“Rome welcomes you when you come and forgets you when you go.”—Federico Fellini
A republic was declared in Rome in 509 B.C., and all roads have led here ever since. A very busy city of leisurely citizens, Rome serves up a jolt of big-city life with the warmth of a small provincial town.
Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore— One of Rome’s four major basilicas, built in the 5th century, then restored and extended between the 12th and 18th centuries. Its magnificent 5th-century mosaics are among the oldest and most beautiful in the city, and its 15th-century coffered ceiling is said to have been gilded with some of the first gold brought from the New World, a gift of the Spanish monarchy.
Borghese Gallery—Begun by Cardinal Scipione Borghese in the 17th century, the collection includes Titian’s Sacred and Profane Love, Raphael’s Deposition, Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne, and Caravaggio’s David with the Head of Goliath, among innumerable other masterpieces.
The Coliseum—Once able to seat 50,000, the Coliseum was begun in A.D. 72 by Vespasian and inaugurated in A.D. 80 by his son, Titus. Combat was the usual entertainment—between men, between animals, between men and animals, and even between ships, as the whole thing could be flooded. Centuries of neglect and outright ransacking have left it a shell largely without floor or seats, but what a shell it is, with three tiers of columns—Doric, Ionian, and Renaissance paintings, including numerous works by Tintoretto and Reni. The famous statue of the wolf suckling Romulus and Remus is here, as is the original statue of Marcus Aurelius astride a horse, which once sat in the center of the piazza. Pollution led to its removal indoors; a copy remains outside.
The Pantheon—Built in 27 B.C. by Marcus Agrippa and reconstructed by Hadrian in the early 2nd century A.D., the Pantheon is the most complete ancient Roman building remaining today and one of its architectural wonders: its dome is exactly as wide as it is high, supported by pillars hidden in the walls. Raphael’s tomb is here.
The Roman and Imperial Forums—The center of Roman life in the days of the Republic, the Roman Forum was a stone quarry and cow pasture before excavations began in the 19th century. You need a map and guide to put some meaning to the ruins, which include numerous temples, the Umbilicus Urbus, considered the center of Rome (and, by extension, of the empire); the Curia, the main seat of the Roman Senate; and the House of the Vestal Virgins, home of the young women who minded the Temple of Vesta’s sacred fire. The Imperial Forum was begun by Julius Caesar to show the power of the emperors. You can see his forum, once the site of the Roman stock exchange; the Forum of Augustus, built to commemorate the defeat of Caesar’s assassins; the famous Trajan’s Column, with bas-reliefs depicting the emperor’s campaign against the Dacians; the Forum of Trajan; and much more
Spanish Steps—Designed by Francesco de Sanctis and built between 1723 and 1725, these wide steps ascend in three majestic tiers from the busy Piazza di Spagna to the French Trinity dei Monti church, one of Rome’s most distinctive landmarks and the place to be at sunset, with a view of Rome’s seven hills. The steps take their name from the Spanish Embassy, which occupied a nearby palace in the 19th century. The boatshaped fountain in the piazza was designed in the late 16th century by Bernini or his father (the jury is still out). The house where John Keats lived and died sits beside the steps.
Trevi Fountain—Designed by Nicolo Salvi and completed in 1762, the fanciful Baroque fountain features Neptune standing on a chariot drawn by winged steeds.
Vatican City—The world’s smallest independent state, Vatican City is accessed through St. Peter’s Square, surrounded by an elliptical colonnade with some 140 saints on top. Straight ahead is the facade of St. Peter’s Basilica, the center of world Catholicism. The Circus of Nero, where St. Peter was crucified, once sat on this spot, and in 324 the emperor Constantine commissioned a basilica to be built here in the saint’s honor. The present structure dates from the 16th and 17th centuries and contains cream-of-the-crop statuary, the Michelangelo-designed dome and his famous Pieta, and so much more that it’s overwhelming—exactly as it was supposed to be. To the north of the piazza, the Vatican Museums contain one of the world’s greatest collections of art from antiquity and the Renaissance, including Raphael’s famous stanze (several rooms containing many of the artist’s masterpieces), housed in a labyrinth of palaces and galleries.
The gem of the collection is the famous Sistine Chapel, with its ceiling painted by Michelangelo between 1508 and 1512 (see separate entry on page 196).
Bocca Della Verita—Reenact the scene from the 1950s Audrey Hepburn classic Roman Holiday: Go to the atrium of the Church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin and stick your hand in the gaping Mouth of Truth— legend has it that if someone puts his hand in the mouth and tells a lie, the mouth will bite down. Be careful what you say!
Market at Campo dei Fiori—One of Italy’s great daily marketplaces, and some of its best theater. Shaded by canvas ombrelloni, stalls sell the freshest produce available—come before 9 A.M. or the city’s chefs will have snatched up all the best. Insight into daily Roman life at its most authentic continues after the last stall disappears. Patrons of the popular hole-in- the-wall La Vineria wine bar spill out onto the piazza, wineglass in hand, to discuss the scandal of the week or the day’s soccer score.
Ostia Antica—As evocative as Pompeii and twice as well preserved, Rome’s best- kept secret can even be reached by subway. Excavations of the ancient port of Rome reveal much of the history of the far-flung Roman Empire.
Piazza Navona—The Eternal City’s nightlife at its best. In warm weather, take a seat outdoors at Tre Scalini cafe for the people-watching and the specialty tartufo, a rich chocolate concoction named for its resemblance to the knobby truffle. Against the background of Bernini’s Baroque Fountain of the Rivers, a host of Felliniesque characters from central casting mingle with German students, retired couples from Florida, and Roman residents of all shapes and inclinations.
Via Condotti—Via Condotti and its grid of cobbled offshoots at the foot of the Spanish Steps offers ultrasmart shopping and the ideal venue for the early evening passeggiata ritual. In this atmospheric, traffic-free neighborhood is Rome’s oldest cafe, Caffe Greco, a centuries-old watering hole where Casanova, Goethe, Lord Byron, and Buffalo Bill all stopped for a coffee break.