With just a couple of days left in our week in Rome, Thursday found us visiting a somewhat out-of-the-way neighborhood, that is, Trastevere, on the west side of the Tiber River. We would visit one of the private-home art museums, Villa Farnesina, in search of its frescoes by Raphael of Cupid and Psyche, and the Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere, one of the oldest churches in Rome. From there, we would finish the day by traveling to the Capitoline Museums for a recreating of a photo from a trip to Rome long ago, and then have dinner at a restaurant Therese also visited several decades earlier.
And oh, before we move on to the narrative of the day’s events, what exactly is going on with the photo above? Truly, I have no idea. But it was posted outside a restaurant we passed, and I would guess that they are simply saying that they are against war, AND against catering to tourists. To which I say “power to you!” – I personally like eating food of a style and in the manner of the city/country I am visiting. No one needs to design menus to make me feel comfortable. Moving on…
So we took two buses, and arrived right in front of the sign just above. I thought, yay, we’re here. But then I discovered there was no entrance on that street, Lungotevere Farnesina (shouldn’t there be an entrance on a street named after the museum?). Oh well, we walked around the corner, and even saw a sign with an arrow. But still, we walked and walked down the street and no villa. No further sign. So when we saw a grand building on our left that was obviously a museum, I figured, this must be it, and we bought a ticket and entered.
And sure enough, there was an incredible art collection in this building, and the building itself was elaborately decorated. But slowly it dawned on me that we were not in the right place. Still, as long as we were there – and “there” turned out to be the Palazzo Corsini – I thought it made sense to see what there was, before retracing our steps in search of Villa Farnesina.
Taking our time in Palazzo Corsini wouldn’t have been an issue, were it not for the fact that we had gotten a late start (I think we left our hotel a little before noon), and I knew that the Villa Farnesina was only open until 2pm. Well, Palazzo Corsini had a fairly small collection, just filling several rooms on one floor, so once we were done there, we asked someone for directions to Villa Farnesina. Sure enough, it was right across the street!
But now it was about 1:30, and the people who worked at Villa Farnesina, as we entered, were very clear in letting us know that they intended to get us out of there before 2, so that they could actually close the building and leave at 2. I skedaddled, trying to take in as much as I could in just a few minutes.
Somehow, I was expecting a much more elaborate layout, something more like the Borghese Museum, I guess. But here, there are just a couple of rooms within the building, covered with Renaissance frescoes, and that is the extent of the attraction. There were like maybe two rooms on the top floor, which is where I went first, and then I think just one large room on the main or lower floor.
Of course, the question in my mind was “where are the Raphaels?” And on the top floor the style didn’t really look like Raphael, BUT I did see up high on one wall a painting of what I took for Cupid and his mother, Venus. Close, but no cigar.
So I headed back to the first floor, and after staring at the ceiling for a while, I finally found Cupid and Psyche. Beautiful frescoes, but I think we saw all there was in fifteen minutes.
By now we were starving for lunch, and I had picked out a terrace where we could sit outside (the weather was gorgeous) and have lunch, at Tonnarello, which was on the way to Santa Maria in Trastevere.
The waiter motioned over to a table. As usual, things looked a little cramped, so I started to move the table and a chair to give us more room, and another waiter loudly came over to us to tell us not to do that. I guess regulations require that they keep their terrace within certain square footage. Anyway, I explained I was only giving us room so we could shoehorn ourselves into the little chairs. After that, all was well.
Simple fresh ingredients treated with care can make the difference between a pedestrian eating experience and a memorable one. My lunch of a prosciutto and melon appetizer and handmade pasta with onions and eggplant was lovely, because everything looked and tasted like it was handled with love. The melon was ripe and full of flavor, contrasting nicely with the salty ham. And the eggplant was creamy and smoky, and the pasta had just the right amount of tooth to it. Good meal.
Just around the corner was the piazza where the Basilica stands. I first got a glimpse of the large fountain – the previous day we had explored many fountains, especially those created by Bernini, and while this one was redesigned at one time by Bernini, it has also been worked on by several other artists, so it is hard to say how much Bernini is left at this point.
Santa Maria in Trastevere is under renovation, so the exterior was mostly covered. However, inside was glorious. The 13th century mosaics are bright and fantastic. I love the floor tiles with their design that looks to me more classical Roman than Christian. And the ceiling, which is from much later, the early 17th century I believe (and I am guessing was made using gold brought back from the New World explorations), gives it the feeling of a fortress of a very wealthy family. In total, a splendid church.
A few block’s walk from the church, we encountered the tram stop that would get us back across the Tiber to the staircase that would take us to the Capitoline Museums. It was just a short ride to Piazza Venezia where we got off. This was our third time passing through this square – while nothing there was especially of import to us, it just seems to be strategically located where without meaning to, you can find yourself passing through it with some regularity.
To the west of the huge commemoration of Italy’s king, Vittorio Emmanuel, is a staircase that takes you up, not that far, to Piazza del Campidoglio. The story is that in the early 16th century, this square was a shambles, so that the Pope asked Michelangelo to design a new square. The geometric pattern of the flooring and the equestrian statue in the center make it very attractive, although as Roman piazzas go, this feels like a rather small one.
Anyway, on either side of the square are buildings that contain the Capitoline Museum collections. We entered the main one, on the east side of the square I guess, checking our jackets and bags in at a desk before receiving our audio guides and tickets.
Rome has so much incredible art, covering pretty much every period of Western history. So I shouldn’t have been surprised I guess to see the works contained in this museum going back all the way to classical Rome. Still, it was pretty stunning to think that works of such incredible beauty were created so long ago – and to be reminded that the artists of the Renaissance, when they created their sculptures, for example, by whose wonders we define the Renaissance period, were actually trying to COPY the art that had been created so many centuries earlier.
In addition to exploring the museum, we had a mission in mind: to find the great marble foot of Constantine next to which Therese had had her picture taken when she was in Rome with her family in 1973. An internet search had told us it was at this museum. It is part of a massive statue of the first Christian emperor that was created in the Middle Ages, but now only several pieces of it remain (in addition to the foot, the head and one hand and maybe a forearm are all that’s left on display now). Our museum map directed us to a courtyard on the first floor, and when we walked through the doorway, there it was.
After that, I felt like we had seen enough. But we did have some time, more than an hour as I recall, before we needed to head to dinner (the Capitoline Museums are open until 7pm I believe, which make them a great afternoon destination). So we looked over some of the other incredible ancient art there, like the bronze sculpture of the wolf nursing Romulus and Remus that nobody knows exactly how old it is.
Our dinner restaurant was another part of our trying to recapture Therese’s memories of her visit in the 1970’s. I didn’t have much interest in exploring Rome’s ancient Forum (readers may recall that when we visited the Colosseum, we had the chance to also visit the Forum and I did not hesitate to pass that up), but the Hotel Forum that overlooks the ancient grounds at the center of the city had a rooftop restaurant with great views, and I thought we should definitely go there.
We had a reservation, and the table that might have been the actual table where Therese and her family had eaten all those years ago seemed to be available. But then the host tried to seat us a table far from there, claiming that all the tables near the edge with the great view were reserved for a party or something. Being a superior negotiator, Therese talked to the host, and before long, he changed his mind and put at that perfectly-located table.
What followed was a very special dinner. It wasn’t so much the food – while very good, it didn’t blow me away necessarily. It was just the whole thing of being there, reliving maybe the dinner Therese had enjoyed so many decades earlier. And it was being able to bring that to life for both of us.
And while the hotel is in the same spot it was all those decades ago, things are different for sure. There is glass enclosing the restaurant, protecting the diners from wind and whatever else. And there has been some renovation. But it was close enough.
We would have just one more full day in Rome at this point. And two weeks in Venice would follow. But it was somewhere along the week – maybe it was during this day in Trastevere – that I marveled at all we had done, all we had seen, in Rome already. The amount of mind-blowingly impressive art and monuments and so on is just astonishing. I have seen many of Europe’s greatest cities, but I have to say, in terms of the wealth of art and ancient splendidly adorned churches, all contained within a completely modern city, Rome is in a category all its own. Now, does Venice equal it in splendor and quantity of cultural riches? That is a question we will have to consider as I immerse myself in the posts about that city to come.
For now, on that day, I felt so privileged to enjoy that visit to Italy’s capital, and so happy to be revisiting Therese’s earlier visit from another lifetime.