Picture of the Crypt of Skulls (borrowed from Wikimedia, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cripta_Cappuccini.jpg)
Our Valentine's Day began with a romantic early morning visit to a room full of human skeletons. The Cappuccin Crypt is six rooms in the basement of a Cappuccin monastery church where the bones of over 4000 former monks have been arranged in intricate patterns, both beautiful and morbid. Passing through rooms with wonderfully descriptive names like Crypt of the Skulls and Crypt of the Tibias and Fibulas, the final room is the Crypt of the Three Skeletons. Here you find what I thought was the most powerful sight in the crypt: the complete skeleton of a young girl holding a grim reaper scythe and a set of scales. The girl was a young princess of the rich and powerful Barberini family. The scythe and scale are of course made entirely out of human bone. The scythe has arm and leg bones for a staff and shoulder blades arranged together to form a blade. The scale is particularly freaky with its chains made out of finger bones. The whole crypt makes for a macabre but fascinating sight.
Next, we walked up to the Borghese Gallery, a showcase of fine art and the fine art of Italian bureaucracy. The fine art came courtesy of the Borgheses, a rich and powerful Renaissance family. They decided to build an utterly awesome villa in what was then the outskirts of Rome. Surrounded by large gardens (now a nice urban park), the villa was designed to entertain and impress with an art collection to envy. To complement the immense collection, many pieces of which were commissioned solely to be put on display here, every wall/ceiling/doorway/toilet seat/etc. in the villa was decorated with a painting/fresco/sculpture/naked woman/etc. Between the art and the decoration, the eye barely knows where to look.
The bureaucracy comes in with the current administration of the museum. To get in you must reserve your tickets in advance, online or on the phone. You must reserve a specific time and date to enter. You must show up at least thirty minutes prior to your entry time to wait in line to get your tickets. (Have your reservation number handy or the guy working there will yell at you.) You must check all bags, cameras, American senses of self righteousness, etc. You may now enter at your allotted time, but you are allowed only two hours, no more, to see the museum.
The art more than makes up for the trials, though. Everywhere are beautiful paintings and sculptures. The real showpieces are a series of sculptures centrally placed in the room of the first floor. Most are amazing Bernini's, a notable exception being a scandalous nude of Napoleon's sister reclining on a couch. The most amazing piece in the Borghese (at least in my opinion) is Bernini's Apollo and Daphne. Apollo grasps Daphne from behind just as she begins to be transformed into a tree in this classic scene of Greek mythology. The sculpture contains such action and emotion that you can't help but stare.
The Borghese family was also an advocate of a strict stretching regimen to keep your hardcore tourism muscles limber and ready
After the Borghese, we hit a quick lunch near the Spanish Steps, and then moved on to our third major sight of the day: the Colosseum. Built in 80 AD to please the emperors with grand spectacles of sport, the Colosseum felt odd for one strange reason: its remarkable sense of familiarity. Slap some uncomfortable bleachers on the inside, spruce up the paint a little, and you could be sitting in any municipal stadium of today. Sports have apparently been the same for the last 2000 years.
Next, we wandered around outside the Forum and Palatine Hill for a while (they stop letting people in at 3:30 in the winter). We checked out some random Roman ruins and the Arch of Constantine, commemorating Constantine's victory and subsequent legalizing of Christianity.
As young people on the move, we kept right on going to the church of Santa Maria della Vittoria. The famous work here is Bernini's St. Teresa in Ecstasy, showing St Teresa with a distinct look of pleasure on her face after being stabbed by the flaming spear of God.
Tim and I were more interested in the conversation we had (or tried to have) with the monk working in the gift shop. The shop had four large, intricately detailed paintings depicting the stages of a battle. The monk, through lots of pointing, gesturing, and speaking in Italian, taught us about how the church got its name, St Mary of the Victory. Apparently, there was a large battle in which the Church had gotten a bunch of mercenaries from Prague. Though badly outnumbered, the Praguians went on to victory after seeing an apparition of Mary crying tears of victory. Or something like that. (Through later research, I learned that this took place during the Thirty Year's War.)
Just down the street, we went into the Diocletian Baths, which contrary to the name is now a church. Inside is an absolutely massive open space that was originally the main public bath of ancient Rome. Apparently over 3000 people could swim there at once. Ever the recyclers, later Romans installed a nice new floor and turned the whole thing into a massive church.
We finally called it a day, took a short rest at the hotel, and met up for dinner. We once again tried and failed to go to a restaurant recommended by Rick Steves, but ended up at a decent place and enjoyed an extremely leisurely Roman meal. We lingered for a long time as Tim and Rebecca were leaving for home early in the morning. We finally said "Ciao" and then hit the beds hard. Michele and I had one more day of hardcore sightseeing to get through.
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