When in Rome Annabel Barber
Annabel Barber, author of the new Blue Guide to the city, leads you to its hidden gems, far from the madding crowd of tourists
‘My desire to see Rome was so intense that I could wait no longer. And finally – here I am! The dreams of my youth are coming true.’
Thus gushed Goethe in 1786. And who doesn’t feel something similar, with a trip to Rome in their sights?
The tickets are booked, the hotel room secured. All that remains to do is plan an itinerary. The Colosseum, the Sistine Chapel and St Peter’s… Oh, what joy!
Nope. Forget it. Sorry to be a spoilsport but, thanks to the modern malaise of over-tourism, the Colosseum today must be as mobbed and cacophonous as it was on its inauguration in AD80, when the Celtic heart-throb gladiator Priscus topped the bill.
As for the Sistine Chapel, there is as much room to move as in a holding pen
at a sheep fair. St Peter’s Square is so clogged with barricades erected to corral visitors that it looks more like a rodeo than a sacred space.
The Spanish Steps and Trevi Fountain are at the top of Europe’s list of ‘most Instagrammable sights’, which translates into visitor mayhem. I’ve been there at dawn and seen girls with long legs and short skirts already mustering, flipping their hot-brushed tresses, artfully arranging themselves and pouting into their smartphones. As the sun rises and the crowds intensify, the air is rent by piercing whistle blasts from the urban police, warning people not to sit down (a new rule introduced in 2019).
In the Pantheon, attempts to impose decorum on the crowds mean custodians call ‘ Silenzio!’ in stentorian tones. All sense of awe is drowned by din.
In Piazza Navona, you have to run the gamut of restaurant greeters and selfie-stick touts before you glimpse Bernini’s fountain. In Campo de’ Fiori, gimmickry and knock-off designer handbags are pushing out the local fruit and veg, and tourist-oriented pizzapasta-aperol spritz bars have replaced the neighbourhood cafés where elderly Romans quaffed tiny espressos with a generous chaser of grappa. (There is one of those places still surviving, but don’t expect me to reveal where.)
Does all this sound a bit Eeyore-ish? The truth is that Rome is still as glorious as it ever was – as we discovered while compiling the new, 12th edition of Blue Guide Rome.
We thought long and hard about how to put it together and advise people on planning their time. It’s no longer
possible to visit places like the Colosseum or Vatican museums spontaneously. Tickets sell out, staff are brusque, queues are insanely long and you need to book well in advance. But that doesn’t make those places any less spectacular once you get there. Visiting is just a lot more tiring.
So what is the solution? Fortunately, there are plenty. In the ancient centre, efforts are being made to open new areas up, to provide an alternative to parts of the city suffering from overpopularity.
In the Roman Forum, there is no longer such a thing as a low season; just high and higher. But now, parts of the adjoining Imperial Fora, built by successive rulers beginning with Julius Caesar, closed to the public until 2019, can be visited. Today you can see from close quarters the remains of the temple that Caesar dedicated after his defeat of Pompey, containing a gilded statue of Cleopatra.
Beyond it, you get a better view than has been available for many years of the great Column of Trajan.
If you feel you can’t quite face the Colosseum, visit the Domus Aurea instead. After the death of the hated Emperor Nero, his successors scrambled to return land he had expropriated to the city, turning it back to public use. The Colosseum stands on the site of an artificial lake in Nero’s pleasure garden. Behind it, Trajan built public baths over a pavilion belonging to Nero’s Golden House, the notorious Domus Aurea.
Only scant traces of those baths still stand but you can book a tour of their substructures, underground, and it’s fascinating to see the remains of Nero’s painted and stuccoed halls, whose dainty decorations provided inspiration for so many artists of the Renaissance, including Raphael and Pinturicchio.
Patterns in the mortar reveal the layout of geometric walls and floors, once clad in coloured marble and studded with sparkling gems. A wraith-like painted Ulysses still offers wine to Polyphemus in the vault of a shell-encrusted nymphaeum.
The taste and style here, as well as the architectural skill and bravura of the central vaulted hall – even though created for the private pleasure of a single megalomaniac – have more of human brilliance and ingenuity than the outsize brutality of the Colosseum, created for public fun.
At Blue Guides, we find ourselves concentrating more and more on the ‘minor tour’; we are planning to launch a new e-series focusing on precisely that. As a taster, here are three highly recommended ‘minor’ Roman sights, easily accessible and – better still – wonderfully peaceful.
Villa Torlonia Beyond the Porta Pia,
Michelangelo’s gate in the old city walls, the Via Nomentana leads through an elegant, leafy residential district of palaces and suburban villas. Among them is the Villa Torlonia, its extensive gardens now a public park.
The Palladian-style villa is now a museum, as is the Arts-and-craftsinspired House of the Owls. The latter contains a display of Art Nouveau stained glass; the former a wonderful collection of early-20th-century Italian paintings.
The grandly decorated rooms of the villa are a delight to explore, with a colonnaded ballroom, a bathroom decorated with the lovers of Zeus, and a bedroom with a ceiling fresco of Hypnos borne to heaven by dreams.
It’s difficult to imagine Mussolini being lulled to sleep by this scene, but it
must have happened: the villa was given to him in 1925 and he lived here until 1943, building himself an air-raid bunker in the grounds (visits by appointment).
The Via Latina tombs Rome is famous for its early Christian catacombs, the best-known of which lie close to the Via Appia. If you coincide with a coach party, the atmosphere can be uncomfortably claustrophobic. However, in a little park formed from a surviving stretch of the Via Latina, just north of Via Appia and easily accessible by metro, is a group of underground burial chambers visited by far fewer people. Seeing the extraordinary painted and stucco vaults, you wonder why. The Tomb of the Valerii, all in white, is covered with fantastically well-preserved, exquisitely delicate, second-century stuccoes showing satyrs, maenads, mythological marine creatures and, in the centre, an allegorical representation of the deceased being whisked to the world beyond.
Centrale Montemartini Not far from the Protestant Cemetery where Keats lies buried is an outpost of the Capitoline Museums, little visited despite being full of masterpieces (a stunning headless Aphrodite, for example). This is not only a museum of classical sculpture but a piece of industrial heritage – a former electricity power station, built in 1912. The massive iron turbines and extraction pumps have been retained, and candid white busts of emperors and statues of supple goddesses are ingeniously displayed amidst them, hulking relics of the machine age, magnificent in their own right. The effect is superb.
Blue Guide Rome (12th edition) by Alta Macadam and Annabel Barber, published 3rd February (£19.95)
‘Mussolini lived here until 1943, building himself an air-raid bunker in the grounds’