The city of Rome is filled with some of the most extraordinary museums, monuments and works of arts in the world. The sheer wealth of amazing sights often overwhelms the limited time and resources of visitors to the Eternal City, who are forced to pick and choose which sight they most want to see. Though everyone has their own personal choice, the following are the three most popular monuments visitors choose to see while in Rome.
Rome’s magnificent Coliseum (pictured right) is one of the world’s most famous landmarks. In a city filled with remarkable structures, this ruined arena still stands as one of the finest examples of Roman architecture and engineering. The Coliseum, sometimes spelled Colosseum, was first known as theFlavian Amphitheatre and was begun on the orders of the Flavian Emperor Vespasian. The much-defamed Emperor Nero also had a hand in its construction, intending it to be just one part of a larger, more lavish palace complex. Unfortunately, his grand designs never came about as he died before it was opened in 80 A.D. Noone knows the name of the architect who designed the project; an inscription found deep in the building attributed the design to a Christian (a despised minority at the time), but the inscription was later found to be a forgery. Whoever the architect was however, he was undoubtedly a master at his craft. It took 10 years to build and, at the time of its completion, it was the largest structure of its kind in the ancient world.
In those long-ago days of glory, it must have been a truly imperial sight. The constant stream of visitors today is no match for the crowds that once converged on the Coliseum. At its peak, this great amphitheatre was host to a crowd of 50,000 roaring spectators. On festival days and during special events, the Romans of old would have streamed in through the other 76 of the 80 entrances, climbing wooden ramps to take their places on the ascending rows of seats, with marble benches on the higher levels for the upper class and wooden ones on the lower levels for the rest. Later, the Emperor and his retinue would enter through the two entrances reserved for them and seat themselves in the imperial gallery. Above the crowds, archers stood watchful on a suspended catwalk, ready to shoot should a beast — animal or man — threaten the crowds. Higher still, a great linen canopy stretched across the open expanse of the arena, shielding the spectators from the sun and rain.
In the centre of the Coliseum was the arena, where all the action took place. The floor of the arena was made of wooden planks and the picture below shows the dark underground pits and passageways beneath it, where the men and animals were housed before each show. The name of the battleground was derived from the Latin word for the sand spread on the ground to soak up spilled blood. The precaution was wise; the emperor Titus opened the Coliseum in AD 80 with 100 days of games in which 9,000 animals were killed, and during some of the larger fights, as many as 10,000 men died for the entertainment of the people. The shows would be varied; sometimes there were gladiator fights; other times, the arena would be flooded with water and mock naval combats were staged; and still other times, there were executions of criminals and other undesirables.
The most famous of the participants were the gladiators. Gladiatorial combat originated as part of Etruscan funerary rites as a form of human sacrifice to appease the gods; by the time of Caesar, it had become a sport to appease the bloodlust of the people. The gladiators were sometimes slaves or criminals who were forced to fight for their freedom and sometimes free men who chose to fight for gain. The risks were colossal but the rewards were astounding: successful gladiators were the rock stars of their age, gaining fortunes from their efforts, the adoration of the multitudes and for slaves, sometimes their freedom. Gladiators, like the Emperor, had their own entrances. The living passed through one entrance, while those that died in the area exited through the Libitinarian Gate, so named for Libitina, the goddess of funerals.
When the barbarians overcame the Eternal City and plunged the Continent into the Dark Ages, the Coliseum was abandoned. Weeds grew on the arena floor and its walls were quarried for stone. Its reputation as a symbol of Rome, the “Etemal City”, also dates to the Middle Ages, when Bede wrote the immortal lines: “while the Colosseo stands, Rome shall stand, but when the Colosseo falls, Rome shall fall and when Rome falls, the world will end”.
The Pantheon borders the Piazza della Rotonda, a rectangular square with a central fountain. It is situated in the historic center of Rome, not far from the Piazza Navone and is perhaps the best preserved Roman monuments in Rome. The original stairway leading up to the Pantheon’s Corinthian porch is now submerged under the current street level. Despite the loss, the temple still creates a grand impression on visitors approaching it from the front. The entrance to the Pantheon is graced by a portico of elegant columns, 75 feet high. Quarried from distant Egypt, the columns weigh 60 tonnes each.
The columns support a pediment with an inscription toMarcus Agrippa, son-in-law to the emperor Augustus and founder of a temple dedicated to Venus and Mars, which stood on the same spot in 27 BC. After this first temple burnt down (and its replacement was struck by lightning), Emperor Hadrian ordered the Pantheon built in 118 AD. In an age when the old gods were becoming increasingly irrelevant to the diverse peoples of the Empire, Hadrian intended the Pantheon to be a temple to all the gods, hence the name. It was his building which still stands in Rome today.
Behind the row of columns stands a huge bronze door, which gives access to the interior of the Pantheon. Before entering however, visitors should walk around the outside of the temple and look up, to see one of the most remarked upon features of the Pantheon. Classical Rome was famed for its mastery of building with concrete, and the Pantheon dome is often considered one of the ancient builders’ greatest achievements. Rising 71 feet above its base, and stretching 142 feet in diameter, noone has ever been able to figure out exactly how the great dome was built. The Pantheon’s roof has stood as the largest dome in the world for over a thousand years, until the Florence Cathedral was constructed in 1436 and even today, is still one of the most impressive examples of its kind. It was the inspiration for Bramante’s addition of a dome to the St Peters Cathedral and even caused the notoriously tight-lipped Michelangelo to proclaim the Pantheon to be of “angelic and not human design.”
Beneath the dome is the immense circular space. Exactly as wide as it is high, the dim interior is lit only by a shaft of sunlight streaming through the single 27 foot wide opening, known as the oculus, piercing the dome overhead. The light softly illuminates the coloured marble of the floor and walls and throws the seven deep wall recesses spaced around the rotunda into deep shadow. In the quiet lull between the departure of one crowd of tourists and the next, a visitor still can feel the sense of quiet serenity and immensity the builders strove to create.
Directly beneath the dome is a frieze of stucco decoration, applied during the late Renaissance. There were once bronze rosettes and embellishments strewn throughout the interior. These have disappeared over the years, but in every other way, the interior has remained unchanged since the days of the Roman Empire.
After a thousand years of dedication to the old gods of Rome, the Pantheon became the first temple in the city to be Christianized. In AD 609, this ancient temple was rededicated as the Church of the Santa Maria Rotonda, or ad Martyres, which it remains today.
Though Rome is filled with elegant fountains, the Trevifountain in a piazza of Via del Tritone, is special. Every day, an endless stream of visitors come from all over the world to view it and toss a penny or two in its cool green waters.
Part of the fountain’s unique appeal is its historical importance. Begun by the famed architect Salvi in 1735 and completed in 1751, the fountain marks the terminus of the ancient Aqua Vergine Aqueduct, an important structure in a city where life depended on water brought from distant lakes and springs. The aqueduct supplied water to the nearby Baths of Agrippa, where the elite of society met to cleanse, gossip and plot. The name of the the fountain is said to have come from its location at the junction of three roads (or tre vie, in Italian).
Another reason the fountain is popular is because of its beauty. In a city enamoured with beautiful things, the Trevi fountain is generally considered the most perfect of all the city’s fountains. The magnificent artwork surrounding the waters shows a sombre Neptune, springing forth from the waters on a winged chariot drawn by leaping sea-horses. Behind him is an Arch of Triumph, symbolizing his Palace, with its niches filled with statues and carvings — Abundance bestowing bounty; Salubrity; the Virgin showing the way; and even Agrippa approving the design of the Aqueduct. To the right of the Ocean God, a Triton labours to control a violent sea-horse, while on the left another Triton leads a pacified creature and herald’s his lord’s approach (pictured below); both scenes symbolise the dual nature of the world’s oceans.
For most people though, the fountain is famous because of the superstitions that surround it. An ancient Roman custom holds thattossing a penny into the waters was both good luck and a guarantee that the wisher would return to Rome. The world was introduced to this charming tradition in the films Three Coins in a Fountain and La Dolce Vita, and ever since, the waters of the fountain have glittered with coins left by wishers from all over the world. Throwing one coin ensures that the thrower will return to Rome; throwing two coins will ensure that the thrower will fall in love with a beautiful Roman girl (or handsome boy); throwing three coins, finally, ensures that the thrower will marry that girl or boy in Rome itself. If you’d like to try, remember to throw the coin with your right hand over your left shoulder!