The arena crackles with tension. A gladiator grips his sword with both hands and plunges the blade in a downward thrust, aiming the glistening tip at his opponent’s chest. Evading death, the opponent quickly rolls to the side and swings his sword in a wide arc, slicing the former’s stomach open to send him crashing to the dust, growling in agony. With leers of hungry monsters etched upon their faces, spectators cheer maniacally as blood sprays across the ground. The victorious warrior strides across to tower over his rival and with a lusty roar, pierces him through his eye, shattering his skull as the weapon penetrates into his brain.
Images of carnage flood my mind as I walk into the Colosseum’s underground tunnels and chambers. Trapped in the sweltering heat, the stale waft of the earth mingles with the stench of urine and decay. This is where slaves, vicious animals, convicts and gladiators awaited their slaughter more than a thousand years ago.
Bloodshed meant glory and power for the ancient Romans. Their predilection to war and extreme violence allowed them to build a massive empire, which controlled the entire Mediterranean basin and much of northwestern Europe during its peak. For centuries they embarked on imperial expansion, demolishing towns and gathering slaves who were forced to fight in gladiatorial games, or fed to lions and bears for public entertainment.
Where I queue up impatiently outside the Roman Colosseum on a hot July afternoon, centuries ago in 80 AD, the common public would clamor and wait similarly to witness the gruesome contests. Built by Emperor Vespasian of the Flavian Dynasty as a gift to the Romans, the amphitheater functioned as a center of entertainment, with spectacles such as gladiatorial combats, public executions and sea battle reenactments, where the arena floor was flooded with water from an underground river. The late afternoon sun crawls behind the upper arch windows, casting shadows on the seats where bloodthirsty crowds of up to 80,000 used to holler. It is said that in the hundred days of savagery to inaugurate the Colosseum, over 10,000 people and 5,000 wild animals perished. The brutal games persisted for centuries until Emperor Honorius banned it in 404 AD, following the protest of an Egyptian monk named Telemachus, who was immediately stoned to death by the angry spectators. The advent of Christianity eventually changed the demeanor of the Romans, making them less antagonistic and warlike.
Traveling Through Time
“Constantine,” I mumble as I pass by the ancient triumphal arch dedicated to Emperor Constantine, who ended the persecutions of Christians during his reign, “Are there more gory stories in that pile of rubble?” With a crumpled map in hand, I walk toward the ruins of the Roman Forum. Broken columns and skeletons of long-vanished temples stand precariously on the grass. Mutilated statues prop themselves against barren pedestals. Located between two hills, the sprawling ruin of architectural fragments was the social, political and commercial hub of the great Roman Empire. The Forum was originally a marshy area which the early Romans reclaimed following the alliance between King Romulus of the Palatine Hill and Titus Tatius of the Capitoline Hill, and eventually developed to include marketplaces, shrines, government offices and memorials. Kicking dust on the flagstone-paved walkway, I stroll along the length of Via Sacra, the main street of ancient Rome, which was once the route of triumphal military parades and imperial processions. A stone’s throw away is the medieval Church of San Lorenzo in Miranda grafted onto and above the Temple of Emperor Antoninus Pius and his wife Faustina. Emperors were routinely deified after their death but when Christianity proliferated, pagan temples were either demolished or converted to churches and basilicas. Walking past the remains of other temples dedicated to Roman gods, I find a group of tourist crowding the empty pedestals of the House of the Vestal Virgins, taking photos of the jumbled block of marbles where the sacred fire burned for centuries. The flame was guarded by the Vestals, priestesses of the goddess Vesta carefully chosen from patrician families. These women were among the most venerated citizens of ancient Rome and were believed to have special powers, such as the ability to pardon condemned criminals by simply touching them. Sweat drips from my brow as I climb the summit of the Palatine Hill, where I find the ruins of the Domus Augustana, the private section of the imperial palace where the emperors resided. Resting my back against a crumbling brick wall, I gaze out to admire the panorama of roofs and domes, clear-cut against the blood-red sunset.
On Holy Ground
Fueled with a hefty slice of sidewalk pizza the following morning, I dodge through an army of hawkers and hucksters shilling souvenirs and rosaries. Pilgrims armed with large crucifixes and banners spill from a fleet of tour buses. At eight the streets around Vatican City, the papal enclave within the city of Rome, are already in full swing. After standing in seemingly endless security check queues, I hold my breath as I enter the massive metal doors of the Saint Peter’s Basilica, but nothing can quite prepare me the showpieces inside. Built in the early 16th century over the tomb of St. Peter, Basilica Papale di San Pietro is among the largest churches in the world and is considered the finest example of Renaissance architecture. It should be, as it was worked on by just about every great architect and artist of Italy in the 16th and 17th centuries: Michaelangelo, Raphael, Bramante, Peruzzi, Maderno, Sangallo, Donatello and Bernini. Not far from the entrance, hordes of tourists pause contemplatively near an unmistakable marble carving. At last I see Michaelangelo’s Pieta with my own eyes! The haunting sculpture depicts the Virgin Mary cradling the dead Jesus Christ after the crucifixion. It sits behind a bulletproof acrylic glass after it was vandalized with an axe many years ago. My eyes instinctively survey the basilica’s nave, moving across its lavishly decorated walls and columns inch by inch. Decorated in mosaic, a colossal dome created by the great Michaelangelo soars 119 meters above the ground, supported by four stone pillars representing the relics of St. Helena, St. Longinus, St. Andrew and St. Veronica, whose statues adorn the niches designed by Lorenzo Bernini. Directly beneath the dome is St. Peter’s Baldachin, the basilica’s centerpiece. The 30-meter tall dark bronze canopy was also designed and sculpted by Bernini to shelter the papal altar and mark the spot where St. Peter was buried. Every inch of the vast interior exhibits some of the finest Renaissance masterpieces, including funerary monuments of popes whose tombs lay within the basilica.
At the nearby Vatican Museums, I push my way through crowds of sweat-soaked tourists to see some of the world’s most treasured relics and masterpieces collected by the Popes over the centuries. Exhibits, which run along about 9 miles of halls and galleries, include classical sculptures, Etruscan bronzes, Flemish tapestries, Renaissance and modern paintings and even Egyptian mummies. The vast complex of museums was founded by Pope Julius II in the early 16th century and expanded by the succeeding pontiffs as the collections grew. Craning my neck from gallery to gallery, I try to absorb as much art as I can. Besides the Sistene Chapel, the most popular rooms inside the Vatican Museums are, without doubt, Raphael’s Rooms. The chambers are famous for their frescoed walls and ceilings, painted by Raphael himself who was commissioned by Popes Julius II and Leo X. In one of the rooms, everyone’s eyes are glued on a masterpiece called The School of Athens as a tour guide enumerates some whimsical details about it. The painting is a fantasy gathering of the greatest philosophers, mathematicians and thinkers from different periods and places. What’s amusing about it is that Raphael painted the faces of himself and his colleagues Leonardo Da Vinci, Donato Bramante and Michaelangelo in there. After basking in its magnificence, I feel warmed up and ready for the Sistene Chapel.
“SILENZIO!” The guard’s deep, terrifying voice resonates throughout the sacred room, causing a hush to fall over hundreds of excited mouths. I squeeze myself between awestruck tourists, my eyes dashing upon every inch of the breathtaking art on the walls and vaulted ceiling. The challenge is deciding where to stand to take it all in. A remnant from the glorious era of Renaissance, the Sistene Chapel is home to two of the world’s most celebrated artworks: Michaelangelo’s ceiling frescoes (1508-1512) and his Giudizio Universale or The Last Judgment (1535-1541). This is also the place where the conclave gathers to elect a new pope. Racking my brains, I try to identify which biblical events are depicted on the ceiling frescoes, which glow rich and vibrant in the low light. In this heady series of paintings, Michaelangelo interpreted nine scenes from the book of Genesis, including the creation of the earth, creation of Man, the fall of Adam and Eve and the plight of Noah. On the altar wall below, Michaelangelo painted a chilling interpretation of the Last Judgment. The painting shows Jesus Christ, who stands in the center, passing sentence over the souls of the dead as they are snatched out of their graves. The saved are able to enter the gates of heaven while the damned are thrown to the fires of hell. One disturbing part of the masterpiece, as one tour guide quietly points out, is that Michaelangelo painted himself as a soul on his way to eternal damnation.
Discovering the Ancient City
Wandering through the ancient streets, I scrunch up the baffling map and stuff it in my pocket. My sense of adventure tells me that every corner of this once-mighty empire has a hidden surprise- a naked statue of a mystical god, an Egyptian obelisk, an unknown fountain chipped from pale stone or an excavation revealing the remains from antiquity. As I walk further away from Vatican City, an imposing cylindrical building looms into view, towering over the Tiber River. A horse-drawn open carriage passes by, the click-clack of the horse’s hooves making monotonous beats on the pavement. Lavished with precious marbles and statues of angels, the Castel Sant’ Angelo was built in 123 AD by Emperor Hadrian as a monumental tomb for himself and his family. According to legend, the name “Castel Sant’ Angelo” dates back to the day when Pope Gregory the Great, during a procession to plead for the end of a plague, saw Archangel Michael on top of the mausoleum, wiping blood from this sword. The succeeding emperors eventually used the mausoleum as a defensive bastion during the barbarian invasions, and when it was passed on to the hands of the pontiffs, Pope Boniface IX turned it into a papal residence, fortress and prison. An underground passage is said to connect it to the Vatican.
Following a labyrinthine alley not far from the castle, I come across a bustling piazza (square), cocooned by old buildings of orange, lemon yellow and peach and bedecked with fine statues with a distinct, familiar style. The garlicky aromas of pizza and pasta roll on the soft summer breeze as nearby open-air restaurants call out for customers. Perhaps nothing is more quintessential Roman than Piazza Navona, which was built on the site where the Stadium of Domitian once stood. The piazza’s centerpiece is Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi, a 17th century fountain adorned with a towering obelisk and four giant Bernini sculptures representing the great rivers of Ganges, Nile, Danube and Plate. Directly opposite the baroque fountain is the Church of Sant’ Agnes in Agose, built in the 17th century by an acclaimed Italian architect, Francesco Borromini. Once the performance space of jugglers, acrobats and mock naval battle actors, the square maintains its lively atmosphere with a continuous festival of painters, caricaturists and street performers. I find myself a quiet corner in a café. Piazza Navona is the perfect place to have a gelato break after a long, exhausting walk.
Strolling past countless piazzas and heavily statued churches and fountains, I find an ancient-looking temple tucked between modern apartment buildings and restaurants. Supported by thick granite Corinthian columns, the Pantheon has survived unscathed for almost 2,000 years, though according to stories its marble facing and gilded bronze roof tiles were stripped off and used to embellish St. Peter’s Basilica centuries ago. Designed by Emperor Hadrian himself as a tribute to the planetary gods, the semicircular temple has a coffered 43-meter dome with a central opening that lets the sunlight in. Tourists flood continually through the massive bronze doors and shuffle about, their flag-carrying tour guides beckoning them to the gravesite of Raphael, a celebrated Italian architect and painter who requested to be buried inside the building. The Pantheon has been functioning as a church dedicated to St. Mary and the Martyrs since the 7th Century.
Wiping my sweaty brow with the back of my hand, I disappear among the hundreds of tourists crowding the Trevi Fountain. Among the hordes are different groups of people- young lovers canoodling and basking in the romance of the ancient edifice, friends giggling and posing for selfies, families with parents keeping a hawk eye on their toddlers. Excited, I shoulder my way to the center to behold the baroque fountain I have seen countless times in movies. The famous Trevi Fountain dates back to the ancient times when the 22-kilometer aqueduct, named Aqua Virgo or Virgin Waters to honor the young girl who discovered the water source, was built in 19 BC to provide water to the hot baths and the fountains of central Rome. Embedded into the façade of Pallazo Poli, the fountain is embellished with a handful of fine sculptures. In the center is the statue of Oceanus, the Roman God of the Sea, standing under a triumphal arch. Two sea horses, one wild and one docile to represent the opposing moods of the sea, are pulling his shell chariot. Leading them are two Tritons, one whistling on a shell as if to announce their arrival. I am interrupted from my contemplation by an affectionate couple who wants their photo taken, and I happily oblige. Behind them are people throwing coins over their shoulders into the fountain. Legend says that tossing a coin will guarantee your return to Rome, and if you toss a second coin, you will fall in love with an Italian. I sit on a cold stone bench for hours and wait for the crowds to vanish into the early evening shadows before grabbing a few coins from my pocket. While a couple of days may be enough to peek into the main attractions and the Roman way of life, I certainly wouldn’t mind returning to a historic city that has been perfecting beauty and the arts since the ancient times.