St. Peter’s Basilica


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.


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.


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


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.


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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“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.


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.


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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Evolution of an Arch

As we’ve seen the Roman Arch moved things along quite a bit architecturally. But with a little innovation they increased the utility of the masonry ten fold. The arch as a single entity is good for a doorway, window or portico. But if you wanted a larger covered space you need additional support.


The solution came in the form of barrel vaults and groin vaults. Barrel vaults are essentially a long extension of a single arch. They form a long tunneling effect. Barrel vaults were utilized to build the large warehouses through out the city in ancient time, in order to store the vast shipments of goods coming into the city. Some of the most visible examples of barrel vaults are the ruins of the Basilica of Maxentius. To see them in person, you realize what a large open space they really are. Seen from both the Forum and Via dei Fori Imperiali, it’s an imposing structure.


Groin vaults are when two barrel vaults intersect at ninety degree angles. With the combined strength of four posts or piers, groin vaults require less buttressing and there for are an even sturdier structure. The groin vault heralded many of Rome’s greatest building projects. Today, one of the most important places you can see groin vaults is at the Colosseum. Forming a continuous corridor around the arena, the groin vaults allowed the high ceilings and monumental stadium.


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The Pio-Clementine Museum

If you’ve ever taken an Art History course the P.C. is enough to make you drool. If you haven’t, never fear! I hope to give you enough info to at least fool your friends and family, which is half the fun anyway.

So, the Pio-Clementine, P.C. for short, is named for the two Popes who presided over the organization, back in the 1770’s. It’s home to the Vatican’s collection of Greek and Roman Art dating from antiquity. Follow the links for more detailed articles and photos.

Here’s a list of P.C. Powerhouses:


Belvedere Apollo – Roman copy of a Greek original, 2nd century AD

Considered by many to be the greatest sculpture from antiquity, the statue of Apollo was found in nearby Anzio in 1489 and quickly installed in the Belvedere Palace at the Vatican. Originally, Apollo held a bow outstretched in his left hand. Noted for the ideal male proportions and the contraposto pose.


Laocoon – 2nd century BCE

Found in 1506, the Laocoon depicts the Trojan priest and his sons struggling against divinely powerful snakes. The classical depiction of the human body started a revolution amongst artists when it was discovered.


The River God Arno

Modeled after a Hellenistic original during the time of Hadrian, the River God Arno has been modified over the years. The lion carved on the vase was meant to honor the Medici pope Leo X, and the Arno River flows through Florence, the Medici’s hometown. It makes my list for having one of the most expressive faces.


Belvedere Torso – 1st century BCE

Kept in the Hall of Muses, you’re likely to nearly overlook the battled piece of marble on your way to the next great room. Keep an eye out! The Belvedere Torso may look beat up, but what remains influenced artists for centuries. Michelangelo held it in especially high regard. You can see it in several of his paintings in the Sistine Chapel. Follow the link for more images.



To represent the women, the depiction of Ariadne was purchased once again by Pope Julius II in 1512, the same year the Sistine Chapel was completed. According to mythology, Ariadne was the daughter of King Minos of Crete, who helped Theseus defeat the Minotaur. She fell asleep and was then discovered by Dionysus. The statue sits upon a sarcophagus and was originally kept in the garden.


Heracles, 1st-3rd century AD

This gilded bronze statue fills a commanding position in the Round Hall (Sala Rotunda). It was found in the 19th century near the Campo de’ Fiori. (Heracles is more commonly known to us as Hercules. He’s easy to spot because he’s almost always carrying a club and is draped in a lion skin.)


The Braschi Antinous

Also located in the Sala Rotunda, the colossal sculpture is a depiction of Hadrian’s favorite, Antinous. He drowned in the Nile River and Hadrian deified him and began a cult around similar attributes as Osiris and Dionysus. There are several statues and busts of Antinous in various characters around the museum. You’ll start to recognize him.


Sarcophagi of St. Helena and Constantina

Believed to have held the remains of Constantine’s mother and daughter, the monumental porphyry sarcophagi reflect the imperial standing of both the women. As mothers, wives, and daughters of emperors, their status could afford a material as expensive as the red porphyry mined in Egypt. They date from the 4th century AD and are decorated with pagan themes.


Hall of the Animals

If you’re traveling with children be sure to stop by the Hall of Animals. It has rows of animal sculptures. Let them pick out the donkeys, camels, horses, dogs, and which one they like best.

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The Vatican Museum – Musei Vaticani

Alright, the Vatican Museums, a roll up your sleeves endeavor to visit or write about. It’s the mother of all museums in Rome and certainly one of the preeminent museums in Europe. According to Wikipedia it cracked the 5 million visitors a year mark in 2011. The Museum houses many, many of the world’s finest and most valuable pieces and visiting is a modern day pilgrimage for many tourists around the world.

Vatican Museums

Vatican Museums. Photo courtesy of Forbes.

For such a heavy weight, the Museum finds it origins in the discovery of a single sculpture. In 1506, the Laocoön was dug up from the Oppian Hill and purchased by Julius II and brought to the Vatican. Today it can be seen in the Pio-Clementine section along with many other equally impressive works of antiquity.

Visiting the museum is on many to-do lists and is easier if you plan accordingly. First, the Sistine Chapel is located within the Museum. A ticket to the Museum will enable you to see the famous Chapel. Also, the entrance to the museum is not through St. Peter’s Basilica. It’s on the north side of Vatican City. From the center of the Square, walk through the colonnade on your right and you’ll see a medieval looking gate. Follow the crowd of people through the gate and walk, keeping the huge wall on your left hand side, as you make a loop around the city. As you walk, note the vastness of the wall. Just because you hold the keys to heaven and hell doesn’t mean the Pope was free from enemies.

If you plan on visiting, I highly recommend purchasing a ticket online. There are two designated lines at the entrance, one to buy a ticket at the counter and one for the online prepaid. If you have a confirmation printed out for prepaid ticket, show it to a guard and they should direct you in the right direction. Make sure you’re standing in the right line. The line for prepaid tickets should be much shorter. The line to purchase tickets at the door will probably wrap around the city walls.

I snapped a quick picture to help illustrate.

Here is the entrance to the Vatican Museums. The line on the right of the entrance, is for on line reservations and would file through the barricades seen here. The line to purchase your ticket at the counter is on the left.

Here is the entrance to the Vatican Museums. The line on the right of the entrance, is for on line reservations and would file through the barricades seen here. The line to purchase your ticket at the counter is on the left.

The Museum is primarily self-guided and is broken up into several sections. Here’s a quick list of those sections along with what they designate. Click the links for more detailed information.

Braccio Nuovo

Translated as “New Wing” the Braccio Nuovo was built as a response to the French returning many of the pieces Napoleon had, er, borrowed. No slouch when it came to choosing the best artwork, the Braccio Nuovo is home to terrific Roman sculptures of emperors and gods all dating back to antiquity. Highlights include Augustus from Prima Porta and The Nile.

Pio-Clementine Museum

Named for the two Popes who oversaw the foundation, this section is a grouping of large rooms that house Greek and Roman Sculpture. Some of the best Greek and Roman sculpture.

Vatican Picture Gallery – Pinocoteca

The art wing of the museum and perhaps the quietest area in the entire museum. It’s a pleasure to remove yourself from the hustle and bustle just outside and take your time perusing this collection.

Garden and Courtyard

The Vatican Gardens offer tours if you book in advance. The courtyard also has some interesting features like the Pine Cone, Sphere within Sphere, and base of the Column of Antoninus Pius and Faustina.

Raphael Rooms and the Sistine Chapel

The last two sections come packaged together, as you may pass through the Raphael Rooms to reach the Sistine Chapel. You’ll be directed to the Sistine Chapel from every nook and cranny of the museum so don’t worry about missing it. The Sistine Chapel does close fifteen minutes before the museum though!

And here’s the problem. I suspect, although I haven’t asked, many people visit just to see the Sistine Chapel. Once you fall into line to see Michelangelo’s ceiling it’s a Hotel California situation, you can check in any time you like but you can never leave. The path directs the crowd down the Gallery of Maps and through the ins and outs of the Raphael Rooms. Here you will see some terrific tapestries as well as the Room of Constantine.

The museum offers a “Long Way” and a “Short Way” to the Sistine Chapel. I’ve never taken the short way, but I can say that by the time you complete the “long” tour, it’s a biblical odyssey in itself. The length of the gallery and the ins and outs leading up to the Sistine Chapel are can be tiring so plan ahead.

The Creation of Adam, from smithsonianmag.com

The Creation of Adam, from smithsonianmag.com

Perhaps this was simply my experience, but I first visited the Museum on a busy Monday in June. Rome can be famously toasty during the summer, so plan accordingly and keep hydrated. Seeing the Sistine Chapel can take a while from beginning to end, so just to be sure, sip some water before you begin. You might consider taking a pause in your visit to visit the cafeteria, where you can find a terrific array of sandwiches and salads, or do as I did and grab something at the vending machines just inside the main entrance. Once you’re refueled and given your feet a break, start your trek to the Capella Sistina!

Because the Vatican Museum is such a large job to tackle, I would just advise to take your time and enjoy more than just the headliners. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the crowds and the number of pieces, so I would start a short list of what you personally want to see, then track them down when you get there. Maybe pick up a guidebook, or down load an app on your Ipad to really explore the Museum, maybe even before you get there. You can purchase audio tours at the entrance, as well as guidebooks before you start your quest.

When you visit:

Here’s a link to the Museum website that provides an interactive guide to the museum. I always find it helpful to get a layout before I travel.

Interactive guide

Also on the page is a link entitled “Not to be Missed works online.” Consider it a solid cheat sheet for those that want to make a personal list of things they want to see.

Be advised that there is a metal detector and security to pass through, just as there is for St. Peters Basilica. Don’t panic. This isn’t an airport or a Swiss border. They just want to make sure no one is going to harm the artwork. And considering how close they let you get the to the pieces it’s probably a good idea. So gents, leave your pocket knives behind. The museum is wheel chair accessible and staff are fluent in many languages. Don’t forget that although this is a museum and the dress code shouldn’t apply, at the Vatican it does. The Sistine Chapel is still a holy space so make sure your knees are covered as well as shoulders. Gentlemen will get called out on this too.

Hours: FOR THE MOST PART the museum is open Monday through Saturday, 9am to 4pm. Check with the official website, because the Vatican observes many religious holidays as well and will be closed on those dates. You can find the official site here.

(Good days to visit: There probably aren’t slow days per se, but on a day where the Pope has a service, such as Wednesday, might not be the most opportune time. And while a Monday might seem convenient since many other museums across Rome are closed on Monday everyone else is aware of that too. Thursday, Friday, and possibly Saturday might be your best bet.)

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La Taverna dei Fori Imperiali

La Taverna dei Fori Imperiali

La Taverna dei Fori Imperiali

Right next to the Imperial Forums! So glad we stopped in here. I’d read one blog describe the restaurant as a “Working class neighborhood” restaurant and that is precisely what it is. It’s warm and welcoming just one street over from the clamor and clangor of the tourist hot spots on Via Cavour.

I’d recommend stopping in here for lunch in between a Coliseum and Roman Forum visit. It’s run by an extended family, and the waitress speaks English quite well. The carbonara and putanesca came out piping hot, and the saltimbocca gave a whole new meaning to the phrase “mouth-watering.” The house wine was good and fairly priced but the main things that sold me were the atmosphere and the location. Here you can dine with locals instead of…well, your neighbors.

To find it with walking directions, go down the Via dei Fori Imperiali, heading toward the Coliseum. Stop at the intersection of Via Cavour, where there is a small park of trees and benches on your left. (History buffs, this is right at the Forum of Nerva) Go down the small flight of stairs, past the water fountain, and it’s right up that street, one over from Cavour.

Trust me, one street over makes all the difference.

For the link to the restaurants home page, click the link here. They have a menu, address and pictures!

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Forno da Milvio

Forno da Milvio at night. A great pizzeria just off of Via Cavour.

Forno da Milvio at night. A great pizzeria just off of Via Cavour.

Forno da Milvio is a family run, neighborhood pizzeria in the Monti district, close enough to the Roman Forum that it makes a delicious and convenient place to have lunch or dinner. I’ve stopped by a few times on both my trips to Rome and have not been disappointed once.

The pizza is delicious and inventive and baked in the oven right at the counter. The staff is super friendly and there are always locals zipping in and out, sometimes taking it to go, or relocating to the back of the restaurant with a beer, where they have plenty of table seats to get out of the sun and rest your feet. The pizzas are the long thin type, and are ordered by how large you want your portion to be. This works out great because sign language is a breeze.

Inside of Forno da Milvio. It's bright and airy with plenty of seating.

Inside of Forno da Milvio. It’s bright and airy with plenty of seating.

Forno da Milvio appears to be run by a grey haired gentleman preparing the pizza, pastas, breads, a few meat dishes and a terrific salad, while his wife sits and the entrance and mans the cash register with warm smiles. I’ve been by a few times on my own for a late night slice and it always feels like dropping by your grandparents house. On that note, this is definitely a kid friendly atmosphere. It’s air conditioned and has a bath room for customers.

Four euros and change get you a good portion of pizza and a can of soda. It’s a quick, local stop over as you move from the Coliseum and Forum, or before I go into the Capitoline Museum. The pizza is just as good if not better that the restaurants that line the lower half of Via Cavour and I get a little satisfaction out of visiting a Mom and Pop place. There’s a small selection of beer available as well. It’s casual and fun, and the Suppli were the best I had in Rome. They even provide a really great salad with vibrant romaine lettuce, that can be a godsend in between all the pasta. Forno da Milvio get the recommend!

Located on Via dei Serpenti, just off of Via Cavour.

On Fridays they serve my favorite kind. Tuna, artichokes, grape tomatoes, oregano and just a little cheese. So good.

On Fridays they serve my favorite kind. Tuna, artichokes, grape tomatoes, oregano and just a little cheese. So good.

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