.riding past the Palatino along Circo Massimo

1. shopping in Monti

1. arrosticini near campo Imperatore in the Abbruzzi

1. being able to see Carracci’s love of the gods fresco in Palazzo Farnese

1. Fabriano paper shop

1. walking through the historic centre and always discovering new alleyways

1. lemon or mojito granita in the summer heat

1. escaping to lake Martignano at the weekend

1. Borromini

1. Musei capitolini

1. summer concerts at Villa Ada

1. the café at Villa Medicis

1. hidden bookshops

1. olympic swimming pool at Foro Italico

1. watching the sunrise from the Gianicolo hill and the sunset from the Pincio…

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Re-creating Rome

Cinecittà is to Rome what Hollywood is to Los Angeles: a city of dreams and fiction. However, rather than a huge film business, Cinecittà is a highly revered institution. It became such in the 1960s when legendary film director Federico Fellini made it his second home. For most Romans, Cinecittà means Fellini. He filmed most of his masterpieces there, including a great part of La Dolce Vita as well as Fellini’s Roma, and spent so much time in the studios that he had his own private apartment on one of the sets. Today, one of the main pavillions is named after him. It is probably the most beautiful one with a cosy private viewing room and amazing movie-star like bathrooms.

Main 1930s pavillion at Cinecittà

Cinecittà was created in the 1930s by Mussolini who had ambitions to create a national film industry, following the trend developing elsewhere due to new cinema technologies. He identified a vast area on the via Tuscolana, which was in the middle of the countryside at the time (it is today part of the suburbs). That way, the studios had space to film outdoor and potential to expand. He never saw it take off, however his plans succeeded some 20 years later, when a new generation of filmmakers, such as Roberto Rosselini, took Italian films to an international audience with their so-called new realism movies. Cinecittà nevertheless kept most of its 1930s architecture and layout. During WWII, the studios became a shelter for refugees.

Today, Cinecittà studios are used mainly for large TV productions, the most recent one being the British-Italian historical drama ROME. The set is still there, ready for a follow-up series and can be visited during the exceptional opening of Cinecittà this year on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the unification of Italy. Walking around the plaster board set, one has the illusion of walking through the streets and piazzas of ancient Rome.

Cinecittà's set of TV production ROME

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Rome at dawn

In the Ancient World, dawn was represented as a goddess lifting the curtain of day light to open the way to Apollo, god of the sun, and his magnificent chariot. Preceded by Dawn, Apollo would give light to the world, riding his chariot across the sky from morning to evening.

Roaming around Rome early in the morning, we begin to understand the vision developed in the ancient myth, which great masters so often depicted. As the sun rises from site to site, it feels like a magic curtain is being lifted over the eternal city.

Piazza Navona at dawn

Dawn is one of the best time to fully appreciate the beauty of Rome, particularly in the middle of summer. At 5am just before sunrise, the city is revealing itself in a different light (so to speak). The Pantheon seems even more imposing in the dim light, Piazza Navona is truly stunning when empty, and the Trevi Fountain can be seen in full glory. From the historic centre, I ride around the Imperial Forum, the Colosseum and the Palatine, to reach the Giardino degli Aranci on the Aventine hill for a morning view of St Peter’s cupola. I continue across Trastevere to the Fontana Paolina on the Janiculum hill to watch the sun appear from behind the Abbruzzi mountains. Dawn’s curtain is now fully lifted, and Apollo is bringing light to Rome and to the world.

Sunrise over Rome from the Janiculum hill

It is time for the first coffee of the day, but the hardest part is to find a café open so early in the morning for Rome.

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The not so secret view of St Peter’s cupola

One of the most famous view of St Peter’s can be seen through a tiny keyhole at the Priory of the Knights of Malta on the Aventine hill. Looking through the door leading to the Priory’s secret gardens on Piazza dei Cavalieri di Malta, the viewer is stunned to suddenly see St Peter’s appear in the distance.

Keyhole view of St Peter's at dawn

It was the 18th century artist, Giovanni Battista Piranesi, famous for his etching views of ancient Rome, who created this amazing design when he was commissioned in 1765 to renovate the Roman seat of the Knights of Malta. It was Piranesi’s only architectural work in the eternal city, but one that made his name forever linked with the Priory. He is actually buried in Santa Maria del Priorato, the Priory’s church he redesigned.


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The Ludovisi Throne

In the series of great sculptures in Rome, another of my favourites is the Ludovisi Throne in the national museum of Palazzo Altemps. In this palace near Piazza Navona,  is exhibited the collection of antique sculptures which was part of the Ludovisi estate, probably the most beautiful park and villa in Rome in the 18th and 19th century. The villa was unfortunately sold off at the end of the 19th century to develop the modern neighbourhood of via Veneto, while the amazing art collection of the Ludovisi family was purchased by the Italian State in 1894.

Front panel of the Ludovisi throne

The meaning of the Ludovisi throne is debated. For some, it represents the birth of Venus (or Aphrodite), coming out of the sea, and was used for the cult of the goddess. Meanwhile, for other scholars who compared it with reliefs and terracottas from Magna Grecia, it shows Proserpine (or Persefone in Greek) coming back from inferno to bring back spring on earth. They date it back to the 5th century BC. On the left side of the throne is carved a representation of a young woman burning incense, while on the right side is a young nude playing the flute, the two figures supposedly representing sacred and profane love. The sculpture was found in the Horti Sallustiani, where the Dying Gaul had been found earlier. I personally find it quite modern in appearance and composition, almost out of the Art Nouveau style of the 1930s.

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The Dying Gaul

The Romans left us a great legacy, which today helps us understand better their ancient civilisation. They recorded practically everything in the form of engravings, mosaics, reliefs and sculpture, the latter being a highly regarded art form in their culture.  Among the many sculptures lying in museums in Rome, one of my favourites is the Dying Gaul in the Capitoline museums.

The Dying Gaul

The statue, found in 1622 in the Horti Sallustiani on the Ludovisi estate near the via Veneto, is a Roman copy of an ancient greek sculpture made of bronze. The original statue formed part of a monument the king of Pergamon, Attalus I Soter, erected around 225 BC to celebrate his victory against the Celtic tribes who had newly arrived in Asia Minor. The memorable victory earned Attalus the name of Soter (the saviour) and the title of king. Attalus I was also a loyal ally of Rome who played a significant role during the Macedonian wars fought by the Romans at the  same time as the Punic wars in the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC.

The statue, which represents a gallic warrior agonizing over his mortal wounds, has inspired many artists because of its strong emotional powers yet highly realistic features. Caravaggio’s St John the Baptist at the Corsini gallery, is depicted in exactly the same stance as the Dying Gaul. The Gaul, recognizable from his distinctive hair style and moustache, was equally admired by the many 19th century expert travellers doing the Grand Tour. It may seem obvious today to like such an overly famous work of art, however, one can still see it with fresh eyes and be moved by it.

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Borromini’s disconcerting prospective

Borromini was one of the most creative architects of the Baroque era in Rome, both in terms of style and technical innovations. He designed numerous buildings and churches which have become models for architects and artists all the way to the 21st century (see previous posts). Another of his amazing works, is the famous trompe-l’oeil prospective he created in the Palazzo Spada.

Borromini's prospective in Palazzo Spada

Seen from a distance, the prospective gives the illusion of being as long as 30 metres, but it is actually only about eight metres long. The effect is created by having a series of columns mathematically decreasing in size on each side of an alleyway, and an ascending path which converge towards the same central point as the columns. The rather disconcerting effect it creates, is further enhanced by a statue of a Roman soldier placed at the end of the prospective. The statue, which is only 50 centimetres high, seems to be of full human proportions to the naked eye. It is only when a person stands next to it at the end of the alleyway that its true dimensions are revealed. When Borromini created his masterpiece, the prospective was opening on to a painted wall, which has since faded and can no longer be restored. The statue was added later during the 19th century. It was a pure coincidence that gave the artist the opportunity to create the work. He was initially commissioned to paint a trompe-l’oeil fresco in the so-called orange garden of the palace, but his patron, the owner of the palace, Cardinal Bernardino Spada, was able to purchase an additional piece of land from his neighbour. The plot was too small to extend the palace, so Borromini came up with the idea of creating an architectural prospective as opposed to a painted one, to give the illusion of a larger and more ornate garden.

The palazzo Spada, located between Campo de’ Fiori and via Giulia, was initially built in the 16th century by Cardinal Capodiferro, a close adviser of Pope Paul III, who was himself building his palazzo Farnese nearby. A century later, Cardinal Spada, purchased it to house his growing art collection, and turned it into a Baroque palace, commissioning the greatest artists of his time, such as Borromini, to work on the decoration.

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