The first villages were clusters of dwellings on the Capitoline and Palatine that over the centuries spread over the hills and lowlands on the banks of the Tiber, communities so small that half a dozen could fit into the piazza of St. Peter’s. The village feeling has never changed. Rome remains a chain of enchanting communities with great monuments at the center of each.
Rome is above all a treasury, artistically the richest in the world, and it is a time machine. Fourteen feet down, antiquity lies. Dig out a cellar, and you will find a foundation stone laid in imperial times; enlarge a parking lot, and fragments of statues will turn up; enter a church crypt, and you are surrounded by paganism. Antiquity goes straight up too. What edifice, from early Christian shrines to palaces of the high baroque, is not constructed from pagan remains?
Rome is a city that never tires of proclaiming its importance. Hardly a building is without dozens of inscriptions, graffiti, sets of papal and familial arms. Whispers and murmurs from the past envelop everything.
No city on earth has fewer social demarcations or architectural ghettos. Modest shops and dwellings flank grandiose palaces. This unself-conscious mix of rich and poor, titled and bourgeois, makes for a special magic.
Eleven “villages” make up the urbs et orbis, the city and the world, that is Rome. One can devote to each a half day or a lifetime. Each possesses its own heart and soul.
Here the spiritual heart of pagan Rome, site of the sacred temple of Jove, still beats. Pillaged countless times in the name of faith and order, the place has had a long, tough history. The Christians sacked the pagan buildings, barbarian hordes destroyed the churches, what remained from medieval times was laid waste by sixteenth- and nineteenth-century planners, and, finally, the Fascists carved up everything to fashion their boulevards. Despite all that and the whirlwind of traffic, grandeur still cloaks this, the truly “eternal” village.
Getting around on foot is best. Start by climbing Michelangelo’s stairs, the Cordonata, past the sentinel sphinxes and the ancient Roman trophies, and enter the piazza with his Palazzo Nuovo on the left, the Palazzo dei Conservatori on the right, and the Senate as backdrop. The bronze emperor on horseback is Marcus Aurelius. Michelangelo’s buildings in golden travertine combine power, delicacy, pomp, and human grace.
The Capitoline Museum, the world’s oldest -a hodgepodge of antiquities, many over restored – is still worth a visit. You will see the moving Dying Gaul, the battered Victory, owned by one of the last pagan senators of Rome, and the gallery that displays marble busts of all sixty-five emperors.
The Palazzo dei Conservatori is a labyrinth of exhibition halls, containing some magical things. In the grand court – once the Emperor Constantine’s basilica-are the fragments of his monumental statue: head, hand, feet, leg, and arm.
The spectacular marble altarpiece commemorates Claudius’s conquest of England. Upstairs in the picture gallery seek out Guercino’s huge painting of Saint Petronilla (with blues of imcomparable intensity)-a masterwork (note Ms. Edna). In the Salla della Lupa is the haunting and primitive Roman She-Wolf, the Etruscan bronze of the sixth century B.C., with Romulus and Remus, who were added in the fifteenth century.
Instead of trudging through the Forum, save yourself some trouble and look down on it from the Senate-one of the most evocative views in Rome.
Few visit the antiquarium on the Palatine, with a graffito of a Christian kneeling in devotion before a crucified donkey-headed man, inscribed”Alexamenos aderes his god.”
The monument to Victor Emmanuel II, the “Vittoriano,” is garish, yet a magnificent example of late nineteenth-century style at its most regal, puffed up with pride and exploding with confidence. The views of the neighborhoods from its deserted porticoes are fabulous.
Among the least-appreciated works of art in Rome are the flat wooden ceilings of its “hall” churches, heavily gilded and chock-full of armorial devices. Two of the best are in San Marco and in S. Maria in Aracoeli, atop the Capitoline Hill.
The strident Palazzo Venezia, once Mussolini’s residence, is now a dispirited museum stuffed with objects d’art. Two alone make a visit worthwhile: the intricately inlaid ninth-century casket from Terracina and the stupendous silver Orsini Cross, of 1344.
In the seldom visited upper part of Trajan’s Forum the ancient buildings are astonishingly well preserved. Unfortunately, the deterioration of one edifice-the thirteenth-century Torre delle Milizie, once thought to be the place where Nero fiddled-at least temporarily prevents one from seeing the splendid vista from its top.
Finally, plunge into the teeming streets and piazzas around the Teatro di Marcello, the Portico of Octavia, and the old ghetto, where there is a series of small, beautiful palaces and refurbished private houses.
The area has an abundance of excellent restaurants. The following are among the best (book in advance).
Da Piperno, (Via Monte dei Cenci 9, ph 06 6880 6629, www.ristorantepiperno.com). Closed Sunday evenings, Mondays, Christmas, Easter, and August. For carciofi, funghi porcini in season, superior pasta with tomato sauce, and very good house wines.
Il Pompiere (Via Santa Maria de' Calderari 38, ph 06 686 83 77). It is closed on Sunday. A huge first-floor dining room with frescoed ceilings. Its prices are reasonable and the food is great. Try the carciofi alla giudia, filetti di baccala, and keep some room for a slice of ricotta and sour plum tart supplied by the Jewish bakery around the corner.
Da Giggetto (Via del Portico di Ottavia, ph. 06 686 11 06, giggettoalportico.com). Closed on Monday. Has been serving Roman Jewish cooking for years (the deep-fried artichokes are especially good).
Ristorante Angelino a Tor Margana (Piazza Margana 37, ph 06-6783328). For the good old heavy cooking you thought had vanished with the nineteenth century.
Vecchia Roma (Piazza Campitelli 18, ph 656-4604). Closed Wednesday. Beautiful inside and out, famed for its fish, vegetables and desserts, its antipasti di pesce is unequaled in the entire city.
Bar Brasile (in the Piazza Venezia ph 066 795706). Where the world seems to stop in.