The morning after Scotland’s Six-Nations triumphant win over Italy in Rome’s Stadio Olimpico we took a slightly heavy-headed Sunday breakfast in our hotel, immediately after which my husband John and our friend Neil popped just around the corner, yet again, to the fabulous Della Palma parlour to continue their extensive research project on Italian ice-cream. Something like 18 flavours and I, as a non-participant you understand, merely pass on that the ‘Mandarino’ was vying for top spot with the ‘Pistacchio Classico’ (as opposed to the three other versions of pistachio they do!). More to my taste, however, was the Trevi Fountain: our first ‘cultural’ destination of the day.
Disappointingly under wraps for cleaning and restoration during our last visit to Rome, this huge and most dramatic of Baroque fountains was now revealed again in all its glory, the Travertine stone from which most of it is constructed newly pristine white in the winter morning sun. Sited at the junction of three roads (tre vie – hence the name), and the terminal point of the Aqua Virgo, one of the aqueducts that supplied water to ancient Rome, it was designed by Nicola Salvi in 1732, and completed by Giuseppe Pannini in 1762. Set against the giant Corinthian pilasters of the Palazzo Poli, and centred on Pietro Bracci’s huge sculpture of Oceanus (god of all water), with Tritons guiding his shell chariot pulled by hippocamps (sea horses), it’s everything one could want a fountain to be, and more…. as our friend Neil said as it loomed into view “now that’s a fountain!” Spectacular in daylight, it is perhaps even more so when artificially illuminated at night… a view we promised ourselves on our next trip to Rome having, as on previous occasions, ‘guaranteed’ a return visit by, as legend has it, throwing a coin (must be back to it, right hand over left shoulder!) into the waters.
That return trip really will be a necessity, because after a 10-minute walk north we discovered it was now cleaning and restoration time for the Scalinata di Trinità dei Monti, better known as the Spanish Steps. Temporarily barricaded off and under plastic tarpaulin, the spectacular stone staircase (135 steps in all) that links the Piazza di Spagna below and the Trinità dei Monti church at the top of a steep slope above was funded by Franco-Spanish Bourbon money in the early 18th century, and designed by Frencesco de Sanctis in a style that has been described in some quarters as a ‘gigantic inflation of terraced garden stairs’. Usually heaving with sitting, chatting, picnicking tourists, it was almost eerily deserted on this occasion – a state of affairs that, for reasons I can’t quite put my finger on, lent an even greater sense of poignancy and historical gravitas to the Keats-Shelley Memorial House that stands at the bottom of the Spanish Steps, to the right as you are facing them.
In the autumn of 1820, the English poet John Keats came to live here in the hope that the warmer climate might improve his health. Suffering from tuberculosis he only lasted until late February of the following year, dying in the house at the age of just twenty-five. The museum on the 2nd floor houses one of the world’s most extensive collections of letters, manuscripts, paintings, and other memorabilia relating not just Keats and Shelley, but the other leading romantic poets Byron, Wordsworth, and Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. If you have a life-long love of poetry, like I do, and even if you don’t, it’s well worth a visit. Even my husband John was impressed, despite the fact that as he entered the house he irritatingly started singing, albeit sotto voce, the Rod Stewart line from ‘Every Picture Tells a Story’: “Don’t quote me no Dickens, Shelley, or Keats, it’s all been said before”!
On leaving the Keats-Shelley house, we were tempted to pop into Babington’s, the famous English tearoom on the opposite foot of the Spanish Steps. Established by two English ladies, Isabel Cargill and Anne Marie Babington, in 1893 in an 18th century house, it was originally intended as a destination for the numerous English-speaking people living in Rome at that time, and to this day continues to attract with its traditional, indeed quintessential, English fare (as well as its stylish late 19th century décor). However, we decided on this occasion something a little more Italian was called for, and popped just around the corner to one of my all-time favourite trattoria: Otello alla Concordia. Hidden away, via an arched alleyway entrance on the Via della Croce, it’s a little oasis of calm in an otherwise tourist hotspot. You can eat in it’s unpretentious interior, or in good weather in its vine-covered courtyard ‘outside’. It you do go, the vast majority of your fellow diners will be local Italians (invariably a good sign), and the generous cuisine has been aptly described as classic Roman comfort food. All I’ll add is, if you order nothing else have the bruschetta… it’s to die for!
The afternoon was spent window-shopping, although I did pop into one boutique just off the Piazza di Spagna to buy our son Tom a pair (well, actually, two pairs) of rather fancy socks. Unfortunately, my husband was standing in audible proximity when it came to pay for them, and virtually passed out when he overheard how much they cost – on his reckoning more than his entire sock drawer back home! Hey ho, when in Rome, etc…!
Walking back across Rome to our hotel for a much-needed lie-down, prior to a dinner invitation that evening at our good friend Sergio’s apartment on the outskirts of the city, we stopped off at another of Rome’s hidden (well, certainly less well-known) gems: The Church of San Luigi ei Francesi. Standing in the Piazza di San Luigi de’ Francesi, near the Piazza Navona, and built between 1518 and 1589, it has a rather understated, French-style Renaissance exterior, while the far more flamboyant interior is essentially Renaissance-thru-Baroque in style. Impressive above all, however, is the Contarelli Chapel within it, the walls of which are lined with three huge Caravaggio paintings, dating from 1599-1602 and featuring St. Matthew – the contrasts between shadow and light, and the extraordinary three-dimensionality and naturalism of the figures, is unrivalled. Jaw-droppingly good in daylight, they literally take your breath away when illuminated by candlelight!
After a splendid dinner at our friend Sergio’s, we skipped breakfast on our final morning in the Eternal City, and took an early cab ride to St Peter’s. With no time this time for a tour of the Vatican, we were restricting ourselves to the Basilica, although ‘restricting’ seems an entirely inappropriate word for this huge, late-Renaissance Papal edifice (constructed 1506-1626) whose eminent architects included Michelangelo, Bernini, Bramante, and Maderno. We’ve been to St Peter’s before on a number of occasions, but its art and architecture never fails to impress. I’ve found that different things stand out on different occasions. This time there were, for me, three: Firstly, the lengthy queues to get in – in this instance not caused by overwhelming numbers of tourists (it was out of season and very early in the day), but by the anti-terrorist security, with numerous bottle-neck checks, including metal-detectors. A sad sign of the times! Secondly, and in welcome contrast, one of the first sculptures you encounter (to the right) on entering the church: Michelangelo’s ‘Pietà’. Sculpted in 1498-99 in Carrara marble, it depicts the body of Jesus on the lap of his mother Mary after the Crucifixion. Unprecedented in Italian sculpture at the time, it balances Renaissance ideals of Classical beauty with naturalism, and it also depicts, again unusually, Mary as very young for the mother of a 33-year-old son, and in so doing symbolizes incorruptible purity. Above all, however, as a mother, it simply breaks my heart!
And the third stand-out element of our visit this time was the huge, towering, Baldachin (or Baldacchino) canopy over the high altar and directly under the dome of the Basilica. Designed in sculpted and gilded bronze by the great Italian artist Gian Lorenzo Bernini, it was created between 1623 and 1634. A visual focus within the basilica, at some 20 metres high it provides a brilliantly executed visual mediation between the enormous scale of the building and the small human scale of the people officiating at religious ceremonies at the papal altar beneath its canopy. As my husband pointed out, borrowing (and bastardising) a line from ‘Gladiator’ on that other and earlier icon of Roman architecture, the Colosseum, “who would have thought men could have built such things!”
His response to his own quote, “and they certainly didn’t do it on an empty stomach!” prompted our departure for a quick lunch prior to a cab to the airport (a perfectly serene journey this time, in marked contrast to our arrival!) and our (equally serene and on-time) flight home. Situated at 37 Via della Vite, ‘Le Grotte’ opened in 1930. A very atmospheric restaurant, with curved interior stone arched walls “frescoed” and hand painted with views of the city’s most famous monuments, it soon became a symbol of “la dolce vita”. It originally had an orchestra and dance floor, but was not called a nightclub because the fascist regime in power at the time didn’t allow the use of foreign words or description. During the War it was requisitioned as a cookhouse, but in 1946 it was brought back to life and “Grotte del Piccione” became the place where all of Rome’s and Hollywood’s visiting celebrities dined. Walt Disney and Tyrone Power are credited as having eaten here, and William Wyler (the director) and Gregory Peck dined at the restaurant after filming ‘Roman Holiday’. That other iconic star of the film, Audrey Hepburn is also rumoured to have eaten here! My husband and I discovered it on our first trip to Rome many years ago, and we make a point of always going back. The cuisine is traditional Italian food, including wonderful, aromatic, rustic rosemary bread, authentic al-dente pasta and an impressive woodfire pizza oven. On our first visit our son, who’s now 22, was only 10, and he spent the entire meal watching the pizza chefs flamboyantly twirling huge pizza bases above their heads before dressing them and sliding them into the oven! Great fun, great food, and as intrinsic a part of our own Roman holiday as Keats, Caravaggio, Michelangelo and… er, ice-cream!