Thursday, June 4, 2009

La Citta' Piu Bella del Mondo

The night before last, I went to the Los Feliz Cinema to see the movie Angels and Demons. I was disappointed in the Da Vinci Code, yet I wanted to see this movie anyway, because I knew that it was filmed on location in Rome.


My adoration for it was only strengthened by seeing it used as a backdrop for a pretty preposterous thriller. While the movie did keep me on the edge of my seat and never had a dull moment, the story was rather ridiculous. As it progressed, and I saw The Eternal City swirling around behind Tom Hanks, I couldn't help but marvel at how even the most absurd plotline could not diminish Rome's warm, elegant, earthy beauty.

In my opinion, Rome is the most beautiful city in the world.

I know, I know, I haven't been to every city in the world, so it's silly of me to have such an opinion. But still, I have been to an awful lot of cities that are internationally renowned for their beauty... Venice, Florence, Siena, Madrid, Barcelona, Seville, Paris, London, New York, Bruges, Dublin, Boston, Amsterdam, Lisbon, Jerusalem, Havana, Quebec, Morelia, Buenos Aires...

Granted, I haven't been to Prague or San Francisco or Cape Town or Rio de Janeiro, nor to any city in Asia, but still, I don't think that if I visited them I would find them more beautiful than Rome.

Rome was the first city in a foreign country that I had ever visited. I was 25-years-old, and I had never been out of the USA. I couldn't have chosen a better city to get my first taste of the Old World. I had a Roman holiday that lasted two weeks, and I also spent three days in Florence and a day in Pisa, but man, they weren't Rome...

Rome is, quite simply, an extravaganza. To me, what makes a city beautiful is the natural setting, the architecture, and the street life.

Some cities have a beautiful natural setting, but unremarkable architecture. Others have beautiful architecture, but the natural setting is not at all remarkable.

For example, Seville is a remarkably lovely city architecturally, as is Florence. However, for me, Florence trumps Seville, because Seville is located on a plain, while Florence is nestled in a valley surrounded by high hills, which "ups" its fairy tale quotient. Florence has the gorgeous natural setting that Seville lacks AND the architecture and street life that is equal to Seville's.

Well Rome, like Florence, has both.

There are the famous seven hills of Rome (a spectacular natural setting), as well as the architectural treasures which overwhelm those of Florence (or Venice or Paris or London).

Rome is not called The Eternal City for nothing. As you walk through the streets, you see Classical buildings of the ancient city, as well as Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque buildings, all seamlessly mixed together. Sometimes you'll see ancient columns incorporated into a newer building (and in Rome, "newer" is 300-years-old).

What other beautiful Baroque or Renaissance or Medieval city has the ancient forums-- a grand, monumental series of ruins from the Republican and Imperial epochs... the ancient triumphal arches... not to mention the Colosseum... the Baths of Caracalla... the ruins of Largo Argentina... the Portico of Octavia... the Temple of Vesta... the Temple of Fortuna Virilis... the Theater of Marcellus... the tomb of Augustus... the Porta Maggiore... the Porta Asinaria... the Pantheon... my God, the Pantheon alone would be the most stunning structure of the majority of the world's great cities.

Not only is the Pantheon a utter wonder, but it has at its entrance one of the loveliest squares anywhere on earth, Piazza della Rotonda.

What makes a great street life to me is the presence of beautiful town squares, lots of them. Well, the piazze of Rome are the most stunning squares in the world, and it's mainly due to the spectacular fountains.

The fountains the fountains the fountains.... many of them, each an utter work of art, designed by some of the world's most revered masters, and they're just THERE, in the piazza, or on a street corner, or at an intersection, out in the open. Any of those fountains in the USA would be in a museum, and if you touched them, the museum alarm would go *beep*beep*beep*.

Not in Rome. In Rome you can stroke the fountain, sit on its edge, take flash pictures of it, toss coins into it... and unlike in museums that close at 6pm, these works of art are available 24 hours a day. You can take a stroll at 3am, as I did, and be the only one in the piazza, just you and the magnificently sculpted fountain, with no museum guard watching your every move.

It seems that every square in Rome has a stunning fountain in it. This is not the case in other cities. The countries that I visited afterwards were England and Ireland, the following year. The year after that, I visited Spain and Portugal, and always, in every city I visited, I kept asking myself, Where are the fountains? Why do hardly any of these squares have fountains? Finally I gave up asking myself this question, when I realized that Rome is unique in this regard.

Beginning with Piazza di Trevi which contains what is perhaps the world's most famous fountain, the Trevi Fountain, and continuing on to Piazza Navona (my favorite square in the world) with its Four Rivers Fountain, the Neptune Fountain and the Moro fountain, Piazza del Popolo with its fountain ornamented by Egyptian lions, Piazza Mattei with its exquisite turtle fountain, Piazza di Spagna with its half-sunk boat fountain... I could go on and on.

Shall I mention the famous Spanish Steps that lead up the the church of Trinita' dei Monti? Or how about the monumental steps that lead of the Piazza del Campodoglio, from which you have a panoramic view of the ancient forums below.

There's the winding Tiber river, which has the Ponte Elio, a 2nd-century bridge lined with priceless statues that lead up the the Castel Sant'Angelo-- the mammoth mausoleum of the Emperor Hadrian.

Beyond Castel Sant'Angelo is Vatican City, which technically isn't a part of Rome, but what the hell, it really is...

La Citta' del Vaticano... the amazing Piazza San Pietro, a.k.a. Saint Peter's Square, with its twin fountains, its Egyptian obelisk, its ring of colonnades surrounding it, and as its main feature: Saint Peter's Basilica---the largest church in the world, and the most magnificent.

I can't express just how far my jaw dropped and how much my eyes widened when I first entered Saint Peter's and eye-witnessed its grandeur. Words can't describe it, photos can't, videos can't. You must enter and see the gargantuan dimensions for yourself... the soft, warm light, the details of the interior decor and design.

What is truly memorable for me is that I visited Saint Peter's again, when I was in Rome 5 years later, and my jaw dropped even lower the second time than it did the first; it's that much of a marvel.

And don't even get me started on the Vatican Museums. The Sistine Chapel... I just wanted to expel all the other tourists from it so that I could lie down on the floor, and gaze up at the ceiling for hours, studying every detail. And then there are the Raphael rooms... Mmm!

Is this getting boring? Sorry, if you've never been to Rome, it probably is, because without photographs, these words can be pretty meaningless.

So I'll just try to convey something that can be felt without having visited the city. The colors. The colors of Rome are uniformly warm. There really don't exist cold colors in Rome... no blues, no grays... at least none that I can remember, and if they do exist, they are in such miniscule numbers that they don't register on the eye.

The whole city has a warm glow of orange, gold, copper, burnt umber, what have you. All the buildings are painted in the orange/tan/copper-hued palate. The colors of Rome are the colors of the sunset.

After I first saw Rome in 1994, I kept telling myself that I had to see Paris before I could definitively say that Rome is the world's most beautiful city. After all, Paris is Paris.

Well, I finally visited Paris the last week of 1999 and the first week of 2000, and I thought it was an utterly beautiful city. So stately, so sophisticated, so finely ornamented... yet so cold (and I don't mean the weather). The color that I remember most is gray. Almost all the buildings are gray. It's a truly beautiful city, but it's a cold beauty. Place Vendome is utter perfection, but it's cold. It doesn't have warmth of Piazza Navona or Piazza della Rontonda or Campo de' Fiori.

What makes Rome a cut above the rest is (in addition to all the reasons stated above) its calming, soothing warmth. That a person can feel soothed and calm in such a crazy, haphazard city is a testament to what a lot of beauty can do for the soul.

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