Views of Ancient Rome

 Pantheon Is Best Preserved Building of Ancient Rome 

The Vatican Museum and St. Peter’s were interesting but that is all “new” Rome. I’m ready to see some of what made ancient Rome so powerful and, to me, more appealing.  I’m particularly interested in seeing old Rome’s Pantheon, first built between 27 and 25 B.C as a temple to honor all the Roman gods. It supposedly was erected on the site where one of Rome’s founders,,  Romulus, died and an eagle carried his body into the skies to be with the gods.

The Pantheon is listed on our scheduled stops but not on our guide’s. This is why I hate guided tours. Despite their descriptions, you never can be sure where you will go—or won’t.  Mutiny time. Several of us strongly point out the Pantheon is a scheduled stop and we do expect to go there.  The guide keeps saying there is no time.

Instead, we stand in front of the Trevi Fountain obscured by scaffolding and about as romantic looking as a garbage can. I know we are close to the Pantheon. I bring it up to our guide again. “No time.”

Then, without any advance warning, the skies literally open up and dump what look like marble-sized raindrops on us. Linda and I happen to be standing in front of a small storefront canopy that is wide enough to shelter us and our camera equipment.  We step back under it. The others have rain jackets and umbrellas so no one drowns. As fast as the rain started, it instantly stops. Is this normal Roman weather?

Something has changed the guide’s mind. She agrees to a compromise. She will take a 20-minute gelato break here. Anyone who wants to visit the Pantheon may do so. Where is it?  Down that street, she gestures.  “That will take you right to it and it’s very close.” It looks more like an alley than a street and only four of about 30 of us begin to move rapidly that way.  Ice cream is that important after a big lunch?

The Pantheon at Last!

Pantheon interior is cylindrically shaped.
 From the outside the Pantheon seems a boring square building and not what I expect. The Latin inscription on the façade: M. AGRIPPA L.F. COS TERTIUM FECIT  (“It was built by Marcus Agrippa, son of Lucius, consul for the third time”) pinpoints this as the right place.   Marcus Agrippa, who defeated the forces of Mark Antony and Cleopatra in a naval battle, constructed some of the most notable buildings in the history of Rome, including the Pantheon.

The interior of the Pantheon  is what I expect to find: a large cylindrical-shaped room covered by a huge dome with a hole in the center of it. The hole, known as “the eye” or “oculus,” brightens the entire room. There are no windows. The Pantheon is one of the best preserved ancient Roman building.  The colorful marble floor with geometric patterns is still the ancient Roman original. Missing, unfortunately, the bronze that once covered the ceiling. That was all melted down by Pope Urban VIII.

On the other hand, the Pantheon is in such good shape because is has been in continual use since it was built. The Byzantine emperor Phocas gave the building to Pope Boniface the IV in  608 AD and it was used as a church ever since.

When Michelangelo first viewed the Parthenon, he reportedly said “it looks more like the work of angels, not humans.”  It is actually the work of the emperor Hadrian who in 126 AD replaced the two earlier Pantheons destroyed by fire and lightning.

There is only time for a single walk around the Pantheon to meet the guide’s deadline.  The building feels like a perfect space and it is a unique space: the interior height and the diameter of the dome are the same dimensions, 141 feet. 8 inches. Modern engineers marvel at the construction work here.

Pantheon is the the best preserved ancient Roman buildingThe eye (or oculus) provides the interior light

But I am continually drawn back to the rotunda, with an inner diameter of 142.4 feet or almost half the length of a football field.  It reportedly is the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome as well as the largest unsupported dome in the world.

The oculus in the dome center conjures up thoughts of the eye of God.  What it must have looked like when the sun moved across the bronze ceiling!  This eye also sheds tears because rain comes right through it, splashing on the floor where it drains away.

I could spend at least an hour in the Pantheon but off we go to rejoin the group. From the  Trevi Fountain, we walk downhill to the Colosseum  and our bus, passing several recent excavations.

More Views of Ancient Rome

Colleseum of Rome exteriorIt wouldn’t be Rome without the Colesseum,  built 70 AD

Forum of Trajan, 112 ADThe Forum of Emperor Trajan,  112 AD,  shows
a section of  the markets and the column of Trajan.

Arch of Constantine-1Arch of Constantine I, erected circa. 315 AD

The Arch was erected by the Roman Senate to commemorate Constantine I’s victory over the Emperor Maxentius, who stopped the persecution of the Christians.  This is considered the largest surviving Roman triumphal arch and the last great monument of Imperial Rome.

It was also our final view of the city. Unlike the long morning bus ride to Rome, trip back to the Prisendam took about 45 minutes.

Vatican Museum and St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome

Touring the Vatican Museum and St. Peter’s Basilica

On the second day the Prinsendam is docked at Civitavecchia, the port of Rome, the foul weather improves significantly with alternating spells of sun and clouds.  It’s also our day for a Prinsendam Rome excursion.

We’re not fans of guided tours but Rome is too big for us to waste time figuring out how to reach every destination before the ship departs at 7 p.m.  We join an 11.5-hour that departs at 7 a.m.  Unfortunately, it takes us about two hours to cover the 45 miles to the Vatican Museum due to the clogged roads caused by the morning commute.  Apparently it can be worse in summer when 14 ships could fill the cruise port.

The Vatican Museum & Sistine Chapel

Although it’s the off-season, it’s hard to imagine how the Vatican Museum ever can be busier than it is today. One of the world’s greatest and most visited art museums, the Vatican Museum was founded by Pope Julius II in the early 16th century.  It now houses pieces dating going back to Egyptians and Etruscans but is best known for the marvelous works by Europe’s greatest artists and sculptors.

Prinsendam rome excursion Vatican Museum ceiling

Once inside, we soon enter a hallway with an endless shuffling column of people looking from side to side to view sculptures and paintings while at the same time craning their necks to see the vivid painted ceilings.  The bright ceiling decorations and colors are irresistible for photographers and many of us pause whenever we can to shoot them. Photography will not be permitted later in the Sistine Chapel itself.

Profane Secrets Hidden in the Sistine Chapel

Our guide tells us that Michelangelo, who considered himself foremost a sculptor, was forced by Pope Julius II to paint the ceiling.  Michelangelo worked over a four year period from 1508-1512 on the  project  which was never intended to be open to the public, only to the Pope and other church officials.  Our guide says Michelangelo clearly made a mockery of the Pope in many parts of his 12,000-sq. ft. masterpiece. The ceiling panels, which depict stories from the Book of Genesis covering the Creation to the story of Noah, are filled with numerous scenes of joyful nudity that shocked the church.

In addition, there were hidden messages:  shapes making up the figure of God are an anatomically accurate figure of the human brain, complete with stem, front lobe and artery. He also shows God’s derriere and the dirty soles of his feet.  In the Creation of Adam, Adam has a naval yet he was never born. The Last Judgement, painted much later, is rampant with nude saints, female breasts, animals, buffoons, dwarfs, drunkards and other provocative elements that caused the Sistine Chapel ceiling to be censored.  Offending figures were covered with fig leaves or clothed by other artists. It took 300 years, during 20th century restorations, for the alterations to be removed.

Now that we know what to look for in certain panels removes any pious feeling when our turn comes to view the Sistine Chapel ceiling. The room is overcrowded, making it difficult to see the painting well.  It is actually easier to view the Sistine Chapel on a computer screen than in person. The Vatican offers a 3-D virtual tour but manage the tour yourself. The autopilot tour moves much too fast. This site loads slowly; it’s worth the wait:

Surprising Facts about St. Peter’s Basilica

St. Peter's Basilica, Rome                                       St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome, Italy

From the Vatican Museum it’s only a few steps to St. Peter’s Basilica, where there is far more room to move about freely.  Well, this is the largest church in the Christian world, able to hold 60,000 people.  Our guide has some more surprising facts about St. Peters. First, it is only a church, not a cathedral, since it is not the Pope’s own cathedral. However, because of St. Peter’s size and location, it is used by the Papal authorities for many church functions.

Michelangelo also has major influences here.  He designed the basilica’s famous dome, a city landmark viewable for miles around.  His famous sculpture, the Pieta, is also located within the church. It is said to be the only work he ever signed.  For all it fame, the statue  of the Virgin Mary holding the dead body of Jesus Christ appears surprisingly unguarded; it is actually encased in bulletproof glass .

The first St. Peter’s was built here in the 4th century because it was thought to be where St. Peter’s bones were buried.  Bones indeed have been found here in recent years and claimed to be those of Peter.  Pope Francis in 2013 displayed a box apparently holding the remains during a mass in St. Peter’s Square. 

The bones have not been scientifically tested to verify their age nor are they likely to be. They carry a 1,000 year old curse verified by Vatican documents that state anyone who disturbs the peace of Peter’s tomb will suffer the worst possible misfortune. But doesn’t it seem that has already been done by being dug up decades ago and then displaying them in a box in public?

St. Peter's Basilica, RomeSt. Peter’s Basilica, Rome, Italy

The Unexpected Egyptian Obelisk in St. Peter’s Square

Afterwards we wander through one side of St. Peter’s Square located in front of the church. Perhaps the most surprising thing about the huge expanse—besides the sea of chairs used for special occasions—is the presence of a 4,000-year old Egyptian obelisk in the middle of the square.  Although it lacks any hieroglyphic markings, that isn’t actually a Christian symbol. Why is it there?

Brought from Alexandria, the obelisk was erected by the Emperor Caligula to mark his Circus where he held horse races. Later it was the site of the Nero Circus, a place were numerous Christians were martyred, among them Peter.  When the new St. Peter’s Basilica was built in the 1500s, Pope Sixtus V had the obelisk transferred to the center of the square so it could stand in front of the church.  It took 13 months to move and re-erect. It remains standing as the final witness to the martyrdom of St. Peter.

Amazing how these obelisks turn up in so many important places in Europe and the U.S. And wonder why they’ve been considered symbols of power for thousands of years across cultures.

Next:  The Pantheon and Views of Ancient Rome.


ms Prinsendam Med Cruise Foul Weather Days

Bad Weather Soon Prevents Two Scheduled Port Visits

The ms Prinsendam Mediterranean & Aegean Explorer cruise spends many more days in port than at sea, or at least that is the schedule.  Foul weather ahead will alter the Prinsendam’s scheduled stops after a call at Toulon, France.

Toulon France Harbor and Marina                        Overlooking Toulon Harbor from Prinsendam

After embarking at Barcelona, we dock at Toulon the following morning. Regrettably, all the main attractions are a good distance from the port. These include the Old Harbor at Marseille and the Provencal city of Aix-en-Provence, usually pronounced simply as the letter X.  Aix is famous as the home to Cézanne and for its 17th and 18th century buildings bordering narrow streets in the city center.

Aix is known for its famous flower markets held on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. Linda is most interested in the Saturday flower market, supposedly the largest, but the ship is docked on a different day.

Having seen the day’s cloudy forecast, Linda is happy to forego Aix and for the walk around Toulon to view the food markets and other sights. Speaking of views, we have an excellent one from the ship of Toulon’s harbor, marina and waterfront buildings.  Toulon’s skies are kind most of the day, a mix of cloud and sun.  It’s the last good weather we see for days.

Prinsendam Captain one of its greatest assets

When most cruise ships leave a port, it’s customary to hear some sort of announcement about the weather and the upcoming day. On the Prinsendam, this is not done by the cruise director but the captain himself, who makes almost all of the public announcements.

It’s not an ego thing but an obligation Captain Tim Roberts seems to feel is part of his job.  More approachable and with a greater presence than almost any cruise ship captain I’ve ever met, Captain Roberts was born in Liverpool and resides in Scotland.  His quiet, competent manner and daily announcements add real flavor to the cruise.  We look forward to hearing his comments, which can be wry or serious or a bit of both.

Tonight, he has bad news for us. We will not be able to dock in Calvi, Corsica, tomorrow as scheduled, which is disappointing.   It is where Christopher Columbus was born.  Calvi is one of two ports where tendering ashore is necessary. Unfortunately, the seas will be too rough for us to attempt landings in Calvi.

However, Captain Roberts says he has an alternative port where the Prinsendam can dock:  Ajaccio, Corsica, France, birthplace of Napoleon Bonaparte. Sounds good, trading one famous Corsican for another. And Bonaparte is far more interesting. However, the weather at Ajaccio also will be iffy with possible clouds and rain.

Foul weather sends Prinsendam to birthplace of Napoleon 

Ajaccio appears a pleasant and compact town. We are not the only ship to deviate here.  A big floating city with at least 3,000 to 4,000 passengers is docked near us. The Prinsendam is toy-like in comparison.  That larger ship has lots more bells and whistles but we’ll visit ports later it could never enter, an advantage of small ships.

Napoleon is celebrated as a great hero in Ajaccio.  A military general and first emperor of France, he is commemorated in monuments, street names and the Ajaccio Napoleon Bonaparte Airport.  The entire Bonaparte family of the 1800s also is held in equally high esteem.

The grandest monument of Napoleon is on the ocean side of the large de Gaulle Square (formerly Diamant Square).  The statue depicts Napoleon on horseback dressed as a Roman consul and  wearing a gold wreath. He is flanked in front and back by the standing statues of his four brothers, Joseph, Lucien, Louis and Jerome.

Napoleon Bonaparte Statue at Ajaccio Corsica     Statue of Napoleon and his brothers, Ajaccio France

Not far from the square is a simple but spacious house where Napoleon was born on August 15, 1769.  He spent his early years at this house on the Rue Saint-Charles but never returned.   The building is now houses the National Museum of the Bonaparte Residence in Corsica.

After leaving Ajaccio, Capt. Roberts has an especially disturbing weather report for next day’s port, Olbia in Sardinia, Italy.  Captain Roberts says the mayor of Olbia has issued a Code Red due to heavy rains that “could cause flooding and loss of life.”  All cruise ship tours there are cancelled and passengers are not allowed to leave their ships.

Instead of wasting a day in Olbia watching it rain, the Prinsdendam will continue to Rome, our next stop, to spend an extra day there.  Unfortunately, the weather report for Rome  is “heavy thunderstorms.”  That is not surprising.  BBC news shows show severe flooding in France and neighboring countries.  We never receive news about the extent of damage (if any) in Olbia.

Our first day docked at Civitavecchia, Rome’s cruise ship port, the weather is beyond dismal. The rain easily compares to some tropical storms. Those who try to reach Rome return saturated, and not by wine.  A good number regret their outing.

We have to be optimistic. The sun will come out tomorrow, right? Actually, it does.