When in Rome, Part 2


Proceeding along the Via Sacra and passing under the arch of Titus, on turning a little to the left, we beheld the amphitheatre of Vespasian and Titus, now called the Coliseum. Never did human art present to the eye a fabric so well calculated by its size and form,
to surprise and delight.
—John Chetwode Eustace, A classical tour through Italy, p. 163

Our next two days in Rome provided for a study in contrasts: the first a series of missteps, the second a non-stop delight.

The first of the two days, after copious studying of maps and bus routes, we set out on a treacherous errand: to get a close-enough view of Tourist Central of Roman ruins—the Colosseum and Roman Forum—without contending (at least unduly) with the crowds. I take full responsibility for this, even though I knew, deep down, it was probably a really bad idea.

But hey, Roman ruins! These ruins are iconic, a referent for so much art. Just take the Colosseum. There’s

Giovanni Battista Piranesi, “The Colosseum” (1757)

Joseph Mallord William Turner, “The Colosseum, Rome, by Moonlight” (1819)

The Colosseum by Moonlight 1819 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851 Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/D16339

Francesco Menzio, “Rome, The Colosseum” (1924)

Tato (Guglielmo Sansoni), “Flying Over the Coliseum in a Spiral” (1930) 

. . . and a whole host of others, some of which can be found here.*

After all, the previous day, we ourselves had seen the Colosseum tucked into a corner of Sante Monachesi’s “On a Dead Leaf over Rome” and as the central subject matter of Giovanni Stradone’s “Meeting at the Colosseum.”

Our aim was modest, after all: to be content with a view from Palatine Hill, where the ticket line was reputed to be much shorter than that for the Colosseum itself.

Fontana delle Tartarughe

En route, we stopped by a fountain to add to our growing “collection”: Fontana delle Tartarughe (The Turtle Fountain).

The original fountain design called for four bronze dolphins on the upper vasque, supported by the upraised hands of the four young men. With the removal of the four dolphins because of the low water pressure, the upraised hands of the statues seemed to have no purpose.

Probably to correct this problem and balance the composition, the four turtles around the edge of the vasque were added during a restoration of the fountain between 1658 and 1659. . . . The turtles are very realistic; If their creator was Bernini, he may have used casts of a real turtle, as he did with sculptures he made of other living creatures. . . . In 1979 one of the turtles was stolen from the fountain. After the theft the original turtles were replaced by copies. [cite]

So far, so good. We were the only visitors; all around us were Romans simply going about their day.

Largo di Torre Argentina

Next, we encountered a ruin right next to our bus stop: the Largo di Torre Argentina. It turns out, for one, that Julius Caesar was murdered here.

. . . this archaeological wonder was excavated as part of Mussolini’s rebuilding efforts in 1929, revealing four Republican victory-temples that lie sunken 20 feet below modern street level. In addition to the remains of four different temples, Torre Argentina also contains part of the famous portico of Pompey, upon whose steps dictator Julius Caesar was betrayed and killed in 44 BCE. Today, volunteers at Torre Argentina care for approximately 130 cats, many of which are disabled or suffer from illness. After the site was excavated, Rome’s feral cats moved in immediately, as they do all over the city, and the gattare, or cat ladies, began feeding and caring for them. [cite]

When we arrived at our chosen destination, a wee little problem remained: we couldn’t locate the Palatine Hill ticket booth. We swatted away vendors hawking high-priced combination tickets until we finally found someone who pointed the way. While we successfully got in line for entry to Palatine Hill, we discovered, fifteen minutes later, that it wasn’t the right line.

Villa Borghese gardens

Chalking one up to experience, we bagged it and headed for the Villa Borghese gardens, a huge green sward containing several art museums. What could go possibly wrong?

Galleria Borghese

I had the bright idea to walk over to the Galleria Borghese, pick up a timed ticket, and, while we waited for our entry time, head back to the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna for a look around. Look, it’s true that we could have obtained a timed ticket . . . for several days ahead.

After a looong walk back to the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Modern, we were too tired for much except to retire for a pleasant lunch in its café. Slightly resuscitated, we wandered around and managed to spot some fine de Chiricos

Giorgio de Chirico, Il tempio nella stanza (1927)

and two lovely Morandis before running out of steam.

Giorgio Morandi, Natura morta (1946)

Fortunately, there was a bus stop in front of the Galleria, so “all we had to do” was wait for the number 19 bus. In true big city above-ground transportation mode, an eternity’s worth of number 3 buses came, with nary a number 19 in sight. I offered up some “colorful” New York City-style language, and we consulted our map, this time for the nearest metro** stop toward our home away from home.

The next day, I’m pleased to report, was an entirely a different matter, thanks to a tip-off from our friend David Nice . . .

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Listening List

Respighi: Feste romane, P.157 (Roman Festivals) (1928)

In four movements:

  1. Circenses (Circuses)
  2. Giubilio (Jubilee)
  3. L’Ottorbrata (October Festival)
  4. La Befana (The Epiphany)

While, in his description of the first movement of Feste Romane, Respighi refers to the Circus Maximus, the same bloody spectacles occurred in the Colosseum.

Roman Festivals in particular is not a work for the timid — the composer proudly averred that it represented his “maximum of orchestral sonority and color.” The music speaks for itself, thanks to the composer’s acute tone-painting. In the first movement, the ferocious roaring of the wild beasts comes across loud and clear, thanks to the bass clarinet, bassoons, contrabassoon, horns, trombones, tuba, timpani, cellos, and basses, playing fortissimo. [cite]

Here’s Respighi’s own description of the first movement:

Games at the Circus Maximus — A threatening sky hangs over the Circus Maximus, but it is the people’s holiday: “Ave, Nero!” The iron doors are unlocked, the strains of a religious song and the howling of wild beasts float on the air. The crowd rises in agitation: unperturbed, the song of the martyrs develops, conquers, and then is lost in the tumult. [cite]


*Particularly for those who can read Italian, but even for those who, like me, must rely on Google translate, this article on the Colosseum as an artistic subject makes for an interesting read. Here’s how it begins:

Un gigante in tenuta da miliardario – cravatta a pois, ghette, cilindro – afferra con mani rapaci un Colosseo che minuscoli operai tentano freneticamente di assicurare al suolo. Così il caricaturista Oliver Herford ritrae nel 1912 John Pierpont Morgan, figura emblematica dell’ascesa economica e politica degli Stati Uniti tra Otto e Novecento e dell’inestinguibile bramosia collezionistica che la accompagnò. Il Colosseo è qui in forma comica il simbolo di qualcosa che neppure la grande ricchezza di Morgan sarebbe riuscita ad acquistare: il valore storico del monumento più imponente della Roma imperiale non è quantificabile né negoziabile. Nella vignetta, l’Anfiteatro Flavio “resiste”, come cercherà di resistere, lungo tutto il corso del“secolo breve”, al fascismo e alla guerra, alle radicali trasformazioni dell’ambiente urbano circostante, alla strumentalizzazione ideologica e alla soffice metamorfosi pubblicitaria, sempre stupefacente, ostinato, ingombrante, salvo ritrovarsi infine ridotto al ruolo irrevocabile di smisurato spartitraffico con cui sopravvive nella distratta epoca contemporanea.

**Rome Metro is easy to navigate, but it’s not extensive. There’s good reason for that, and it has to do with . . . you guessed it, ruins!

All roads may lead to Rome, but once you get there, good luck taking the subway. The sprawling metropolis is expanding its mass transit system — a sluggish process made even slower as workers keep running into buried ancient ruins.

“I found some gold rings. I found glasswork laminated in gold depicting a Roman god, some amphoras,” says Gilberto Pagani, a bulldozer operator at the Amba Aradam metro stop, currently under construction not far from the Colosseum. [cite]

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

14 thoughts on “When in Rome, Part 2

  1. hilarymb

    Hi Susan – these travesties of easy travel are sent to thwart us once in a while. But you always make light of those challenges and find wonderful interesting things to do, to highlight for us – and then give us gorgeous music to listen to while we contemplate from afar the vagaries of Rome – cheers Hilary

  2. Brigitta “Britta” Huegel

    Wonderful essay about Rome, thank you, Susan!
    When we were there (2015), we couldn’t get tickets for the Gallery and thus visited the Villa Borghese+ Gardens instead – beautiful, (though I remeber one garden they had let gotten absolutely rotten – maybe they worked on it just now?)

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Britta: Nice to hear from you as always, particularly as, I know, I’ve been a very poor correspondent. I can only say that these days I seem to have little time even to keep things posted here! As for the gardens, we didn’t see any particularly beautiful gardens at Borghese (despite what the photographs seem to show). The makings were there, of course, but, at least where we were walking–which appeared, anyway, to be a good swath of it–it seemed the garden was suffering from neglect. It did make me appreciate even more NYC’s Central Park and Conservatory Garden, but also to recognize that a lot of private, charitable support and lots of volunteer assistance are essential to its maintenance.

  3. shoreacres

    Cat ladies? I didn’t know about the cat ladies. Now, I’m wondering whether the cat in the scene from La Dolce Vita might have been a tribute to that aspect of Roman life.

    “The Coliseum By Moonlight” is gorgeous, and quite different from most images I’ve seen of the place. Tato’s piece is appealing, too. But best of all was the quotation from the bulldozer operator at the Metro stop. I wonder if any little ‘trinkets’ have ended up in the pockets of heavy machinery operators?

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      shoreacres: I was also particularly struck by the Turner, who apparently did several studies while in Rome. I did spot a few others, also early to mid-19th C, of the Colosseum in moonlight, for example, Pleine lune au Colisée, Carlo Bossoli (1844) (a finished oil painting, I think, though I can’t confirm, rather than a watercolor or sketch), but none were nearly so atmospheric.

      By the way, it was finding the Turners that led me to Eustace and the quotation. Turner read Eustace’s guidebook, in which he recommended a series of vantage points from which to view the Colosseum, first from the north. I don’t know whether Eustace recommended time of day/night, but it wouldn’t be surprising.

      Commentary accompanying the Tate’s image of the Turner watercolor also notes: “The choice of viewpoint is similar to that by John ‘Warwick’ Smith, Internal view of the Coliseum from Select Views in Italy, copied by Turner in the Italian Guide Book sketchbook.” So of course that prompted me just now to find Smith’s painting, and here it is: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:John_Warwick_Smith_-_An_Interior_View_of_the_Colosseum,_Rome_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg

      I, too, was very amused by the quote from the bulldozer operator and simply had to include it. While I’m suspecting there were rules in place about handling finds, who knows but a trinket or two may now be part of a not-yet-famous private collection.

  4. David N

    Ohime! It’s some time since I’ve tried to get into any of the major ticketed sites. It was never that bad in years gone by. But you can at least see a fair bit of the Roman Forum by walking up to the Aracoeli and then down along the side (or you certainly used to be able to do so). Sad about the Villa Borghese, because the Bernini statues are among the wonders of the world (again some can be seen in churches for free, but obviously not the mythological masterpieces). I love the Fontana delle Tartarughe and I know Will and Laurent do too. Some good Jewish eateries in the vicinity. Anyway, I’m happy that we’re getting to the Aventine…

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      David: You’ve now taught me one more very useful Italian word (Ohime). It was of course you who tipped us off to be on the lookout for the Fontana delle Tartarughe, so many thanks for that! It is too bad about the Borghese Gallery, and should we get back that way, I would definitely purchase advance tickets so we don’t miss out. As for the Aventine, I’m eager to get back to sorting through my photographs and get part 3 up for view. Somehow, time is racing by lately, and a “distinguished visitor”–Josie’s brother, comes in today, for a 2 week visit so it could be a while off yet. I just hope I can do it justice!! Meanwhile, BTW, saw our opening concert for the season, and it was tremendous: an all-Berlioz program from Gardiner and the ORR. Absolutely loved Harold in Italy, with Antoine Tamestit on viola. Here’s the whole program. The mezzo was Lucile Richardot, new to me, and I thought a lovely voice and presence.

      Le Corsaire Overture
      La mort de Cléopâtre
      Selections from Les Troyens, Part II
      ·· “Chasse Royale et Orage”
      ·· “Je vais mourir … Adieu, fière cité”
      Harold in Italy

      “Le roi de Thulé” from La damnation de Faust, Op. 24

        1. Susan Scheid Post author

          David: Loved your review of, indeed, the same concert (though with a different mezzo) and how I agree with your description and assessment of Harold in Italy, Tamestit, and the well-chosen “stage business” throughout. Re the orchestra singing, I was also stumped by that, but started to search around for singers through my binoculars and spotted some orchestra members singing. That was a lovely touch, too.

          And re the turtles, I think I may actually have picked that up when going back over your Rome posts, which contained a treasure trove of information.

          1. David N

            Ah, yes, Lucile Richardot, who absolutely stood out in a concert I wasn’t even supposed to see in La Chaise-Dieu Festival; she was only one of many soloists in Sebastian Dauce’s Versailles extravaganza, but much the best, Good to see JEG has taken her up for Berlioz as well as Monteverdi. I think I’d prefer her richer tones to Joyce DiD’s as Dido.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Interesting you should note that. There is a relationship, and I think it’s Menzio influenced by de Chirico, though I can’t be sure, particularly as they are close to contemporaries (Menzio 1899-1979; de Chirico 1888-1978). The commentary that makes me think that is below:

      Google translate (horrifying, I know): An example of this new sensitivity is a painting – Rome, the Colosseum(1924) – by the young Francesco Menzio, in which the amphitheater is presented in a suspended atmosphere, by explicit references to the artistic culture of the time of Chirico, his master Casorati, more distantly Carrad translated into a singular idiom and indefinable, where direct observation dissolves into a composition of pasty chromatism and dreamy performance.

      The original Italian of the same passage and some additional: Un esempio di questa nuova sensibilità è un dipinto – Roma, il Colosseo (1924) – del giovane Francesco Menzio, in cui l’anfiteatro si presenta in un’atmosfera sospesa, dagli espliciti riferimenti alla cultura artistica del tempo– de Chirico, il suo maestro Casorati, più a distanza Carrà– tradotti in un idioma singolare e indefinibile, dove l’osservazione diretta si stempera in una composizione dal cromatismo pastoso e dall’andamento trasognato.

      Here’s the cite containing the passage: https://www.doppiozero.com/materiali/monumento-continuo

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