Roman Weekend, Part 2

“Rome is not like any other city. It’s a big museum, a living room that shall be crossed on one’s toes.” – Alberto Sordi


After our incredible but exhausting tour of the Musei Vaticani on Friday evening, we decided that a sleep-in Saturday morning was necessary. After an amazing nights sleep, we got ourselves ready for a full day of Roman sightseeing, and started walking towards our first tourist destination: The Pantheon. We stopped at a cafe in the Piazza della Rotonda for a delicious but overpriced croissant and cappuccino, while soaking in the external beauty and enormity of this ancient monument.

The Pantheon was built as a pagan temple that was completed in 126 CE during the reign of Emperor Hadrian, and was converted to be the first Catholic church in Rome in the 7th century. It is now officially titled as Basilica di Santa Maria e Martiri (Basilica of Saint Mary and the Martyrs). Besides the history and the age of the building, the Pantheon is also famous for its architecture, most especially the coffered concrete dome with open oculus. The dome is actually a perfect circle, whereas most of our modern domes take an egg-like shape for internal support. Back then, the knowledge creating a fully-enclosed dome of this scale and weight that wouldn’t collapse in on itself wasn’t known, so the oculus has been left open for nearly 2,000 years! Fun fact: the Pantheon is still the largest, externally unsupported dome in the world!!!

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“M. AGRIPPA L. F. COS. TERTIUM FECIT” translates to “Marcus Agrippa, son of Lucius, in his third consulate, made it”

One of my favorite stories from Italian art history is when Filippo Brunelleschi rejected the offer to work with Lorenzo Ghiberti on the bronze doors of the baptistry in Florence. He then went to Rome for two years with his sculptor-friend Donatello to study the ancient monuments. Several years later when the Opera del Duomo (the cathedral works administration) announced the competition to finally build a dome on the cathedral, Brunelleschi won the commission thanks to his study of the Pantheon and revolutionary architectural proposal, which subsequently gave us one of the most famous and important architectural works in the world!

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The dome of the Pantheon with its open oculus

After about a 15 minute look-around, we made our way to our next stop: la Fontana di Trevi, the Trevi Fountain. The fountain is one of the largest and most famous fountains in the world, and is a masterpiece of Baroque sculpture. The water source of the fountain dates back to ancient Roman times with the construction of the Aqua Virgo Aqueduct in 19 B.C., that provided water to the Roman baths and the fountains of central Rome. The fountain was built at the end of the aqueduct, at the junction of three streets (tre vie) giving the Trevi Fountain its name.

The legend of the fountain says that if you hold a coin in your right hand and toss it over your left shoulder, that a return trip to Rome would be guaranteed! An estimated €3,000 are thrown into the fountain each day, and the money is used to subsidize a supermarket for Rome’s homeless … how amazing is that?!

After the Trevi fountain, we walked about 15 minutes to the church of Santa Maria della Vittoria that holds a sculpture I have dreamed of seeing for years. The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa by Gian Lorenzo Bernini is widely regarded as a masterpiece, and certainly one of the most famous works of Italian Baroque sculpture. Some people might know it from the Dan Brown book and movie Angles and Demons, of which it was featured in the “fire” segment. I have learned about the sculpture for so many years, so to finally see it was such a treat!

The work shows an experience of Teresa of Ávila, a spanish noblewoman who became a Carmelite nun, and an angel with a spear from an episode described in her autobiography, The Life of Teresa of Jesus. Her experience of religious ecstasy in her encounter with the angel as she describes: “I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the iron’s point there seemed to be lit a fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it. The soul is satisfied now with nothing less than God. The pain is not bodily, but spiritual; though the body has its share in it. It is a caressing of love so sweet which now takes place between the soul and God, that I pray God of His goodness to make him experience it who may think that I am lying”

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Gian Lorenzo Bernini,The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, marble sculpture, 1647–52, Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome, Italy
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detailed view of TheEcstasy of Saint Teresa

We spent only about 15 minutes in the church before all visitors were asked to leave before Saturday afternoon mass began. We walked about 15 minutes to la Piazza de Spanga for some photos, then grabbed a cab to get to Saint Peter’s Basilica (we tried going before our Musei Vaticani tour, but we arrived just after the last entrance time)

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At la Piazza di Spangna

Arriving back to la Piazza San Pietro, we queued up to go inside and were met literally thousands of tourists. Saint Peter’s Basilica is the head of the Catholic church, the seat of the pope, and is the largest Catholic church in the world!! People from all over the world and of all different religions come to see the basilica to admire its architecture, history, artifacts, and works of art. We took about 20 minutes going through the church, and then stumbled upon the treasury of the basilica, which was only €5 for entrance and an audio guide – I highly recommend everyone to go through the treasury!!! Seeing the Baldacchino, the Pietà, the tombs, the architecture, mosaics, art work, and all that gilding is always awe-inspiring.

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Piazza San Pietro, Vatican City
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Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Baldacchino di San Pietro, bronze sculpture, 1623–34, 94.3 feet high
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Michelangelo Buonarotti, Pietà, carrara marble, 1498–99, St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City

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The list of popes throughout history, engraved into marble

 After Saint Peter’s, we stopped for another overpriced but delicious meal (when you’re that exhausted, hungry, and with our feet killing us, we didn’t care where we ate!), then took a cab back to our Airbnb for a much needed rest. In total, all of the sightseeing we did only cost €5!! The Pantheon, Trevi Fountain, Santa Maria della Vittoria, la Piazza di Spagna, and entry to Saint Peter’s were all free! We finished up the day with an authentic Roman meal, a delicious bowl of carbonara and lots of red wine.

This day was amazing but EXHAUSTING! I was so happy to have revisited, or seen for the first time, these famous places in Rome … only one major Roman sight remained to be seen, which will come soon 😉

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