If you wait long enough, a city will show you its heart. I waited outside the Colosseum 30 minutes before nightfall. I wanted to take photographs. I stood on the huge cobblestones laid by slaves more than 2,000 years ago. Today the stones are rounded from crown to seam. When you walk on them you feel their hardness with each step. The cracks want to hold onto your shoes. I saw many trips and a few falls today walking along the via di San Gregorio between Circus Maximus and here.
Soon the lights within the Colosseum turned on. Purple and amber lights. The darkening sky framed the ancient military playground and death arena. The rising moon gave the backlighting I wanted tonight. I took some test photos with my back against the fence that surrounded the Roman Forum. There was no way to get the entire Colosseum into the frame.
Few people lingered in this courtyard. Gone were the crowds, gone the buses belching tourists, gone the men dressed as Roman centurions who mugged for your camera in exchange for euros, gone were the five or six souvenir stands selling the very same items—plastic Colosseum replicas in four sizes; keychains; photographs of Pope Benedict; calendars where “the most eligible bachelor priests” posed in their vestments.
No one—or thing—replaced the people. What remained was the aura of Rome. It was on the streets, it surrounded me, it moved through the Colosseum arches and echoed off the bricks in the Forum. The city’s history, if you let it, will bring you back to its day with only a little imagination. Sure, today modern buildings rose upward just across the street. The balconies of an apartment building overlooked the Colosseum. That morning I had stood on the curb outside the “Colloseo” metro station and wondered how much one of those apartments cost, and, “Had ancient Romans lived on that spot and talked of how nice life was with such a great view?” Why not? Life wasn’t so different as it is today: people worked, raised children, traveled if they had money, retired to the country even, and then they died.
When I was a teen I had read Ben-Hur, seen Sparticus at the cinema, and Julius Caesar performed on stage. Rome was in all of them, therefore I had been to Rome long before I set foot on these stones. The city has that kind of rapture when you use art to smooth the cracks running across its ancient façades. Art and history are intertwined, and this perhaps is no better evident than in Rome—or any of the ancient cities which yet stand.
Twilight hid the faces of the people who walked by. The moon seemed to sit on the Colosseum’s shoulder. The light was perfect now. I began to take pictures to record this perspective of the great building. Inside, music began to play. There was a twilight performance that I could have attended, but that would have only brought me closer to the present, where I did not want to be back to just now.
Rome Museums and Sites
Rome has dozens of museums, but I think the best by far is the Vatican Museum. It takes you through long (looooong!) halls with paintings and sculptures from Rome’s earliest history to modern works. The galleries are so large there is actually four colored-coded itineraries to chose from. Along the way you’ll find book stalls featuring coffee table books detailing that particular section, the whole of the Vatican, or the Sistine Chapel. Whichever route you take, the end point is the Sistine Chapel. I first saw the frescoes in 1982, long before the restoration process began. I felt at the time as though someone had painted over the walls with maple syrup, that was how dirty and grime covered the walls and ceiling had become. Today that brown layer has been lifted, and you can see colors found nowhere else in art. Don’t waste time trying to take photographs because they simply don’t come out well (even if you don’t get yelled at by one of the circulating guards); instead, buy a coffee table book—softcover versions are less than $10 and tell the Sistine Chapel story and the story behind the frescoes.
The Galleria Borghese on the north side of Borghese Gardens holds unique art treasures you should not miss, including Bernini sculptures and Caravaggio paintings. Booking is essential. www.galleriaborghese.it.
(read more about Rome, Italy highlights here)