Magic in Marble (and more)

Layers of Time
Galleria Borghese

If yesterday* was a relaxing, serendipitous kind of day, today was meticulously planned. As much as spontaneity is fun, sometimes a little planning saves both time and money and results in better travel experiences.

Regular readers will know we love to purchase local travel cards, when available. In Rome we bought the 72 hour Roma Pass, which included all public transport, free admission to the first two attractions, and discounts to most others. To make sure we got good value from our cards, we had to carefully consider when to start our 72 hours, and which attractions were the most expensive, and therefore should be seen first. It’s also vital to check opening times and dates, to avoid nasty surprises. Spreadsheets, notes, maps and diagrams covered the table in the weeks before this vacation, but it was time and effort well spent.

Museo Nazionale Romano

The National Museum of Rome was our first destination, because it contains possibly the greatest collection of of ancient Roman art anywhere. Judging by the very small number of people we encountered there, this is a seriously under-rated museum. Four floors of fascinating and beautiful sculptures, mosaics, and frescoes well described in both Italian and English, this main branch of the museum, housed in the Palazzo Massimo alle Terme near the main Termini station, deserves to be on every visitor’s must-see list. Here are some of our highlights (check the photo captions for details):


We stopped for lunch in a small cafe on the edge of Piazza Della Repubblica. It is an elegant, semi-circular space that was created during the redevelopment of Rome after unification. Originally it formed part of the Baths of Diocletian. We were surprised to find some sort of march or protest happening, but were even more surprised that they made very little noise – it was almost eerily quiet. Eventually we discovered it was a parade to celebrate the anniversary of the “World Day of the Deaf”, and most people were communicating by signing! For lunch we ordered typically Roman dishes – Spaghetti alla Carbonara and Pasta alla Gricia ( a simple combination of Pecorino Romano and guanciale – a cured pork cheek)

The Baths of Diocletian/Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri

The Baths of Diocletian (Terme di Diocleziano) were the largest baths in the ancient Roman world. The complex covered around 13 hectares, and could accommodate more than 3000 people at a time. Its construction, which took only 8 years (298 to 306 CE) required the demolition of a number of public and private buildings. It was Diocletian’s co-emperor, Maximilian, who was responsible for commissioning the baths in 298 AD. After he and Diocletian had abdicated, the new emperor Constantius continued the project. It is thought that the emperor’s main reason for having the baths built was to outshine the Baths of Caracalla, which by that time were almost a century old. The new baths had a capacity twice as large as Caracalla’s structure. There was a large exedra (= a room in ancient Greece and Rome used for conversation and formed by an open or columned recess often semicircular in shape and furnished with seats), two libraries, and the core of the baths – hot, warm and cold halls ( called caldarium, tepidarium and frigidarium) and the natatio, a large open pool. In addition there were changing rooms, gymnasia, and rooms dedicated to recreation and personal care. Parts of the bath complex have survived thanks to their incorporation into newer structures. The structure is now one section of the National Museum of Rome. One smaller room was used as a planetarium from 1928 to the 1980s. The baths functioned until 587 CE, when barbarians (Goths) attacked and destroyed the city’s aqueducts, plunging Rome into a thousand years of poverty and darkness.

The basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri (Saint Mary of the Angels and the Martyrs) was ordered to be built inside the frigidarium of the Baths of Diocletian in 1561 by Pope Pius IV. Michelangelo adapted the remaining structure to enclose a church. The church is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, to the angels, and to the Christian slaves who died building the baths. The front façade is one of the original interior walls of the Baths of Diocletian, between the no-longer-existing caldarium and the still-existing tepidarium, which serves as the vestibule of the church. The interior is quite ornate, with beautiful marble walls and floors, and with 8 massive pink Egyptian granite columns which have not moved since antiquity. The Corinthian capitals on top of those columns are very elaborate.

One unexpected detail was the Meridian Line on the floor of the basilica. At the beginning of the 18th century, Pope Clement XI commissioned the astronomer, mathematician, archaeologist, historian and philosopher Francesco Bianchini to build a meridian line, a sort of sundial. Completed in 1702, the object had purpose: the pope wanted to check the accuracy of the Gregorian reformation of the calendar, and to produce a tool to predict Easter exactly.

Michelangelo’s Cloister

The cloister of Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri is referred to as “Michelangelo’s Cloister” as he was tasked by the Pope with transforming the Baths into a church and chapter-house. However, although Michelangelo came up with the layout, a pupil of his, Giacomo del Duca, was responsible for most of the actual architecture. The cloister was built only after Michelangelo’s death in 1564.

The colonnades of the cloister are lined with ancient statues and lots of sarcophagi, which I always find fascinating. More surprising, there are 7 giant animal heads – a ram, a camel, a horse, a bull and an ox were found in the ruins of Trajan’s Forum and date back to ancient Roman times. The elephant and rhinoceros (as far as I can find out) were added in the 16th century.

Borghese Gallery

Determined to get our money’s worth from the Roma Pass we had a booking at the Borghese Gallery this evening at 7pm. But that gallery deserves a post of its own, you’ll find it here!

  • Since travelling is off everyone’s agenda at the moment due to Covid-19, this seems like a good opportunity to update the blog from several past trips that were sadly neglected. So, no, we’re not in Italy now, but it’s nice to reminisce.

One thought on “Magic in Marble (and more)

  1. LOVE these pics. Bring back memories of when I went to Barcelona! Beautiful! Thanks for sharing!

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