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Rome's dazzling architecture shouldn't be missed

by Charlie Wagner

The Hall of Mirrors graces the Palazzo Doria Pamphilj. Photo: Charlie Wagner
The Hall of Mirrors graces the Palazzo Doria Pamphilj. Photo: Charlie Wagner  

Rome is famous for its grand public architecture, like the greatest amphitheater ever built, the largest church in the world, and a Baroque fountain big enough to jump in.

Size has mattered for millennia in Rome.

But Romans in the last 2,000 years also produced an amazing variety of domestic architecture. Ancient Romans coined the Latin word "domus" to indicate a place for living.

In Rome, you can now visit one of the largest domus ever constructed, Emperor Nero's Domus Aurea, or Golden House, built in 65 A.D.

The tour starts with an introductory movie projected on the wall, continues through frescoed passageways, and then enters a room with black boxes on the floor. My husband and I selected and opened a box, removed a virtual reality headset, then sat down.

Moments later, we saw what archaeologists believe Nero would have seen; as we turned our head, the view shifted to the same degree. Though not high-definition, the experience was thrilling and unforgettable. VR can be dizzying, but you remain seated throughout.

Soon, the view moves out the palace's door and you see the decorative lake that was in front. The guide explained that the lake was drained by a later emperor to build the Colosseum. Be sure to turn around to see the palace as it originally looked.

The last stop is the octagonal room at the center of the palace. Architects boosted natural light by aiming windows high on the walls against highly-reflective surfaces, some covered with gold and embedded with jewels. After the palace was completed, the Roman historian Suetonius quoted Nero's stunning understatement: "Now at last I can live like a human being."

When Nero died after years of increasingly bizarre and murderous behavior, he was so hated that most of his palace was filled in with dirt and rubble or dismantled.

The first rediscoverers of the Domus Aurea in the 15th century thought the curved tops of barrel vault ceilings (another Roman innovation) were underground caves ("grotto" in Italian) so the fresco style decorations were named "grotesque." Visitors included Renaissance artists Raphael, Perugino, and Ghirlandaio.

Directly overhead is popular Parco Oppio. Admission tickets help fund plans to remove the soil above the Domus, waterproof the palace ceilings, and general restoration.

Because it's an active excavation site, all visitors must wear hard hats and it's open only on weekends. Reserve well in advance.

A century later, wealthy Romans built several smaller residences next to Trajan's Column, under what is now the Palazzo Valentini. This underground tour is named Le Domus Romane and includes portions of several homes plus a small baths complex.

As lights guide your attention during the automated tour, the audio describes what you are seeing while videos are projected on ceilings, walls, and floors, restoring the original appearance, including furnishings. Our guide led us over glass-covered floors because the light level is very low. It's not VR, but the presentation was astonishing.

At the end of the tour, a short video reconstructs Trajan's Column, a 112 foot monument whose bas-reliefs celebrate Trajan's successful military campaign against Dacia, current day Romania.

A ceiling fresco at Villa Farnesina shows the myth of Perseus by Baldassarre Peruzzi. Photo: Charlie Wagner  

Dodging crowds
Jumping ahead to the 15th century, we next visited a Renaissance palace still privately owned by one of Rome's oldest families: the Palazzo Doria Pamphilj, worth considering if other sites are packed with tourists.

From floor-to-ceiling, the four luxurious galleries show works by Caravaggio, Raphael, Tintoretto, Titian, Bernini, Bruegel, and others. The collection was started in 1651 by Pope Innocent X's nephew; one painting was donated by the pope when it was judged too racy for the Vatican, according to the audio guide.

Our guidebook called Velazquez's portrait of Innocent X — suggesting a dictatorial and vengeful character and considered very unflattering in its day — the star of the collection.
The self-guided tour included an excellent audio guide, narrated by a charming descendent of the family who still lives in the palace's private apartments, which can also be visited. Roma Opera Omnia organizes concerts in the Palazzo several times a month.

Another option for dodging crowds is a Renaissance villa designed as a cool summer pavilion on the Tiber, surrounded by gardens. This "house museum" is called the Villa Farnesina, honoring the ancient Roman villa on the same site.

Commissioned in 1508 by a Sienese banker to impress and delight visitors, the vividly-colored wall and ceiling paintings convey a glorious version of domestic living with its combination of architecture and decoration.

Artworks include Rafael's painting "Triumph of Galatea," a mythological scene on the ceiling filled with near-naked deities by Baldassarre Peruzzi, also the architect, and beautiful paintings of New World plants such as corn and pumpkin.

Don't miss the "Marriage of Alexander and Roxanne" by Giovanni Antonio Bazzi, painted in 1516, a riot of luscious bodies, including Alexander the Great's handsome male lover, Hephaestion. Bazzi was called Il Sodoma (the Sodomite) by his peers, as he was assumed to be homosexual. He reportedly used the name himself with pride, though whether it had a sexual connotation for him is not documented.

The audio guide enriches the self-guided tour, followed by a stroll in the gardens. Once a month, one tour includes a concert of Renaissance music.

Decades later, a completely different Renaissance villa called Villa Giulia (named for Pope Julius) was built just outside the city in 1550 to escape the summer heat.

Since 1889, this slightly shabby villa has housed a museum of antiquities from the pre-Roman era: the Museo Nazionale Etrusco (National Etruscan Museum). The Etruscans were an advanced civilization that predated the Romans on the Italian peninsula; Etrusca was partly located in present day Tuscany and is the source of that name.

The well-organized collection with excellent labels in English contains the largest collection of Etruscan artifacts in the world.

The treasure of the collection is a nearly-life-size sarcophagus in painted terracotta called the Sarcophagus of the Spouses, showing a husband and wife reclining as if at a banquet. The partners are portrayed as equals, rather than the wife being portrayed as a smaller person, a radical contrast to Greek culture, which banned women from dinner parties.

Another masterpiece is a krater, or chalice, which illustrates an episode of the Trojan War as described by Homer; it was stolen in 1971, later sold to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and returned in 2006, as were several other objects in the museum.

Etruscans had elaborate funeral ceremonies. One burial mound or tomb (called tumulo) from the fifth century has been reassembled on the lower floor; you can walk inside and feel the eerie ambiance.

Wall frescoes include some in the "grotesque style" inspired by the Domus Aura; surrounding gardens were designed to imitate the imperial Roman style.

The Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna (Museum of Modern Art) is located across the street. For a scenic ride to the Colosseum, take Tram #3 just outside the villa.

Adjoining the Villa Giulia gardens is the Villa Borghese, 200 landscaped acres surrounding the Galleria Borghese, a spectacular and very popular museum built in 1613 by the nephew of Pope Paul V to house his extensive collection of Roman, Renaissance, and Baroque art. The nephew oversaw papal fees and taxes and was an avid art collector.

The Galleria has artworks by Raphael, Titian, Veronese, Rubens, Bellini, and more Caravaggio paintings than any other collection in the world; many works were commissioned by the Borghese for the gallery. Highlights of the collection include lifelike marble sculptures by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, so don't miss his astounding "Apollo and Daphne," which depicts Apollo reaching toward Daphne at the moment her father transforms her into a tree to save her from being assaulted by Apollo.

On the upper floor, Titian's "Sacred and Profane Love" portrays Profane modestly dressed as a bride, and Sacred as a mostly naked Venus. (Our Puritans would not approve.) Hung nearby is a painting of pierced and hunky St. Sebastian.

If you want to avoid the masses inside the museum, start on the second floor, which is permitted though not encouraged.

Timed tickets allow exactly two hours to roam the museum's two floors; outside that, however, you can visit the cafe and shop on the lower floor. Reserve far in advance.

Other museums and sites worth visiting, particularly when Rome is overcrowded, include: Centrale Montemartini, a huge collection of ancient statues and large mosaics in a former 1912 power plant; MAXXI, a "museum of the 21st century" designed by Zaha Hadid, with loud video art and vertigo-inducing catwalks; and the Palazzo Massimo al Terme, the most interesting of the four-building National Roman Museum, with beautiful ancient statues and mosaics, rare life-size bronzes, and you can walk into a reconstruction of the infamous Livia's delightful, frescoed dining room.

The best preserved ancient building in Rome is Emperor Hadrian's Pantheon, with the largest unsupported dome in the world. The circular opening in the dome was inspired by the oculus in Nero's palace, but Hadrian's was bigger.

For another VR experience, check out the Ara Pacis on Friday or Saturday night. The square marble monument honored the goddess of peace and has raised sculptures on all four sides. VR redraws the original sculptures using what archaeologists believe were the original, bright colors.

If you have a half-day to spare, visit Scavi di Ostia Antico, about 30 minutes by train. It's a fascinating look at Rome's ancient port, in use for 600 years. Rick Steves' "Rome 2019" calls it "Pompeii without the crowds" and has an excellent walking tour.

Allow two-plus hours for the self-guided tour walking on ancient (hard) basalt roads.

Coming Out owner Annalisa Scamera, left, stands with waiter/bartender Andrea Aparp. Photo: Charlie Wagner  

Everybody eat
We left for Rome with the virtuous intent to eat sensibly (gelato once a day!), but conveniently forgot about that when our plane touched down. Fortunately, our Roman friend Maurizio Pettitti had sent a list of his favorite restaurants. Those we patronized were all 30-40 euros per person with wine.

After Domus Aurea, we had lunch at Antica Taverna, which Pettitti described as "everything cooked the way it should be." Fried zucchini flowers with anchovies were perfect and tonnarelli fatti in casa (house-made pasta plus tiny pieces of cheese with tomatoes) and cacio e pepe (pasta with tiny bacon pieces and pecorino cheese) were even better.

Dessert was torta della nonna (your grandmother's torte): pine nuts, a layer of vanilla cream, delicate pastry, and two dollops of whipped cream on top.

Near Villa Farnesina, we had lunch at "vegetarian-friendly" Trattoria da Enzo where everything is made in-house. Chicory sautéed in olive oil was delicious, the Lasagne Classico was delectably creamy and a simple pasta with cheese and pepper was perfect. It's small and popular; try to arrive before they open. The street is full of tiny artisan shops.

After visiting Le Domus Romane, we strolled over to Via San Giovanni in Laterano, which LGBTQ Romans call "the gay street," and had lunch at Coming Out. The restaurant is open seven days a week, 7 a.m. to 5 a.m., serving breakfast to late dinner.

This proudly gay-owned restaurant was opened in 2001 by three women who identified as lesbian, but now is owned by only one, Annalisa Scamera. Her menu describes the restaurant as, "A meeting place, a chill out zone, perfect for an after work drink or chat with a stranger," and features sandwiches with names like Gym Bunny, Twink and Bear (hamburger). The menu cover displayed two women kissing passionately.

Scamera organizes "speed dating" nights for women and men, a drag show every Sunday, and other theme nights. She was proud to note, "Coming Out was the first bar in Rome that you didn't have to ring to get inside." Her clientele at first were mostly lesbian, she recalled, but now are mostly gay.

The restaurant's high visibility at first provoked "lots of harassment and even demonstrations," Scamera said, "but that stopped around 2008." During Roma Gay Pride in June, the road is closed and a stage erected for entertainment.

Every summer from June to September, another longer LGBTQ celebration called Roma Gay Village takes place in the EUR district.

After visiting Galleria Borghese, we had dinner with Pettitti at his favorite restaurant, Hostaria da Enzo, next to the Piramide Metro stop. This traditional trattoria features dishes like house-made thick pasta with seafood, calamari, shrimp, mussels and clams, and pork chops cooked in beer with rosemary.

For a night of music, we enjoyed Gershwin's "Un Americano in Parigi" in easy-to-find and reasonably-priced Auditorio Parco della Musica, a Renzo Piano-designed building nicknamed "the three bugs." After traversing many staircases, we were rewarded with excellent sound and sight lines. Piano was the architect of San Francisco's Academy of Sciences.

Sunday is the best day for the evening stroll or passagiata. Follow Steves' Heart of Rome Walking Tour for some marvelous people-watching; his route includes the Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain, Piazza Navonna, and the Pantheon.

Pettitti did not recommend driving in central Rome and noted that two bridges over the Tiber are called English bridges because you drive on the left. We saw few parking garages, but taxis were inexpensive and easy to hail.

Our best bargain was the Roma Pass, available at tourist offices, subway stations, and many tabacs. For 48 or 72 hours, you have free transportation by bus, tram, or subway and some intra-city trains, free admission to one or two museums, and reduced or free admission to over 100 museums and attractions.

This was not our first visit to Rome, but once again we found there's always something new to be discovered in the Eternal City.

For more information
Domus Aurea:
Le Domus Romane:
Palazzo Doria Pamphilj:
Rome Opera Omnia:
Villa Farnesina:
Museo Nazionale Etrusco:
Galleria Borghese:
Antica Taverna:
Trattoria da Enzo:
Coming out:
Roma Gay Village:
Auditorio Parco della Musica:
Roma Pass:

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