Tuesday, December 8, 2009

In Rome, Saving the Best for Last: Ara Pacis, the Forum, and the Colosseum

[Posted after the fact due to spotty Internet access in Rome.]

As the Italian visit comes to an end, what could be more appropriate than having saved the best for last?

Actually, it’s kind of hard to speak about “the best” in Rome, isn’t it? The city is just so full of beautiful things, and it seems that every time we turn a corner we are confronted with a jewel that we find ourselves required to fit into the schedule.

As had been the case with the Museo dell’ Ara Pacis, the day before our last day.

The wonderful space, designed by Richard Meier and opening a year or so ago to no small controversy, turns out to be one of the most splendid single-focus museums I’ve ever seen. I want to compare it with the Pergamon Altar in Berlin but that thrilling ancient work must share its space with other wonders of the ancient world, so it isn’t a “stand-alone” monument, you might say.

Not so with the Ara Pacis. With this glorious ruin, Richard Meier has done exactly the opposite. It’s the only thing in the museum (on the main floor – there is a separate display area in the gallery below), and despite the fact that the building is a great glass-and-marble square – indeed, almost the best of modern design – and apparently the first modern building built in Centro Storico since before the Second World War, it is a joy to behold.

Yes, it was controversial when it was built, and some tell the story of the right-leaning mayor promising to move it to the suburbs when he was elected, but that seems to have been campaign oratory.

So here it stands, this wonderful modern building – with most of its glass wall facing the street side, where people walking by can observe Augustus’ altar to peace without paying to go inside (talk about egalitarianism in museum management – how splendid!). Augustus had commissioned the work to commemorate his successes in Spain and Gaul, and the Senate voted for its construction in 13 B.C. And here it is now, still shining forth in the 21st Century and now preserved and protected as one of the great ancient monuments of the city.

And at the Ara Pacis we were twice blessed, as they say, for hanging just behind the altar, in a temporary display, is a beautiful large painting by Giacomo Balla. One of the great leaders of Futurism and of the early modern movement, I gather, this very art deco painting, all red and blue and green, is a sight to behold, particularly in this space. The contrast is splendid.

Then there was our final church, St. Ignatius. No matter how one feels about the Jesuits and their influence in history (the Inquisition and all that), it is hard to stay angry when you find yourself in such a place. As the last of the churches we were to visit (an ambition difficult to stick to in Rome, for no matter how often one utters “No more Baroque churches” another one comes into view, and often better than the last!), we found the church to be a splendid mixture of the sublime and the profane, if I may be permitted yet one more cliché. The decorations in the Chiesa di S. Ignazio – both the recent (not so wonderful!) and the Baroque (guess!) – filled us with something akin to awe. Our Rome friend – accompanying us for this one – was full of wonderful stories about the church, how it has changed over the years, the painting (of course), the statuary, and I even found a new favorite – a splendid angel that I shall have to keep in a printed rather than online photo, just because I’m going to want to look at this beautiful being very often.

Then came the real “best-for-the-last”: we had intentionally waited to visit the Forum and the Colosseum, wanting to take away memories that would be spectacular as well as beautiful, and we were not disappointed. We awoke to one of the most glorious blue skies I’ve ever seen, a day not at all cold, and we headed out to see what Rome is really known for. We stayed hours, so enjoying all there was to see, loving the beauty of all the ruins (I once had a friend – now long gone – who only wanted to visit ruins that are all “tidied up” – ah, she would not have loved the Forum, I fear, but we loved it).

Was there a favorite in the Forum? Surely not, but Trajan’s Column at one end of the Imperial Forum is pretty awesome! But then come the coffered ceilings of the Basilica de Massenzio and the remains of the buttresses (with one at the top of one of the crossings taking on an almost ultra-modern equestrian look). They were nothing less than breath-taking. So perhaps there was a favorite after all.

And, yes, I did love learning about the Senate’s meetings at the Curia, with the space so well preserved that one can almost hear them grumbling and pontificating for one another. So much to love.

OK. Perhaps there was a favorite for me – as for almost everyone else, I suppose. The delicacy of the three columns and the tiny remaining bit of overhand of the Temple of Castor and Pollux keep you looking at them much, much longer than you look at other sites. What a sweet, sweet building that must have been!

The Colosseum? What can one say? It simply must be experienced.

I had read about the Colosseum all my life, seen pictures galore, knew all about its history and the gladiators and the “hunts” with the wild animals, and the supposed martyrdom of the Christians (although, surprisingly, a reference I read recently stated that this last is only legendary, and that there is no evidence that Christians were ever sacrificed there? Oh, dear? What does that do to all our childhood experiences and our reactions to films like “Quo Vadis” and all that?).

Nevertheless, I still was not prepared for the Colosseum and what it is. We were, happily, able to arrive for just the last two-and-a-half hours of daylight on this gloriously sunny day, and it couldn’t have been a better time to be there, to experience this wonderful place. Even as it waned the light just made the place just better and better, and as it turned the stone golden in the dying sun, hard to describe. Again, an experience I shall never forget.

Now back to Kenya.

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