Dwight Peck's personal website

A return to Italy after too long away

November 2022

You may not find this terribly rewarding unless you're included here, so this is a good time for casual and random browsers to turn back before they get too caught up in the sweep and majesty of the proceedings and can't let go.

We're not based in Europe anymore, and we've struggled through the covid-19 lockdowns like everyone else, so we haven't set foot in Italy since February 2019. Now we'll be making up for lost time with mad sightseeing, but missing the cats sorely all the while.

Santa Maria in Ara Coeli and the Palazzo Venezia museum

We're back in the Piazza Venezia, 11 November, setting out to see some of the good stuff, and maybe even a stroll through the Forum if we're feeling up to it.

This is the view across the Piazza in front of the humongous Victor Emmanuel II National Monument, known as the Typewriter, where, if you're insufficiently alert . . .

. . . you might get run over by a horse.

They look almost like twins. The one in the centre is the Church of Santa Maria of Loreto, commissioned by the Association of Bakers, begun in 1570 by Bramante and completed by Sangallo the Younger; it was built over an earlier 15th century chapel housing an icon of the Virgin of Loreto, which is still in there. The domed but not-really-a-twin thing behind it is the 'Church of the Holy Name of Mary in the Trajan Forum', which replaced an earlier church on the site, done by a Frenchman named Derizet in 1736-1741.

That's Trajan's Column on the right, 38m high and built with 20 32-ton marble drums stuck up with innovative cranes, built in AD 113 to commemorate the emperor's victories in the two Dacian Wars (101-2 and 105-6) to create a new Roman province in what is now, more or less, Transylvania. A narrative of the military campaigns is carved in 190 metres of bas relief frieze spiraling upward from the base, and presumably can never have been followed from the ground, though his own account of the wars, the Dacica, now long gone, was originally housed in a chamber at the bottom. The thing is hollow with a 185-step spiral stair up the inside to the viewing platform above. A statue of Trajan used to stand on top but went away at some point and was replaced by Sixtus V with a St Peter in 1587. Plaster casts of the 155 scenes have been studied at ground level but seem to be enigmatic (Adrian Goldsworthy's In the Name of Rome (2003, pp 324-31) makes a plausible effort to untangle it all).

Mind the horse!

There's the garish Victor Emanuel II, still looming up there, as we're proceeding round the western side of the piazza.

This is the Scalinata dell'Ara Coeli (aka the Scala dell'Arce Capitolina), the Stairway to the Altar of Heaven, the church at the top of the Capitoline Hill. This brutal marble monster was built in 1348 to celebrate the end of the Black Death in Rome. 128 steps -- no way. We'll see if we can sneak in the back door.

But right next door, here's much easier going -- this is the 'Cordonata Capitolina' or ramp/stairs to the Piazza del Campidoglio, i.e. to the Capitoline. Joe and Teny are striving to keep up with Kristin, who doesn't slow down for stairs, and the cameraman is considering turning back.

Halfway up, here's a statue of Cola di Rienzo (1313-1354), a self-educated commoner who strove to revive the old Rome, which was then in a long period of chaotic decline with the papacy living it up in Avignon, and with eloquence and inspiring dreams, in May 1347 he gained the support of the people, calling himself their 'tribune', and drove the warring noble families out of the city. He overdid it all catastrophically, declaring Rome to be sovereign over the Holy Roman Empire and heavily taxing the people to pay for his very real civic improvements, and he summoned the European heads of state to Rome to receive his judgment and do homage. Finally, nearly everyone turned against him -- in November 1347 he beat off an army of the nobles just outside the Porta Tiburtina, but then had to flee. After two years imprisoned by the Emperor in Prague and the Pope in Avignon, he was pardoned and returned to Rome, trying to resume his revolutionary successes, but was murdered by the mob.

By the 19th century he'd become a symbol of romantic nationalism in Italy, and this statue was erected here in 1877, amid the reorganization of this district under the new post-papal city authorities.

Flanking the top of the stairs are statues of the Gemini twins, Castor and Pollux, also called the Dioscuri ('gods' + 'kids'), as always, shown with horses. The statues are ancient but were unearthed in 1561 and set up here in 1583.

Trying to rejoin our party, here we are in the Piazza del Campidoglio, designed by Michelangelo over the years 1536-1546, along with the rebuilt and newly built palazzi on three sides, now housing the Capitoline Museums and the City Council.

The Capitoline Museums

This is an equestrian statue of the philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius (r. AD 161-180), the original of which is said to be one of only two equestrian statues of pre-Christian Roman emperors surviving from the Late Empire, evidently having avoided being melted down for coinage only because it was mistaken for a statue of the Christian emperor Constantine I.

This is actually a replica made in 1981 as the original had become severely weathered and in 1979 was damaged in a terrorist bomb attack on the Palazzo Senatorio nearby, now the home of the City Council of Rome. Here is a photo of the original, now in the Capitoline Museums, taken during an earlier visit.

We'd very much like to visit the Ara Coeli church, without the 128 steps up to the front door, and this might do it for us.

Some steps, but certainly not 128.

The back door (side door actually) of the Basilica di Santa Maria in Ara Coeli

Lots to see here -- especially the Santo Bambino of Aracoeli!

There are 22 columns between the nave and the aisles on either side, no two of them alike, all scavenged from ancient Romans leftovers.

The Santo Bambino of Aracoeli works miracles -- here's a less-than-miraculous image of the little guy. The Holy Baby was a wooden figure of the Child Jesus, who could resurrect the dead. He's all smothered in gold stuff and gems, etc., donated by his serious fans over the centuries; he receives letters from children all over the world, and, if they're seriously sick and nearby, he may go to visit them. It's not actually him, though -- the 15th century wooden Bambino was stolen in 1994, and a stand-in was made up and stuck in the case.

Here's a somewhat better picture (photo by Matthias Kabel, 2009, under Wikipedia Creative Commons), just to show what all the spiritual excitement is about. [In 2008, we observed two priests climbing ladders to fetch the golden dolly out of his case for some processional or whatever, and speculated that the holy fake kid was being stolen again.]

This is the Bufalini Chapel, with Pinturicchio's 15th-century frescoes depicting the life of Saint Bernardino of Siena.

There was a Byzantine abbey here originally, but the first church is documented by 574 following the Eastern Orthodox rite, with subsequent alterations over the years. It was taken over by the papacy in the 9th century and given to the Benedictine order, than passed on to the Franciscans in about 1250 -- it's the Franciscan order that left the original unfinished façade, as Franciscans often did.

That classy ceiling was apparently only made in 1572-1586 to celebrate of the papal fleet's part in the momentous Christian Holy League's naval victory over the Turkish fleet at Lepanto in the Gulf of Patras, Greece, in 1571. (Ironically, the Turkish fleet seems to have got more or less back to strength about the time that this celebration was begun. Still, it was a morale-building victory for the western Europeans.)

There's more here, too, including a collection of relics said to have been brought here by Constantine I's mother, St Helena, and in the altar is the 'Madonna Aracoeli' (aka Our Lady of the Golden Hands), a 10th or 11th century Byzantine icon. There are also tombs of local worthies and noble families by illustrious artists, like Donatello and Michaelangelo. And the inlaid floor is Cosmatesque.

A clear case of Effigy Abuse

The Chapel of St Helena under a ciborium (relics tucked away inside)

This is a statue of Pope Leo X Medici, by Domenico Aimo, installed in 1521 (the year of the pope's death, though he himself's not here). This is not generally considered to be a very impressive piece of work.

We've had so much fun so far that we're beginning to reconsider the whole concept of Forum Explorations, at least for the moment. We'll think about it whilst looking for the entrance to the Forum area.

Down we go off what is, since Michelangelo got the top of the Capitoline facing the other way instead of out over the Forum, the back of the Campidoglio.

There's a quick glance at the western end of the Forum area. A discussion with staffers about how to be admitted to the Forum's wonders seems seriously to be informing us that the only entrance is at the far end, near the Colosseum, about 800m away.

And if that were not dissuasive enough, they also seemed to be agreeing that you could only pay the entrance fee by holding your cellphone up to a little screen. Perhaps they were just funnin' us.

This is the famous arch of Septimius Severus, created in AD 203 to memorialize the Emperor's victories over the Parthian Empire in northwestern modern Iran and Armenia.

Some of his victories were notable at the time, sacking the royal city of Ctesiphon in 198 and what not, but they made not much of a lasting difference to relations between the two empires. Nice arch, though.

There are ongoing excavations on both sides of the Via dei Fori Imperiali, a Fascist effort at urban renewal, driving a straight line throughfare between the Piazza Venezia and the Colosseum and knocking down everything in between. It transpired that that much traffic so near all this ancient stuff was really deleterious, and finally in 2013 the city restricted the southern half of it, down to the Colosseum, to buses and taxis. Mussolini rode in on a horse to cut the ribbon inaugurating the new road in 1932.

We're continuing to pace to and fro along the Via dei Fori Imperiali, with a view across the way of bits of the fora of Trajan, Augustus, and Nerva, and of the weird Torre delle Milizie, or Tower of the Militia, once thought by locals to have been the place from which Nero watched the great fire he'd started in AD 64 (though he wasn't in Rome at the time).

The background is that noble and/or rich families in most Italian city states in the Middle Ages built defensive towers in their quarters of the cities, but when the era of warring commune factions declined with the coming of the era of the signori, roughly 14th to early 16th centuries -- with predominant ruling dynasties (Visconti, Este, Sforza, Malatesta, della Scala, etc.) or more direct papal control -- in most cities the towers were 'slighted', either knocked down or lowered to a statutory height. (On this trip, we'll be visiting Ascoli Piceno in the Marche region, where there were once 200 defensive towers, though only about seven remain from that period. San Gimignano in Tuscany has preserved about a dozen).

This one was probably built (we're informed) by the Aretino clan in the time of Pope Innocent III (early 13th century), but it later passed to the dominant Annibaldis, followed by the Prefetti di Vico family, then the Caetani, who enlarged and fortified it still more. When Henry VII came to be crowned Emperor in 1312, he stationed his Ghibelline entourage here, but then it came to the Conti family, who held it until 1619 (the earthquake of 1348 knocked the top two floors off it), when it was bought by or gifted to a nearby religious order of nuns. It became a national monument in 1911.

The building with the huge loggia is the Casa dei Cavalieri di Rodi (House of the Knights of Rhodes); sited in the ruins of the Forum of Augustus, it was built by the Knights Hospitaller in the late 13th century and since 1946 has been used by their successors, the Sovereign Military Order of Malta.

Formed in the early 12th century to aid and protect Christian pilgrims to Jerusalem, they became (like the Knights Templar) an important military religious order during the Crusades, after which they fled to Cyprus in 1291, then to Rhodes were they fought or exercised piracy until 1522 when the Ottomans drove them off; European powers gave them Malta in 1530, where they withstood a terrible Ottoman siege in 1565, but Napoleon drove them out in 1798 and they more or less dispersed. The Sovereign Military Order of Malta is one among a few recreated offshoot orders whose sovereign status is recognized with observer status at the UN and many countries with which it has diplomatic relations for its work with victims of armed conflict, health care for the poor, etc. [That building evidently has extraterritorial status.]

-- Don't make any loud noises or abrupt movements!
On the left, that's the Palazzo di Venezia and its Museo Nationale. Now we've got a plan.

Slipping past the monumental typewriter, trying to resist staring at it

Entering the Palazzo Venezia, welcomed by a lady with no nose. Or hands. Or . . . well, not much else either. Where'd they dig her up?

The lovely interior courtyard. According to the info plaque near the entrance, the Palazzo Venezia was begun by Cardinal Pietro Barbo from Venice in 1455 and expanded beginning in 1464 after he'd become Pope Paul II and continued by his nephew Cardinal Marco Barbo. In 1564 Pope Pius IV Medici donated it to the Venetian Republic for its embassy, thus the name, but in 1797 it was taken over by the Austrian Empire for its own embassy. The Italian State established the place as a museum in 1916 (the two were desperate enemies in WW1), but in 1922 Mussolini made it the seat of his Fascist government, and it only became a public museum again at the end of WW2.

We're crossing the courtyard towards the ticket office near the main entrance on the far side, facing onto the Via del Plebiscito off the Piazza Venezia, which was once the route by which the papal entourage traveled between the Lateran Palace and the Vatican. The statue in the centre, showing Venice in its role as 'Bride of the Sea', was put there in the 18th century, and in the 19th the Austrian transformed the courtyard into this extensive garden.

It's certainly got lots of steps.

Lots and lots of steps, but . . .

. . . now we're up in this big loggia.

That's Pope Pius II Barbo his own good self. That Happy Hat was required of all the popes, apparently.

Now we are pacing through an impressive succession of enormous empty rooms, very attractive in themselves, but . . . empty.

We can see that they must have had lots of fun here, but one is becoming a little bit impatient.

We had been informed that there would be a grand wealth of medieval religious stuff here.

Hmmmm . . .

Ah, good. This is called the 'Madonna of Acuto', walnut wood, late 12th or early 13th century, a timely expression of the growing cult of the Virgin in western Europe in the 12th and 13th centuries, inspired not least by Bernard of Clairvaux.

Two more early wooden Madonnas -- on the left, one by 'Nicola di Nuro', ca. 1330s; on the right, the 'Madonna of Pacentro' (a village in the l'Aquila province of Abruzzo), ca. 1400

The Apostle St James the Greater and Anthony the Abbot (so-called 'Father of Monasticism'), with the Virgin above, by the 'Tuscan Master', late 14th century

A 'Choir of Angels' by Paolo Veneziano, also tempera on wood, mid 14th century. Medieval religious art can often seem to be a bit of an acquired taste -- but we're coming to something a bit more lively now.

How's this? Look at these clowns . . .

. . . they're a troop of Lansquenets (more commonly 'Landknechts'), German pike-and-shot mercenary soldier bands in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, known for their undoubted miliary skills, ferocity, potential for mutiny, and fondness for strong drink. They were a large part of the Sack of Rome in 1527 when unpaid by the Emperor Charles V.

Death of the Virgin, attributed to Michael Wolgemut of Nuremberg, between 1480 and 1520, oil rather than tempera on wood this time.

Madonna and Child, tempera again, second half of the 15th century, a minor work by Neri di Bicci of Florence, the third in line of that dynasty. But the Christ child is so cute.

Whereas this Christ looks as if he might still be hoping not to be noticed. By Bernardino Zaganelli of Ravenna, tempera, late 15th - early 16th century

This is displayed as the museum's latest acquisition. He's Pope Pius V Ghislieri, best known for his part in assembling the 'Holy League' that defeated the Ottoman fleet at Lepanto in 1571. That hat can probably only be worn for short periods; here it's called his 'tiara', but a papal tiara is not much like a fashionable diadem sort of tiara of modern fashion mags. In fact, this one is a 'triregnum' or 'triple crown', long a symbol of the papacy along with the crossed keys of St Peter. Its use has been discontinued since the 1960s.

There's lots more to be seen in the museum -- huge collections of ceramic pieces like these, and . . .

. . . whole corridors brimming with 'Small Bronzes'. Of course, they can't really be photographed by amateurs . . .

. . . especially when one is dashing through the rooms trying to catch up with his party.

This thing is pretty interesting, though -- a terracotta relief of 'St Mark healing the infirm and freeing the possessed' by Sansovino, 1536. That little winged beastie looks a lot like a demon angry at having been 'cast out'.

That's enough for one day; back to the ground floor and out through the gardens . . .

. . . to another . . .

. . . unavoidable view of the Victor Emanuel II monument.

Here's a Roman edifice much smaller than Victor Emanuel II's monument, but much more useful, colorful, and unpretentious, and you can 'all tickets buy here'.

Walking back to our temporary digs in the Palazzo Donarelli, for lunch, with the Castel Sant'Angelo peeking through the alleyways.

Next up: The Palazzo and Galleria Colonna

Feedback and suggestions are welcome if positive, resented if negative, . All rights reserved, all wrongs avenged. Posted 3 January 2023.

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