Saturday, October 4, 2014

Rome's Artistic Treasures .... Hidden in Banks

Dome of the chapel of Palazzo del Monte di Pietà

As if Rome didn't possess enough spectacular sights to satisfy the greedy eyes of her art-loving visitors and residents, today we'll get a chance to see even more, like the eye-popping gold-leaf and stuccoed chapel at Palazzo del Monte di Pietà above, near Campo de' Fiori.

Since even the wealthiest of Rome's old noble families can no longer afford the upkeep on their ancestral palaces, the ones that haven't been turned into museums, embassies, or cultural associations, are mostly in the hands of the banks. While I cringe to think that there are so many works of art hidden away and out of sight for the average Roman, at least one day a year, we get a chance to see them. The event is called Invito a Palazzo, and it's not just happening in Rome. All across the Italian peninsula financial institutions are opening their doors to reveal their treasures today, 4 October 2014, and the best part is, it's free!

One measly day a year is a pittance, but I don't know about you, I'll take what I can get. I have participated in Invito a Palazzo in previous years, and one of the most spectacular Roman institutions participating has its headquarters in Palazzo Altieri near the Chiesa del Gesù. This baroque wonder, closed to the public 364 days a year, is packed to the gills with glorious frescoes, paintings, and tapestries by the likes of Guido Reni, Carlo Maratta, Giulio Romano, Domenico Maria Canuti, Domenichino, Paolo Veronese, Coreggio, and many more.

If you only have time to visit one site today, this should be it!

The Allegory of Mercy, Carlo Maratta, Palazzo Altieri

Pompeian Salon, Palazzo Altieri

Apotheosis of Romulus, Domenico Maria Canuti, Palazzo Altieri

Palazzo Altieri

Also opening its doors today is Palazzo de Carolis on Via del Corso. This early-18th-century palace features a gorgeous oval spiral staircase by Alessandro Specchi (of Spanish Steps fame), very similar to (and possibly inspired by) Borromini's staircase at Palazzo Barberini.

Spiral staircase by Alessandro Specchi, Palazzo de Carolis

Palazzo Ronadanini, near the Pantheon, will also be open to visitors. The most noteworthy aspect of this palace is the sublime courtyard, decorated with ancient busts and sculptures, as well as intricate stucco and bas-relief details. Also on display are the sumptuously appointed rooms of the piano nobile, that some lucky bankers out there get to use as their conference rooms.

Courtyard of Palazzo Rondanini

I will be visiting the Banca di Sassari, which occupies the site of a converted monastery of Santa Susanna Church (coincidentally the American national church in Rome), not far from Piazza della Repubblica.

Sardinian Tapestries (Banca di Sassari)
In addition to a collection of Sardinian tapestries above (who knew the Sardinians made tapestries?), visitors will be able to visit the underground Roman domus upon which the monastery was built, a site that has only recently been excavated.

Roman domus under the Monastery of Santa Susanna (Banca di Sassari)

If this event sounds like your cup of tea, hurry up, it's only on today! You can find more info here

All images provided courtesy of MiBACT
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Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Augustus's Rome, 2000 Years Later

Modern bronze copy of the Augustus of Prima Porta, Via dei Fori Imperiali,
© Alice Barigelli

I love anniversaries and meaningful dates, and this year has been full of them. Back in February we commemorated the 450th anniversary of the death of the great Michelangelo, in April we celebrated the 450th birthday of Shakespeare and remembered the 300th anniversary of the passing of El Greco. This year has also seen important anniversaries of events that have changed history, from the toppling of the Berlin Wall (25 years ago), to the passing of the Civil Rights Act (50 years ago), to D-Day (70 years ago), to the opening of the Panama Canal and onset of World War One (both 100 years ago).

But the most awe-inspiring and moment-of-silence-worthy of all, particularly for those of us who love big, round numbers (and happen to live and breathe ancient Roman history), is the 2000th anniversary of the death of Emperor Augustus.

Detail of the Augustus of Labicana, Museo Nazionale Romano a Palazzo Massimo (source)

Exactly 2000 years ago today, on 19 August A.D. 14, Emperor Augustus, born Gaius Octavius and the first emperor of Rome, breathed his last. Throughout his long life, Octavius wore many hats, and carried many titles. He was known as Princeps (the “first” citizen of Rome), Divi Filius (the son of the divine, in reference to his great-uncle and adopted father, the deified Julius Caesar), Augustus (illustrious one), Pater Patriae (father of his country), and, of course, Caesar, a family name that would eventually become synonymous with the term “emperor.” His official roles were just as varied, from Consul (Rome’s highest elected office) to Pontifex Maximus (high priest) and eventually Imperator (military commander).

During his 41-year reign (the longest of any Roman emperor), Augustus built enduring monuments, developed the city’s infrastructure, and established the Pax Romana, the empire’s most enduring period of peace. If you’re in Rome today and have nothing more important to do (and really, in the middle of August, what else could you possibly have to do?), I suggest commemorating the extraordinary man’s death with a tour of his greatest monuments and portraits.

Ara Pacis (source)
The best way to appreciate Augustus’s footprint on the fabric of his city is to take a tour of the works he built. He was credited with the line, “I inherited Rome a city of brick; I left it a city of marble,” and whether or not he actually said it, the words certainly ring true. Perhaps the most recognizable of the monuments in his legacy is the Ara Pacis (Lungotevere in Augusta). Although the first years of his reign were marred by war, Augustus’s dedication to restoring peace to the empire was what set him apart from the leaders who would follow him. The majestic white marble Altar of Peace was inaugurated in 9 BC to celebrate the peace brought to the empire by Augustus’s military victories in Hispania and Gaul. Although partially reconstructed, the altar nevertheless possesses much of its original bas-relief decoration, depicting Roman myths, scenes of ritual sacrifice, intricate garlands, and a procession of Augustus and other members of the imperial family. 

Ara Pacis illuminated (source)

Despite the modern misconception that ancient Rome was a city of gleaming white marble, in actual fact, Roman marble buildings were generally painted in bright vibrant colors, and this was certainly the case with the Ara Pacis. In honor of this big anniversary, the exquisite monument will be illuminated with colored laser beams to recreate what it most likely looked like in the emperor's day. This is not the first time this technique has been used (see my post: Real Rome: The Ara Pacis in Technicolor), but it is always spectacular to behold. You can visit tonight from 9pm to midnight without a reservation.

Il Viaggio nel Foro di Augusto, © Andrea Franceschini, courtesy of Zetema Group
In the heart of the Imperial Fora, found partially excavated alongside right and left of Via dei Fori Imperiali, the Forum of Augustus was the physical representation of Augustus’s power. The forum incorporates the Temple of Mars Ultor (the avenging god of war) and was at the time considered “greater than any in existence.” While not completed until 2 BC, the temple was first planned by Augustus after he successfully avenged Caesar, killing his assassins Brutus and Cassius in 42 BC. Just in time for the big anniversary, the forum comes to life in a summer-long project that helps visitors experience the site as it once was. 

Il Viaggio nel Foro di Augusto,
© Andrea Franceschini, courtesy of Zetema Group
Every night, a digital multi-media show recreates the original appearance of the forum before your very eyes. Audience members are provided with earphones with audio in six languages, while the images and animation are projected directly onto the walls of the forum. Visit for more details.

Interior of the House of Augustus, Palatine Hill (source)
Unlike the emperors who would succeed him, Augustus lived not in an opulent palace but a comfortable, tasteful home. He chose to live on the Palatine Hill (as would his successors) to underline his connection to Romulus and Remus, the twin founders of Rome who were raised, according to legend, on the very same hill seven centuries earlier, and where Augustus himself was born. Despite its relatively small size, the House of Augustus is celebrated for its superb second-style Pompeian frescoes in vibrant red, black, yellow, purple, and green. See the glorious and well-preserved works in several rooms, including the mysterious Room of the Masks and Augustus’s own study, an intimate haven he called “Siracusa.” When visiting the Palatine Hill, keep in mind that this particular site is only open Mon, Wed, Thu, Sat, and Sun, from 8:30am to 1:30pm. (It’s always a good idea to call and double check if it’s open: 060608.)

Mausoleum of Augustus (source)

Built in 28 BC, the Mausoleum of Augustus (Piazza Augusto Imperatore) is perhaps the most neglected of Rome’s ancient sights. Over the centuries, it has been the victim of cannon fire, earthquake, abandonment, and vandalism, and during its long life has been used as a fortress, a bullring, and a concert hall. But thanks to sturdy defensive walls, some 15 feet thick and 50 feet tall, the site has survived against all odds. Although the mausoleum has been closed for decades, this year’s milestone has been the impetus for the city to pledge €12 million to its restoration and eventual reopening. Although this site is *never* open, it is today! To commemorate this once-in-a-millennium anniversary, the city of Rome is opening the mausoleum for three guided tours this morning. I’ll be there at 9:30, and documenting my visit on Twitter (if I’m allowed to take photographs, that is). If you see this in time, call 060608 and you might just be in time to join one of the groups.

Theater of Marcellus (source)

A few other sites that shouldn’t be missed and are all within walking distance of one another: the Theater of Marcellus (Via del Teatro Marcello), an imposing performing arts center and the second-largest theater in ancient Rome, was built by Augustus in 13 BC and is crowned by a still-inhabited palace built in the Renaissance. (All month long, the theater’s purpose is revived with classical musical performances staged just outside the towering structure. Check out for a full list of performances.) The Portico of Octavia (Via di Portico d’Ottavia) is another Augustean site, once a vast cultural and religious center, although sadly little survives today beyond its entrance gate, which is currently hidden under a dreary layer of scaffolding. The Obelisk of Montecitorio (Piazza Montecitorio) (originally from Heliopolis and dating to the 6th century BC) was brought from Egypt to Rome by the emperor in 10 BC to be used as the pointer of his massive sundial that spread across the Campus Martius neighborhood. The 70-foot monolith cast a shadow across the Ara Pacis on Augustus’s birthday (23 September), a not-so-subtle hint that he was born to bring peace to the empire.

Augustus of Prima Porta, Musei Vaticani, Source: Wiki Commons

Get to know the man up close by studying one (or more) of his many portraits, located in museums across the city. By far the most famous is the Augustus of Prima Porta. This larger-than-life-sized marble sculpture depicting Augustus in the role of imperator, or military commander, was discovered in 1863 in the ruins of the Villa of Livia, in an area that was once countryside and is now on the northern outskirts of the city. The commanding work now has its residence in the Braccio Nuovo section of the Vatican Museums (Viale Vaticano).  

Bust of the Divine Augustus, Musei Vaticani,
© Nick Thompson

Also displayed at the Vatican, in the welcoming Pinecone Courtyard, is an enormous posthumous portrait of the Divine Augustus, discovered in the 16th century on the Aventine Hill. Another celebrated portrait is the Augustus of Via Labicana. Located today at the National Roman Museum at Palazzo Massimo (Largo di Villa Peretti, 1), this moving work represents a togaed Augustus in his role as Pontifex Maximus, Rome’s spiritual leader. The Hall of the Emperors at the Capitoline Museums (Piazza del Campidoglio, 1) displays the Ottaviano Capitolino, an important early bust of Augustus, showing him as a determined, ambitious, yet vulnerable young man. But you don’t have to visit a museum to find a portrait of Rome’s favorite leader. A modern bronze copy of the Prima Porta statue stands in front of Augustus’s forum along Via dei Fori Imperiali.

Ottaviano Capitolino, Capitoline Museums, Source: Wiki Commons

“If I have played my part well, clap your hands and dismiss me with applause from the stage.”
Augustus’s last words
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Monday, April 7, 2014

My Rome Bucket List -- 21 Things to Do in Rome in a Lifetime

I've been noticing a trend. In case you're interested, I'm not a very trendy person. I usually pick up on things around 2-10 years after they become popular. Case in point, I just discovered Downton Abbey and Madonna's album Ray of Light. (Have you heard it? It's amazing.) However, every so often--and I'm talking very rarely--I actually get into something before it starts trending. I still claim to have started the Capri pants craze back in the late '90s.

You're welcome.

Upon further consideration, it may just have been that I was about four decades late in picking up on a trend that Audrey Hepburn had started back in the 50s.

But be that as it may, another trend that I somehow jumped the gun on was the Bucket List phenomenon. Before "bucket list" became a common household term, before there was even a film of that name, I had written one.

Of course I didn't call it a bucket list. It was probably called Things I Will Do Before I Die, or similar. And believe me, there were a lot of things on that list. But now that making these ambitious and adventurous lists has become so very trendy, particularly with bloggers, I guess I'd better make a new one. But this time, its a themed bucket list. Below you will find 21 things that I vow one day to do in Rome.

And as anyone who's ever written a to-do list knows, you've got to add some items that you've already accomplished, so you can feel good about yourself, like you're getting things done. And I may throw in one or two things that seem well nigh impossible, just to make sure I never stop dreaming.

1. Climb the internal spiral staircase to the top of the Column of Marcus Aurelius.


Ok, so I'm starting with an impractical one. No one gets to do this. And by no one, I mean, probably Obama could do this if he were weird like me and knew to want to do such a thing. This is going to be a very hard one. No plan as yet.

2. Stand in the Sistine Chapel when it's empty (or at least, empty of all but one or two guards).

I could actually probably do this one pretty easily, since my Maritino is one of said guards. I'll have to bug him.

3. See every Caravaggio work in Rome (and eventually the world!).


Considering I have traveled to Naples, Malta, Siracusa, Messina, Cremona, Milan, Paris, Vienna, London, and beyond, just to see works by my favorite painter, it kind of surprises me that I haven't seen all of the ones right here in my city. The only one I haven't seen is the so-called mural of Jupiter, Neptune, and Pluto that adorns the casino of the Villa Boncompagni Ludovisi, a noble residence, still in private hands. They do allow visitors, but very rarely and by advance appointment only.

4. For the above, and other reasons, visit the Casino of Villa Boncompagni Ludovisi.

And try not to cry when thinking about the vast and sublime hillside gardens that once existed here, but were heartlessly bulldozed to create Via Veneto. Viva la dolce vita.

5. Visit every single museum in Rome, at least once. 

I'm not sure exactly how many museums there are in the city, but if I had to make a random guess, I'd say between 60 and 80. Luckily I've got a big head start on this one.

6. Write a blogpost on every single museum in Rome, after visiting.

This is probably going to get very tedious, but you know what? You're worth it.

7. Chat with Maestro Riccardo Muti in the green room of Teatro Costanzi just after he's conducted a Verdi opera.

Personal photo
I did this one.

8. Stand in the office of the mayor of Rome (and on his balcony).

Prime Minister Andreotti, Roma Mayor Argan, and French President Giscard, 1977 [Source]
While yes, I have done this one too, the mayor (then Gianni Alemanno) was not there at the time. The best part about his office is its private balcony that juts right out into the Roman Forum from above the Tabularium.

9. Meet Pope Francis.

The Maritino has already done this. So jealous.

10. See Antoniazzo Romano's frescoes in the Tor de' Specchi convent (also known as the House of Santa Francesca Romana).

So this one I have actually done three times. Anyone can do it, you just have to get the timing right. It's only open one day per year, 9 March. It's always a good idea to call ahead to check the opening times, as they vary year to year. Also, go as early as you possibly can, or risk having to stand in a long line. Either way, it's absolutely worth it.

11. See Annibale Carracci's glorious frescoes in Palazzo Farnese.

Another one I can check off right away. This has luckily become not such a difficult thing to do. Just takes a little planning. When I first moved to Rome back in 2004 (hereafter known as "back in the day"), if you wanted to visit Palazzo Farnese (the seat of the French Embassy), you had to wait until La Notte Bianca and line up for about 2-3 hours. Well, not anymore! Now you can book a visit online through Inventer Rome Cultural Association. Heads up though, the Carracci Gallery (the main reason to visit the palace) is presently being restored. Don't bother visiting until 2015, perhaps later.

12. Visit the Quirinal Gardens.

Again, planning is everything. These lush gardens are open to the public every year on 2 June for the Festa della Repubblica. This is one of those things that I always plan to do, but never quite get around to.

13. Have the Trevi Fountain entire to myself.

If you get up early enough, or stay up late enough, anyone can do this. For me it happened some time during the summer of 2007, during a very late night out with some friends, cycling around Rome at about four in the morning. When we stumbled upon the fountain, it was deserted. There was literally no one there but us. But you don't need to be awake at quite so ungodly an hour, providing it's the off-season. My friend Katy, who's living here for the year, was out and about early one morning, and found the Trevi deserted around 8am.

14. Visit the Casino di Bel Respiro in Villa Pamphilj

Photo by author
Back in 2010, the last time the late Colonel Gaddafi visited Rome, I burned with indignation that this international bully (to use a mild term), was allowed to traipse around the jewel of Villa Pamphilj. How dare he be allowed inside the Casino di Bel Respiro (also known as Villa Algardi), a sublime Baroque treasure that is closed to the general public, when regular Italians are not permitted to set foot inside? Or so I thought until I was informed otherwise. We non-heads of state actually can visit this exquisite palace, but only on Saturday mornings by appointment. It's even free. I haven't yet done it myself, but here's the number in case you are interested: (+39) 0667794555 (or email

15. Visit the Vatican Necropolis.

As in, where St. Peter is supposedly buried. Can't believe I haven't done this yet. No excuses, really.

16. Visit all seven pilgrim churches on foot, preferably in a jubilee year. And walk through the Holy Doors of St. Peter's.

I'll have to wait till 2025 (and invest in a very good pair of walking shoes) before I get a chance to attempt this.

17. Visit the interior of the Pyramid of Cestius.

Photo by author
I believe that this was relatively possible until a few years ago. Now that the pyramid is being restored (its white Carrara marble is scrubbing up quite nicely, by the way), who knows if visiting the interior will ever be possible again? Since I walk past it every day on my way to and from work, it has dug its way into my imagination, and now I'm dying to explore inside.

18. Visit the Tower of the Winds.


Although not completely off limits anymore, as it was "back in the day" when I got to go (an exceptionally rare visit that I was allowed to be part of thanks to a friend of a friend of my now Maritino), the Tower of Winds (or Torre dei Venti) in the Vatican has nevertheless been seen by very few people. It's a fascinating and beautiful place and you can read more about its function and history here.

19. Visit the Basilica Neopitagorica.


This is probably one of Rome's most mysterious sites. Almost nothing is known about this 2000-year-old esoteric basilica buried near Porta Maggiore and discovered by chance in 1917. The vast three-nave basilica is entirely underground and it is decorated with stucco reliefs of mystical images. Because the basilica is directly underneath major railway lines near Termini Station, it is extremely fragile. That, and the fact that a mysterious "parasite" or "bacteria" lives down there (according to the above-linked video), means it is very very closed. Another daunting challenge.

20. Get married in Rome.

© Luca Cappellaro, Fine Art Wedding
Done and done.

21. And last but not least, have my own rooftop terrace with a view of the city.

A girl can dream, right?

Can you think of anything to add? Have you done any of these things?
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