Discover the hidden histories of the Eternal City’s extraordinary monuments, from millennia-old ruins to glorious cathedrals and Renaissance masterpieces.

Remnants of ancient Rome remain very much alive in the form of worship, leisure and remarkable architecture.  Discover the hidden histories of the Eternal City’s extraordinary monuments, from millennia-old ruins to glorious cathedrals and Renaissance masterpieces.

When it comes to leisure, Roman tastes haven’t changed much in 2,000 years. Each Sunday, thousands of the city’s residents make the pilgrimage to a huge stadium, where they chant and sing, eat, drink and gamble, and hurl outrageous abuse at each other – and at one unfortunate man at the centre of the arena. Granted, the referees in charge of Roma or Lazio’s home games aren’t ripped apart by lions should they make a questionable offside call, but there’s more than a hint of similarity between the ancient Roman games once held in the Colosseum and the football matches at today’s Olympic Stadium on the other side of the Tiber river.

‘Football is today’s equivalent,’ says Leonardo Guarnieri, an educational archaeologist at the Colosseum. This huge, half-ruined circular stadium is Rome’s most iconic structure, and it was once the home to the ruthless Roman games, in which gladiators and prisoners would battle each other – not to mention a menagerie of wild animals – for the entertainment of a bloodthirsty crowd. ‘In the same way that today fans of rival teams have battles outside the stadium before and after the match, you’d get fans of rival gladiators fighting each other,’ Leonardo says. He points to some fragments of marble. An ancient drawing of a gladiator has been carved into the rock, probably with a nail. Below it you can make out the name ‘Vindicomus’ and a Greek symbol underneath which Leonardo says means ‘must die’. ‘It’s just like a Roma fan making a drawing on a school desk saying that Lazio are rubbish!’ he laughs.

The Colosseum – or the Flavian Amphitheatre, as it was originally known – was built over the course of eight years in the first century AD. The ring of brick arches was constructed using the same techniques the Romans had perfected in the building of aqueducts, and it was completely clad in marble, now long since stripped away. The brutal games that took place made up the crucial ‘circus’ part of the famous ‘bread and circuses’ – the free grain and entertainment provided by the Roman emperors to keep the local population placid. At the games’ peak, some 5,000 lions, tigers and elephants – captured from the African and Asian reaches of the empire – were killed here each year. The side of the stadium is now darkened by pollution, and plans are afoot for a multimillion-euro makeover this year. The noise and dirt of the cars whizzing past might be a little unbecoming, but the Colosseum is not a building to be hidden away in a quiet corner. It has been a totemic presence at the centre of the Roman city for millennia, and while everything else might change, it’s not going anywhere.

  • Buy a joint ticket for the Colosseum, Roman Forum and Palatino from the Roman Forum entrance, rather than the Colosseum – queues are usually much shorter. Or book your ticket online (£10, plus £1 booking fee).

St Peter’s Basilica
Though it is the most sacred church in the Catholic world, on this day there is a boisterous confusion of tongues in the grand forecourt of St Peter’s Basilica that makes it more reminiscent of the Tower of Babel. A cacophony of excited chatter and chanted prayers emanates from the gathered crowd, mixing with the sweet strains of Ave Maria filtering out of the Basilica. A group of nuns from Madagascar alternate between praying and gleefully taking photos in front of the grand façade. A Spanish priest, dressed soberly in dog collar and white shirt, talks animatedly with his mother and sister as they approach the huge entrance, barely able to suppress his excitement.

The Basilica is the most magnificent church in a city that does magnificent churches like no other. It was a combined effort by Rome’s most legendary 16thcentury architects. Donato Bramante, one of the pioneers of Renaissance architecture, came up with the blueprint around 1503, and Raphael reworked it before Michelangelo took over in 1547 and added his soaring Florentine-inspired dome.

Inside, the Basilica is packed with statues of popes, saints and cherubs peering out from every surface. The most famous is tucked in a corner near the entrance, behind a formidable barrier of bulletproof glass. It is Michelangelo’s sublime Pietà, a statue of the Virgin Mary cradling the crucified body of her son. Its exquisitely sinuous marble form was carved when the artist was just 25 and, while today it’s considered one of the world’s finest sculptures, it was criticised at the time for portraying Mary as a young woman instead of middle-aged, as she would have been at the time of Jesus’s death. Michelangelo explained that he had carved her tender features while thinking of his own mother, who had died when he was just six years old.

The Pietà is a far cry from another statue of Mary near the altar, which would look more at home in a Tim Burton movie than a church. Here, she stands atop a flowing wave of red and white marble, and emerging from beneath her is the winged skeleton of Death, holding aloft an hourglass: a terrifying memento mori hidden in this setting of religious beauty.

  • The Pope makes an appearance on Sundays and Wednesdays at noon, if he’s in town – which means that Wednesday mornings are the best time to visit the Sistine Chapel. If you secretly tag along with a tour group, you can slip into the Basilica from the Sistine Chapel without having to queue again.

Roman forum
Political power as we know it was invented in the ancient Roman Forum. It was a public square at the centre of the imperial city, lined with temples, senate debating chambers and monuments. All decisions concerning the vast empire were made here. Today, it is a vast, rock-strewn area studded with crumbled columns and rubble, alongside several restored buildings. It was largely destroyed when the Western Roman Empire collapsed in the late fifth century and, by the Middle Ages, it had suffered the indignity of becoming a cow field. It wasn’t until the 18th-century revival of interest in the Classical period that serious archaeological excavations began.

A stroll around the forum today is a trawl through layers of history. Its central avenue – the Via Sacra, or Sacred Way – was the route taken by the Roman armies as they returned from newly conquered lands bearing the spoils of their victories (and sometimes the dismembered bodies of their vanquished foes). At the far end of the Via Sacra on Capitoline Hill, past the rostrum from which emperors and senators would make speeches to friends, Romans and countrymen, was the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus; here animal sacrifices were made to the most powerful of the Roman gods after each battle. Under Michelangelo’s watchful eye in the 16th century, the temple was converted into a cathedral, symbolising Christianity’s takeover of Roman authority, and this was the only reason it survived the plunder that left most of the other buildings stripped of their marble and stone after the fall of the empire.

Across the way stands the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina, a huge columned temple, so sturdy that it withstood the many attempts to pull it down by locals keen to use the stone for their own houses.

Best of all is the insight provided by the remains of the Casa delle Vestali, the home to the Vestal Virgins. Each year, six girls were selected by lottery to move into a life of luxury at the temple of Vesta, goddess of the home, where for 30 years their primary task was to ensure that the temple’s sacred flame never went out – and to remain a virgin. The consequences for any Vestal Virgin who did not live up to the demands were grim – those who didn’t remain chaste were whipped, marched out of the city in disgrace and buried alive.

  • Stop off at the museum inside the Senate building, which has the latest discovered artefacts. Guided tours of the Forum in English are worth the £4 price.

Trevi Fountain
As workplaces go, the Trevi Fountain takes some beating. Instead of toiling in a strip-lit office, Alessio de Filippo gets to go about his daily grind beside a Baroque masterpiece whose extravagant beauty pulls in thousands of visitors each day.

At 7am each morning, he plugs in a blue vacuum cleaner-like machine, attaches the hose to a long metal handle, sticks it in the azure pool of the fountain, and starts sucking. There’s a rattle and a shudder as the hundreds of coins at the bottom of the pool start to shoot up the tube and into the machine. Every day, some 3,000 euros are thrown over tourists’ shoulders and into the fountain – a gesture that is supposed to ensure a return to the Eternal City. Alessio’s job is to collect the coins each morning and distribute them to the Catholic charity Caritas, based in the city.

Work on the Trevi began in 1732, a relatively late addition to the Roman tradition of building celebratory fountains. The Romans were exceptionally good at ensuring the imperial capital was well watered, and the aqueducts and hundreds of drinking fountains that still dot the city streets are testament to their success. The Trevi Fountain sits at the culmination of a 2,000-year-old underground aqueduct that brings water from the Salone springs, 11 miles away. It shows the god of the sea, Neptune, being pulled along by two great winged horses, one placid, one frenzied, representing the extremes of the oceans.

In recent years though, the Trevi has hit the news for reasons other than its beauty. Those tourist coins have proven to be an irresistible lure for numerous Romans – in particular one man, nicknamed D’Artagnan, who surreptitiously made his living for 20-odd years by dipping his hands into the flush waters. Hence the need for Alessio to hoover up the contributions each day. ‘I’ve seen so many people try to steal coins,’ he admits, in between suctions. ‘The scandal around D’Artagnan didn’t help either – it was shown on the TV constantly, and only helped spread the word.’ In the months after his arrest, the numerous copycat attempts led to the security around the fountain being upped.

The Trevi Fountain continues to be wildly popular with visitors, but has not been without its critics. While architect Nicola Salvi was overseeing construction, a barber who owned a shop on the corner of the square was a persistent critic of the design. Eventually Salvi became so irritated that he added a large vase-like structure to one corner, so that it blocked the view of the shop from anyone standing in front of the fountain. Locals today have nicknamed it ‘the ace’, due to its similarity to the ace of spades from a pack of cards.

  • The only time that the Trevi Fountain isn’t absolutely packed is first thing in the morning, so to limit your chances of hitting another visitor with your coin, try to get there as early as possible.

Villa Borghese
Lazily stretching out across the northern perimeter of the city walls, the Villa Borghese looks down upon the Piazza del Popolo and the trio of busy thoroughfares that flow into the centre of town. Once the lavish gardens of the 17th-century cardinal who bequeathed the park its name, Villa Borghese has long been Rome’s favourite place to escape the heat of the streets. Long winding alleys wrap themselves around copses of trees, under which sit relaxing Romans of every stripe – lovesick couples, furiously smoking old men with shirts open to their waist, groups of teenagers licking gelato. This is where the city comes to keep fit too – joggers, cyclists and strollers keep the avenues moving throughout the day.

But this is Rome, and even in a place as laid back as this, high culture can’t help making an appearance. Villa Borghese is home to some of the city’s finest museums – the Museo e Galleria Borghese, housed in the Borghese Villa itself, showcases one of the best collections of Renaissance and Baroque art in the world. In particular, the marble sculptures by Bernini on display are some of the very best.

Another treat is the once-scandalous sculpture of Cardinal Borghese’s wife, Pauline, the sister of Napoleon. The statue of her carved by Antonio Canova, in which she insisted on being depicted naked as a goddess of love, caused the cardinal so much embarrassment that he not only refused to allow it to be displayed in public, but would only show it to close acquaintances by torchlight. As with most cultural artefacts that are censored, the statue – and its subject – gained legendary status amongst the Roman public, much to the cardinal’s chagrin.

The sculptures extend out into the park surrounding the villa too. Busts and statues from 1,000 years of the city’s great and good are scattered throughout, the unlucky with their noses broken off and the favourites covered in lipstick kisses. The grounds of Villa Borghese are also where Rome turns its cultural attention to the wider world. Ever since the German polymath Johann Wolfgang Goethe took a holiday here – a visit that the German government commemorated in 1903 by commissioning a statue of the great man to stand forever in the park – foreign governments have been rushing to donate statues of their own literary and artistic geniuses. So, in a 10-minute stroll, you’ll pass the likes of Pushkin, Byron and Victor Hugo.

Just as the Roman Empire spread its influence across half the planet, and the artists and architects of the Renaissance showed the world what art could be, so at last, in some small way, the debt is being acknowledged and the favour returned.

  • The Museo e Galleria Borghese is so popular that it’s difficult to just turn up and get in – you’ll need to ring ahead and book a ticket at least two hours in advance (entry £9).


The article 'The classic wonders of Rome' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Traveller.