Near sunset, the Piazza del Popolo is buzzing with the practiced hum of a sound and lights crew setting up a concert stage. Lights hang from the awning and a screen projects an image from someone’s Mac that will no doubt turn into the graphics for Coca-Cola’s Summer Festival in time for the opening two days later. According to their website, 50 Italian and international artists are scheduled to play a three-day festival, taking advantage of Rome’s 80-degree summer sun.
At one time, the city gates on the north side of this square provided many people’s first glimpse of the world’s dominant metropolis. At its peak, ancient Rome had a population of one million, with more than 50 million spread across its vast empire. The north entrance is an archway flanked on the left by the church of Santa Maria del Popolo, and on the right by a carabinieri (Italian federal police) station. On the south, two domed churches straddle the Via del Corso, a wide boulevard now home to international fashion chains.
In the center of the square, there’s an obelisk, one of at least eight stolen by Rome from Egypt. I’m a terrible judge of distance, but it seems close to a hundred feet high. (Wikipedia tells me the obelisk itself is 24 meters, though the base brings that to 36). Originally, this obelisk belonged to the temple of Ramses II, who lived around 1300 BC. Romans brought it to their city around 10 BC, where it decorated the Circus Maximus, and moved it to this square in the 1500s.
Santa Maria’s church isn’t quite as old, dating only to the mid-1400s, but its facade was built with stones from the Colosseum. Much of the damage to that ancient arena has come not from earthquakes or the slow decay caused by wind and water, but from theft. Seeing a ready supply of already-cut stone, builders in latter years found it expedient to simply cart off pieces of the Colosseum, which was built around 80 AD and stopped functioning as an arena around the 6th century.
Once again, I am the New Worlder struck speechless by the sheer age of the things around me. This church was built 600 years ago using stones that were then part of a stadium nearly twice that old, and it is still older than any structure in the United States. The obelisk was built in tribute to a pharaoh who ruled three millennia ago, who predates Jesus by a span of time longer than I can quite understand.
Venice showed me a sea breeze, even on the other side of the world, will always find a way to remind me of home. In Rome, I’m struck by the feeling of ambient history. Here, trendy bars and smart cars blend perfectly into a sea of Roman stone and Baroque churches.
Modernity and antiquity never feel at odds – perhaps because Italians have learned to be modern (smartphone-wielding, Vespa-riding with an efficient national train system) without moving at the frantic pace that seems to integral to the world’s other metropolises. It’s nearly impossible to get lost navigating because there are so many stone monuments, cathedrals and ruins spread around the city center. All you have to do is glance at your map to find the right one.
Entering the Colosseum, tourists are filtered into an exhibit hall on the covered, curved upper level before being allowed to come out of the tunnels into the stadium itself. Shuffling our way with the throngs of visitors, we could have been in any sports arena in the world; just replace the stone with concrete, and I’d have been waiting in the wings of Memorial Stadium to march into a Garfield High School football game with the rest of the band. The design entirely unchanged after almost 2,000 years. Even the word arena, now ubiquitous, comes from the Latin for sand – the sand scattered on the Colosseum’s stage to absorb the blood shed by gladiators.
In the Piazza, the setting sun shines gloriously against church and obelisk. The concert set-up has taken the bulk of the square, but there’s bare ground left. A Michael Jackson impersonator trades control of the audiosphere with a South American pan flute ensemble, adhering to some unwritten code of Roman street performers. His performance lacks a certain showmanship, but his moonwalk is solid and an appreciative crowd forms, then disburses as he finishes the act with an underwhelming sample of Billie Jean.
On the south end of the square, a man blows bubbles with a giant net. He’s happy to take donations in the hat he’s set out by the bubble soap, but his face lights up when kids run forward, eager to chase the watermelon-sized orbs. Most are popped while they’re barely head high, but a few float higher, the rainbow light from the soap shimmering against a backdrop of ancient stone.