An embarrassment of riches
It's hard to find BAD gelato in Rome (unless you buy the pre-fab kind in paper wrappers found at the bottom of freezers in certain tacky places), but you might have a problem trying to decide which of the seemingly innumerable flavors, or combinations of flavors, you want to try. Baskin-Robbins and Haagen-Das, stand aside and make way for Gelateria della Palma!
The place is easy to find. With the facade of the Pantheon behind you, walk straight across the piazza and take the street on your right, via del Pantheon, which becomes via della Maddalena. On the far left corner of via Maddalena and via Coppelle you'll find gelato heaven.
I wouldn't even try to count the number of flavors available at this super-gelateria. In addition to dozens of flavors of gelato, there's also a selection made with yogurt and another section where the consistency is a creamier mousse. There must be 15 or more different kinds of chocolate gelato, others made from every fresh fruit you can think of, others studded with different kinds of nuts, still others with candies embedded in them. But before you make a decision, you have to pay; the cashier is toward the back, up a couple of stairs. There you ask for the number of flavors you want-- the price depends on how many you choose -- and the cashier gives you a receipt, which you bring to the counter. Then begins the delicious joy of decision-making.
Most visitors to Rome who seek out the city's ancient Jewish ghetto don't go there looking for churches. Nonetheless, several churches are located there, and two have histories connected with the city's Jewish community.
Toward the western edge of the ghetto is S. Maria del Pianto. Originally dedicated to Christ and called S. Salvatore, the church received a new name in 1546, when an image of the Virgin Mary inside was said to have wept -- hence the "Pianto" part of the church's name -- in sorrow over the refusal of the Jews to convert.
On the southern edge of the ghetto near the Tiber, stands the church of S. Gregorio della Divina PietÃ . When Pope Paul IV decreed the creation of the Roman ghetto in 1555, and ordered the neighborhood enclosed by walls, the little church found itself next to one of the two gates to the ghetto, and thus became a focal point of efforts to convert the Roman Jews -- an effort that saw little success. On Sundays, adult male Jews were required to stand outside the church and to listen to conversionist sermons, a practice that continued until the modern Kingdom of Italy ended it in the late 19th century.
On the faÃ§ade is an inscription in Hebrew and Latin, from Isaiah 65:2: "I have spread out my hands all day to a rebellious people, which walketh in the way that is not good," a Christian attempt to reprimand the Jews by using their own scriptures against them.
Getting it up
Haha! Nothing about sex here, but nonetheless something about the most astonishing erection in Rome's history: the raising of the enormous obelisk in front of St. Peter's. Despite its size, visitors often don't notice the obelisk, because they're intent on getting into the church, or overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the space in front of it.
When Sixtus V became pope in 1585, the obelisk -- dating from the 1100s B.C and brought from Egypt by the Romans -- stood near St. Peter's, in the ruins of Nero's racecourse, where St. Peter had been crucified. The problems of moving a standing, intact obelisk 85 feet high and weighing 440 tons might have given any pope pause, but Sixtus put his brilliant engineer, Domenico Fontana, on the task. Lowering the obelisk, moving it 275 yards and re-erecting it in front of St. Peter's was a fantastic feat of engineering that took nearly a year. It required enormous pulleys, levers and winches, 200 horses, and the labor of a thousand men.
That final, crucial step, raising the obelisk onto its new base, provided breathless suspense. Sixtus had ordered the work to proceed in total silence -- on pain of death. As the men and horses hauled, and the obelisk inched upward, friction caused smoke to rise from the taut ropes. At that moment a sailor in the crowd risked death by shouting, "WATER ON THE ROPES!" Fontana gave that order, and his workmen succeeded in putting the obelisk into position, where it's stood ever since.
After the successful erection of the obelisk, the pontiff rewarded the sailor by making his family the sole provider of the palm leaves used by the Vatican on Palm Sunday, an honor his hometown of Bordighera holds to this day.
Dodging Rome's insane train ticket agents
I'm convinced that Italy's way of dealing with un-institutionalized psychotics is to give them jobs as ticket agents with the state railroad system. That way, they can legally be locked into little boxes with metal bars over the window, from which to snarl at hapless foreign travelers. Truly. I've seen more melt-downs in Termini, Rome's central railroad station, than anywhere else in Italy -- ranging from men in 10-gallon Texas cowboy hats turning beef-red and shouting at the ticket agents (as if talking louder made them more understandable) to college girls reduced to tears. But even if you don't encounter, or experience, traumas at the ticket window, the chances are you'll have to wait in a long and slow-moving line.
There are better ways to purchase train tickets. Termini now has automatic ticket machines -- when purchasing tickets to an Italian destination, you can avoid dealing with agents. Another way is to purchase tickets from a travel agency. The Italian term is "agenzia di viaggi" and there are lots of them in Rome; your hotel concierge can point you to the closest one. In the city center they have travel agents fluent in English, and your tickets won't cost any more than they do at the central station.
A third possibility is to buy your tickets at Stazione Trastevere, about a 10-minute trip on the 8 tram from the city center. It's never busy and the agents are MUCH more polite than the ones at Termini.
The man in the top hat
When it comes to finding your way around in Rome, your best bet is to learn some landmarks. Remembering street names is difficult even if you know Italian, because street names change frequently. Plus, you can rarely see street names when you're in a bus or tram.
A good landmark for those wishing to learn their way around the Trastevere neighborhood is the conspicuous monument to Trastevere's dialect poet Gioacchino Belli. It's near the Ponte Garibaldi, on Viale di Trastevere, the 19th-century boulevard that divides the ancient neighborhood in half; it stands next to the stop of the 8 tram, and where the H bus stop is also located.
If you want to get TO Trastevere, from Stazione Trastevere to the south, or from the city center to the north, keep a lookout from the bus or tram window, and when you spot the white marble monument of a man in 19th-century clothing and a tall top-hat -- that's your stop.
Belli leans jauntily on the Bridge of the Four Heads -- the ancient Roman Pons Fabricius of 62 B.C., that leads from the city center to the Tiber Island, and on into Trastevere. On the back of the monument is a lively scene showing 19th-century Romans gathered around Pasquino, one of Rome's "talking statues." The relief links Belli's biting satires with the mocking, disrespectful verses that people attached anonymously to Pasquino, verses that criticized the Church, noble families, and anyone in authority, just as Belli's poems did.
Michelangelo's two tombs
On February 14, 1564, Michelangelo Buonarroti died, in his 90th year, in his studio/house in Rome, surrounded by close friends. Considering that the great artist hadn't set foot in his native city of Florence since 1534, when he'd left in disgust with the city's political climate, it seems natural that he'd be buried in Rome, which he was.
But not for long.
Pope Pius IV ordered Michelangelo's body interred in St. Peter's, but for reasons unknown, that didn't happen. Instead, he was buried in the Santissimi Dodici Apostoli (church of the Holy Apostles) in Rome.
Michelangelo's body remained there for only 18 days. The Florentines refused to allow Rome to take permanent possession of their own most famous artist, and they plotted to smuggle the corpse to Florence. With the help of Michelangelo's nephew Lionardo and several other accomplices, the artist's body was removed from its tomb and hidden under sacks of grain in a merchant's wagon. In this undignified fashion Michelangelo finally returned to Florence.
Huge crowds attended a memorial service for "il divino Michelangelo," held at the church of S. Lorenzo, and he was later buried in S. Croce, in a hideous tomb designed by Giorgio Vasari.
But in the second cloister of the Santissimi Apostoli you'll find a commemorative plaque reminding us of Michelangelo's original burial place, along with a Latin inscription that declares: "No elegy is equal to such a name." There's also a grumpy little sign noting that the Florentines stole the artist's body.
Blissfully Blessed Ludovica
The church of S. Francesco a Ripa, on the eastern side of Trastevere, isn't a well-known tourist site, but it has one absolutely amazing work of art, an ensemble of sculpture, architecture and light completed in 1674 by Rome's Baroque magician of an artist, Gianlorenzo Bernini: the tomb of Beata (BlessÃ¨d) Ludovica Albertoni. The work is in the specially designed Altieri chapel, which fills the left transept of the otherwise unremarkable church interior.
Ludovica was a distant relative of the cardinal who commissioned the chapel. A member of a wealthy family, she was widowed in 1506, and before her death in 1533 she spent her fortune and exhausted herself in caring for the poor. She was said to have the gift of levitation -- supposedly, her body rose off the ground when she experienced religious ecstasies. The gorgeously carved figure, illuminated by beams of light from a hidden window, represents Ludovica on her deathbed, experiencing both physical suffering and the spiritual fulfillment of union with God.
Bernini was in his 70s when he began work on the chapel, but he clearly hadn't forgotten how a woman looks when she's in "ecstasy." Ludovica writhes in what amounts to a sumptuous marble orgasm, head thrown back, eyes half-closed, mouth open in an unmistakable mingling of spiritual and physical passion.
On Jan. 28, 1671, Ludovica was beatified by Pope Clement X, but unlike Pope John Paul II, she was never "fast-tracked" for sainthood. Her canonization is still pending.
A poet's favorite hangout
In Trastevere, just across the 15th-century pedestrian bridge known as the Ponte Sisto, is a small square called Piazza Trilussa. It takes its name from a local dialect poet whose real name was Carlo Alberto Salustri (1873-1950); Trilussa is an anagram of his last name. He's best known for poems written in the local Trastevere dialect, which makes them difficult to translate adequately. They have a sardonic and sarcastic tone and in a subtle way are often critical of established authority.
Trilussa liked to watch the passing scene from an outdoor table at a simple little eatery located on the southwestern edge of the piazza that today bears his name. The place is called Osteria Ponte Sisto, and it's a restaurant that hasn't lost its original "flavor." It's still small and rather cramped inside and its outdoor tables are practically grazed by the cars that go rattling past over the cobblestone street in front. But along with tourists it has a loyal local clientele -- which to me is a sure sign of a good place to eat.
On a wall inside is a portrait-sketch of Trilussa, apparently made while the poet was sitting in the restaurant. He looks out at us with heavy-lidded eyes, a cigarette dangling from his mouth, his face wearing a world-weary expression, and you can almost see the verses forming in his mind as he watches the little dramas and comedies of Roman life unfolding before him.
Dinner where Caesar died?
People often assume Julius Caesar was assassinated inside the Roman Senate in the Forum, but he wasn't -- he was stabbed to death in the Theater of Pompey, where the senators were meeting while the Senate was being refurbished, at Caesar's expense. The foundations of Pompey's theater form the basement level of a series of more recent buildings, one of which houses a restaurant where you can descend to the level of the ruins and eat your dinner there.
It's called Ristorante Grotte del Teatro di Pompeo, and it's located at via del Biscione, 73-74, a short distance south of Rome's main thoroughfare, Corso Vittorio Emanuele, and near the Campo de' Fiori. The restaurant has outdoor seating in summer and a ground floor dining room, but you also can ask to be seated "nei resti del teatro" (in the remains of the theater), a floor below the present ground level. Along with an interesting setting, the place serves good food.
Chances are, though, that you won't be enjoying your pasta on the exact spot where Caesar met his end on the Ides of March in 44 BC. Pompey's theater was huge -- its remains extend east to Largo Argentina, and current archaeological opinion holds that Caesar's death occurred at a spot under the present-day Teatro Argentina. I once went on a tour of the "sotterranei" beneath that building. It's in this maze of ancient ruins, unsuspected when you enter the 19th-century theater, that you might encounter Great Caesar's Ghost.
Bernini, young and old
Gianlorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) is best known as the greatest Italian Baroque sculptor, but he was also a painter. Unlike his immense, stunning sculptural creations, found in some of the most prominent public spaces of Rome -- think of the two main altars in St. Peter's, the Fountain of the Four Rivers in Piazza Navona, the angels known as the "Breezy Maniacs" that enliven the bridge leading to Castel Sant'Angelo -- Bernini's few paintings are portraits. They're small, private, realistic and introspective.
From time to time he painted his pupils and assistants, but most often he painted himself. The Galleria Borghese in Rome owns two Bernini self-portraits, one painted in 1623, when the artist was 25, and the other around 1635, when he was in his late 30s. Both are worth seeing.
The youthful self-portrait burns with fierce energy as well as sultry sexuality -- look at that tousled hair, those gleaming eyes, and that soft, full lower lip! Little wonder women were crazy about Bernini. And yet it's not a preening, self-satisfied individual who reveals himself here, but a deeply serious one -- tense and edgy -- the kind of man you wouldn't want to cross.
The more mature self-portrait shows the toll that more than a decade of intense creative work had taken on Bernini. He's thinner; there are wrinkles and dark circles under his eyes; his hair has thinned. He confronts his own aging, his own mortality, with an unflinching courage reminiscent of Rembrandt.
Tiny thieving hands
A sure-fire way to avoid being the victim of pickpockets in Rome is to spot them before they before they spot you.
The most common form of petty thievery in Rome is committed by Gypsy children. Sorry if this sounds politically incorrect, but it's a fact. If you're approached on the street by several small, ragged children who try to give you something, or attempt to push under your nose a newspaper or a piece of cardboard with something written on it, put an iron grip on your wallet or purse and get away from them as quickly as possible.
The cardboard or newspaper is to distract you. While you're trying to read what's on the cardboard or figure out what's going on with the newspaper, tiny hands will be busy below, getting into your pockets. These kids aren't amateurs -- they're highly trained professional thieves and they'll relieve you of your valuables with stunning speed. They quickly pass their loot to an adult who disappears, while these "innocent" children can't be accused of anything, since they don't have the stolen item(s) in their possession.
Even though I've never been robbed in Rome, I was once a witness to this kind of robbery. Sure enough, the fellow was wearing shorts and a baseball cap and had a big wallet sticking out of his pocket. The kids surrounded him, doing a sort of swarming dance and brandishing pieces of cardboard, and before he knew it, the man's wallet was gone.
Ubi forica est?
Last week, I wrote about the modern problem of finding a public restroom in Rome. This week, let's take that issue back to ancient Rome.
During the height of the Roman Empire, Rome was a city of around 2 million people, many of whom spent much of their days outdoors. Only the homes of the wealthy had private latrines -- the rest of the Roman had to make do with using the city's public lavatories.
According to ancient literary sources -- those indelicate enough to mention such matters -- Rome was supplied with hundreds of public latrines, all but a tiny number of which have long ago disappeared.
There's one tucked into an inaccessible spot on the slope of the Janiculum Hill, but that's only open on rare occasions for guided tours. The other one, however, is located right smack in the middle of downtown Rome, in Largo Argentina, a large sunken area full of ruins. If you walk along the western edge of these ruins, at the mid-point you can look down and see a series of round holes in a long slab of travertine stone. This is the remains of a public bathroom.
As far as we can figure out, these toilets, although enclosed, offered no privacy and weren't sex-segregated. But they DID have running water -- a sort of canal beneath the row of seats. The ancient Roman version of toilet paper consisted of a sponge on a stick, which was rinsed by slaves between uses. YUK!
Where's the Bathroom?
Finding an acceptable public restroom, or any restroom at all, can be a problem when you're wandering around in Rome. If you're eating in a restaurant, of course there will be facilities, but if you stop in a "tavola calda" -- the Italian equivalent of a take-out food place -- you won't find any bathroom. But when ya gotta go ...
Here are some suggestions. All bars in Rome have public bathrooms. It's polite to buy something -- a pack of gum or a small glass of mineral water -- but there's no law that says you have to. You can simply ask, as many Italians do, for "il gabinetto" or "il bagno, per favore?" It's a good idea to have some Kleenex stuffed in your pocket or purse, as such bathrooms often don't provide toilet paper.
Within a few yards of one another in the Eternal City are two bathrooms at opposite ends of the luxury scale.
There's the popular cafe-bar called Tazza d'Oro-Casa del CaffÃ¨ just to the northeast of the Pantheon. The place is always so crowded that nobody will notice if you slip down the narrow corridor and use their very modest, paperless bathrooms.
To the southeast of the Pantheon, in Piazza Minerva, is the 5-star Hotel Minerva. Assuming you don't look like you've slept under a Tiber bridge, walk into the lobby, turn left, skirt around a velvet rope (there to discourage riff-raff) and descend a flight of stairs to the most luxurious public bathrooms in town.
Solving the bus ticket mystery
There's a mystery that can baffle even experienced travelers on their first visit to Rome, and that's how and where to purchase bus tickets and what to do with them after you have them.
You can't usually buy a ticket on the bus. There are a limited number of buses and trams with automatic ticket dispensers, but most still don't have them and you have to buy your tickets either from ticket dispensing machines -- found only at major bus depots -- or else from a shop with a tall letter "T" on the sign out front. This stands for Tobacco and not Ticket, but it's an easy way to remember where tickets are sold.
A bewildering variety can be purchased, ranging from a one-euro ticket good for 75 minutes up to a yearly pass that costs several hundred euros. If you're only going to be in Rome for a couple of days, but want to use public transportation, then your best choice is a day pass, called a "gioraliero." If you're staying a week, buy a "biglietto settimanale," or weekly pass. All tickets must be "cancelled" in the yellow machines on all buses, called an "obblietrice" -- the Obliterator.
Some people hesitate to spend the money on passes, thinking they can get by on their one-euro ticket. You can, if you're lucky, but if you have the bad luck to have your ticket checked by the transit police and it's expired, you're in big trouble! You can be fined 100 euros on the spot and pleading tourist ignorance won't help.