I have , on these dark wet winter days , taken to dreaming of summer. One such daydream has me wandering around sun-baked European towns and cities. It seems another lifetime, not just 5 months, that we found ourselves in Italy, each day some variant of that. I decided I would indulge this daydreaming with some reminiscing on a week spent in Rome, and some surprisingly intimate moments.
At first blush, that seems odd, because traveling to Europe , not just in the summer but in the adjacent shoulder season, means bracing yourself not just for heat, but for this:
Tourists. Lots and lots of tourists. Gelato eating, selfie taking, GPS staring, shrieking tourists. But this isn’t a holier than thou screed about tourists. For I am one, and I spent plenty of time in Italy eating gelato, taking pictures, and sorting out where I was on my phone. Though I don’t recall shrieking- well maybe a couple of times, I mean the gelato was that good.
It is something the seasoned traveler tries to plan for, and yet, there is no concealing the disappointment, when, after planning to visit a site, or a museum, you find yourself in a crush of humanity, struggling to find a tiny scrap of space, in order to have a moment with the object of your attention. Instead , you are left fulminating over why someone would bring a double stroller to this archeological site on a 95 degree day, said children wailing. And who can blame the kids. Instead of absorbing the masterwork, I am thinking “in what fucking universe did you think this was a good idea”.
Nonetheless, on a recent trip to Rome, it was several surprising moments of solitude , some planned, others by accident, that will stick with me.
One hot late summer day in Rome, left to my own devices, I found myself wandering along the Tiber River that divides Rome in two. It was early afternoon, and the excitement and wonder of the morning walk had given way to an over-heated trudge. I consulted my map and noted I was near the Ara Pacis Museum. I was drawn here for a few reasons . First to see the namesake Ara Pacis of Augustus , an exquisitely preserved Roman altar , as well as that rarest of things in Rome, an actual modern building, one that was specifically designed to house the altar, by the New York Architect Richard Meier. But if I’m truly honest, I mostly needed some air conditioning
The Ara Pacis is an altar dedicated to Pax, the Roman goddess of Peace. It stood not far from this location, and had been dug out and re-assembled in the 1930s. The new building, itself controversial , opened in 2006. It was supremely quiet, and without being jostled, one could fully admire the fine relief carvings of its frieze. The frieze depicts the emperor and his family in various symbolic sacrifical acts, as well as mythological scenes.
As I cooled, I came to appreciate that there were only a few of us in there. The only sound in fact came from two nearby gentlemen, speaking in hushed Italian. I became transfixed by the priest, who regarded the altar with an incredibly intense gaze, and hung on every word of his companion. Here was the grand continuum of Roman history, the Rome of Augustus giving way to the Church of this priest. I followed them around for a bit, becoming mesmerized by the hushed tones, and the “Gaze”.
The building housing the altar is a worthy contemporary container, made of stone, metal and glass, the Architect Richard Meier is a modern master. But then my wandered to the man Richard Meier, who had just recently been accused by many women of years of harassment in his firm. He had recently resigned. And just after reading that news I was informed by family that our own parish priest from childhood had in fact been accused of similar activities for years. Horrible. Things are never what they seem. But I couldn’t doubt the integrity of this priest, could I? I mean that gaze.
I wandered away finally, taking in the building by Meier, the recent news unavoidably altering my perceptions.From there down to the basement , taking in an extraordinary exhibit on the Walls of Rome.. My fascination with the exhibit would end up changing my planned itinerary in fact.
In time, I walked back to the altar, and there they were, still! The priest and his tutor. This would be an all day study. I admired the scholarship. And I was struck by the dissonance between my expectations and my experience. Expecting to get cool and spend a few minutes jostling with another crowd looking at yet another monument, I instead found a moment of intimacy, shared accidentally, with two others. And the peace and quiet of the moment invited much unexpected reflection, from MeToo, to my catholic youth, and even the politics of wall building. And at the heart of this experience , two masterful structures in a dance, one 2000 years old, the other 10. And to think I only really wanted to get cool. Things are never what they seem.
My dawdling at the Ara Pacis meant that another item on my itinerary was bumped to the following morning. I got up early and headed to my destination. Today would be more a pilgrimage , and the destination was a small out-of-the-way chapel built in 1502, designed by the Architect Donato Bramante. Bramante may be more well know as the original Architect of the rebuilding of the Basilica of St. Peter’s in Rome, the greatest commission in the world at that time, granted to him by Pope Julius II. As was often the case then, the design and construction of St. Peters vastly outlasted his life, and the design was greatly altered. Lesson- never die on the drafting board
Bramante’s late buildings were characterized by their sublime classical simplicity, and none more than my destination today. My destination was the Tempietto, and it is the antithesis of St. Peter’s. It is a small exquisite temple that sits within the courtyard of another building- the San Pietro in Montorio Church. So like Ara Paris, it too a structure enclosed in a wrapper. Supposedly, the Tempietto marks the place where St. Peter was crucified upside down.
The site sits on a hill, and another very warm morning in Rome found me already heated up as I found my all the way up there, and then through the labyrinthine corridors of the surrounding church. Eventually, I arrived in the courtyard and there it was.
The Tempietto is a circular temple wrapped in a Doric colonnade , and it houses a small rotunda. In stunning contrast to St. Peter’s, it is probably no more than 30 feet in diameter, a small fragment of perfectly proportioned High Rennaissance, almost like a full-scale model.
It appeared I might be the first person here , and so on this hot morning, I sat in the shade, and regarded this little masterpiece. The hum of Rome was barely discernible in this cool sanctuary. It was indeed a magical moment, as though I had been granted a private viewing. I walked into the rotunda , where one can lie on the floor and peer down into the small hole in the center of the floor, where presumably St. Peter lay, looking back at his eternal view of Bramante’s little blue dome. I lied down on the floor, cool to the touch and peered down.
The pilgrimage can be a dicey proposition in travel. Unlike the unexpected and unplanned , it is ripe for disappointment . Perhaps the destination itself, or the crowds, or even the weather can cause the experience to fall short. Ultimately of course , it is generally the journey that is most memorable. And yet, there can be moments like this, when the experience vastly exceeds, when your own senses overpower, the sound of your own breath, the cool rotunda floor on the skin, the smell of earth below.
I rolled over and stared at the blue dome above this tiny temple. After a few more moments, the cacophony of a large group arrived, and immediately began setting up their group photo. It was time to leave St. Peter to his eternal view.
Late one day I headed to Capitoline Hill. Coming here , my anticipation was focused on enjoying a piazza designed by Michelangelo, a 16th century masterpiece of Renaissance Architecture, one every Architecture student knows well. There was also the Capitoline museum of antiquities, that being a secondary destination.
Here, Michelangelo had reconstructed one building, and unified the assembly into a whole by employing forced perspective, distinct paving, and the famous Equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius at its center (since replaced with a copy) to create a space of immense power that opens to the city below. It, like the Tempietto, one of the crowning achievements or Renaissance urban planning. All very cutting edge for the time.
I had dawdled at the gelato stand on my way (I now had a problem), and so it was late afternoon when I arrived. And the perfection of the piazza was under assault, some renovation, barricades everywhere. Expectations falling short.
So instead I entered the museum. With 50 minutes to go, people streamed out, while I was cautioned about the imminent closure …..repeatedly. I arrived in the upper galleries, as the late afternoon sun streamed through the windows. And again , quite by accident, I found myself alone with the treasures.
This felt a little like a scene from “Night In The Museum”, and I half expected the assembled dignitaries to begin to speak. Again, no disrespect to the stroller crowd, but having the place to oneself, and hear nothing but your own footsteps, is a profound sensation. I reached out and touched a few of the pieces., with no scolding. The late afternoon sun streamed through the windows, highlighting some of the busts, here favoring Marcellus over Cicero. The room felt as though it were about to burst to life.
Reflecting on these wonderful moments months later, I am still struck by the clarity with which objects can speak to you when you are alone with them, first the Tempietto, and now this statuary.
Outside, the end of day hubbub in the piazza below filtered up through the windows, cooling breezes passed through the open windows, caressing the cherubs. Museum closing in 15 minutes I was told.
As I headed down, there was just enough time to dash down a hallway for one of the most exquisite overlooks in Rome, the Ancient Roman Forum as seen from the Museum. It was the end of the day, the last stragglers were being herded out of the site, leaving it pristine. Night was ascendant on the Eternal City, its treasures getting tucked away for another day.
I ended in the Michelangelo’s Piazza, the crowd thinning out, marveling at the early dusk moment , and the lovely mashup of walkers, gawkers, and newlyweds. Barricades or not, an extraordinary space, and a sublime place to end the day in Rome.
The Piazza At Night
Dining al fresco, in a small intimate piazza, is a pinch-me kind of experience in Italy. The piazzas are the centers of their little micro-neighborhoods, filled by day with a cacophony of sounds that reverberate off the walls and paving stones. On our last night, we would have dinner in a small square , not unlike hundreds of other small spaces in Rome I suppose.
This particular evening was magical, as Juan and I met up with my sister and husband on their first trip to Europe. We wandered through the old Jewish ghetto in Rome, getting momentarily lost. Ruins are a dime a dozen here, and in any other city this would be the star of the show. In Rome, just another temple. What. a lovely painting this would make:
Around the corner, a musical performance was setting up, and the pianist was rehearsing, the twinkle bouncing off the walls.
Eventually, we found our way to dinner in the piazza. It was an evening bursting with stories , we lost in laughter, food , wine, forgetting where we were. But every one once in a while , I looked around , and remembered the extraordinary setting. As the evening wore on, the sounds of commerce , and motorbikes, fell away, leaving the piazza feeling more intimate , the echoes of your own laughter against the walls.
Other trips over the years have featured this experience fairly regularly. I can remember many a night wandering through darkened alleys at 3am with my compadres, happily lost in the quiet alleys, voices bouncing off the plaster, certain that , yes!, this is the right alley, no doubt infuriating an insomniac above. And all the while feeling you were seeing something secret, opening a box only a few saw into.
As the evening grew to a close, we said out goodbyes. A cab ride back to the hotel, the monuments lit brightly at night, throngs around the Pantheon, the Colosseum , a magnificent city that occasionally lets you peak behind the curtain.