diamond geezer

 Thursday, December 10, 2015

When in Rome... The Spanish Steps

Near the top of any tourist's Roman ticklist is a famous fanned-out staircase of 135 steps. The Spanish Steps rise from the Piazza di Spagna (in the luxury branded shopping part of town) to the Trinità dei Monti, a late Renaissance hilltop church. The steps are also centuries old, indeed will be celebrating their 300th anniversary in 2017, which helps to explain why they're currently blocked off. Major renovation works have been underway since the summer, paid for not by the city authorities but by an internationally famous chain of jewellers with a branch across the square. Annoyingly I turned up on the last day before part of the ramp reopened, with metal barriers and plastic sheeting alas not the most photogenic combination. Denied passage, tourists in the locale were instead clustering around the adjacent "Fountain of the Ugly Boat", a twin turquoise pool whose structure I initially mistook as a modern cross between a drunken fish and a gravyboat. Not so, the fountain is in fact a century older than the steps, and commemorates a particularly ferocious flood on the Tiber which drew a fishing boat inland. The ochre building at the foot of the Spanish Steps has an inordinately famous past as the final home of Romantic poet John Keats. Laid low with tuberculosis on a European jaunt, he suffered a serious haemorrhage (195 years ago today) and died a few weeks later in his bedroom at the ridiculously early age of 25. His lodgings are now a museum devoted not just to Keats but also to Percy Bysshe Shelley and the writers of various other famous odes. Entrance is only €5, but the house is closed on Sundays, dammit. [4 photos]

When in Rome... The Trevi Fountain

In another example of recent private sector heritage restoration, Rome's famous Trevi Fountain has recently emerged from a 20-month clean-up. This time an Italian fashion house has footed the not insubstantial bill, and the polished Travertine stone façade now gleams the colour of American teeth. The fountain began life when Augustus was emperor, gushing not for show but as the end of an aqueduct bringing fresh water from miles outside the city. Construction of the current exuberant edifice was completed 250 years ago, the result of a papal design competition, and what we see today supposedly represents one of the cheaper options. Water god Oceanus takes centre stage above the outflow, flanked by two flying horses and surrounded by an intricate tableau of allegorical significance. Squashed into a minor piazza where three roads meet, and dominating it utterly, the Trevi has the wow factor in extremis. What you're supposed to do if you plan on returning to Rome is chuck a coin (using your right hand over your left shoulder) into the lower pool, and some people still do this, potentially causing injury if their aim is poor. But what the modern audience more likely does is take a series of photos with themselves in and the fountain behind, this being the 21st century tradition at anywhere a bit famous. Scan the crowd and you'll also spot police officers standing guard and keeping an eye out, just in case anyone tries nicking coins from the water or anything more stupid. Best seen after dark, I've been told, alas slightly too late to take advantage myself. [6 photos]

When in Rome... The Pantheon

Rome's most complete most ancient building, the Pantheon, is an amazing construction - a lofty combination of circle, square and triangle which retains the power to impress to this day. The domed megastructure was built in 125 AD, outflanking the Tower of London by a millennium, and just goes to show what a mighty talented civilisation can achieve. The enormous portico bears the abbreviated name of Marcus Agrippa (who built the first known pantheon on this site) chiselled deep into the granite. Stand a dozen yards back beside the fountain, block out the tourists and the buskers, and you can almost imagine some grand emperor or toga-ed consul standing amongst the high columns soaking in the adulation of the crowd. These days anyone can walk inside, seriously just step up, most impressively for no entrance fee whatsoever. The interior doesn't initially look Roman, more Roman Catholic, because this imperial shell was adopted by the church in the 7th century, indeed that's one reason it's survived. Most of the alcoves include religious imagery or statues, and one side now has an altar and pewed seating where regular services are still held. Large signs urge respect for sacred spaces, even silence from all those within, a demand which virtually every tourist ignores. And yet despite the religious patina the chequered marble floor is still the 2nd century original, parts of the unadorned wall look equally ancient, and oh my word the dome. Perfectly circular, with a diameter as wide as the roof is high, five concentric panelled rings spin symmetrically around a central hole. This is the oculus, eight metres wide and used for illumination, topping off what's still the world's largest unreinforced concrete dome. The Pantheon is legacy engineering par excellence, probably unintentionally so - just don't stand in the centre when it rains. [5 photos]

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