Photo essay: Roma invicta

“I have traveled a great deal in my life, and I should very much have liked to go to Rome, but I felt that I was not really up to the impression the city would have made upon me.”

Carl Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections

So wrote Carl Gustav Jung, the famous Swiss psychotherapist and former discipline of Freud, in a partially autobiographical book. For Jung, Rome was where “classical antiquity still lived in all its splendour and ruthlessness”. The city was an overpowering place of classical heritage which he feared his mind would be unable to cope with and, indeed, when Jung once attempted to purchase a ticket to Rome in his old age, he was “stricken with a faint” after which “the plans for a trip to Rome were once and for all laid aside”.

It is hard for most people, myself included, to empathise with Jung’s mindstate. Every year, millions of visitors descend upon the Italian capital, and — while many may see it as an intellectual or historical pilgrimage of sorts — few would have described its incoming presence in such potent, dizzying terms.

What new is there to say about Rome? Very little, I imagine. And the hidden narratives of the Eternal City may well be like Jung’s swooning fear: too fraught, too colossal, too ambitious to completely cognise.

Piazza della Repubblica and the Fountain of the Naiads. Maybe it was because it was the tourist off-season, or maybe it was because I was lucky, but I found Roman drivers very manageable and not as hectic as people have told me. In fact, it was the pedestrians that seemed to be the bad actors much of the time. Mind you, I’ve been to plenty of wild traffic places in Asia and elsewhere, so maybe my standards have fallen.

The Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels and the Martyr. This is an example of the history and heritage layered upon history and heritage that probably bothered Jung. A 16th-century basilica dedicated to Christian martyrs, it was built into the ruins of the Baths of Diocletian, the largest of the public baths of ancient Rome — hence the church’s unusual, hulking facade.

Inside, however, the basilica is a thing of beauty based on the designs of none other than Michaelangelo. The soaring transept vaults. The granite and stuccoed columns. The red pilasters. All housed in the forgotten, ruined bowels of an ancient Roman wonder.

The Vittorio Emanuele II Monument with Trajan’s Column in the foreground — a victory column erected around 113 AD to commemorate the Roman Empire’s victory against the Dacians.

Due to my poor research efforts before arriving in Rome, I was unaware of the existence of this grandiose marble building — The Vittorio Emanuele II Monument. Also known as Altare della Patria (Altar to the Fatherland), it honours the first king after Italian unification in the 19th century and was a marvellous structure to come across.

Amusingly, the monument has been criticised for its appearance and has been compared to a wedding cake (white and layered), a set of dentures (with toothy columns), and a typewriter (wide and boxy).

The monument also doubles as a war memorial, honouring Italy’s dead from the First World War. There is a Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, as well as an eternal flame, under the watchful gaze of a statue of Roma — the ancient Roman goddess personifying the city itself.

A dreary climate harangued me throughout Europe in December and January. I did not even bother packing an umbrella, thinking that the dampness would eventually clear (or even better, turn to snow). Sadly, this was not to be. Nevertheless, it was moments like these — such as when I had an awe-inspiring view of the Colosseum straight down the middle of the road — that made me forget the misery of rainfall and slippery asphalt.

The alluring, yet moody ruins of Rome. Tree stumps of marble. A ribcage of pillars. Mossy foundation stones. All of it ossified, suspended in both time and space, signifying a glorious and dead past that will never truly die as long as people continue to speculate and fantasise about it.

The Arch of Constantine during restoration work and half-obscured by scaffolding. It was erected in 315 AD in honour of Emperor Constantine’s victory at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, a battle which is traditionally marked as the beginning of his, and the Roman Empire’s, conversion to Christianity.

What’s interesting about this arch is that it is effectively an ancient Roman hack-job. Almost all the sculptures on this arch were taken from earlier Roman monuments, with the faces of previous emperors crudely recut to look like Constantine’s. The arch was, as the English classicist Mary Beard puts it in her book SPQR, “a costly and destructive exercise in nostalgia” that sought to place “the new emperor in the illustrious tradition of the old”.

The Roman Forum is a sprawl of archaeological treasures. Every cluster of fragments, every clutter of excavated matter tells hundreds upon hundreds of stories.

The Tabularium. The Temple of Antoninus and Faustina. The Arch of Titus. The Column of Phokas. The Basilica of Maxentius and Constantine. And much, much more. Each one contains a story that you can spend a whole lifetime studying.

The Temple of Saturn at the foot of Capitoline Hill

To quote Ezra Pound:

Behold how pride and ruin can befall
One who hath set the whole world ’neath her laws,
All-conquering, now conquered, because
She is Time’s prey, and Time conquereth all.

Trevi Fountain is without a doubt the most famous fountain in all of Europe, if not the entire world. I found its resplendent Baroque imagery and salubrious rush of water quite captivating. And yes — I did the cheesy touristy thing and threw a coin into the fountain. And no one should feel bad about it either! Apparently, thousands of Euros land in it every day, which is then scooped up to fund food for the poor.

The next day and a visit to the Colosseum first thing in the morning in order to beat the crowds. The Flavian Amphitheatre. The true icon of the Roman universe. The largest open-air arena the Romans ever built. I came, I saw, and I was wowed by it.

Can you imagine what it must’ve been like? Can anyone? The clashing gladiators. The infamous mock sea battles. Eighty thousand cheering spectators. Exotic wild beasts. The execution of criminals. The religious ceremonies. Panem et circenses. Bread and games.

The Castel Sant’Angelo. A striking cylindrical building near the Vatican City. The “Castle of the Holy Angel”, as it is sometimes called in English, has lived many different lives — originally, it was the family mausoleum of Emperor Hadrian, later it was used as a papal military fortress, a prison, and an execution site. But these days, as with so many historied parts in Rome, its war-weathered walls have been washed of blood and the castle has settled into its final form as a museum and tourist destination.

The Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in Prati. A small neogothic church on the River Tiber. Starkly white and oddly out of place. Just something that caught my eye during my stroll through the city.

Following the rainbow lights on the night of New Year’s Eve…

I, along with two friends I made at my hostel, ended up at the Colosseum watching the New Year’s countdown. Farewell 2013 and hello 2014!

Buon Anno! Happy New Year! As you expect, fireworks were launched and bottles of wine were popped. That said, the dark crowds made us easy pickpocket targets and one of my friends was unfortunate enough to have a Swiss Army knife stolen. Every seasoned traveller to Europe knows a frustrating Roman theft story and this was ours.

All alone on the first day of January. I crossed Rome’s slick and lazy streets with a contradictory mix of both melancholy and happiness. I found myself at the intersection of Via delle Quattro Fontane and Via del Quirinale with its four Renaissance fountains.

Depicted in the photo above is my favourite of the four: a personification of the River Tiber reclining under an oak tree with a she-wolf, a symbol of the city.

Chilling on the Spanish Steps, a well-known stairway linking the church of the Santissima Trinità dei Monti above to the Piazza di Spagna below.

As nice as it is though, is there anything innately and inordinately exceptional about these steps? I’d argue that the Spanish Steps’ modern reputation largely derives from its depictions in beloved classic films such as Roman Holiday.

Thankfully, my sceptical musings about the Spanish Steps quickly ceased — there was a live band playing at the bottom of the steps on New Year’s Day, which made for a vivacious atmosphere. Bravo!

The Temple of Hadrian — or rather, what remains of its original structure. A melted, half-temple. A ghost temple. Its ancient, external colonnades subsumed into a much newer building…

Piazza Navona on a brisk, winter’s day, alive with crowds, stalls, and buskers. An obelisk appropriating the ancient Egyptian artistic style, and dating back around 1,900 years ago to the time of Emperor Domitian, pierces the core of the square. Personally, I’ll always remember Piazza Navona as the place where (in a fit of madness) I bought a cone of very overpriced gelato.

The Fountain of Neptune at Piazza Navona. One of three fountains in the square, this one is clearly the best since it depicts the Roman god of the sea about to skewer a goofy looking octopus for lunch. Also, Neptune has a seagull for a hat in the photo. I’m easily amused sometimes.

Largo di Torre Argentina. This charming, sunken archaeological space contains the crumbling remains of four Roman Republican temples and part of the Theatre of Pompey. It was on this spot (or rather, vaguely around this area) that Julius Caesar was famously assassinated in the Ides of March, 44 BC.

Fun fact: These ruins also double as a cat shelter! The Torre Argentina Cat Sanctuary proudly calls itself the oldest in all of Rome and is dedicated to feeding, vaccinating, and sterilising the feral cats that live in and around the temple ruins. As a cat lover, I was delighted to see a number of them lounging in the sun, napping on the ancient stonework.

The Pantheon of Rome! Completed around 125 AD under Emperor Hadrian, it is widely called one of the best-preserved temples of the ancient Roman world. While the name Pantheon suggests that it was a temple to “all the gods”, the building’s actual function is surprisingly uncertain.

The most awe-inspiring aspect of the Pantheon is its hemispherical, coffered dome. A large oculus at the centre of the ceiling brings natural light inside the entire structure and almost every visitor was craning their heads up to marvel at the dominating roof. To this day, the Pantheon’s dome remains the largest unreinforced concrete dome on the planet.

I rested for a while on the cool stony banks of Tiber Island, watching the river turn dark with the late afternoon. As recounted by Mary Beard in SPQR, the island has a somewhat quirky origin story — it was formed at the start of the Republican era when Roman citizens dumped all the crops growing on the private land of the hated tyrant Tarquinius Superbus into the river. As she puts it, it was as if “the shape of the city was born only with the removal of the monarchy”.

The island also has a long history as a place of healing. In Roman times, it supposedly housed a temple to Aesculapius, the Greek god of medicine, and in the 17th century, the island was used as a leper hospital. There is still a fully functioning hospital on the island called Fatebenefratelli Hospital — most famous for sheltering Jews during the Nazi occupation of Italy. Doctors in the hospital saved Jews by diagnosing them was a fatal, highly contagious, and entirely fictitious disease dubbed “Syndrome K”, thus deterring Nazis from raiding the hospital.

A view of the Pons Aemilius from Tiber Island. This is the oldest Roman stone bridge (or more accurately, the oldest crumbling remains of a bridge) in the city. Unsurprisingly, it is also known as Ponte Rotto or the “Broken Bridge”. Broken. Enduring. Pearls of antiquity disintegrated into a cold, Italian river.

The Circus Maximus at sunset, with Palantine Hill in the background. It’s hard to imagine what it must have been like all those centuries ago, with the roar of the crowd during the frenetic and often deadly chariot races. Today it is merely a sunken public park with a sandy oval.

Sights like this remind me of the fascination that artists around the 18th century had with ruins, culminating in the fashionable “Capriccio” painting style which often placed small, quotidian human figures in utterly fantastical landscapes filled with immense, ancient ruins (some examples: 1, 2, 3).

I found this photo on my camera and could not place its location. For a while, I was online trying to determine the place, with search terms like ‘fountain next to small basilica rome‘ and ‘roman fountain church campanile’.

Thankfully, I managed to solve the mystery. Now I know that it’s an image I took of the Fountain of the Tritons outside the Basilica of Saint Mary in Cosmedin. But think about how often travellers take a photo, thinking they’ll recall the landmark later, but then completely forget. Think of all the images we carry with us that have lost their labels in time and space.

Piazza del Popolo in the late afternoon

And thus ended my time in Rome. Perhaps my time here was too short. But then again, one could keep learning about this city for a lifetime. Perhaps that was Jung’s fear: to fall into an ocean of stories that you can never stop swimming through when there are other destinations calling.

So farewell, Roma. A fond goodbye to dead stone and bottomless culture, to Italian traffic and aspiring pickpockets, to my own memories of a place that is fading into trivia and unlabelled photos with every turn of the earth.

Ave atque vale. All roads lead somewhere. Or maybe they lead nowhere. But at least I’m glad I could make a brief detour for Rome.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *