Travel: Rome

10 mins read

CWA’s editor-in-chief Andrew Selkirk takes us on a capital tour.

A Mussolini masterpiece? La Sapienza University at Rome.

I have been to Rome – again! In March 2016, the city was the location for the annual conference of the Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies. The conference was held in one of Italy’s foremost universities, La Sapienza. This is Rome’s oldest – and largest – university, founded in 1303. But in the 1930s, Mussolini decided to give it new premises, so a fine new campus was built just outside the city walls – a masterpiece designed by his favourite Fascist architect Marcello Piacentini. There is a lot of Mussolini in Rome; indeed having spent time in the university, I noticed him rather more than before. There is a tendency to write off or condemn all his works on the grounds that he was a bad man who must therefore have produced bad architecture; but this is not necessarily so.  Lots of great art is produced by very unpleasant people, so it is an interesting exercise in aesthetics to look at Mussolini’s Rome and to ask oneself: is it really all that bad?

The conference was held in the Faculty of Letters and Philosophy, which also houses the Museum of Classical Art, a collection of literally thousands of plaster casts which occupy the whole of the basement. There were lots of statues lined up for inspection, so it is possible to compare and contrast the differing versions of the famous Greek original, and to wonder what that original might really have been like. But what of Rome itself? We ‘did’ Rome two years ago when we visited the Forum and the Palatine and the Capitoline Museums, but there were plenty of other bits of the city that I wanted to see.

Exploring the city

I began with the railway station at Termini, another piece of grand architecture by Mussolini, with a huge bus station in front. However, to one side is a stretch of the Servian Wall that appears to have been built in the 4th century, perhaps following the sack of Rome by the Gauls in 390 BC. Mussolini left the stretch of Wall still standing to one side of the station, and there I found it, in glorious sunshine, protected by railings.

Dining in splendour: the McDonald’s restaurant at the Rome railway station has the remains of the Servian Wall running diagonally through it.

But there was more to see, and the most fantastic sight is surely the McDonald’s in the lower level of the station, where the remains of the wall run diagonally across the restaurant. The diners seemed totally unaware of their surroundings: did they see it so often that they had become blasé? Or did they just not realise?

I then visited the Baths of Diocletian on the other side of the bus station. These have long been under restoration, but are now fully open and in an amazing state of preservation. It is always a huge surprise to see the great baths that were erected in Rome at the height of imperial power. Concrete was the great Roman invention, and in the vaulted rooms in their baths they certainly made the best of their abilities.

Another major site that I wanted to see was the Pantheon, the great circular temple erected by Hadrian, its rotunda larger than the dome of St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, itself the greatest dome of Renaissance Europe. The noise made me realise I was near: the square in front of it was absolutely packed – I think I’ve never seen such a mass of people, all milling around admiring the façade. I had only seen it by night before, and I was worried that I would never be able to get in; entry was free, but there was a steady flow of visitors in and out. However, the interior is so large that it managed to take all the crowds and, indeed, a small symphony orchestra playing to one side.

Monte Testaccio. The hill in the background is made up entirely of Roman rubbish: amphorae that brought wine and fish sauce to the city. It is surrounded by not very glamorous garages and shops.

Then on I went to another very different site, the Monte Testaccio: the huge mound that formed the rubbish dump of ancient Rome, where the amphorae that brought wine, olive oil, and fish sauce to Rome were broken up and dumped, so that over the years they have formed a veritable mountain. I took a taxi to visit the area that had long been seedy but was now ‘coming up’. I found the mound all right, but it was surrounded by small cafes and garages and effectively blockaded off, so you can’t visit unless you are a very important person – and I’m afraid I don’t qualify – or is there an entrance I didn’t find? I suspect they are worried that visitors will take away sherds, but it is so vast that even if every visitor were to take away a sherd, I don’t think it would make any real difference, not for a thousand years!

Visiting Portus

One of the highlights of the conference was the option of a coach tour to visit the excavations at Portus, the great artificial harbour built by Claudius and Trajan to provide a safe port for the great grain ships that supplied the food for the populace of Rome, avoiding the notoriously treacherous entry to the Tiber river which made access to the harbour of Ostia so difficult. Here major excavations are being carried out by the British School under Simon Keay – we have written about them several times in CWA (20, 42, 51) – so I was anxious to see them in person.

This is the way to excavate, with the walls still standing up to two storeys high. Here we see the excavations by the British School at Rome of the Palazzo Imperiale that stood at one side of the great harbour.


The total area of Portus was huge: the outer harbour built by Claudius covers some 200ha, while the inner hexagonal basin built by Trajan covers some 32ha; by comparison, the walled area of Roman London covered 138ha, so the whole of Roman and indeed medieval London would have fitted inside the Claudius basin with room to spare. And this is not to count all the very extensive warehouses and other buildings on dry land. Thus visiting it involves a lot of walking: it is mostly very flat with just slightly elevated sections marking the former dykes, interrupted by the occasional elevated remains of vast buildings.

We visited three main parts of it: first the Palazzo Imperiale, overlooking the Trajanic palace. We did not actually see the Trajanic Basin, which was rather a pity because I am sure that is a very spectacular part of the site – I think it was reconstructed and filled with water in the 19th century. But the Palazzo Imperiale (the Imperial Palace) is the site of the major excavations by the British School. In a way they were rather unimpressive as they were focusing on a very minute part of what is clearly a very large building. On the other hand, it was impressive that they were excavating huge buildings still standing two storeys high. In one corner was the castellum aquae (the water tower) and further on there were the shipsheds, where the ships could be drawn up. Then a long walk back, though luckily I was given a lift in his car by Stephen Kay, the archaeology officer at the School, and we concluded the visit by going to the so-called Magazzini Traiani. The largest warehouse project in the Roman world, it was begun by Claudius and lies at the interface between the basin, where the ships could be unloaded, and the canal that led from the port to the Tiber, where goods could be transhipped into barges for the 20-mile journey upriver to Rome. It is a major French research project and some of the warehouses are spectacularly restored. It was a fascinating visit.

Lost in the Vatican

On my penultimate day, I went to the Vatican. I had never been to the Vatican before – after all, it’s in the Roman suburbs (where the cemeteries were) and it is Christian, and I am mainly interested in the proper Romans. But I thought it was about time that I found out what it was all about and saw the famous museum. I went first to the Castel Sant’Angelo, Hadrian’s burial place, used in later times as a castle, and then up to the Basilica of St Peter itself.

The approach is Mussolini. Originally one went through narrow streets and suddenly emerged to see the grandeur of Bernini’s superb oval piazza in front of the Basilica. Mussolini, however, opened it all out with a grand new approach road, with St Peter’s at the end of a long vista. The guidebook said this was a big error: I was not wholly convinced one way or the other.

Mussolini’s Vatican. St Peter’s basilica was approached through a maze of narrow streets until Mussolini bulldozed through this wide approach road.

The square is indeed superb, but it was also crowded and divided up, and I didn’t quite know whether it would be possible to visit the Basilica. But I passed through the X-ray machine and joined the queue. I wasn’t exactly overwhelmed by it, but then I wasn’t underwhelmed either. It is very big, very decorated, but I suppose it’s not really my sort of thing. I went round with the crowds and admired the Altar built with bronze stripped from the Pantheon. Then on the way out I saw Michelangelo’s famous statue the Pietà, now protected behind glass: but the surroundings were so cluttered with a distracting marble background that it was difficult to appreciate the statue. On the whole, I couldn’t help thinking that I really prefer St Paul’s in London – it is less cluttered, more coherent. I came out into the Piazza which was full of chairs ready presumably for open-air services. But I couldn’t help noticing that lowering in the background was a rather ugly office block which forms, I suppose, the offices where the pope lives and the bureaucracy works.

The next stage was to find the famous museum – but this proved a problem. The trouble is that the Vatican is vast, and the entrance is at the far end, so one has to walk about a mile along a very grim defensive wall. About halfway along, the queues begin, and at the corner the queues still continued for a further quartermile walk. Luckily I had already bought my ticket over the web, and eventually, exhausted, I reached the entrance and was waved through without difficulty. I then set out to explore.

I always thought that the Sistine Chapel was an intimate building with just one great painting. In fact, it is rather large with lots of paintings.

I knew that the thing to do was to visit the Sistine Chapel, so I thought I would get that over and done with first and then get down to the serious work of looking at their Greek and Roman statues. This proved to be a big mistake as the Sistine Chapel is at the far end, which meant walking at least half a mile back, moving slowly in a mass queue, through interminable galleries of tapestries and maps. By the time I arrived, I was completely lost. I asked a friendly guard, ‘Where is the Sistine Chapel?’, and he said, ‘It is here; you are in it!’ It was somehow much bigger than I expected; I expected something rather intimate, but this was a huge room. ‘But where is the famous painting of the Creation?’, I asked. I thought it would be somewhere in the centre, the dominating feature. The guard kindly pointed it out to me, and there it was. It is only a small part of a vast and overcrowded ceiling. It looked very bright and new and I gather it has recently been extensively restored – over-restored?

And then I sought out my friendly guide again and asked him where are the Greek and Roman statues. He looked at me, pityingly, and said they are in the Pio-Clementino gallery, the other end of the museum, by the entrance. Another long, long walk back, but it was worth it. It was full of famous statues, many of which I have seen in photos before: the Laocoön, the Venus Felix, and the Apollo Belvedere, which the famous (gay) Classical scholar Johann Winckelmann hailed as the greatest example of Classical art. Eventually the crowds thinned out and it was closing time. I was the last to be shepherded out, and the great doors closed behind me.

Final highlights

On my last day, I was not due to fly back home until the evening, so I had the morning to make my last visit. I decided to do yet another great museum, the Palazzo Massimo, which was opened in 1998 as the headquarters of Italy’s National Museum, and it has just been revamped very well to show the best of the treasures owned by the Italian state (not by the Vatican!).

The highlight of the new display is on the second floor, where they show some of the finest wall paintings, notably one from the garden room of the Villa of Livia just outside Rome, where the wall paintings of the garden room survive almost complete. I found it a bit overwhelming with all that greenery, but it was nevertheless very impressive – the Romans liked to pretend that they were out in the garden. Adjacent was another highly decorated small room, from the Villa Farnesini, which was said to be a bedroom. Yes, wonderful – but I think I’d have nightmares if I had to sleep there.

A life-sized statue of Augustus as a priest, superbly presented with the burgundy background – ideal for photography.

The other two floors were mostly given over to statuary – many famous statues are here. I particularly liked the Roman emperors on the ground floor, especially one of Augustus as a priest. It was clear that in the revamp they had taken care about the background to the statues, many of them in this splendid burgundy red. Clearly they had decided that since people were going to take photos, they might as well make sure that the photos come out well.

Two statues impressed me particularly. There was a statue of a warrior said to be originally Alexander the Great, though curmudgeonly critics say that the style is later. But isn’t it a wonderful – even if to us rather strange – idea, that great men should have their statues carved in the nude? Perhaps all our politicians should be portrayed in the nude… And then there was this famous statue of a boxer, a wonderful piece of work – though a little bit too realistic for my liking: you can see many of the wounds he had sustained in a hard career of boxing. He was discovered in 1885, in the course of an excavation adjacent to the Baths of Constantine by Rodolfo Lanciani. The favourite explanation is that this must have been buried deliberately in the face of invasion by the Goths (who cut off the aqueducts that fed the baths) in order to preserve it. And with this explanation ringing in my ears, I hurried off to catch the bus to the airport and fly home. My journey to Rome was over.

The Boxer at Rest. This grimly realistic statue was excavated in 1885, but wouldn’t it be wonderful to dig up a statue like this?


All Images: Andrew Selkirk

This article appears in issue 79 of Current World Archaeology.

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