There are not many cities in the world where the skyline is dominated by structures that were built almost 2,000 years ago. But in Italy’s capital, the might of imperial Rome continues to vie for attention with the gleaming edifices of modern-day capitalism. Here, we look at some of the most impressive and symbolically resonant pieces of Roman architecture, along with a handful of sites from other periods of the city’s history.
An iconic symbol of Roman culture, art and engineering, the Colosseum was once able to seat 50,000 spectators and remains the largest amphitheater in the world. Its sheer size is astonishing, but equally striking are the small moment-evoking details: the scratch of a weapon on the wall, the intact gladiator pens. Built by Emperor Vesuvius in 80 A.D. on the site of Nero’s palace in order to distance himself from his hated, tyrannical predecessor, the Colosseum was itself a venue of immense bloodshed: at its inaugural games, over 9000 animals were slaughtered.
Photo by Lawrence OP/Flickr.
One of Rome’s four major ancient basilicas, St Paul’s is subtitled "Outside the Walls" due to its distance from the ancient city center. The interior is an enormous, echoing, imposing space, the nave divided into five aisles by 80 colossal columns. Looking down from the walls are a series of 265 portrait medallions depicting all the Popes up to the present day. The church has seen some drama in surprisingly recent years: in 2006, Vatican archaeologists claimed to have unearthed the tomb of St. Paul himself. Visitors can view this striking find, although the sarcophagus has been left in its original position so only one of its two sides is visible.
Looming above the right bank of the River Tiber, the Castel Sant’Angelo is a mighty stone-walled cylindrical structure which has gone through many changes since it was built in 130 A.D. It was initially conceived as Hadrian’s mausoleum, and had an ornamental, decorative quality with a rooftop garden and a gilded chariot driven by a likeness of the Emperor. But it was later converted to serve more functional uses, first as a prison and then as a fortress where Popes could take refuge when Rome was threatened. An underground passageway still connects the Castel to the Vatican today.
It's almost impossible to miss the St. Peter's Basilica when in Rome – it does tower 450 feet over the Roman skyline, after all. Now standing at the center of the Vatican, the basilica today is a far cry from the original basilica, which was much more modest when it was built in 324 A.D. to mark the spot of St. Peter's crucifixion. Left in disrepair for more than 1,000 years, Pope Paul III commissioned Michelangelo to oversee its reconstruction in 1547 and the result was the architectural wonder that stands today.
Once the center of life in imperial Rome, the Forum continues to bustle today with sightseers, souvenir hawks and archaeologists, all wandering among the evocative patchwork of ruins. Originally a marketplace, the Forum grew into a political and social hub, a site of elections and speeches, worship and philosophy, gladiatorial contests and criminal trials. It came to be lined with the empire’s most important political buildings, many of which are still there now.
The Trevi Fountain is one of the great statements of Baroque architecture, an expressive depiction of creative vitality. At its center stands a 5.8 meter tall statue of Oceanus, god of all water, who is flanked by smaller representations of Health and Abundance. Although built in the 18th century, it connects to a history stretching back to 19 B.C., when a great aqueduct was erected to supply water to Rome. The terminal point of this aqueduct was marked by a fountain, situated on the same site as Trevi Fountain is now. There is, however, a certain irony in all this symbolism: a key moment in the final collapse of a tired and weakened Rome occurred in 537 A.D., when Goth besiegers cut off the aqueducts and reduced Rome’s populace to drinking from the River Tiber.
Commissioned by General Agrippa in 27 B.C. as a temple to honor all the Gods, the Pantheon is as architecturally dramatic as such a vocation demands. Its giant portico, defined by an imposing row of eight Corinthian columns, leads into a vast, circular, domed interior, with an oculus – central opening – to the sky. Agrippa’s original temple burnt to the ground in 80 A.D., but was reconstructed 40 years later by Emperor Hadrian, who chose to retain the same inscription dedicated to Agrippa. Despite having been in continuous use since its construction – it has functioned as a Catholic Church since the 7th century – aspects of the Pantheon remain a tantalizing mystery. Classified as a temple, precisely how people worshiped in it is unknown, as it so different in shape and form to other Roman temples.
Beneath a tall church on the Via Veneto, the old playground of 1950s Hollywood, lies a truly bone-shivering sight. A series of tiny underground chapels have been draped and decorated with the skeletal remains of thousands of Capuchin Friars. Entire robed skeletons hang from the walls; skulls decorate lamps and flowers; mosaics and religious symbols are formed from human bones. These macabre displays are spread across six rooms, with names such as Crypt of the Skulls, Crypt of the Pelvises and Crypt of the Leg Bones & Thigh Bones. Summarizing the scene is a plaque proclaiming: "What you are now, we once were; what we are now, you shall be." It’s a rather blunt reminder of the transience of life, and one that has drawn many famous visitors. The Marquis de Sade said, "I have never seen anything more striking," while Mark Twain retained sufficient presence of mind to be a little more critical. Watching a monk contemplate what he was to become, he commented: "I thought he even looked as if he were thinking, with complacent vanity, that his own skull would look well on top of the heap and his own ribs add a charm to the frescoes which possibly they lacked at present."