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   ancient Rome
Sunday, May 8 2011

location: Via del Governo Vecchio, Rome, Italy

This morning Gretchen and I went to the remnants of ancient Rome about a kilometer southeast of our neighborhood. First we climbed to the top of Capitoline Hill, a somewhat eclectic statue-studded mix of buildings and piazzas where some or all of Rome's official government takes place. There's a monstrous neoclassical white building up there that has all the hallmarks of Mussolini's fascist imperialist sensibilities, plus other older buildings, some built atop the ruins of others.
Ancient Rome, as preserved for the benefit of tourists, begins southeast of Capitoline Hill in a valley occupied by the Roman Forum. Here and there are the fragments of ancient buildings, the most durable of which are the triumphal arches. One such arch commemorates the sacking of Jerusalem at the time of the destruction of the Jewish temple and depicts soldiers carrying a menorah and other loot. There are also a number of colonnades, some consisting of as few as three columns. Then, of course, are all the broken bits of ancient buildings too small or isolated to piece together into whatever they had once been. It's a place where people have traditionally gone to contemplate the great sweep of time and how all things, no matter how grand, fall into ruin (or get recycled into something else).
We paid admission to the forum and walked around in the blazing sun, occasionally ducking into an old building that had been made functional enough to house a museum, and there we looked at collections of marble heads or saw short films projected on a screen. Moving between the heat and glare of the outdoor forum and the stone-cooled murkiness of the ancient buildings was a little disorienting. The sun in the Mediterranean seems to easily pass the tipping point towards the oppressive, though it is no higher in the sky at this time of year than it is back in Hurley. The Roman Forum and our house atop Hurley Mountain are within three miles of the same latitude.
All that time in the hot sun had us feeling weak and hungry, and (though I can't speak for Gretchen), I'd already grown a bit tired of the whole x-plus-pomodoro formula of vegan Italian cuisine. So we went to an Indian restaurant not too far from the forum called Mother India. It was a bit overpriced, but the food was reasonably good. I ordered a small side of hot pepper with which to spice up my portion of the curries, but I didn't find myself liking that form of pepper very much. It tasted like pepper mixed with bitter poisonous plants. [Later I would learn that this is the kind (or similar to the kind) of hot pepper commonly used in Italian cuisine. I much prefer peppers of the jalapeño persuasion.]
In the afternoon we toured the ruins of the Coliseum, which forms the southeast terminus of the bulk of Rome's ancient ruins. Considering that two thirds of the Coliseum was scavenged and used for other projects, an impressive amount of it remains, giving a real sense of what it looked like back when it was in use. Once inside it, one feels like one is inside a large rocky quarry. There are identifiable levels, but it's hard to see where the seating would have been. Much of the interior brickwork appears to be covered with asphalt pavement, probably to keep it from being destroyed by moisture. The most initially confusing thing about the Coliseum is the central pit, the place where gladiators hacked each other to bits, lions ate Christians, and dogs were set against porcupines (among other sadistic thrills). Instead of being a flat featureless expanse, it was a warren of small rooms and hallways. The guide book cleared this up be explaining that the Coliseum's pit had been a wood plank floor covered with sand under which there were rooms for housing human and animals prisoners to be used as bloody entertainment. Part of that floor had actually been restored to give a sense of what the arena had looked like. Being in that space, ruined as it was, an empathetic person could help but feel the terror that had filled this place just so that others could find a way to occupy a boring day. Those prison cells beneath the wooden floor had held bewildered people and animals dragged here from hundreds and even thousands of miles away. They couldn't speak the language and didn't know what awaited them until they were loosed, terrified, upon the sand to themselves make the dull thumps that would perplex the dungeon's other future victims.
Still jetlagged, Gretchen and I took a nap back at our apartment and didn't wake up until after dark. I was hungry and wanted to go out, though Gretchen was ambivalent. As something of a randomized experiment, we decided to dine at the Bisteccheria Osteria directly across Via del Governo Vecchio from our apartment. The pasta there was nothing special, though we both greatly enjoyed the soups we ordered. I don't think Gretchen was a big fan of it, but the side of broccoli she ordered, which had been cooked to the point where it melted in one's mouth, was absolutely divine, though it tasted a little like it had been drizzled in fish oil.
We'd ordered more than we could possibly eat, so Gretchen went across the street to get some dishes with which to take our leftovers home. (One doesn't see a lot of people getting stuff to go from Roman restaurants.)

Capitoline Hill, Rome.

A statue of a pagan god checking his text messages (with a likely non-pagan photographer) on Capitoline Hill.

Arch of Septimus Severus. It's actually one arch crossing three others at two different elevations.

Details of of the Arch of Septimus Severus. Things had to be displayed as pictures for mostly-illiterate populace.

Details of of the Arch of Septimus Severus. Some unfortunate king being brought back in chains.

The Forum, looking north.

The Forum, looking east.

The Forum, looking east.

A beautiful piece of tall collonade.

Note that very flat keyed "arch" in this ancillary structure near the Forum.

Marble heads in one of the Forum's museums. Some might belong to Vestal Virgins (see lower).

Newer buildings on old foundations on Capitoline Hill.

A statue of a Vestal Virgin. The actual Vestal Virgins belonged to an order of priestesses selected from the Roman population for religious functions.

Vestal Virgins, one of them seated, one of them in possession of her head.

I don't know what became of the heads of all those Vestal Virgins.

On the Arch of Titus, which commemorates the sacking of Jerusalem, a mennorah is just another piece of loot.

First view of the Coliseum. The wide street in the foreground, Via dei Fori Imperiali, was commissioned by Mussolini so Rome would once again have a parade route suitable for a ruthless empire.

Michelangelo's statue of Moses in San Pietro in Vincoli (a basilica near the Forum).

The Coliseum.

A couple guys on the sample reconstructed arena.

Looking at the emperor's seating in the Coliseum, which now (of course) sports a cross.

The remnants of the back wall of the north side of the Coliseum reach very high.

The Coliseum, looking northeast.

Looking west from the ruins of the Coliseum.

Trajan's Column, which lays out his adventures in an ambitious form designed to be readable by the telescope-equipped illiterate.

We came upon some protest about the treatment of dogs to which Italians had brought their best friends. Italians love protests. And they love dogs. They do not appear to castrate their males.

Gretchen found a Eleanor-style pit bull worthy of her love.

Inside Santa Maria sopra Minerva, Rome's only gothic church. Like many Roman churches, it looks like a plain white box on the outside, but inside that box it's pretty spectacular.

There's an obelisk being borne for some reason by an elephant out in front of Santa Maria sopra Minerva.

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