Magnificent Rome

Magnificent Rome photo

Photo courtesy of Moyan Brenn.

An old saying, "All roads lead to Rome," pretty much sums it up. Surely they must, for traffic in this sprawling Italian metropolis is just short of a nightmare. Everyone seems to be rushing to get who knows where. And directing them are policemen looking as if they stepped out of a Roman mural.

For the visitor, the Italian capital shows off its magnificence. Tourists seeking luxury and opulence in Rome are spoilt for choice and can even combine the city with other destinations quite easily. The decorative squares built by various emperors, the Colosseum, the Circus Maximus, the Baths of Caracalla, and remnants of the Aurelian Wall which circled Rome, seem like giant movie sets waiting for a film crew.

The city has many faces: the imperial face of the Caesars, the the Renaissance and Baroque facades of her historical centre, the cement forms of apartment blocks on her fringes, and the face of piety, as church bells call the faithful to prayer.

Archaeologists rescued the Roman Forum from rubble and fields on which livestock had been grazing for centuries. Its stark columns and white blocks of weather-beaten marble take on life in the fading light of day, as it once again emerges as the commercial, religious, and social centre of the known world.

Beyond the Tiber River lies a sea of churches, palaces and parks, pieced together like an ochre, white, and pink mosaic. This is the Rome ruled by the Papacy, from the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th and 6th centuries A.D., to her elevation as capital of a unified Italy. The Popes turned Rome into a centre of the arts during the 15th to 17th centuries — the era of Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and Raphael.

In stark contrast to the magnificence of ancient Rome stands the city of the common man. Artisan and tradesmen shops fill her historical centre, a tradition which gives Rome the quaint air of village provinciality. Here, the piazza is the focal point of social life.

In more modern times, artists and writers made the Spanish Steps popular. The Cafe Greco is still active though instead of catering to artists, it provides refuge for footsore foreign shoppers who invade the nearby boutiques. And although the artists are still there, their models pay to be sketched rather than the other way around. The Trevi Fountain became a shrine for romantic "pilgrimages" after Hollywood made it immortal in "Three Coins in the Fountain." Today, slick gigolos seek foreign women and their favors.

Cafes also line the Via Veneto, a Hollywood-style boulevard synonymous with "La Dolce Vita" (The Sweet Life) of the 1950s and 1960s. Visitors, sipping capucchini and campari sodas, search in vain for starlets and the rich and famous who once paraded up and down the street, waiting to be admired or discovered.

Tourists have made Rome more crowded, cars have made her more congested, commercial enterprise has made her less attractive. The hidden nooks, devoid of traffic sounds, retain the essence of the past. There, where residents still shout messages and string their laundry across narrow alleys, live the artists and writers of tomorrow.