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Rome: History and beauty in plain sight

Updated: Nov 14, 2022

Outside on the busy sidewalk, groups of loud teenagers wandered past. Italian business people strode from one appointment to the next, or whizzed by on their scooters along with delivery drivers and students. A few tourists paused to study their phone-maps, looking for the Pantheon or the Spanish steps, each a few blocks away.


Meanwhile the ancient stone façade and columns of the Church of St. Luigi dei Francesi presided quietly over the various cafes, storefronts, and apartment buildings on the piazza that bears its name.


“Let’s go inside,” our walking-tour guide said, pointing to an open door. “There are three Caravaggios here that I want to show you.”


Moments later we were standing in a church, marveling at the artist’s pioneering use of natural light, and listening to the backstory of the work. Turns out the paintings were early commissions for the young painter, then fighting for his share of a Renaissance spotlight dominated by Michelangelo. Most of Caravaggio’s paintings are spread among the world’s great museums and private collections. But here we were, wandering into an open-to-the-public church, where three of his works were sitting in the very spot where they’ve been since they were created, 600 years ago.


This is Rome in a nutshell – where ancient history and great art mingle with daily bustle of a modern metropolis.





Our home for the week was a short walk from the Spanish Steps, which I only knew of from “Dublin Blues,” the great Guy Clark song. Turns out it was built in 1723, after more than 150 years of bickering over the plans. It is a functioning work of art that spreads like a living thing between buildings on the dense urban hillside connecting the Piazza di Spagna with a magnificent church above. At any given moment it is abuzz with a combination of locals chatting or checking their phones, smoking, and making their way up and down, as well as tourists snapping selfies.


A few blocks away, via a zig-zag of narrow cobblestone streets lined with cafes and high-fashion boutiques, is the 2,000-year-old Pantheon. It is one of the most important pieces of architecture in the world and, like the Spanish Steps and the aforementioned Caravaggios, lives cheek by jowl with everyday life in Rome. Thousands of people walk to and from work or school every day, passing within inches of the mighty portico, perhaps even ducking under it if there is rain.


We shared my wife’s Air Pods and listened to a Rick Steeves audio tour – highly recommended, and free! - of the building, marveling that such engineering and design genius could exist at roughly the same time Jesus was walking the earth.


Our home for the week was a neat, one-bedroom apartment overlooking a courtyard that served up a magical moment when we arrived. Our building was right next to a music conservatory, and when we opened the door to the balcony off our bedroom, we were greeted with the sounds of an orchestra practicing. After a long day of Ryanair experience, I slipped into an afternoon nap to the lovely sounds of talented students.


Two things stand out when you walk around Rome – age and fashion. The city is thousands of years old and follows a lay-out set down centuries before anything remotely resembling cars. There are some main streets, of course. But it is mostly a labyrinth of narrow cobblestone “vias.” Your stroll down one and think how nice it is to be able to walk without cars. Then a car pulls up quietly behind you and passes within inches of your hips, and you realize you are actually in the middle of a road barely wider than a small car.


Then there is fashion. Like Paris, Rome is a spiffy dresser. Even the folks not dressed to the nines – and there are plenty of folks dressed to the nines – exhibit a familiar Italian style. It is not unusual to see an Italian man on a Roman street, looking like a Hollywood actor playing an Italian man on a Roman street – close-fitting suit with perfectly tied tie, fine leather shoes, perfectly offset scarf, hand-rolled cigarette held with two fingers parallel to the lips, brow slightly furrowed and eyes gazing into the middle distance thinking, one assumes, about a beautiful woman.


Honestly, what I liked more than anything was listening to the Italians. Some say that French is the most beautiful language. I disagree. Italian speech advances and retreats like a choreographed operatic fight. Every conversation seems urgent, so much so that the hands must be involved. It is musical. I could sit and listen to it all day.


Even Italians speaking English are fun to hear. There was Ciara, our Caravaggio-loving guide, stiffening our resolve to cross the busy Italian streets. Apparently the trick is to stare down the oncoming car and start walking.


“You must-ah be brave-ah,” she said.


More from Rome will follow. Ciao for now!











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