Origins: Rome - #106

Every place in the world has a series of things that give that spot a special character... and make it different from every other place.  When you look at the ORIGINS of these things, you often end up with a better appreciation of the territory -- and that makes it a lot more interesting to visit.  And sometimes, these ORIGINS help us understand why we live the way we do.

In contrast to New York as The Big Apple, Rome has been called The Big Lasagna, and it’s a perfect description.  Like lasagna, Rome is all about layers -- layers that could easily stand on their own, and yet being together in the same pot has made the entire dish more interesting.

This particular pot is resting in the middle of the Italian peninsula, about fifteen miles inland from the west coast.  Archeologists have found traces of an ancient Roman settlement that dates back to 1200 BC, but most historians like to date the beginning of “real times Roman” as the eighth century before the birth of Christ.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  For me, there are five distinct layers to Rome: the first is made up of the ruins and restorations of ancient Rome.  Stuff that’s been at the bottom of the pot for over two thousand years.

Next come the remains of early Christian Rome: buildings that started out as Pagan temples and ended up as some of the earliest Christian churches... works of art that tell the great stories of Christianity.

The third layer is Renaissance Rome --  the extraordinary rebirth of culture that took Europe out of the Middle Ages.  This was the time of Michelangelo, and Raphael.

Then came a period known as the Baroque.  The word “baroque” comes from the Portuguese and means “uneven stone.”  The movement grew as part of the reaction to the Protestant Reformation.  It was designed to restore the power of Rome and the Catholic church.  In Rome itself, some of the greatest examples of the Baroque are the works of Bernini.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  And finally I see an ingredient that’s not so much a layer as it as a light dusting on top.  Sometimes it’s like grated cheese ... a little bit salty and demanding.  Other times it’s quite sweet and light like powdered sugar.

It got started in the mid-fifties and is called La Dolce Vita, which means “the sweet life,” and it’s a reference to the lifestyle that was developing in Rome.

In order to understand why a particular dish tastes the way it does, it’s very helpful to have a recipe.  The first ingredient in this Big Lasagna recipe is Ancient Rome.

The Forum was the political, religious, and commercial center of ancient Rome.  As I wandered through the ruins, my guidebook told me of the great structures that stood here some 2,000 years ago.  The Forum was built under the direction of Julius Caesar.  That pile of broken stones... that was the spot where triumphant generals stood when they returned home.  That clump of weeds... the very location of the magnificent House of the Vestal Virgins.  And those columns... the Temple of Saturn.  I can see it all in my mind’s eye.  With my regular glasses, however, the place looks like it needs some serious attention.

Next, the quintessential visual symbol of Rome: The Coliseum.  It was built as a stadium in the first century and held over 50,000 spectators.  It was the center for the contests between the gladiators.  At one point in its history, the building became a source of marble for the local construction companies and it was stripped of its facade.  Some ruins are more ruined than others.

That is The Pantheon.  It is probably in better shape than any other ancient Roman building.  It was built in 27 BC as a temple to all the Roman gods.  Kind of a mutual fund approach to pagan religion.  You spread your veneration over a large group of deities and you reduce your risk of missing out on the powerful one.  The Pantheon seems to have survived the centuries because it was turned into a church in the 600s.  It is set on the lowest point in Rome and was subject to regular flooding.  If you look up you will see the dome of the structure which is bigger than the one on St. Peter’s.  The hole in the center is the only source of light.  Unfortunately it is also the source of water whenever it rains.

The next layer of Rome began to emerge right around the time of the birth of Christ.  One of the most interesting churches in Rome is the Basilica of San Clemente.  My guide is Father Paul Lawlor, who was born in Ireland but is now coordinating the restoration activities of the church.

FATHER PAUL LAWLOR:  Really to explain this you have to understand that San Clemente lies in a valley between two of the hills of Rome.  On this side you’ve got the Celian Hill, on this side the Appian Hill.  And over the centuries the street level rose.  So it was necessary to fill in the lower buildings in order to build a new structure.  And so the buildings underneath were filled in and preserved.

So here we have the center of the, uh, the ground floor which seems to be part of a structure which was built some time in the fourth century before Christ.  One of the few places in Rome where you can see one of the buildings destroyed in the Great Fire of 64.  The building we think then was covered over by the gardens of Nero and then after the death of Nero the whole place was turned into a games area.  The games area was the center of which was the Coliseum and then this building here was part of the same structure.  And it’s a building which goes up something like three stories high.  Here we’re on the ground floor, so this was street level in the fourth century.

So now we’re here on the fourth century level.  And this is where the Christians built a basilica sometime at the end of the fourth century.  And we’ve got records of this church going right up to the twelfth century, but between those periods -- the fourth century and the twelfth century -- every century added something to this building.  From the columns that you see, the mosaic floor -- very simple, typical of the sixth century when they’re reusing marble, to the paintings.  A whole series of paintings, particularly from the eleventh century when they’re trying to show the importance of the papacy.  Gregory VII had been exiled, and they’re trying to show that the papacy had its own importance.

BURT WOLF:  And the column?

FATHER PAUL LAWLOR:  The column itself there is from going back to the fourth century basilica, but again, it’s been reused.  If you look at the different columns, you can see they’re all different.  They come from different structures.

BURT WOLF:  The ecology of architecture.

FATHER PAUL LAWLOR:  Exactly, exactly.  They’re reusing and recycling, and thus particularly true of the mosaic pavement.  You can no longer bring in the red marble from Egypt, the green marble from Greece.  You take it from some other building and reuse it.  So even on the same level you’ve got a whole series of layers of material.

And here we’re at the twelfth century level, the twelfth century basilica.  So again the street level is rising, the lower building becomes dark, damp, damaged by war and is filled in.  And this basilica is built in the twelfth century.  And I suppose one of the great works of art of the Middle Ages we’ve got here in the mosaic.  The mosaic which represents the tree of life.  You’ve got the cross at the center, you see it there planted in the ground and this great tree comes out from the base of the cross.  The tree representing the church, the inscription tells us.  And then you’ve got all these little scenes of daily life of women looking after sheep and goats, feeding chickens, men also as shepherds, hunting scenes, everything being involved in this great tree and everything being brought back up to heaven.  So it’s a powerful, powerful mosaic. 

What’s interesting is, is that if you look at the floor, you see on the floor a design which is laid out by the Cosmoti, this great family of marble workers.  They had learned how to cut columns into slices, like cutting up salami, you know?  And laying out this beautiful pattern, and if you look at the pattern it’s like, again, it weaves in and out like a tree stretching right through the church.  Again, it’s a cross made at the same time as the mosaic, perhaps a reflection of the cross in the mosaic.  But now, by coming in to the church we’re involved, as it were, in the branches of this tree which this time is rooted in the altar.  And the sacrifice of Christ of course on the altar which gave life to this new tree of life which stretches right throughout the church.  It’s a magnificent idea.

BURT WOLF:   You see all the levels of the church in this one room.

FATHER PAUL LAWLOR:  That’s right.  Everything is represented from the early Christian world right through to the twelfth century, then the Renaissance and then the Baroque world right up to our own time.

BURT WOLF:   And still being used...

FATHER PAUL LAWLOR:  And still being used today.

To continue along with the idea of the layers of Rome, a perfect example of how the Renaissance layer was placed on top of everything that went before, is the Capitoline Hill.  It was originally the site of a pair of pre-Christian temples honoring Jupiter and Juno.  But in 1538 it became the home of Michelangelo’s Piazza del Campidoglio.  You approach the plaza by walking up a long, gently inclined ramp -- perfect for a grand imperial entrance to Rome, which was Michelangelo’s purpose.  The Holy Roman Emperor Charles V was coming to town.  The Emperor would be greeted by two statues of Castor and Pollux, the twin heroes of classical mythology.  And in the center of the Campidoglio, he would be confronted by a magnificent statue of Marcus Aurelius, set on an impressive pedestal.  The statue is no longer there, but the pedestal is -- proving once again that even when the politician is gone, his platform remains.  On two sides of the piazza are museums storing ancient Roman artifacts.  The third building is the Senatorial Palace, which to this day is used by the local government of Rome for the storage of ancient ideas on how the city should be governed.

To explore the next layer of the lasagna of Rome, the Baroque, I turned to Ilaria Barberini.  She is the descendent of a powerful Roman family that included Pope Urban VIII, the man who commissioned the Barberini Palace and the Piazza Barberini.  The family crest is illustrated with three bees as a symbol of how hard the Barberini work.  Ilaria is certainly a perfect example.  She’s part of a cultural association called Citta Nascosta, which means “the hidden city.”  It’s made up of a group of instructors who are specialists in guiding people to the most famous parts of Rome, as well as the more unusual areas.  She’s taking me to see a perfect example of the Baroque style that consumed Rome during the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries.

ILARIA BARBERINI:  This is Palazzo Colona that was first built at the time of Pope Martino Quinto who was Pope in Rome from 1417 until 1431.  The palace was then rebuilt in 1730.  This is the gallery which was created to collect paintings and furnitures.  The gallery was created because they need to show the power and the importance and the prestige of the family and it was a very typical thing that powerful families used to do in 16- and 1700s.  And it was easy for the families connected to the pope, or connected with the pope, to buy important artistic treasures.

BURT WOLF:  If you got it, show it.

ILARIA BARBERINI:  Mmm hmm.  Yeah.  And so, we can start and see the rooms that lead to the great ballroom which is the big room -- a very beautiful one.

So in this room, as in all the other rooms, it’s full of beautiful paintings, but this is a particular painting.  It’s very famous and important.  And this painting is very famous because it gives you the idea of reality.  You really can feel, you know, the bread, the man that is eating, the beans... It’s called the Mangia Fagioli in Italian, that means “the bean eater.”

BURT WOLF:  Bean eater.


BURT WOLF:  This is the new style that starts in the 1600s.

ILARIA BARBERINI:  Yes.  This is new style.  It’s realism -- naturalism.  We can see the bread, the red wine, the man that’s sitting.  We feel immediacy, reality.  And we can also see the difference with that painting there that it belongs to the end of the fifteenth century.

BURT WOLF:  Very stylized.


BURT WOLF:  Unrealistic.


BURT WOLF:  And this is the average person.

ILARIA BARBERINI:  Yes.  There’s a big difference.

BURT WOLF:  And it’s a painting that makes you hungry...


BURT WOLF:  ...which is the mark of true art.


We are entering now in the big ballroom, the real gallery and it’s, you know, it’s amazing.  They say that it’s even bigger than the one that is in Versailles.  And here we can find one of the best examples of Roman Baroque.  We have all the elements.  We have the colored marbles, we have those kind of living frescos very rich in action.  And so we see the will to glorify the power of the family, to give importance to the family.  And then we have all those golden stuccos and all the statues around the gallery, the paintings...

BURT WOLF:   What do they actually do in this room?

ILARIA BARBERINI:  Well they... the room was built to collect paintings actually at the middle of the 1600s.  But they also danced in it, they had big balls and that’s...

BURT WOLF:   A little roller-blading was nice...

ILARIA BARBERINI:  Yes, a little roller-blading...

BURT WOLF:   Field hockey... tennis...

ILARIA BARBERINI:  Yes, exactly... tennis... they played sports...

BURT WOLF:   You need a room like this... I understand completely...

The enormously grand style of the Baroque period grew out of a reaction to the Protestant Reformation.  Four hundred years later, as a reaction to the poverty and darkness of the Second World War, Rome came up with La Dolce Vita.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  But instead of being presented in the traditional Roman art forms of painting, sculpture and architecture, La Dolce Vita was brought to us in film.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  The master of the form was Fellini, and during the 1950’s he showed us what was happening in Rome as wealth and power returned to the city.  But the sweet life was also captured by still photographers.

For hundreds of years the Catholic Church offered something called an indulgence.  It was a very simple program.  You did something nice for your soul or the church or your fellow man and the church gave you a nice letter of reference for your afterlife.  One of the things you could do to pick up an indulgence was to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.  It was a difficult trip, but people were doing it all the time.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Then one day at the end of the 13th century, Pope Boniface VIII was sitting around trying to figure out how he was going to replenish the bank accounts of the church when he came up with a great idea.  He decided to make the year 1300 a Jubilee Holy Year and offer an indulgence to anyone who came to Rome and visited the shrines of St. Peter and St. Paul -- the same kind of indulgence that you would have gotten had you gone all the way to the Middle East.  Well, this may have turned out to be the most important bonus mile program of all time.  During that single year of 1300, over two million people took advantage of the offer and came to Rome.  It was big business for this town.  And so successful that they held the program over for over two hundred years, making Rome the single most important tourist attraction in the western world.

Today tourism in Italy is a bigger business than ever.  Over fifty million tourists come to Italy each year, and they spend billions of dollars.

The most famous streets for shopping in Rome are at the base of the Spanish Steps... the international fashion houses... the great Italian tailors... the jewelry makers.  And although there are plenty of restaurants in the area, it can be tough to find good food at a good price.  A notable exception is the restaurant Il Cantinone, on the Via Vittoria.  Charming... unpretentious... inexpensive.  It’s run by the brothers Zucca, and it serves the specialties of the island of Sardinia -- like Carta de Musica, thin crisp bread named after the ancient paper on which music was printed... or tiny Sardinian pasta in a tomato sauce... ravioli stuffed with cheese and vegetables... grilled squid... grilled cheese with honey... and a knockout selection of Sardinian cookies.

Another favorite spot for me in Rome is the restaurant Piperno.  It was originally opened in 1860 by Pacifico Piperno, a master chef whose specialty was Jewish cooking.  At the time, this area was the center of the Jewish Ghetto.  These days, the restaurant has an excellent table of appetizers, but my favorite meal at Piperno begins with artichokes cooked in what is called “the Jewish style,” followed by a bowl of chickpea and pasta soup.  And to finish off, an espresso laced with Romana Sambuca and a dollop of whipped cream.

Da Vincenzo is a neighborhood restaurant, virtually unknown to tourists, and even to many Romans who don’t live or work in this particular neighborhood.  It’s one of the few restaurants in Rome that still caters to the old tradition of Gnocchi Thursday.  Gnocchi is a pasta made from potatoes and flour, and for some reason that I have been unable to discover, there are a group of restaurants that make it every Thursday.  Also worth trying at Da’ Vincenzo is a sautéed veal dish called saltimbocca, which means “jump in your mouth.”  And for dessert, panna cotta, a custard flan which in this case is served with fresh berries.  I recommend this place to you, but I don't want you to tell anybody else about it, okay?

Water... soaring up from beneath the earth.  A spring has always had a mystical quality, offering an opportunity to be cleansed and rejuvenated.  It’s an ancient and universal symbol of life and rebirth.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  For thousands of years a natural spring was considered to be a sacred place.  The perfect spot to build a shrine.  And for good reason.  The idea of pure water as a life giving force is not only poetic... it’s practical.  People can live for a couple of months without food... but a couple of weeks without water and life begins to disappear.  So when someone came across fresh, clear, pure water just coming up out of the earth, they knew that they had reached a special place and they honored it.

Ancient civilizations, including the Greeks, planted gardens and built shrines around their springs.  When the builders started to use basins and reservoirs to display and transport the waters, the springs became fountains.  The Romans developed a purely decorative form of fountain that eventually ended up as a monumental sculpture.  The early Christians placed fountains in their basilica as a symbol and a source of purification.  During the Middle Ages, the fountains moved into the courtyards of the monasteries.  But it was in Italy, during the Renaissance, that the fountain took on a form that was dominated by staggering, immense, virtually gargantuan sculpture.  And Rome is the place with the most extraordinary examples of this art.

This is the Piazza Navona, which takes its long, narrow shape from an ancient Roman stadium that once stood here.  There are three fountains in the Piazza Navona, but the most important one is the Fountain of the Rivers.  It was designed by Bernini, who was a great architect of the Baroque period.  The work was finished in 1651, and represents four rivers from four corners of the world: the Danube from Europe, the Ganges from Asia, the Rio de la Plata for the Americas, and the Nile for Africa.  The head of the Nile is covered to show that the source of the Nile was not known at the time the fountain was built.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  When Bernini designed this fountain he was in competition with another architect of the time named Borromini.  Borromini designed the front of the St. Agnese Church which is right in front of Bernini’s fountain.

Tourist guides like to tell you that the statues of the Nile and the Plate are holding up their hands in a defensive position in order to protect themselves from the Borromini building -- which they expect to fall on them!

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  The truth of the matter is that the church was built a few years after the fountain, but maybe Bernini had seen the plans and knew what was coming.  At any rate, their rivalry is still in evidence.

The most famous fountain in Rome is probably the Trevi Fountain.  During the year 19 BC, thirteen miles of canal were built to bring water into the city, and this is the spot where the water arrived.  The figure in the center represents the ocean, and he is being drawn across the waters by two sea horses and two sea gods.  In the 1959 film, La Dolce Vita, Anita Ekberg took a little dip in these waters, and the place became even more famous.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  During the middle of the 1600’s Pope Urban VIII began building a fountain here.  He used money that he collected from a tax on wine, which proved to be extraordinarily unpopular.  He ended up being accused of trying to turn wine into water.  He had to give up the tax and his plans for the fountains.  It did get built, however, about a hundred years later by a local sculptor named Nicola Salvi.  Local folklore has it that if you stand in front of the fountain, facing away, and throw a coin over your shoulder into the fountain, you will someday return to Rome and your wish will be granted.

[Somebody yells in Italian off-camera as Burt’s coin hits him...]

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA) :  Piace, I’m sorry, sorry.  Terribly sorry.  So much for that wish... for my next wish, I wish that you will join us next time as we travel around the world, looking at the ORIGINS of the things that surround us.  From Rome, I’m Burt Wolf.