Two Emperors; Two Egos

When it comes to admiring the classical age, you can’t find fault with rulers who had massive edifice complexes. Today we reveled in the remains of two of them.

We started at the Imperial Forums, admiring what is left of the monuments that were the glory of Augustus, Vespasian, Nerva and Trajan. They were all adjacent to the Roman Forum, until Mussolini cut a major road over them, the better to see the Colosseum from his office, and to connect himself to the glories of the past.

What remains is fragmentary, until one gets to Trajan’s column and the wonderful market surrounding it. We have always wondered about Trajan’s column, commemorating his victory of the Dacians. How could anyone really follow the story as it winds it way to the top? Well, it turns out that it was surrounded by tall buildings with porticoes that would allow Romans to enjoy the story of the great battle and the resulting triumph. Today, plaster casts let us see some of the amazing details.

The surprising new find for us here was Trajan’s Market. Originally part shopping mall, part warehouse and part government offices, this complex is now open as a museum and it is spectacular. Some of the artifacts include an original water pipe from Trajan’s villa, stamped with his name. The building is so graceful, the shops must have been wonderful, and the views are still amazing.

Had Trajan been looking out today, he might have been amused to see the national volleyball competition for what looked to be the under-13 crowd of boys and girls. Lots of cheering and excitement, though we kept expecting to see youngsters passed out from the heat. Somehow they persevered for hours – the gladiators of today with the Colosseum in the background.

Our next remarkable event was a tour of the Domus Aurea. This ‘golden house’ was built by Emperor Nero after the great fire of 64 AD cleared a major hunk of Roman real estate. Nero took that opportunity to claim three of Rome’s hills for a palace that he thought worthy of a man of his stature. It was huge, incredibly ornate and over the top in every way. Nero didn’t have long to enjoy it, as he had to commit suicide in 68 AD, having been condemned by the Senate. Much of the goodies were stripped away, and successive emperors, including Trajan, built baths and other monuments on top of the Domus Aurea, to obliterate Nero’s memory, but ironically thus preserving much of the complex. It is being restored today, and small groups are allowed in for hard-hat tours, to see just one small part of the enormous palace. How big was it? Well, there was an artificial lake inside the estate that was drained post-Nero. It now houses the Colosseum, just to give an idea of scale.

It had been forgotten for centuries, until a young Roman supposedly discovered it by accident at the end of the 15th century. Its frescoes then became an inspiration for a many Renaissance artists, who ‘dropped in’ through holes in the ceiling of a vaulted hall to see what was the height of fashion in Nero’s day. The white ground paintings were very influential in his own time. We will see many contemporary remnants of this style when we visit Pompeii again next week. Gorgeous stuff. The most stunning part of the tour was the virtual reality view we had of the gilded vault hall  in all its original glory, while sitting in it. I want to live with Nero in the Domus Aurea – if only in virtual reality. It was spectacular.

We leave Rome tomorrow for Naples. This has been a wonderful visit, with the perfect mix of familiar and new experiences. But there will always be more to see here….

Don’s Food Corner

Not wishing to risk a disappointment on an otherwise great day in Rome, we returned to the family-run neighborhood restaurant near our hotel that we enjoyed so much on our first day here.

We ended up ordering a rather confused smorgasbord array of our Italian favorites which somewhat confused our waiter.  Here’s what we ordered:  Penne alla vodkaPizza Diavalo (tomato sauce, mozzarella, spicy salami and arugula tossed on top), saltimbocca,  and insalata mista.   This combination of dishes follows NO traditional order of things as normally experienced in any Italian restaurant — in Italy or anywhere else in the world.  But, hey, it’s what we wanted to eat, OK?

The waiter brought things to us in this order: 1. The pasta and the pizza together.  2. The saltimbocca and insalata mista together.

We made these odd choices before drinking our Aperol spritzes, so there’s no explaining.

We were happy with each of our selections.  The penne alla vodka was both creamy and tomato-light on perfect al dente pasta.  The pizza had that thin-crisp-as-cracker crust characteristic of Roman-style pizza — just charred enough to let you know that this was done in a really hot oven, very fast.  The saltimbocca was slightly different from the previous two versions we tried over the last two days — a different kind of ham was used and the sauce was a little earthier, perhaps because they used a lot of fresh sage in it.  (We’ll keep on trying this dish as we continue along in Italy because we personally feel that we are responsible for thinning out the spring-time herds of unwanted calves.)

Our “dessert” ended up being the insalata mista, which turned out to be a gigantic affair of radicchio, carrots, a lettuce that looked like Boston lettuce, and loads of raw sliced fennel.  And since this is Italy, the dressing is just olive oil and vinegar that you sprinkle on yourself and load up with ground pepper.  Refreshing.


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