We have just returned from our second day in Rome with our heading spinning with sights both macabre and magnificent. The day brought us to catacombs of the Capuchin order and cardinals offering mass in St. Peters. Those sights were supplemented by exquisite gelato and intoxicating Vin Santo. We are stuffed and satiated in our lovely hotel room at the Villa Pinciana on a cool and crisp Roman evening.
We started out the day with breakfast at the Villa Pinciana and then walked to the the church of Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini on the Via Veneto. The museum was not particularly memorable, but that is not why we came. We went to the catacombs to see one of the most chilling and haunting sights in all of Christendom: the macabre arrangement of thousands of human bones at intricate displays from lamps made of human jaw bones to floral patterns using the vertebrae of dead friars. Not surprisingly, it was one of the favorite sights of the Maquis de Sade when he visited Rome. There are various stories as to who first saw the bones as material for artistic expression. Some say it was an artist who fled the French Revolution while others “credit” an artistically minded friar. Either way, it is truly one of the creepiest experiences that you can have in Rome.
We then walked for a long walk again in Rome and went to the Church of St. Ignatius of Loyola at Campus Martius. It is an often overlooked church with incredible art, including a faux dome. When the Church decided not to finish the church with a dome, it hired an artist to create a dome as an optical illusion. It is a gorgeous seventeenth century church and worth finding, though it can be a challenge.
After having a wonderful tomato and matozolla sandwich across from Church of St. Ignatius, we went to the Vatican on a tour with Green line. These tours are a bit pricey (over 60 euros a piece), but it allows you to skip the lines. Frankly, we were disappointed in the tour at Green Line. While the company does pick you up at your hotel (it does not drop you back off but does drop you off at a handful of spots), the tour was disappointing in terms of the content. It was rather labored and memorized and frankly stilted. The guide clearly did not want to be taking yet another group through the Vatican. When tour members (including many Americans) asked follow up questions, the answers revealed little depth of knowledge and a bit of irritation. For example, I asked why some statues show outstretched arms holding a plate. The guide seemed slightly irritated at the question and said that it was a Roman sign for bringing a gift to a home like a piece of cake. That appears partially correct but the truth is far more interesting. It is in fact the “patera” which appears also in Greek statues. It was a shallow libation bowl with an indentation in the center and sometimes called a mesomphalic phiale. It was meant to show a form of sacrifice to signify the quality of piety and reverence. Often the plate would hold coins and was turned to show the act of sacrifice. Other questions received the same rather tepid response. In fairness to the company, the Vatican tends to push these group tours along but the guide notably left more time for people to spend in the Vatican gift shop than St. Peters. We felt rushed and rather uninformed. You can do better than the Green Line despite the convenience of the pick up at your hotel.
The Vatican itself is of course magnificent. I was much more in awe with St. Peters though the Sistine Chapel was a thrill. I remain astonished by how many people can be told repeatedly not to take flash photography but still take flash photos. In addition to the incredible and famous art like the Pieta, there are some surprised like Nero’s bathtub — which was roughly 25-foot in radius and thousands of pounds in weight. It appears to have been carved from a single massive piece of marble. It is a joy to behold as long as you do not imagine the portly Nero slashing around in a huge marble martini glass.
One thing that royally ticked me off was the Vatican constantly hawking gifts and mementos. The worse such moment came when the Vatican actually blocked the view of the famous Vatican tapestries to put up not one but two large counters selling books and assorted gifts. It was truly depressing. The Vatican shares a considerable fee for visitors and then proceeds to try to fleece the faithful at every turn. If there is a mortal (and not just a venial) sin in architecture, it is the blocking of ancient works of art to try to get tourists to buy one more over-priced knickknack.
After the Vatican, we walked to various churches before seeking out what many considerable the best gelato in Rome: Gelateria La Romana Roma Venti Settembre. We walked a long distance but we would have walked across Rome for this ice cream. It was incredible even by Italian standards. I have long marveled at how much better gelato in Italy is in comparison to anything that we have in the states. If you go to the Galeteria La Romana, it will be hard to swallow other ice cream again. I had the dark chocolate as well as the banana and the pistachio. It was a truly spiritual moment. We intend to go back before we leave for home.
We left the gelato shop on cloud nine, and walked back to our hotel. We then went for dinner at Girarrosto Toscano a classic restaurant specializing in steaks and meat dishes. We were a bit disappointed in the risotto and the mushroom pasta dishes which were overly salted and unimpressive by Roman standards. The Chianti recommended by the restaurant was also unimpressive. However, the Florentine steak (served quite rare as preferred by the Italians) was quite good. The restaurant also brought by an complementary bowl of biscotti for dessert with a tall bottle of chilled Vino Santo to dip and drink. To our astonishment, we polished off the bottle which was delightful. We loved it and the staff was very gracious. The restaurant was packed with Americans, so I cannot call it a local spot, but it was a fine night out. We loved the Vin Santo and talked late (our stories seemed to improve as the bottle was drained!). I cannot rank the restaurant in the top spots for the cuisine but it was a nice evening and ambience with a terrific staff.
We are off in the morning for a tour of some of the older sites with a personal tour guide who has advanced degrees in architecture and history. It will be our last day before we leave for Sicily. However, we will be returning to Rome for one more Roman night next week before we fly to the States.
Here are a few other pictures from today: