Bernini, Caravaggio, Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi, Fontana dell'Aqua Felice, Fontana delle Tartarughe, Italian Sparrow, Monk Parakeet, Ostia Antica, Piazza del Popolo, Piazza Minerva, Piazzale delle Corporazioni, Roman Fauna, Roman statuary, Rome, Terme dei Sette Sapienti, Vittorio Emanuele monument
Open a typical guidebook covering Rome and you will be tempted by a city offering riches to the archaeologist and the gourmand; the classicist and the believer; the artist and the tippler. The writing style is understandably enthusiastic, if somewhat optimistic. My ‘Rough guide’ suggests at one point, a day itinerary taking in the Colosseum, the Forum and Capitoline Hill -before lunch! [Followed by visits to the Trevi Fountain, Spanish Steps, Ara Pacis and the Galleria Borghese before a well-deserved dinner…] This pace could kill you and leave you with memories too blurred to recall a day later. Either severely edit your list of target sights, or give yourself more than just the few days usually accorded a city break. Rome isn’t simply a town, it is cultural immersion chamber. I was fortunate to have ten complete days to devote to the experience and this proved insufficient.
I drew up outline plans for the holiday well in advance. Pre-booking tickets for the main attractions online before arrival by-passes the queues. I had a list of churches and galleries holding artworks by Michelangelo Merisi and Bernini with which to map a trail across the city and this mission proved to be a highlight, though a partially occluded one, as a touring Caravaggio exhibition had borrowed several of his works from the city’s palace collections. Genius is a sadly over-used term; its worth degraded by application to sportsmen, clothes designers and celebrity presenters. It should be reserved for the very few. Caravaggio is one of that small number. Galleria Borghese had retained the magnificent “Madonna and Child with St. Anne (Dei Palafrenieri)”. A detail from this painting helps illustrate my theme animal life to be found in the cultural fabric of ‘the Eternal City’.
Once in the city, one thread which began to run in parallel with my route-finding from one pre-planned point of interest to another was the prominence given to the depiction of fauna across Rome. By this I do not mean equestrian statuary, that is a staple of most large Western cities [though on the steps of the Vittorio Emanuele monument you will find the final word on this genre in the gigantic centrepiece on the stairs above the eternal flame. The people on the balcony behind the statue give some sense of scale].
I am writing of animals, often of an ‘exotic’ [non-indigenous] nature which populate the city today in artistic representation. Here are a few images which might be used for an alternative ‘itinerary on a theme’ which might help take you away from the crowds wielding selfie sticks and placing themselves centre-stage –with their backs to their chosen subject of interest.
Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi
Start at the Piazza Navona and its central Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi. You have a horse of course; here provided by Bernini, so it’s a good one. It forms part of the tableau representing the Danube.
But it is the Nile which presents us with two more interesting beasts; a gloriously malevolent generic snake and a wonderful crocodile, which looks like an elephant wearing plates of armour. Something sculpted on heresay rather more than from direct observation.
Citizens under the empire would have seen crocodiles at first hand of course, as well as a host of other animals, imported into the city from across its territories. Rhinos, giraffes and a variety of big cats were all used as sacrifice to the crowd’s blood lust at ‘games’ held at the Colosseum.
Ostia Antica: Roman Port
At Ostia Antica, once Rome’s port at the mouth of the Tiber and now a wonderfully preserved town, there is a square, Piazzale delle Corporazioni, where shipping merchants, responsible for the city’s supplies, kept headquarters.
They advertised their specific business by location and commodity in mosaic form, on the floors in front of their premises. Several show animals which they would be able to import to order; deer and boar from Europe and elephants from Africa.
Baths of Neptune
In the public baths dedicated to Neptune, a variety of fish and dolphins [in a style taken up by the entire western world], swim across the mosaic floor in the company of men and Neptune himself. Look carefully and there is also a captivating lobster walking across the floor.
Terme dei Sette Sapienti
Further along in the Terme dei Sette Sapienti, or, Baths of the Seven Sages, easily identifiable depictions of deer, tiger and bear comprise some of the wide variety of the quarry in an elaborate, swirling composition showing a hunting scene.
Piazza del Popolo
Much of the animal importation of African origin would have used the Nile as its channel into the interior. As well as live tigers and lions, the Romans also transported artefacts to the empire’s centre. I lost count of the number of obelisks in Rome; they can be found in St. Peter’s Square, Piazza Minerva, in front of the Pantheon; in the centre of Piazza del Popolo. The latter, Obelisko Flamino is guarded by the four impressive Egyptian lions of the Fontana dei Leoni.
Fontana dell’Aqua Felice
Egyptian Lions also guard Fontana dell’Aqua Felice across town, disgorging water in a more nonchalantly sideways manner.
Elephant and Obelisk: Piazza Minerva
The Roman preoccupation with exotic creatures did not end with the decline of Roman Empire. Perhaps the most endearing sculpture in all Rome is another elephant, this one of Baroque origin. A pachyderm supports an Egyptian obelisk on its back at the Piazza Minerva. Rather than sculpt a conventional ‘elephant and castle’ with the animal facing forward in a conventional manner, Bernini carves his elephant looking over its left shoulder as it rubs its flank with its trunk, lending the piece a beautifully realistic movement.
The Fontana delle Tartarughe
The Fontana delle Tartarughe, in its original design presents us with four dolphin/fish forms; each used as footstools. There were four more in the original design but were replaced by the turtles we see today. If the attribution of these additions to Bernini is accurate, and if Wikipedia is correct, they may have been cast from actual living turtles. [This begs the question; Did he cast from an actual elephant for his Minerva statue?]
I never managed to connect my visits to the private contemporary art galleries around the Pantheon area to their opening times, but many keep their shutters up in the evening and allow a view through the windows.
The Roman preoccupation with the classical nude persists; here keeping company not with angels, but with a row of Yellow Legged Gulls which now reside in numbers along the Tiber. [alas, I was unable to see any signature]
If you connected these few locations together, the walk would offer you encounters with many of the more high profile sites of interest in Rome -it is that kind of city. Interests overlap and one’s attention is often diverted by something unexpected, which requires just a little of your time away from your original mission. I only encountered the Fontana dell’Aqua Felice lions because I had to see St. Theresa experiencing ecstasy in the nearby church of Santa Maria della Vittoria.
Keep your eyes out too for the living fauna around you. You will not be alone as you take up Rome’s offerings. Yes, that is an Italian Sparrow bathing in the River Plate in Piazza Navona and those are Monk Parakeets feeding outside the Ostia Antica museum.