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Feasting the Eye on Rome's Rich Sights

By William J. Dean / June 2, 1992



THE visitor to Rome easily identifies with Caravaggio's depiction of Joseph in his painting, "Rest on the Flight to Egypt," at the Galleria Doria-Pamphili. There sits a weary Joseph rubbing his sore feet together. Like Joseph, I have been walking the better part of each day.

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Of the four great walking cities of the world - New York, London, Paris, and Rome - the last offers the greatest challenge to a visitor: It is a modern, cosmopolitan city; national capital and architectural and artistic treasure-house of the classical world and Roman Catholic Church.

This spring I made my sixth visit to Rome. For the first time, I began to feel I knew my way around.

On each trip, I return to the Spanish Steps. Here as a student over 30 years ago, I experienced my introduction to the city. I remember taking a taxi from the cavernous railroad station to the top of the Spanish Steps. My destination was not the elegant Hotel Hassler-Villa Medici, but the modest Pensione Pfister across the small square.

Miss Pfister, who was Swiss, had an array of pets, including tortoises. At night, guests would encounter the tortoises in the dimly lit narrow hallway. From the balcony where breakfast was served, I saw in the distance the dome of St. Peter's, and below, the house where Keats spent the final months of his life.

The church of the Trinita dei Monti, the Spanish Steps, the fountain in the Piazza di Spagna, the palm trees, the soft late afternoon sunlight shining on the ocher-colored buildings - these memories of my first visit to Rome will remain with me always.

I have devised my own "Tosca" tour of Rome. Puccini placed each of these three acts of the opera at a city landmark. Act One takes me to the church of Sant'Andrea della Valle, which is crowned by a fine dome, the largest in Rome after that of St. Peter.

Act Two is set in Scarpia's study in the Palazzo Farnese, the most magnificent Renaissance palace in Rome. Today the building serves as the French Embassy. A short distance from the Palazzo Farnese is the Campo dei Fiori, an open marketplace, with old stalls and large canvas umbrellas to shade the fruit, vegetables, and flowers from the sun. Here I purchase oranges from Sicily and almonds to sustain me on the walk to the site of Act Three, the Castel Sant'Angelo. From its ramparts, at the conclusion of t he opera, Tosca leaps into the Tiber River.

The fountains of Rome are a glory of the city. By comparison, New York has very few. In the days of Emperor Trajan, there were 1,300 fountains supplied by 11 aqueducts. Four of my favorites, the Trevi fountain and the fountains in the Piazzi di Spanga, the Piazza Navona, and the Piazza Farnese, are fed by an aqueduct dating back to 19 BC.

Walking in Rome, I encounter delightful reminders of New York City, such as the aroma of wood-burning fireplaces and chestnuts roasting. Rome has a milder climate than New York's, so one unexpectedly comes upon orange and palm trees, and at San Clemente, the best preserved of the medieval basilicas in Rome, oleanders.

Romans, like New Yorkers, stream to parks on weekends. For visitors to either city, the best way to see the natives relaxing is to spend time in the parks. At the approach to the gardens of the Villa Borghese, Roman's lovely park, appears this appealing admonition, as related by Christopher Hibbert in his book "Rome, The Biography of a City": "Go where thou wilt, ask whatever thou desirest, go away whenever thou wishest... Let seemly enjoyment be the guest's only law...."

I ENJOY walking along the Tiber, with the beautiful views of St. Peter's and the Castel Sant' Angelo, and its ancient bridges. Watching the swift-moving, muddy waters of the Tiber from the river bank on the Isola Tiberina is a pleasant way to pass the time. Horace enjoyed walking along the river centuries ago. "I am," he wrote, "like the bee that busy works in the sweet wild thyme around the groves and banks of wide-watered Tiber. Even so small and toiling hard like her I build my songs."

On this visit I stayed at a hotel on the Piazza della Rotonda overlooking the Pantheon. Completed by Hadrian in AD 125, the Pantheon is the best-preserved Roman building in the city, and only a few minutes from the Piazza Navona with its wonderful Bernini fountains and Borromini church. (In my walks in Rome, I felt as if my companions were Bernini, Borromini, and Caravaggio, so often did I partake of their masterpieces.)

To see the Pantheon the first thing in the morning, and as the last sight in the evening, is thrilling. Rome, as William James wrote, is "a feast for the eye from the moment you leave your hotel door to the moment you return."

I have walked up and down, and explored, five of the seven hills of this ancient city: the Palatine, Capitoline, Quirinale, Aventine, and Esquiline. The remaining two hills - the Viminal and Caelian - provide my excuse to return to Rome.