Seat of imperial power in antiquity, home of the popes for two thousand years, Rome has long been one of the world’s most popular destinations. From the Colosseum to St. Peters, from Piazza Navona and the Pantheon to the Roman Forum and more than 900 churches, the Eternal City is an artistic treasure like no other on earth.
According to legend, the city was founded in 753 BC by Romulus and Remus, the orphaned twins who had been suckled by a she-wolf, whose bronze likeness in the Capitoline Museum may date back to the time of the Etruscans.
Archaeological evidence dates the first actual settlement, a group of simple huts on the Palatine Hill, to a time scarcely a century earlier. It was from these humble beginnings that Rome developed into the Caput Mundi, the capital of an empire that encompassed the Mediterranean, stretching from what is now Iraq all the way to northern Britain, only to shrink back in the Middle Ages to a lazy backwater town where sheep grazed in what was once the splendid Roman Forum.
Its position as the seat of Western Christianity guaranteed that a growing European civilization would find its fullest expression in the city of Rome. The patronage of the Church brought great artists to the city, and the Romanesque, Renaissance and Baroque churches containing masterpieces of mosaic, painting and sculpture stand cheek by jowl with the remains of Classical antiquity. One of the most remarkable aspects of Rome, in fact, is that the depth of its history remains visible to the eye, its successive periods of greatness sometimes even represented in the same structure.
Many of the city’s marvels lie within easy walking distance of the conference venue. Ten minutes walk down Via Labicana will take you to the Colosseum and the adjacent Forums, as well as to the nearby Palatine and Capitoline hills, seats of power in the ancient republic and empire.
Proceeding instead up the Esquiline hill along Via Merulana, you will arrive at the church of Santa Maria Maggiore, one of the oldest in Rome, its early mosaics and basilica encased in a baroque exterior. Here, you can see what Church legend claims as the ‘crib of Christ’, along with a ceiling painted with the first gold from the New World, sent by Queen Isabella of Spain.
A walk in the other direction on Via Merulana will take you in 5 minutes to Piazza San Giovanni in Laterano. Here you can see, and even climb, the Holy Stairs from Pontius Pilate’s palace in Jerusalem, brought to Rome by Constantine’s mother, St. Helena, where Christ was presented to the crowd before the crucifixion. The piazza also contains the largest standing obelisk in the world, transported to Rome from Karnak, Egypt in the 4th century and set up in the piazza by Pope Sixtus V in 1587, some 3000 years after it was made.
Rome’s historical and artistic heritage has created problems for modern Romans trying to live in a city that has grown and developed for 2500 years, but has been forced only in the last 60 to adapt to the presence of increasingly suffocating traffic. It can be difficult to move around in Rome, but anyone willing to make the effort will be richly rewarded. Even in the small area near the conference venue what we have mentioned here is only a sampling of the treasures to be discovered, and they are no thinner on the ground in the rest of the city.
It may seem overwhelming, but it only means you will have to come back and visit us again.
Be warned though: as the old Roman saying goes, “Non basta una vita” – a lifetime is not enough