Wonderful Italy

Exploring Italy via our travels — places, people, things…

Rome and its Ancient Port, Ostia Antica

Program Excursion May 31-June 3, 2007 – kc

This past weekend we made a four-day trip to Rome, an excursion by bus for the entire program group (43 students plus one of their sisters, one of their mothers, Anne and me, Claudia and Pergiacomo).

Of note on this trip:

  • Rome’s crazy, noisy, grubby, hectic multi-lingual “in-your-face” presence
  • The impressive ruins of Ostia Antica, the capitol’s ancient port city
  • Walking by a small store and noticing it had a Roman temple on its side
  • Hare Krishna dancers, pan-demonium and pan-deoism
  • A “Punch and Judy” puppet show for kids show going on in a park
  • Discovering several quiet refuges from Rome’s otherwise intense crowds

Urban Throb
Rome is an intense place in late spring and summer. The traffic noise is famous, the hubbub of life exuberant. As we crossed the city on foot several times, Pergiacomo, our art historian, told me with a slight cynical tone, “I think I am the only Italian in this city…” — we were hearing many different languages passing us by, but not much Italian. The Trevi fountain is being loved to death, thronged to overflowing at most hours, a standing room only place. Thousands of digital photos taken, coins thrown, and roses (thrust into hands by clever vendors) refused. A few still come here to take wedding photos, though how they can avoid having strangers in their pictures is not clear. For Anne and me Trevi fountain was endurable for only five minutes, though our students report it is beautiful and deserted at 2 A.M! Piazza Navona was not much different, nor the Pantheon; the line to go through the metal detector and then enter Saint Peter’s stretches for a quarter mile, for the Vatican Museums even longer. Somehow it is still enthralling, but to be savored in small doses, not in large groups, and surely with enough quiet time to discover the smaller surprises.

Ostia Antica
Rome depended on control of the seas for its dominance, and its economic survival. Grain, oil, timber, and the stone that built the capital traveled by barge up the Tiber (Tevere) river from Ostia, Rome’s bustling commercial port city on the Mediterranean. Ostia flourished from about 500 B.C. to 500 A.D. It was in decline for the last several hundred years, as the Tiber changed course away from it, as silting put the sea further away, and as malaria made it an unhealthy place. Unlike Pompeii, Ostia was not overtaken by a sudden calamity – it faded away. And then it was plundered, its marble recycled to be used elsewhere, leaving the brickwork tracing the structure of the city, as it still is today after the detritus of 1500 years was excavated away. While it lacks the drama of Pompeii, with its tragic sudden destruction, Ostia makes a feasible and far more tranquil alternative, especially as it has grass and trees and perhaps a thousandth of the visitors who go to Pompeii.

The photos capture some of the flavor of this city which flourished for over a thousand years (click at top right below our photo, where it says PHOTO SETS).

Temple in the side of a store
Dozens of examples of new-upon-old exist in Rome and throughout the Mediterranean rim. But one wonderful and unnoticed example struck me. On the route from the ancient pedestrian bridge over the Tiber, Ponte Sisto, to the piazza called Campo de’ Fiori, Anne and I skirted down a narrow lane with a small storefront on the corner, grimy with Rome’s urban polish. As we walked down the lane I noticed with surprise that the side of this nondescript structure was in fact an old Roman temple, complete with carved marble columns set on bases about 18” above the cobbled road, and with capitals at the top. The intervening spaces were filled in with masonry made of brick and rubble, and the building served a simple commercial purpose today. But embedded in it is a temple that no doubt served one of the ancient “pagan” gods of Rome. Which god or goddess? Perhaps Baedeker knows.

Punch and Judy on the Janiculum Hill
After the crowds at St. Peter’s, Anne and I found an escape, walking to the Janiculum hill near the Trastevere area of Rome. We discovered a place where ordinary Romans go on a Sunday afternoon. Young lovers cuddling against the wall with an extraordinary view out over the city, people walking dogs, and a quiet café with an outdoor terrace and view over the city. We sat here, enjoying the view while we sipped Campari and soda and savored the snacks that accompany aperitifs in Italy. At the top near the equestrian monument to Italy’s famed 19th C. freedom-fighter, Garibaldi, we encountered a Punch and Judy puppet show in full swing. Fascinated kids sat in tiny chairs reserved for them in front, protective parents behind. For photos, click link at top right of this page.

For more info on Punch and Judy and this tradition’s ancient Italian roots (as Pulcinella), see: “Punch and Judy.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 6 Jun 2007, 07:52 UTC. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 10 Jun 2007


Hare Krishna at the Pantheon
The Pantheon, the domed temple designed by Marcus Agrippa and built about 30 BC (later destroyed, but rebuilt by the emperor Hadrian using Agrippa’s design in about 125 BC) is Rome’s best preserved ancient building. Agrippa, consul for a third time in 27 BC, designed this temple to commemorate Rome’s victory at the battle of Actium four years before. The temple honoring all of Rome’s gods, goddesses and cults originally had bronze and marble statues of them in its many interior niches, as well as an ornate bronze ceiling lining. Virtually all of the bronze except the massive doors, the largest ancient doors remaining in Rome, has been removed, most recently by the architect of St. Peters, Gian Lorenzo Bernini working under orders from Pope Urban IV — the bronze was melted to make Bernini’s huge altar canopy for St. Peters and some cannons. Despite this incalculable loss, the building is impressive, sitting today beside a small piazza with an Egyptian obelisk and fountain at its center. To its left side, the original street level can be seen, some 20 feet lower than today’s streets.

It was Saturday evening and we sat on a low wall enjoying the evening hubbub as dinners selected awning covered sidewalk cafes and younger folks sat on the fountain steps. Rome at its crazy best I suppose. Suddenly we heard drumming echoing from a narrow side street. A familiar rhythm turned out to be the chanting and singing of some 30 Hare Krishna devotees, ecstatically making their way into the square. As they drummed, danced and sang their way into a frenzy, Anne and I remarked on the juxtaposition of religious history being acted out here. On one side, the Egyptian Obelisk, 4000 years old and no doubt inscribed with an invocation to Ra or another of Egypt’s main gods. On the other side the Pantheon, dedicated with exemplary liberality to ALL of Rome’s gods and goddesses, including Mithraism and the cult of Isis among others, and with one niche left empty for the “unknown god” (that is, one still to come). Thus the name, Pan (all) – Theon (gods). And, this evening right in the middle of this scene, modern Hare Krishna dancers spreading their version of religiosity. As there should be, there is room for all, nicely presaged by the inclusive message the original Pantheon provided — leaving space for the unknown god always needs to be part of our thinking.

More on the Pantheon and Agrippa:

“Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 7 Jun 2007, 10:44 UTC. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 10 Jun 2007 <http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Marcus_Vipsanius_Agrippa&oldid=136570436>.


June 8, 2007 Posted by | Art and the Arts, Exploring Italy, Language and Culture | Leave a comment