Rome wasn’t built in a day

Natale di Roma is the birthday celebration of the legendary founding of Rome by Romulus in 753 BC.

On April 21st this year Rome turned 2,771 years old. The history of Rome spans 28 centuries, compared to the USA’s 2½ centuries and Canada’s 1½ centuries. The phrase ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day’ was first found in a collection of Medieval French poems written in 1190 called ‘Li Proverbe au Vilain’. The adage simply suggests it takes time to create great things.

The Roman Empire at its peak controlled approximately 6.5 million square kilometers (2.5 million square miles) of land surface (about the same size as the lower 48 states in the USA) and Rome’s territory ranged from the Atlantic Ocean to the Euphrates River in Western Asia (today Iraq, Syria and Turkey) and from Britain to Egypt.

The Capitoline Wolf has become the emblem of Rome.

The popular ancient Roman myth surrounding the statue is the story of Romulus and Remus, the twins who were nursed by a she-wolf. When the twins grew up, they built a city and called it Rome. The legend also declares that the refugee Aeneas who escaped the destruction of Troy and headed towards Italy was an ancestor of these same founders of Rome.

Although Roman legend dates the founding of Rome at around 753 BC, there is archaeological evidence that humans lived in the area as far back as 14,000 years ago.

Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica in Palazzo Barberini

We hesitated about returning to this gallery because when we first discovered it, it was closed so we instead explored the secret gardens and statues in the back. We finally made time to return for a second visit a couple of days before leaving Rome and this time we bought tickets and went inside.

The Palazzo Barberini is a 17th-century palace that houses the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica. After the death of the previous architect, in 1629 Gian Lorenzo Bernini, better known as a sculptor, was commissioned to build the palace. He completed it in 1633.  We have learned to look for a Bernini bee or bees whenever we see his hand at work. The bees were Bernini’s ‘signature’ and we found versions of carved bees in every site he worked at in both Rome and the Vatican City.

Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica houses an important 13 – 16th century painting collection. It includes Raphael’s portrait La fornarina, Caravaggio’s Judith Beheading Holofernes and Hans Holbein’s, bigger than life, portrait of Henry VIII to name a few.

There were enough pieces from famous Flemish artists Rubens, Rembrandt and Van Eyck reminding us that we want to add a visit to the Netherlands to our agenda. Two outstanding ceiling fresco’s caught our eye. Pietro da Cortona’s masterpiece, the Allegory of Divine Providence and Barberini Power and Andrea Sacchi’s beautiful, Allegory of Divine Wisdom.

Hidden deep beneath the cellars of the rear part of the building, a Mithraeum was found during construction in 1936. A Mithraeum is a temple and most Mithraic Temples that have been found are dated between 100 BCE and 300 CE and usually found in the Roman Empire. Mithraism is viewed as a rival of early Christianity and may have derived from either Iranian or Greek worship of the god Mithra.

Anfiteatro Flavio

In the center of Rome sits the unparalleled Colosseum, originally known as Amphitheatrum Flavium. According to Guinness World Records, the Colosseum is still the largest amphitheatre ever built. Rome’s entire historic center, including the Colosseum, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the Colosseum is also listed among the New Seven Wonders of the World.

The amphitheater was built in the Flavian period between 72-80 CE. A massive statue, which some believe may have been Emperor Nero, was placed next to the amphitheatre. This huge statue was termed a “colossus”, and as early as the Middle Ages the name of the Flavian Amphitheatre began to be referred to as the Colosseum. The Romans used the amphitheater for more than 4 centuries for gladiatorial shows, reenactments of battles and dramas or plays based on classical mythology.

Forums and Palatine Hill

The Palatine Hill is the center of the Seven Hills of Rome and one of the most ancient parts of the city. The top of Palatine Hill offers picture perfect views of the magnificent ruins of the Roman Forum, Circus Maximus and the Colosseum along with outstanding views of some of the other hills. It was certainly easy to understand why the Palatine was once home to ancient Rome’s rich and famous.

The Roman Forum is a rectangular forum or plaza and for centuries it was the center of everyday life in Rome. It is located at the foot of Palatine Hill and today is a sprawling ruin of shrines, temples, basilicas, arches, royal residences, judicial, senatorial and government offices, stairs, monuments and architectural fragments. There is something extraordinarily beautiful about ruins and this site was exceptional in the spring sunshine.

Roman numerals

It has been a long time since we first had to memorize Roman numerals. We realized, when attempting to read the text on the multitudes of statues and gravestones, that we wanted to refresh that knowledge. It was great fun and we can once again read Roman dates fairly quickly. In case anyone is as curious as we were ….

I=1, V=5, X=10, L=50, C=100, D=500 and M=1000.

Examples are:

1  = I         10 = X

2  = II        20 = XX

3  = III       30 = XXX

4  = IV       40 = XL

5  = V         50 = L

6  = VI        60 = LX

7  = VII       70 = LXX

8  = VIII      80 = LXXX

9  = IX         90 = XC

And an example, 2019 = MMXIX.

Castel Sant’Angelo

Castle of the Holy Angel also called Hadrian’s Mausoleum has a famous underground passetto or passage that connects it directly to the Vatican. This convenient escape route has been utilized by Pope’s more than a few times throughout history.

In 130 CE the current emperor requisitioned for a magnificent marble covered funeral mausoleum be built for himself and his family and he called it Mausoleo di Adriano or Hadrian’s Mausoleum. In 403 the building became part of the Aurelian Walls turning it into a defensive fortress along the Tiber river. The history gets interesting when in 590, a year when Rome was suffering from a severe plague, Pope Gregory I was in a lengthy procession and when the procession neared Mausoleo di Adriano he had a vision of the archangel Michael who sheathed his sword. The vision was interpreted as a sign that the plague would quickly end (which it did). The Romans began to call the mausoleum, Castel Sant’Angelo. In the 13th century, they placed a statue of St. Michael the Archangel sheathing the sword on the highest point of the Castle.

At one point in history Castel Sant’Angelo was used as a notorious prison. Tosca, Puccini’s tragic but most loved opera, is set in Rome in 1800. The painter Cavaradossi is sentenced to death and ends up in the Castel Sant’Angelo prison. He is eventually shot in the courtyard and his grieving mistress, Tosca, takes her own life by jumping off the castle’s ramparts.

Ponte Sant’Angelo

The striking Sant’Angelo bridge crosses the Tiber River right in front Castel Sant’Angelo which is right next to the Vatican. Crossing this walking bridge provides a wonderful and picturesque entrance to the Vatican. The bridge was built in 134, but the 10 magnificent marble angel statues spaced equidistant across the bridge were added much later.

In 1535 the statues of Saint Peter and Saint Paul were placed at the entrance of the bridge. In 1669 Gian Bernini and his school were asked to sculpt 10 additional Angel statues that represent the Passion.

Musei Capitolini

The Capitoline Museum is perched on top of Capitoline Hill facing  Piazza del Campidoglio. The trapezoid shaped Piazza was designed by Michelangelo in 1536. The Capitoline Museum opened in 1734 and it is thought to be the first museum in the world that was opened for the public to enjoy. Today the Capitoline Museum is one museum but spread across three palaces that surround the Piazza del Campidoglio and are connected with an underground gallery beneath the piazza.

A few of our highlights were an elegant 2nd century statue of Cupid and Psyche, a bronze she-wolf nursing Romulus and Remus, Statue Marforio – a large 1st century marble reclining bearded river god statue, elaborate frescoes, stuccos, tapestries, and carved ceilings and doors, a dozen or more remarkable busts wearing intricately carved colorful marble togas and the remaining fragments of the gigantic statue of Colossus of Constantine from 280-337 CE. The head alone is more than 8′ (2.5 meters), each foot is 6.5′ long (2 meters) and it is believed the seated figure would have been 40′ high (12 meters).

Piramide Cestia

The Pyramid of Cestius was built between 18-12 BCE as a tomb for Gaius Cestius.  Made of brick-faced concrete and covered with slabs of white marble it seems to almost glow next to the dark Aurelian Walls. The pyramid is 100 Roman feet square at the base and stands 125 Roman feet high and today is one of the best preserved ancient buildings of Rome. (one Roman foot is equivalent to 11.65 inches)

Cimitero Acattolico

Like so many sites in Rome, this tranquil cemetery goes by multiple names. The Cimitero Acattolico translates as the ‘Non-Catholic Cemetery’. It is known as the ‘Non-Catholic Cemetery’, the ‘Protestant Cemetery’ and the ‘Englishmen’s Cemetery’. It is not exclusive to Protestants or British people because any foreigner may be buried in this public cemetery that is adjacent to the Pyramid of Cestius.  

The English poets John Keats and Percy Shelley are both buried there as are their close friends Edward John Trelawney and Joseph Severn. Keats died in Rome in 1821 of tuberculosis at the age of 25 and Shelley drowned in a boating accident one year later. Keats did not wish his name to be on his headstone, so Keats’ headstone refers only to a “Young English Poet”. However, when Joseph Severn died in 1879 he wished to be buried next to his friend John Keats and Severn’s tombstone boldly claims he was a “devoted friend and deathbed companion of John Keats”.

There is one grave marker that we may forever remember and it’s full title is The Angel of Grief Weeping Over the Dismantled Altar of Life. William Wetmore Story was an American sculptor living in Rome and according to an article written in an 1896 issue of Cosmopolitan Magazine, his wife’s death so devastated him that he lost all interest in sculpture. His children, however, convinced him to create this statue to memorialize his wife and their mother. Story created the most tender and ethereal life-sized white marble angel that is collapsed and weeping and draped over his wife, Emelyn’s tomb.

This emotive angel is also known as the Angel of Grief or the Weeping Angel and those terms have been used to describe dozens of grave stones throughout the world. The guide at the cemetery informed us that this angel is considered one of the most copied images in the world. One prominent replica can be seen at Stanford University in California. Story himself wrote that “It represents the Angel of Grief, in utter abandonment, throwing herself with drooping wings and hidden face over a funeral altar. It represents what I feel.”

Mausoleo di Augusto

The Mausoleum of Augustus is an immense tomb with surrounding grounds that cover an area equivalent to a few city blocks. The tomb itself is nearly 100 yards in diameter. Emperor Augustus had it built in 28 BCE and is said to have used Alexander the Great’s mausoleum in Alexandria as his model.

The emperor was laid to rest here, and his statue was placed on top of the monument. Before Augustus’ death a number of prominent citizens and family members were also buried inside and throughout the 1st century CE the mausoleum was used as a tomb for the imperial family.

The Augustus Mausoleum is currently in the process of being restored and is anticipated to open to the public later this year.

Rome was not built in a day and the city continues to excavate it’s multitude of archaeological sites to clarify its long history. After 28 centuries there is much to discover here and we attempted to learn as much as we could, but, it may take a lifetime to absorb and understand the fascinating history of this incredible city called Rome.

Salute from these Romans,

Ted and Julia

View the Colosseum + Forums photo gallery here

View the Capitoline Museums photo gallery here

View the Palazzo Barberini photo gallery here

View the Non-Catholic Cemetery of Rome photo gallery here

View the Castel Sant’Angelo ( Hadrian’s Mausoleum ) photo gallery here

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