Travels & Traditions: What's Cooking in Rome - #1303

This is the third program in a series in which I travel around Italy with Steve Perillo. Steve is the third generation to run a company called Perillo Tours, which specializes in bringing American tourists to Italy.

This part of our tour started in Rome, then went on to Assisi the home of St. Francis and the town where Giotto's paintings began the Italian Renaissance, and then to Siena with its magnificent cathedral.

One way to understand Rome is to think of it as a city made up of layers. Most historians like to date the beginning of “Ancient Roman” as the eighth century before the birth of Christ. They see that as the earliest layer, a layer that is made up of the ruins and restorations of ancient Rome.  Stuff that’s been in the neighborhood for over two thousand years.

The Coliseum is part of that layer and the place where we started our tour of Rome. It took eight years to build and opened in 80 AD. It held over 50,000 spectators who came to see the gladiators take on the lions, the tigers, the bears and occasionally the Green Bay Packers. 

There was assigned seating and you needed a ticket to get in. The ticket also told you which of the 80 different entrance ways would get you to your seat in the least possible time.  The building had an immense awning that was spread out to protect the spectators from the heat of the sun. It consisted of segments of colored canvas that could cover all or part of the structure.

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.

Next stop on our tour was the Forum. The Forum was the political, religious, and commercial center of ancient Rome.  As we wandered through the ruins, our guide told us what was happening 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 location of the magnificent House of the Vestal Virgins. Those columns...the Temple of Saturn. 

And now, look what is left. You see Nicholas.  This is what can happen if you don’t keep your room neat. 


Next we visited 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 reduced your risk of missing out on the powerful one.  The Pantheon seems to have survived the centuries because in 600AD it was turned into a church. 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 and unfortunately it is also the source of water whenever it rains.

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

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 two pre-Christian temples. One honored Jupiter, the other Juno.  In 1538 it became the home of Michelangelo’s Piazza del Campidoglio.  You approach the plaza by walking up a long, gentle inclined ramp -- perfect for a grand imperial entrance to Rome, which was Michelangelo’s objective.  The Holy Roman Emperor Charles V was coming to town.  When the Emperor arrived here, he was greeted by two statues, the twin heroes of classical mythology. 

In the center of the piazza, the emperor was confronted by a magnificent statue of Marcus Aurelius, set on an impressive pedestal.  The original statue is no longer here, but the pedestal is proving once again that even when a politician is gone, much of his or her platform can remain.  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.

Next was a period known as the Baroque. The movement was part of the reaction of the Catholic Church to the Protestant Reformation.  Protestant churches were simple and uncluttered. A Catholic Church built in the Baroque style was over the top. The more elaborate the structure, the better.

The building was designed to ask the viewer, “Where do you think God wants to live, in that plain, uninteresting Protestant Church or in this magnificent structure? A baroque church is propaganda in the form of architecture and sculpture. In Rome, some of the greatest examples of the Baroque are the works of Bernini.

One morning we visited the Campo de’ Fiori, which translates as the 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 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... it’s the Tartuffo at Tre Scalini in the Piazza Navona.

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

While we were in Rome, our group stayed at the Rose Garden Palace Hotel, which is ideally situated just off the Via Veneto. You can walk to the best shopping in town, and some of the most famous restaurants and many of the most important cultural attractions of the city. The inside has an elegant contemporary look. They have 57 double rooms and 8 suites. The hotel is big enough to deliver all the services you might need, but small enough to deliver those services in a personal way.  They also have free high speed, wireless Internet in the rooms and the public areas. The fact that the Internet connection was free has become an issue for me. I think it should be a basic part of what you are paying for in a good hotel, not an extra. And I was pleased to see the management of the Rose Garden felt the same way. The hotel has a well-equipped fitness center with all the equipment necessary to keep or put you in shape. It also has a pool, which is a great luxury in Rome. There’s an excellent restaurant with both indoor and outdoor tables.

And another thing I look for, lots of comfortable public space.

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. 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 for Europe, the Ganges for 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.

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.

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 fountain.  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.

(crashing sound) Grazzi, sorry, terribly sorry, sorry, sorry.

Steve also arranged for us to have a special visit to Vatican City with an after-hours private visit to the Vatican Museum and the Sistine Chapel.  Rome’s Vatican City is the epicenter of the Catholic Church. With a population of only 550 and a landmass of just over 100 acres, it’s the world’s smallest independent state. It has its own newspaper with an international circulation. Its own book publisher.  Its own television network.  Its own police force. Its own stamps and a postal service to go along with them.  It also has its own radio station that went on the air in 1931.

(announcer) The Pope for the first time in the nineteen hundred years of Catholicism has sent his voice throughout the world.  With this broadcast his Holiness celebrates the ninth anniversary of his coronation as Pope Pius the XI…

It was one of the first international stations and was actually built by Marconi who was the inventor of wireless communication.

The world Vatican comes from a Latin word meaning prophecy and during Roman times, Vatican Hill was a place where fortune-tellers would offer their advice, for a fee, to the general public.

During the first century, a racetrack was built nearby and used by the Emperor Nero to stage elaborate spectacles. His favorite was killing Christians.

The square was built in 1656 and is almost the same size as the ancient Roman Forum.  It’s partially enclosed by two semicircular colonnades. Above the colonnades are statues of saints and martyrs.

The double-colonnades symbolizes the outstretched arms of the Church, welcoming and protecting the faithful. It is considered to be one of the world’s finest examples of civic architecture and can hold over 250,000 people. The square is the approach to St. Peter’s Basilica.

Historians believe that the basilica was built right next to the spot where St. Peter was martyred. As a condemned criminal, he was not permitted a normal burial so his remains were secretly recovered and placed in the public necropolis on Vatican Hill.

In 1940, workmen digging below the basilica found a burial chamber that dated to the first century. A small space below the chamber appeared to be the tomb of St. Peter. That belief is supported by an adjacent wall that is covered with the names of pilgrims asking for St. Peter’s help.

At the beginning of the 4th century, Constantine, was the emperor of Rome and believed that a dream with a vision of the cross gave him an important military victory. He converted and made Christianity the official religion of the empire.

Constantine’s conversion may or may not have been heartfelt, but it was definitely part of his big plan, he did everything he could to advance the standing of the Christians within the Romans and at the same time everything he could to advance his own standing with the Christians.

In 323, he ordered the construction of a huge basilica designed to sit directly above the cemetery where the remains of St. Peter were buried. The basilica itself stood up to continual use for 1200 years.  But during the 1400s it began to disintegrate and a plan was developed for a new structure.  Michelangelo built a 16-foot high model of the dome so he could make a series of stress tests. His dome was 137 feet wide and 440 feet above the floor of the basilica. He was an artist, an architect and an engineer.

Work got under way in 1450 but like most construction projects it ran over budget. To help raise the needed funds the Church offered to pray for your well being in the afterlife in exchange for a meaningful donation during your present life. Some people considered this scandalous and it became a major irritant for Martin Luther. Construction on St. Peter’s also ran a little late. The opening dedication took place in 1626 which was 226 years after workers began digging the foundation.

Today St. Peter’s Basilica is the largest Christian church in the world. In 1508, Pope Julius II entered his private chapel. Walking next to him was Michelangelo, considered to be one of the greatest artists of the time. The Pope pointed to the ceiling, looked at Michelangelo and said, “Paint it.” Michelangelo spent the next four years of his life lying on a scaffold and painting a fresco. He even made sketches of himself at work.

The fresco on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel is considered to be one of the greatest works of art. It presents events from the Old Testament. The Popes were good clients for Michelangelo, and Pope Paul III brought him back to paint the west wall of the chapel. He was eighty years old.

Today the Sistine Chapel is the room used by the Sacred College of Cardinals when they meet to elect a new Pope.

On the 22nd of April, in the year 1300, Pope Boniface VIII stood on the balcony of the Church of San Giovanni in Laterano and announced the first Jubilee Year. He had gotten the idea from the biblical book of Leviticus which described a jubilee year that took place every fifty years and required that all slaves be freed and all debts paid.

Boniface declared that anyone who came to Rome during the Jubilee Year, confessed their sins and visited St. Peter’s would be pardoned from the temporal punishment that was due as a result of those sins.

It's like saying to your kid, “You’re forgiven, but you still have to pay the consequences”. Not a free flight but definitely the ultimate bonus miles program. And everybody who could take advantage of the offer came to Rome. During that single year, over a million people visited this city.

The Church intended to mark every hundredth year as a Holy Year. But in 1334, the interval was shortened to 33 years, the length of the life of Christ. In 1464 Pope Paul II cut it down to 25 years. The quarter-century spacing has been in use ever since.

A Holy Year begins on the preceding Christmas Eve when the Pope opens the Holy Door, the Porta Santa of St. Peter’s. Traditionally the Pope would used a silver hammer to knock down a temporary wall that was erected in front of the door, after that, the door was opened.

In 1500, the name was changed from Jubilee Year to Holy Year but the offer of forgiveness remained.

The visits enhance the image of Rome. People discovered extraordinary buildings. They viewed amazing works of the art and they heard music that was specifically composed to lift the hearts of the faithful. They went back to their homes throughout Europe with a new awareness of the importance of Rome. That first Holy Year was one of the greatest tourist promotions of all time. And one of the great things about tourism is that it has the ability promote tolerance and understanding.

I think Steve did a superior job of arranging our tour of Rome and under the theory that no good deed is unpunished, I’ve asked him to set up a tour of Assisi and Siena. Which is where we are heading.  For Travels & Traditions, I'm Burt Wolf. And I’m Steve Perillo.