The only thing I planned in Rome was to go to Vatican City on my third day, and my second day was a Sunday. Everyone had told me that most of the city shuts down on Sunday for obvious reasons, so I kind of just walked around and did whatever pleased me. First, I headed to the Piazza del Quirinale, home to the Palazzo del Quirinale, which is the official residence of the President of the Italian Republic who is currently Berlusconi (Remember the really important head of state that got mauled and had ugly marks all over his face?). Quirinale Hill is also the tallest of Rome’s 7 hills. My guidebook had said that the palace was closed to the public, but that was fine because I wanted to see the statue of Castor and Pollux, mythical warrior twins whom the ancient Romans embraced as their protectors. The statue is paired with an obelisk from the Mausoleum of Augustus:
The front of the palace:
Despite the fact that I supposedly couldn’t tour the palace, people were lining up to go inside the complex, and I was confused. Apparently, the palace is open to the public on Sunday mornings (only designated rooms of course, it’s not like I saw Berlusconi’s bedroom or anything), so quickly hopped on that train and got myself a tour of the president’s home. Built in 1583 by Pope Gregory XIII as a papal summer residence, and it housed the civil government offices of the Papal States until 1870 when they were overthrown during the Italian nationalist revolution. When Rome became the capital of unified Italy in 1871, the palace became the official royal residence of the Kings of Italy. The monarchy was abolished in 1946 and the Palace became the official residence and workplace for the Presidents of the Italian Republic.
No photos were allowed, obviously, and I didn’t want to take chances in the Italian equivalent to the White House, but the palace is a treasure trove of paintings, furniture, etc. The room I remember best is the one where the Italian president receives foreign heads of state, because I thought to myself “Oh, Obama was here, that’s pretty cool.”
So that was definitely a pleasant surprise. Just down the street was Bernini’s Four Fountains, which are built into an intersection:
Bernini’s Chiesa di Sant’Andrea al Quirinale wasn’t far away, either:
From there I went to the Doria Pamphilj Gallery, a large private collection housed in Palazzo Doria Pamphilj. The Doria Pamphilj family is of princely Roman blood, and they built this palace in the 17th century. They started collecting art in te 16th century. It’s quite an interesting space because the paintings are supposed to be like wallpaper, and there was barely any space left on the walls. This reflected the popular idea of the time that paintings were just decoration, a measure of wealth, and that true appreciation of a piece of art wasn’t the style:
There’s a lot of good stuff, and my favorites were Rubens’ small canvases, but Velazquez’s portrait of Pope Innocent X, formerly Cardinal Giovan Battista Pamphilj, is considered to be the collection’s masterpiece:
Some of the rooms, however, didn’t have any paintings and were just pieces of art all on their own. The Green Room, apparently done in a Viennese style:
The really interesting story, though, was in the chapel, which contains the bodies of 2 saints, including the mummified corpse of the family saint. The chapel, and a certificate from the Innocent X declaring the authenticity and presence of these saints in the chapel:
The synagogue wasn’t too far away, so I went there next. It’s a very prominent building on the bank of the Tiber River:
Unfortunately, Sinagoga Ashkenazita is only open during services because it was bombed in 1982. But it has an excellent museum with a variety of artifacts from Italy’s Jewish communities. Rome’s Jewish community, though, is the oldest in Europe; Israelites came in 161 BCE as ambassadors from Judah Maccabee, asking for help against invaders. Pope Paul IV confined the Jews to the local ghetto in 1555, and even though it was dissolved in 1870 it still remains the center of the city’s Jewish population. The museum’s current temporary exhibition is about repraesentatio legis, a custom during the Middle Ages in which the Jews would parade themselves in front of the new pope during his investiture and surrender themselves to him as “people of the Book.” The items were the Biblical scrolls that the Jews would present him with. The rite included an exchange between the Jews and the pontiff; the former would ask him to confirm and accept the book, and the pope responded something along the lines that the book was legitimate but the fact that it was given by the Jews made it futile. The Jewish community spent ridiculous amounts of money on making these scrolls, and over the centuries the rite underwent several changes and eventually disappeared altogether.
One of the streets that crosses the Tiber near the synagogue really reminded me of Ben Yehuda Street in Jerusalem, with its numerous (overpriced) kosher restaurants and Judaica stores:
I was disappointed, though, because I ate at one of these places and they charged me for bread they just brought me without even asking. This is common in places like Prague in Eastern Europe, but you don’t hear about it happening much in Western Europe. I’m sure they know they can “get” the tourists, but I was personally offended as a Jew visiting a site that had religious and historic significance for me.
Bordering the ghetto, right next to the synagogue, is the Portico d’Ottavia. The oldest four-sided porch in Rome was constructed originally in 146 BCE, but Augustus rebuilt it in the 1st century BCE and named it in honor of his sister, Ottavia. Its last reconstruction was in 203 CE by Settimus Sverius:
After lunch I was on my way out of the Jewish Ghetto when I saw some sort of ceremony in front of the portico. I read the flyers and was able to understand that it was some sort of Holocaust memorial that corresponded to a commemorative plaque placed on the side of a nearby building in January 2001. It makes sense because the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz was only a few days ago. I’m almost sure the elderly woman on the left is a survivor:
There was quite a crowd there, a lot of people on bicycles who had stopped to watch, and I was impressed. Unfortunately, I still had a lot more I wanted to see and so couldn’t stay until the end. A bit more wandering and I found the Pantheon, a 2,000-year-old temple to all the gods of Ancient Rome:
The Byzantine emperor gave it to Pope Boniface IV in 609 CE, who converted it to a church, thereby saving it from the abandonment and destruction that befell most of Rome’s ancient buildings during the early medieval period. Architects still wonder how it was erected because its dome is a perfect half-sphere made of poured concrete without the support of vaults, arches, or ribs, and the dome is the largest of its kind. Raphael’s grave is also located in the Pantheon:
From there I went to Piazza Navona. Originally CE first-century stadium, the piazza hosted wrestling matches, track and field events, and mock naval battles in which the stadium was flooded and filled with fleets. The last one actually sounds like it would have been fun to watch. These days, people go for Bernini’s Fountain of the Four Rivers, which represents one of the four continents of the globe ( as known in 1651). It’s currently undergoing some sort of restoration, I think:
I really tried to pace myself in Rome and not go for 7 or 8 hours each day like I had in France and Florence, so I went back to my hostel to relax and take advantage of my wonderful accommodations before I had to move on to my next destination.