“The Romans? I’m all forum!”

Colosseum and Arch of Constantine sm
A couple of days before our trip to Italy, we went to the Museum of London. London’s history was always a great interest to me, the story of one of the world’s greatest cities, from the chaos of the Blitz, the Restoration period of Plague, Fire and Rebirth, the medieval city of tightly packed lanes and Bow-Bells, the Anglo-Saxon settlement of Lundenwic, right back to its origins as the Roman city of Londinium Augusta (and even farther back, into the area’s British past). Outside the Museum of London we marvelled at a decent stretch of the old London Wall, built by the Romans to surround Londinium, a piece of the Ancient World that we can see and feel. It’s an impressive history. And then we went to Rome. Suddenly I felt like Americans often do when going from New York to London. Right, now this is old. Two days after looking in wonder and imagination at a segment of the Wall of Londinium we were standing inside THE COLOSSEUM. It is a surreal experience, stepping back into big history. Rome is not insignificant in any sense. What have the Romans ever done for us? Rome is the father of London. They built our first London Bridge. So as a Londoner, as with many cities with Roman origins, coming here to Ancient Rome I felt a connection, and a sense of coming from the provinces to the capital.

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The most breathtaking site of all, of course, was the Colosseum. I first saw it from the plane, this huge oval amphitheatre, testament to the Roman love of spectacle, entertainment, power. Definitely power. There are species of animal that were brought to near-extinction by their use in the gladiatorial arena over the course of a millennium. It was a hot day when we went, but the crowds were not as impossible as we had imagined. Booking your tickets ahead of time makes a huge difference too. There is not a lot of shade in the main open area of the Colosseum, but in the passageways leading in, and in the areas with the history on display, it is much cooler around the old stones. I drew some old marbles (below). I didn’t sketch the inside of the Colosseum itself, due to time, sunlight, people, but I did draw it when we got outside. The sketch at the top of this post was done in the bare shade of a tree – there is not much shade in the grounds around the Colosseum either. That sketch includes the Arch of Constantine – oh, nice arch, wonder what it is, I said. This arch inspired the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, Marble Arch in London, and the Siegestor in Munich, so it’s kind of important. As I sketched I noticed a car nearby with a couple of people taking notes and making reports. Undercover police, for sure, keeping an eye out for anything out of the ordinary. There were a fair number of cops on patrol, and the road leading up to the Colosseum was blocked by a couple of armoured vehicles, positioned to prevent a random vehicle speeding towards it. There were a lot of those around the main sites and piazzas in Rome, which was reassuring. You always have to be watchful and mindful everywhere, always, but I felt quite safe in Rome.
Colosseum Marbles sm
After an exhausting and thirsty walk around the Colosseum, gladiatorial spectacles swimming through our imaginations, we had lunch and then walked over to the Forum. The grounds of the Forum are huge, filled with ruins and rubble and centuries of stories. We didn’t stay too long, for my son’s feet were starting to get Rome-fatigue, but I did a quick sketch of this structure that reminded me of cricket stumps. Owzat! This place bowled me over, hitting me for six, and I don’t know any other cricket terms so we’ll leave it at that. We wanted to visit the Palatine Hill, but the day was getting away from us, and we had an appointment to go to the Gladiator School, which was a short and expensive (yeah, we were ripped off) taxi ride from the Colosseum (and again, future Rome visitors, don’t bother with the Gladiator School, it was a waste of time and a waste of money). The Forum though, that is somewhere I want to return to, with a sketchbook (and a lot of sunscreen).
Roman Forum sm
I did walk back down to this area the next day though, while la famiglia rested up at the apartment. I wanted to draw Trajan’s Column, standing above the ruins of the ancient Trajan’s Forum. Emperor Trajan was one of the greatest of all Roman leaders, being one of the Five Good Emperors (that would be a good name for a soul band). Under Trajan, the Roman Empire reached its greatest extent. It was his son Hadrian, also a Good Emperor, who decided to start building walls around it such as the one in the north of Britannia. Trajan’s Column dates from about 113 AD and is decorated in a spiraling relief  of Trajan’s victories against the Dacians (I do not know how many times I said the crap joke “phew, that’s a relief” while in Rome but it was a lot, it was definitely a lot). The statue on top is of St. Peter; the statue of Trajan that used to be on top was lost in the Middle Ages (bloody Time Bandits). The large dome behind is of the church called “Chiesa Santissimo Nome di Maria al Foro Traiano”. This took the best part of two hours to sketch; I kept stopping and speaking to those people who come up and try to sell you little trinkets and stuff, or going to watch the marching army band outside the huge Il Vittoriano, which was opposite, across the Via dei Fori Imperiali.
Trajan's Forum sm

“Silenzio! Grazie!”

Pantheon sm
I expected more cats. I had never been to Rome before, but I had always heard that there were cats everywhere, lounging among the ruins and darting between the columns. I remember in fact my first trip to Venice, seeing lots of cats around the doorways of churches, presumably looking for the church mice. But I didn’t see any, not a single one. I must have spent all my time admiring all the amazing ancient architecture or paranoidly perusing all the people as potential pickpickets, or maybe some alternative alliterative activity, but I found far fewer felines than foreseen. Funny, huh. I did see two dogs though, who ended up in this sketch of the Pantheon, which may be one of the most amazingly built and well-preserved building s of the ancient world, and it was right next to my apartment. I could see the top of the dome from my bedroom window. The Pantheon – which translates to “all the gods” – was built by the Romans around 125 AD, on top of a previous Pantheon which was destroyed by fire. The reason it is in such great shape and is so well preserved from ancient times is that is has been in pretty much continual use since then. After the Roman Empire became Christian, this great pantheon to all the Roman gods and goddesses – Jupiter, Mars, Juno, and so on – was eventually converted and consecrated into a church. The ancient dome itself, however, is one of my favourite pieces of architecture. The Romans were experts at concrete to a level that we have been barely able to match since, and they built this massive and perfect structure out of an especially light but strong mixture.  It is still the largest unreinforced concrete dome in the world.

I like to sketch early in the morning on my trips to other countries, especially in tourist-big cities like Rome. So I woke up before la famiglia Scully, went out into the bright morning, and sketched the Pantheon from across the Piazza. Morning people were out and about, delivering goods to cafes and stores, jogging in groups and lycra, the occasional jetlagged tourist out with a camera and a coffee to go (don’t eat or drink on the steps of the fountain though, they will move you on), or locals out for a morning stroll, stopping to chat with other locals about the daily news, calcio, dogfood, I don’t know, however conversations work, I’m not good at them. This was one of those sketches that, yes, I enjoyed sketching this building, I’ve always wanted to go there, but what I remember is the experience more than worrying about the finished product. This sketch then becomes a record of me spending a little time watching Rome, seeing how it works. As you can see from my description I clearly understand it fully. (Shrugs shoulders). After this, I found a local cafe and brought lovely Italian pastries back up to la famiglia for breakfast. I love Italy in the mornings.

Pantheon INT sm

From the outside the Pantheon looks fairly small, ancient yes but otherwise not a particularly special building, but the interior is what really excites all the senses. Seeing that ancient dome from the inside, wit the large perfect oculus in the centre, pouring in light, is just as exhilarating as I expected. We went inside much later in the day, after the doors had opened. Outside tourists and locals mingled, street performers danced, a large choir sang “Fading Like A Flower” by Roxette (a song I never hear in America but used reminds me of those European trips I took as a teenager). We were tired from a morning spent in Ancient Rome (the Colosseum was incredible!) and an afternoon down at the Gladiator School outside the centre (by the way, families visiting Rome, do not bother with the Gladiator School, an immense waste of time and money). I had been preparing to sketch the inside of the Pantheon for a long time, studying how other sketchers had tackled this amazing building, even going as far as drawing lines on a sheet of plastic to help visualize things, but I forgot the plastic and it wouldn’t have helped anyway. Better to trust my own eyes. I did not do a complete sketch with all the details but stood there drawing while la famiglia walked around and looked at things. I would have liked to have added a touch of paint and shown the circle of light coming in from the oculus, but we were tired. It reminded me a little of the Crystal Chamber, the Great Conjunction, the Skeksis and the Mystics combining into the UrSkeks, and why does everything remind me of the Dark Crystal? Seriously. It was busy in there, but I did see some of the royal tombs, where a couple of the previous Italian kings are buried, as well as that of Queen Margherita of Savoy, after whom the Margherita pizza is named.  My son had one of those the night before, and I ate lots of them when I was a kid on my first trip to Spain. But best of all were the announcements telling people to be quiet. The noise level was getting a little too cavernous, so a very loud “SHHHHH!!!!!!” played over a speaker. Everyone stopped dead in their tracks, eyes open, utterly silent, and then the same voice spoke “SILENZIO!”, followed by a pause, and then “Grazie!” It was a surreal experience and everybody stayed silent for a good while after that. As the chatter slowly grew, a few more less scolding messages of “Silenzio” came out in various languages from time to time. Each time, the chatter grew again. I thought back to my old junior school dinner hall, when the noise of chattering kids would echo around those hard floors, and this one dinner lady with a massive booming voice would bang this huge metal spoon against a table, banging so hard that the spoon was all bent, shouting “SHUUUUTTUUUUPPP!!!!!!!” I guess Rome does things a little different than Burnt Oak, but I expect the sentiment is the same.

andiamo all’italia!

ITALIA sm
Recently my family and I took a trip to Italy, spending six days in Rome and Venice. All my life I had wanted to go to Rome. I was starting to get worried that it would never be. So this year I decided that, somehow, I had to make it happen. Living on the Pacific coast of America makes it a little harder than when I lived in London, but I’d been teaching my son about the Romans and Italian football and watching the Rick Steves travel shows on YouTube (as well as old episodes of Gazzetta Football Italia). We had to go to Italy. I wanted to go everywhere – I’d love to see the South, and Sicily, but also Florence and Tuscany, and the Ligurian coast, and the Lake Country (so I could see where Attack of the Clones was filmed), and Milan to see the Cathedral and the San Siro, and Bologna and the smaller cities of the Po Valley, and of course Venice, one of my favourite places, which I had been to three times before, the last time being when my wife and I got engaged, fourteen years ago. Unfortunately I didn’t have a month and a half to fit all of this in, so we settled for three nights in Rome, and two in Venice, sandwiched into a trip back home to the family in London. I did a lot of sketching, and will post those here with a bit of travel story mixed in. I started a new sketchbook to take to Italy, a Stillman & Birn ‘Alpha’ book, and the first page of that is above – I drew the map of where we were going, and along the way I drew some of the things I drank or ate. I also collected many of the receipts and restaurant cards and what not along the way with the intention of sticking them into my sketchbook, but that always gives the books a couple of overly heavy pages, so I went the more fun route and drew them on the page instead. Haven’t done that in ages, it feels good.
Italy receipts etc
So do join me in the upcoming posts for a gelato or ten, and let’s wander through Roman piazzas and Venetian canals. Andiamo!
Early morning sketch of the Pantheon