Text and images Mark Anthony Barquin Togonon
Evading death, the opponent quickly rolls to the side and swings his sword in a wide arc, slicing the former’s stomach open to send him crashing to the floor and growling in agony. Spectators cheer maniacally as blood sprays on the ground.The victorious warrior then strides toward his rival, yanks his head back by his hair and with a lusty roar, slits his throat open from ear to ear.
Images of carnage from a gladiator movie flood my mind as I descend into the Roman Colosseum’s underground tunnels and chambers. Trapped in the sweltering heat, the stale waft of the earth mingles with the age-old stench of urine and decay. Chills creep up my spine as I imagine slaves, vicious animals and convicted prisoners cramped behind bars, awaiting their ghastly fate in the shadows more than a thousand years ago, the times when the ancient Romans reveled in death and used bloodsports to demonstrate glory and power.
Michaelangelo’s Pieta at St. Peter’s Basilica
St. Peter’s Basilica dome
Arch of Constantine and the Colosseum
Lorenzo Bernini’s sculptures in Piazza Navona
Remnants of ancient Rome
Castel Sant Angelo
Ancient sculptures inside Vatican Museum
Church of San Lorenzo in Miranda at the Roman Forum
Inside the Coloseum
To say that Rome was built on blood and violence isn’t an exaggeration. In the ancient times, carnage wasn’t merely a sideshow in the Roman culture, it was the main spectacle. Their predilection to war and extreme violence had allowed them to build a massive empire that controlled the entire Mediterranean basin and much of northwestern Europe during its peak. For centuries they embarked on imperial expansion, demolishing towns and gathering slaves who were forced to fight in gladiatorial games, or fed to lions and bears for public entertainment.
From where I queue impatiently outside the Roman Colosseum on a hot July afternoon, centuries ago in 80 AD, the common public would clamor and wait similarly to witness the gruesome contests. Built by Emperor Vespasian of the Flavian Dynasty as a gift to the Romans, the amphitheater unctioned as a center of entertainment, with spectacles such as gladiatorial combats, public executions, and sea battle reenactments, where the arena floor was flooded with water from an underground river. The late afternoon sun crawls behind the upper arch windows, casting shadows on the seats where bloodthirstycrowds of up to 80,000 used to holler. It is said that in the hundred days of savagery to inaugurate the Colosseum, over 10,000 people and 5,000 wild animals perished. The brutal games persisted for centuries until Emperor Honorius banned it in 404 AD, following the on-site protest of an Egyptian monk named Telemachus, who was immediately stoned to death by the angry spectators. Thankfully, the advent of Christianity changed the demeanor of the Romans, making them less antagonistic and warlike.
“Constantine,” I mumble as I pass by the ancient triumphal arch dedicated to Emperor Constantine, who ended the persecutions of early Christians in Rome during his reign, “Are there any more gory secrets in that pile of rubble?” With a crumpled map in hand, I walk toward the ruins of the Roman Forum. Broken columns and skeletons of long-vanished temples stand precariously on the grass and mutilated statues perch on barren pedestals. Located between two hills, the sprawling ruin of architectural fragments was the social, political, and commercial hub of the great Roman Empire. The Forum was originally a marshy area that the early Romans reclaimed following the alliance between King Romulus of the Palatine Hill and Titus Tatius of the Capitoline Hill, and eventually developed to include marketplaces, shrines, government offices, and memorials.
Kicking dust on the flagstone-paved walkway, I stroll along the length of ViaSacra, the main street of ancient Rome, which was once the route of triumphal military parades and imperial processions.
Nearby, I find the remains of the Church of San Lorenzo in Miranda grafted onto and above the Temple of Emperor Antoninus Pius and his wife Faustina. Emperors were routinely deified after their death but when Christianity proliferated, pagan temples were either demolished or converted to churches and basilicas. Walking past the remains of other temples dedicated to mystical gods, I curiously join a group of tourists crowding the empty pedestals of the House of the Vestal Virgins, taking photographs of the jumbled block of marbles where, according to their tour guide, the “sacred fire”once burned for centuries. The holy flame was guarded by the Vestals, priestesses of the goddess Vesta carefully chosen from prominent families.These women were among the most venerated citizens of ancient Rome and were believed to have special powers, such as the ability to pardon condemned criminals by simply touching them. Sweat drips from my face as I continue to the summit of the Palatine Hill, where I find the ruins of the Domus Augustana, a private section of the imperial palace where the great emperors once resided. Here, I gaze out to admire the silhouette of the ancient cityscape against the blood-red sunset.
On Holy Ground
Fueled with a hefty slice of sidewalk pizza the following morning, I dodge through an army of hawkers and hucksters selling souvenirs and rosaries. Pilgrims armed with large crucifixes and banners spill incessantly from tour buses. At eight o’ clock the streets around Vatican City, the papal enclave within the city of Rome, are already in full swing. After standing in seemingly endless security check queues, I hold my breath as I approach the massive metal doors of the Saint Peter’s Basilica. Built in the early 16th century over the tomb of St. Peter, the basilica is among the largest churches in the world and is considered the finest example of Renaissance architecture.One can’t expect less, as it was worked on by just about every great architect and artist of Italy in the 16th and 17th centuries: Michaelangelo, Raphael, Bramante, Peruzzi, Maderno, Sangallo, Donatello, and Bernini.
By the entrance, tourists pause contemplatively in front of Michaelango’s Pieta, a haunting sculpture that depicts the Virgin Mary cradling the dead Jesus Christ after the crucifixion. It now sits behind a bulletproof acrylic glass after it was vandalized with an axe many years ago. My eyes instinctively survey the basilica’s nave, moving across its lavishly decorated walls and columns inch by inch. Amassive mosaic-ed dome, also created by the great Michaelangelo, soars 119 meters above the ground and is supportedby four stone pillars representing the relics of St. Helena, St. Longinus, St. Andrew, and St. Veronica, whose statues adorn the niches designed by Lorenzo Bernini. Directly beneath the dome is St. Peter’s Baldachin, the basilica’s centerpiece. The 30-meter tall dark bronze canopy was also designed and sculpted by Bernini to shelter the papal altar and to mark the spot where St. Peter is buried.
Inside the Vatican Museums, I push my way through crowds to see some of the world’s most treasured relics and masterpieces collected by the Popes over the centuries. Exhibits, which run along about nine miles of halls and galleries, include classical sculptures, Etruscan bronzes, Flemish tapestries, Renaissance and modern paintings and even Egyptian mummies. The vast complex of museums was founded by Pope Julius II in the early 16th century and expanded by the succeeding pontiffs as the collections grew. Among the most popular rooms inside the Vatican Museums are, without doubt, Raphael’s Rooms because of the frescoed walls and ceilings painted by the great Raphael himself. In one of his rooms, everyone’s eyes are glued on a painting called The School of Athens, a fantasy gathering of the greatest philosophers, mathematicians and thinkers from different periods and places. What’s amusing about it is that Raphael included the faces of himself and his colleagues Leonardo Da Vinci, Donato Bramante, and Michaelangelo in the painting.
At the nearby Sistine Chapel, the challenge is deciding where to stand to have a good view of the biblical paintings on the wall and on the vaulted ceilings. “SILENZIO!” The guard’s deep, terrifying voice resonates throughout the sacred room, causing hush to fall over hundreds of excited mouths. A remnant from the glorious Renaissance era, the Sistine Chapel is home to two of the world’s most celebrated artworks: Michaelangelo’s ceiling frescoes (1508-1512) and his GiudizioUniversale or The Last Judgment (1535-1541). I try to identify which biblical events are depicted on the ceiling frescoes, which glow rich and vibrant in the low light. In the heady series of paintings, Michaelangelo interpreted nine scenes from the book of Genesis, including the creation of the earth, creation of Man, the fall of Adam and Eve and the plight of Noah. On the altar wall below, Michaelangelo painted a chilling interpretation of the Last Judgment. The painting shows Jesus Christ, who stands in the center, passing sentence over the souls of the dead as they are snatched out of their graves. The saved are able to enter the gates of heaven while the damned are thrown to the fires of hell. One disturbing part of the masterpiece is that Michaelangelo painted himself as a soul on his way to eternal damnation.
Secrets of Antiquity
Outside, my sense of adventure tells me that every corner of this once-mighty empire has many more surprises—a naked statue of a mystical god, an Egyptian obelisk, an unknown fountain sculpted from pale stone or an excavation revealing secrets of antiquity. As I walk away from Vatican City, the imposing cylindrical building of Castel Sant’ Angelo looms into view, towering over the Tiber River. Embellished with precious marbles and angel statues, Castel Sant’ Angelo was built in 123 AD by Emperor Hadrian as a monumental tomb for himself and his family. According to legend, the name “Castel Sant’ Angelo” dates back to the day when Pope Gregory the Great, during a procession to plead for the end of a plague, saw Archangel Michael on top of the mausoleum, wiping blood from this sword. The succeeding emperors eventually used the mausoleum as a defensive bastion during the barbarian invasions, and when it was passed on to the hands of the pontiffs, Pope Boniface IX turned it into a papal residence, fortress, and prison.
Wandering the labyrinthine streets not far from the castle, I come across abustling piazza (square) surrounded by luxurious cafes and Baroque buildings of orange, lemon yellow, and peach. The garlicky aromas of pizza and pasta roll on the soft summer breeze as nearby restaurants call out for customers. At first glance Piazza Navona looks familiar, perhaps I may have seen it in many Hollywood films like Angels and Demons and Eat, Pray, Love. The square’s centerpiece is the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi, a 17th century fountain lavishly adorned with a towering obelisk and four giant sculptures by Lorenzo Bernini representing the great rivers of Ganges, Nile, Danube, and Plate. Directly opposite the fountain is the Church of Sant’ Agnes in Agose, built in the 17th century by another acclaimed Italian artist and architect Francesco Borromini. Once the performance space of jugglers, acrobats, and mock naval battle actors, Piazza Navona maintains its lively atmosphere with the presence of painters, caricaturists, street performers, and souvenir vendors.
Strolling past countless piazzas and heavily statued churches and fountains, I find an ancient temple called the Pantheon tucked between modern apartment buildings and open-air restaurants. Supported by thick granite Corinthian columns, it stands unscathed for almost 2,000 years now, though according to stories its marble facing and gilded bronze roof tiles were stripped off and used to decorate St. Peter’s Basilica. Designed by Emperor Hadrian himself as a tribute to the planetary gods, the semicircular building has a coffered 43-meter dome with a central opening that lets the sunlight in. Tourists arrive continuously through its massive bronze doors and shuffle about inside, their flag-carrying tour guides beckoning them to the gravesite of Raphael, who in his last few days requested to be buried inside the building. In the seventh century, the Pantheon was converted into a church dedicated to St. Mary and the Martyrs.
Soon, I am moving among crowds surrounding the famous Trevi Fountain, where I find many young lovers canoodling and basking in the romance of the ancient edifice. The fountain, which has also been featured in many notable Hollywood films, dates back to fourth century BC and was built at the end point of a 22-kilometer aqueduct, named Aqua Virgo or Virgin Waters to honor the young girl who discovered the water source, that provided water to the hot baths and fountains of central Rome. Embedded into the façade of Pallazo Poli, the fountain is embellished witha handful of fine sculptures. Standing under a triumphal arch at the center is the statue of Oceanus, the Roman God of the Sea, whose shell chariot is being pulled by two sea horses, one wild and one docile to represent the opposing moods of the sea. Leading them are two Tritons, one whistling on a shell as if to announce their arrival. Here, tourists gather around to throw coins into the water using the left hand over the right shoulder. Legend says that one must toss three coins into the fountain: the first guarantees your return to Rome, the second leads to a new romance with a Roman, and the thirdleads to marriage. I fumble for a few coins in my pocket.With its beauty, elegance, and visibly rich history, Rome is one place I wouldn’t mind revisiting a few more times in this lifetime. And I certainly wouldn’t mind a new romance either.
1.) Philippine passport holders need to get a Schengen Visa at the Embassy of Italy at least three months before departure. Visit www.via.ph/italy/ for details.
Prepare the following documents:
- Filled Out Application form
- Two pcs passport-size photos
- Passport Valid for at least six months
- Return-ticket Reservation
- Travel Insurance
- Cover Letter stating the purpose of visit
- Proof of Accommodation
- Bank Statement of the Latest six Months
- Latest Income Tax Return
- Business Documents (if self-employed)
- Certificate of Employment with Salary Details (if employed)
2.) There are no direct flights from Manila to Rome. You may check www.skyscanner.com.ph for the cheapest connecting flights.