When in Rome, Part 1

Pons Fabricius, the Tiber

si fueris Rōmae, Rōmānō vīvitō mōre; si fueris alibī, vīvitō sīcut ibī*
attributed to St Ambrose

Rome doesn’t yield up its secrets easily to first-time short-term travelers, and the work attendant to their discovery can threaten to swamp the rewards. While our desire was to heed St. Ambrose’s dictum, we faced “just a few” significant challenges: we had between us about five words of Italian and next to nil in practical knowledge of the city and its ways.

Our sojourn in Rome started with a three hour saga worthy of Kafka at the Fiumicino airport, a/k/a the Leonardo da Vinci airport (though if Leonardo were around to have a say, I doubt he would lend his name).

The irony was that I went into our trip with a positive impression from waiting in Fiumicino for our connecting flight to Palermo two years ago. Here’s what I wrote about Fiumicino then:

Landing at the sleek Fiumicino airport in Rome, we felt as if we’d been airlifted out of a blasted heath—or, to borrow Lampedusa’s words, out of “an open heath swept by searing winds”—and dropped into the civilized world. Not a single TV screen to be seen, and no piped-in music. A young man at a grand piano, on offer for anyone to play, performed with skill sufficient to prompt a passer-by to hum along. With cappuccinos and a sandwich to share from a concession stand in hand, we sat near a shop that sold elegant handbags and watched as people stopped to window-shop, and every now and then to buy.

I do think all of that is still true, just nothing to do with arrivals, passport control, and baggage claim. Ultimately, we dusted ourselves off, got some Euros, caught a shuttle into Rome, and this year’s trip, to Rome and Umbria, began in earnest.

For us, Rome was a mysterious labyrinth—full to the brim with treasure, but impossible to know where to begin. We’d given up trying to make a plan beforehand; it was just too overwhelming. Instead, we decided to set ourselves down in an apartment in Trastevere and, with map and guidebook in hand, pick out places to visit once there.

Fontana di Trevi

Fontana di Trevi

“The fountains are enough to justify a trip to Rome”
Percy Bysshe Shelley

On the way to our first chosen stop, the Keats-Shelley House, we made it a point to stop at the Fontana di Trevi. Not so Romantic an experience as in Shelley’s day, but nonetheless astonishing to witness live.

The fountain is at the juncture of three roads, all of which were thronged with tourists on a pilgrimage toward the Trevi grail. On arrival, we encountered a solid wall of people, at least ten deep, many waving selfie sticks, others with their backs to the fountain attempting, at exhausting length, to perfect their photographic poses. In short, it’s a zoo, and sometimes, though not when we were there, an unruly one. (See, e.g., “From selfie brawls to midnight swims: Tourists behaving badly at Rome’s Trevi Fountain.”)

It seems only right and just that I insert here a clip of perhaps not the first, but certainly a famous, unruly tourist.

Trinità dei Monti

Trinità dei Monti atop the Spanish Steps

The Keats-Shelley House is next to the Spanish Steps, so of course we had to climb them. At the top stood the Trinità dei Monti, which I only knew existed courtesy of Florence Nightingale. On her Roman sojourn, she stayed in its convent for several days.


18 January 1848

My dearests

I have just had your welcome description of your old year’s estremo istante [last moment]. Mine was spent in my own room. As the last toll of the great bell striking twelve sounded from the Trinità dei Monti, I felt as if my breath stood still and my heart stopped beating, as if the instant of death could scarcely be more solemn. [cite]

Nightingale was so moved by the experience she decided to convert to Catholicism. Fortunately, she consulted the Madre of the convent, who wisely dissuaded her:

“Ah, Miss Nightingale.” Again, the Madre leaned back in her chair. She closed and reopened her eyes. “Your intentions are laudable — and the logic by which you pursue them, is, as always, impeccable. But what you wish to do is act, and what the will of God, in the teachings of our Church, would require of you is to submit. I do not think that is something you are – at least as yet — prepared to do.” [cite, p. 59]

Da Volterra, Assumption of the Virgin

At Trinità dei Monti I also saw my first frescoes of the trip, including two by Daniele da Volterra, a/k/a “Il Bragghetone”:

Commissioned by Paul IV to supply draperies to some of the nude figures in the magnificent “Last Judgment” by Michelangelo, he thus obtained the opprobrious nickname “Breeches Maker” or “Il Bragghetone”. His “Victory of David over Goliath” now in the Louvre, is so good that for years it was attributed to Michelangelo. His work is distinguished by beauty of colouring, clearness, excellent composition, vigorous truth, and curiously strange oppositions of light and shade. [cite]

Assumption of the Virgin, detail (Michelangelo at right)

Da Volterra was a student and friend of Michelangelo. His “Assumption of the Virgin” includes a portrait of Michelangelo (in a pinkish robe), and it seems da Volterra may have painted his “Deposition” from a Michelangelo drawing.

da Volterra, Deposition

Da Volterra, Deposition, detail

Now, lest you be concerned that, as a result of this, I’d follow the lead of Florence Nightingale and be tempted to convert, rest assured there is no chance of that. I did, though, have my own sort of revelation. I’d not seen any frescoes since a long-ago trip to Florence; da Volterra’s work reminded me how subtly stunning great frescoes can be. Even though we weren’t to get to the Vatican, I resolved then and there to search out frescoes throughout our trip.

Keats-Shelley House

Keats-Shelley House

Keats spent his last days in a room with a view toward the Spanish steps. In Keats’s time, “the area around the Spanish Steps was known as ‘the English ghetto,’ because it was so popular among well-heeled British travellers, who would conclude their grand tours of Europe in Rome.” [cite] It’s easy to see why—the steps provide plenty of seats from which to take in the wider view, including of the Fontana della Barcaccia at the bottom of the steps. Keats apparently could hear the fountain’s flowing water from his deathbed. “He said it reminded him of lines from the 17th-century play Philaster, or Love Lies a-Bleeding (1611) and was the source for his epitaph: ‘Here lies one whose name was writ in water.’” [cite]

Keats Life Mask

The House struck me as a lovingly tended British ex-pat shrine. I’m not the one in our household who can quote English Romantic poetry at will, but the place was so heady with atmosphere that lines from Keats and Shelley seemed suspended in the air.

The house was bought by the Keats-Shelley Memorial Fund in 1906 and today the rooms that Keats and Severn rented are now the museum and library of the Romantic poets; chiefly, Keats, Shelley (who stayed on the opposite side of the steps and also died in Italy, drowning while sailing, in 1822), Byron and Leigh Hunt.

The library is said to be one of the best in the world dedicated to the Romantic poets . . . . [cite]

In the midst of all that Romanticism, Walt Whitman appeared, sounding an amusingly irreverent note:

Whitman on Keats

An entry from the Walt Whitman Archives tells the tale:

Whitman had little use for Keats, considering him too remote from the times, thematically as well as stylistically, to compel attention. In a note probably dating from the 1850s, Whitman complained that Keats’s poetry reflected the sentiments of the classical deities of twenty-five hundred years earlier rather than the concerns of its own age. [cite]

Galleria d’arte Moderna di Roma

Amin Gulgee, “7”

Our ultimate destination for Day 1 in Rome was the Galleria d’arte Moderna di Roma. I know, Art in Rome, Day 1, is supposed to be The Vatican, but we didn’t attempt it: we had too few days and it would have required advance reservations. It’s not our style of traveling, generally, to schedule ourselves too tightly, leaping from site to site. We’d rather settle in, wander a bit, and see what we might stumble across on our own. This proved more of a challenge in Rome than we anticipated, but it remains our preferred mode of traveling.

We were rewarded in our offbeat choice by encountering Amin Gulgee’s installation “7.” Gulgee is Pakistani. The installation “7”

consists of the fifth verse of al-Alaq in the Quran divided into seven pieces. Gulgee often scripts this verse from the 96th chapter of the Holy Quran on his artwork. Surah al-Alaq (‘The Clot’, also referred to as ‘al-Iqra’) is believed to be the first revelation sent to the Prophet Muhammad in the cave Hira, in the city of Mecca. The fifth verse is where we are told that God “Taught man that which he did not know.”

Having constructed and deconstructed it so many times in the past decade, it has now become internalised and Gulgee embodies it through ‘7’, where the sentence is itself divided into seven portions and these seven sections are repeated several times, and hence the name of the exhibit. [cite]

On display inside the museum were many appealing, evocative works, including these:

Augusto Bompiani’s “Women and Weapons” (1915-1918):

Augusto Bompiani, Women and Weapons

Mario Ceroli’s “Goldfinger/Miss” (1964), a reinterpretation of Botticelli’s “Venus”:

Mario Ceroli, Goldfinger/Miss

Sante Monachesi’s “On a Dead Leaf over Rome” (1940):

Sante Monachesi, On a Dead Leaf over Rome

Monachesi belonged to the generation of Futurists for which a central feature was aeropittura.

The swirling, sometimes abstracted, aerial imagery of Futurism’s final incarnation, aeropittura (painting inspired by flight), arrived by the 1930s. Aeropittura emerged from the Futurists’ interest in modern aircraft and photographic technologies. Propelled by Italy’s military preeminence in aviation, their fascination with the machine shifted focus from the automobile to the airplane. In flight the artists found disorienting points of view and new iconographies to explore in painting, photography, and other mediums. [cite]

Tato, another Futurist, was represented by a trio of increasingly abstract aeropaintings, “Sensation of Flight” (1929):

Tato. Sensation of Flight, First Stage

Tato. Sensation of Flight, Second Stage

Tato. Sensation of Flight, Third Stage

On the way back to Trastevere, Rome, unbidden, yielded up its Fontana del Tritone:

Fontana del Tritone

We saw an excavation near Pons Fabricius on the east side of the Tiber; we never learned what it was. We passed a fellow playing accordion on the Pons Cestius (I think it was) and took in a last look up the Tiber before heading to our Trastevere home away from home.

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Listening List 

Respighi, Fontane di Roma (1916)

Respighi wrote of the work:

In this symphonic poem the composer has endeavored to give expression to the sentiments and visions suggested to him by four of Rome’s fountains, contemplated at the hour when their characters are most in harmony with the surrounding landscape, or at which their beauty is most impressive to the observer.

The first part of the poem, inspired by the fountain of Valle Giulia, depicts a pastoral landscape: droves of cattle pass and disappear in the fresh, damp mists of the Roman dawn.

A sudden loud and insistent blast of horns above the trills of the whole orchestra introduces the second part, “The Triton Fountain.” It is like a joyous call, summoning troops of naiads and tritons, who come running up, pursuing each other and mingling in a frenzied dance between the jets of water.

Next there appears a solemn theme borne on the undulations of the orchestra. It is the fountain of Trevi at mid-day. The solemn theme, passing from the woodwind to the brass instruments, assumes a triumphal character. Trumpets peal: Across the radiant surface of the water there passes Neptune’s chariot drawn by seahorses and followed by a train of sirens and tritons. The procession vanishes while faint trumpet blasts resound in the distance.

The fourth part, the Fountain at the Villa Medici, is announced by a sad theme which rises above the subdued warbling. It is the nostalgic hour of sunset. The air is full of the sound of tolling bells, the twittering of birds, the rustling of leaves. Then all dies peacefully into the silence of the night. [cite]


*“if you should be in Rome, live in the Roman manner; if you should be elsewhere, live as they do there”

Credits: Sources for the quotations are at the links in the text. The photographs, as always on the blog unless otherwise indicated, are mine.

11 thoughts on “When in Rome, Part 1

  1. larrymuffin

    I lived in Rome from 2007 to 2011 and it was a wonderful time. Yes I agree the airport is maddening and does not give a good first impression. There are lots of things to see in Rome and the Vatican museum is not one of them for me, far too crowded and unpleasant. The Borghese Gallery is very nice to see and other museum like the Massimo near the Termini train station. If you want to see the Piazza like Navona or the Fountain of Trevi or other famous places in the open I had the habit of going there at 7am when you are guaranteed of being alone.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Laurent: I thought of you from time to time, knowing you’d spent several years in Rome and so truly got to know it (and I suspect you are conversant in Italian)–and of course you are deeply conversant in the art. It’s therefore particularly interesting to see what you have to say, and I’m pleased you weighed in. We actually only missed out on the Borghese Gallery by a day, and had we stayed even a couple days more, the Massimo was next on my list, so it’s nice to have validation of those choices. One day we had a lovely walk that David Nice suggested, on which I’ll report out in a subsequent post. It was definitely a highlight of our time in Rome.

  2. David N

    That’s two interiors you’ve seen that I haven’t (the Keats-Shelley Museum and Trinità dei Monti – one of the few churches I haven’t ticked off). Looking forward to instalment 2, where you cover the part of Rome I love the best. But then there are so many other buildings and streets…Una vita non basta.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      David: I’m astounded we saw something you didn’t see, particularly the church, though of the long list of churches there are to see, it would take quite a while to tick them all off. I am sure I won’t do justice to the pleasure of the walk we took Day 3 on your recommendation, but, particularly given our missteps on Day 2, it was particularly treasurable, and we truly can’t thank you enough for pointing us in such a wonderful direction.

  3. hilarymb

    Hi Susan – what a wonderful read through … and I need to come back to study up. Italy has its challenges … and my two visits to Rome were too short and next time I need to be in the mix of things not on the outskirts. So much to see and investigate. I did get in to see the Pope – but regrettably don’t remember much … many crowds, and distant blobs!

    The Modern Art Gallery has some stunning art works … I must remember should I ever get out again … thanks for your notes and obvious enjoyment once past Fiumicino … cheers Hilary

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Hilary: short visits are a challenge, probably to any larger city, actually, precisely for the reason you state (not to mention, as we did, getting lost a good bit of the time)!

  4. Curt Barnes

    Probably mentioned before that our three months in Rome, guests of the British School (a Yank had donated funds for artists’ studios), were the closest to heaven I ever hope to be. But love that you covered parts we missed! Thanks.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Curt: I do recall your mentioning that, and being able to spend a a good stretch like three months there is surely the heaven-sent way to do it.

  5. shoreacres

    I laughed at your quotation from St. Ambrose, because it reminded me of Flannery O’Connor’s throwaway line in her letters: “When in Rome, do as you done in Milledgeville.” I laughed, too, at Nightingale’s conversation with the Mother Superior. I’ve known a few women in my life who left the convent after more or less time, and that business of submission played a role for most of them. I’ve never heard that story about Florence Nightingale, and enjoyed it.

    The tourists, I don’t think I would enjoy so much. As unreasonable as it is, I sometimes miss events in Houston because I can’t bear the thought of the crowds. Multiply those crowds by some factor at the “greatest” attractions, add selfie sticks, and stir, and I’ll be elsewhere — like here at my desk, admiring your photos.

    A somewhat odd note: south Texas is filled with frescos, especially in Corpus Christi, Goliad, Port Lavaca, San Antonio. Mexican-American artists have used the technique in decorating schools and churches. It’s interesting that the technique survives and has been adapted in some creative ways.

    I enjoyed the more modern art, but the classical Italian work and the Respighi were delightful. I recognized your travel style, too. The serendipitous has a lot to recommend it.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      shoreacres: LOVE the O’Connor quote, particularly as, in one of my many incarnations, I spent a lot of time in Milledgeville (though not, I hasten to add, in its Central State Hospital). One of my favorite repasts while there was old-fashioned BBQ, made by a local woman who served it up out of her kitchen along with loaves of Wonder Bread to sop up the juice. I doubt Romans would approve, but then you never know!

      Re the Nightingale/Madre discussion, you might find entertaining the link to the cite from which the quote comes. While it’s a fictional account, as you’ll see, it’s based very closely on the historical record. Interesting, also, that you have known others whose decisions to leave the convent included the issue of submission.

      And that is fascinating about Texas frescoes, though I realize, on thinking about it, that it’s not really so hard to imagine. I’m thinking other places in the Southwest must have them too. It would be interesting to follow the trail of such frescoes. Might have to put that on my bucket list!

  6. Steve Schwartzman

    I’ve enjoyed following you on this portion of your Roman adventure. The Latin quotation reminded me of the rhyming Spanish equivalent: Allí donde fueres, haz lo que vieres; Wherever you go, do what you see. Even in Spanish it’s an old formulation, marked by a verb tense, the future subjunctive, that is obsolete in the spoken language and barely hangs on as an archaism in writing.

    We’ve encountered similar hordes of tourists on some of our recent travels. Two years ago we found Zion National Park mobbed in the fall. Last year in the badlands of Drumheller, Alberta, the visitors to the Royal Tyrrell Museum stood five deep at some of the exhibits. I turned our tickets back in and we returned a couple of weeks later when the tourist season had partly wound down.

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