Origins: The Food of Rome - #123

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.

There are a number of legends that tell the story of how Rome was founded.  The most popular, though perhaps not the most accurate, is the tale of the twin brothers, Romulus and Remus, the offspring of a local princess named Silvia, and Mars, the god of war.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Silvia was a member of the Vestal Virgins, so her pregnancy at the very minimum can be viewed as a conflict of interest.  It was also a source of embarrassment to her uncle the king, who was not particularly interested in having a couple of kids around who might challenge his right to the throne.  So he put them both into a basket and sent them down the river.  When the basket got stuck on a mud bank the children’s cries attracted a she-wolf who cared for them and fed them and raised them.  And when they eventually grew up, they founded the city of Rome.

The city is now punctuated with works of art commemorating the valiant efforts of the wolf.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  I always love it when the wolf gets a compassionate role.

Whatever its true origins, what we do know is that ancient Roman civilization covered a time period that lasted over a thousand years.  With Rome itself starting out as a small agricultural community, and eventually becoming the capital of an empire that controlled most of what is now Western Europe, England, the Middle East and North Africa.  And in the process, evolving from a self-sufficient village that produced almost everything that its inhabitants ate and drank, into a magnificent city that imported its foods from around the world.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Much of what we know about the eating and drinking of ancient Rome, we learned from a man named Marcus Apicius.  He lived during the first century A.D. and was quite a character.  He attended many of the great banquets, organized a few of his own, invented recipes and demonstrated his cooking skills to his friends.  He may have come up with the original idea for force-feeding geese in order to increase the size of their liver.  In which case, foie gras, which we normally associate with the French, was actually the invention of an ancient Roman.  We know about ancient Rome from his accounts, but Marcus was no accountant.  He was not in touch with his personal finances, and at one point went into shock when he discovered that he had spent so much of his money that he was going to have to cut back on his lifestyle.  The idea of downsizing really didn’t appeal to him, and so he committed suicide.  A big price to pay for not balancing your checkbook.

On the other hand, you have the Emperor Trajan.  One nice thing about being emperor, or a member of the U.S. Congress, is that you can do your big spending from the nation’s checkbook and not really worry about balancing it.  Emperor Trajan was the ruler of Rome from 98 to 117 A.D., and the story of his military skill is illustrated on his column, which is made up of seventeen marble drums that run up to a height of 175 feet.  It stands in the heart of Rome.  Tall deeds on a tall monument.  A bronze statue of Trajan stood on the top until the middle of the 1500’s, when the Pope replaced it with the statue of St. Peter -- which is still up there.

Trajan’s master builder was Apollodoro of Damascus.  Apollodoro was responsible for Trajan’s forum... and for the covered market that stood behind it.  It was put up in the year 109 A.D., and was a very original idea for the time.  An early shopping mall and very successful, especially when you consider the fact that it was all food, wine and flowers.  Not a single shoe store.  It contained 150 different shops set out on a semicircular plan.  There are six floors to the complex and it goes up for over a hundred feet.

The bottom floor was given to shops that sold fruits, vegetables and flowers.  Many different types of vegetables were part of the Roman diet.  Asparagus was a big deal.  So were carrots, and cabbages, onions, leeks, and lots of leafy greens.  Many of the vegetables were served as a first course.  Lentils and chickpeas were important and used as the basis for soups.  And mushrooms were a great favorite.  Fruits were often presented as dessert.  There were apples, berries, plums, cherries, figs, dates, grapes, and my personal favorite... watermelon.  Peaches were brought in from Persia and apricots from Armenia.  There was also a wide range of nuts.  Olives had a dual role, as an appetizer at the beginning of a meal and  as a dessert at the end.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  The second floor was given over to dealers in olive oil and wine.  Most of the wine came from the area that is now Italy, but they also imported wines from Germany, and Spain, and Greece.  The wines of ancient Rome were pretty strong and usually cut with water.  The standard proportions were one part wine to three parts water.  They had a wine that they served at the beginning of a meal called Mulsum... it was wine mixed with honey.  They also served a sweet wine at the end of the meal.  It was made from grapes that were allowed to dry on the vine -- what we would call today a late harvest wine.  They made beer, but most people thought that beer was medicine or just too common to serve to people of good taste.

The third and fourth levels of Trajan’s Market offered spices and gastronomic items considered to be luxuries.  The ancient Romans appear to have had a great interest in spices.  One reason may have been the need to cover the taste of food that had become, shall we say, overripe as a result of the lack of refrigeration.  They may also have needed intense flavors.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  A great deal of lead was used in the ancient Roman cooking equipment, in the pipes that brought them their water, and in the make-up that they used.  As a result, almost everybody in ancient Rome suffered from some level of lead poisoning.  Three of the most common symptoms of lead poisoning are an inability to taste flavor, a general loss of appetite and a metallic taste in your mouth almost all of the time.  The ancient Romans may have needed intense spices just to taste anything at all.

The top floor had large tanks that displayed both fresh- and salt-water seafoods.  The highest price paid for any food was always paid out for fish and shellfish, usually two or three times what they would pay for pork or lamb.  The Romans just loved the stuff from the sea.  Wealthy families kept their own fish ponds, and there was a big business in fish breeding.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  The ancient Romans liked meat but most of it came from pigs, goats and sheep.  Cattle were considered as animals for commerce not cooking.  And besides, the work that they did made their meat tough.  There was lots of wild game and poultry, and hens were raised for their eggs.  As a matter of fact, an egg dish was the most common first course at an ancient Roman meal.

The kitchen of the average ancient Roman family was rather limited in terms of size and equipment.  A rectangle of bricks, set against one wall, was the oven and range.  If the family could afford it, they burned charcoal rather than wood because charcoal gave off less smoke than firewood.  A couple of holes in the top of the oven would hold the pots and pans that were made of ceramic or bronze.  There were also grills that look just like the grills that we use today.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  And in every Roman kitchen a jar of garum.  Garum was a seasoning sauce that was used in most of the recipes in ancient Rome.  It was used pretty much the way we see soy sauce being used in the Chinese community today.  It was made in commercial garum factories, there were different levels of quality and different prices.  But the basic preparation technique was always pretty much the same.  You took a big jar and put in alternating layers of salt and seafood.  And you took the jar out in the sun, and let it sit there for a couple of months until everything turned into a nice, thick sauce.  Doesn’t that sound yummy?  Well, don’t laugh.  Anthropologists have discovered that the demand for garum was so great, that the manufacturers produced a variety without shellfish that was considered kosher and sold only to the Jewish community.

When dinner was served in ancient Rome, and it was presented in the proper environment, the room was known as a triclinium.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  I wanted to show you a real restoration, but I ran into three problems.  First of all, a good restoration is very hard to come by, and the two that there are are under the control of the Italian government --  which was my second problem.  In 1990, the Italian government, like many other governments around the world, was running out of money.  Word came down from the top to find new sources of income.  And one of those sources was a charge that they made to television crews for filming inside their national monuments.  The guy I spoke to from the Italian government wanted 5,000 U.S. dollars for two hours of taping, PLUS a $25,000 deposit, in case I did anything to ruin his ruin.  But the third problem was the one that really got me.  While I was recovering from the shock of this news, I called a friend of mine who is a producer here in Rome.  I asked him, “Is there any way around these fees and deposits?”  And he told me that for the past two years, he has been trying to get his deposit back.  So... let me show you this photograph that I borrowed from a friend.

The table with the food was in the center.  Beds were arranged around three sides of the table.  Three people would stretch out on each bed facing the food.  If there were more than nine people, more beds would come in.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Each person would lie on their left side, holding a plate with their food in their left hand and eating it with their right hand.  The food was chosen to be something that could be eaten out of hand, usually cut into bite-size pieces, or something that could be taken with a spoon.  Knives were never brought to the table... much too aggressive... and the fork hadn’t been invented yet.

Rome is still a great place for good eating and drinking and you can see modern Rome’s love of gastronomy all over town.

The Campo de’ Fiori is in the southern part of Rome’s historic district.  Campo de’ Fiori means “field of flowers,” and during the Middle Ages that’s what was here.  But by the 1500s the district had become the heart of Rome.  In the center of the square is the statue of Giordano Bruno, who was executed in the year 1600.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  At the time, the official word from the church was that the earth was the center of the universe and everything in the sky moved around us.  It was an ego thing.  Poor Bruno, he was only interested in the scientific aspects of the universe and really wasn’t getting the macho message from the monks.  His experiments led him to the belief that, in fact, the sun was the center of the universe and the earth actually moved around the sun.  Well, let me tell you, this was an unacceptable belief.  And worse than just believing it, Bruno was going around and telling that to other people.  Clearly, this man was a heretic.  And the monks burned him at the stake.

Today his statue is at the center of the Campo and one of Rome’s great markets moves around him.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  In most ancient societies everybody ate and drank pretty much the same things.  Of course the rich had a lot more of whatever it was than the poor.  But in ancient Rome, perhaps for the first time, that began to change.  Because the Roman Empire was so huge and in contact with so many different parts of the world, the people of ancient Rome who had the money were able to choose from an extraordinary variety of foods.  Foods that were just not available to people who didn’t have the money.  But they were not just interested in variety, they were fascinated by quality.  And they would spend an enormous amount of time, money and effort getting the best of everything.

When Marcus Apicius heard that the shrimp off the coast of Libya were superior to those available in Rome, he outfitted a ship and sailed off to check it out.  When he got there and found that the shrimp were no better than what he was already using, he turned around and headed back without making a purchase.

And that desire for the “best of class” is still very much part of the attitude of the modern Roman food lover.  One of the first things that you learn as a traveling eater is that almost every town has a special interest in certain foods.  Those same foods may be available in other cities but not at the same level of quality.  And not subject to the same level of interest on the part of the local public.  In New York they would be bagels, pastrami, steak and cheesecake.  In Paris it would be pastry, wine, and chocolate.  Here in Rome, it’s bread, particularly in the form of pizza, ice cream, and coffee.

The place to try “best of class” bread and pizza is the Antico Forno at the edge of Campo de’ Fiori.

For ice cream it’s Gioletti.

And for the best thick chocolate ice cream with a whipped cream topping... the Tartuffo at Tre Scalini in the Piazza Navona.

And almost everyone seems to agree that the best cup of espresso is at Santo Eustachio.

If you would like a little Roman street atmosphere to go along with your coffee, you might take a seat at the Gran Caffe Doney at the Via Veneto.  This was the center of the life that film director Federico Fellini presented in his 1959 movie, La Dolce Vita -- “the sweet life.”  Things have quieted down a bit since then, but the life around here is still pretty sweet, and its been that way since the beginning of the century.

The Caffe Doney is actually built into a hotel called the Excelsior, which opened in 1906.  It still has the elegance and attention to detail that was part of its original plan.  Mario Miconi is the general manager of the Excelsior, but he first joined the staff as a pageboy in 1948. Over the years he has put together a collection of interesting memorabilia that relates to the dining room service that was standard for the early days of this century.

MARIO MICONI:  We have many different items to eat the asparagus.  And I took the one that gives me more sensation... it’s very nice... it’s very easy to use... you see, it’s unbelievable.  It’s been done, and this is like, uh, a jewelry piece.  You can use this.  It’s very, very elegant...

BURT WOLF:  I like the asparagus holder.  I want to take one of those with me when I go out to dinner.

MARIO MICONI:  Could be... remember it’s also for the cigar... you see, sometimes these things... really, I don’t... I mean you have the imagination here brings you... I don’t know.  But so all these things always show the way that a waiter or the server, any server couldn’t take, never with the hands anything.  So the one thing that amazed me more than the others is this one.  I mean... it’s very, very, very nice.  I think it’s very polite because when I take this it’s marvelous.

BURT WOLF:  It’s to hold a chicken leg...

MARIO MICONI:  To hold a chicken see...

BURT WOLF:  But you don’t touch it with your hands...

MARIO MICONI:  So you don’t touch, this was done by the waiters.  It’s very easy to understand, it’s very easy to put it.  But you see that both ways, you eat with your hands but you don’t touch the chicken.  But sometimes now it’s even better to touch the chicken leg because it gives you more taste, but this is very nice.

The hotel has a widely respected restaurant called “La Cupola,” which is keeping up the tradition of “the sweet life.”  But even in ancient Rome you had to finish your main course before you got the sweets.  Which seems only fair if the main course is Bucatini alla Amatraciana.

Chef Vittorio Saccone starts by putting a quarter of a pound of bucatini into a quart of boiling water and adding a touch of salt.  Bucatini is a round dried pasta, like a spaghetti, but hollow down the center like a thin straw.  He stirs the bucatini into the water until it’s completely submerged.

Then he starts on the sauce.  Two tablespoons of olive oil go into a sauté pan to warm up.  A quarter of a cup’s worth of onion is minced and added in.  A pinch of hot dried pepper goes in.  A half cup’s worth of cured pork is cut into bite-size pieces and added to the pan.  You can use pancetta, which is available in most Italian markets, or you can just use bacon.

A few minutes of cooking and a half cup of white wine is added.  Then ten cherry tomatoes are sliced in half and their seeds are pressed out.  Then they’re cut into small slices and added to the pan.  A little stirring.  A touch of salt.  Two minutes of cooking.  The pasta is drained away from the water and added to the sauce.  A few flips to mix everything together.  A little grated Parmesan cheese.  Then a little grated Pecorino Romano cheese and the bucatini is ready to serve.

And for dessert, Chef Saccone is going to make a Romana Sambuca Cheese Cake.  Four cups of flour are mounded up.  Eight ounces of butter go into the center of the flour, followed by three eggs.  A cup of sugar is sprinkled onto the flour, and all of that is blended together by hand into a soft dough.  That goes into the refrigerator for 30 minutes to harden up so it will be easier to work with.

When it comes out, the dough is placed on a floured surface.  It gets a little flour on its own surface and is rolled out to a thickness of a quarter of an inch.  It’s fitted into a round cake pan that’s about one-and-a-half inches deep and nine inches in diameter.  Next, two cups of ricotta cheese go into a mixing bowl; then two cups of dried fruit pieces.  A cup of sugar, and a half cup of Romana Sambuca, which is an anise-flavored drink.  All that’s mixed together until you have a batter-like consistency.  That should take about two minutes of mixing with a wooden spoon.

The dough-lined pan returns... and gets a light coating of pastry cream, an optional procedure.  Then strips of sponge cake are placed on top of the pastry cream to form a base.  The ricotta filling goes in and gets smoothed out on top.  The remaining dough is rolled out, floured, and cut into strips about a half an inch wide and twelve inches long.  Vittorio cuts ten of them, which are used to make a lattice-work on top of the cake.  A wash is made from a beaten egg and painted on top.

Then into a 350-degree Fahrenheit oven for twenty minutes.  When the cake comes out of the oven it’s allowed to cool.  Then it’s taken out of the pan, given a dusting of powdered sugar, and it’s ready to serve.

When the ancient Romans first started making wine, their feel for the craft, in terms of taste, was not very good.  But the good feeling that they got from drinking it kept them highly interested.  To help the flavor along, they often mixed their wine with honey, or herbs and spices, or all of the above.  One result is that the ancient Romans developed a taste for beverages that were sweet and had an herbal flavor.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Much of the time their herbal drinks were considered more in the area of medicine, than in gastronomy, but that was often the case with wines and spirits that had been given an herbal flavor.  Over the centuries one of the spirits with an herbal flavor that had a medical claim to fame and was very popular, was the digestif,  something you drank after dinner to help you with your digestion.  And one of the most popular flavors was based on anise, a flavor that many people associate with licorice.

The ancient Egyptians knew about anise, and so did the ancient Greeks.  The ancient Romans often ended their banquets with anise-flavored cakes, pointing out that anise was a valuable aid to good digestion.  Roman weddings usually included an anise cake for dessert.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Even today, candied almonds with an anise flavored coating are part of weddings in France and Italy.  One scholarly source tells us that at the end of an ancient Roman battle, the generals would give anise flavored candies to their successful troops.  Now, that doesn’t strike me as a really great gift after a battle, but maybe there were little prizes in the boxes.  You know, you never know about these things.  The point is that for thousands of years people have associated the flavor of anise, spirits, good luck, good fortune, the end of a good battle or the end of a good meal.

At this point, the Romans have distilled all of that into a drink called Romana Sambuca.  They drink it after dinner.  They put it into espresso.  Sometimes they even top off the coffee with whipped cream, ending up with a sweet anise-flavored drink that they call Caffe Romana.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  For thousands of years people have believed that certain plants had vital forces and critical energies.  The more unusual the shape and color of the plant, the more powerful these energies.  And the way to get to these force fields was to capture the aroma of the plant... and the way to do that was to burn the plant and capture the smoke... in Latin it was called per fumus... in English we call it perfume.  And one of the most powerful forces came from the anise plant.

Look at that.  An after-dinner drink and a little aromatherapy, all at the same time.  What a combination!  And as if that were not enough, it appears that Romana Sambuca can improve your luck.

WOMAN:  Yes, let’s have a toast with three coffee beans; one for wealth, one for health, and one for love.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  What can I tell you?  It’s Rome.  They have been running great dinner parties for twenty-eight hundred years and they have been in the tourist business since the 13th Century.  They want you to have a good time.  And I want you to have a good time.  And if you have had a good time ...I hope 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.

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.