During the Interbike 2000 bicycle show, I mentioned to Antonio Mondonico that I was thinking about doing a walking tour of Rome and Pompeii.
"Excellent", he said. "Let's do something special together. My wife Gabry and I could fly to Naples, rent a car, and join you at Pompei. We could not only visit the dead city of Pompeii, but we could also take a drive down the beautiful Amalfi Coast." "What a wonderful idea", I told him.
What follows is the story of one of my most deeply desired goals: a trip through Rome's past, trying to recreate some of the glory of those past times.
The Michelin Rome Green Guide beaks Rome into many walking tours. A few years ago Carol and I followed their walking plan in Paris and were rewarded with exhausted legs and a special appreciation for the most beautiful city in the world. We planned to make this trip on foot as well, as we tried to unpeel almost 3,000 years of Western history in a visit of just a few short days.
Monday, December 4
After the transatlantic flight, hauling luggage hither and yon, jet lag, and the other assorted discomforts of modern travel, we checked into our hotel, in the medieval section of Rome. Surprisingly, we actually had enough energy to go for a walk to the Pantheon and the Piazza Navona.
As usual, I scheduled far too optimistically. I really failed to take into account how long it would take to get off the plane at 3:00 PM, get our luggage, clear customs take the train into Rome from the airport, take a taxi to the hotel, get checked in, and be ready to tour. Somehow, in my warped imagination, I thought we could get lots done that same evening. It was actually a little after 5:00 PM before we had our luggage dumped at our room. I also forgot that we were at more northern latitude, so it was dark. Well, a man's reach should exceed his grasp.
Arriving at the Pantheon, a short five-minute walk from the hotel, we were greeted with a fine sight. The building was open until 7:30 PM, and was quite lit up. Our last visit was almost twenty years ago. At that time, my ignorance about the history and architecture was profound. This time, we were a little bit better prepared.
I don't know if Agrippa's Corinthian portico ever went with Hadrian's round building. Now, with the rotunda shorn of any marble covering, the marble columned portico and the round concrete and brick components look like they were cobbled together. Judging by other examples, Emperor Hadrian, who commissioned the Pantheon, had superb artistic taste. I have to accept on faith that 1,800 years ago, it looked as correct and as impressive on the outside as it does on the inside.
Walking under the portico would have been a more impressive experience if the Romans of the Renaissance had not continued the age-old practice of using the buildings of antiquity as a source of building materials. The wooden beams of the portico were once covered with bronze plates. They were stripped and used to help make the baldaquin that dominates the interior of St. Peter's.
The first thing I noticed at the entrance to the rotunda was the huge doors, dating back to antiquity. While they have been restored, I still find any working, substantial piece of pagan antiquity an object of fascination.
Once inside, the feeling of monumental spaciousness that makes this building the work of genius that it is was immediately conveyed to me. Artists, throughout the ages, have tried to portray the interior of the Pantheon, but none have succeeded. All drawings, painting, and photographs are inadequate. It is a huge masonry cylinder topped with a huge cast concrete dome. As far as we know, no dome covering such a large span had been done before, and none was done again until the 19th century.
The dome is a work of genius. It is a half-sphere with a huge, 30-foot hole at the top. During the day, this hole admits enough light to illuminate the entire building. The ancient architects must have had other experience in like projects to know that this was going to be a large enough opening to admit the right amount of light.
The dome itself is a single, monolithic, concrete casting. Once again, the architects of the second century must have had substantial experience in casting concrete to know that they could do this. This is too sophisticated and bold an engineering enterprise for it to have been the first one.
The interior of the dome is relieved with square recesses that were once covered with gilt. Yet again, others could not resist the temptation to use it as a building supply depot. With the decorations removed from the interior, you can see the marks left from the wooden forms that the ancient builders used to pour the concrete over.
The floor was another object of my fascination, because it too is ancient. Beautifully inlaid with marble of different colors, it gives one an idea how fabulous ancient Rome's great buildings must have looked. When you see Renaissance and later buildings, you often see floors and walls covered with inlaid marble that is strongly reminiscent of the floor of the Pantheon.
Having drunk my fill of the interior of the only single standing complete building of pagan antiquity we walked around the outside of it. At one time, the Pantheon stood elevated above the surrounding city. The Romans liked to have their temples stand above the surrounding ground with a stepped entrance. The last two thousand years have raised the surrounding area so that the building seems almost half-submerged. Perhaps when I get home, I'll play Debussy's "Sunken Cathedral" and see if it sets the proper mood.
We wandered over to the Piazza Navona, but between our tiredness, and the late hour, we were unable to properly explore what is obviously a beautiful square. We are constantly surprised and the antiquity of the roads in Italy, especially Rome. Get out any history book, and you will see the roads of old Republican Rome are used to this day, paved and covered with Fiats and Vespas. The Piazza Navona dimensions are set by the measurements of the ancient Circus of Domitian.
Tuesday, December 5
In 1937, an Italian architect named Italo Gismondi made an immense scale model of Rome in the time of Constantine, about 300 AD. A scale of 1:250 allowed Gismondi to make fine recognizable scale models of all the important buildings of ancient Rome. Sometimes an irrational desire grabs us and won't let go. This happened to me. Almost 20 years ago I came across a picture book of Gismondi's models, and I've wanted to see it ever since. Given that the main object of our trip to Rome was to visit and recreate in our mind's eyes the Rome of Augustus, a visit to this model would give us a good understanding of the ruined remains we were planning to examine.
The model is in the Museum of Roman Civilization out in EUR. EUR is a giant city started by Mussolini, but it is now a modern suburb of Rome. Besides several museums and many huge government office buildings, EUR contains the velodrome built for the 1960 Olympics.
The museum of Roman Civilization traces the history of the Roman Empire using superb, detailed models and castings from some of the most famous statues and monuments from around the world. For example, the black basalt bust of Caesar in the Berlin Museum is one of about 10 busts of Julius Caesar in one room in the museum. All of them are excellent castings of other statues. While it is always preferable to see the original work of art, to see Caesar in all these different representations in one place brings him almost to life. I do prefer the Berlin bust. It shows him as a lean, lively, alert man, perhaps an exposed nerve. To me, it most shows the fearless, active intellect that was Caesar, the most extraordinary man of antiquity.
After following the transition of Rome from a group of farmers on the Palatine Hill to the masters of the world by following the museum's exhibits, we came upon my scale model. I encourage anyone planning to spend several days in Rome to spend the morning at this museum. It's a 15-minute subway ride, and it gives the most complete picture of ancient Rome that I have ever seen.
For the afternoon, we walked from Santa Maria Maggiore to the Coliseum. Santa Maria Maggiore (St. Mary Major) has an interior almost as old as Christendom. Built in the early 400's, it has kept its 5th century interior intact despite numerous exterior alterations, with a beautiful cycle of mosaics above the nave's columns. I wish my eyes were just a bit sharper so that I could really enjoy them. They sit just a bit high.
After St. Mary's we went to a church still older. Off the beaten path is the little church of Santa Pudenziana. Quiet, peaceful, forgotten, this pretty little church dates back to the 300's. Remember, Christianity didn't become truly legal until Constantine in the early 300's. This is about as old a church as has survived. This little building is one of the rewards of the energetic and lucky traveler. I cherish those moments when I find that special, unique place that somehow conveys beauty, tranquility, or a profound historical sense in an unexpected manner. Santa Pudenziana is one of those places. After seeing the big, famous St. Mary's, walk over the little, forgotten place and refresh yourself.
We then walked over the Esquiline hill to the Coliseum. The park we walked over to get there was the site of Nero's giant palace, called the "Golden House" (Domus Aurea). Of course, the actual excavations were closed. It wouldn't be Italy if we could just go anywhere and see what we wanted.
Every time I come to the Coliseum, I am floored by its size. Called the "Flavian Amphitheater" after the family of Roman emperors that built it, the sheer massive scale of the building amazes me as much as its purpose repulses me. The very idea of watching scores of animals and people cruelly killed for pleasure of spectators is incomprehensible to me. Even today, the cruel sport of bullfighting provides the sight of an innocent herbivore tortured and killed for the pleasure of paying customers. What kind of creature is the human being?
Ah, but once again, I digress. Much has been written about the Coliseum, but I'll touch on one point. It is obvious to anyone that a lot of the Coliseum is missing. Many of the huge blocks of stone were used to build the new St. Peter's Basilica during the Renaissance. Bramante, the first architect of St. Peter's, while plundering the Roman Forum, the Coliseum and other Roman ancient sites for building materials earned the name "Maestro Ruinante" (Master Ruiner).
We finished up the walk with a saunter over to nearby Constantine's Arch. Like the Coliseum and St. Peter's, it has almost come to symbolize Rome, like the Eiffel Tower symbolizes Paris. By the time of Constantine (about 300 AD), the quality of artistic production had fallen. The builders of the arch took statues and medallions from works produced one to two hundred years before to provide much of the arch's decoration. Many art critics see the arch with all of its flaws, as a well-designed work, harmonious in its proportions. My favorite historian, Edward Gibbon (Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, written in the late 1700's) takes a different view: "The triumphal arch of Constantine remains a melancholy proof of the decline of the arts, and a singular testimony of the meanest vanity. As it was not possible to find in the capitol of the empire a sculptor who was capable of adorning that public monument, the arch of Trajan, without any respect either for his memory or for the rules of propriety, was stripped of its most elegant figures. The difference of times and persons, of actions and characters, was totally disregarded. The Parthian captives appear prostrate at the feet of a prince who never carried his arms beyond the Euphrates; and curious antiquarians can still discover the head of Trajan on the trophies of Constantine. The new ornaments which it was necessary to introduce between the vacancies of ancient sculpture are executed in the rudest and most unskillful manner."
Wednesday, December 6
This was the day to completely immerse ourselves in antiquity. Today was a walk through the Roman Forum and the Palatine hill, the centers of Roman civic life and the abode of the emperors.
We started with the Roman Forum. Earlier we had purchased a copy of Rome Past and Present. This book is an excellent help in understanding what you are looking at when you see the stubble of the remains of a few forlorn columns. A clear overlay painted with a reconstruction of a particular site accompanies a current photograph of a given ruin. This, along with Rome of the Caesars using Gismondi's Roman scale model to explain the ancient sites will allow the meticulous and dedicated traveler understand what he is seeing.
Walking along the "Sacred Way" of the Forum, one can't help be moved by both the pure antiquity of the place, and the understanding that from this area, the western world was ruled for hundreds of years. At the same time, I am not deceived. Rome ruled through sheer terror, brutally punishing those that violated her "Pax Romana".
We take the good with the bad. We are in awe of the cultural accomplishments of the Ancient Greeks and their courage in facing the Persian Empire. Yet, with the exception off about three important battles, as Plutarch noted, all the great Greek military accomplishments were of Greeks killing other Greeks.
Walking with Michelin Green Guide and other books in hand, we slowly made our way around the Forum, passing the Rostrum where the great oratory of ages past resounded (and Cicero's hands were displayed by Marc Antony after he had the famous orator executed).
After a couple of hours, we finished and walked to a restaurant facing the coliseum. The food was edible, but I kept getting surprised by Roman prices. I'm very glad the dollar is at historical highs. These prices have to be tough for a European.
Refreshed, we headed off to the Palatine hill. Most of this is the remains of the Imperial palaces. Now, mostly exposed partial pieces of brick rooms, it still gives ample evidence of the enormous scale of Roman Imperial building. Room after room, covering acres, some of which are very large are ample evidence of the power of Rome. From the south side of the hill, one can look down and see the site of the old Circus Maximus. All that is left is a field with the proper oblong-shaped depression. The seats, and almost all of the stones are long gone. But, with a little help from our imagination, we can see how Emperor Septimius Severus would have walked down the hill to his private box to watch the races.
For years, I had seen the giant masses of bricks on the Palatine hill, both in pictures, and in real life, and had no clue as to what they were. Now I understand that both the north and the south side of the hill were covered with either the houses of the rich, like Cicero's, or the palaces of the emperors.
Thursday, December 7
Today was to be an exploration of the Capitoline hill, or in Italian Campidoglio. This is the steeper hill set right next to the Palatine hill. The temples of the Forum back up against it. The hill was completely made over during the Renaissance, mostly according to a plan by Michelangelo. Despite the raucous traffic noise on the streets below, by the time you get to the top of the hill, it is surprisingly quiet. The giant equestrian bronze statue of Marcus Aurelius stands in the center. It's actually a reproduction. The real one is in the Conservators Museum on the hill.
I do find it odd that the man that did the most to undo the Pax Romana is the one we speak of so highly. From about 100 AD, the Roman emperors had adopted their successors rather than using passing on the office to an oldest son. They picked a capable heir based on merit rather than trusting to the random chance of the quality of their own progeny. This worked perfectly, until Aurelius broke the pattern and made his worthless son Commodus his heir. The civil wars that ensued were temporarily settled when Septimius Severus successfully grabbed and held the reins of power. As he set about rebuilding the government, he would complain bitterly that this would not be necessary if Aurelius had followed the example of his predecessors. And then, Severus, being human, made his two sons, Caracalla and Geta his heirs. The problems that ensued from this bad decision made the third century a very troubled time.
Aurelius did write a book expounding his view of Stoic thought, Meditations, that has come down to us. It's a nice book, but he betrayed an awesome trust by making his scummy son emperor. Aurelius failed to honor the stoic principles he claimed to follow.
But, I digress.
Besides the beautiful way the square is laid out, the best reason to visit the Captoline hill is the Conservators Museum. For years this had been closed. It houses many of the greatest relics from Roman times. To list them is to almost make an inventory of any art history book's Roman section. The most moving, and I think most perfect is "The Dying Gaul". While sad in its subject matter, it is a perfect work of art. I almost expect it to speak. Other pieces include the famous bust of Junius Brutus, who helped found the Roman Republic, The Capitoline Venus, and the famous She-Wolf suckling little Romulus and Remus.
After lunch, I set out to do a bit of a recapitulation. Covering one side of the Capitoline hill is an immense monument to Victor Emmanuel who assisted in the unification of Italy in the late 1800's. With its particular design of stairs and columns, the Romans call it the "Typewriter". I climbed to the top. I thought I had done some real work climbing to the top of the monument, but up there were old Italian mamas walking and enjoying the superb view.
Upon descending, my next stop was the Mamertine prison. This is the famous hole at the base of the Capitoline hill that was used by the Ancient Romans to house serious prisoners. Vercingetorix, who led the Gallic revolt against Julius Caesar, was beheaded here. Jugurtha, who also led a revolt against the Romans, was beheaded here. Also, legend has it that both Peter and Paul were kept here. It's just a small cave that one reaches by descending some narrow stairs. There is a lower room, also hollowed out of the rock. I would truly despair if I were chained in one of those dank holes.
Then, I set about walking to the south side of the Palatine hill, to the Circus Maximus to improve my understanding of the bricks that cover that side of the hill. Septimius Severus wanted to extend the palace to the east, but the hill falls off. His solution was to build a gigantic brick base to effectively extend the hill. While the palace that he built is gone, the gigantic brick arches upon which he set his palace are still there.
It was late afternoon, but there was still time. I looked at the map and headed off to the Baths of Caracalla. Once again, I was totally unprepared for the size of the ruins. All that is left are giant walls of brick with only the actual central part of the baths left partially intact. There are pieces of the outside walls that housed the gymnasium and library. They can only hint at what must have been an imposing symbol of the wealth of Rome as she began her decline. The baths covered 25 acres. 25 acres!!
Walking on the grounds, late in the afternoon in December, I once again had an extraordinary place almost to myself. Only a few yards away, the noisy bustle of Rome's scooters, trucks and cars were forgotten in the silent confines the remains of a past world.
Friday, December 8
Since Carol and I planned to take the train to Pompei early in the afternoon, we had time for a morning tour. We chose to visit the area of the Campo dei Fiori in the west end of old Rome, nestled up against the Tiber River. This would give us a chance to see some high Baroque architecture, some very old Roman ruins, and an important place in history.
Our first stop was the Gesu church. The interior of this church is the single biggest hit of Baroque decorative overkill my senses have ever sustained. The intensity of the richness of the decoration is overwhelming. It gives an entirely different feeling than a Gothic, Romanesque (my two favorites) or Renaissance church. Instead of a quiet, contemplative feeling, high Baroque evokes an ecstatic powerful religious sense. The interior of this church packs a powerful emotional wallop.
Next on the list was the "Area Sacra del Largo Argentina". These ruins sitting in the middle of a busy city intersection are the oldest Roman ruins found to date, going back to the 5th century BC. Scholars can only guess what particular gods the five temples are dedicated to.
Then we walked over to what is the site of the former Theater of Pompey. The theater is gone, but as is often the case in Rome, the new buildings follow the lines of the exterior of the ancient edifice. It was here, at the Theater of Pompey, that one of the pivotal acts of the ancient world was committed. Brutus, Cassius and the other senatorial conspirators assassinated Julius Caesar. The old Roman Republic had died with the wars of Marius and Sulla about 50 years earlier, but there had been no new governmental form made to replace it. What Caesar was in the process of creating was that replacement. His patrician opponents tried to turn back the clock and keep their ancient prerogatives by assassinating Julius Caesar.
The final result after an atrocious bloodletting was the Principate of Julius' nephew, Octavian, called Augustus. At the dawn of the new millennium, he stood astride the world and remade Rome into a monarchy. Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, taken from Plutarch, is a fine way to have this time brought alive. Rent the old film version with Marlon Brando.
With the geography we have in hand now, we can trace the steps of the conspirators. After murdering Caesar, at the Theater of Pompey, they walked about 400 yards to the east up to the Capitoline hill. After staying there for a while, still smeared with blood, they addressed the people. The people called on them to come down off the hill. They went to the Forum, and probably the rostrum at the base of the Capitoline, surrounded by the holy temples. Brutus addressed the people. In one of the great tactical errors of all time, Brutus kept the conspirators from killing Marc Antony.
A few days later, it was from this very same rostrum that Marc Antony addressed the people, showing them the pierced body of Caesar and whipped them up to such a frenzy that they spontaneously grabbed benches and started a funeral pyre on the spot for the dead Caesar.
With that, our visit to Rome was over for now. We headed for the train station for a trip to Pompei to meet Antonio and Gabry Mondonico for our three-day tour of the sights south of Naples.
Saturday, December 9
Mondonico took charge. Our original plan had been to visit the ruined city of Pompeii (the ancient city is Pompeii, the modern city, right next to it is Pompei, spelled with only one "i".) and drive the Amalfi coast on Sunday. Antonio was very concerned that the Sunday traffic on the narrow coastal road would ruin the tour. So, we decided to drive the coast on Saturday, and visit Pompeii on Sunday.
The Amalfi Road is a narrow coastal highway carved out of the side of sheer limestone cliffs. The closest I can come to a quick description of it would be California's Route 1. The biggest difference is that people have been living on the Italian Coast for over 2,000 years. The wild, rugged coast is dotted with beautiful little villages stuck to the sides of the cliffs, like limpets.
Touring in December is always risky. Carol and I have found the big benefit, no crowds, far outweighs in risk of lousy weather. We won the weather gamble this day. The air was in the high 60's, and the sun shone clearly, brilliantly.
We left Pompei and drove to Sorrento, south of Naples. So far, a nice, pretty coastal city. Then we started to climb out of town, cutting cross the Sorrento Peninsula. Ohmigosh! The view was stunning. At Sant'Agata sui Due Golfi, we could see the coasts of either side of the peninsula. Stay awhile, you are so beautiful!
We descended down to the actual coastal road. The road generally follows the coastline, a bit elevated above the coastline and the little villages. Every curve, every climb, every descent revealed a new, beautiful wonder. The clear sea, far below, and the tall hills covered with either the natural vegetation, or laboriously terraced farms combined to make a sight I will not soon forget.
We stopped at one point to gather in the view, and far below was a little fishing village nestled on a little precious seacoast. It was Positano, where Antonio and Gabry had been married almost 30 years ago.
We wanted to stop in a couple of the little towns along the way, but there was absolutely no parking. We pulled into the old city of Amalfi for lunch. At the time, I wasn't even aware that I was in the famous historical shipping center. I was just dumbly sitting in the back of the car twisting my neck out of shape, trying to see everything I could. After a delicious meal right on the edge of the sea, we headed off towards Salerno, at the end of the famous road. At one point traffic completely stopped. For reasons that escape me, giant tour buses are allowed to drive on the really narrow road. We were at a point where two of them met on a curve. There wasn't enough room. We all waited about 15 minutes while they backed up, turned and finally squeezed by each other. As the big ugly bus went by us we could see scrapes on its sides from other encounters.
Beyond Amalfi, the coastline got wilder and more natural. I'm generally not one to patiently endure long car drives as a passenger, but this was one day that could have gone on forever.
We finally reached the end, Vietri sul Mare. We stretched our legs a bit, got cappuccino, and headed back to Pompei via the Autostrada (toll highway).
The night before, Antonio had grilled the desk clerk for a good place to eat. We were in the Naples region and this was the birthplace of pizza. Antonio didn't want any junk cooked for tourists. He wanted the good stuff that was made for the locals. We were sent up a little side street in town.
Now this little restaurant was over a kilometer away. In the US, our first instinct would be to have everyone jump n the car and drive over. We were not in the land of cheap energy and lazy people. We walked. One of the problems faced by the person wanting to drive everywhere in Italy is what to do with the car when you get there. This is an ancient land. The Ancient Romans laid out many of the streets used by the Italians today. There just isn't room for giant parking lots like at the Wal-Mart. You can kill a lot of valuable time and grow very frustrated looking for some place to park the car. So, walking is the best and healthiest solution.
The little restaurant was filled with locals, a good sign. All four of us ordered the same thing. Pizza with bufala mozzarella and chunks of fresh tomato. Mama Mia! Now that's a pizza. In the US, we get a cheese that is sold as mozzarella that is somewhere between an eraser and a piece of wax. Real mozzarella made in the Campania region of Italy is something very special. It has a stronger, yet subtle, flavor that combines just right with fresh tomato. This was simple, perfect, memorable food. I was a happy man.
Larry Theobald of CyleItalia Tours told me about a recent trip he took to this area on Italy. He was driving on the road to Paestum, which is lined with the shops of mozzarella cheesemakers. He stopped in one to visit. The cheesemaker reached into a vat and pulled out a couple of chunks of cheese, dripping with whey, and stuck one right in Larry's mouth. Larry, with whey dripping down his face and onto his shirt, was in heaven, as he chewed this delicious, hand-made, real food. Larry, being a sensitive, intelligent man, understood precisely the philosophical import of this simple act. Can you imagine this happening in the U.S.?
I told my father this story and Dad added another interesting fact. There was a time, he said, here in the U.S., when people could tell what dairy a bottle of milk came from by the taste. The bland uniformity of our lives as we eat, use, watch, and consume the products of mass production is one of the great sadnesses of our time.
And that is why I sell hand-made Italian steel bikes.
Sunday, December 10
Ever since I was a boy, I have wanted to see Pompeii. For those that wonder about why this is so important to me, a little history. Pompeii was a town old by Roman standards, being founded in the 8th century before Christ. As Rome expanded from being a little city on the Tiber River, it eventually encompassed Southern Italy, which was at that time settled by Greek colonists. After inclusion in the Roman Empire, Pompeii became a wealthy Roman town of 25,000.
In 62 AD, an earthquake struck Pompeii. As the city was being rebuilt, another disaster struck. Mount Vesuvius erupted and buried the city. For centuries, this dead city lay under almost 25 feet of volcanic ash.
Since the 1700's, the city has been slowly excavated. The exposed city, having been sealed for the ages, intact, is our most perfect window into the ancient world. Long streets, with their storefront businesses are situated right next to expensive and beautiful villas. The streets curving around out of sight give mute testimony to the bustle and noise of an era long past. Ruts in the cobblestones from chariots and carts tell the visitor that there were people with things to do, places to go. One of the walls has graffiti on it. It's a political campaign slogan.
We step inside a villa, and there is a little pool surrounded by gardens. The walls are beautifully frescoed in the distinctive red, yellow and black colors used everywhere in the city. This man had taste and wealth. What did he do? Did he have a huge farm in Sicily worked by thousands of slaves? Did he have ships that traded back and forth across the Mediterranean Sea? I'll never know, but this impressive monument to his life said that he knew how to live, and live well.
The city seems to go on forever. There is a bordello with obscene frescoes inside. There is a line of tourists waiting to get in to see them. Everywhere we go, everything is laid out in a regular, orderly manner. The roads are paved with big stones. The sidewalks are raised up about a foot from the level of the road. Spaced every so often are stepping stones so that the pedestrian never has to soil himself walking on the street, covered, I am sure, with all manner of filth. The stepping-stones are spaced so that the wheels of a chariot can pass on either side of the stone. Our ancestors weren't stupid.
The whole visit, from the moment we walked into the excavations, was very moving. Everyone that I have talked to that has visited Pompeii, or its sister buried city Herculaneum, has said the same thing. Being able to visualize life 2,000 years ago so easily, and knowing that this teeming city of people just like us was wiped out in a blink of nature's eye combine to have a powerful emotional impact.
It's a day I won't soon forget.
Monday, December 11
We had originally scheduled today as a return to Rome for more sightseeing. But, my vigilant eye noticed that we were about 40 miles from Paestum. To get this close to the best-preserved 6th century BC Doric temples in the world and not visit them would be a crime. Also, the Michelin green Guide rates this a 3-Star site, a place "worth a journey". We scheduled an extra day and drove down.
The place was deserted. Set in what is now a meadow, the ancient temples and ruined city seemed almost like those pictures of an Arcadian paradise 17th and 18th century French painters like to people with Greek gods and shepherds. I asked Carol if she would be my little shepherdess. She said she would, but only if she could do it like Marie Antoinette. Carol was recalling that on the grounds of Versailles, Marie Antoinette had a little shepherd's cottage built, stocked with a few washed and perfumed sheep.
Southern Italy, settled by colonists from Greek cities long before the Romans had arrived, was called "Magna Grecia". The earliest of the giant temples at Paestum was built in the mid 500's BC. While these sublime buildings were being built, Rome was still a marshy swamp. The Temple of Neptune dates from the mid 400's BC. It is clearly a finer, more refined example of Doric architecture. The columns are more slender, the proportions more pleasing. Yet, when one compares it to the most perfect of all Doric buildings, the Parthenon, built maybe 20 or 30 years later, the Paestum temple seems a bit clunky. I wonder if Paestum was just a bit out of the way, so that the elegant refinements that Ictinus and Calicrates were bringing to Greek building in Athens needed time to get defused throughout the Greek world. Were we out in the boondocks?
It is difficult to explain how grand these temples are. Their size alone is not enough. It is the perfection, even in the older, archaic styles, of the proportions and workmanship combined with their size that inspires awe.
We just loopily wandered around the ancient city, having it almost entirely to ourselves. The day was warm and sunny, the grass was green, and there was grandeur before us.
After we had drunk our full of our private place, we headed back to Rome for another day of sightseeing.
Here is where the Internet is fabulous. Carol had downloaded a complete schedule of all the trains leaving Pompei headed for Rome. We knew exactly when we had to be at the train station in order to get the best train.
Antonio and Gabry drove us to the little Pompei train station, and we bid them a sad farewell. They headed back to Naples to catch their flight back to Milan. As I write this, I just got an e-mail from Mauro Mondonico. He says that it's cold and snowing in Milan right now. I think it must have been doubly sad to leave the sunny weather of Southern Italy for the wet, cold misery of the North.
Tuesday, December 12
For our last day in Rome, we decided to see the major blockbuster, the cleaned Michelangelo frescoes in the Sistine chapel. We had seen them twenty years ago, in their sooty, darkened condition. We also stopped in a few years ago as there were in the process of cleaning the ceiling.
What a brilliant, magnificent, awe-inspiring room! With the colors again revealed, Michelangelo's genius leaves one struck dumb. Those moments in the Sistine Chapel were worth the entire journey. But, I would never have the courage to take the swabs and cleaners to this work and actually perform the cleaning. It's like brain surgery. I'm glad there are people with enough skill and confidence to do it, but I could never, never do it myself.
We had only a half day scheduled to revisit the Vatican museums, so we just stopped by to see a few of our favorites. The Laocoön group never ceases to move me. It's fun to remember that Pliny wrote about seeing this in Hadrian's Villa, and now here it is, before me, a little worse for the wear.
There is a hall of Roman portrait busts, any one of which an American museum would die for. Here they were, crowded together. One could easily spend a half-day in this one room.
We cruised through the Rafael rooms. I know some critics think the "School of Athens" is the high-water mark of Western painting. There is something there I just don't see if this is true. I won't go on about what I think is finer, this diary is already many pages long.
We went inside Saint Peter's Basilica. I had forgotten how big this church really is. It's really big. Yet, for all of its immensity, it doesn't have the impact on me that the Gesu church did. I think I'm just a sucker for overwrought Baroque buildings. As we walked out, I looked back. It's a shame that Moderno was asked to add 60 meters to the length of St. Peter's and that he designed the absolutely ordinary façade. The result is a mediocre face of marble that hides Michelangelo's beautiful dome. Bernini's original, brilliant portico redeems Moderno's botched work somewhat.
We headed over to another place on my wish list, Hadrian's Mausoleum, now called Castel Sant'Angelo. The Emperor Hadrian had this massive drum built to hold his remains. It was converted into a fortress in the later Roman Empire, and then into a fortified residence for the Popes.
We were done. There was still so much to see....Tivoli, Palestrina, St. Paul's, Ostia, Scipio's tomb, the Borghese Gallery, Ara Pacis, on and on. We'll be back, even though we didn't throw any coins in the Trevi Fountain.