Culture / Travel

A Practical Guide to Rome: The Right Way to See (and Stroll) One of the World’s Most Beautiful Cities

BY Mary Margaret Hansen // 06.07.16

Houston-based artist, photographer, blogger and activist Mary Margaret Hansen and Rome Prize Fellow Earl Staley are taking on Italy this summer, and are sharing their travel diary with us. Here’s Hansen’s journal from the couple’s first stop, the Eternal City, aka Roma. (More entries to come; photography Mary Margaret Hansen.)

We’ve wandered Rome for a week. Earl, a Rome Fellow at the American Academy in 1982, is a seasoned sightseer, familiar with this city on the River Tiber and in love with the Renaissance and the Baroque. His granddaughter Arianne Staley is 19 and walking Rome’s narrow cobblestone streets for the first time. I fall somewhere in between these two. My passion and preoccupations are to see and record with pictures and words. We make quite a trio.

Until this morning, when we were out of bed at 3:30 am to see Arianne off to the airport and on her way back to Texas.

We were among the myriads who throw coins in the Trevi Fountain, hike through the Coliseum, treat themselves to icy gelato, stare amazed at the wealth and power on display in Baroque churches and grand palazzos, savor vino de la casa and down tiny cups of espresso.

Rome is more than 2,700 years old, home to almost 4 million Romans, and the fourth most-visited city in the world. We three were in the company of 10 million tourists who travel to Rome in a year’s time.

Arianne saw as many sights as we could jam into six days, our every step faithfully tracked with Fitbit. On the day we walked down from the Janiculum Hill to the Pantheon, we logged 14,344 steps.

We took in the panoramic view from the top of Janiculum Hill and saw two monumental statues, one of the patriot Giuseppe Garibaldi, who fought for a unified Italy in the 19th century, and another of his wife Anita Garibaldi, who fought fiercely at his side.

If you’ve seen The Great Beauty, the 2013 Italian film directed by Paolo Sorrentino and starring Toni Servillo, you’ve seen a bit of the Janiculum Hill.

The film opens with a scene at the sparkling-white Fontana dell’Acqua Paola, site of Trajan’s ancient aqueduct — restored in 1612 by Pope Paul V, a Borghese pope who celebrated the restoration by commissioning the monumental fountain in honor of himself.

The Great Beauty captures another site on Janiculum Hill. Tempietto, the small and perfectly proportioned building designed by Bramante in 1502, is called the first true Renaissance structure in Rome. I learned that Tempietto’s dome is so perfect that for centuries it’s been copied around the world. Our Texas State Capitol is one of many modeled on the Tempietto. Who knew that Texas had a significant Roman connection?

A brisk, uninterrupted walk from the Janiculum Hill to the Pantheon takes 30 minutes. If one meanders, the walk can take several hours. We meandered, stopped for lunch in the trattoria across from Santa Maria in Trastevere and then visited this ancient church with its 12th-century mosaics, the first to be dedicated to the Virgin Mary.

We lingered at the Tiber to admire South African artist William Kentridge’s Triumphs and Laments, an 1800-foot-long freize installed in April 2016 along the river’s embankment. Kentridge created stencils and power-washed around them to make iconic images from accumulated dirt and pollution. He used mythological and historical themes and gave the three of us a reason to play.

After our impromptu photo shoot, we headed toward Piazza della Rotonda and the Pantheon, my favorite building in all of Rome.

I love the Pantheon because its appearance is almost awkward, yet it has sublime presence. The piazza can be entered from perhaps a dozen narrow streets, and there, suddenly, is the Pantheon, startling and immense. It warms my heart when I see a slice of this building at the end of a narrow cobblestone street. I am always stunned.

I like the novelist Eleanor Clark’s take on ‘turning a corner” in Rome. She writes in Rome and a Villa (1952), “The spaces are shocking. They are close too and give no warnings, so that suddenly the Pantheon or the huge volutes of Sant’ Ignazio are crowding right over you; you are not allowed to stand off, it seems you are not allowed to admire at all; it is as though a giant mother were squashing you to her breast. Besides those freakish squares and the narrow streets around them, most vividly in the old quarters, Trastevere and all the part between the Corso and the Tiber, do not constitute an outside in our sense, but a great rich withinness, an interior … Even a tourist can tell in a Roman street that he is in something and not outside of something as he would be in most cities. In Rome, to go out is to go home.”

The Pantheon was originally a Roman temple built by Marcus Agrippa in 27-25 BC. However, it was the emperor Hadrian who replaced the early temple with the breathtaking engineering feats we see today. The building’s portico is supported by 18 granite columns quarried in Egypt. Standing amidst these columns, we cannot quite comprehend their journey across the Mediterranean Sea and up the River Tiber. The Pantheon’s dome is immense, and in the very center is the oculus, open to the sky. This dome has held human beings in awe for almost two millennia.

When I began this post, our hotel window was open and late afternoon sun brightened terra cotta buildings and the dome of a nearby church. I could hear seagulls calling — imagine seagulls in Rome. A helicopter flew overhead, reminding me of the opening scene of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, though this helicopter was not carrying a sculpture of Christ.

It is now after 8:00 pm, and Earl and I are headed out to a small restaurant we discovered last evening. Memorable was the bed of seasoned puréed chickpeas covered with sautéed wild chicory, deep-fried anchovies and a sprinkling of crushed hazelnuts. Are you salivating? We will dine at DanEl Tavernae again, because the food was glorious.

Just received a text message. Arianne is back in Texas. This day that began at 3:30 am ends with a fine Roman meal, a glass of vino and a moonlit walk on cobblestones.

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