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Sunday, June 27, 1999
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World’s First City
By G.S. Cheema

ROME is like no other city. There are many which are older, but there are none with the sense of continuity and history which Rome boasts of. The seat of the greatest and most persistent of empires, it was known throughout the ancient world. The young Goethe could not contain his excitement on the occasion of his first visit, and he wrote back to his friend: "Now at last I have arrived in the First City of the world"

St. Peter’s BasilicaI felt some of the same thrill as my train passed through a gap in the ruined Aurelian wall that still surrounds much of the old city. And stepping out of the Stazione Termini — Rome’s principal railway station — I could see, rising above the trees, across the wide expanse of the square of the Cinquecento, the Cyclopean masonry of Santa Maria Degli Angeli. Formerly the Baths of Diocletian and built originally in the third century of the Christian era, the ruins had been transformed into a church, thirteen hundred years later by Michelangelo.

Everywhere one keeps running into the relics of ancient Rome, often appropriated and adapted to changing times and requirements. Trajan’s column is now topped by a statue of St. Peter, while St. Paul crowns that of Marcus Aurelius. The Piazza Navona, the largest and most beautiful of Roman squares was originally the Circus of Domitian. Three fountains embellish it, the central one being the most striking. It honours the four great rivers of the Renaissance world, namely, the Nile, the Danube, the Rio De la Plata, and our very own Ganges. Once the scene of furious chariot races, it is now a favourite with tourists who collect there to soak in the atmosphere, and to watch jugglers and fire-eaters going through their paces. Not to mention the odd busker with his fiddle, belting out an aria from Puccini or O Sole Mio.

Much larger than the Circus of Domitian was the Circus Maximus which could seat 2,50,000 spectators. After the Collisseum it was the most impressive structure, and lying in a valley formed by the Palatine Hill on the left and the Aventine on the right, it was in the most exclusive quarter of Imperial Rome. But by the sixth century the Circus had been reduced to a quarry, and what we see today is only a large field of awesome proportions but without a trace of Roman marble.

St. Peter’s is Christandom’s biggest and most magnificent church. "As big as two football fields put together," say the tourist guides. Its height from the floor to the dome’s lantern is an incredible 375 feet — 125 feet higher than our Qutab Minar. Even the bronze canopy which Bernini erected over the altar is almost half the latter’s height. The ‘modern’ basilica replaced an earlier one erected by Constantine in the third century. It took a hundred and fifty years to build and the manner in which some of the money required for it was raised — namely, the sale of ‘indulgences’, i.e. absolutions for sins — provoked Martin Luther’s ‘Protestant’ reformation. Italy’s greatest architects, sculptors and painters have worked on it — Bramante, Raphael, Michelangelo, Maderno, Bermini ........

Ancient Rome: Ruins on the Palatine HillIt is a befittingly impressive edifice for housing the chair of St. Peter — the oldest throne in the world today. Pope John Paul II is the 303rd Pope after Peter the Apostle. No other throne can compare with it. It connects us directly with the age of the Caesars. And quite appropriately, in the centre of St. Peter’s square stands an Egyptian obelisk which was brought to Rome from Egypt in the first century A.D. and planted in Nero’s Circus, from where it was removed to its present site, 1500 years later.

The Castel Sant Angelo, which is linked with the Vatican Palaces by a covered wall, was originally the tomb of the Emperor Hadrian. It was here that Pope Clement VII took shelter when the unpaid soldiery of the Duke of Bourbon seized Rome and sacked it in 1527 — the greatest disaster to befall the Eternal City after Stilicho the Vandal and Alaric the Goth. Nearby stands the tomb of Augustus, the first of the Emperors.

After the the terrible depopulation of the sixth century, Medieval Rome came up around the Vatican. The old downtown of the imperial period was abandoned, its edifices plundered for building material, and much of the marble burnt for lime. Today, behind the Campidoglio — the old Capital — along the slopes of the Palatine hill, right up to the Colisseum and the Aventine, stretches a wasteland of fallen columns and ruined arches. The scene has changed little since Poggio, the first to describe it, wrote his famous essay in the beginning of the 15th century. One can easily recognise the principal structures from Piranesi’s drawings and engravings, made 300 years later. So little has changed on this hill in the intervening centuries. The scene inevitably provokes philosophical reflections. Cypress and ivy, weeds and wildflowers grow in the palace of the Caesars, and, verily, one can hear the cry of the owlet which has made its home in the ruins.

But to return to the Rome of today, one of the most striking features of the city is its informality. The rich and poor have always coexisted and intermingled, and the grand signiors of the old school made no attempt to insulate themselves from the masses. No high fences mark off the Roman pallazzi, nor are the country villas surrounded by thousands of acres of park as so often in Britain.

The late Prince Barberini, scion of a family that has given the church several popes, and innumerable cardinals and bishops, was the habitue of a modest cafe in the Piazza Novana, and would daily, at a fixed hour, sit down for drinks and cards with the other patrons, for the most part street-cleaners and taxi-drivers. Beneath the walls of the Quirinale, once a papal residence, and after 1871, the palace of the kings of Italy, and today of the president of the republic, there is held a weekly market selling fish, poultry, fruit and vegetables; something unthinkable alongside Buckingham Palace or the Elysee. Or, equally, Rashtrapati Bhavan and 10 Race Course Road for the matter. In Palazzo Massimo, residence of one of the oldest families of Europe, by centuries long custom, vagabonds are still allowed to sleep at night. In the courtyard of the Borghese palace stands a small fountain celebrated for the excellence of its water. Today the building has been rented out and it houses offices, a famous club, private families and a large antique shop. Yet at mealtimes, just as in past centuries, the poor people of the quarter all go there with a bottle or pitcher to fetch their drinking water, something unimaginable in any other European city outside Italy.

In almost all of Italy the palaces of the old historic families are in the middle of the old quarter of the city. They stand in a confused tangle of dirty alleys that swarm with people, dogs, chickens and donkeys, amid festoons of drying laundry. This forced a democratic coming together of rich and poor, powerful and humble. Some of the newer industrial bourgeoisie, however, consciously modelled themselves after the English and French upper classes. After the formation of the Italian kingdom, some of the aristocracy also adopted similar norms. The English peerage was the richest in Europe and it was the English milord who became the model for the nobility of the new Italian kingdom. English governesses with their exaggerated respect for the class system, Swiss finishing schools, English and French novels, and finally American movies, did the rest. So traditional, old style aristocrats are now a dying breed and Italian society is almost as brittle, artificial, frivolous and rootless as in most other countries.

But what strikes the visitor is the number of old families that still inhabit their ancient palaces. The Barberini still own the palazzo known by that name. The Palazzo Doria Pamphili is still home to this ancient family descended from the 15th century Genoese admiral, Andrea Doria, and it was only as recent as 1971 that the Villa Doria Pamphili with its vast gardens was sold to the state. The Caetani, Colonna and Orsini — families dating back to the 11th and 12th centuries — are still prominent in Roman society. It is this historical continuity that makes Rome so magical. In contrast Delhi is barren.

Of course in Italy, too, there are noblemen. For much of its history, the country was a disorderly anarchy of turbulent principalities and republics, dominated and fought over by foreign powers. Therefore, we cannot speak of an Italian aristocracy in the sense in which we do of theBritish peerage, where the right to titles and arms has been carefully regulated. There is a group known as the ‘Counts of Ciampino,’ the derisive name given to those who were able to obtain patents from King Umberto II in the last days of the monarchy before it expired in 1946. Ciampino was the name of the Roman airfield from where the king took off, and according to legend, the patents were signed by him at the airport! They are considered defective because they were never countersigned by the competent minister. Then there are other counts who obtained their titles from the two pretenders to the Byzantine throne, who, until fairly recently, resided in Rome. Of course they were total frauds; you will not find them listed in the Aimanc de Gotha. One is reminded of Casanova, the notorious Venetian conman and seducer, who assumed the style of ‘Chevalier de Steingalt’.

Besides the bogus Byzantine princes, Rome has also been home to the exiled Barrakzais. It was to Rome that Shah Zaheer fled when Daud Khan overthrew the monarchy in 1973, just like Shah Amanullah before him in 1929, following the ‘fundamentalist’ revolt of Bachcha Saqqa.

Wherever one goes one is bound to run into Indians of the less glamorous sort. The pedlars who spread their tacky trinkets near the Colisseum are mainly South Asians, with a few Africans thrown in — Somalis, Eritreans and Sudanese for the most part. You see them also outside the station Spagna, at the Tivoli Gardens, and at the Fontana de Trevi, selling the same junk. If it’s raining they’ll be hawking cheap umbrellas. And, just like back home, when a policeman approaches, they take to their heels. It’s a tough life for those who enter fortress Europe through the boot of Italy.Back

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