Things to look for: Obelisks

Obelisk from St. Peter's Square

Obelisk from St. Peter’s Square

After the battle of Actium in 31 BCE, the Roman victors experienced a kind of Egyptomania. They gained an extremely wealthy province, home to much of the city’s source of grain, and suddenly obelisks were appearing everywhere. Often times they are located amongst Christian symbolism. This isn’t an oversight. Putting pagan symbols in the Christian context was often meant to indicate the triumph of one over the other. Follow the picture to ind a list of all the obelisks across Rome.

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Things to look for: Nasoni

No those aren’t leaky taps. Those constantly flowing spigots are one of the remnants of ancient Roman engineering. Thanks to aqueducts constructed thousands of years ago, Rome has 2,500 water fountains, known as Nasoni for their big-nose like shape. The cold water that flows from the fountains comes along aqueducts that run seventy miles before arriving in the city.

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Things to look for: SPQR

The weird anagram SPQR appears all over Rome. It’s an abbreviation for Senatus Populesque Romanus which is Latin for “The Senate and the People of Rome.” This dates back to the Roman Republic and was used all over on official documents, dedicatory inscriptions, and, yes, drains.

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St. Peter’s Basilica

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St. Peter’s Basilica is one of the holiest churches in the Christian religion. It is one of four major basilicas located in Rome and the principle church of the Pope. Although St. Peter’s is located within Vatican City, this basilica is not the official seat of the Bishop of Rome, better known as the Pope. That honor belongs to St. John the Lateran. So while the official cathedra, or seat, of the the Pope is not St. Peter’s, the Basilica remains a landmark within the Catholic Church and Roman history.

St. Peter’s Brief History

St. Peter’s and Vatican City are situated on Vatican Hill, across the Tiber from the ancient Campus Martius. Outside the walls of the city, Nero built a circus on the site to hold chariot races and carry out executions. These executions shaped the future of Vatican Hill. You’ve heard the saying “Nero fiddled while Rome burned?” Here’s some historical context behind the saying. In 69 A.D., Rome was consumed by a terrible fire that lasted for days. Actual cause of the fire is unknown, but because Nero one one of the few who gained from the destruction, fingers point to him. To shift the blame away from himself, Nero blamed the Christians, a new group of monotheists, and began executing them at the circus on Vatican Hill. One of those executed was Peter, one of the original apostles of Jesus Christ and the first Pope, or Bishop of Rome. Peter was buried nearby and an altar was set up as a place to worship at the apostle’s tomb. Modern day St. Peter’s sits over the site and acts as a modern incarnation of that memorial.

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Sketch of Old St. Peters with the pieces labeled.

After St. Peter’s execution, the site became a pilgrimage destination, as well as a burial site for Christians. In 326 A.D., the emperor Constantine built “Old” St. Peter’s in a typical latin cross plan. The basilica style suited the nature of Christian religion and contained several key elements. The building began with a large atrium for people to gather. Only those who had been baptized were allowed beyond the narthex and into the holy space of the church. For that reason, you often see a small round structure called a baptistry set just outside the church. The main body of the basilica style church contains a long nave, flanked by aisles. The altar is located in the semi-circular apse at the back of the building. The transept cross section creates the familiar latin cross floor plan. Santa Sabina is a great example of the old basilica style church. Old St. Peter’s stood until 1506, when Pope Julius II began plans to rebuild a grander St. Peter’s. At that point a new structure was probably needed, as the wooden structure was now almost 1200 years old! Construction was underway for 150 years before the church was finally completed, funded in part by the sale of indulgences. During that time over a dozen Popes oversaw the evolution of New Saint Peter’s as consecutive architects modified the existing plans, notably these three. Bramante was first hired by  Julius II to and he set forth a greek-cross floor plan, that is a centrally planned church with a “plus” sign shape and a dome. Both Bramante and Julius died before the work was completed and Michelangelo was brought in as chief architect. Michelangelo also did not live to see the basilica completed. Carlo Maderno was recruited by Paul V and ordered to extend the central nave of the church to create the more traditional latin cross plan. The extension of the nave and the addition of the facade created a problem of scale and perspective. The closer you get to the facade, the more you lose sight of Michelangelo’s dome. Bernini was brought in to decorate the interior and add the finishing touches.

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Panorama of St. Peter’s Square

The Basilica’s Exterior

When Bernini first began construction on the Piazza’s enormous porticos, the surrounding area was a tight knit cluster of buildings, much like most of Rome today. To approach the Basilica, a visitor had to meander through the maze of streets until the vast open Piazza was finally revealed, with anticipation and all the grandeur the space deserves. That effect remained until Mussolini began another one of his building projects and created Via della Conciliazione. The new road cuts a direct path to Vatican City, enabling a visitor to grow accustomed to the massive size of St. Peters as they walk up to it. It kind of undercuts the overall effect of the square. Consider approaching St. Peter’s from another route. Bernini was faced with the unusual challenge of trying to unite the open space of St. Peter’s by distinguishing the square and drawing your attention to the Basilica. The result is an unique elliptical shaped portico comprised of 284 columns. With two lanes for pedestrians and a center lane wide enough for a carriage, the simple design draws our eye to the facade of Saint Peter’s and ties together the open piazza. The vast reaches of Bernini’s portico extend out into the square, like a pair of arms greeting the worshippers. The portico in some ways replaces the old basilica church component of an atrium, a courtyard for the faithful to gather. The placement of the columns allows visitors open access to the piazza, and yet the view of the surrounding buildings is obscured. Entrance to St. Peter’s begins in line near the right hand side of the portico. Placed in the center of the elliptical is the large obelisk. This obelisk was the same that sat in Nero’s circus, and witnessed St. Peter’s execution. Flanking the obelisk are two fountains, one designed by Maderno, the other by Bernini. It’s fitting that the two fountains sit together. Bernini’s work on the portico draws attention to Maderno’s work on the facade. When Michelangelo died he left no plans for a facade. How did you manage to draw attention to the front door in the middle of such a large piazza? Maderno solved the problem by gradually increasing the depth of the columns and bringing each set slightly closer together. That draws our eye to the center balcony where the Pope appears to greet the audience in the square.

The Basilica’s Interior

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Close up of the facade and the statue of St. Paul.

Where to begin. It’s sites like this that make a little research go a long way. I’m hoping to get individual posts up on many of the highlights very soon. But for now we’ll begin by walking up to the church. As you scale the stairs up to the church your eyes begin to adjust to the vastness of the building before you. The letters that spell out: “In honor of Prince of the Apostles, Paul V Borghese, a Roman, supreme pontiff in the year 1612, the seventh year of his pontificate” are each three feet tall and the sculptures that adorn the roof are over twenty. The two sculptures that greet you outside are of Peter and Paul, added in the 19th century. Before you enter the basilica you can see equestrian statutes of Constantine and Charlemagne on your right and left under the atrium. Directly before you is the Holy Door, only opened for the Jubilee every 25 years. Once inside, stop for a moment to take in the result of 150 years of planning. Step back and take a look around before you get swept up in the excitement of the other tourists.

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St. Peter, spiral of the Baldachino, and the sunlit Dove in the background

On your right as you enter is Michelangelo’s famous Pieta. Done when he was only 24 years old, the marble sculpture depicts the Virgin Mary cradling the body of Jesus. Don’t forget to take a glimpse at the floor as you enter. Noted by stars along the nave, are comparable sizes of the other great churches in the world. The great round porphyry stone – a very expensive type of red stone – just in front of the entrance, is the same stone that Charlemagne kneeled on to become the first Holy Roman Emperor. Continuing on you’ll see the monument to Gregory XIII by Camillo Rusconi in 1723. Gregory is responsible for the Gregorian Calendar, and is flanked by personifications of Faith and Wisdom. Back in the central nave is the statue of St. Peter, attributed to Arnolfo di Cambio. Centuries of worshippers kissing the Saint’s foot have left it shiny. Even a short list will include Bernini’s enormous Baldachino, the bronze canopy that graces the papal altar and marks the center of the basilica’s transept. The Pope gives mass from this altar, which sits over the confessio and the tomb of St. Peter. The baldachino’s four spiraling columns are intended to evoke the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem. The source of all this bronze came from the ceiling of the Pantheon, where Urban VIII infamously called for its removal. Be sure to take a moment here to look up and admire Michelangelo’s impressive dome. It’s 348 foot height means the Statute of Liberty could stand inside it. The inscription reads: “Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church…I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven.” The dome is supported by four large piers, within each Bernini placed a sculpture of a saint: Veronica, Helen, Longinus, and Andrew. Beyond the Baldachino on the left hand side is another Bernini work, this one the tomb of Pope Alexander VII. Bernini utilized the space effectively despite the fact that a door lies underneath the marble folds of fabric. Move closer to see that the personification of Death raises the cloth to allow passage through the doorway. At the great apse at the very end of the nave is the Altar of the Throne. A sun burst of gold crowns the monument lifted by the four doctors of the church. Inside is reportedly the throne of St. Peter. Sunlight hits the transparent window in the afternoon.

Visiting the Basilica

Admission to the Basilica is free like all churches. It is open from 7am till 7pm April through September and from 7am till 6pm the rest of the year. The best days to visit the Basilica are probably Tuesdays and Thursdays, and I mean that with a grain of salt. Vatican City is a very popular tourist attraction so the down times are still going to be busy. But process of elimination can help you choose a good day. Vatican City observes the day of rest and is closed on Sundays. Mondays are crowded because all other museums in Rome are closed on Mondays. Wednesdays the Pope give an audience and appears at 10:30am to bless St. Peter’s Square so Wednesdays are a bit busier. Saturdays the locals come to visit. It’s important to remember the Basilica is still a working church and sometimes portions may be blocked off as a service takes place. If you have the time, stick around until the service is over and the area become open again. You can get a glimpse of church officials as they leave and beat the rush once the section becomes open again. Good things come to those who wait. Very few people are willing to stick around, so you may find yourself in quiet corner.

Just like the Vatican Museum, there is a metal detector before the entrance to the Basilica. The entrance is located underneath the right hand side of the portico. (Right hand side when facing the Basilica.) Sometimes the line to the metal detectors begins to filter out into the piazza. Don’t be dismayed. The line moves quickly. Don’t be expected to keep your pocket knife or anything though. The guards take their jobs seriously. Here too, dress code will be enforced. Rome in July and tank tops might seem like a perfect match, but not at the Vatican. Shorts or dresses down to the knees are safe, as well as shirts that cover your shoulders. This applies to gentlemen as well. Close-toed shoes are also a good thing. Better to play it on the safe side when visiting the Vatican.

Visitors can also take a climb up to the top of the dome. It’s a bit of a hike and warm in the summer, but very cool and worth it. The view from the top of the dome is one of the best in the city. If you go in the summer, fill up a water bottle and don’t be afraid to take a break if you need to. The first leg get you up to the roof of the basilica, which I thought was kind of fun. You can stop and shop at a small gift store, on the roof, that’s run by nuns. There’s also a water fountain up there. An elevator can take you this far, if you’re traveling with handicapped or children. The second leg lets you pause inside the dome of the basilica. Not at the top, but inside, where you can walk around and look down at the church below. The final leg is the tightest fit, but keep in mind that you’re actually inside the dome now and nearing the cupola. Don’t be afraid to pause at the windows as you go for the view (And some fresh air).

Do keep in mind that the Sistine Chapel is accessible through the Vatican Museums, not through St. Peters.

Here are some sites I found very helpful:

Sacred Destinations has a great page on St. Peter’s Basilica. Be sure to check out their other pages as well.

The Vatican website is brimming with information. Here’s a link to their Basilica information page.

Also, a link to “Practical Information” on the Vatican’s site. Here you can find information on how to arrange tickets for a Papal Audience, as well as more in depth tours, like a tour of the grottoes and necropolis.

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“Taverna del Ghetto”

Unfortunately I have to write my first “dislike” about a restaurant. The food was good not great, and the service was fine but again it was missing something. I’d done some research before my visit and had stumbled upon Taverna del Ghetto’s very expansive website. This probably should’ve been my first warning. Restaurants in Rome generally don’t have websites, or if they do, they’re very simple with a wonderfully inaccurate English translation. Do a little browsing and you’ll see what I mean.

We were also hailed by a gentleman at the door, not a good sign. Sometimes restaurants place a waiter on the sidewalk to give a sales pitch to passersby. It can be a little intimidating, especially on a touristy avenue, to be onset by all these people wanting you to eat at their establishment. Unless you want to eat at their restaurant, don’t buckle when they promise you “Pizza! Pasta!” Taverna del Ghetto was respectful about it but the more you travel through the city the more you’ll begin to recognize small signs like that, and perhaps look elsewhere.

Our only excuse for buckling at Taverna del Ghetto is we were hungry and a bit jet lagged. I feel a bit guilty for bashing the restaurant, because there really was nothing wrong with it. The existence of a website and available menu is a comfort for some travelers, and it’s location on Via del Portico D’Ottavia means that it’s close to the Capitoline Hill and Piazza Venezia, but just enough of a walk to be away from the crowds. But as far as the food is concerned, I’d go across the street to “Ba Ghetto.”

Here’s the link to the restaurant’s webpage.

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“Ba Ghetto”

Located on Portico d’Ottavia, Ba Ghetto is a kosher restaurant with great food. I ordered the Bucatini Amatriciana for starters and the special,  grilled salmon with pine nuts. So good. The salmon was a nice hefty piece of filet that was fresh and moist. I was most impressed by this, because paying more for seafood at a new restaurant can be risky. After all, you’re at the mercy of the chef. What if they bring you a smaller portion low not-so great fish? Not to worry here. The seafood that night was plentiful. Another member of my group ordered clams and had a similar sized portion.

My pasta was also a nice surprise. Bucatini is a heavier version of spaghetti, so I was a little hesitant to order it. Back home I make thin spaghetti or angel hair but I wanted to try the amatriciana so I gave it a shot. I haven’t made angel hair since. The bucatini was cooked to an insane level of al dente perfection like a new standard for what pasta can be. The amatriciana sauce is a spicy tomato based sauce here served con carne, or with meat. Pasta is often served with   small slices of cured pork similar to a thick slice of proscuitto. This meat was neither fatty or chewy (as it can sometimes be). The sauce is traditionally spiced with crushed red chili and paprika and the version at Ba Ghetto was a nice combination of both.

The service here was nice and not pushy and if you’re looking for a decently priced restaurant with great quality food Ba Ghetto gets the recommend.

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Republican Rome: Part Two

The First Triumvirate and Civil War

The alliance that formed between three individually powerful men of Rome was tenuous at best and borderline illegal at worst. In part one we talked about increasingly powerful generals, leading armies that were loyal to the commander they had served with for years. In this part, we will see perhaps the two greatest generals at odds with each other.

If you’re a fan of the Hunger Games series, you might have some idea of what this alliance will turn out like. The three tributes may work together as long as they see personal benefit, but only one will be crowned victor. Once the balance of power shifts, alliances are broken. In this arena of eastern and western provinces, Rome is the cornucopia each man strives for.

Siege-alesia-vercingetorix-jules-cesarThe First Triumvirate was made up of Julius Caesar, Marcus Licinius Crassus and Gnaeus Pompey Magnus. After this we’ll shorten the names to Crassus and Pompey. Within the alliance Crassus and Pompey were the more senior members. Crassus was enormously wealthy, perhaps the wealthiest man in Roman history, and Pompey was a celebrated military leader of several victorious campaigns. Julius Caesar, though younger, was a popular up-and-coming politician with charm and promise. Together, the Triumvirate was able to politically out-manuever the opposing political party, the Optimates, led by Cicero and Cato the Younger.

While the situation was detrimental to the Republic’s integrity, the members of the Triumvirate had successfully taken power. With the support of Crassus and Pompey, Julius Caesar was elected consul, then proconsul in 58 BCE, making him governor of provinces. Caesar’s land reforms were pushed through with the help of his allies and he left Rome to pursue a successful campaign known as the Gallic Wars. But in 53 BCE, Crassus sought his own military victory against the Parthians, was defeated and murdered. His death tipped the scales of power and set Caesar and Pompey at odds against each other. The death of Pompey’s wife Julia, who was also Caesar’s daughter, severed the last link between the two men. Distrust, suspicion and ambition drove the two men apart.

With Caesar pursuing victory after victory in Gaul, his loot was able to fund his generosity and win him loyal allies. He doubled the pay of his troops and called in more legions to reinforce him from Gaul. But in 51 BCE, a motion was put before the Senate to order Julius Caesar to give up his command at the end of his term and return to Rome. Caesar counter-offered, and declared he would give up his command if Pompey was ordered to do the same. The Senate threw their support behind Pompey and granted him funds and troops should Caesar become a greater threat. In January of 49 BCE, Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon River, the border of the province of Cisalpine Gaul and Roman territory, with his 13th Legion. To enter Rome with an army was considered a strike against the Republic and it is said Caesar uttered the phrase “Alea iacta est” meaning “The die is cast” as he did so.

In the absence and growing mistrust of Caesar, the Senate had appointed Pompey as sole consul, effectively kicking Caesar out of the club. When Caesar marched toward Rome, Pompey declared Rome indefensible and fled to Brundisium, then across to Greece. Once Caesar had secured his position in Rome he pursued Pompey across Greece where the final battle took place at Pharsalus in 48 BCE. Julius Caesar defeated the army of Pompey, who escaped and sought asylum in Egypt, but was murdered as soon as he stepped off of his ship. The last supporters of Pompey were finally defeated in Spain, at the Battle of Munda in 45 BCE.

After the battle of Pharsalus, Caesar set out for Pompey anticipating that he would seek funds and support from Ptolemy XIII, the young king of Egypt. He arrived too late as we know, but resolved a dispute over who would rule Egypt, a very young Ptolemy XIII or his elder sister Cleopatra VII. After a siege, reinforcements arriving, and consequently being locked in the palace while this all happened, Caesar’s forces captured the port and Cleopatra emerged as ruler as well as pregnant with a child who would be called Caesarion.

When Julius Caesar returned to Rome, he did so as an emperor in all but title. His military victories had made him the master of the Roman world. He was generous in forgiving old grievances and instead of a widespread massacre of old enemies, he sought amnesty instead. He initiated many reforms both on economic policy as well as political. He expanded the senate, took a census, planned the Forum of Caesar, and created the Julian calendar. But just because Caesar was the first to forgive, doesn’t mean his contemporaries would extend the same courtesy. In the wake of Caesar’s many changes opposition remained wary of Caesar’s concentration of power. In an end made famous by William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar ignored the advice of the soothsayer and went to the Senate on the ides of March 44 BCE, where he was assassinated by a mob led by Marcus Junius Brutus. The conspirators meant to save the Republic perhaps they only proved that city needed a single manager over the factions that vied for Rome.

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Republican Rome: Part One

The Republican period of Rome lasted from roughly 509 BCE until 44 BCE with the death of Julius Caesar. It began with the oath of Brutus  after the death of Lucretia and ended with a similar oath from Brutus’s relation by the same name.

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Rome and foreign territory in 500 BCE

Rome was never a republic in the true sense of the word. Society was still harshly divided into economic, patriarchal classes of patrician and plebian, slave and free. Once the last King was expelled from the City, power was quickly consolidated by the patrician founding families who were able to hold the highest elected offices of the state. The powers of the King were transferred to two elected consuls, each serving a one-year term. To hold this position bestowed nobilitas on patrician families and the first person from a family to hold the position of consul was condescendingly referred to as a novus homo, or new man.

Further executive and judicial positions were added as the new constitution matured. A censor was in charge of financial matters, taxes, and public works. Praetors served as law officers and judges, overseen by the consuls. Aedile’s were more of a plebian rank that supervised markets and temples. And although the patricians had considerable power in the political arena, the plebians were able to bargain and irritate the patricians into a few concessionary positions of their own during the Republican period. The position of Tribune of the People was created to be a direct link between the Plebians and the Senate. This was an especially large win for the plebians because a Tribune carried a great deal of political power.

Militarily, the Republican era would see Rome grow into the military power we associate with red capes, standards and discipline. We left the Romans defending the city walls against the Etruscans in 509, but by 265 BCE, Romans had conquered the entire Italian peninsula south of the Arno River. They had scored a literal “Pyrrhic victory” against the Greeks and were about to embark on the first of the Punic Wars, after which Rome would emerge as a Mediterranean power.

The defeat of Carthage left Rome with new territories and provinces to maintain in Spain, Africa and the East. The Eastern Provinces were often kept as client kingdoms, but the provinces of Europe were eagerly sought after by would-be governors. Serving in the military, beginning a political career in Rome, then returning to lead an army became a typical career path for many famous Roman’s including Gaius Marius. Fame and fortune could be won in the provinces, for the generals as well as the soldiers, and increasingly, Roman soldiers were loyal not to Rome but to the commanders who awarded them for success and loyalty. Men like Lucius Cornelius Sulla were able to use their loyal veteran forces to enforce their own political agenda.

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Roman Expansion during the Republican Period

But as we get to the 2nd century BCE, things in the military begin to quiet down. Rome takes a depth breath and rests for a moment, pausing in its great expansion. As a result many of its soldiers were no longer required. They returned home and exacerbated the unemployment within the city. The bored soldiers combined with a sudden influx of newly minted Roman citizens from the provinces called for a bit of gerrymandering. The system that had served the agrarian society of the early Republic so well needed to be revised to suit a more international level.

The canary in the coalmine came in the form of the Gracchi brothers. Political reformers, Tiberius and Gaius Gracchi were sons of a prominent politician and military commander and Cornelia Gracchus, daughter of Scipio Africanus, hero of the Second Punic War. Patrician to the core they were each elected Tribune of the People and proposed a wide sweeping redistribution of land, and fixed grain prices to resolve the growing number of landless, urban poor. They both met violent ends for their reforms, but they proved the people were capable of challenging the Senate.

With powerful generals now eyeing Rome herself like a city for the taking, it was left to them to sort out who would enter the city in triumph. As the last century of the Republic closes in,  we see Generals begin to vie for political power with their loyal legions close at hand. In 59 BCE, a forty-one year old Julius Caesar was made governor of Cisalpine Gaul, Transalpine Gaul, and Illyria. Within a decade, he had conquered Gaul, explored Britain and joined an alliance known as the First Triumvirate, the results of which we will see next.

Republican Rome: Part Two >>

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Etruscan Art and Architecture

web_DrawingEtruscanTempleEtruscan artwork and architecture exists in plenty in some areas and in others it’s only been recorded and described by others. From the foundations that remain and the writings of Vitruvius, we have some idea of what a typical Etruscan temple looked like. Located at the center of an orthogonal planned city, Etruscan’s constructed temples from the resources available, in this case mud brick and a volcanic stone called tufa. The square structure was raised on a podium, with equal space being designated for a covered porch and the interior rooms or cellas. Wooden columns in the Tuscan order were positioned at the front and the temple was accessible by a single staircase.

04apollodescIn place of the elaborate entablatures Greek Temples were famous for, terra-cotta statues lined the tiled roof, like this statue of Apollo dating from 510-500 BCE. Originally part of a group, the life-size Apollo includes a lively amount of motion and the “archaic smile” that is similar but somewhat more advanced than the Greek kouroi. As far as the chronology and progression of art history, the Etruscan’s present a more naturalized depiction of the human form even if the proportion inaccuracies would have had the Greeks in an uproar. The hint of motion and the visible spark of life is characteristic of Etruscan sculpture.

300px-Banditaccia_Sarcofago_Degli_SposiCounter intuitive though it may seem, tombs are also an important window into Etruscan culture. At Cerveteri, the cemetery is laid out like a small town and the tombs themselves like houses of the dead. Inside the “Tomb of the Reliefs” you can see it was set up to closely resemble a house. The walls are painted and couches were carved from stone. There are everyday household items carved into the walls. The most well known sarcophagus from Cerveteri is the “Sarcophagus of the Spouses” from 520 BCE. Now located in the Museo Nazionale Etrusco in Rome, the terra-cotta sarcophagus shows a husband and wife reclining together on a couch. Again the Etruscans favor depiction of humans with archaic smiles and the appearance of expressions, rather than the classical straight face. Details from their hair and clothes leave use with some idea of contemporary culture.

697px-Chimera_d'arezzo,_fi,_03Bronze sculptures encompass some of the finest pieces we have from the Etruscans. Their skill with bronze made the products marketable around the Mediterranean and the pieces they kept at home are of amazing quality. While their Greek counterparts were concerned with idealized perfection, Etruscan artists seem at ease with inaccuracies and care more about the emotion they seek to communicate in their artwork. That emotion comes through clearly in the bronzes we have in a variety of styles. The bronze Chimera of Arezzo is one example of Etruscan bronze work. The mythical chimera was part lion, goat and serpent, a deadly fire breathing creature that was a popular subject in early Italian art. This depiction, however, shows the typical Etruscan flair for life and movement in their sculptures. The Chimera of Arezzo is now kept in the National Archaeological Museum in Florence.

brutus_exhibition_pageTwo pieces that visitors to Rome are likely to come across is a bronze bust known as the “Capitoline Brutus” and a bronze She-wolf known as the “Capitoline Wolf.” It’s not surprising that these pieces are both found in the Capitoline Museum. The bust is believed to be a portrait of the famous hero Lucius Junius Brutus, the early republican character from the Rape of Lucretia. Despite the bust being from the mid-3rd century BCE, the strong verism in the features make it easy to believe that this is indeed the face of Roman legends. The eyes are made of painted ivory. The Capitoline Brutus is one of the oldest surviving portraits from antiquity, it’s existence is made even more remarkable because bronze was often melted down.

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Cloelia: Heroine of Republican Rome

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Though the bravery of Horatius was worthy of legend, at the time it only stalled the army of Lars Porsenna and the Etruscans, intent on taking back the young republic of Rome. He besieged the city and eventually a truce was negotiated. A group of female hostages were given to the Etruscans, among whom was one named Cloelia.

One day, while bathing at the river she and the other women quickly swam back to the Roman side. Although this violated the terms of the truce, Lars Porsenna was so taken by the act of bravery that he allowed Cloelia to choose which hostages he would allow to return back to Rome. Cloelia chose a group of young boys, remembering that Rome would need young men in the future defense of their city.

The Romans honored her act of courage and loyalty by erecting an equestrian statue of her along the Via Sacra. The statue was lost centuries ago, but it was one of the first honorary monuments to be awarded to a woman.

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Horatius Cocles: Hero of Republican Rome

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Another one of Rome’s memorable heroes from the early Republican period is the character of Horatio Cocles, a sixth century Roman soldier who defended Rome against many in a story known as “Horatio at the Bridge.”

Having banished Tarquinius Superbus and his family from the city, the new republic of Rome found itself the target of many surrounding powers, hoping to catch the city at a moment of weakness. Ally to Tarquinius, Lars Porsena led an army against the city of Rome, conquering the outpost on the Janiculum Hill located on the far side for the Tiber.

Seeing the advancing army, Horatio tried to rally the retreating Roman troops to no avail. To buy time, Horatio rushed to the one place the army could cross the Tiber river, the Pons Sublicius. Standing at the far end of the bridge he ordered two friends to destroy the bridge by any means while he held the advancing army off.

While they hacked away Horatio defended the bridge until it collapsed into the rushing water. Then he jumped into the Tiber and swam to the other side to safety. This stalled Lars Porsena and bought the Romans enough time to prepare for a siege, saving the city from a quick capture. He was honored in the city and given as much land as he could plow in a single day. A statue of him was erected near the Forum.

The story of Horatio’s bravery was told to Roman youths as an example of bravery and honor, especially as a soldier. Horatio’s heroic example would later become the subject of a narrative poem by Lord Macaulay (1800-1859).

And, as they passed, beneath their feet

They felt the timbers crack.

But when they turned their faces,

And on the further shore

Saw brave Horatius stand alone.

This is an excerpt from Lord Macaulay’s “Horatius at the Bridge” part of a larger work entitled The Lays of Ancient Rome. You can find the complete poem here.

Categories: Heroes, History, People, Roman Life | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Etruscans

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As a powerful culture that predates the Romans and would eventually influence their younger neighbors in many ways, the Etruscans are an interesting introduction into the culture and foundation of Rome.

The historical record surrounding the Etruscans begins in 1200 BCE, when a Bronze Age people known as the Villanovans occupied the northwest region of Italy. The Etruscans would become the predominate group and by the 7th century BCE would control the region known as Etruria (Tuscany), located to the north of Rome on the shores of the Tyrrhenian Sea. Etruria was rich in metals such as copper, iron and tin, creating a culture of smiths suited to working with bronze. Combined with fertile soil and forests, Etruscans were able to expand their network across the Mediterranean

493px-Etruscan_civilization_mapEvidence exists of the Etruscans trading with the people of Greece, Egypt and Phoenicia. Their skill with bronze fueled a market for reliefs, statues, vessels and jewelry. No literary documents have survived, but records from trading partners like Greece and Egypt have enabled historians to piece together some knowledge of Etruscan history. Further information has been assembled by archaeologists excavating tombs and urban remains. Despite the lack of written documents the archaeological evidence paints a picture of a surprising advanced society, wealthy, with a lavish lifestyle, and a capable naval presence.

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Sarcophagus of the Spouses, National Etruscan Museum, Rome. Late 6th century BCE

The Etruscan’s existed in a loose confederation of tribes, similar to the Greek polis, led perhaps by kings or chiefs in the major cities of Veii, Tarquinia and Cerveteri. Society was divided along class lines into the aristocracy and lower classes. Etruscan women enjoyed a rare amount of status, even for Roman women and especially for Greek women. They were educated, and even participated in public life as demonstrated in this sarcophagus. Here, a husband and wife recline on a couch, the man supposedly holding a drink as if at a party.

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Apollo of Veii, 510-500 BCE

The Etruscan’s influence on Roman culture materialized in many ways including religion, architecture and government. Ancient sources have specifically credited the Etruscans with passing on the skill of divination to the Romans. Divination would include interpreting the will of the gods from the flight of birds, entrails of a sacrificed animal, or events in the sky.

Architecturally, the Etruscan style temple employed the post and lintel system to support mud-brick walls and a wooden roof. Vitruvius uses the term Tuscan order to define the variation of column that Etruscan’s preferred. Similar to the well known doric order, the Etruscan version used an unfluted shaft and simplified bases and capitals. The layout of an Etruscan temple was almost equally divided between a covered porch and the interior cella or room. The temple was built high on a podium  and was reached by a single staircase to signify the humility of the worshiper. The roof line of Etruscan temples appear to have been decorated with large terra-cotta statues of the gods like this example of Apollo. Romans would later take elements from both Greek and Etruscan temples to create their own hybrid.

The Etruscan’s political power arguably peaked during the Period of Kings, when three Etruscans ruled Rome in succession. They brought with them advances in engineering and urban planning, allies and trading opportunities. Roman society was also divided into classes along economic lines. For a short time Rome was a possession of Etruscan rulers. But by the 6th century BCE, the last king Tarquinius Superbus would be chased from Rome and a republic formed in his place. Rome did not defeat the Etruscans militarily overnight, as Rome was only a small part of their territory. But after two centuries of conflicts Etruria was assimilated into Roman culture.

Today, visitors can see these and many other Etruscan artifacts in the Museo Nazionale Etrusco, located at the northwest corner of Borghese Park. It’s a wonderful museum and one of the least visited in Rome. Housed in the Villa Giulia, the villa was originally built by Pope Julius III to showcase his collection of antiquities. The museum’s website appears to be only offered in Italian but follow this link for “Informazioni” where tickets appear to be eight euro and operating hours are from 8:30-7:30.

To read about the founding of Rome, click here.

Categories: Art and Architecture, History, Roman Life | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Raphael Rooms and the Sistine Chapel

The homestretch of your visit to the Vatican Museum, and one of the most famous masterpieces in the world. This wing of the museum includes works by some of the greatest painters on your way to the Capella Sistina. This winding path takes some time and if the summertime crowds are present it may take even longer. Take a short break perhaps and if you’re traveling with kids make sure nobody needs to use the restroom.

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Gallery of Maps and Tapestries

Longer than a football field the Gallery of Maps and Tapestries covers the distance between the main body of the Museum and the Apostolic Palace and St. Peter’s Basilica. To find it on a map will help you to better keep your bearings. Hung on the walls are forty maps completed by Ignazio Danti and commissioned in 1580 by Pope Gregory XIII. They act as a walking tour of Italian history. Just beyond, is the Gallery of Tapestries, a collection of tapestries from the 15th and 17th centuries.

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Room of Constantine

Intended for use as a reception hall, the room is decorated with four events from the life of Constantine including, Vision of the Cross, Battle at Milvian Bridge, Baptism of Constantine and the Donation of Rome. Though this room was planned by Pope Julius II and Raphael it was not executed and completed before the two had died.

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Raphael Rooms

Comprised of four stanzas (rooms) the Raphael Rooms were commissioned in 1508/1509 by Pope Julius II. Having secured the services of both Michelangelo and Raphael just down the hall from each other Julius set about decorating his papal apartments with the greatest of the High Renaissance. Although there are many individual pieces throughout the rooms that detail specific moments from the history of the papacy as well as theological iconography a few of the ones that shouldn’t be missed are Parnassus, Fire in the Borgo, Liberation of St. Peter, and the School of Athens seen above.

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Sistine Chapel

The Sistine Chapel was restored between 1477 and 1480 by Pope Sixtus IV from whom the Chapel is named. He recruited Renaissance greats such as Perugino, Botticelli, Ghirlandaio and Roselli to decorate the walls. His nephew Pope Julius II entrusted Michelangelo with the ceiling and lunettes in 1508. Michelangelo returned again in 1533 at the behest of Clement VII to paint the Last Judgement on the altar wall. Despite being one of the world’s most famous tourist sites, the Chapel is still very important in the Catholic Church. This is where the Cardinal’s meet during conclave to elect the next Bishop of Rome and Successor of Peter. Most won’t need directions to the ceiling and Last Judgement but if you can, find Perugino’s Handing over of the Keys and Botticelli’s Punishment of Korah.

Categories: Art and Architecture, Churches, History, People, The Papacy, Vatican City | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

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