Synopsis of first few weeks in Rome!
It is difficult to believe that we have been in Rome for six weeks already: the time has absolutely flown by, and I know it will only pass more quickly as the semester winds down.
We arrived in Rome on February 5th to a grey and rainy city: something new and different for us. The bus dropped us off right outside the Vatican walls where my roommates and I hopped in a cab and were sent to our apartment!
We were greeted by our landlord, Peppe Piermarini, a sweet little old man who speaks got albeit shaky English. He helped us with our bags (we had a ton of stuff between the three of us), and showed us around the apartment a little bit. He gave us our keys and explained the utilities and the washing machine and other appliances. We also met his wife (I cannot remember her name), who is apparently a clean freak. I guess that is good, it will make us keep our apartment somewhat tidy for the time we are here. Sinead and I decided to share the smaller double room because we had already lived together in Florence. We claimed our beds and began to unpack: it was refreshing to totally unpack my bags and settle into our apartment.
At dusk, Sinead, Katherine and I went exploring. We headed down our street peering into all of the boutiques and cafes along the way, until we came to a dead end at the Colosseum. We were all immediately taken with the enormity of it, and spent half an hour walking around it and trying to actually absorb the fact that we were a) standing in Ancient Rome; and b) we would be living here for the next three and a half months. I met up with my guy friends, Brad, Brenden, and Michael, and we headed over to Caitlin’s apartment to meet up with everyone else. We walked through the Forum and passed what Italians call the “Wedding Cake” Monument. It is a huge, gaudy monument dedicated to the first king of united Italy, Vittorio Emanuelle II. Italians do not like this piece of modernish art because it does not fit into the surrounding ancient ruins,
No one really wanted to go out, we just wanted to explore the city at night (I think the fountains and monuments tend to be prettier at night anyway). We walked to the center of town to see Piazza Navona, which holds Bernini’s Four Rivers fountain, the Pantheon, and the Trevi Fountain. The Trevi Fountain is magnificent: there is no grand boulevard leading up to it, no space was cleared out to single it out from the buildings it lies between. One always approached this fountain via a small, windy, Roman street, and you can usually hear the flush of the waterfalls well before the fountain comes into sight. This is definitely my favorite fountain in Rome: the beauty of the water and the carved stone were a bit too much to handle for the first day, and I almost ended up in tears over the perfection of it. The ten or so of us sat down on a step facing the Trevi, and continued to sit like that in silence for about forty five minutes. There were probably a hundred or so tourists around, taking pictures and throwing coins in, but we could not be bothered to notice anything except the mere fact that we were finally in Rome.
Friday the 6th we had another orientation meeting. This one, unlike icebreakers in Florence, was more to acquaint us with the city and make sure everyone knew everything in case of an emergency etc. etc. We received our class schedules, an econo-seized map, two single-ride bus tickets, and a bunch of other logistical papers. Grandmama and Caroline also arrived that morning! They got to their hotel right when our meeting was starting, so they were able to nap while I listed to a woman from the American Embassy in Rome tell horror stories about foreign students studying abroad. Honestly, who in their right mind would have the audacity to try push a carabinieri (military police officers) car down the Spanish Steps with the officers still in it?! We immediately scratched that off of our to-do list.
When I met up with Grandmama and Red, we just walked around my neighborhood a little bit before heading to do the Piazza Navona/Pantheon/Trevi Fountain loop (I need a nickname for that). I was able to give them a bit of a history lesson on each of the things we saw because I am a guidebook nerd and read my Rick Steves Rome 2008 book cover-to-cover before they got here. So, this is what they learned:
1) Gian Lorenzo Bernini, the founder of Baroque Rome, dedicated his Four Rivers fountain to the four continents that were known at the time: the Ganges for Asia, the Danube for Europe, the Nile for Africa, and the Rio de la Plata for America. The fountain is adorned with palm trees, horses, and even an armadillo.
2) The Pantheon (“pan” meaning “every” and “theon” meaning “god”), Grandmama’s favorite building in Rome, was built in 120 A.D. by Emperor Hadrian. The perfect, ancient dome of the Pantheon served as inspiration for the domes of Michaelangelo’s St. Peter’s and Brunelleschi’s Duomo (in Florence)
3) The Trevi Fountain was commissioned to Nicola Salvi by a pope who wanted to celebrate the opening of an ancient aqueduct. It is apt, therefore, that this fountain was designed to demonstrate how the Roman aqueducts function. There are 24 spouts that allow the water to fall over 30 different kinds of plants. My favorite part of the fountain are the horses that represent the two sides of the sea: one is unruly and tumultuous, and the other is calm and tranquil. Also, every tourist is supposed to throw a penny into the fountain to insure that they will return to Rome.
After this mini-tour, we headed home to get ready for dinner. On the recommendation of Rosanna, the receptionist and Grandmama and Red’s hotel, we went to a place around the corner called Taverna dei Fori Imperiali. Ironically, my friend Zoe had also told me to go to this place: she said it had some of the best Italian food she has ever eaten. It was delicious (I have been back twice since then): I had orechette with broccoli, sausage, and pecorino cheese, Red had enormous ravioli, and Grandma had linguini with clams that looked delicious. The restaurant is tiny with probably only about twenty tables and there is usually a line to get in, so if you do not have a reservation, you are basically screwed. It is run by a family: Alessandro is the head chef, his wife and their son serve tables, and his son is the drink waiter. The atmosphere is great: there red-and-white-checkered tablecloths, there is always a different fragrance in the air, and the place is always bustling.
On Sunday, we went to see the Pope! We walked up to St. Peter’s to arrive at a packed square all waiting for Pope Benedict XVI to come out and bless the crowd. He appears from his office window every Sunday to give a blessing to the people standing so far beneath him. He spoke in Italian, Latin, French, English, Spanish, German, and probably another language or two that I am forgetting. We then headed to the massive line that was forming to enter St. Peter’s Basilica.
(In Italy, a basilica is specifically a church that houses the remains of someone, usually a saint, whereas a chiesa is simply a church used for worship.)
I have now been inside this basilica four times since I have been in Rome, but the splendor of the home of Catholicism always has something different to offer, usually because of the lighting. Based on which time of day you go, the light streams in from the windows hitting the altarpiece or the gold mosaic tiles so the whole church sparkles. Many great Italian artists contributed to the 112-year construction of this basilica: Michelangelo designed the dome; Bernini designed the four pilasters that hold the dome up, and Bramante as the original architect of the entire basilica. Michelangelo’s Pietà is also in St. Peters, but unfortunately this beautiful piece of Renaissance art is protected by a large piece of glass so you are only able to stand about twenty feet away from it. Still, this atypical representation of Mary and Jesus is brilliantly carved. It is in the shape of a triangle to represent the Holy Trinity, with the life-sized Jesus burdening his mother with his weight. But Mary’s face is clearly too young to be that of a mother of a 33-year-old man: it is possible that Michelangelo wanted to represent eternal youth. On the other hand, it is also possible this may be a flash to the future, a representation of Mary at the time of the Annunciation (when the angel Gabriel came down to tell Mary she would bear the child of Christ).
On Tuesday (my birthday!!!), Grandmama and Red went to the Capitoline Museums (Rome’s capital hill), while I had class. I rearranged my class schedule a little bit so I have all for of my classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 9-6. This may seem brutal, but it means that I have a four-day weekend! I would also rather get all of my classes finished with in the morning, and I had one class scheduled for 3:00 in the afternoon on Mondays and Wednesdays, which would have been such a drag.
My classes are great for the most part, and all of my professors are awesome. Italian Literature in Translation is a bit slow going, partially because it is a 9am class. My professor, Luca Marcozzi is brilliant, but he literally speaks in a stream of consciousness that often has nothing to do with the topic. So far we have read Dante’s Divine Comedy, Bocaccio’s Decameron, and some works by Petrarch. We will be reading other authors like Machiavelli later in the semester.
I am also taking Introduction to Renaissance and Baroque Art, which may be my favorite class. My professor, Daria Borghese (yes, she is related to the Borghese family), is this 55-year-old fashionable Roman woman (I guess that is not saying much—all Roman women are fashionable) who has a such a passion for teaching art history I am often floored by her. She is incredibly knowledgeable (I guess she has to be to be a university professor) and loves to talk to us about anything and everything. She praises us in Italian when we get a question right, and becomes disappointed in us when we have not done our reading. I have the class with Brenna, Brad, and Ariel, which makes the class that much more fun.
Brad, Brenna, and I are also in the same History of Italian Cinema class: another awesome class taught by an awesome professor, Maddelena. We are studying all of Italian cinema—literally from the beginning of the first Italian movie up until now. I watched some of the films in my Italian class two semesters ago, including one of my favorite neo-realist films, “Rome Open City.” I do not know why, but I just love everything about the movie, even if it is an extremely depressing commentary on life under Fascist rule.
There are only five people in my Italian class, and the other day my friend Ally called it a cult. We were all in the same class in Florence, so we have been close since then. It is a great way to learn the language because we all feel comfortable helping each other out. I like to speak, Emily likes grammar, Ally likes to joke around, Alicia forms perfect sentences, and Josh likes to make fun of me. Matilde (our professor) brings us fun Italian snacks and takes us out for coffee and forces us to speak Italian in and outside of class.
My Italian is developing every day, and I can understand the majority of things people say. One odd experience I had a couple of weeks ago was while I was eavesdropping on my bus ride home from school. I was listening to the conversations around me, and tuned into the chatter of two men behind me. I was thoroughly confused as I attempted to uncover what language they were speaking, when I suddenly heard some words that only exist in Italian and realized with a bit of horror that they were, in fact, speaking some incomprehensible dialect of Italian that I could not understand. I was amazed by this, and can only guess that they came from Southern Italy (Sicily, perhaps), where their language is so different that many fluent Italians cannot even understand it!!
My first day of classes was also my birthday, so I met up with Grandmama and Red for dinner when classes ended. One of Grandmama’s friends who travels a lot recommended a restaurant at the top of the Spanish Steps on top of the Hotel Messner called Imago. The views from the top of the restaurant were glorious: you could see all of Rome and way beyond. The penguin-outfitted staff was adorable and helpful, making sure everything was perfect all the time. We had a Prosecco toast to my twenty-one years, and I had a glass of my favorite Italian wine, Brunello di Montalcino. My eclectic dinner consisted of delicious gnocchi filled with olives and cheese and topped with octopus! For dessert, I had a chocolate and ricotta torte with saffron gelato. They wrote “Happy 21th Birthday!” I laughed at the slight grammatical error. After dinner, Caroline and I went over to the boy’s apartment to meet up with them before going out. I walked in and was thrown back by the loud ‘SURPRISE!’ that came hurdling my way. My friends were adorable—they got me a little chocolate torte and a bottle of Prosecco to celebrate.
The day after my birthday, Caroline and I got up a bit earlier than we would have liked in order to meet Grandmama for a tour of the Forum and the Colosseum. The cute tour guide we had was way worth getting out of bed for, though. This informative man’s name was Tom, and he took us through a few thousand years of Roman history in the Forum and Colosseum. We saw the exact place where Julius Caesar was cremated—people still put flowers on top of the cremation site! Some people are nuts.
On Thursday Grandmama and Red went to the Vatican Museums to see the Sistine Chapel while I had my lengthy day of classes. They both said it was amazing (Grandmama and I had been there once before already): how could it not be? They also went to the top of the Vittorio Emanuelle II statue to see more sprawling views of the city.
We were supposed to go to the Borghese Gallery on Friday, but there was a strike so we had to reschedule for Saturday. Instead, we spent the day souvenir shopping and going back to Red’s favorite gelato place near the Pantheon. Saturday was the perfect day to go to the Borghese: it was about 55 degrees without a cloud in the sky. This is my favorite art gallery in all of Rome, possibly in the world. Cardinal Scipione Borghese built this 17th century villa to house his family’s priceless art collection, spanning from ancient art up through the 1800s. The collection includes many sculptures by Bernini (my favorite is Apollo & Daphne), Canova’s sculpture of Pauline Bonaparte, and paintings by Titian and Caravaggio, just to name a few. I personally think this is the most beautifully assembled collection of art in the world. The mere list of names represented in the Borghese is mind-boggling.
That night, Valentine’s Day, we went back to Taverna dei Fori Imperiali for our last supper in Rome. Caroline and I then went to my friend Carly’s house where my friends were having a pot-luck type of Valentine’s Day dinner. We were there for a bit, but Red had to get up early to leave for the airport so she said her goodbyes and we headed back to the hotel. I said goodbye to Grandmama & Caroline and went back to my apartment with Brenna and Dana a bit teary-eyed. Even though it was a crazy week, I learned my way around Rome quickly, and was then able to get around without a map after a short ten days in the city.
The next weekend, my friend Meredith came to visit me! (She is studying in London, I saw her while I was there). I was able to play tour-guide again, and I was able to give her a complete history lesson about the city. We saw everything Grandmama and Red saw, including taking the elevator to the top of the Vittorio Emanuelle II monument to see gorgeous views of the city. It had rained the entire previous week, but Mere brought the good weather with her, so we were able to leisurely walk around the city enjoying the clear skies and warm breezes.
I took her into the Vatican Museums because I was not about to let her leave Rome without seeing it. We literally power walked through the museum until we hit the Sistine Chapel, which was a complete sensory overload. Meredith was speechless. It is said to be the most incredible piece of art done by a single artist in the world—I do not doubt it. The bright colors, the emotion shown on the faces of the characters on the ceiling and Last Judgment wall break many rules of Renaissance art. Michelangelo was commissioned by Pope Julius II to paint the Sistine Chapel: he was basically given free reign on how to paint the ceiling, which he completed between 1508 and 1512. He was also brought to Rome kicking and screaming, reluctant to paint the Chapel because he did not see himself as a painter. For those of you who do not know, the ceiling depicts the world according to Michelangelo with nine panels: creation of light, creation of the planets, separation of water and earth, creation of Adam, creation of Eve, original sin and the expulsion from the garden, the sacrifice of Noah, the construction of Noah’s arc, and the drunkenness of Noah. I do not really understand what Noah’s connection with Genesis is, considering it is part of the New Testament. I do know, however, is that the original entrance into the Sistine Chapel is not where we entered, close to the Last Judgment wall: people originally entered through the back of the chapel, underneath the scene showing drunken Noah. This is the order in which you are supposed to look at the panels: from Noah to the creation of light, moving from the most human of actions to up to the altar wall, above which the most divine action takes place. The Last Judgment wall is simply another demonstration of Michelangelo’s genius. It shows Judgment Day, with Christ deciding who to place in heaven and who to place in hell. If Michelangelo did not like you, he put you in hell, if you were his friend you were lucky enough to go to heaven. There is a pope who was rude to Michelangelo during his time in Rome, so he put the guy in the lowest corner of the wall being suffocated by a snake. Michelangelo even painted his own face in the wall: St. Bartholomew was skinned alive, and he is painted holding his own skin, on which is the artist’s face (gruesome, I know). Mere and I sat there for about forty-five minutes just staring (and taking pictures, which you are not supposed to do). There is always something new to see in the Sistine Chapel.
So far, everything in Rome has been wonderful. I love everything about this city, especially the history and the amount that I am learning about the city I feel I can now call my own.