Rome: Galleria Colonna and the Domus Aurea (and food, always)

It's occurred to me that blaming my inability to find businesses on a different handling of architecture (see yesterday's comments on Ma che siete venuti a fà) isn't the whole story: yes, partly cultural, but also partly I can't read the majority of the business signs, which often slows me down (or stops me) identifying them. At least here I can read the alphabet and sound out the names, that doesn't work as well in Korea ...

There's a building a couple blocks away from the B&B which I eventually guessed was an old market building. And since it seemed to be open to the public, I went in. There were a couple vegetable vendors and a couple tourist vendors at 1600 when I first visited, but mostly empty stalls. More busy Thursday at 1000, but still not full. As it turns out, they're not much busier at 0800 on Saturday when I went today - so much for my guess on market day. Too bad, but it's always good to see local produce. The two most interesting to me are zucchini flowers and fresh fava beans. My brother and I were discussing the fact that we never see fresh beans of any description: it's tinned or dried even when they're grown in Canada. Zucchini flowers are a big thing here, and this is the season for them.

I went to Galleria Colonna today. They're only open Saturdays from 0900 to 1400, but I had booked ahead. I admit that I worried a bit beforehand that it might, at this point, appear to be "just another grand palace." But there's "grand" and then there's GRAND. Holy crap. That place is something. And while they do mention it on the tour, I was very glad to know in advance that the main gallery is where the final scene of the movie "Roman Holiday" was filmed. Fortuitously, I received an email from Sarah this morning before I headed out telling me that (she and I are both big fans of the movie). Without being told, I wouldn't have recognized it - despite having seen the movie four or five times. Black-and-white captures the grandeur, but seeing it in all its glorious colour is ... totally different.

photo: wonderful tromp l'oeil at Galleria Colonna

a wall with painted marble columns and an exterior view

The main hall is 60 metres long with an eight metre ceiling. It's lined with mirrors painted with flowers, gold leaf, ancient Greek and Roman sculpture, and a very large number of pictures, some quite spectacular (in appearance and/or importance). What I find surprising in hindsight is that I would normally have found it lavishly tacky (I've been known to complain about this), but somehow this place worked for me: perhaps because the overall impression of colour is restrained to gold and silver, not so much the gold-green-red-kitchen-sink mix that's more common. I wandered about with my mouth open, perfectly happy to look every bit as enamoured as I was.

The main hall is by no means the only place to see in the Palazzo: there are another seven or eight rooms available on the regular ticket. I browsed through these, then went to "the Yellow Room" to catch the tour of the Princess Isabelle Apartment.

You see, I had bought the ticket with all the things. This was a rather steep at €32 (about $48CA), but ... so worth it. The "extras" were the above-mentioned apartment and the Gardens. If you're going and can catch the Colonna on a Saturday, the main gallery is so spectacular that if I had seen only that, I would have been very, very happy. And it is, without question, the best part. But the other two added quite a sense of the place, and I'm happy to have taken them too. Sadly, the apartment tour was only in Italian - although I did get a bit of it translated from an Italian woman who was already translating for a friend from New York and didn't mind me listening in. And the gardens ... you actually walk across a bridge over Via della Pilotta (that's a street - with cars and restaurant patios) to get to the gardens - one of the three or four bridges the Palazzo has over Via della Pilotta, all to their gardens. These are pedestrian bridges, but are you starting to get a sense of scale? This family used to own hectares of downtown Rome, so they have less than they used to - but what they do own in the core of Rome is still unbelievable.

There was lots of tromp l'oeil, but one room had a rather marvelous touch: flowers from the ceiling painting ran down the wall to become painted 3D plaster flowers along the wall - you weren't likely to notice until the guide pointed it out as it was surprisingly subtle, but once you did ...

photo: Galleria Colonna, tromp l'oeil, but the roses in the lower left are solid, 3D plaster

cherubs at play with a trail of roses, that eventually turn from painting to solid painted plaster

Possibly their most admired painting is "The Beaneater" by Annibale Carracci ( ). I didn't love it, but when you consider it's by a Baroque painter who's anticipated both street photographers like Weegee (and paparazzi) and also Impressionism ... it's an interesting work.

I was perhaps most intrigued by "Dawn" and "Night" by Michele di Ridolfo Del Ghirlandaio: they have places of honour opposite each other right near the top end of the main hall, and these two massive paintings mimic the poses of the "Dawn" and "Night" nudes by Michelangelo on the Medici tomb in Florence (the home town of the painter), but what intrigued me was the very life-like and slightly creepy masks lying about both images (and another Ghirlandaio right beneath). The guide said something about allegory and the imminence of death etc., but either I didn't get it or he didn't know either. But they were great to look at.

My only regret is that I didn't go earlier. They opened at 0900 and I didn't get there until 1030. I thought of yesterday's visit to Villa Farnesina, where I was in and out in less than an hour and I was fine with that amount of time ... You just never know how a place will strike you. I could have happily stayed there from 0900 to 1400. As it was, I headed out at 1340 because I had to be at Domus Aurea for a 1430 tour there (also booked ahead). No lunch today. I was following Google Maps, and looking for the road to turn right on ... when I realized it meant me to go up a wide set of stairs that went through/beneath a building and up a hill. Happily, I'd already walked down that set of stairs, so it wasn't too brain-bending. It made me realize that I think I'm a car when I use a map. But at this point Google Maps, spectacularly reliable all week, failed me miserably. I ran into a set of four Americans (twice) having exactly the same problem, as we all scrambled through a park where Maps claimed Domus Aurea was: it turned out to be about three blocks away. I made it on time (and so did the Americans), although significantly later than I expected to.

At the entrance there are a couple spruce(?) trees half covered in wisteria blooms - right up to their rather tall peaks. Quite lovely, and smelled good too.

"Domus Aurea" is Nero's "House of Gold," only very recently opened to the public - and only on weekends as during the week it's an archaeological dig. They keep the whole place at 9C, 90% humidity (bad for the few surviving paintings on the walls, but good for everything else) and you have to wear a hard hat. It was a good thing I was still carrying my fleece. This massive palace was mostly completed when Nero died four years after construction started. Thirty or forty years after his death, Emperor Trajan literally buried the palace to return the land Nero had expropriated from the Roman people, and used it as the foundation for his baths. Many politicians wish they could do this with their predecessor's works ... In the process of burying the palace, he destroyed the first floor but actually succeeded in preserving the ground floor surprisingly well. Still, it requires a lot of imagination to unbury and redecorate it in your head - in part because Trajan had every piece of marble (which has never been cheap) stripped out to furnish the baths, and two millennia has destroyed most of the plaster and painting. But if you can't imagine it, you can put on a VR headset they provide half way through the tour. It's actually very good VR: responsive and fairly high res. I was curious whose headsets they were using, but in the few moments I had to look at them before we were led off, it seemed they had deliberately anonymized them.

I got out of there at 1600. Since I'd been on my feet, walking or standing, since 0930, I decided to call it a day. On the way past Parenti in my B&B's neighbourhood (I've been using them to try various unfamiliar Italian pastries) I bought a "Mont Blanc." I hadn't seen the Wikipedia entry in advance so I had no idea what I was in for. So ... that's a new favourite. Fantastic.

Did a bit of writing, then went to dinner at "Spaghetti." I'm still friends with Maps despite its performance on Domus Aurea, and it claimed Spaghetti was very good. I was suspicious: it's right up against the wall of the Vatican, and a block from the Museums entrance - major tourist area. And I wasn't reassured when they set my Carbonara ( ) in front of me and the bacon/pork/panchetta whatever was better than half fat. But one mouthful was all that was needed: I think I've found my last meal in Rome. (I've developed something of a tradition that if I find a particularly good meal, I repeat it the night before I board my departing plane.) Carbonara is what I should have ordered last night. It was what I wanted, but I was trying to learn something, trying something different. And if you don't do that, you don't learn. But sometimes you need to go with favourites ... Anyway - this was spectacularly good. Salty (it's Carbonara - that's not really a choice), unhealthy, and utterly delicious.