Thursday, October 30, 2008

Italy Day 3: Roma: Part 2: Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri

Note: This is part of an ongoing series of diary entries and photos from our trip to Italy this fall. You can see all the journal entries here

From the Colosseum, our plan was to walk toward Roma's Termini train station through the park that houses the Domus Aurea (Nero's "Golden House", a vast villa of over 300 rooms set on approximately 300 acres including an artificial lake at the site of what is now the Colosseum) and the baths of Trajan. The park is lushly landscaped with bougainvilla and palms, with a view back toward the Colosseum. Unfortunately, as we entered the park, it seemed as if its now frequented by large groups (gangs?) of 20-something year old males, plus maybe a fair squad of homeless people. We saw people hanging out their washing on the park fences, and more than a few of the groups of hanger-outers turned to stare at us. Feeling that prickly "mom radar" go off, I told Wayne we might be better off not wandering through and just taking a detour around the park. I would've loved to have seen the Domus Aurea, and perhaps it would've been just fine, but I got a bad feeling and so around we went.

This actually ended up being a good thing in the end, because it meant we had time to discover and explore the beautiful Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri (Saint Mary of the Angels and the Martyrs), an astounding architectural treasure hidden right next to Termini station. After going to the train station to look at timetables and get an idea of how easy it would be to buy tickets and get to our train later in the week (very easy, as it turns out, the Italian train system is great!), we were about to wander back toward our apartment, when a set of very interesting bronze doors in the front of what looked like an old Roman ruin caught my eye. Unfortunately, I didn't take any photos of the unusual facade (or really, lack of a facade) to this basilica, but you can see a photo (along with lots of great information) in this Wikipedia article. The bronze doors are new, cast in 2006 by a Polish sculptor, Igor Mitoraj, and are only one of the many incredible and intriguing things about this church. Essentially, it's a gorgeous basilica hidden inside the remains of the truly stupendously huge Thermae (Baths) of Diocletian.

Michelangelo himself designed the church to fit inside the remaining ruins of part of the baths, and it is a lovely space equaled by few others that we saw in all of Italy (in fact, I much preferred it to the overblown St. Peter's at the Vatican). The muted pastel colors and white vaulted arches of the ceiling create a gorgeous effect, and as big as the church itself is, it's hard to believe that it occupies only a fraction of the space enclosed by the structures of the Thermae. Once inside, the church is so elegant, you quite forget that you're actually inside a Roman ruin, until you step outside into a courtyard and all around you are the ancient brick walls of the baths, rising far above your head.Like so much of Rome, you are struck here by a sense of ongoing history, not just one culture but many. The rise and fall of the Roman empire, the Roman Catholic church and its many powerful popes (one of which, Pope Pius IV, was buried here in 1565), and the modern country of Italy born in the middle of the 19th century. A vast structure like the baths can be remade as a church, and used through hundreds of years.

But wait, the fascination of this place doesn't end there. Once inside its beautiful and religious spaces, you notice what looks like a large star chart on the floor, with a line running at a slant across the church floor. Made of inlaid marble and gilt edges, it's a meridian line (longitude 12° 50' that runs through Roma) installed in the 1700's as a sundial and used to predict Easter and check the accuracy of the then-relatively new Gregorian additions to the ancient Julian calendar. Because the Julian calendar didn't account for the fact that there are actually about 365 1/4 days in a year, the leap year rule was added when the Gregorian calendar came into being. This stopped Easter (which is tied to the vernal equinox) from drifting forward later and later each year. The meridian line acts as a giant sundial, with the sun coming through a hole in the wall and hitting the line at various places depending on the season. At the summer and winter solstices, the sun hits at the nearest and farthest spots along the line. Additional holes in the ceiling also allow viewing of key stars such as Polaris and Arcturus.

In short, this single spot is a treasure trove of ancient history, art and architecture, sun, stars, calendars, Popes, and music (we heard an organist playing there the second time we visited). If I was a person planning a trip to Rome, I wouldn't want to miss this almost-hidden gem. The guidebooks that I saw barely granted it a footnote, yet it was one of the most engaging places that we visited in that city. Here's a few more photos of this incredible basilica before I sign off of this day's entry:

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