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Rome - 2022

25-29 November 2022




A long weekend in “low season” Rome, surrounded nevertheless by hordes of tourists.


It turned out on our arrival to be Black Friday (amended on a shop window to “Black Weekend” by an enterprising shopkeeper). This may have drawn the crowds.


Inn at the Spanish Steps


We stay at what has to be the archetypal boutique hotel, the Inn at the Spanish Steps – its name is in English, “at” meaning “100 yards from”, certainly not “on”. It’s actually on the famous street leading away from the Spanish Steps, the Via dei Condotti, the Rome equivalent of Bond Street. The entrance is next to the Café Greco where Oscar Wilde used to take his morning coffee (allegedly) – and opposite or alongside Gucci, Prada, Hermes, any designer name you care to mention.



The hotel is very boutiquey: small, quite a lot of stairs, very beautiful rooms – ours has a wonderful frescoed ceiling with putti getting friendly with each other (right). The stairs can be a challenge, despite the lift, but the best thing is the roof terrace with its lemon trees, where you can have breakfast outside even in November – in the company of lots of sparrows.



Wine Tasting


On our first evening, we found ourselves invited to an unusual type of wine tasting. Each of about 15 shops on the Via dei Condotti had a tasting of a particular Italian wine. We strolled along, participating in a selected few – Barolo offered by Hermes; Primitivo (my favourite) by Damiani; and the great and vastly expensive Brunello di Montalcino by our very own hotel. We couldn’t quite work out who was benefitting from this liberality (other than us) – the designer shops that didn’t seem to be selling anything? Perhaps the wine makers thought they were getting valued publicity among big-hitters like us. Who knows?


The Golden House


The main excitement of our first full day was the Domus Aurea, the Golden House: the massive palace established by the Emperor Nero after the great fire of 64 AD (the one blamed on the Christians). It was buried some 100 years later under Trajan, who wanted to obliterate all memories of the dreaded Nero. It was then discovered (to a very limited extent) in the Renaissance. Much later, in the 20th century, it was properly excavated; and only fairly recently opened to the likes of us. It’s certainly an amazing discovery.


It’s not that easy to visit, nor particularly easy to find. Our taxi driver took us a long way from what turned out to be the proper, somewhat hidden entrance. Needless to say, you have to book on-line and you certainly have to take a guided tour. Wisely. If people were allowed to wander around, they could easily get lost – it’s vast.


One of the features is a “virtual tour”. Towards the end of the (non-virtual) tour, you have to put on an elaborate headgear with visor and earphones. You get transported – “virtually” and visually – into a reconstructed version of Nero’s palace with its opulent marbled rooms, mosaic vaults and ceilings, and colonnaded terraces overlooking the artificial lake that Nero constructed - where the Colosseum now stands.


Most of the tour is, of course, not virtual. You are led into a series of vast corridors and

caverns, the guide explaining the somewhat complex history. Basically, after Nero committed suicide in AD 68, he was vilified and the whole place was destroyed – but not quite. The Emperor Trajan removed all the valuable things he could (marble, mosaics, statues, etc) and filled the caverns with earth and rubble, so that it could all serve as the foundations for his own massive Baths – none of which survive.


What happened then was that, over a thousand years later, in the 15th century, someone fell through a hole in the ground and found himself in the ruins. He spotted some painted walls. This greatly excited artists such as Raphael and Michelangelo, fascinated as they were by the idea of rediscovering ancient and classical art. Some of them got lowered into what they thought were grottoes and copied the paintings they found – giving rise to the term “grotesque”.


It was much later that archeologists realized that it was Nero’s extravagant palace. The scale of the subsequent excavations, removing all of Trajan’s rubble, boggles the mind.


All in all, a great experience – and certainly enhanced by the “virtual” headgear.


Jesu


In the afternoon I pursued my interest in Rome’s baroque churches. On a recent visit we had tried to see the Jesuit church, the Chiesa del Jesu. We got there on the dot of midday and found the sacristan busy kicking people out and closing the place down in preparation for his four-hour lunch break. This time I made sure to time my visit accordingly.



The church is the main, or at least the original, church of the Jesuits and has a renowned vaulted ceiling (right). It shows the triumph of the name of Jesus - I hope I have that right. The letters IHS appear right in the centre of the gloriously painted vault – IHS are the first three capital letters of the name Jesus in Greek, I believe.


The church also has an extravagantly decorated side chapel dedicated to the founder of the Jesuits, St Ignatius Loyola. It has one feature that must surely be unique: a painting above the altar attached to some curious mechanism that makes it move upwards – sending the said saint up to heaven. This happens once a day and has done so for the last few hundred years. Needless to say, I wasn’t there at the right time to witness the miracle.



Borghese Gallery


For our second day we’d booked a guided tour of the Borghese Gallery. This needs an explanation as I’m allergic to guided tours. We had both been before but the contents are so magnificent that one can do many repeat visits. You have now to book in advance. Many weeks ago, I found that all normal tickets were sold out – until January if I remember right. All I could do was to book an expensive guided tour. I, being an optimist, was actually hopeful that we would learn things, but frankly it confirmed me in my dislike of guided tours. Lots of jokey stories in heavily-accented English, some quite difficult to follow.


Still, nothing can really spoil enjoyment of the amazing Bernini sculptures or indeed Canova’s semi-nude portrayal of Pauline Bonaparte (see below). I got in a muddle about her identity – not helped by the guide’s gossipy stories. She was Napoleon’s sister and married Camillo Borghese, of the great Borghese family a member of which had been Pope some 200 years earlier. The family probably didn’t have much to do with the papacy at the time of the naughty Pauline. Camillo’s main claim to fame is having sold much of the Borghese collection to the French (via his brother-in-law Napoleon), who now have it in the Louvre.



I have to say that the guide was good at drawing attention to some of the amazingly intricate carving – for example the detail of Daphne turning into a tree. (See the photograph right at the beginning.) Not easy to accomplish!



Palazzo Barbarini


In the afternoon, I sped off on my own to pursue one of my particular and, some would say, curious interests – relating to Shakespeare.


I went to the Palazzo Barbarini. It has a great collection, but my interest was in seeing a picture by Titian of Venus and Adonis. It is one of many, all very similar, the best having been commissioned by Philip II of Spain and now residing in the Prado. Under the one in Rome the sign says “Workshop of Titian”. Its distinctive feature is that Adonis is wearing, frankly, a slightly silly red hat (see below). This is curious in that Shakespeare describes Adonis wearing a hat in the poem Venus and Adonis that not many people now read but which first made Shakespeare famous in the 1590s.



Where did Shakespeare get the idea? It’s not in Ovid. Did he perhaps see the painting in Titian’s studio? If he did and if he had the picture in his mind when writing his poem, Shakespeare couldn’t have possibly been the man from Stratford who never left England. He could easily have been the then Earl of Oxford who was a poet and dramatist at the court of Queen Elizabeth I and was definitely in Venice at the relevant time. What a heretical idea! Excuse me while I wash my mouth out!



The gallery has many other paintings, including a portrait said to be of Beatrice Cenci by Guido Reni (right). She was executed in her early twenties for having been involved in the murder of her dissolute and abusive father, he having raped her before and after being in jail for all his assorted crimes. The story has been much embellished in poems, plays, films and even operas, though whether the portrait is really of her is now in doubt and also whether it’s really by Guido Reni. How sad – let’s stick to the legends!



Palazzo Doria Pamphilij


Our last full day was a Monday, always difficult in Rome (and indeed elsewhere on the continent) as museums and churches – and even shops - are often closed. Happily for us, the Palazzo Doria Pamphilij is an exception. Could this be because the head of the family that still owns the palace is half-English?


We have an affection for it going way back to when we first went there. We were impressed by the audio guide, partly because it was so informative and partly – mainly, actually – because it was spoken in educated English by someone who clearly knew all about the place and turned out to be the Prince Doria Pamphilij himself. He was born in Ipswich and went to school in England. Sadly, we couldn’t get the audio guide this time as it’s being updated. I hope the Prince will still do the new version.



I think the main attraction is the palace itself. They have tried to keep it as it was when the collection was first assembled. This means that every inch of wall space is covered with pictures and many are too high up to see properly. However, they tend to be those you don’t mind passing by. The collection has its share of Raphael, Titian, Carracci and others - and, in particular Caravaggio, all well on view. But pride of place goes to the portrait by Velasquez of Pope Innocent X, the member of the Pamphilij family who first put them on the map. He, the Pope, famously said that the portrait was “troppo vero”, too lifelike. Someone said that it makes him look like a crafty lawyer (Correct? See right!). Someone else said the portrait was the best portrait of anyone in the whole world – hard perhaps to justify or to rebut! There’s no doubt that it’s a pretty good portrait.



Baroque churches


As already indicated, I have a love of baroque churches. Is this because they are so alien to what we’re used to in the Church of England? Or simply because they are amazing works of art?


It’s important to stress that seeing them requires planning and persistence. As also already indicated, closing times are idiosyncratic and unpredictable. The norm is certainly for the doors to close promptly at noon and maybe to reopen late afternoon, but there are no guarantees – and one I came across only opened at 4.30. Also, one must assume that Monday is a day of rest for sacristans.


On this basis, I spent Tuesday morning going to two or three. Miraculously, they were all open.



There are two contrasting ones near the presidential palace on the Quirinale, one by Bernini and the other by Borromini. These two artists were contemporaries and, so the stories go, rivals. So far as I can see, Bernini went for grandeur and was employed by the Pope in the Vatican, while Borromini loved to play around with novel shapes. The latter is evident in the San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, which has no horizontal straight lines – all intricate curves, very baroque (see to the right). Bernini’s is a few yards away, the Sant’ Andrea al Quirinale, which is small but nevertheless grandly impressive (see below). I would like to know more about the two architects. Bernini was presumably more successful, certainly in worldly terms. Borromini was a more reclusive figure and sadly committed suicide shortly after completing his work on the San Carlo.




I also went to the Sant’ Andrea delle Fratte, which has a beautiful white tower (right)and contains two impressive Bernini statues. On another day, I went to the Sant’ Agnese in Agone, by Borromini, which everyone knows from the outside, as it’s on the Piazza Navona behind the famous Fountain of the Four Rivers created by Bernini for our friend the (crafty) Pope Innocent X.


I won’t wear you out with more about the churches!



Taxis in Rome


Taxis are a problem and the locals are endlessly apologetic about it. You can’t book one in advance. In theory you can book by phone, but only for immediate delivery – and then obviously only if you can get through to anyone. The only practical answer for us was to go into the Piazza di Spagna, where there are two ranks, and hope for the best. I should add that we met up with a delightful American couple (from Seattle) who we had lunch with. After lunch he tapped into his Uber app. I had thought that Uber had been kicked out. But not so. A gleaming black Mercedes turned up in a couple of minutes. Maybe Uber is the answer.



Restaurants


On our first evening, we had been invited by our friends Massimiliano and Silvia Danusso, he having run our Rome office in the days when I was a working person. We went to a real old-style Roman restaurant, run by a family that Massimiliano had known for years. The current boss seemed to be an elderly lady who was much involved in helping the waiters, wearing her little mob-cap. It was called Casa Bleve. I was introduced to puntarelle, a Roman speciality, related to chicory and flavoured with anchovies, delicious with carpaccio of any sort of fish. Mary sadly couldn’t make it. The rains came down that evening, causing a complete lack of taxis. I decided that I would walk, which I managed – just.


Otherwise, our favourite is La Rampa, at the bottom of the Spanish Steps, known to us from previous visits to Rome. Again, it’s typically Roman. Serious waiters in immaculate white jackets and black bow ties. All very friendly and welcoming. The menu is extensive, by no means limited to the standard fare that appears everywhere in Rome and indeed Italy. We indulged in carciofi alla romana and various pastas.


Otherwise, for lunch we tended to step round the corner from the hotel. The street called Via Mario de’ Fiori has many straightforward eateries, including our favourite, the curiously named R J Numbs, but also Le Bistro.



Tony Herbert

30 November 2022















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