Finding Ancient Rome in Turin

Modern day Torino is built on the site of the Roman colony, Julia Augusta Taurinorum. Originally home to the Taurini, a people of Celtic origin at the gateway to the Alps, the area would have been first in the firing line of Hannibal’s incursions.  The Roman colony was formed as Augusta Trurinorum in the early days of Augustus’s rule in the first Century BC as a castrum or military camp.  Even today, flying over the city, the city’s grid-like Roman structure is still visible, and long straight streets predominate.  The city hasn’t forgotten its Roman heritage, as the Quadrilatero Romano area continues to be a popular part of town.

Augustus continues to look out over his city: here he is at the so-called Palatine Gate, the northern exit to the city (today a taxi trip to the airport goes right past), looking over the city, with the Duomo (home to the Turin Shroud) and its medieval campanile looming large.




The gate itself isn’t original, but has seen reuse throughout the centuries, including as a prison and a music school.  A painting at the Museo del Risorgimento shows how those buildings could have looked in the 18th or 19th Centuries.

The Archaeological park which houses the Gate connects directly to the Musei Reali complex of museums, specifically the palace housing the Museo Archaeologico and the Galleria Sabauda.  From here, the remains of the city’s Roman-era theatre can also be viewed.

IMG_3722


Inside the Archaeological Museum, the city’s antique past is atmospherically presented in a partly underground setting.

   

The spectacular Marengo Treasure, found in the 1920’s in a field outside the village of Marengo, is also displayed.  A selection of silver treasures, it includes this bust of Lucius Verus.


Other treasures include spectacular mosaics such as that of Orpheus below.

  

Palazzo Madama, just outside the Musei Reali complex, was the first home of the Italian senate and marks the site of yet another gate into the city. This one connected directly to the city’s main streets.

And inside, descending the landmark medieval towers of the original building, one can see the Roman era tower’s earlier structure.

And the Roman influence doesn’t end there. The city’s Egyptian Museum was playing host to the ‘Il Nilo A Pompei’ exhibition, tracing the relationship of Greece and Rome with Egyptian imagery and religion – with some spectacular finds from Pompeii (normally exhibited in Naples), including frescoes from the House of the Golden Bracelet.





Have you explored Roman Torino? What was on your must-see list?

Five days in Turin

Earlier this month, I got the chance to spend a short break in Turin/Torino.  There tend to be two reactions when one says they’re going here – either “oh, the Shroud”, or “what’s there, and why are you going?”  It’s not easy to find an up-to-date guidebook in English, but we knew from our visit to Milan when we had contemplated a side trip, there were things that we wanted to see here – including the National Automobile Museum, and the royal palaces.  This was, after all, the first capital of a united Italy, and home city of the Dukes of Savoy/Kings of Sardinia who would go on to lead Italy before it became a republic.  Royal palaces aren’t hard to find.


  

So much more than 5 days could be filled here, and upcoming posts will explore a few of the sites that we had the chance to visit, armed with the great value 72-hour Torino & Piemonte card.

The city is known for its baroque splendour, long covered streets (with a grid plan nodding to the city’s Roman era heritage), and the spectacular Mole Antonelliana, home to the National Cinema museum.


  
  

Have you been to Torino – what was your favourite place to visit there?

Riverside Rome

A short walk between three of Rome’s bridges in January provided plenty of time to explore some beautiful settings.

Ponte Vittorio Emanuele II was our first stop en route to the La Befana Parade. As it was a public holiday, the lack of traffic and brilliant blue skies both made for perfect photo opportunities.

20140113-211811.jpg

20140113-212048.jpg

20140113-211823.jpg

20140120-194902.jpg

From the bridge, the Castel Sant’Angelo stood out magnificently.

20140113-211924.jpg

20140120-194951.jpg

20140120-214719.jpg

As did the dome of St Peter’s, and the Church/complex of Santa Spirito in Sassia. The latter was founded by Saxon King Ine of Wessex, who abdicated from his throne to be nearer to the tomb of St Peter and the Vatican.

20140120-214644.jpg

Moving along the river to Ponte Sant’Angelo, dominated by Castel Sant’Angelo…

20140120-214637.jpg

A bridge dominated by Bernini’s magnificent angels

20140120-215134.jpg

20140120-215146.jpg

20140120-195221.jpg

20140120-195230.jpg

20140120-214629.jpg

And from there along Lungotevere Tor di Nona to Ponte Umberto I, where sights include the Palazzo di Giustizia.

20140120-195158.jpg

20140120-195208.jpg

20140120-195546.jpg

A year and a half later and a different season saw us back at Castel Sant Angelo in time for sunset over St Peter’s and the Ponte Sant Angelo…

img_1652-14img_2019

img_1576-1

Titanic Belfast

IMG_1220In the summer, I visited Belfast’s stunning Titanic Exhibition. It’s housed in a spectacular building that references the White Star Line logo (and the iceberg which destroyed this vessel). A trip here opens up the social and economic history of Belfast, as well as exploring how the Titanic has entered popular culture. The city’s industrial heritage is never far away, with the iconic Samson and Goliath cranes from the Harland and Woolf  shipyard standing guard.

IMG_0911

It’s located in a part of Belfast which has seen many changes since I lived not that far away in the 1990s. This whole area has seen much regeneration, with the Titanic studios being the Northern Ireland home for Game of Thrones filming (the yellow and grey building below).

IMG_0783


IMG_0887

Back to the stunning exhibition building, which opened in 2012, in time to commemorate Titanic’s 100th anniversary.


  

It’s set right at the head of the slipway from where the Titanic and its Harland and Woolf sister ships were launched.

  

Inside, it’s a cavernous creation that recreates the early 20th Century Belfast of the Titanic’s construction.

 
  

Then it’s in through the (real) gates of Harland and Woolf to learn more about how ships were built. A replica of the gigantic Arrol gantry takes the visitor to a dark ride through the shipyard, where there’s a sense of the conditions in which the shipyard workers toiled. 
  

The difference between first and third class accommodation on the ship is vividly bought to life with replica cabins, while the ship’s eventual sinking is handled with sensitivity.


 IMG_0862

Titanic’s role in popular culture and the aftermath of its demise are also explored. There’s an atmospheric double height cinema experience that showcases the resting place of the vessel and the exploration still going on there. Very poignant.  The site also looks forward, exploring how the city’s shipbuilding industry has evolved, and to the future of marine exploration.

All in all a fantastic visit with one ship’s construction used as a jumping off point to learn more about Belfast and much more.

It’s also possible to have a walking tour of the area, including the drawing office where Titanic and its sister ships were designed, and the tender ship for Titanic, SS Nomadic.  We decided to leave those for our next visit!

IMG_0912

The Pantheon 

When near the Pantheon, it would be rude not to pay a visit to this grande dame of Roman architecture. Standing in its current form for over 1850 years, it’s a magnet for tourists, whether on their first or later visit. While certainly ‘M Agrippa fecit’ the first version of this temple, the current facade dates from the time of Trajan or even Hadrian, with much evidence to suggest it may have been built by Apollodorus of Damascus,  responsible for Trajan’s Markets.

And, what better way to end this series of Roman blogs.

Inside, the coffered dome (now devoid of its original colour and decoration) and oculus remain as impressive as ever.


IMG_1888-0

IMG_2465

VLUU L310W L313 M310W / Samsung L310W L313 M310W

VLUU L310W L313 M310W / Samsung L310W L313 M310W

We visited just after a morning of heavy rain – answering the question what happens to a building open to the sky during and after a rain shower. While the water drains away, the area immediately under the oculus gets roped off.

 

And back outside, despite its age, the site dominates its surroundings and sits side by side with modern-day Rome!

  

 

San Pietro in Vincoli

There’s been a church on this site – just five minutes’ walk from the Colosseum – since the 5th Century when it was built to house relics from chains (vincoli) said to have held St Peter in Jerusalem. They came to Rome via the Empress Eudoxia (whose name is still remembered in the street outside), after whom the original Basilica Eudoxiana was named.  She gifted them to Pope Leo I.  The legend goes that when he compared them with the chains that had apparently held St Peter in Rome’s Mamertine Prison, the two miraculously fused together.

The façade we see today shows no sign of those ancient origins, as the site has seen many refurbishments, the last major one having taken place in the early years of the 15th Century by Pope Julius II, who commissioned Michelangelo to build his famous Moses as a tomb.


IMG_0603

The chains are now held behind the high altar.

However most people seemed to be there to see Michelangelo’s Moses, originally destined to be the tomb of Pope Julius II, and completed in 1515.

  

Other treasures include the mosaic of St Sebastian, dating from the 7th Century.

IMG_0632

IMG_0608IMG_0609

Definitely worth a short detour if you’re in the area near the Colosseum.

The basilica of Santi Quattro Coronati

Set on the Caelian Hill, and visible from San Clemente, this Augustinian convent and church complex began life as early as the 4th Century. However, much of what we see today dates from the period after the Normans destroyed much of this part of Rome in 1084 (ironically, there’s a via dei Normanni nearby in the present day).

This outwardly austere complex is dedicated to four unnamed ‘crowned’ saints who were martyred at some point in the 4th Century.  These martyrs may have been Roman soldiers or marble sculptors who refused to worship Pagan gods. The site was also a bastion of St John Lateran until the papacy’s move to Avignon and then the Vatican.

It’s a different visit to many, as, despite proximity to both San Clemente and the Colosseum, there are few visitors. Late in the afternoon, I had the beautiful churches within to myself.

IMG_0517

There are two distinct spaces in a visit here: the church which gives the complex its title, and a chapel dedicated to St Sylvester.  They are both accessed through the courtyards below.  It’s also possible to consult the library, and even stay for a taste of monastic life.

The tower in the first courtyard (shown below) may be Rome’s oldest campanile and was originally constructed in the 9th Century.  Like most of the complex, today’s appearance seems to owe much to a restoration project carried out 100 years ago (a blink of an eye in the life of a complex like this!)


IMG_0518IMG_0495

Into the church dedicated to the Santi Quattri Coronati, which dates from the 12th Century rebuild commissioned by Pope Paschal II.  No chances are taken as to which set of saints to honour: the stories of both soldiers and sculptors are told in magnificent detail.

The 13th century chapel or oratory of St Sylvester is accessed via a Gothic Hall, where I came face to face (via a grille) with one of the nuns from the convent in order to gain access to the small and fresco-laden chapel.  Their attention is grabbed by ringing a bell beside a strange looking wooden wheel: I later learned that this may have been a place where babies were originally abandoned.

The nun who comes to the grille gives access to this chapel for a small donation of 1 Euro. It’s more than worth it to see the beautiful and surprisingly vivid 13th Century frescoes depicting the conversion of Emperor Constantine to Christianity.

It’s not a story I’d heard before, but apparently Constantine was battling plague when all the pagan priests could suggest was mass child sacrifice.  Not surprisingly citizens reacted against such a cure. St Peter appeared to him in a dream and suggested Baptism would be a better option.  On waking, Pope Sylvester performed the said baptism. An initially spotty (plague-ridden) Constantine features in the frescoes, and immersive baptism by St Sylvester does indeed restore him to his former health. Beautifully executed and preserved, this space it itself worth the detour.

 

We could see this complex at night from our hotel, and I often wondered what life for the nuns in this very other-worldly setting must really be like.

A slice of the Vatican Museums


As we approached the Vatican Museums at 2pm on day six of our visit, thankfully armed with prebooked tickets, the Heavens opened for a spectacular thunderstorm. Inside, staff rushed to close doors and windows and lights were hurriedly turned on as summer quickly disappeared.

I’d been here twice before: the second visit was particularly memorable as it included a trip to the Vatican Gardens, Pinacoteca and Borgia Apartments.  That still left a lot to see. This time we were deliberately staying away from the route to the Sistine Chapel, and hoping to focus on other areas. Sadly, the Etruscan, Ethnological and the Gregorian Profane museums were all closed, but that left more than enough for an afternoon’s exploration.


The Pio Christian Museum

This area of the museums contains some of the earliest known Christian art, including the earliest sculpture of Christ as the Good Shepherd. This is thought to be from the 3rd Century AD, and represents a very different image to what most of us have become used to.

IMG_1044-0

There’s also much material from ancient Jewish and early Christian cemeteries and catacombs within Rome, with much of that taking the shape of highly-decorative sarcophagi.

IMG_1033


The Chiaramonti Museum

Back in time to Ancient Rome and Greece here, with more enough than enough artefacts from both to keep anyone busy. This long skinny space, curated by Antonoio Canova, is decorated wall to wall with busts of the great, good and renowned. There’s a lot to take in and sometimes more explanation would be helpful.


  

That very stern Trajan above would surely approve that his markets are still being put to good use!

Pio-Clementine Museum

On to the octagonal courtyard, steeped in masterpieces.  This area formed the basis of the original museum of Julius II, formed in the early 16th Century.

Indeed, this sculpture below – Laocoön and his sons – holds a very special place in Vatican history. According to the Museums’ website, this was simply “found” or rediscovered somewhere in the Esquiline Hill, close to the site of Nero’s Domus Aurea, in 1506.  It was displayed to the public just a month after it was acquired (by Michelangelo who was, at the the time painting the Sistine Chapel and sent on a mission by the Pope). This moving sculpture depicts the fate of the Trojan priest Laocoön who warned his fellow Trojans not to accept their equine gift, and whose punishment was a giant sea serpent despatched by Athena and Poseidon.


Other spectacles here include the Apollo Belvedere and the river god Arno.

The former statue itself influenced this Canova depiction of Perseus, sculpted in 1800/1801.  He doesn’t look out of place among his ancient counterparts.

Back inside, and the visit to this part of the museums is only halfway through. The Round Hall was built in 1779 by Michelangelo Simonetti to mimic the Pantheon:  its dome certainly does look familiar.  But don’t forget to look down either, as the mosaics there are from the 3rd Century!

Antinous makes not one but two appearances here. On the right is the so-called Braschi Antinous, reputed to have been found at another villa owned by Hadrian.

While this colossal gilded bronze Heracles was found somewhere in the vicinity of Pompey’s theatre.

In the Hall of the Muses, the Belvedere Torso  – another highly influential piece to Renaissance artists – has just returned from a short break in London, as one of the centrepieces  of the  British Museum’s ‘Defining Beauty’ exhibition.


Moving on to the Room of the Greek Cross: here, the vast porphyri sarcophagi of Emperor Constantine’s mother St Helena and his daughter Costanza take centre stage.  So polished that they look like they could literally have been made yesterday!
IMG_1247

  


The Gregorian Egyptian Museum

Accessed from the Hall of the Greek Cross, this particular museum was founded in the 1830s to showcase Eyptian finds from Rome and Egypt, but also from Hadrian’s Villa – so a nice link to our visit there earlier in the week. Exhibits included this version of Antinous in the guise of an Egyptian god in a mockup of the villa’s Serapeum.

   

Day to day life and death in Egypt was also explored…

The finds went wider than Egypt too, with these funerary reliefs from the Syrian city  of Palymyra being among the displays.

 


The Coach Pavilion 

This collection was originally housed in the Lateran Palace, and fittingly the exhibit detailed the ceremony by which Popes take possession of  St John Lateran. Its  main attraction is the grand Berlin coach.

 

While other more modern cars and a popemobile or two also share the limelight.


By the end of our visit, the blue skies had more or less returned and the museum had begun to empty out, with preparations underway for the Friday evening reopening. A great time to enjoy a quieter space.


It’s now possible to travel from the Vatican’s own railway station to Castel Gandolfo – that might just inspire me to go back to this sprawling and busy site for another visit.

Galleria Colonna

Anyone familiar with Roman Holiday will have seen at least part of Galleria Colonna as its Great Hall is the site of the film’s famous press conference scene. This gallery is part of the sumptuous sprawling Palazzo Colonna on the lower part of the Quirinal Hill.

The Colonna family was one of the noble families to emerge in Middle Ages Rome, and they began to build this spectacular building – first a fortress then a palazzo – in the 14th Century. Like the Doria Pamphillj, members of the family still live here today, while past members number cardinals, senators, a Pope (Martin V) and poet/artist Vittoria Colonna.

It’s possible to get a guided tour of the complete Palazzo, but most vistiors come to the see the Galleria, which was completed in 1700. Baroque greats Bernini and Carlo Fontana both had a hand in its construction, and it is very much a visual feast.

The family get their name from a small town outside Rome, and the colonna or “column” is used to great effect as a heraldic device in artwork, even in the courtyard.

  
The gallery has quite restricted opening hours: Saturday mornings only.  But it’s well worth the wait when you get to see the Great Hall, with its ceiling depicting the Battle of Lepanto (a Colonna was Captain of the Fleet), and cannonball fired from the Gianiculum Hill in the 1840s still embedded in the staircase.  

  

IMG_1347

From there it’s room after room of sumptuous splendour, with paintings from Bronzino, Annibale Caracci, Van Dyck, Rubens; sculpture; furniture and tapestry.   Rooms are themed, such as this one, the Room of the Landscapes.

   

As in the Galleria Doria Pamphilij, the throne room points an empty chair towards the family Pope’s portrait..






 

Despite the short opening hours, this is definitely a place not to miss. You can explore yourself like we did, or take advantage of a guided tour in English.

Trajan’s markets

This complex, together with the neighbouring forum and column of Trajan, represents the last great forum complex in ancient Rome’s imperial history – appropriate then that it gives sweeping views over its predecessors, and the original Roman Forum.

  
The site is an impressive one, having been crafted by Emperor Trajan’s preferred engineer and architect, Apollodorus of Damascus, in the first decade of the second century AD.  Apollodorus  had to effectively “scoop out” a significant portion of the bottom of the Quirinale Hill to build the complex – an amount memorialised in the height of Trajan’s column.  It’s a sweeping multi-layered complex, with statement hemicyle containing covered shops (tabernae), and even a complete shopping street.

It is, effectively, the world’s first shopping mall.  The visitor enters through the soaring Great Hall (more on those white fluffy hangings later!) which, today, houses the Musei degli Fori Imperiali (the Museum of the Imperial Forums).

It’s possible to explore the site’s many levels (both inside and out), and imagine a bustling series of shops overlooking the Forum of Trajan with its great basilica and libraries.

The site – like so many encountered on this trip – survives to us because of reuse in medieval times and beyond. The tower just about peeking up in the photo below is the medieval “Torre delle Milizie” bullt in 1200,  while the join between ancient and more medieval buildings is visible above the archways in the building to the right.


The via Biberatica cuts through the complex and is one of the few complete ancient streets still in existence in  the city today – it takes its name from the Latin word for drink, suggesting that it may have been home to taverns and grocers.



The imperial forums of Caesar, Augustus and Nerva also come to life in the Museum of the Imperial Forums, with exhibits showcasing their development, use and decorative artefacts.

 

Two stunning contemporary exhibitions were also being hosted here during our viist. The first, by Uruguayan sculptor Pablo Atchugarry, put his creations ‘senza titolo’ (untitled) in Carrara marble, bronze and silver in sharp contest with their ancient setting, bringing some of those ancient tabernae to life.

  IMG_1940

The second exhibit,  The Elegance of Food (L’eleganza del cibo), was another of Rome’s contributions to Milan Expo.  Here again some very modern creations (including those white hangings in the Great Hall earlier) were shown off to maximum impact in their dramatic setting. Who wouldn’t want a dress made of bread and associated products!