What To Do In Rome When You Feel You’ve Done Everything
A Place to Sleep – Staying in A Convent
Once the heavy wooden door closed, I stood surrounded by silence. Flying anywhere from Australia takes a long time, and after a night and a day and a night I was exhausted. Eventually I emerged from that metal cocoon into the chaos of Rome. Tired and befuddled, I was soon in a taxi, with the driver careening down tiny streets where footpaths were more a suggestion than reality.
Double-parking on the wrong side of the road, the taxi dropped me on the Via Sistine. The convent was just a short walk from the top of the Spanish Steps. Once inside, the world became peaceful. Large wooden doors shut out the chaos of the street, and I stood in the quiet of a marble foyer.
Convents and monasteries have offered hospitality for centuries, usually with a more realistic price tag than nearby hotels. Italy especially offers a plethora of choices. The vast majority accept guests of both sexes, married or single, of any denomination – although some still pose a nightly curfew.
Simplicity does not imply austerity. Religious houses are often to be found in Renaissance palaces, walled towns or hidden amongst lavender fields or surrounded by vineyards. Some are equivalent to five star hotels. Many hide artistic treasures; a painting by Rubens, or walls adorned by Fra Angelico. Each has its own character, such as the monastery Convento Sant’Agostino in San Gimigiano which refused entry to HRH The Prince of Wales because he arrived after closing time. (Although probably apocryphal, the story alone makes the place worth a detour.)
A simple Google search will bring up sites specialising in such accommodation. In Rome, I stayed at Le Soure di Lourdes, a few minutes from the Spanish Steps. My room overlooked a cloister, and of a morning the singing of the nuns in their private chapel woke me in time for breakfast, before I headed out to explore Rome.
Drink like the Romans – from a Nasoni
Although taken for granted by the Ancient Romans, during Medieval and Renaissance times even the wealthy had limited access to fresh water. (In 98 AD the Roman Consul was named as Guardian of the city’s water supply, with aqueducts brought some 140 million litres of water a day to the city.) After the invading barbarians cut the city’s water supply, the aqueducts were not restored for centuries.
In the 16th C beveratore were built throughout the city to supply drinking water to the populace, and these can still be seen all over Rome. Water spills from multiple nozzles (usually decorated with grotesque animal heads) and into a basin. This is often a sarcophagus, bath or even a tomb scavenged from the ancient city, for successive generations of Romans built on the ruins of those who came before. The size of the basin allowed horses to drink from them, thus giving the fountains their name: beveratore comes from the Latin to drink.
Modernisation coupled with the need to supply a rapidly growing population prompted a new style of water supply in the 1870s. (Even then, few houses had running water.) Originally with 3 nozzles, the water fountain was streamlined to a simple iron pipe with a single nozzle. This design gave rise to the fountains name: nasoni, or fountains of the big nose.
Only three original 3-nosed nasoni remain in Rome. One (with a nozzle missing) is in the Piazza della Rotonda, the other at the foot of the Via delle Tre-Cannelle – the aptly named Street of Three Nozzles. The third (no longer functional) nasoni is in the Via di San Teodoro, not far from the Forum.
In contrast, some 2500 still-functional single-spouted nasoni can be found all over Rome, often marked by the queue of locals waiting patiently to fill their water bottles. (Many prefer the taste to the water piped to their houses.) Each fountain is stamped with the initials SPQR – Senatus Populous Romanus (Senate and People of Rome). The water courses some 130km of aqueduct from a reservoir in Peschiera. When the spout is blocked, water arcs out of a small hole on the upper side of the spout, perfect for drinking. Even in summer the water is icy-cold.
Unlike the beveratore, the nasoni have no basin – they were built for the people of Rome, not for their horses.
A Monument To The Triumph of Imperial Rome: the Ara Pacis Augustae
Walking towards the Tiber one evening, I turned a corner to find a glass-enclosed monument drenched in spotlights. Rome does that to you; tiny streets weave around centuries-old buildings, then open onto others dating back over a millennia. I had left the Renaissance city, skipped the Middle Ages, and now stood in Ancient Rome.
Near the Ponte Cavour stands one of the most significant monuments of Ancient Rome. Commissioned by the Senate in 13 BCE, the Ara Pacis Augustae (Altar of Augustus’ Peace) it is a three-dimensional record of 4th July, 43 BCE, when Augustus was given a triumphal entrance into Rome after his victorious campaigns in Gaul and Spain. The victories brought much needed peace not only to Rome but also to the Mediterranean.
Unfortunately, I have no photos good enough to share – this journey dates back to the pre-digital age. The monument comprises a giant altar surrounded by 4 panels, each covered in exquisite bas-relief. Many believe the exceptional quality points to Greek, not Roman, artists. On one panels Augustus can be seen leading the procession with his family and friends, all in hierarchical ranking. Even his young grandson Lucius is there, clinging to his mother’s skirts.
The first of these panels was not discovered until the 16th C; two others were later found in Paris and Florence. In 1938 the parts were finally pieced together.
Drenched in spot lights, at night the Ara Pacis Augustae is more than a ghost of days long gone; it’s a dramatic reminder of the power and cultural achievements of Imperial Rome.
Renaissance Rome – Trinita de Monti – A Hidden Gem Atop The Spanish Steps
For centuries the Spanish Steps have been the meeting place of Rome. Despite their name, they were actually designed and built by the French in 1725, to link the French-built Trinita de Monti to the Piazza di Spagna (which until then was accessible only by a steep and uneven path.) From the 17th C the Piazza di Spagna was actually within Spanish territory, for the Spanish Ambassador to the Holy See resided here (foreigners who unwittingly crossed the border risked being dragooned into the Spanish Army).
The Trinita de Monti is a twin-towered Gothic church, built in 1495 by Charles VIII of France. In most guidebooks it barely rates a mention, yet the view from its terrace over the Holy City is almost unequalled. The day I arrived a bride and groom were just leaving to the accompaniment of peeling bells, the rose-coloured Baroque arches a beautiful backdrop to their photos.
Although time and restoration have not dealt kindly to the church, it remains a fine
example of gothic architecture. Amongst the Mannerist works inside are two paintings by Daniele da Volterra: a Deposition (which Poussin considered the world’s third greatest painting) and an Assumption. The influence of both Michelangelo and Raphael is apparent in both these works. In The Assumption, Michelangelo is the grey-beared figure to the far right. (A pupil of Michelangelo, Volterra was later ‘asked’ by Pope Pius IV to paint clothes over the nude figures of the Sistine Chapel).
The Trinita de Monti opens onto the Spanish Steps. The perennial crowds cover the religious allusion of the steps: the three flights represent the Trinity. At their bottom is the Fontana della Barcaccia, created by Pietro Bernini, (father of the more famous son). Due to the low water pressure of the supplying aqueduct, Pietro designed a half-sunken boat resting in a pool of water. The bees covering the fountain are the emblem of Pope Urban VIII, who commissioned the fountain (along with many works across the city). Despite the bees, the water here is reputedly the sweetest in Rome.
The Literary Traveller
H.V.Morton’s classic work [easyazon_link identifier=”0306811316″ locale=”US” nw=”y” tag=”aharrison20-20″]A Traveller in Rome[/easyazon_link] (1957) shows rome through the eyes of a visitor who ended up staying. Every street, every corner, every building has a history which Morton enthusiastically narrates in an effortless style.