All Roads Lead From Rome

Buongiorno amici, It’s good to be back with you after taking a couple of weeks off. As you may recall, in a previous post I pledged to leave the country if the unthinkable happened. It did and I did. To rub salt in the wound, on the following Monday I received a form letter from the Auburn Fund asking for a donation. Unfortunately, the levels of giving did not include “Kiss my Ass”. I have, however, recovered from my bitterness and have managed to do so without resigning my post on the Alumni Advisory Council. We'll get 'em next year.

As “All roads lead to Rome”*, I could think of no better place to gain a bit of perspective than the Eternal City. It’s probably too early to say, but Rome may have replaced NYC as my favorite city. I lack the vocabulary to describe just how remarkable the place is, but will share with you my impressions of the city. I’ve tried over the past couple of days to craft a cohesive narrative, but find that the task is beyond my capacity. The best I can do is offer my thoughts loosely grouped into the categories of public space, roads and architecture. This week, my take on public space.

The morning view from the hotel did not suck.

I suppose we should start outside the hotel door at the Piazza della Rotonda. I chose our spot because of its central location in the city and  of the hotel, but I was primarily seduced by the fact that it was mere feet from the Pantheon (more on that in a few weeks). While I was excited about the architecture, I did not expect that the piazza would become a favorite place. The space is a little more than half the size of a football field, is fronted on the south by the aforementioned Pantheon and on the other three sides by five and six story buildings. Each of the buildings has ground floor café/restaurants that spill into the space. The fountain, in the middle of the piazza, was designed by Della Porta and is topped with an Egyptian obelisk (dating from Ramses II). There were always people in the piazza- wandering, lingering, or having a drink in a café. The space is welcoming, comfortable, impressive and inspiring all at the same time. Dodgy guitar players notwithstanding, I loved that space. It fit like a well-worn, favorite shirt.

Robert Plant Memorial Sqaure Piazza della Rotonda

A young man who set up camp in the Piazza each day provided the soundtrack for our trip. He was an electric guitar player who knows only two songs: Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” and Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven”. He played those songs back to back… to back to back from 9am until 11pm every day. All day. Every. Day. I used to love those songs. 

Scalinata della Trinità dei Monti. Hey...is that an obelisk?

The Spanish Steps were pretty cool. We made it past a few times and there were always hordes of folks loitering and milling about. I will admit however, that with everything else to see, I couldn’t be bothered to take too much time to linger. That said, I could definitely see the attraction. Although I thought I knew the site pretty well, I did experience it in a unexpected way- but I’ll save that for next week. The thing about the steps is that they are a sterling example of using a site constraint (in this case topography), to advantage in creating something that has civic value. Considering the current state of affairs in Chattanooga, do you think we would be more likely to build a “Spanish Steps”, or to build a big ass wall because it would be cheaper?

Fontana di Trevi. I forgot to throw coins in, damnit.

The Trevi Fountain was fine. We stopped by once for about 10 minutes. The sculpture of the fountain was impressive as was the spatial character of the piazza. My memory of the place is that the mob of people who were there to see the fountain was overwhelmed by the mob of those trying to sell things to the people who were there to see the fountain. Speaking of people hawking cheap wares…

Borromini v. Bernini
Borromini v. Bernini v. Gatlinburg
They also have (a Roman copy of) an obelisk.

Our experiences are greatly colored by our expectations, and I had very high hopes for Piazza Navona. I was disappointed. This public space has been around for millennia, dating back to its life as the Stadium of Domitian. This has been a gathering place for Romans and a center of civic life for two thousand years. The piazza boasts one of the most famous fountains in the world- Bernini’s Four Rivers Fountain- topped with the de rigueur obelisk. The piazza is also home to one of Borromini’s masterworks, Sant'Agnese in Agone (more on Borromini v. Bernini in a few weeks). I prepared myself to be blown away by baroque and historic forces, and was somewhat let down. The fountains and buildings were as good as advertised; the space however, was jacked. The best description I can muster is that if Panama City, Gatlinburg and a state fair had a ménage a trois, the resulting lovechild would look like this. Perhaps, that's a bit harsh, but everything within the space was pure schlock. The fact that it happens in such a grand setting makes it feel worse. That said, for the couple of precious moments that I could manage to dodge the gypsies, shut my ears, and keep and my eyes above the ground floor, it was a beautiful experience in a well-proportioned space. The heartening thing is that all the crap could easily be swept out of the piazza at any time, thereby restoring the dignity of the place. It’s not as if their community constructed a bunch of one-story, casual dining and hot wing restaurants- who would ever do that…oops.

Piazza del Popolo: Better than anything you've got.
A three thousand year old obelisk...whatev.

Piazza Del Popolo is one of the most impressive public spaces I’ve ever been in. If this space were in any other city in the world, it would be that city’s greatest public space. In Rome, however, it’s arguably the sixth most significant place (behind Piazza Navona, the Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain, the Campidoglio, and St. Peter’s Square). The piazza, once the major northern gateway into the city is a large oval. Three main roads radiate from the piazza into the city. The “twin” churches of Santa Maria dei Miracoli and Santa Maria in Montesanto occupy the two spaces between the roads. In the center of the piazza is (yawn) obelisco Flaminio, an Egyptian obelisk dating from Sety I. Popolo is larger than Rotonda, and the fact the edges are sculptural instead of active building make the piazza feel more expansive and formal. I really liked it here, and not just because of the Cuban cigar and Nastro Azzurro.

The world's greatest public space.
Child please, my obelisk is 4,400 years old.

As arguably the greatest public space ever created by the hand of man, I had high expectations for Piazza San Pietro. I was let down, but only slighty. The space is grand and awe-inspiring. Unfortunately, for yours truly, a potion of Bernini’s portico was behind scaffolding, and the piazza itself was full of chairs, barricades and T.V. screens in preparation for Christmas events. While it was bad luck for me, it was not quite the kind of let down that Piazza Navona was. The formality of the space is a direct result of rigid symmetry and axiality, and is reinforced by Bernini’s arcade and Maderno’s façade. Did you think it would not include an Egyptian obelisk? This one dates from the Fifth Dynasty (that’s 2400BC to you and me). There are no cafes or active ground floors around the piazza- it doesn’t need them. The space is undeniably about people, but whereas the other spaces I’ve highlighted are about community and the social nature of the individual, this space is about the relationship of the individual to God. It is about people, and society, but it is imbued with greater meaning. This is a truly great space, in every sense of the word. Sadly (wink), because of the visual clutter during my recent visit, I have no choice but to return and see it again.

To try contrast Chattanooga and Rome would be silly and unfair. However, the clear takeaway from a public space standpoint is that we suffer from an appalling lack of obelisks. I could have written more (most notably the Campidoglio), but space here is limited and I know you're dying to read the latest about Duck Dynasty. So, arrivederci for now. Next week, the roads of Rome!

*A little trivia: I was informed by an archaeologist that the old saying was actually “All roads lead from Rome”.

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