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.


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).



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.


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!


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.



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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 Fome’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.


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.



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.


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!)


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.


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.


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!


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.  



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.


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!


MAXXI or meeting contemporary Rome

A short walk from the Ara Pacis to Piazza del Popolo, followed by a quick bus ride saw us at another relatively new addition to Rome: MAXXI (Museo Nazionale delle Arti del XXI Secolo), the National Museum of 21st Century Art (and architecture).

The building (opened in 2010) is as much a work of art as its contents, and was designed by Anglo-Iraqi architect Zada Hadid. Over four levels, its flowing concrete houses a cool and calming interior whose massive spaces host an ever-growing permanent collection of sculpture, photography and more.

That writing on the façade, ‘More than Meets the Eye’ was itself part of Maurizio Nannucci’s ‘Where to start from’ exhibition, one of five underway during our visit in early September.  No photos allowed in the exhibition galleries, but this video from MAXXI gives an impression of the vivid neon imagery and word play of this Italian contemporary conceptual artist. Do have a look,  as the video is also a great chance to peek ar that great internal space! 


Meanwhile, the poignant ‘Good Luck’ by, Italian artist Lara Favoretto (an exhibition now finished), saw golden cenotaphs representing the lives of people who had disappeared, with something personal to them located nearby, or buried in soil. The visitor even becomes part of the artwork when they realise that they have to walk over one such area of soil to get to the next part of the museum:


A great link to the Milan Expo was ‘FOOD: Dal Cucchaio dal Mondo’ (from the spoon to the world), with exhibits as varied as a chocolate 3D printer, tiffin boxes from the dabbawala of India (particularly relevant as I had recently seen a documentary on this in the UK), photography showing the last meals of prisoners on death row (aptly named ‘No seconds’),  and models showing how modern architectural design can more seamlessly integrate daily living with  food production.

Thought provoking all round.


Here are a few more views from round the building.


As a space the building seems to be used by everything from yoga to art workshops and more, and it would be great to explore more. I’m sure I will on a future visit!

And, as an added bonus, nearby there’s a beautiful replica of an ancient Roman basilica in the form of an early 20th Century church (Santa Croce de Via Flaminia).

The Roman Forum

Our first view of the Roman Forum came from the Palatine, with a panorama over the site including the Arch of Septimius Severus, the Curia and (just in shot) the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina. In the foreground,  there’s also the beautiful (partial reconstruction of the) House of the Vestal Virgins  …

The remains of the massive Basilica of Maxentius were also viewed from the Palatine.  We would pass this regularly by bus from the other side, and what you don’t see in this picture is that other side currently shored up by scaffolding, as building of Rome’s Metro Line C is underway next to Via dei Fori Imperiali.

Moving into the Forum proper, the Arch of Titus, erected to celebrate the AD 70 Flavian victory in Jerusalem, looms large.  While it has seen much reconstruction, the reliefs, including that depicting the carrying away of artefacts from the Temple of Jerusalem, remain vivid and emotive.


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Nearby stands the remains of Hadrian’s Temple of Venus and Roma. Like his villa in Tivoli, the emperor Hadrian designed this unusual and innovative construction himself (its two cellas dedicated to the goddesses Roma and Venus were back to back). Here it’s viewed from the Colosseum.

Some later temples survive to us more or less intact, thanks to their reuse as churches. An example is the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina, originally erected by Emperor Antoninus Pius in 141 AD and dedicated to his wife Faustina.  It owes its completeness to the fact that it would later became the 17th Century church of San Lorenzo in Mrianda, complete with baroque additions including that curved broken pediment. The door of that church seems suspended in mid-air these days, as the original structure has been revealed.


Meanwhile, the Temple of Romulus (dedicated in the very early years of the 4th Century to the son of the Emperor Maxentius), was the first temple within the forum to be Christianised, and details of that Christian past can be seen in its interior decoration. It’s also part of the church of Saints Cosma and Damiano, whose visitors were watching us watching them.



It’s also one of the few visible sights of the Temple, or Forum, of Peace, built by Vespasian after the sack of Jerusalem depicted in the Arch of Titus.  That temple would act as an early museum for ordinary Romans to see some of the artefacts that had been brought back.  On this visit, this particular temple represented a much welcome respite from the growing morning heat!

No such shelter available from the remains of the Temple of Vesta, which is both incomplete, and largely a 1930s construction.


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At the back of shot below, the tabularium, or official record office of Rome, is accessed via a visit to the Capitoline Museums, and represents one of one of those great Roman layering examples. Itself built over the ancient Temple of Veiove, it went on to have medieval elements added, before being incorporated into the Renaissance Palazzo that would become Rome’s “city hall”.  It also provides some great (and shady) views over the Forum as a whole.



The Palatine Hill

After our Colosseum visit, a short walk took us to the entrance to the Palatine Hill for another revisit. No queues here, while the inscription on the entrance itself reminds us that the Palatine would be incorporated into gardens of noble famiilies like the Farnese and Barberini.

This was a peaceful tree-lined oasis, bearing little immediate sign that it had housed some of the most powerful leaders of antiquity (and that pine cone was as big as my foot!).

Relatively modern buildings, including the convent housing the site’s museum, stood side by side with ruins of the imperial residences which would eventually give us our word for “palace”.

The main imperial palace that partially survives to us today is the Domus Flavia from 92 AD, built by Domitian and divided into two wings – the private and lavishly decorated “Domus Augustana”, and the public wing, the Domus Flavia.  We are even lucky enough to know the name of the architect: Rabirius.

The  Domus Augustana even housed Domitian’s own private hippodrome, reminiscent of a mini Circus Maximus (to which the palace itself actually gave access).

I usually rely on my own photos, but this view from the Circus Maximus gives a sense of the scale of the grandeur of the palace.

Palatine Hill Rome Panorama from Circus Maximus

(Attribution: By Chris 73 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0c http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)

There’s much more to see here, of course, including the houses of Livia and Augustus, and the Barberini Gardens, but that’s for another day as before the heat of the day built too much, we had decided it was time to progress to the Roman Forum.