Finding what you are Looking for: My Grand Tour – From Venice to Rome. Part 2 of 5


Temple of Antonius and Faustina. Image: Denise Meagher


We are scheduled to catch the 9.26am train from Venenzia S Lucia to Roma Termini, with an arrival time of 13.25pm in Rome. While every night on the trip I was careful to get to bed relatively early, on our last night in Venice we all stayed up in the hotel outdoor lounge area chatting about the day. I am usually a poor sleeper and awake early so I do not bother setting an alarm. You can imagine my horror when I awake Sunday morning and on checking my phone realise that it is 8.05am and our departure time from the hotel is set for 8am.!  To say I flung my clothes into the suitcase is probably an understatement! I arrive downstairs by about 8.12 , happy to realise I was not the only one late but looking decidedly worse from wear.

On the Vaporetto my mind starts to relax as I soak up the beauty of the canal for one last time before we depart. We get our seats on the train without difficulty and head south. The journey is interesting as cloudy skies in Northern Italy start to give way to blue ones and sunshine towards the South.  One of my colleagues who knows Italy well advises me not to take the coffee from the trolley but to go down to the cafeteria on the train instead. How right she was. Styled like a café bar, you can stand at the counter and enjoy a freshly brewed expresso and watch the fields go by. We arrive on time in Rome and after a quick trip to our hotel to deposit bags, our third day begins.

People were surprised when I said I had never been to Rome before. I had visited Italy , but for some reason I just had not made it to Rome. So this was going to be a real treat. Our first site visit is Forum Romano . The Forum’s beginnings are connected with the alliance between Romulus  the first king of Rome (which then consisted only of the Palatine Hill) and his rival, Titus Tatius , who occupied the Capitoline Hill around 750 BC. According to tradition the pair formed an alliance after combat had been halted by the prayers and cries of Sabine women.

Roman Forum April 2022. Image: Denise Meagher


For centuries the Forum was the centre of day-to-day life in Rome: the site of elections and triumphal processions, public speeches, gladiatorial matches, and criminal trials. In fact, the day after we arrive in Rome there are some re-enactments of the gladiator matches happening in public spaces, which were interesting to observe. So this rectangular area, the Roman Forum, originally marsh land, gradually became the nucleus of commercial affairs in ancient Rome.

There are so many important monuments and statues in this historic space it is hard to select one – but for me the memory I will always have of standing there, for the first time, was seeing the Temple of Antonius and Faustina, pictured at the opening. We stop just under this monument, and I stare at it , transfixed by the sheer enormity of the columns. I have a similar experience, the following day, when we reach the Pantheon and again at Hadrian’s Villa. Georgina Masson describes the Temple in her wonderful book The Companion Guide to Rome (1965)  and she is worth quoting. She writes that ‘passing in front of the altar and temple of Caesar, we turn right and are immediately confronted with the great podium crowned with ten monolithic columns in cipollino marble of one of the forum’s most prominent and best-preserved monuments , the temple of Antonius, Hadrian’s adopted son and successor and Faustina, his beloved wife. On her death in AD 141 she was deified, and the temple was built and dedicated to her and on her husband’s death twenty years later the dedication was changed to the pair of them’’. (pp, 56) My image I hope captures the enduring grandeur and majesty of this  building.

We explore the Forum and gradually move toward the Capitoline Hill to visit the Capitoline Museum.  We climb the steps that lead us to the ‘Campidoglio’ and there we are greeted with the statue of a mounted rider right in the centre of the piazza: Emperor Marcus Aurelius , who , for those of you who are interested in this city’s complex history, married the daughter of Faustina whom I spoke about earlier. Confusingly, Faustina’s daughter was her Mother’s namesake. Linkages and connections are forming for me as I piece together so many stories from this ancient city.  

Marcus Aurelius. Image: Museum Website

The statue of Marcus Aurelius in the square is a copy of the original which is safely exhibited in the museum to protect it from the elements (above). The history of the museum dates back to 1471 when Pope Sixtus IV donated a collection of important ancient bronzes to the people of Rome and located them on the Capitoline Hill. Since then, the museum’s collection has grown to include many ancient Roman statues, inscriptions, and other artifacts, a collection of medieval and Renaissance art and collections of coins and jewels.

     The Capitoline Wolf. Image: Denise Meagher

I stop to study and take a quick photograph of the bronze sculpture of the Capitoline Wolf. A symbol of Rome since ancient times that we will all be familiar with , the she-wolf (pictured above) is suckling the mythical twin founders of Rome – Romulus and Remus (before the alliance with Titus Tatius of the Sabines was formed ,as discussed above ) and is a symbol of Rome since ancient times. The sculpture has been housed at the museum since 1471.  It is believed the work is Etruscan in origin dating back to the 5th century BC though this is controversial. According to legend the twins were cast into the Tiber river by Amulius when he overthrew his brother King Numitor, grandfather to the twins. The misfortunate pair were rescued by the she-wolf who cared for them until a herdsman found them.

The evening has descended and once again we retire as a group to one of the many wonderful Italian restaurants before returning to our beds after another busy day.  Tomorrow we plan several site visits before we go to the Embassy of Ireland to conclude the evening.

Monday morning we start our day at The Villa Farnese ,  a Renaissance suburban villa in the district of Trastevere, built between 1506 and 1510 . The villa was built for Agostino Chigi, a rich  Sienese (Tuscany)  banker who was also the treasurer of Pope Julius II . We will meet Pope Julius II again in this blog series and his importance cannot be overemphasised.

Villa Farnese. Image : Denise Meagher


The novelty of this suburban villa design is primarily because of it’s differences from that of a ‘typical’ urban palazzo (palace). Renaissance palaces usually faced onto a street and were decorated versions of defensive castles: rectangular blocks with rusticated ground floors and enclosing a courtyard. This villa, however, was intended to be an airy summer pavilion, and presented a side towards the street.

Raphael, The Triumph of Galatea (detail). Image: Denise Meagher


Chigi also commissioned the fresco decoration of the villa by artists such as Raphael (1483-1520). Best known are Raphael’s frescoes on the ground floor depicting the classical and secular myths of Cupid and Psyche and the Triumph of Galatea.  . The latter, one of his few purely secular paintings, shows the near-naked nymph on a shell-shaped chariot amid ‘frolicking attendants’, and is reminiscent of the famous work by Botticelli –  The Birth of Venus. The themes were inspired by key members Lorenzo de Medici’s circle, including the work of the poet Angelo Poliziano. Interestingly Raphael did not paint any of the main events of the story as depicted by the poet. Instead, he chose the scene of the nymph’s apotheosis (glorification/ascent into heaven) where Galatea appears surrounded by other sea creatures. The bright colours and decoration, it is argued, are inspired by ancient Roman painting. At the left we see a Triton (partly man, partly fish) abducting a sea nymph; behind them another Triton uses a shell as a trumpet. Galatea rides a shell-chariot drawn by two dolphins. While some have seen in the model for Galatea the face of Chigi’s lover, the art historian and Raphael’s near-contemporary, Giorgio Vasari ( acknowledged as one of the first great art-historians from this period), disagreed. He argued that Raphael did not mean for Galatea to resemble any one human person, but to represent ‘ideal’ beauty. When asked where he had found a model of such beauty, Raphael reportedly said that he had used “a certain idea” he had formed in his mind . I thought to myself the ‘idea’ most likely was the woman he loved rather than the one Chigi did , especially when you think about his portrait La Fornarina at the Palace Barberini (which I will discuss in blog 4) . The villa became the property of the Farnese family in 1577.  

I was particularly struck by some of the ceiling frescoes which reminded me of the designs we saw in the main room at Castletown House in Celbridge on an earlier field trip.


Wall Fresco , Castletown (left) Ceiling Fresco, Villa Farnese (right)

Both Images: Denise Meagher

Next stop is the Basilica of Santa Maria , also in Trastevere, one of the oldest Churches in Rome. The basic floor plan and wall structure of the church dates back to the 340s but the first sanctuary was built in 221 – 227 by Pope Callixtus I. The church has large areas of important mosaics  from the 12th and late 13th century by the late Medieval artist, Pietro Cavallini (1259- 1330)

Santa Maria in Trastevere, interior. Image: Wikimedia Commons

These are reminiscent of the mosaics we saw in Venice on the outside of the St. Mark’s Basilica but again time did not allow us to study them in great detail though one of the people in our group is writing a Ph.D. thesis in this area so it was interesting to hear her talk about the importance of some of these beautiful mosaics during the trip.

Moving on we reach the church of Saint Agnes in Piazza Navona next, a 17th-century Baroque church. Piazza Navona is one of the main urban spaces in the historic centre of the city and the site where the Saint Agnese , the early Christian saint,  was martyred. Construction of the Church began in 1652. I am struck by the altar piece: The Two Holy Families  (1676) by Domenico Guidi .

                   Domenico Guidi, The Two Holy Families (detail), (1676). Image: Denise Meagher

Outside the Church I stand in front of the first sculpture of one of the artists we studied on the trip that made a lasting impression : Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) whom I will discuss again in a later blog. This work, his Fountain of the Four Rivers is situated in the Piazza Navona.

   Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Fountain of the Four Rivers (detail) Both Images: Denise Meagher

It was designed in 1651 for Pope Innocent X , whose family palace faced onto the piazza, as did the church of Saint Agnes mentioned above. The base of the fountain is a basin style, from the centre of which beautiful limestone rocks rise to support four river gods and above them, a copy of an obelisk of Egyptian origin surmounted with the Pamphili family emblem of a dove with an olive twig. Collectively the gods represent four major rivers  of the Nile (Africa), the Danube (Europe) ,  the Ganges (Asia) and Rio de la Plata (South America).

And still we move on.

Before I discuss the Pantheon, our next stop,  I must introduce another very important character from the first century AD – Hadrian (76–138), mentioned earlier. He was a Roman Emperor from 117 to 138. He was also a seriously bright man,  gifted in many areas, a person I would have loved to meet! His father was of senatorial rank and was a first cousin of Emperor Trajan . Hadrian married Trajan’s grand-niece Sabina  early in his career, before Trajan became Emperor and possibly at the behest of Trajan’s wife, Plotina, who was well disposed towards Hadrian. When Trajan died, his widow claimed that he had nominated Hadrian as Emperor immediately before his death. Some Senators opposed his nomination and he had them put to death when he came to power, something the Senate did not forget easily.

Very much ‘ his own man’  he often had clashes with the Roman elite , especially because of his policies. He built walls to protect the then Empire and despite opposition he pursued his own Imperial ideals and visited almost every province of the Empire, accompanied by his Imperial ‘team’. In Rome he is remembered for rebuilding the Pantheon  and constructing the vast Temple of Venus and Roma  . He was deeply inspired by ancient Greece and even thought to make Athens the cultural capital of the Empire at one point.  His intense relationship with a Greek youth called Antinous is also well documented, and I will return to that later when I discuss his Villa in the Roman suburbs. Antinous’s tragic death by drowning  led Hadrian to establish a widespread cult in his lover’s honour later in his reign.  

My first encounter with Hadrian then is when I see the building he was involved in rebuilding and this is, of course, The Pantheon.

The Pantheon. Both Images : Denise Meagher


And it left me breathless. Originally built by Marcus Agrippa in 27-25 BC it was destroyed by fire in AD 80. Replaced by Domitian it was then struck by lightning in AD 110. Plans for rebuilding were probably put in place by the Emperor Trajan but he died before they were finished, so it was Hadrian who then took charge. ‘Hadrian ..did not dedicate the new Pantheon in his own name but in that of the original dedicant : thus the bold on the front : M. Agrippa L.F. COS TERTIUM FECIT (Marcus Agrippa, son of Lucius, trice consul, made this)’. Amanda Claridge continues in her book Rome: An Oxford Archaeological Guide ‘The city of Rome (unlike the Empire at large) never took kindly to the idea of worshipping emperors as gods during their lifetime but it is possible that the Pantheon provided a setting – not a temple in the conventional sense – in which the living emperor would appear in company with the gods (including his own deified predecessors) ‘. (pp, 231)

This awe inspiring structure, famous for its Corinthian columns which I discussed in my earlier blog, (eight in the first rank and two groups of four behind) , situates the design in the Classical tradition. The famous Rotunda (pictured below) is linked by a  rectangular vestibule to the porch.

Giovanni Paolo Panini, Interior of the Pantheon, Rome (1734), National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

The rotunda  is under a   large coffered Dome i.e – it is decorated with recessed ceiling panels . This device had been used  to bring an added dimension to the ceilings of large rooms since Etruscan times. The Dome is made even more impressive by the central opening called the ‘oculus’ through which one can see the sky. Almost two thousand years after it was built, (think about that for a minute!)  the Pantheon’s dome is still the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome. A painter and architect who worked in Rome and is primarily known as one of the vedutisti (“view painters”) from the city – Giovanni Paolo Panini or Pannini (1691-1765) exquisitely captures views of the Pantheon, including the one pictured above. His name and that of Piranesi (1720 – 1778) feature throughout this blog series.

We visited numerous churches on our trip, not all of which I will cover nor in the order in which we visited them, but San Luigi dei Francesci is a Roman Catholic Church not far from Piazza Navona and is important to mention. It has three masterpieces by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610) .   The Calling of St Matthew (1599-1600), The Inspiration of Saint Matthew (1602) and The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew (1599-1600). This was , apparently, not an easy commission for Caravaggio, and it is believed that at least two of the three paintings had to be repainted to satisfy his patron, the Cardinal Francesco Del Monte. If you did not have a patron in these times, you could not fund or progress your work.

But let us turn the clock back a decade earlier when Cardinal Matthieu Cointerel left funds in his will for the decoration of this church on themes connected to his namesake – Saint Matthew. Caravaggio was fortunate to get this commission as the dome of the chapel had been decorated in frescoes, in a Mannerist style by the famous artist and contemporary of his , Giuseppe Cesari, who was also Caravaggio’s former employer. Mannerist was a sixteenth century style of art and design characterized by artificiality, elegance and sensuousness in portraying the human figure and is the name given to the style followers of Raphael and Michelangelo adopted from around 1520–1600.

Cesari, however,  was busy with other important royal and papal commissions so  Caravaggio got this job thanks to his patron’s intervention. I wished I had more time to study these works but it was hard to, given that the Church was very busy and a little noisy with many people also trying to look at them. Caravaggio was a most interesting character and in his short and tumultuous life he achieved so much –  it was an honor to see the works even briefly.   Below is one example from the three, the one I liked best.

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, The Calling of Saint Matthew , (1599-1600). Church of San Luigi dei Francesi 

And still more amazing experiences were packed into this day. Our group – MA students from the Department of Art History and Social Policy in UCD , have been invited to the Irish Embassy, situated in the Villa Spada. On route we call at the Galleria Spada, a museum  located in the Piazza Capo di Ferro, famous for its façade and for the forced perspective gallery by Francesco Borromini that is in the building. There are also some wonderful pieces of art.  The Villa Spada however dominates my memory, pictured below.

Villa Spada . Image: Denise Meagher

It dates from 1639 and was originally constructed as a summer home for the Nobili family who produced several noted churchmen including Roberto Nobili, who was made a Cardinal at the age of 12 by his grand-uncle Julius III in 1553. Their own web site gives the background to the building: ‘The Nobili Family owned the property for about a hundred years and then another Italian family, the Spada Family, owned it for a further 200 years of its history.  ….It was sold several times over the subsequent years and leased to the Franciscan Missionary Sisters of the Immaculate Conception, whose founder died in the Villa in 1894. The Irish state purchased Villa Spada from its then owner Dr. Alberto Uzielli of Florence, in 1946. For 65 years it housed the Irish Embassy to the Holy See before its change to house the Irish Embassy to Italy in 2012.’

Venetian Door Motif, similar to those we saw at Villa Spada.


We  were welcomed by the Ambassador to Rome, Patricia O Brien  who was exceptionally warm to us all and then given a tour of the building by one of her assistants. I was struck not just by the beautiful views from the villa but by the frescoed doors that feature in some of the rooms, which, I was told, came from Venice.  

A lovely Cup of Tea, at Villa Spada. Image: Denise Meagher


We were treated to some tea and biscuits as we took in the view, one of the many incredible memories I have of my eight-day field trip of Venice and Rome.  It was time to retire for some food and refreshments but more to follow…….

One thought on “Finding what you are Looking for: My Grand Tour – From Venice to Rome. Part 2 of 5

  1. That is fabulous Denise and enthralling to read all the historical details. Names I had forgotten from my days of Latin and Roman history. Well done!

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