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Rome, November 2018

Updated: May 10, 2021

We are in Rome for a week of sightseeing in November, blessed with warm sunshine and blue skies that miraculously lasted the whole week.

Our simple objective is to see some of the things that we haven’t been able to see on any of our previous many visits. It has been organized by the great firm of Kirker – “for discerning travellers”, as they say in their literature.

Initial impressions are wholly positive, in some mild contrast to our previous visit three years ago. Fiumicino is almost unrecognizable: civilized modernity, everything working perfectly, even the automatic immigration system that always seems to pose challenges at Heathrow. They boast that they have been voted the best airport in the universe. We are met by our transfer driver who drives his classy Mercedes at restrained and somewhat un-Italian speeds.

Our hotel is of the up-market boutique variety, the Inn at the Spanish Steps, not (perhaps mercifully) on the Spanish Steps but just down the road opposite, the famous Via dei Condotti. We are flanked by Prada, Gucci and Hermes and are above the Café Greco (established 250 years ago) where, according to Kirker, Oscar Wilde took his coffee.

Our room is small with lavish furnishings, including a ceiling fresco of assorted flying angels. There are two minor problems with the hotel. First, the room is dark at all times of day because the hotel is squeezed into a narrow space. Second, the sitting rooms, which are delightful, and the roof terrace, which is even more delightful, are up two or three flights of stairs, even when you take the lift. The staff (mostly Filipino) are excellent, in particular Stephen at the reception desk, an Englishman with a teasing sense of humour. Breakfast is served on the roof terrace by gracious Filipino waiters, and one is joined by inquisitive sparrows and the occasional crow.

I pay a visit to the Allen & Overy office in its Renaissance palazzo (also with ceiling frescoes). Here I get the warmest of welcomes from the few that I remember. There is much bewailing about the sorry state that Rome finds itself in, partly as a result, they say, of its new government led by a lady politician from the populist Five Star Movement that was started a few years ago by the comedian Beppe Grillo. They are all pleasantly surprised to hear my wholly positive impressions of their beautiful and apparently civilised city.

For dinner we went round the corner to the famous La Rampa near the Spanish Steps: a good, no-nonsense, old-style Italian restaurant, with many tables inside and out, and serious waiters in their white jackets and black bow ties. Food excellent, particularly the artichokes (carciofi alla romana).

A large lady who turned out to be American sang in the piazza outside, at high volume much amplified – “O mio babbino caro” from Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi, probably the only aria from the opera that anyone’s ever heard of.

Friday 9 November

Today was scheduled for the Vatican Museums. Quite an experience!

You have to book in advance to minimize the horrors of the crowds – all of which had been duly organized by Kirker. This enables you to ignore the long queues outside the entrance; you go straight in at, or even a bit before, your allotted time. Thus far, no problem – but then the fun starts.

You’re on your own, making your way alongside the massed packs of tourists, following as best you can the directions to the various museums. We had elected not to hire a guide, reckoning that we knew what we wanted to see; a guide wouldn’t have helped avoiding the crowds. This was November – you have to wonder what it’s like in July.

One of our objectives was to see the originals of ancient Roman statues such as the Laocoon, knowing that so many of the objects found in excavations at the time of and since the Renaissance have found their way into Papal custody and hence into the Vatican Museums. There were various surprises. The first is the sheer volume of what is there. Obviously, as with all vast museums, you have to be selective. But even so, you march past rows of statues and other objects without any possibility of taking it all in.

Another surprise was to discover the role, back in the 18th century, of a Prussian scholar Johann Winckelmann. It’s the 250th anniversary of his death and, as it seems they missed the 200th anniversary of his birth last year, the Vatican is now giving much prominence to his apparently major role in the beginnings of archaeology and art history. He befriended a priest in his youth, converted to Catholicism and spent most of the rest of his life in Italy, exploring, cataloguing, researching and writing about Roman antiquities.

I am refraining, you’ll be glad to hear, from giving a list of the amazing things we saw – see the guidebooks! I'm also, obviously, not including endless photographs of the amazing contents. But was it all fun? Only so-so, but good to have done it.

The best was the Pinacoteca, the museum of paintings. For some reason this doesn’t attract the seething masses and is much easier to enjoy. It has its Raphaels (of course), one Leonardo (unfinished, typically) and a Caravaggio (the descent from the cross). Caravaggios are at a premium in Rome at the moment as there’s a special exhibition on in Paris. The museum quotes Winckelmann’s interesting view that Caravaggio is not to be admired as, bizarrely, he gets the way light falls wrong. The museum comments drily that Winckelmann’s aesthetic was “the opposite of ours”.

One of the Raphaels is an altarpiece originally from a church in Perugia. Apparently it was removed to Paris by Napoleon and then, after Waterloo and the Congress of Vienna, brought back to Italy and the Vatican. Poor Perugia!

I am conscious that my appetite for antiquities and medieval churches is more pronounced than Mary’s, so I take myself off during some of the afternoons to see the more rarified items. Today it was the ancient church of San Clemente, not on everyone’s bucket list, but epitomizing some aspects of the way Rome has developed. It’s a medieval basilica church with wonderful mosaics, built over a 4th century church parts of which still survive, and which itself was built over a Mithraeum (elements of which also survive) dating back to the 2nd century. Sadly the mosaics, as so often, are very hard to see. Little attempt is made to light them adequately. I am able to admire them more easily now, as I write this, looking at the postcards I bought. Several of the apse mosaics in Rome show two delightful rows of six lambs gazing admiringly at the central lamb with his halo over him – the Lamb of God and his 12 apostles (see St John’s gospel for more details).

Dinner with Massimiliano Danusso, who ran the Rome office of Allen & Overy in my time, and his wife Silvia. He’d selected the type of small, family-run restaurant that could only exist in Rome, Benito e Gilberto in the Borgo area of Rome. Friendly greeting by the daughter of the current boss, he apparently the son of the elderly pater familias who started it in the 1960s. The walls are festooned with photographs, pride of place going to those of the founder with Marcello Mastroianni. Massimiliano, like his ex-colleagues at A&O, was despondent at the political situation in Rome.

Saturday 10 November

Our first stop today was the baroque church of Santa Maria della Vittoria. It is famous for its side-chapel containing Bernini’s statue of St Teresa in Ecstasy, often said – although not in my sedate Michelin guidebook – to be the best representation of the experience of orgasm in western art. The church also has rich decorations for those who can tear themselves away from St Teresa. You can see below a photograph of the Saint in her ecstatic state.

We then walked down the hill, along one of the most dreary streets in Rome, to the Palazzo Barberini for a visit which had its disappointments. One of my very personal reasons for wanting to go to the Palazzo was that it has the painting by Titian which seems to have been Shakespeare’s inspiration when he wrote the poem Venus and Adonis, the first work incidentally that was published under the name “William Shakespeare”. But, sorry, it should be on show but it’s being restored. (The fascination for the picture is that it seems to prove that the author of the poem must have seen it on a visit to Italy, which poses a challenge to those who stick to the traditional view that the man from Stratford was the author, but that’s another story!)

Another disappointment was that the museum has two major paintings by Caravaggio, both of which are on loan to the exhibition in Paris already mentioned – at the Musée Jacquemart-André for those who are interested.

I have long found that in Italy it is good strategy not to arrive with too many expectations. You can then bear these things calmly and enjoy all the wonders that are there. At this particular museum they include the formidable staircase designed on grand scale by Bernini to allow you to go up on horseback, should that happen to be your mode of transport; also an enormous trompe-l’oeil ceiling by Pietro da Cortona, depicting the triumph of Justice and the Barberini family (perhaps the other way round); and a famous portrait by Raphael of his mistress in a state of semi, rather immodest undress.

In the evening we went to the opera. Happily, the Teatro dell’Opera was doing the Marriage of Figaro. Less happily, but perhaps inevitably these days, it was a bizarre modern production – “conceptual” might be a good description. The protagonists tended to be in jeans and T-shirts, making it more difficult to see who was who. Then at the beginning of Act 2 the backdrop had a vast elephant striding through the scenery onto the stage. In the later acts, we had four massive elephant legs on the stage itself and around which the action took place. What, in Heaven’s name, was all this about? The best we could come up with was an allusion to the “elephant in the room”, the subject no one can talk about – sexual shenanigans perhaps? subjugation of women? Who knows? Slightly odd, as those topics are indeed what the opera is plainly and quite openly about. Anyway, despite all this, it was great fun and the music and singing were wonderful. Interestingly, surtitles appeared in both Italian and English.

We had excellent seats (thanks to Kirker) in the fifth row of the stalls. Our neighbour, who we got talking to (of course), came from Los Angeles and was seeing another opera on another night and commented, perhaps without too much exaggeration, that even with the airfares it was cheaper for him to see operas in Rome than back home.

Sunday 11 November

Mary warns me, sensibly, that I shouldn’t bang on too much about churches. But in Rome it’s difficult to avoid them. And on Sundays they are being put to use for their proper purpose, making it tricky for sightseeing not sometimes to conflict with the Celebration of the Mass.

However, we went bravely to the Santa Maria Maggiore, one of the four great basilicas. Mass was indeed in progress.

We did our best to avoid it by taking a short guided tour up into the façade of the church. This may sound odd, but the façade is a baroque 18th century construct that was put over the original medieval front wall. This means that the 4th century mosaics that were on the front of the original church are still there and presumably in much better condition than they could conceivably be if they hadn’t been covered up.

The mosaics depict the curious legend of the origin of the church. The Virgin Mary appeared to the then 4th century Pope in a dream, telling him that he should build a church. On the following day, which happened to be 5 August, there was an unseasonal snowstorm. The Pope saw this as a miracle and got the church built on the spot where the snow fell. The mosaic showing the snowstorm has its mildly comic aspect. You can see below how the various clerics got caught in the snowstorm, under the sympathetic view of the bare-breasted Virgin Mary.

We learnt from the guide about the Spanish connections of the church. Peruvian gold had been discovered during the pontificate of the Spanish Borgia pope, Alexander VI (father – naughty man – of Cesare and Lucrezia). The Spanish monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, donated some of the gold to Rome and it was used to guild the capitals on the roof of Santa Maria Maggiore, where it still is.

We went to the other basilica church of St John Lateran, actually the cathedral of Rome, which probably most people don’t know. Very baroque, but rather boring.

We had lunch outside the Pantheon, allowing us afterwards to go in and admire it, particularly the tiny holes in the marble floor through which rain escapes – rain has been coming through the central hole in the great dome (the oculus) for the last 2,000 years.

During the afternoon, I (just me, see above) paid a visit to the Capitoline Museum: much more enjoyable than the Vatican, partly of course because it doesn’t seem to be on the main tourist trail. The main exhibit (see below) is the original bronze 2nd century equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius (a copy of which is outside in the square). It only survived destruction by the early Christians because they thought it was the first Christian emperor, Constantine.

They also have many great ancient Roman statues, as well as a few, very rare, actual original Greek ones – all beautifully displayed and, as indicated, largely free of tourists. There’s a collection of slightly dreary dark 17th-18th century paintings, in theory including a Caravaggio – which, of course, was on loan to the Paris exhibition.

Monday 12 November

Today we decided to cross the river and explore Trastevere. Quite a contrast: fewer crowds; slightly scruffier streets; rather more basic restaurants.

Our first destination evidenced the problems of sightseeing in Italy, aggravated probably by it being Monday morning. The church of Santa Cecilia – with its famous statue of the saint as she was found dead, in her shroud – should have been open but was firmly closed till late afternoon. Perhaps the sacristan had a hangover.

But the good news was that we then passed by the magnificent, wildly over-decorated, baroque church of Santa Maria dell’Orta, which is completely ignored by the guidebooks.

The main church in Trastevere, Santa Maria in Trastevere, is one of the oldest in Rome. You can actually see its impressive Byzantine-style mosaics provided that you’re prepared to keep feeding the little light machine with euro coins.

Finally, we went to one of the best things we have seen so far – the Villa Farnesina, in the Gianicolo just to the north of Trastevere. It boasts the famous fresco of Galatea by Raphael (see below), but also has several – not too many – rooms decorated by superb frescoes (some by Raphael) and trompe-l’oeil designs. All in all, a real pleasure.

Tuesday 13 November

This is the day booked for the Villa Borghese. They control entry fairly ruthlessly. You have to book in advance, so Kirker equip you with a voucher and timed entrance. You then swap the voucher for tickets well before the entry time. And you get kicked out after two hours.

It sounds authoritarian, but it works. The gallery is not enormous; and, with a limited number of visitors, it is a complete delight; in contrast to the Vatican, where the experience isn’t really enjoyable.

The main items in the Borghese are the Bernini sculptures, commissioned by the Pope’s nephew Cardinal Scipione Borghese. It’s difficult to like Scipione as he had a rough way of acquiring his collection – such as threatening the artist with imprisonment if the particular piece wasn’t handed over. But it was he who was responsible for what we now see. Is he doing time in Purgatory? And for how long?

The most amazing Bernini statue is the one of Daphne at the moment she is turning into a laurel bush when escaping from the clutches of Apollo. It was a problem back then too.

There are many other wonderful statues. Probably the most famous is Canova’s of Napoleon’s sister Pauline Bonaparte - in the nude, to the dismay of her contemporaries (see below). When asked how she agreed to pose in the nude, she replied that there was no problem as it was warm enough with the stove in Canova’s studio.

I found it difficult to concentrate on the paintings after the splendour of the sculpture, both baroque as well as ancient Roman. But there are Raphaels, Titians and, where not on loan, Caravaggios. Titian’s painting of Sacred and Profane Love is interesting to the modern eye: profane love is fully clothed and sacred love is naked.

Our taxi ride to the Borghese had its excitements. Unusually, but not uniquely, the driver was female. The surprise was that she was easily the most aggressive of any of those we came across. She was a demon behind the wheel, dishing out loud and frantic expletives if she was held up by other cars for more than a few seconds. On the whole the taxi system works reasonably well and the drivers are pleasant and unexcitable. The one thing that doesn’t work is the telephone booking. Stephen at the hotel was rarely able to get one: better to wander down to the taxi rank at the end of the Piazza di Spagna.

We had dinner at a local restaurant, Dilla. It was recommended by Stephen at the hotel, keen to prise us away from La Rampa. Dilla is the sort of restaurant where the tables are almost joined together, giving full reign to our impulse toward striking up conversations with other diners. This time it was with a charming couple from Chicago, he in business, she head of strategy at what seemed to be the US equivalent of the BMA.

Wednesday 14 December

Our last day was centred around the Palazzo Doria Pamphilj, which we had visited on our last trip but had reasons for a return visit.

Mary had spotted an article in the Oldie magazine about the palazzo and in particular about an Englishman living in an apartment in it and giving guided tours of Rome. Not that we wanted a guided tour, but it all sounded interesting.

There’s another reason too. I had written three years ago to Prince Jonathan Doria Pamphilj, the head of the family that owns the place, to congratulate him on the good audio-guide he did himself. He wrote a very civil letter in reply. I had attempted to renew contact without success, possibly because of the vagaries of the Italian post – of which I have had bad experience in the past.

So, we emailed the Englishman, Johnny Fort, and agreed to meet up. A charming man who has indeed been living for some 35 years in a flat right at the top of the palazzo, apparently for a historic rent, he being one of the last survivors of a seemingly indulgent arrangement that needless to say is now being brought to an end. I am sure that his tours show you things that others don’t. He says that he’s expensive, charging 100 euros an hour, with a minimum of three hours. He won’t do the Vatican Museum nor the Forum – both of which I understand. He is 69 and still plans to carry on, although he and his wife are moving out of the flat during next year. Maybe an opportunity on our next visit to the eternal city.

After our coffee with our new friend, we did a repeat visit to the palazzo, largely for the pleasure of hearing again the dulcet tones of Prince Jonathan on the excellent audio-guide. He – as you may have suspected by his name – is only half Italian. He was born and went to school in England, his father being English. But his mother is a descendent of the great Doria Pamphilj family that goes back to the early 17th century when Giovanni Battista Pamphilj became Pope Innocent X and made his nephew Camillo a cardinal. Camillo renounced his position in the church in order to marry the fearsome Olimpia Aldobrandini and create the dynasty that still survives.

We talked briefly to Johnny about Jonathan. They are good friends, both having roots in Norfolk. He, the latter, has had his family troubles. He is gay, married to a Brazilian partner, with two children – who are his via a surrogate mother. He also has a sister, who has not been keen on the idea of the family inheritance being split, in the Italian fashion, between his two and her three children. Jonathan won the recent litigation in the Italian courts, but relations between the siblings are understandably strained. A footnote to this saga (which has of course been covered in the press) is that both brother and sister were adopted.

This journal is not intended to replace a guidebook, but I should briefly mention the palazzo. (I say “palazzo”, not to show off, but because “palace” in English seems to me to give the wrong impression.) It has large numbers of large dark 17th century paintings covering every wall. But among them are those by Raphael, Titian and Caravaggio (Jonathan must have resisted the pressures from the Musée Jacquemart-André). But their most treasured item is Velasquez’s portrait of Pope Innocent X - one of the best portraits of all time. He is alleged to have complained that it was too realistic – troppo vero. Perhaps it was: good for Velasquez.

17 November 2018

Tony Herbert

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