Ancient Interiors: Italy, Arrival and Day 1 (Rome)

Writing about Italy is a cliché, and I certainly cannot compare to the great travelers of the past. Yet, the place still fascinates. I am hoping that my perspective, a combination of observations with some practical advice, will be interesting and useful. I am possessed with a desire to see and do everything. But time and energy are limited. This trip was two weeks, choices have to be made about what can be seen and what simply isn’t a priority. And how are priorities set? It is all too easy to fall into the trap of checklist tourism: what are the must sees, and how do you maximize seeing as many of them as possible? It is a constant push-pull to avoid falling into this mode. At the same time energy is limited. A few hours in a museum can be wonderful, but also tiring. Rushing from one museum in the morning to another in the afternoon doesn’t leave much room for contemplation. Italy is brimming with remarkable art and other wonders. Striding through a museum or church, glancing at masterpiece after masterpiece can be a pleasure in its own right, but really, art takes focus – the alchemy of time and energy

Arrival (Monday, January 19, 2024) – Unfortunately we had no choice but to take on overnight flight. We slept poorly from DC to Lisbon. With empty middle seats from Lisbon to Rome, we slept hard. We had paid for economy plus on TAP (Air Portugal), and I guess it was worth it. TAP’s website is frustrating, but their prices are good.

From Fiumicino Airport we took the super convenient Leonardo Express and then walked – with our bags – from Roma Termini (the train station) to the Hotel Lirico. I have a terrible sense of direction and sometimes Google Maps only makes things worse. I kept getting turned around. (Note: As I wrote this I tried a little something and realized the arrow on Google Maps is a compass, which, combined with instructions to walk north or west etc. will make future navigation much, much easier. I can miss the obvious.)

I pointed to out to my wife the Roman wall and the Baths of Diocletian that greeted us outside the station. I was also pleased to see the Palazzo Massimo Museo (which I planned to visit the next day).

Hotel Lirico was clean, comfortable, and up to date. We rested a bit and went out for dinner. We walked around looking for a place that would be good. The area, known as Repubblica and close to the National Opera, is heavily touristed. The general advice is that any place with an English menu is not going to be the best local cuisine, but we aren’t really foodies. First, we are limited because we are “conservative kosher.” That is we eat dairy, vegetarian, and fish (but not seafood) at restaurants, but only kosher meat – we also only drink kosher wine. So an English menu is pretty handy (although Italian is not inaccessible, especially to my wife who is a fluent Spanish-speaker.) But I also don’t like going out of my way for food. I want to eat well, but I don’t need to eat “the best.” We finally settled on a place across from our hotel. We’d been hearing about the cacio de pepe, the great Roman dish of pasta, pepper, and pecorino cheese so we ordered that along with a pasta and mushroom dish. The pasta was hard, which is the Italian style – and presumably the right way since pasta is their thing – but this was perhaps too hard. In the cacio de pepe, the sauce was too watery and too much – frankly it tasted like a commonplace fettucine alfredo.

We walked around just a bit and found a branch of The Gelatist and had some gelato, it was good, I mean, it was gelato. In bed I read Irving Stone’s The Agony and the Ecstasy(a novelized biography of Michelangelo)for a few minutes. I’m at the beginning where Michelangelo is an ambitious youth, desperate to escape his impoverished family to make art. It’s sort of like Harry Potter, but with marble instead of magic.

Day 2 (Tuesday, January 20, 2024) – We got up late and got to the hotel’s breakfast just a bit before it closed. Italians eat light breakfasts (just coffee and pastry) but I’m an American and I get cranky without a good meal in the morning. Fortunately the hotel had a variety of items sweet and savory. In addition a barista onsite made us cappuccinos.

This may seem silly, but I was quite taken with the pepper. I thought it was really tasty and peppery (it came in packets, not from a grinder.) My wife thought maybe I just used more of it than usual, but I didn’t think that was it. Then she said, they probably grind it more finely and it’s fresher, that’s why it is tastier. I then went on a riff about how Italy was Europe’s contact with the East and it controlled the spice trade in the Middle Ages – and pepper was the most prized, its what Columbus was seeking when he sailed west. The Renaissance was built, at least in part, on the wealth Italy acquired trading in spices. This of course collapsed when Western European nations found sea routes to the east (ironically many of the navigators were Italians including Columbus.) Travel with me is fun!

Knowing we’d be tired, my entire plan for the day was to visit the renown Palazzo Massimo Museo, part of the Museo Nazionale Romano. I had bought tickets online. For many of the leading attractions in both Rome and Florence, it is advisable to purchase tickets in advance – they are crowded even in the “off-season”. The Palazzo Massimo was not particularly crowded (when it is, there is timed entry to view the frescoes on the 2nd floor) and advanced tickets weren’t really needed. Worse, my advance tickets were not in my inbox, so I had to buy tickets again. Thanks CoopCulture. When you buy tickets to one of the four museums of the Museo Nazionale Romano, for just a few Euros more you can buy tickets to all four, but you have to visit within a few days. I sprang for this since the Baths of Diocletian were around the corner (but we didn’t make it) and I had hoped to visit the Crypto Baldi – which exhibits several layers of Roman history. Alas it was closed.

This ancient Roman general looks like Anthony Hopkins playing Hannibal Lecter.

I had wanted to go to this museum particularly to see its collections of frescos and mosaics. But the ground and first floor were primary devoted to Roman sculpture. If you are not a specialist, a bit of Roman statuary goes a long way. That isn’t to say that there wasn’t much to be learned, and many striking items. The statues were used by emperors to send political messages. The section also served as a short history of the Roman Republic and Empire and how artistic styles shifted over time. It also highlighted the influence other cultures had on Rome. Over 2000 years ago, Romans were acquiring/looting Greek statues. Roman craftsmen learned to imitate the Greek statuary and produced innumerable copies, alongside their own work. When Rome conquered Egypt and Egyptian fashion became the rage, influencing how people dressed and styled. (We later saw the Romans loved Egyptian obelisks and either brought them or built their own throughout the city.)

Alongside these statues of emperors and long forgotten Roman grandees were decorative sculptures inspired by the Greeks of gods and mythical scenes. The best-known are the Discus Thrower and The Boxer. They were separate from one another, but the contrast is notable. Most of the statues were craftsmanship of the highest order, and very impressive. But did they really present a world view? Were they more than expressions of the sponsor’s power and influence?

The Discus Thrower is perfection in marble. A perfect form, captured in marble in a perfect motion. The Boxer in contrast is bronze. It portrays a weary boxer who has been battered often. The bronze, accentuated with bits of copper shows the scars of his bouts. It is perfect, but it does not capture perfection. In the contrast between these sculptures, I think of Sophocles and Euripides, the great rivals of Greek theater. Sophocles’ characters were great individuals whose very greatness led them to hubris. Euripides’ characters by contrast, had murkier more complex desires, more akin to the rest of us.

I’ve seen Roman statues before and in the middle of the 1st story (remember in Europe what we call the 1st floor is the ground floor), we were running out of gas. So we took a break at the museum café, where we had coffee and a snack and chatted with the gregarious barrista. Then we visited the third – I mean second – floor.

This floor was frescos and mosaics. Because what we see of ancient sites are ruins, we imagine them as quiet white marble temples, graced with columns. Living in DC, the great center of neo-classical architecture (which was inspired by these ruins) that’s how we often envision the ancients. It is completely untrue. The ancient world was a riot of color. Statues were painted, walls were covered in frescos, and floors in mosaics. The frescos from an imperial villa and a major bathhouse were bright, with complex scenes and decorations. The emperors liked red, it was the most expensive color, although a bright red bedroom seems a bit aggressive if you want to actually sleep. The scenes within the broader décor are finely detailed.

The garden of Livia, the wife of Emperor Augustus, was a fresco decorating her summer triclinium (dining room) that was built partially underground to keep cool. The massive and detailed and well-preserved fresco was intended to make the room feel like a garden. Below are two pics, rich, detailed, colorful – the Romans could really paint.

Painting is my favorite art, but mosaics blow me away. Achieving the richness of imagery with paint is conceivable to me, but doing it with impossibly large numbers of tiny carved stones, pieces of glass, and marble is just astounding. The patterns are amazing, but when they have complex and compelling pictures – just wow. Mosiacs were used to decorate floors, this is the practical reason why stones were used instead of paint, they needed to withstand wear and tear. But both frescos and paintings and mosaics are two-dimensional media. Interesting food for thought as to why and how they might produce different effects.

The first mosaic depicts the seasons. The second, I don’t remember – but look at the detail. It seems almost modern in how it captures motion, except they did it with little stones!

This description hardly does justice to the treasures of the museum: I skipped over many remarkable sculptures, brilliantly carved sarcophagi, artifacts from the Nemi ships (the floating palaces of Caligula), and a much storied ivory mask of Apollo.

Beyond the specific pieces, the values of this museum as a whole (and a great reason to make it the first stop) is that it gives at least a hint of what ancient Rome really looked like. The buildings of ancient Rome were looted and often torn down over the centuries. What is left are either a few spare walls or columns. Even the most complete remaining edifices are the mere skeletons. The mosaics, frescos, and statuary put flesh on these bones and can allow you to imagine what Rome looked like. The statuary portraits give some idea of how people looked and dressed. Rome was not wise people walking through austere temples and palaces – it was a riot of color and sound.

Museums in Italy are often open into the evening (I wish that were more common here in the U.S.), but we were… done. There is a collection of Roman coins in the basement, I’m sure it would have been interesting, but one lesson of traveling is knowing when enough is enough.

Practical Tips: Visiting the Palazzo Massimo, start on the top floor with the frescos and mosaics. And if you aren’t simply checking boxes on your itinerary, give this museum a lot of time.

From the museum we stopped at a café by our hotel and had drinks and pizza slices. We tried Compari and Apersol spritzes. Very nice, new to me, (I like whiskey.) Happy hour with snacks is very much a thing in the late afternoon. This is followed by a late dinner (9pm is a not uncommon start time.)

We rested and headed out to dinner, finding a place next to the National Opera, the Maestro Bistro. The food was pretty good, the cacio de pepe was less creamy and more peppery. Best of all they had some good beers on draft. I know Italians drink wine with dinner, but because I only drink kosher wine, it limits me to beer for most meals. Fortunately, Italy makes good beer and also imports from their neighbors. I was particularly taken by a red beer (less common here, where it’s all IPAs.)

After dinner we took a little walk, ending up back at the train stations and inspecting the great Roman walls next to them. They were Servian Walls (named for the Roman King Servius Tullius), constructed when Rome was still an emerging city-state – centuries before the Rome of Cicero and Ceasar. They were repaired and improved after the great sacking by the Gauls in 390 BCE. This moment was definitional in Roman history, remaining a touchstone centuries later. The Great Fire of Rome, when Nero was emperor in 64 CE, reportedly occurred on the same days as the Gallic sack over 450 years earlier. This connection was much noted at the time and centuries afterwards by Roman historians.

Remains of the great Servian Walls.

Quick note, for several years I was obsessed with a series of computer games: Caesar. They were city-building games, kind of like SimCity, but you built a Roman city. The Romans were super into water, so you had to build reservoirs, aqueducts, and fountains. You build farms, quarries, and factories for critical products such as grain, olive oil, pottery, and of course marble. You build great entertainments – theaters, colosseums, and the circus maximus. Roads to transport peole and goods, and walls to protect your city from raiders and barbarians. All of this is to say I have a bit of familiarity with the features of Roman cities and thrilled to see them in person. This included the great temples and theaters, but also the more mundane fountains, roads, and walls.

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