Rome By Night
Roaming around Rome at night is like enjoying the finest of theater. The Eternal City puts on a show for you. The Romans have wisely chosen to light their famous monuments in a soft orange glow that doesn’t glare the way most city lights do. Rome is safe at night – all the Romans are out – and the restaurants and bars are bustling. What could be better than to grab your camera and join the fun.
For the last stop on our 7 month European adventure we rented an apartment for a month in the old town. It was on a small cobblestone street near the fabulous Piazza Navona, and we could walk to everywhere. I did not know at the time that Rome was going to captivate me more than any place I’d ever been. I became enthralled with its history, which showed up for me in its monuments, churches, ancient buildings, and the stories they tell. I would like to share some of those with you, as we wander along Rome’s streets together at night.
Rome’s most iconic site is its Colosseum, built between 72-80 AD by Emperor Vespasian as a gift to the Roman people. After the great fire ripped through Rome in 64 AD, the selfish Emperor Nero built himself an enormous palace in the center of the city. When Vespasian came to power, he decreed that the land would be returned to the Roman people. He built a new amphitheater where the public could enjoy many forms of entertainment. This massive Colosseum could hold 80,000 people.
lions, tigers and…Gladiators
For four centuries people crowded in to watch gladiator combats, hunts, wild animal fights and larger combats such as mock naval battles. For these the arena was flooded with water, put on at great expense. Mostly, those who fought were men, though there were some female gladiators. Slaves, condemned criminals or prisoners of war were generally the stock of gladiators. The Colosseum remains one of the favorite tourist attractions in Rome.
Considered the world’s oldest shopping mall, Trajan’s Market had over 150 shops selling wine, oil, fruit, vegetables and other groceries. This large complex of warehouses, shops and offices was built by Emperor Trajan in 107 AD. The semi-circular, 3-story structure is one of the few high-rises that has been preserved. A column still stands that is adorned with intricate carvings depicting Trajan’s victories at war.
The Arch of Constantine
preserving the future of our past
We loved this clever sign that stood near a monument in Rome. It is certainly in Rome’s interest, and the world’s, for Rome to preserve its past. The fence surrounding this 1700-year-old triumphal arch to the Emperor Constantine is there to protect it. The Roman Senate awarded the monument to Emperor Constantine in 315 AD in memory of his victory in an important military battle.
christianity becomes the official religion
Constantine believed that he won the battle because of the help of the Christian God. He therefore put an end to persecution of Christians during his reign and made Christianity the official religion in the Roman Empire. As one Rome observer said, “Prior to 300 AD it was illegal to be a Christian; after that time it was illegal to not be one.”
Vittorio Emanuele II
This monument is pretty new by Rome standards but it certainly grabs your attention when you see it. To commemorate the establishment of the Kingdom of Italy, this massive, white marble structure was squeezed into the heart of Rome in the late 1800’s. It celebrates Vitorrio Emmanuel II’s defeat of the papal army that unified Italy in 1861 and made Emanuele King. A 50 ton, 39 foot equestrian statue of him, now known as the Father of the Nation, sits in the center of the monument, below which lies the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The curved colonnade with 50 foot tall columns provides an impressive backdrop.
Garish to Romans
Many Romans find this monument too big and too bright to fit into Rome’s ambiance. Some object to all that was demolished in order to erect it. Everyone agrees, however, that the view from the top is one of the most “monumental” in all of Rome.
Castel Sant’ Angelo
We were thrilled when our 7 year old granddaughter visited us in Rome with her parents. We took her to see her first “castle”, but I was a bit disappointed. Castel Sant’Angelo doesn’t fit the typical fairy tale description for a castle like some we saw in other parts of Europe. But of course she enjoyed exploring it and we must be fair. Castel Sant’Angelo was not built as a castle. It was intended to be a mausoleum for Emperor Hadrian and was said to be very beautiful in its day.
Built in 123 AD, its function changed many times over the centuries and much of its decorations were “repurposed” for use in churches and other structures. By the 3rd century it had become part of the city walls, then an unassailable fortress and later a castle used by the popes. The Papal State also used Castel Sant’Angelo as a prison, torture chamber and site for executions.
Pope’s passageway to safety
Pope Nicholas III connected the Vatican to the castle by a covered fortified corridor called the Passetto di Borgo, to allow the pope to get to the safety of the castle when danger arose. Dan Brown wrote about this passageway in his novel Angels and Demons and Puccini’s heroine jumped from the castle ramparts in the opera Tosca.
This castle is on the west side of the Tiber River. Access to it is across the majestic Ponte Sant’Angelo, a bridge adorned by a double row of angels sculpted by followers of Bernini. From this bridge, you get a wonderful view of the Vittorrio Emanuele II bridge and the dome of St. Peter’s.
The Vatican Complex
The Vatican is made up of St. Peter’s Square, St. Peter’s Basilica, and the Vatican palaces which house its museums including the Sistine Chapel. The Vatican today is a separate and sovereign country, independent from Italy with the Pope as its monarchy. The Vatican City State mints its own money and issues its own stamps, license plates and passports for its approximately 800 residents. It has its own flag and anthem, but it doesn’t levy taxes. It makes its money from admission fees, sales of souvenirs and stamps and from contributions. There is an interesting story behind all of this that I find intriguing.
A rich and powerful church
Having grown up attending a small country-like church in a nation that proclaims the separation of church and state, it’s hard to understand how a church could have amassed as much political power and wealth as the Catholic Church did. The Church ruled Rome and major parts of Italy for some eleven hundred years. Coming smack up against these facts during my travels had me scratching my head, wondering why there were big holes in my world history (and history of religion) education.
The Church’s rule ended in 1870 when Vittorio Emanuele II’s troops marched into Rome and established a unified Italy. The Pope retreated to the Vatican and for over 60 years the Church would not recognize the sovereignty of the new Italian government. During those years, the successive Popes refused to make appearances or blessings from the Vatican window if Italian troops were present. Pope Pius IX said of himself that he was “a prisoner of the Vatican”.
The roman question
Italy was faced with what came to be called “The Roman Question”, that being, what to do about the Church. The Italian people were somewhat torn, as they wanted unification but they also had allegiance to the Church. The Fascist leader Mussolini solved the problem with the Lateran Treaty. This treaty established the .2 square mile Vatican area as a sovereign power, within but separate from Italy. It also compensated the Church $92 million (which is more than $1 billion in today’s money) for the loss of the Papal States.
As it is a recognized sovereignty, once you cross into the Vatican complex you are in a different country. I counted this experience as Country Number 22 on our European tour. That’s fair, isn’t it?
St. Peter’s Square
Walking up the wide boulevard called the Via della Conciliazione, you get your first view of the Vatican’s St. Peter’s Square. The view includes the great dome and facade of St. Peter’s Basilica and the 135 foot tall obelisk transported to Rome from Egypt. Two beautiful crescent-shaped colonnades with 284 columns represent, according to the architect Bernini, the outstretched arms of the Church embracing the world. As many as 400,000 people can congregate in the square for special occasions with the Pope.
St. Peter’s Basilica
The greatest church in Christendom rises on the grandiose St. Peter’s Square. It has the largest interior of any church in the world with a nave that is 694 feet long. It can hold up to 60,000 people. The original church was built in 320 AD by the first Christian emperor, Constantine, on the site where Emperor Nero had St. Peter the Apostle crucified. The church was rebuilt in the early 1500’s and given its silver-blue 434 foot high dome that can be seen from all over Rome. The architect was Michelangelo who was 72 years old when he took on the job.
a special mass
It was here on a Sunday morning that Phil and I witnessed the Pope canonizing a married couple. He said they were saintly role models who took care to educate their children in the faith. Each of their 5 daughters became a nun. “Papa Francesca”, as the Pope is called in Italy, is said to keep on his desk an image of the youngest daughter who died at age 24 and became a saint. It is to her that he regularly prays in time of need.
After the Mass, we watched as the Pope rode out into the square in his popemobile to greet the cheering crowd, some of whom wept.
The Vatican Museums
If you want to see the thirteen museums housed in the two Vatican palaces, lace up your walking shoes. You will have to walk about 4.4 miles but you will be rewarded with glorious art. From the Renaissance on, every great artist is represented here. It is important to save enough energy for my favorites, the Raphael Room and the Sistine Chapel both of which are near the end of this long route.
pros and cons of visiting at night
We visited the museums both in the day and at night. The night visit, while much less crowded, would have disappointed had it been our only visit, as some of the display areas were poorly lit at night. I am very happy to have gone to the Sistine Chapel in the evening, however. I took all the time I wanted to sit on the benches around the room for relaxed viewing. On one side was the story of Moses, while the corresponding story of Jesus was portrayed on the opposite wall. And then there was that glorious ceiling….(No photos were allowed, so I took the one below from the internet – apparently someone took photos in there.)
The Raphael Room
The story goes that Pope Julius II did not like the previous pope and refused to live in the apartment that had been occupied by him. Julius’ new apartment had already been frescoed by several artists when he was introduced to the newcomer to Italy, Raphael. The Pope was so impressed with his work that he decided to have the apartment scraped and painted again by Raphael. The young artist was 25 years old at the time.
The Liberation of St. Peter from prison is masterfully set around a window. Its use of three different qualities of light is fascinating.
The Mass at Bolsena depicts the miracle that is said to have occurred at a Mass in 1263, when a doubter questioned whether the host actually becomes the body of Christ in the Eucharist. The bread began to bleed onto the table and formed the shape of cross and proved the point. The young man in red gazing outward is Raphael. It is one of the few times that the artist put himself in his painting.
The most famous of Raphael’s paintings displayed here is the School of Athens. It represents the harmony between the values of antiquity and Christianity. It is praised for the artist’s masterful use of perspective. The subject is a debate between Plato and Aristotle. Raphael inserted portraits of contemporary figures, including the Pope, Leonardo da Vinci, and Michelangelo who was Raphael’s rival at the time.
The Spanish Steps
A natural gathering place, the Spanish Steps is a fun stop for anyone in Rome. Families, lovers and tourists seeking rest gather here night and day. The Bernini-built fountain in front of the steps represents a flooded boat at the center of a basin and heralds back to a flooding of the Tiber in which a sunken boat was visible. There is a lovely French church at the top of the stairs which was not visible due to renovations.
Trajan’s Temple – Old and New Together
It was a curiosity when we saw these 11 old columns standing in front of a newer building. They are all that remains of Trajan’s Temple (reign 98-117 AD), left standing when the stock exchange was built right up next to them in the 17th century. When we looked over the railing there, we could see where excavation has taken place to uncover remains of a street 20 feet below. We came face to face with the reality that Rome is a city built on a city – we learned that there are actually two levels below the current cobblestones we were walking on. It’s a very old city….
A Free Evening Concert
I love what can happen when you wander out at night in Rome without an agenda. You never know what delight you will encounter. This lovely church was offering a free music concert so we popped in to enjoy a few songs in a lovely setting.
The Pantheon is the only architecturally intact building from classical Roman times. Built in 125 AD, it was originally a pagan temple dedicated to all Roman gods. Pantheism, from which the temple took its name, is the belief that the Universe (or nature as the totality of everything) is identical with divinity, that everything composes an all-encompassing, immanent god (Wikipedia). This pagan temple was converted to a Christian church in 609 AD.
The most striking part is the 140 feet high unsupported dome that has one opening in the center, called an oculus. This 30 foot wide opening lets in a beam of light that displays itself in different places around the room as the day goes on. It also allows in air, as well as rain, from the outside. A small section of the floor was often wet and roped off when we visited. The oculus is said to operate in reverse by letting prayers from within flow freely up to the heavens.
The 16 huge, 60-ton granite columns in the portico were quarried in Egypt and brought to Rome on special barges. It takes 4 adults with linked arms to reach around one of the columns.
These are the images we captured in our fantastical night roaming around Rome. It’s a magical place to explore, day or night.
How about you? Have you seen Rome by night? What did you like best? If you haven’t been there yet, would you like to go? Leave a reply in the space below. I’d love to hear what you think. Thank you for reading my post, Rome By Night.Tweet