Architecture Across the Eras: Italy, Day 2 (Rome)

Welcome to the second episode of my journal of my recent trip to Italy, covering day 2. Here’s day one, in which we looked at Roman frescos, mosaics, and statuary at the wonderful Palazzo Massimo.

In Buenos Aires, we booked a set of tours advertised on AirBnB and really enjoyed them (after the first one, we booked two more!) I haven’t been thrilled with AirBnB residences (of the five we stayed in we’d give one an A and another a B. The others were Cs or Ds.) But the tours were good, so we booked a casual walk around the heart of Rome at 10am. It was supposed to meet at Trajan’s Column, but I missed the email. This led to some stressful last-minute scrambling, again not helped by my poor sense of direction, my inability to parse Google Maps directions, huge crowds, and construction.

VE2M actually looks bigger as you get farther away.

We reached our group, just one other couple, and our lovely guide was a young German woman who had studied art history and moved to Italy. The walking tour covered numerous sites in the center of Rome. It started at the Victor Emmanuel II Monument (VE2M). This immense neoclassical edifice was built to celebrate the reunification of Italy. It has its fans, but many don’t care for it, in part because of big chunks of old Rome were destroyed for its construction. To give a sense of its size, before it was opened the leaders of the project held a dinner insider the giant horse (on which sits Victor Emmanuel II, the first king of modern united Italy) – they sat comfortably! We’ll return to the VE2M a bit later.

It’s a really really big horse!

We visited the Trevi Fountain and took the legally required pics – although we didn’t throw coins in. Because of the movie La Dolce Vita in which the leads famously jump in for a dip, you will be fined if you do so. You are supposed to throw three coins into the fountain (yes, that’s where the film and song come from): one to guarantee your return to Rome, another to fall in love with an Italian, and a third to marry them. We didn’t have coins on us, but we’ll get back to Rome regardless. The custom is rooted in an old pagan tradition of making offerings to river gods but was revived in the 19th century and thanks to the film and song has now become tradition for all visitors. The fountain itself is a Baroque masterwork by Bernini (and others) which centers on Oceanus, the Greek titan who ruled rivers. (Is it ruled or rules? Are the titans still a thing or have they withered without our worship?) This pagan fountain was commissioned by a Pope. The syncretism of Rome is a wonder.

Trevi Fountain: Baroque Masterpiece and Pagan Monument

At both the Trevi Fountain and at Piazza Navona, our guide pointed out how the great Baroque sculptor Bernini won his feuds in marble, adding features to his sculptures to diss both his rival Boromini and in one case a barber by the Trevi Fountain.

We also visited Sant’Ignazio (Church of St. Ignatius of Loyola at Campus Martius), a brilliant Baroque church dedicated to St. Ignatius, founder of the Jesuits. The church is best known for its fantastic ceiling fresco, which is entirely painted but feels fully three dimensional. These frescos (like the famous Sistine Chapel) were not lone tortured artists. They were large-scale industrial productions. The fresco was carefully planned, done in sections by teams. This was critical for all of the artistic masterworks of the time, but particularly so with frescos in which the paint was applied to wet plaster and when it dried, corrections would not be possible. As it happens, the section of The Agony and Ecstasy I had been reading was about Michelangelo’s apprenticeship with the great frescoist Ghirlandaio, which gave some insight into the scale and complexity of these frescos.

No fresco selfie for me. It’s St. Ignatius’ scene – not mine!

At the church, there was a long line for a giant mirror. Using the mirror, you could take a selfie with the fresco. Our guide didn’t think much of this practice, which was not an appreciation of a great work, so much as a bit of ego, making the thing your own. I’m more forgiving. I think it is about the relationship between the self and the soul/space and time/outer and inner worlds. Great art feeds the soul, but it takes time. Few – especially people on a group trip with a couple of days in Rome before heading somewhere else – have time to really get this massive fresco that tells the story of St. Ignatius and his great deeds. Besides time, they don’t really know the visual language. The paintings and art of the Renaissance and Baroque era (and beyond) were full of stories and symbolism that were well-known to the intended audience. But, and more on this in just a bit, what was once the arena of nearly everyone is now the salon of a relative few – graduate students, academics, and the like. This fresco decorates a working church, people who attended regularly, sitting for long stretches would appreciate and study this work. Its magnificence would be revealed over time, understanding would shift as the observer changed.

Instead, people see the fresco briefly, take their selfie and add it to their self, their external being. They can claim to have been somewhere and seen something remarkable. Who can blame them?

In that vein another stop on the walking tour was the Column of Trajan, a visual representation of that emperor’s conquest of Dacia (now Romania) in wars fought in 101-102 and 105-106 CE. The column was completed in 113 CE. The great column, standing over 100 feet (including its pedestal) is marble with a massive, continuous, carved frieze of scenes depicting Trajan’s victory. Today, only a scholar of Roman history would appreciate these complex designs, but again when it was constructed, the stories would have been clear and evident and the column a potent expression of the power of Rome and Trajan.

Another thing: Rome is crowded. There were certainly corners on our walk that were pleasant, but at many points near major tourist sites, making our way through the crowds was nearly impossible. At one point, our small group was split as a biking expedition got started.

With the end of the tour my wife and I headed to the old Jewish Ghetto, now primarily a tourist attraction, for lunch. After perusing the menus of each of the restaurants (several of which are kosher style, but not actually kosher) we settled on Ba’Ghetto. We ordered lamb cheeks (delicious) and a kosher take on bucatini amatriciana (normally made with cured pork, the kosher version used lamb.) Alas, one of my many weaknesses is having a drink during the day simply wipes me out and makes me insensible, so no delicious Italian red wine to accompany a fine meal. I was getting antsy for wine, since we were in Italy and I was mostly drinking beer. We did pick up a bottle of wine for Shabbat, but the challah (egg bread traditionally eaten on Shabbat) would only be ready the next day and we weren’t sure we’d be able to make it back.

Theater of Marcellus, at the top you can see the windows of the apartments. The columns are the remains of an enormous Temple to Apollo next door.
The Theater was surrounded by temples and shops. The columns and rubble are all that remains.
Portico d’Ottavio, this was just the entryway – it gives a sense of the scale of Roman construction.

Within the Ghetto is the Theater of Marcellus. It looks like the Colosseum, but – although it is massive (diameter of over 350 feet), the largest theater in ancient Rome, capable of seating over 10,000 – it is much smaller than the Colosseum. It was built for plays not physical contests, so there were significant differences in the construction. Like many of the great surviving edifices of ancient Rome, it was stripped of its travertine and decoration and then repurposed as a fortress and later residences. The upper floors are currently apartments. Two continuing themes in looking at Roman ruins. First, this is the skeleton, the original structure was sheathed in decorative stone and gaudily decorated. Second, it did not stand alone. It was surrounded by temples and markets, columns, walls, and rubble are much of what remains. But next to the Theater is the Portico d’Ottavio, which was the entrance to a massive complex containing a pair of temples, a library, an assembly room, and lecture halls.

The weather was pleasant so we began walking back to our hotel. On the way, we passed the VE2M and my wife suggested we climb it. Usually she complains to me about too much walking, but she wanted to do this. So we did. The top features spectacular views of Rome. The VE2M includes museums on Italian history, but it didn’t look like there were many visitors. People wanted the views. And honestly, who could blame them.

We earned those great views…

As we climbed and descended, I took a good look at the features of this monument. Much of the work is fine and compelling, but it is somehow a monstrosity. It is a huge, gleaming, neo-classical edifice. It was intended to evoke the glories of ancient Rome. Victor Emmanuel II was the first king of the newly unified and independent Italy. In 1861, when he ascended the throne, Italy was unified and independent for the first time since the days of the Roman Empire. Although in the Renaissance, Italy was the great engine and mover, its divided city-states increasingly became a geopolitical playground for the great powers of Europe. Machiavelli’s The Prince featured a plea for a unified Italy back in 1532. One can see why this ancient nation sought to reclaim and celebrate its heritage. But the monument is too big. Instead of being in dialogue with the ancient ruins it overshadows them. It isn’t clear how easy this dialogue would have been, because besides the Colosseum, most of the ruins are bits of walls, stray columns, and piles of rubble.

Some of the fine, detailed work on the VE2M, great but maybe overdone and possibly irrelevant.

Enormous neo-classical structures can take on Fascistic overtone, while the VE2 was started in 1885, it was only completed in 1935, well into Mussolini’s era. Il Duce was not shy about using the monument for his rallies. After World War II it was stripped of its overtly Fascist symbols. But I think there were bigger questions. There were many features to the monument, such as artistic representations of each of unified Italy’s provinces, a fountain for Italy’s two major seas, and sculptures and other features referencing great classical works throughout Rome. Again, given Italy’s history it is easy to see why this was done. But it may be a bit out of time. The vast changes in painting are often blamed on photography (and the soon to follow art of cinema.) But the wide spread of literacy may have also had an impact. What need of an enormous fresco illustrating the story of a saint, when everyone could just read it. With general literacy, the visual literacy that allowed a Roman to understand Trajan’s Column or a medieval peasant to study a fresco, declined. Painting and architecture changed, they were stripped down and reached us differently. Not that architectural edifices do not send messages (look at our recent president whose great goal is to put his name on big buildings). Elaborate decoration to tell a specific story, however, was less relevant, and a monument such as VE2 seemed overdone. Or maybe the VE2M is just too damn big.

We then had a long, and mostly uphill walk to our hotel. We stopped at the café for pizza, snacks, drinks, and beer, and called it a day. Because it had been.

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