Palatine and Roman Forum (Rome, Italy)

The Roman Forum, as depicted by Constant Moyaux (1866). Image from wikipedia.

From the Colosseum, our guide led us on a walk through the Roman Forum, an area between the Palatine and Capitoline hills that served as ancient Rome’s commercial area. All the buildings now lay in ruins, with only pediments, partial columns, arches and fragments of floors remaining after 2,000 years. The state of the ruins, scattered over a large area, belies what must have been a magnificent civic center with grand structures and paved pathways, a tribute to the engineering prowess of the ancient Romans.

The Arch of Constantine, built by Emperor Constantine in AD 312 to commemorate his victory in battle over a rival co-emperor, marks the time when Rome converted to Christianity. It is now surrounded by a gate. As you walk past, you notice the decorations all over the arch. The marble friezes were re-used from earlier imperial monuments so that the overall impression is a lack of a coherent style.

Arch of Constantine

Arch of Constantine

The artistic style of the roundels from Hadrian's time (first third of the second century) markedly differs from the rectangular panel below (4th century)

The artistic style of the roundels from Hadrian’s time (first third of the second century) markedly differs from the rectangular panel below (4th century)

All that remains of the Temple of Venus and Roma are a row of Corinthian columns and a portion of the temple housing an impressive apse with a coffered dome. The temple is thought to have been the largest in ancient Rome.

Temple of Venus and Roma

Temple of Venus and Roma

To commemorate his brother and the victory over the Jews at Masada, Emperor Domitian built the Arch of Titus. In one panel under the soffit is a depiction of the Romans removing valuable treasure from the Temple of Jerusalem, including the menorah.

Arch of Titus

Arch of Titus

Sacking of the Temple of Jerusalem

Sacking of the Temple of Jerusalem

The arch is said to be the model for the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.

The Basilica of Maxentius was the largest structure built by the Romans at the time. It used to house an enormous statue, the Colossus of Constantine, that has since been moved to the Palazzo dei Conservatori. It used the latest technology to build the vast interior space, including soaring ceilings of perpendicular, coffered barrel vaults, which can still be seen today. A 9th century earthquake leveled most of the structure. All that remains today is the north wall.

North wall of the Basilica of Maxentius

North wall of the Basilica of Maxentius

As you approach the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina,built in the 2nd century, it looks like a traditional temple with portico of Corinthian columns. But as you get closer, you realize that it is the front of a Roman Catholic church (San Lorenzo in Miranda), the temple having been converted in the 7th century.

Temple of Antoninus and Faustina

Temple of Antoninus and Faustina

A temple dedicated to the twins Castor and Pollux, known as the Dioscuri, had to be rebuilt several times because of deterioration or fires that destroyed earlier constructions. The temple was used as a meeting place by the Senate as well as housing civic offices. Only a portion of the podium remains, three beautiful, fluted Corinthian columns topped by a portion of the architrave.

Three columns are all that remain of the Temple of Castor and Pollux

Three columns are all that remain of the Temple of Castor and Pollux

The Colosseum (Rome, Italy)

It was our first stop of the day, the tour led by a special guide who later led us through the Roman Forum. Considered the greatest example of ancient Roman engineering, the Colosseum still largely stands in the center of Rome, even after several major earthquakes and the ravages of time took their toll. There were several attempts throughout the Roman period to restore major portions of it, but the Colosseum never regained its original splendor. The structure is significant because of the influence it had on later, even contemporary designs, such as the inclusion of tiered seating and the manner in which spectators were quickly and efficiently seated and evacuated from so large an edifice.

In the Roman era, it seems that the Colosseum was used for entertainment purposes, including gladiatorial combat, recreation of famous battles, animal hunts, theatrical productions and the like. It is even said that there were recreations of naval battles which required the filling of the floor with water. The entire design of the subterranean section below a wooden floor covered with sand consisted of two levels of cages and tunnels that held and ferried not only props but gladiators and animals as well. The hypogeum, as the underground section was called, can still be seen largely intact today.

The hypogeum is still largely intact

The different classes of Roman society were segregated among the three seating levels, with the north side reserved for the emperor. The Colosseum is thought to have accommodated up to 50,000 spectators.

The Colosseum’s spectator section consisted of three levels above the arena

This and other monumental architecture makes you appreciate the accomplishments of ancient peoples.

Pantheon (Rome, Italy)

The portico of the Pantheon has Corinthian columns made from single pieces of granite

The portico of the Pantheon has Corinthian columns made from single pieces of granite

Walking through the Piazza della Rotonda in Rome, all we could see of the Pantheon was the portico with classic Corinthian columns that fronted a large, gray circular structure. As we stepped inside the building through the original bronze doors, we were awestruck by the sheer size of the interior, its immense and lofty dome, a marvelous feat of engineering of ancient Rome. The present structure was largely built by Emperor Hadrian, though an inscription atop the portico attributed it to Emperior Agrippa. In actuality, it has been rebuilt or modified many times.

As the name suggests, the Pantheon was probably a temple consecrated to all the Roman gods. Since the 7th century, the Pantheon also served as a Roman Catholic church, as evidenced by the addition of altars, apses, paintings and niches that contain sculptures of Christian personages and tombs. One of the tombs contains the remains of Raphael. Were it not for its conversion to a church after the fall of Rome, the Pantheon would have long ago been vandalized or stripped of its materials for other uses.

What is astonishing about the dome is that it is the largest, un-reinforced concrete dome in the world. How did the Romans accomplish this? To relieve the pressure from sheer weight, as it rises the dome tapers in thickness and employs lighter stones, with a pumice aggregate at the top. Coffering also reduced the weight.

Now, imagine a structure perfectly enclosing a sphere. This is exactly what the builders seemed to have in mind. The dome itself is a hemisphere with a diameter of 150 Roman feet and the height from floor to oculus is also 150 Roman feet. On the astronomically important dates of the solstices and equinoxes, the sun casts its light at noon on different spots in the interior. On the equinoxes, it shines along a north-south axis through the rotunda. Since our visit was but a week from the vernal equinox, we missed the centered illumination of the entryway, which faces north.

We missed the illumination of the entryway on the vernal equinox by a week.

We missed the illumination of the entryway on the vernal equinox by a week.

If the enclosed sphere were intended to be a planetary object, such as the Earth or sun, and when you consider that the sun’s rays penetrate the interior of the Pantheon through the oculus (see the top of the photo below), tracing its own path along an arc as the day progresses and its positioning on the equinoctial dates, then it isn’t hard to wonder if the Pantheon had an astronomical significance, too.

The hemispherical dome is topped by an oculus and flanked by 5 rows of coffers. Raphael's tomb is in the center at ground level.

The hemispherical dome is topped by an oculus and flanked by 5 rows of coffers. Raphael’s tomb is in the center at ground level.

Filippo Brunelleschi studied the Pantheon before he designed his dome for the Florence cathedral. The Pantheon is truly one of the world’s remarkable structures.

St. Peter’s Basilica (Vatican, Italy)

After dinner, the tour group returned to Vatican City to see arguably the most famous church in all of Christendom. Huge throngs of people were already flooding St. Peter’s Square.

Burial site for its namesake and numerous popes as well as papal basilica, St. Peter’s Basilica is not only a destination for the Catholic faithful but tourists from all over the world. It is one of the largest churches in the world, spreading over almost 6 acres. Like many other holy sites the world over, which includes many cultures and civilizations throughout history, it is built on top of another holy site, in this case, the basilica built by Emperor Constantine. It is also to be admired artistically. Some of the greatest names of the Renaissance were involved in its construction: Michelangelo, Bernini and Bramante (the architect). Its very splendor and opulence probably lend fuel to the fires of those who find its excesses overwrought. But, it is undeniably a monumental achievement in architecture, art and religious conviction.

The life of St. Peter is depicted on the ceiling of the portico

The dome, the tallest in the world, is a technical achievement, influenced by the dome designs of the Pantheon and Florence Cathedral. Several architects, including Michelangelo, passed away before the dome was completed. Superficially, it looks like the Pantheon’s, the representational “coffering” being instead paintings of 96 Biblical and papal figures, 16 in each of 6 ascending tiers. Unlike the Pantheon, the dome was built oval in shape to reduce compressional forces. There are also 16 windows ringing the dome at the base that provide illumination that on sunny days appears as crepuscular rays. The dome sits on a cylindrical wall, like the Pantheon’s, but which is itself mounted on four massive pillars, connected by spandrels on which each of the four evangelists, Luke, Matthew, John and Mark, is painted, to give an overall impression of stupendous height.

Leading up to the dome, the nave is flanked by pillars on both sides with niches occupied by statues of saints

The ovoid dome rests on a row of 16 clerestory windows, a source of natural illumination

Michelangelo’s masterpiece, the Pieta, is also in the basilica, housed in a glass case. He was an unknown sculptor, aged 24, when he completed it from a single piece of marble.

The Pieta by Michelangelo

The great sculptor and architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini was responsible for some of the basilica’s greatest treasures, created well after the basilica was built. His first commission resulted in the canopy (baldachin) that lies over St. Peter’s tomb and directly below the apex of the dome, possibly the largest work of bronze in the world. The layout of the piazza is entirely his design. It is flanked on two sides by colonnades of two pairs of columns, also his design, topped by statues of 140 saints. The piazza oddly has an Egyptian obelisk in the center, brought to Rome by Emperor Caligula.

Bernini’s baldachin that lies above St. Peter’s tomb

Bernini’s colonnades, topped by statues of saints, virtually ringing the piazza

Swiss guards have been protecting the Vatican since 1506

We wound up spending two hours wandering through this massive edifice. The basilica is breathtaking in its scale and elicits both awe and disquiet.

The Sistine Chapel (Vatican, Italy)

Creation of Adam by Michelangelo (from Wikipedia)

The Sistine Chapel, whose ceiling is adorned with the fresco masterpieces painted by Michelangelo, outside of being the site of Papal conclaves, is more than a destination for tourists. It is arguably one of the great achievements of Renaissance art, even more remarkable for the fact that Michelangelo really didn’t want to do it even when offered the commission by Pope Julius II. After compromises were made by the Pope, notably allowing Michelangelo to paint whatever biblical scenes he wanted, it took Michelangelo four years (1508-1512) to complete over 300 scenes over an area of 5,000 square feet, painted entirely while on his back on a scaffold. While there are masterpieces by other artists here as well, including Botticelli and Ghirlandaio, it is Michelangelo’s ceiling that towers figuratively and literally over all of them.

In order to experience it with as little a crowd around us as possible, Robin, our guide, shuttled us through the Vatican Museum as quickly as possible, even though she did stop occasionally to point out some of the museum’s highlights. In order to do the museum justice, we would have to return on our own, something we didn’t get a chance to do. One of the biggest problems is that it is visited by hordes of people with lines to purchase tickets snaking out well in front of the entrance. When we finally reached the Sistine Chapel, we were awed by its sheer size and the enormity of Michelangelo’s accomplishment, the ceiling almost 70 feet above the floor.

The most famous fresco is likely The Creation of Adam (above), which rests at the center along with two other episodes from the story of Adam and Eve. There are many other scenes from the Bible, which I’m not going to bother to summarize. The cumulative effect of seeing the entire corpus was overwhelming.

The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (from Wikipedia)

I have no personal photographs to share since no photography was allowed.