Far from the Hordes: Lesser-Known Antiquity Sites in Rome

I am starting to get paranoid about the New York Times. Those of you who might be looking forward at this point to an extended rant concerning the liberal secular humanist mainstream media are going to be disappointed, however. My issues with the NYT are strictly personal. Three times over the last year, the editors of the Times Travel Section have seen fit to pre-empt MagoGuide’s investigations with brief and superficial treatments of the same subject matter, which nonetheless leave my thorough and more useful approaches sounding like the recriminations of a whining wannabe.

There is also an ominous geographic pattern to Time’s campaign against MagoGuide. First they bushwhacked me in Florida (see Redneck Riviera: Scooped Again). Then they put out a hit on me in Barcelona (see A Barcelona Brouhaha). The hat trick came in Rome, confirming a geo-temporal stalking trend coincidental with MagoGuide’s annual migration across the US and the western Mediterranean.

Crowds in front of the Pantheon

Team Mago spent six weeks in Rome searching out antiquity venues that offered solace to the traveler beset by the tourist hordes at the “must see” sites. Fortified by extensive notes, a couple months of reflection, and a bucolic writing environment in off-the-grid Montana, I was slapped upside the head by Francine Prose, whose “3 Quiet Museums in Rome” appeared in the September 6 edition of the New York Times. So let’s jump to the pre-rant concessions designed to soften the strident criticism below while showcasing MagoGuide’s magnanimity even as I wax green with envy. First off, Ms. Prose introduced me to a museum I have not visited in all the time I have spent in Rome as a child and an adult. The next time I am in Rome, I will make a beeline for Centrale Montemartini. Finds like this are the reason why I read the NYT’s Travel Section, which for all its faults actually contains articles of interest to travelers as opposed to the obsequious advertisements that populate the pages of its competitors and the travel magazine industry in general. Secondly, she is clearly a better and more accomplished writer of both fiction and non-fiction than I am. Finally, I love her name. Could a writer aspire to a better surname than Prose?

Ok, the treacle overload light is flashing, so it must be time to get down to cases. Ms. Prose directs her article at readers “who, lining up outside the Colosseum, find themselves wondering if the lines at Disney World might have been shorter.”

So let’s get something straight right off the bat: anyone who equates a theme park to one of the greatest artifacts in human history deserves to wait in the forever line at the Flavian Amphitheater while readers of MagoGuide saunter past them holding pre-purchased tickets.

Forum, Palatine Hill, Colosseum

Despite the crush, no serious traveler can forego the triple crown of the Forum, Palatine Hill, and the Colosseum. And they do not have to. Here is how you game the system. These three sites are all accessible on the same ticket, which can be purchased at multiple locations in the Centro Storico. I prefer to buy tickets at the Largo Salara Vecchia entrance to the Republican Forum. If you get there a few minutes before the opening time of 8:30 AM the line, if any, will be short. The tickets (12 euro each for adults) are good for two days and you can skip the long purchasing queues at any of the three sites during that period. An even better deal is the seven day Roma Archeologia Card, which costs 23 euro and is valid for 7 days—allowing entrance to Palazzo Massimo, Palazzo Altemps, Cripta Balbi, Baths of   Diocletian and Caracalla, Villa of the Quintilii, and Mausoleum of Cecilia Metella in addition to the big three. For a couple euros more you can also buy either of these passes on line.

Mago Tip: If the Italian economy manages to recover over the next several years, keep a sharp web-eye out for the return of Culture Week. Cancelled in 2013 as part of a misguided austerity drive, this ten-day period when entry to virtually every major Roman museum and archeological site is free was one of the best deals going in European travel. It may well have gone the way of silphium, but in the future an enlightened Italian administration (assuming that such an oxymoron is actually possible) could bring it back as a stimulus program for Rome’s crucial tourist industry.

Context Travel Tours

Address: via Santa Maria Maggiore 145, Int 14, Rome 00185 Italy—
Website: www.contexttravel.com/city/rome‎
Telephone: +39 06 9762 5204
Hours of operation: Mon.-Fri.: 9 am - 5 pm.
Get more info....

Ms. Prose suggests that travelers “can find solitude and isolation” in Rome’s Protestant Cemetery where “you can commune in privacy with the spirits of Keats, Shelley and the other bright stars of art and literature buried along its serene, well- tended paths.” Now I was in town in late May 2013 when she was and I found the Protestant Cemetery anything but serene due to the on-going renovation of the Pyramid of Cestius, which constitutes a non-trivial chunk of the cemetery’s surrounding walls. She also nominates the multi-level Basilica of San Clemente as another locale for escaping the heat and hordes of Rome. Again, I was there during the same time frame and the purportedly absent throngs turned its humid lower levels into a crowded sauna, making it impossible to catch more than a fleeting glimpse of its subterranean Mithraic temple amidst camera flashes and jostling tour groups. The front of a Mithraic altar

If you want a solitary tour of a killer Mithraic temple, engage a private or small group tour with Context Travel, which offers well over 50 often-customizable walking tours of Rome. For prices ranging from 60 to 375 euro you have the choice of joining an already scheduled group tour or choosing a convenient date for which Context Travel will try to assemble a group of no more than six people for a particular tour. You can also lock in a private tour on a date of your choosing by paying an order of magnitude more for the privilege. Patti and I were able to secure a private tour, however, at the group rate of 60 euro per person for just the two of us. Apparently if Context Travel cannot put a group together on your preferred date, they hold a docent lottery to see if anyone wants to take the money on offer and conduct the tour. You may not end up with any of the docents linked to the tour on their website, but our experience was not marred in the least by the assignment of a docent whose expertise sweet spot was a bit outside our tour’s subject matter. So even if you want a private tour, I would suggest signing up for a group date that is not on the extant Context History calendars. At the very least you will end up in a group of six or less and at best you get a VFM private tour.

Is there any more pathetic icon of mass tourism in the Eternal City than the Bocca della Verita? People from every nation on Earth queue for upwards of an hour to put their hands into the aperture of what may well have been an ancient sewer drain in a bizarre affirmation of American cultural imperialism while ignoring some of the best preserved ancient artifacts in the city just yards away. For example, twenty-five feet beneath the prop for Gregory Peck’s 1953 cinematic shtick lies a 2nd century Mithraeum. Access to this site is by appointment only and while it may be theoretically possible for individuals to navigate Rome’s antiquarian bureaucracy, travelers should avail themselves of Context Travel’s local knowledge to secure both entre and expertise. Context Travel's Philip Ditchfield with Morgan

Our docent was Philip Ditchfield, a historical archaeologist specializing in the Byzantine administration of Rome during the 6th and 7th centuries. We found Phil to be very accommodating to our particular interests as well as generous with his time. We spent about half our tour in the Mithraeum, which is composed of five parallel but separate chambers with a central sanctuary paved in white marble that contains a very well preserved altar depicting Mithras sacrificing a bull as well as niches for statues of Mithras and his torch-bearers Caute and Cautopates.

Underground Mithraic temple

Impressed by my wife’s extensive knowledge of Mithraism and other Roman mystery cults, Philip inquired as to my interests in antiquity. When I told him I was writing a series of novels set during thePunic Wars in the 3rd Century BC, he led us to the nearby and nearly empty San Nicola in Carcere. This church is constructed around the remains of three Republican era temples: Spes, Juno, and Janus. We had toured it several years ago, but Phil’s expertise proved particularly rewarding. He was able to secure access to the roof that afforded a close up view of the entablature and columns of the Temple of Janus, which was built by Gaius Duilius to commemorate Rome’s first naval victory at the Battle of Mylae in 260 BC. In the church’s crypt Phil led us through the foundations of the Temple of Spes (goddess of hope) that was built by Aulus Atilius Caiatinus, a key figure in the Mago Scrolls.

Phil also supplied a host of topical details concerning the Forum Holitorium (vegetable market), which surrounded these temples in antiquity. Thus, for my 60 euro I not only got a private tour of limited access archaeological sites, but the locus for the opening scene of Scroll IV (forthcoming). On top of all this, Phil also patiently answered our many questions concerning the nearby Temple of Hercules Victor (my favorite in Rome) and led us on a tour of Santa Maria in Cosmedin that eschewed the Cult of the Ancient Manhole for a fascinating exposition of the church’s spolia, or bits of pagan antiquity (such as columns, porphyry discs, and sarcophagi) that had been pressed into service by the Byzantine Papacy during the church’s construction in the 8th century.

Crypta Balbi

Address: Via delle Botteghe Oscure, 31, Rome 00186 Italy—
Telephone: +39 06 3996 7700
Hours of operation: Tues.-Sun.: 9 am – 7:45 pm.
Get more info....

While I agree with Ms. Prose that Rome’s “museums [are] as fascinating and rewarding, if not necessarily as spectacular, as any of the must-see spots on the traveler’s itinerary,” I find two of her three “hidden gems” to be pretty marginal compared to those MagoGuide visited in our overlapping visits to the Eternal City. The Museo di Palazzo Doria Pamphilj rarely sees the crowds that swamp other art venues in the city, but neither its baroque architecture nor its painting collection are unique to this particular museum, or even Rome for that matter.

At about the same time Ms. Prose and her spouse were spending two hours in the Doria Pamphilj, I and mine spent over four hours at the Crypta Balbi, which was no more crowded than her hidden gem and far more interesting in terms of Roman art, history, and culture. Located at Via delle Botteghe Oscure 31, the Crypta Balbi is the most overlooked component of the quadripartite National Museum of Rome.The museum sits on top of the rear courtyard of a theater complex built in 13 BC by Lucius Cornelius Balbus, a crony of Julius and Augustus Caesar.

The basement area contains the archeological remains of the theater and adjacent buildings. The ground floor is dedicated to the evolution of the Campus Martius area from Republican times to the present, to include a fascinating exhibit concerning the Roman grain dole and a nearby dispensary at the Porticus Minucia. The first floor is devoted to the transformation of Rome during the often-neglected period of late antiquity and the early Middle Ages. There are also statues, frescos, and numismatic exhibits as well as a recently discovered Mithraeum in which we lingered for the better part of half an hour without seeing anyone once our accompanying museum guard got bored and decamped for a smoke break.

Ara Pacis and the Mausoleum of Augustus

Ms. Prose’s choice of the Museo delle Anime del Purgatorio, which is located on one wall of a side chapel in the church of the Sacro Cuore del Suffragio, is just plain weird (as she sort of admits). The reasons for recommending this collection of items supposedly belonging to “the unquiet dead desperate to get in touch with the living,” are that the church is located in Prati (a neighborhood that Ms Prose likes because it reminds her of Paris) and because “it will certainly give you something to tell your friends at home.” Now I will readily agree that a significant element of the happiness associated with travel derives from recounting one’s experience upon returning home, but certainly one can find uncrowded religious venues in Rome that will better reward the traveler than a collection of scorched artifacts purporting to prove the existence of an afterlife.

The ancients had many versions of immortality, but the most compelling concerned a person’s place in the collective societal memory. Rome’s first emperor Augustus clearly subscribed to this view. The evidence lies a short distance across the Tiber from Sacro Cuore del Suffragio at the Ara Pacis and the adjacent Mausoleum of Augustus.

The structure holding the Ara Pacis is one of my favorite Roman museums. Designed by the American architect Richard Meier, it is a stunning fusion of post-modernism and antiquity. However, Nicolai Ouroussoff writing for the New York Times in 2006 viciously denounced the structure for precisely this reason in Oracle of Modernism in Ancient Rome. Perhaps Ms. Prose was dissuaded from including the Ara Pacis in her trio of quiet museums by her employer’s publications of Mr. Ouroussoff’s characterization of Meier’s architecture as a “flop,” “a major disappointment,” and “an expression of an architect’s self-importance.”

Morgan in front of the Mausoleum of Augustus in 2000

In a city where museums seem stuffed to the gills with bloated collections, Meier’s is a masterpiece of clean lines and natural light housing a single profoundly interesting artifact. The Altar of Peace, peremptorily dismissed as a mere tribute to “military conquest” by the NYT’s architectural assassin, is in reality an ancient YouTube clip that captures the city’s narrative arc as constitutional republic gave way to dynastic empire. Augustus and his extended family are portrayed in a religious procession dedicating the altar on the birthday of his wife Livia. This relief has always struck me as a freeze frame from the BBC miniseries I Claudius, replete with members of the Roman elite displaying airs of equanimity and grace while exchanging barbed gossip and admonishing their bored and restless children. Other scenes on the Ara Pacis tie the imperial family to the founders of the Roman state and its gods. Thus the Altar of Peace constitutes the apotheosis of syncretic Augustan propaganda whereby the replacement of popular rule with that of the individual is based on historical tradition and divine sanction.

The Ara Pacis is also unusual for a Roman museum in its employment of information technology. On my latest visit, I was delighted to find large touch screen display consoles that allowed the user to explore details concerning the altar and surrounding Campus Martius area. Finally, Meier’s large and lofty interior space and the museum’s location apart from the main monuments of Roman antiquity combine to dampen the claustrophobic chaos frequently encountered at those venues. Morgan inside the Mausoleum of Augustus in 2000

Located just behind the Ara Pacis, the Mausoleum of Augustus was the model for the more famous and teeming tomb erected by the emperor Hadrian (known today as Castel Sant’Angello) a century later on the other side of the Tiber. This multi-block circular sepulcher held the ashes of the Julio-Claudian A-List for four centuries until the Visigoths got inside the walls. It was also the location of the original copy of Augustus’ Res Gestae (Deeds), a public relations masterpiece that would send Don Draper on a six-week bender composed of equal parts self-pity and rye. Surrounded by cypress tress as it was in antiquity, the public can no longer enter the mausoleum, but a stroll around the perimeter of this crumbling yet still impressive edifice provides an excellent contrast to the restored and (Mr. Ouroussoff notwithstanding) superbly housed Ara Pacis. Needless to say, the Mausoleum of Augustus does not suffer from overcrowding, but there are designs for a landscaped pedestrian area around much of the mausoleum at the level of the surrounding streets. The plan also envisions turning the Lungotevere in Augusta, the busy avenue between the Ara Pacis and the Tiber River, into an underpass—reducing traffic noise and allowing the removal of part of the wall in front of the museum (one of Mr Ouroussoff’s more strident critiques of Meier’s architectural design).

Unfortunately renovation efforts move with glacial slowness even at the best of times in Rome and the current budgetary woes have concentrated dwindling recourses on the major sites. Ironically, should the ducats ever be found to restore the mausoleum, the project would in effect provide the long-delayed culmination of Benito Mussolini’s efforts to link the modern Italian state directly to ancient Rome’s greatest ruler. Unfortunately for Mussolini, Fortuna (the Roman goddess that scholars refer to nowadays as “historical contingency”) has denied Il Duce any reflected glory while ensuring that the words and deeds of Augustus continue on their immortal trajectory.

Aurelian Walls

The fundamental difference between Ms. Prose and me is that she views Rome as a collection of separate entities, some crowded some not. I see Rome as one all-encompassing museum, the world’s largest and best. Like all great museums some rooms and wings are continuously thronged, while only devotees or the exceptionally curious visit others.

One of my favorite exhibits in the Roman meta-museum is the Aurelian Walls. Amazingly intact after one thousand eight hundred and thirty eight years of warfare, weather, and pilfering, this huge artifact also constitutes a contemporary border between antiquity and modernity. The population inside the walls, approximately 1 million souls, is roughly the same as it was during the Roman Empire. Another major bonus of this exhibit is that a tour of the Aurelian Walls is physically as well as intellectually rewarding. And while one encounters plenty of Romans while exploring the walls, tourists are very thin on the ground.

Aurelian Walls

All in all the Aurelian Walls cover twelve linear miles in a circuit composed of 383 towers (one every 100 feet), 7,020 crenellations, 18 main gates, 5 postern gates, 116 latrines, and 2,066 large external windows. A complete tour requires a long day, but the walls can be experienced in one-to-several hour chunks for the less energetically inclined. My favorite route begins at the Porta Maggiore, which marked the start of the Via Praenestina and the Via Labicana as well as the intersection of two aqueducts, the Aqua Claudia and Aqua Anio Novus. The gate itself significantly predates the Aurelian Walls into which it was incorporated in 271 AD. The monumental double archway of white travertine was erected in 52 AD by the emperor Claudius to provide a decorative prop for the two aqueducts.
Just outside the Porta Maggiore lies Rome’s greatest culinary monument, the tomb of Eurysaces the baker. Built during the late Republic (circa 50-20 BC) by a freedman who had grown wealthy baking bread for distribution by the state to Roman citizens, the tomb is an extremely rare example of nouveau riche plebian-style architecture. Squeezed into a trapezoid formed by the bifurcation of the two ancient roads, the tomb’s travertine facing displays rows of horizontal and vertical cylinders, each of which can hold precisely one modius, the ancient Roman unit of grain. Above these cylinders is a frieze that runs around the structure depicting grain delivery, grinding, and sifting of flour; mixing and kneading dough, forming loaves, and baking them in a domed oven; and weighing and stacking the loaves in baskets. Hidden frieze along the Aurelian Walls

Turn right at the Tomb of the Baker and walk along the outside of the walls past the dramatically turreted Porta Asinaria through which the Byzantine general Belasarius entered Rome in 536, reclaiming the city from the Ostrogoths. Along the way you will encounter paths snaking along the base of the walls through neighborhoods that tourists never venture near. A miniature park that borders the wall offers an excellent picnic spot amidst the locals walking their dogs or making out in the grass far from the Centro Storico where impromptu outdoor eating carries a stiff fine these days. Do not waste your time on the vile interpolation of Pope Gregory XIII known as the Porta San Giovanni, but continue on to Porta Appia out of which issued the most famous of all Roman roads.

Model of the Aurelian Walls in the museum

Renamed the Porta San Sebastiano, this towered aperture houses the Museum of the Roman Walls. It is a rare visit to this fascinating museum when staff does not outnumber visitors. Exhibits trace the history of Rome’s walls back to the city’s mythical foundation. It was a fight over the location and height of the city’s first walls after all that led to the murderous confrontation between Romulus and Remus, the outcome of which gave the city its name. There is a wealth of information served up on old-school displays, placards, models, and maps that deals with the construction techniques for the earlier Severen Walls, the Aurelian Walls, and their subsequent doubling in height by Emperor Maxentius in the early 4th century. The best part of the museum, however, is outside on top of the gate and a nearby stretch of wall. From here you can see well out the Appian Way to the tomb of Caecilia Metella and the circus of Maxentius. It is even possible to spot the superstructure of the Centrale Montemartini, which Ms. Prose describes as “a museum of industrial archaeology in itself”—a description very similar to that found on the orientation plaque on top of the Museo delle Mura Roma (hmmmm).

The staff at the museum can usually be persuaded to let you into the recently reopened tomb of the Scipios that lies just past the misnamed and dilapidated Arch of Drusus at Via di Porta Sebastiano 9. Opened last year after two decades of desultory renovation, the mausoleum once held the ashes of Scipio Africanus, who defeated Hannibal, and his descendant Scipio Aemilianus, who destroyed Hannibal’s city-state of Carthage. The sarcophagus collection (all replicas, the originals are in the Vatican museums) also includes that of my favorite representative of the gens Cornelii, one Gnaeus Cornelius Scipio Asina. A doppelganger of the illustrious generals sharing the tomb, Asina was responsible for Rome’s first ever naval defeat during which his crews deserted, leaving their ships as well as Asina at the mercy the Carthaginians. Ransomed for an astronomical sum, he was given the nickname (cognomen) of Asina (female donkey) by the forum wags when he returned to Rome.

If you have not had enough of the Aurelian Walls at his point in your perambulations, pass back through the Porta San Sebastiano and again bear right along the walls. You will eventually reach the Porta San Paolo after walking along some of the best-preserved stretches of the walls in the city. In antiquity this was the Porta Ostiensis where the road to the port of Ostia entered the city.Aurelian Walls

The nearby Pyramid of Cestius (currently under renovation, see above) and the (not as serene as Ms. Prose would have her readers believe) Protestant Cemetery signal the beginning of Rome’s Testaccio neighborhood where one can find ample comestibles to provide succor for the walk from Porta Maggiore.

Via Appia Antica

If you visit the Museum of the Roman Walls on a Sunday, you could find yourself tempted to walk out the Appian Way (Via Appia Antica, not to be confused with the nearby Via Appia Nova) to view the various monuments and catacombs as well as have lunch at one of the restaurants scattered along the old Roman road or maybe a picnic. Do not succumb to this desire. The Appian Way is supposedly blocked to traffic on Sundays and there will usually be a police car and yellow tape barrier positioned just across from the Porta San Sebastiano pretending to enforce the ban. This barrier, however, is far from hermetically sealed. To begin with, the ban does not include huge tour busses hauling their disaffected cargoes to the catacombs or  local traffic (i.e., friends of the police on duty), and those charged with enforcing these lax rules take frequent “breaks” during which anyone who wants to drives right through the yellow tape. The result is several miles of dangerous traffic and suffocating exhaust fumes for anyone trying to walk or cycle the Appian Way.

Do not despair. Once you leave the catacombs and their attendant tourist swarms behind, the Appian Way not only becomes far less crowded in terms of vehicles and bipeds, but it also reverts to a road bed that has changed little since antiquity. The width and paving stones shrink to the size of a standard ancient Roman thoroughfare, the roadside tombs become more prevalent and diverse, and the enclosing walls that mask the countryside up to the catacombs drop away. On this stretch one can walk unfettered along the viarum reginam with a surfeit of picnic spots to choose from. Often the only vehicles one encounters are cyclists sporting the stunned grins of those who have only recently escaped from continuous internal combustion harassment.

Aqueduct Park

My favorite way to access this outer stretch of the Appian Way is through Aqueduct Park, but it is not for the feint of heart—like a lot of off-the-beaten-path experiences in the Eternal City, you have to earn it.  Take the Metro Line A to the Giulio Agricola stop and walk south along Viale Giulio Agricola. The entrance to the park is near the church of San Polycarpo. Aqueduct Park

Inside the large and rustic park, you can wander amongst the remains of three aqueducts, the Aquas Alessandrina, Claudia, and Anio Nuovo. You can have a nice picnic in the park but I would hold out for the Appian Way. Once you have had your fill of the aqueducts—to include a golf course defecated amidst the glorious ruins by some developer for whom there is hopefully a special place reserved in hades—exit the park on Viale Appio Claudio to the southwest.

Here is where it gets a bit tricky. In order to reach the Via Appia Antica you must cross the heavily trafficked SS 7 (Via Appia Nova). The best place to do this is at the intersection of Viale Appio Claudio, the SS 7, and Via Appia Pignatelli. After crossing at the traffic light, walk west on Via Appia Pignatelli then take your first left. This dirt road does not have a name that I have ever been able to find, but you will quickly pass Via Lucio Volumnio on your right if you are going in the correct direction. Continue until you reach Via Appia Antica, turn left, and walk as far as you feel like in search of a picnic spot amongst the remains of the tombs that dot the roadside.

Locals cooling their feet from an aqueduct

Villa of the Quintilii

One of our favorite picnic sites on this stretch of the Appian Way is outside the nympheum of the Villa of the Quintilii.  Following a meal of comestibles procured at one of the Roscioli emporia (see Panis Focacius Regit) washed down with a bottle or two of wine, wouldn’t it be nice to wander through the nympheum and its neighboring hippodrome? Unfortunately, you have to earn this experience as well. It seems that the authorities in all their wisdom have decided to close this particular entrance to the Villa of the Quintilii in favor of the one on the SS 7.

So you have to retrace your steps to the SS 7, but do not cross the street. Instead turn right and brave the hurtling masses of metal casually guided by “drivers” otherwise engaged in smoking, texting, talking while simultaneously gesticulating with both hands, etc. In a short distance you will come to the entrance to the Villa of the Quintilii. Perseverance in this matter will be greatly rewarded because, with the exception of the museum staff and archeological personnel, visitors to this fantastic museum and co-located ruins usually have it all to themselves. Originally a villa complex the size of small town replete with its own baths and private aqueduct, the emperor Commodus coveted it to such an extent that he had the Quintilli brothers executed in order to confiscate the property for himself. It takes a minimum of two hours to cover this expansive site at brisk clip, but why hurry?

Mago tip: If you are going to explore parts of the Eternal City that lie beyond the truncated confines of most tourist maps, it is very helpful to secure a SIM card from one of the numerous mobile phone services whose storefronts are ubiquitous throughout the Centro Storico. Armed with an Italian SIM you can then use your unlocked smart phone and/or tablet for both navigation and explanation of the sites you visit deliberately or just happen upon.

Ms. Prose’s impressive curriculum vitae (NYT best seller, National Book Award nominee, etc.) contains one serious flaw that goes a long way to explaining her modus operandi for avoiding the tourist throngs in Rome. She is a contributing editor at Saveur. While MagoGuide is by turns jealous, ambivalent, and at least semi-constructively critical of the Times Travel Section, the same cannot be said for Saveur. Basically we hates it Precious, oh yes we does (see A NOLA Dust-Up: MagoGuide vs. Saveur in the Big Easy).

Unfortunately Saveur’s pretentions concerning “definitive” and “authentic” travel experiences appear to have infected Ms. Prose’s prose with an almost subliminally classist approach to tourism. The way one avoids the herds of hawking Han people, smelly Slavs, and assholic Americans is to hide from them in the splendid isolation of “a place that has spent centuries accumulating layers of beauty and history, patiently waiting just for you to arrive” (a fine example of Saveur-speak for the uninitiated). Secure in such rarefied settings, the enlightened can enjoy the sedentary and patrician pleasures of contemplating the “remarkable secret corners of Rome.”

Ms. Prose, Saveur, and the Times (at least in this case) are thus revealed as perpetrators of elite tourism, which has as little to do with the behavior of genuine travelers as its mass variant. The only problem with tourists, it would seem, is that there are too many of them. Cut the numbers by a couple orders of magnitude and the stigma of the short-term visitor capable of only shallow interaction with a site’s multifaceted context vanishes.

Now MagoGuide would love the removal of tour bus Leviathans and their miserable malcontent cargos from the Eternal City but 1) it is more likely that monkeys will shoot out of our collective butts and 2) even if it were possible it still amounts to liberally slathering a porcine visage with cosmetics. For tourists, the journey is a short as possible means to an end, while the destination is paramount be it an infamous theme park or an obscure side chapel. For travelers the journey is eternal and experiences arise as a direct consequence of its pursuit. Ms. Prose is basically gaming the tourist system by steering her elite readership on three discrete museum vectors designed to elude their less-deserving brethren, who presumably read USA Today instead of the New York Times or Saveur.

Walk on the Esquiline Hill

Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of her article is that Ms. Prose focuses exclusively on interior experiences. Romans have lived outside as much as possible at least since the infants Romulus and Remus dined al fresco on lupus lacte. While Ms. Prose is drawn to the discrete itinerary of the tourist, MagoGuide prefers the beguiling discoveries attending a traveler’s meanderings. Ms. Prose flees from the throngs by sheltering inside whereas MagoGuide avoids them completely with an extended passeggiata. Rather than continue to belabor the abstract differences between travel and tourism, here is MagoGuide’s alternative to Ms. Prose’s three quiet Roman museums. A walk on the Esquiline Hill, for example, yields a trio of ancient misnomers that constitute if not exactly hidden gems then fascinating diamonds in the rough. Walk a block south of the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore on Via Merulana, turn left on Via di San Vito, and you will encounter a fascinating and perpetually deserted multi-layered artifact.

The Arch of Galens began as one of the gates in the Servian Walls that date to the 4th century BC. Augustus rebuilt the aperture as a monumental arch in the 1st century AD. In the mid-3rd century an imperial official named Aurelius Victor renovated the structure adding two flanking pedestrian arches while replacing the Augustan inscription with one commemorating the emperor Valerian and his son and co-emperor Galens. All references to Valerian were removed from the arch following his humiliating defeat and capture by the Persians in 260. It remains the Arch of Galens to this day even though he was assassinated by his own troops in 268. The flanking pedestrian arches were demolished in the late 15th century.

Pass through the arch and check out an unusual Roman water spigot. Unlike most of the ubiquitous single spigots you find all over Rome, this one has multiple spouts emanating from a cluster of amphorae. You often see employees from local restaurants filling water bottles at this font not only for the convenience of multiple spouts but because neighborhood lore insists that its water is particularly pure and healthy. Need MagoGuide add that if your water bottle requires refilling that this is a particularly auspicious place to do so? Now turn right on Via Carlo Alberto and proceed to the northern entrance of the Piazza Vittorio Emanuelle II where you can view the ancient supersized version of this little fountain.

The piazza is actually a small park that used to hold the Esquiline’s traditional market until it was moved to a purpose-built structure nearby. Plenty of locals and recent immigrants take advantage of this pleasant if slightly seedy urban space, but there are rarely any tourists. Make your way to a fifty-foot tall hillock of brick-faced concrete in the northeast corner of the piazza. This is the so-called Temple of Marius—one of the most misleading designations in the entire city, since it has nothing to do with either Gaius Marius (157 – 86 BC) or religion. The artifact is actually the remains of a public fountain built by the emperor Alexander Severus around 226 AD. The fountain stood at the intersection of the ancient Vias Labicana and Praenestina and was fed by a major aqueduct (either the Claudia or the Anio Novus). Once clad in marble and festooned with sculpture, the fountain fed a twenty-foot cascade with five levels of pipes and basins.

Two of the statues decorating Severus’ fountain gave rise to its association with Marius. They are stone copies of trophies composed of captured arms and armor festooned on wooden cross pieces and carried in triumphal parades. Associated with Marius at some point in the Middle Ages, they actually date from the time of Domitian in the late 1st century AD. Alexander Severus evidently kiped the statues from a triumphal monument and repurposed them to adorn his mega-fountain. In 1590 Pope Sixtus V continued this spolia migration by moving the statues to the Capitoline Hill (where you can see them today) under the guise of restoring the Marian Trophies to their original location. There were in fact trophies associated with Marius’ victory over the Germanic Tribes in 101 BC, but they were the real thang (not stone replicas) and they were lost to history at some point in late antiquity. Temple of Minerva Medica

Now it is time for a visit to the most neglected site in Rome. Leave the Piazza Vittorio Emanuelle II to the southeast on Via Principe Eugenio. One block after the street changes names to Via di Porta Maggiore take a left on Via Pietro Micca and follow it to Via Giovanni Giolitti. There sandwiched between tram and railroad tracks in the urban blight extruding from the Stazione Termini stands a culinary monument second only in importance to the Tomb of the Baker (see above). Its name, the Temple of Minerva Medica, is once again a modern misnomer, the result of efforts to link the structure with passages from Cicero and other Late Republican sources.

The structure is actually an imperial dining pavilion, as attested by its water supply and heated floor. It was probably part of the pleasure gardens used by the court of the emperor Galens (he of the arch described above), before some of its members offed him in 268. This mother of all triclinia was also a daring and radical approach to domed architecture. Unlike the coffered Pantheon, the octagonal structure’s dome, which stood some 108 feet above ground level, was composed of lightweight panels deployed in an umbrella shape between brick arches. This daring design had to be buttressed several times in antiquity, but its infrastructure of arcs stood until the early 19th century when the center of the building collapsed.

It is amazing that any part of the dinning pavilion has survived the subsequent vibrations of constant tram and train traffic. The public has been denied access to the site’s interior since a five-year “restoration” effort ended in 2008, which is a shame but it also obviates the need to cross several active tracks in either direction. On MagoGuide’s last visit there was also non-trivial evidence of renewed renovation activity. Hopefully this work will eventually allow public access, but as with most Italian restoration efforts the schedule is quite fungible.

Esposizione Universale Roma (EUR)

After three uncrowded artifacts how about a couple of quiet Roman museums with contents that have somewhat less tenuous connections to the Eternal City than a wealthy family’s painting collection and a collage of dubious evidence for “unearthly visitations”?  Walk up Via Giovanni Giolitti to the Stazione Termini and take the B Line Metro to EUR Fermi. Outside the metro turn right on Viale America, right on Viale del Arte, and then right on Viale del Civilta Romana and follow it to the museum of the same name.

This walk takes you through heart of Rome’s EUR (Esposizione Universale Roma) district. Originally the site for the 1942 World’s Fair, EUR was Mussolini’s tribute to Fascism that was slated to replace the Centro Storico as his forum. The exhibition was cancelled due to World War II (along with Il Duce’s career), but his bizzaro architecture supplies a counterfactual frisson of what would have befallen the Eternal City in the event of a Fascist victory. EUR’s monumental structures are a combination of classical design and early 20th century rationalism. The results are stark distortions of ancient archetypes that are ponderously ludicrous in their cartoon-like efforts to link Mussolini’s legacy with that of the Caesars. Anyone who buys Silvio Berlusconi’s bullshit about Mussolini being a strong and historically misunderstood leader need only walk through this terrifying alternative future cityscape for the scales to fall from their eyes.

Some of the most interesting and egregious examples of EUR’s Fascist blight include the Swiss cheesy Square Colloseum (Palazzo della Civiltà del Lavoro), the pompous relief of Mussolini on horseback at the Palazzo degli Uffici dell’Ente Autonomo EUR, the dildonic Marconi Obelisk, and the building that houses Museo della  Civilta Romana. Designed by Pietro Aschieri, the structure reminds one of a semi-deconstructed movie theater metroplex colonized by zombies in a post-apocalyptic dystopia. Inside, however, lie some of my favorite exhibits in Rome.

I need to qualify that last endorsement. My wife hates this museum and doesn’t much like EUR in general (notice the lack of pictures for this venue). She is not alone, it is one of the least visited major museums in Rome and not just because of its out of the way location. Almost every exhibit is a reproduction or a model and this fact alone seems to carry a significant stigma in a city full of real (if often displaced) artifacts. I like to visit the museum when the weather is lousy or my wife is in a coding frenzy that requires intense concentration on her part and utter silence on mine.

Trajan's ColumnThe museum has twelve rooms covering the history of Rome from its Paleolithic origins to the fall of the Western Empire as well as an equal number covering thematic subjects (e.g., education, agriculture, medicine, art, gastronomy, etc.). My three favorite exhibits are the Julio-Claudian family tree, Trajan’s column, and Italo Gismondi’s model of ancient Rome in the age of Constantine. Located in Room X, the genealogy of the early Principate (31 BC – 68 BC) is portrayed as an actual pair of intertwined trees. It takes a while to shake off the engrained iconography of a line and box organization chart that usually attends such depictions, but persistence is rewarded with a much more organic understanding of the deliberate intra-family pollination that the power couple Augustus and Livia employed to literally breed the 482 year-old Roman Republic to death.

Over the years I have spent a lot of time at Trajan’s Column. I have held vigil at dawn to elude the jostling crush of tour bus denizens who each feel entitled to a spot at the surrounding rail for a photo opportunity. I have tried to study the details of its magnificent relief using binoculars until the muscles around my eyes suffered uncontrollable mini-spasms. Both problems of crowding and distance are swept away in Room LI, which contains plaster casts of the column’s relief arranged sequentially with Italian and English explanatory texts for each segment. I like to take my time in this room, first examining the casts chronologically for a historical frame of reference and then working my way backward through them for an artistic appreciation.

I also spend a great deal of time in Room XXXVIII, which holds Italo Gismondi’s and Pierino di Carlo’s 1:250 scale plaster model of Imperial Rome in the early 4th century. This 4,300 square foot depiction of the Eternal City at its peak of architectural glory is EUR’s most significant fascist artifact. Originally commissioned for Augustus’ 2,000 year birthday celebration, it is a three dimensional 20th century version of the Forma Urbis Romae (a marble map of similar scale created in the early 3rd century for the emperor Septimius Severus). Subsequent postwar archeological discoveries were incorporated into the model until 1971.

You can see the Gismondi/di Carlo model in posters sold all over Rome, used as geographic context in other museums, and the movie “Gladiator,” but nothing comes close to the elevated multi-angled viewing opportunities afforded in the Museum of Roman Civilization. Most of the time one can contemplate this amazing reproduction in splendid isolation thanks to an ingenious design feature that siphons the battalions of school kids off into an adjacent planetarium before the brats reach the map room. True, a tour group shuffles into the viewing gallery every few hours and endures a fifteen-minute laser pointer lecture delivered by a shockingly ill-informed guide before being herded back into their mobile prisons. During such episodes I usually retreat to Room VI, which contains a smaller but equally fascinating model of archaic Rome (early 5th century BC) that, when combined with Gismondi/ di Carlo’s depiction of the city at the time of Constantine, indelibly cements the vast sweep of Rome’s architectural evolution into the viewer’s imagination.

My only criticism of the Gismondi/di Carlo model is its resistance to improvement via modern information technology. There are several interactive monitors deployed around the viewing gallery, but their content and interface are minimal and quite clumsy. More generally, efforts to digitize the model by an academic consortium and Google have run into legal problems and even when they could be accessed did not supply anything like the experience of hanging out in Room XXXVIII.

Le Domus Romane di Palazzo Valentini

Address: Via IV Novembre, 119A, Rome 00187 Italy—
Telephone: +39 06 32810
Get more info....

To understand the potential of using IT to bring Rome’s past alive, the traveler should head for the Palazzo Vallentini located a mere javelin’s throw from the hideous Wedding Cake (Victor Emanuel Monument). In 2007 archeologists found the remains of two luxurious houses dating from the imperial period 23 feet beneath a Renaissance palace that has been the headquarters of the Roman Provincia for a century an a half. The ruins were restored using a blend of classical archeological reconstruction techniques and multi-media technology. Looking through the floors at the Palazzo Valentini

Visitors view the site through glass floors, while the exhibition is described via synchronized audio presentations.  The effect is one of floating at ceiling level above three-dimensional realizations of the rooms and furnishings found in a patrician residence at the height of Rome’s power. And the setting is never over-crowded since only a set number of tickets are sold for each one-hour tour, which can be booked in advance on line.

Furthermore, the technology employed at Palazzo Valentini not only breathes life into relics gutted by time; it provides a means to preserve Rome’s cultural heritage from the ravages of mass tourism. Using multi-media, visitors will be able to have an in situ kinetic experience without the associated damage to the artifacts that their very presence currently guarantees. Unfortunately, many icons of antiquity like Pompeii and even the Colosseum could be lost before governments and private institutions commit the resources to make this blend of archaeology and IT ubiquitous.

For all the current and future impact of the technology employed at Palazzo Valentini, however, the most interesting aspect of the experience has nothing to do with it. Almost as an afterthought, visitors are ushered past the remains of the largest columns ever found in Rome. The monolithic columns of Egyptian grey granite stood fifty feet tall with a width of six feet and were extremely rare in antiquity. These behemoths provide a partial solution to the twin conundrums concerning the size of the Pantheon’s porch and the location of the Temple of the Devine Trajan (Hadrian’s predecessor).

PantheonThe Emperor Hadrian refurbished the Pantheon and built Trajan’s temple contemporaneously. Both structures were originally designed utilizing fifty-foot columns. The Pantheon’s columns, however, are forty footers, which explains the structure’s awkward double pediment. The columns found beneath Palazzo Vallentini were probably part of Trajan’s temple whose exact location has never been pinned down by archaeologists.

The key to unraveling the mystery of the Pantheon’s short columns, and consequently its vestigial porch, lies in the fatal rift between Hadrian and Apollodorus of Damascus, who designed the Pantheon. Apollodorus was Trajan’s favorite architect and publicly contemptuous concerning Hadrian’s architectural and artistic talents, or lack thereof. Not content with exiling and then having Apollodorus killed, the insecure Hadrian also sought to mar his critic’s masterpiece by utilizing all the fifty-foot columns in town for his predecessor’s temple.

This cautionary tale concerning naming and shaming inherently more powerful rivals prompts MagoGuide to close our critique with a proffered olive branch to the New York Times in general and Ms. Prose in particular. Every once in a while could you please write a piece for travelers as opposed to tourists? In case there is still some confusion as to the difference, here is a handy rule of thumb: tourists are constantly pursuing the “trip of a lifetime” while travelers always know that they will be back (if not exactly when). This an audience worth cultivating for the Times Travel Section because 1) it will address the requirements of those readers most passionate about travel, 2) further differentiate you from your loathsome competitors, and 3) just might convert a few tourists to the slow travel market segment, which benefits individuals as well as society (surely a worth goal for the nation’s paper of record).

Or you could stop stalking MagoGuide and let us handle it for you. In particular MagoGuide would like to offer one of its rare and prized internships to Ms. Prose. Next time you are in Rome, Sicily, or somewhere interesting in the western Mediterranean why not team up? You can still bill the NYT, and MagoGuide will pick up the rest of the expenses, but you would actually be stumbling around with intrepid travelers instead of writing puff pieces for ducat-heavy tourists (not to put too fine a point on it). Oh, and quit writing for Saveur. That rag is soooo beneath one of your talents.

Other Hidden Treasures



Related Posts

Morgan Hart

MagoGuide.com was launched in 2011 as a website and virtual storefront to showcase Patti's software and Morgan's content. Dedicated to slow travel, culinary excess, and ripping good yarns, MagoGuide is the digital scriptoria for the Mago Scrolls, Morgan's historical fiction series about the Punic Wars in general and one Mago of Syracuse in particular. Although Morgan has written a great deal of non-fiction over the years in the form of specialized journal articles, book reviews, op-ed pieces, and (his personal favorite) the most unpopular coffee table book in the history of the planet, he always viewed himself as a happily frustrated novelist. Get more information about Morgan's novel and travel writing at our Products page.