Over our first three days in Rome, we covered all the ultra-touristy attractions: we rode the Hop-on, Hop-off bus, and saw the Colosseum and the Sistine Chapel (and the Vatican Museums). With that under our belt, it was time to explore further afield, and maybe visit some attractions that were not quite as popular, but nevertheless equally worth seeing.
My first thought in this direction was that, while Rome is so well-known for its antiquity, and its wealth of art and culture going back through the Baroque and Renaissance periods all the way to the days of the Roman Empire, it would be fun to see some contemporary art. And luckily, not far from our hotel, just three stops on the Tram #3 and then a couple block’s walk, was MACRO, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Rome.
The current exhibit was of street art, and we very much enjoyed seeing the galleries of this often irreverent and iconoclastic paintings and sculpture. For example, the sculptures by Ron English of Charlie Brown with his skull showing through his smile and Ronald McDonald looking like he had eaten way too many hamburgers were by turns hilarious and disturbing.
Upstairs in the museum was a special exhibit called “Cross the Street” which focused on graffiti – particularly, how subway trains in New York City and elsewhere were covered with layers of graffiti over the decades. A short film focused on how the look of the same subway car could evolve over time, as earlier spray-painted names and logos might fade and then be supplanted by newer more colorful ones, in rather a fascinating way.
In the middle of our exploration of the museum, we paused for a light lunch in the cafe. We each ate over-sized triangle sandwiches of tuna fish and mayonnaise washed down with orange Fanta sodas.
After concluding our walk through the museum, we walked 10 minutes northeast to our next destination, the Borghese Gallery and its surrounding park, the Villa Borghese Gardens. Regarding the former, I was warned by my nephew, artist Neil Bender, that you have to buy timed tickets at least a week ahead of time to insure that you can get in to the see the collection, which includes some very famous sculptures of Gian Lorenzo Bernini, that giant of Roman art and architecture and probably the greatest Italian artist after Michelangelo. Tickets are offered in 2-hour intervals, and we had reserved ours for 5pm. When we arrived, we were about an hour early, so we spent some time exploring the gardens.
We got into line to enter the Gallery/Museum about a quarter to the hour, and we were let in probably a few minutes before the hour – the whole thing seems rather flexible. We climbed the twisting staircase to the second floor and began our exploration of the Gallery’s collection with the room centered around Bernini’s extraordinary Abduction of Proserpine (the Italian title for this sculpture translates into an ugly word that I have chosen to avoid).
The next Bernini sculpture displayed is the earliest one the sculptor created for his patron Cardinal Scipione Borghese, a group sculpture of Aeneas carrying his father Anchises with his son Ascanius alongside him as the three escape from Troy.
A room that featured some beautiful Roman floor mosaics followed – I particularly enjoyed the one depicting Neptune’s head.
Following that is the room displaying a number of paintings, including several by the artist Caravaggio. I am not a huge fan of this artist – while his talent is evident in his paintings, there is a rather sinister, clinical aspect to his art in my view. Look for example at this Self-portrait as the God Bacchus, where Caravaggio leers at us from his painting.
Focusing on the many incredible pieces of art in the middle of the rooms through which we walked (and on the walls), it was easy to overlook how gorgeous the rooms themselves are. Here, for example, are two of the ceilings.
The next Bernini we viewed was his David. I was fascinated by the string of his slingshot – how can you cut marble that thin? Or is that made out of some other material and made to look like marble? I also love the way he is biting his lip as he carefully aims his shot for Goliath’s head (presumably).
I lingered in David’s gallery just an extra second, knowing that the luminescent sculpture in the next room was already drawing my attention. Everyone talks about Apollo and Daphne, and with good reason – it is just amazingly beautiful. Us mere mortals can only gaze in jealousy, knowing that we could never match the glorious perfection that these two immortals depicted represent.
The large gallery next houses a mixture of paintings and sculpture – the most noteworthy of the latter probably being Bernini’s early sculpture the Goat Amalthea with the Infant Jupiter and a Faun. When we arrived in Venice later in our trip, we would be deluged with many fabulous paintings by Giovanni Bellini – his Madonna and Child in this room gave us a taste of what we would encounter in a handful of days (the Virgin and Child tondo by Botticelli in this room was also quite wonderful).
On our way from MACRO to the Borghese Gallery, we had passed a couple of promising restaurants that we assumed would be open for dinner by the time we returned. So upon leaving the Borghese, we walked back the way we had come. The most promising of the restaurants we passed was called Il Viaggio (coincidental it seemed to me, since we had just been to Libreria Il Viaggiatore the day before) – promising I say, because they proudly announced on their sign that they specialized in gluten free menu items. I thought, where gluten free leads, dairy free may be sure to follow.
We were a bit early – their dinner service began at 7pm, and it was only like 6:30 at that point – but their host saw us lingering outside, and waved that we should come in and warm up (it wasn’t that chilly, probably high 50s fahrenheit, but with evening approaching, the temperature was only going to continue to drop).
What followed was one of our most original and satisfying meals in Italy. It all began with an Amuse Bouche of yellow tomato soup. Then I had an antipasto of breaded fried calamari and vegetables – not amazing, but still a good way to begin. Then came the star of my dinner, homemade pasta with mushrooms and shaved white truffles. The truffles were so delicate and subtle, rather different than the usual pungent flavor all the ubiquitous truffle oils provide. Finally, my main course of veal and ratatouille was very nice – although it was a bit of an afterthought, following the wonderful truffled pasta dish.
Our waitress spoke a decent amount of English, and was receptive to my entreaties regarding my allergy. But like many, I think she confused my allergy for lactose intolerance. For dessert, Therese opted to take a slice of cake back with her. The waitress assured me that their flourless chocolate cake was safe for me – but I think it probably had butter in it (which of course is lactose free, thus her misunderstanding again). So I took the safe course and went home dessertless.
From there, we had only to walk about 5 blocks, and we were back to the tram stop, from where we would get home in less than 10 minutes. Such a perfect day that was! I will leave you with just one more delight we encountered along the way, a huge pair of Trumpet Lily Trees we passed on our walk.