When I was 8-years old and most girls were decorating their bedroom walls with posters of Leonardo DiCaprio, I was busy ogling thick textbooks filled with images of sinewy, mostly-shirtless pharaohs. This childhood interest of mine was not at all helped by the release of the Dreamworks animated film The Prince of Egypt that same year which was similarly filled with plenty of cartoon biceps. And as a little girl, it made sense to me that I should aspire to be Evelyn O’Connell in The Mummy (1999) and nab myself a sort of walking Curse Bae with regenerating abs who wants to make-out a little and maybe sacrifice you in some kind of ancient ritual or whatever. I’m not sure why Evie didn’t go for that, personally.
Deliver us from your thirst trap, Ramses
So when I learned in school about the existence of an Egyptian pharaoh that was my age, I totally thought I had some kind of chance here–despite the fact he’d been dead for 3,000 years or so. But what’s a minor inconvenience in love, right? King Tut was my boy king! Unfortunately, my Catholic school girl self was in for a rude awakening on just how hot this dream barge probably was. Hold on to your chariots, folks!
Pollice Verso (Thumbs Down) by Jean-Leon Gerome 1824-1904
The image of a Roman gladiator’s fate being decided by a thumbs up or down is iconic–one that can be recalled in many Hollywood films including Ridley Scott’s Gladiator and the famous painting Pollice Verso by Jean-Leon Gerome. Many may find themselves familiar with the painting but might not know that the image above became the basis for our pop culture idea of a crowd of plebeians jeering and viciously stabbing their thumbs downward– signaling that they wished for the defeated gladiator to pay for his loss in combat with his life. It is also where Ridley Scott drew his inspiration while directing his movie epic, blessing us with one of the best Joaquin Phoenix performances before Joker danced his way down a flight of stairs.
But, like most beliefs cribbed from famous works–this one turned up false.
If one were to find themselves judging the outcome of a gladiatorial match in a Roman arena (look, I don’t know your life), it might be helpful to know that if you were to signal with a thumbs up that everything is cool and kosher and you totally don’t wish any ill-will towards the defeated combatant–you might be that idiot screaming in surprise when the loser ends up spurting blood everywhere because your poor judgment resulted in his swift execution. You just sentenced that dude to death, man!
According to Anthony Corbeill, Classics Historian and author of works such as Nature Embodied: Gesture in Ancient Rome, whomever was in charge of administering the judgment of death over the defeated combatant would use ‘the hostile thumb’ or infesto pollice and that it would have been turned upward rather than down.  We learn this from 1st c. AD orator/teacher Quintillian who wrote that:
“Even in the fierce arena the conquered gladiator has hope, although the crowd threatens with its hostile thumb.” – Quintilian, Book 11 Institutio Oratoria 
We have a couple of reasons to suspect what this would look like–there are a few examples in Roman works that describe orators using certain gestures that were thought of as somewhat obscene. This hostile thumb was also described by Apuleius in his aptly named Golden Ass “like an orator, shutting in the two lowest fingers, extending the rest straight out, and beginning calmly with the infesto pollice.”  Naturally, this sort of position would suggest the thumb would be pointing upwards rather than down. Go ahead and try it the wrong way–I’ll wait. Quintilian often remarks on orators who speak with an uplifted hand being rather fond of using the hostile thumb as well–similar to those who enjoy ‘flipping the bird’ which is another gesture that was well in use in the Roman Empire. Both the thumbs up and the middle finger represent phallic imagery and aren’t thought of as particularly kind things to do with one’s hand, least of all one that would denote mercy.
“…numerous examples attest to gestural language outlasting spoken language.” – A. Corbeill, Thumbs in Ancient Rome: ‘Pollex’ As Index. 
Interestingly, there’s a great deal of thought and attention in Roman writings put on the power of the thumb. In possibly the most Italian thing ever, the common belief in Rome was that gestures contained a stable essence. Many Roman writers waxed poetic on the thumb (pollex) and were quick to point out the similarity with another Latin word pollet which meant “has power”. Roman writer Macrobius believed the thumb had moral superiority over the other fingers like it was some sentient, Twitter hashtag activist simply because it didn’t take as kindly to ornamentation. Methinks Macrobius simply never found a decent thumb ring. Other writers thought the thumb held power and sway over the remaining fingers by this virtue alone. Some weirdos thought the thumb was somehow connected to sexual organs and thus had regenerative powers because that makes a whole lot of sense. But not as much sense as Pliny the Elder who prescribes the right thumb of a virgin in curing someone of epileptic shock. Basically, Romans were crazy about their thumbs and, oddly, the rest of the ancient world was pretty sure that the thumb was simply connected to the hand. You know, like a normal finger ought to be. 
“…the thumb, either as the primary agent or acting by itself, has complete control over grasping and controlling, as if it were the guide and moderator of all things.” – Lactantius 
With this kind of obsession, and it stands to reason that gestures survive in cultural context better than verbal language does, it should be no surprise that throughout the timeline of Italian history, there are mentions of an erect thumb pointing at objects or people as one of scorn–from Dante’s Renaissance all the way up to the 20th century–some form of the Hostile Thumb lived on. It’s not even uncommon in other neighboring countries to view the ‘thumbs up’ as a sexually offensive one and it wasn’t until World War II and the influx of American G.I.’s that the cross-contamination of the gesture changed in Italy. 
So if you wanted to save a gladiator, what gesture would you use?
Medaillon de Cavillargues – The inscription reads STANTES MISSI which means ‘released standing’. Depicting an act of mercy for both combatants signaled with a closed fist type gesture. 
Remember that the thumb has otherworldly powers, especially over the other fingers. There’s a whole thing from Pliny the Elder which discusses a ‘well-wishing’ thumb exists in proverb where one means to show approval when pressing down the thumb on something, like a hand or upon an enclosed fist. Because these are the Romans we’re talking about, of course pressing the thumb on things held a power in and of itself. Pressing a thumb on things might even cure you of pains and other ailments, and certainly pressing your thumb on your fist would save the life of a gladiator in the arena who maybe lost the fight because he ate too much garum sauce and was a bit sickly. Let him fight another day!
“Raising the hands and closing the fists, therefore, were expressions of power capable to concede life.” Michel de Montaigne 
Now, since we’ve gotten this far, I’m sure most of you are well and myth-busted and smartly know that the thumbs up is an ancient signal for death in the gladiatorial arena. For those left feeling a little skeptical still (I get it, magical thumbs are weird) I’d ask you to think on another well-known gesture you are already familiar with that similarly employs the hostile thumb.
How about the “You’re dead” gesture, cutting the throat with a thumbs up like a sword?
Yeaaaaaah–maybe rethink your thumbs ladies and plebes.
Fact Check it, yo!
Corbeill, A. “THUMBS IN ANCIENT ROME: ‘POLLEX’ AS INDEX.” Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome, vol. 42, 1997, pp. 1–21. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/4238745.
The Colosseum should just be renamed ‘The Vomitorium’ so people finally get it.
Nothing makes me want to hurl more than oft repeated historical misunderstandings. ‘Christopher Columbus discovered America’ is a saying that forces me to eat copious amounts of cake to feel sane, hearing “Napoleon Bonaparte was really short” and I can be seen adding glasses of wine to the mix, and listening to another geographical wizard exclaim that “Cleopatra was Egyptian” and now I’m trying to find the nearest room to chuck it all up in–which if I were living in the Roman Empire would be convenient, right? Except they didn’t actually have a room for this as is popularly believed.
An illustration found in The Washington Post before Google existed.
‘Vomitorium’ sounds like one of those words one could easily decipher. It’s Latin and clearly using the root word for ‘vomit’ and ‘orium’–so a functional place to vomit. The mind puzzles over what exactly a ‘vomit place’ could be and knowing the extravagant splendor of Roman indulgences of the elite class–wouldn’t it make sense that in between all of those supposed orgies, Emperor assassinations, and dishes slathered with garum sauce, the Romans would require a room in which to purge their feast-ly contents just so they could go back to eating and partying anew?
Sure, if there was any evidence of it.
Unfortunately, the reality of what a ‘vomitorium’ actually is amounts to a much more mundane truth. The term does derive from the same root of the word vomit, in this case “to spew forth” which is exactly what the function of a vomitorium serves as, just not in keeping a toga party raging until dawn. In Roman amphitheatres and stadiums, it became necessary to create a passage way in which a large crowd of people could leave as quickly and efficiently as possible–exactly like the contents of a stomach after consuming those questionably cooked fish tacos from last night. When you’re a civilization of bread and circuses, evacuating a stadium like projectile pea soup ala The Exorcist certainly becomes a high priority in architectural ingenuity. 
Don’t even think about puking in me, culus
So where did this retched misconception come from other than a misunderstanding of architectural terminology and why did it continue to be hurled around as a ‘fun fact’ of Roman history? First, let’s start with the primary sources.
…but all naked and panting as they are, the instant they leave the bath they seize hold of large vessels filled with wine, to show of, as it were, their mighty powers, and so gulp down the whole of the contents only to vomit them up again the very next moment. This they will repeat, too, a second and even a third time, just as though they had only been begotten for the purpose of wasting wine, and as if that liquor could not be thrown away without having first passed through the human body. – Pliny the Elder on ‘Drunkenness’, BOOK XIV. THE NATURAL HISTORY OF THE FRUIT TREES. 
The usage of the word ‘vomitorium’ doesn’t appear until the 5th century AD when it is used by the Roman writer Macrobius in his work TheSaturnalia to describe these passageways in stadiums as being designed to ‘disgorge’ an audience from the venue. Seems as if the word itself should have been able to survive into modern times intact with its original meaning then, but instead it was muddled with other accounts and hurled together into the misconception it is today.  We can look at the works of Seneca the Younger, a lucrative philosopher of Stoicism (A philosophy also noted for it’s teachings in discipline and freedom of passions), in which he lambasted the indulgence of certain Roman’s in a letter to his mother Helvia where he metaphorically implied that “They vomit so they may eat and eat so that they may vomit.” which seems to have been taken as a literal source of evidence by later centuries of writers who believed this to prove the need of a purge room like the infamous ‘vomitorium’. 
Yo, Dickus Manickus–you gonna eat that?
This misunderstanding is not helped either by satirical works such as the Satyriconwhich scholars believe was written by Petronius, a courtier of Nero, in the 1st c. AD. Yeah, that guy of reputable shenanigans. Petronius describes a dinner celebration in which the patrons were not only busy fornicating in an orgy but also throwing up the contents of their feast. Even if this were a work of non-fiction, and one that would have been applied to a particularly abominable Emperor, he does not mention a specific room where these events would have supposedly taken place. Other writers such as Cassius Dio, Cicero, and Suetonius mention specific stories in which vomiting after excess had taken place (Julius Caesar was said to partake in purging antics) but, again, no mention of a puke room specifically. 
Sure, there is also Aulus Cornelius Celsus who recommends vomiting as a medicinal treatment where he suggests that “…after a dinner of many courses and many drinks of diluted wine a vomit is even advantageous” but continuing to clarify “When anything in the dinner is felt to disagree, he should provoke a vomit, repeating it the next day“. So this is not necessarily meant to suggest that one should be purging the contents of their dinner just so they could resume ingesting as much as they desire immediately after. Also, not to mention, Celsus is a practitioner of the imbalances of humors and prescribes vomiting to ease in the plethoric and bilious. And even then, he specifically states -“I allow that vomiting should not be practiced for the sake of luxury…no one who wants to keep well, and live to old age, should make it a daily habit.” So this supposed practice of binging and purging wasn’t exactly one that was encouraged either. 
Yet, despite ‘vomitorium’ clearly being used to describe architecture in its first usage and the lack of a ‘purge room’ being mentioned in sources detailing acts of vomiting among Romans, we get to the 20th century where Aldous Huxley publishes his novel Antic Hay in 1923 which serves as a comical narrative lampooning the lifestyle of exorbitance among the London elite.
“The door of his sacred boudoir was thrown rudely open, and there strode in, like a Goth into the elegant marble vomitorium of Petronius Arbiter…” Ch. 18 
It’s here that Huxley calls back to the Satyrion as mentioned earlier and applies the term ‘vomitorium’ incorrectly to the salacious acts of binging and purging described by Petronius. From here the association of a room in where Romans would purge their food and resume their feasts enters into the pop culture lexicon and Aldous Huxley is credited with creating a brave new world of alt-historical realities.  Almost one hundred years later and people are still regurgitating the same misconception–an idea further perpetuated by any clever writer who thinks the concept of a ‘vomitorium’ a sick one to include in their works or just passed around by people who heard it secondhand.
Clearly, the misuse of ‘vomitorium’ is about as contagious as the stomach flu. Let’s do us all a favor and keep the myth down so we don’t all get sick with a case of ‘being wrong’, yeah?
Partying it up Bacchus style
Fact check it, yo!
 Alice P. RADINFictitious Facts: The Case of the Vomitorium:
“Taking of Jerusalem by the Crusaders, 15th July 1099” Emile Signol (1847)
The 12th century AD was a murderously good time for anyone who was bored and looking for something to go kill in a far away land. Noble youths with unsatiated blood lust who had run out of best friends to kidnap and ransom finally found their calling. When Pope Urban II called for aid to the Byzantine Empire in the form of military ass-whuppery, many of these belligerent teenagers set off to reclaim the territory in Anatolia lost to those rando Seljuq Turks that had seemingly popped up out of nowhere on the world stage. While doing so, they thought–hey man, since we’re already down here and winning, why not shift our fratboy douchebaggery party hoppin’ on over to Jerusalem and just, like, wrestle it out of the hands of those rival Islamic bros and totally blow up their spot? Thus kicking off centuries of The Crusades lobbing that territory back and forth between blood baths and redrawn political landscapes that cause even the most healthy, history of the Middle Ages student a migraine as they attempt to make sense of the disjointed kingdoms and legacies that cropped up as a result.
Eleanor of Aquitaine with dat sass, yo
This was the era of key historical players who are famed for their role in these events. There was the showdown between Richard I the Lionheart and Saladin during the Third Crusade, Frederick Barbarossa was busy harassing the Italian states and making himself Holy Roman Emperor, Eleanor of Aquitaine was retaliating with a decent show of her own “game of thrones”. Genghis Khan was occupied uniting the Mongol tribes and gearing up for a casual, no big deal ride through Asia just to, you know, take in the scenery. The 12th century was rife with so many popes and kings and wars, it’s no wonder people’s imaginations light up when they think of the high middle ages–things were going down.
And so was Henry II of Champagne, incidentally, but he doesn’t know that quite yet.
Today is our last full day in Italy before we head back to the frozen tundra we stubbornly call home. As Venice is a beautiful, seaside city we wanted to soak up as much sunshine as we could.
But first, we ducked in to visit The Doge’s Palace not far from our hotel to start our day. The palace was built to house not only the Doge but the entire government–filled with senate and judicial chambers as well as a frighteningly cold prison.
The palace was also hosting a temporary exhibition featuring paintings and artwork from Venetian painter Canaletto as well as others. Canaletto was most famous for his stunning portraiture of Venice, so it was pretty cool to see what the city used to look like back in the 18th century compared to today.
Old Venice from Canaletto
New Venice, still pretty though!
We also got to view the palace’s extensive collection of armory and weaponry–I’ve honestly never seen so many swords, axes, and crossbows in one place before and I am a frequent player of video games.
It was time now to visit the prison. The excited feeling I had of momentarily stepping into a real life Pirates of the Caribbean quickly vanished as I realized how truly miserable these dungeons were. They were dank, cold, and lifeless. No window, no nothing–really. They were stone chambers reminiscent of Edmund Dantes’ vacation in Chateau d’If. Knowing that was to be one’s punishment upon misbehaving, I can’t understand why anyone would even bother.
After touring the palace, we thought we’d go island hopping for a bit. It was a gorgeous day out, despite the chilly breeze, and the piazza was otherwise packed with tourists. Before we caught our boat, we witnessed an irate Gondola driver chewing out two people who had just ridden with him–apparently they talked too much!
My mother was most excited to visit the island of Murano so that she could browse the glass shops. She was also hoping we could find a factory and see how it was made–my mom usually gets what she wants, so the universe answered in kind. Here’s a demonstration from a glass blower making a sculpture in 1-minute!
After cruising around the islands in the sun for awhile, I wanted to warm back up with my coffee from Caffe’ Florian. Casanova used to hang around there in particular because that’s where all the pretty ladies in Venice used to go–so I thought my mom and I better sit inside this time!
Chicken salad sandwich with Florian sauce!
The rest of our time in Venice was spent walking around and trying to commit the city to our memory forever. It really is a beautiful city and I’ve heard negative things about it from some people who insisted it smelled–honestly, I didn’t get that all. Though I had the impression we were visiting in the off-season and perhaps things don’t get as funk when it’s not summer time! Needless to say, Venice did not disappoint–I’d definitely love to come back again some day and explore!
Closing out the night, we visited a highly rated restaurant called Bistrot de Venice which specializes in showcasing traditional Venetian cuisines. I ordered Pasta & Goose, which includes pinenuts, raisins, goose sauce, rosemary, and sage. It’s a traditional dish born from the Jewish Ghetto in Venice around the 16th century.
They gave us these for desert!
It’s now time for me to head home–Italy will surely be missed. I know I’ll be back again soon someday, however. Thanks for following along with my adventures and I hope you stick around on my blog and continue to follow along with my adventures delving into various history topics–always with a good sense of humor, of course!
Ah, Venezia. Routinely named one of the most beautiful cities in the entire world and, from a historical standpoint, a consistent maritime trouble-maker. This little city filled with canals, gondolas, and a raging Carnivale was the birthplace and stomping ground of a lot of famous figures including explorer Marco Polo, composer Antonio Vivaldi, and Giacomo Casanova–a man not easily summed up in one noun.
Most of what I know of Venice had to do with their dastardly deed’s during the 4th Crusade in the 13th century when Enrico Dandolo was the doge. Crusading was the thing to do in this era, and when another bout of armies appeared in Venice with the intention of once again trying to wrestle for control over the holy site of Jerusalem–the Venetians commandeered The Crusading forces and convinced them to attack Zara, a rival and pirate port. Then, Enrico took a bribe from a grouchy son of a deposed emperor to overthrow his uncle, and the gang thus went ahead and sacked Constantinople too for giggles and moneys –all the while Pope Innocent III was shrieking alone in Rome like OH MY GOD THAT’S NOT WHAT I SAID!
Today, however, Venice appears a lot more calm and is bustling with tourists rather than wanna-be knights.
First thing we did after taking a water taxi through the Grand Canal and navigating our way through narrow streets to our hotel, was visit the Piazza San Marco which we are staying about a 2-minute walk away from. Looming over the plaza is St. Mark’s Basilica, which we were able to go inside to tour. Like with other religious sites we’ve visited in Italy before, photos and cell phones weren’t allowed. There are certainly many people who break these rules and I cringe whenever I see them doing it, even if they don’t get caught. I understand that we are all tourists, but there is something extra gross about running around a church which explicitly discourages photos and then trying to waltz around areas where only those intending to pray are allowed. Either way, I was able to take in the basilica and it’s decidedly Byzantine aesthetic–the inside was covered head to toe with golden mosaics you’ll have to simply dream about (or do a Google Image search in the hopes of one of those rule breakers having posted them, I guess). Also, the basilica houses the relics of St. Mark. I sure do love me some relics and doing a Histastrophe post on them one day is still on my extensive backlog list of ‘to-dos’.
Also to be found in the same area is a place I’ve been excited to visit for year’s as a coffee connoisseur–the world’s oldest coffeehouse, Caffe’ Florian!
Built in 1720, (It’s older than the United States of America, yo!) Caffe’ Florian became the coffee hangout spot of Casanova, Lord Byron, Proust, and even Charles Dickens. I’ve always wanted to sit at these tables and sip a coffee–hoping to catch even a little bit of the inspiration these guys had!
I went with hot chocolate today—coffee tomorrow!
While we were sitting on the patio at Caffe’ Florian, enjoying a violin and piano concerto, a sudden storm cloud blew threw and high winds with rain ended up cascading through the piazza, scattering everyone–including the merchants! We had flirted with the idea of taking a boat ride to Murano island today but had opted to save that for tomorrow and we were glad we did! With the now rainy and chilly night ahead of us, we decided to rough it out as much as we could walking the cobbled streets and grabbing dinner at a nearby pizzeria.
Most of the shops we encountered were tourist traps with the same repeating souvenirs everywhere you looked and redundant leather shops carrying similar stock. I started to understand pretty quickly why local Venetians hate tourists so much. I understand the appeal of souvenirs, but when literally every shop carries them–there is little in the way of the actual history and culture of Venice present. I want to see how the Venetians live, but I’m starting to realize perhaps they don’t even exist in these areas which is even sadder to me.
We did walk by a few residential places, which from what we’ve heard, is extremely expensive on this island–but the only indication of life seemed to be small boats tied up in the Canal with personalized decals like one we saw with the caped crusader, Batman.
Perfectly golden espresso for dessert!
Tomorrow, we have plan’s to visit the Doge’s palace and hop on a boat to explore the islands!
Today is our last day in Florence and I think we’re all good and stuffed with Art History now! We started our day with the usual espresso (make that like 4 espresso) and croissant while we planned our attack route of as much of Florence as we could squeeze in. One of the first places we wanted to hit up today was the Piazzale de Michaelangelo so we could get our panoramic view of the city. It was fairly quiet today as it was in the low 60’s and overcast with wind–didn’t seem like many people were up for venturing out. To us, we knew it could be way, way worse outside (like -50 degrees worse, Hi Minnesota) so we made it work. We were able to take in the view without much interruption from other fellow tourists.
Next, we took a tour bus up to visit the site of Fiesole–now a spot up in the hills overlooking Florence with tons of villas I’d kill to own one day. Back in yesteryears, however, Fiesole used to be a sassy little Etruscan stronghold that struggled to resist the Romans as long as it could, getting sacked and razed by those imperial scoundrels and then again by the Byzantines and lastly by Florence itself, which squashed Fiesole into submission and used it as a quarry. The site still consists of well preserved Roman ruins, especially an amphitheater, but our tour bus only stopped and allowed us 20 minutes to get off–a laughably short time just long enough to find a bathroom and walk back.
Here is the main Piazza Mino though
It was pretty cold up in the mountains anyway and we were starting to eye up those Firenze scarves every kiosk was selling, so we didn’t exactly mind heading back down and off to our next stop. Before we met up at the Pitti Palace, we grabbed an Italian style hotdog for lunch.
Okay, now THIS is the best hot dog I’ve ever had
Now on to the Pitti Palace (still free–I love Cultural Week), the largest museum in Florence. It’s a Renaissance building that was originally constructed (mostly) by a fellow banker and friend of The Medici, Luca Pitti. After he died before it had been completed, one of his descendants Eleanora and wife to Grand Duke Cosimo I de’Medici (Descendent from Lorenzo “the Magnificent” Medici on his mother’s side and Caterina Sfroza on his father’s–fanning myself here.) took over the palace.
Cosimo of really cool genes
The Medici Family eventually all moved in and expanded the structure as well as including the Boboli Gardens which you can catch a small glimpse of below:
Once all The Medici died out, the palace passed to the Hapsburg-Lorraine line and became Holy Roman Emperor Francis I’s new treasure trove. Things got fun for a bit when Napoleon showed up, and then it eventually fell into the hands of the Savoy House and was finally donated to Florence by King Victor Emmanuel III where it is now an art museum, costume gallery/fashion exhibit, treasure room, and royal apartment wing.
I need to own every single one of these
Medici Coffer—I imagine it held a lot of moolah
By the time we managed to claw our way out of exhibits of animal-inspired dresses by famous fashion designers, rooms filled with with all kinds of treasures I started to feel like Aladdin in the Cave of Wonders, and rooms lined with paintings entirely reminiscent of Versailles–we realized we were losing daylight fast. We knew we had just enough time to make one more stop, the big one in Florence.
On our way, we crossed the Ponte Vecchio–the oldest bridge in Florence supposedly first built during Roman times and rebuilt subsequently after continuous flooding when the Arno kept destroying it. It’s extremely cool to walk along the merchant shops and see the clearly Medieval influence in their build. Most of the shops were jewelers or gold sellers so we spent a considerable amount of time gawking at the displays wishing that we were Medici so that we could be able to afford such purchases and start our own treasure room back home!
And finally, we found him:
On the menu for dinner tonight was the Bistecca Florentine, a cuisine speciality. It was amazingly juicy and the sear was perfection–I’m definitely down with steak the Florence way. It came with a salad which consisted of fresh tomato, artichoke, corn, and olives and I have honestly never had better. We also had Tuscan bread dipped in olive oil but that goes without saying.
The first thing one notices when stepping off the train tracks and into Florence is that it is quite a bit more young looking than Rome. I have to say, it took me a bit to re-adjust to the era change like I similarly do when I’m in a specific History headspace when writing–I found myself yearning for those crumbling ancient ruins and was mildly resentful that I couldn’t keep enjoying my petty Roman Emperors and the marks of their shenanigans all over Rome. But, of course, Florence is every bit as magical in its own way.
The city was made famous by a handful of powerful figures–a few of them having been a part of the House of Medici, the noble and influential family which held sway in Florence for centuries. They were bankers and became wealthy enough to exert their control in governance. While ruling Florence, they also spent their exuberant wealth on the arts, becoming the prime patrons of some of the most famous artists of the Italian Renaissance. This included the likes of Michaelangelo, Raphael, Donatello, and Leonardo da Vinci–so thanks a lot, guys! Florence is also the city of famous scientist and astronomer, Galileo Galilei, as well as noted writer Dante Alighieri of The Inferno. And let us not also forget our often misrepresented and criminally referenced Niccolo Machiavelli of The Prince fame. It is readily accepted that because of these later two,among other works of the era, the Florentine dialect became what we know of today as Italian. Okay, add birthplace of the modern Italian language to Florence’s moniker too, I guess.
Since half of our day was spent traveling to Florence, we missed out on a large portion of touring time and opted to jump in immediately with all of the above historical figures by paying them a visit at the Basilica of Santa Croce where most of these famous men are entombed.
Galileo G—darnit, now Bohemian Rhapsody is stuck in my head.
Machiavelli, being so much less flashy
Similar to the feeling I had when walking among the catacombs of the Vatican, I could feel an energy in this room too–but instead of power, I felt the weight and force of creativity each of these men possessed–be it in writing, painting/sculpting, scientific discoveries, or political pursuits. I felt minuscule in a much different way, with that sense of having not quite accomplished enough in my own passions to be able to stand confidently among them. The rest of the intrigue for Santa Croce is in its museums and religious paintings!
Reconstructed after the Arno flooded in 1966 and damaged the painting to what looked like beyond repair
After we were finished paying a visit to some of Florence’s most famous residents, we decided to try free walking it to the Doumo since we could see it poking out above the buildings. On the way, we learned that the Museo Nazionale del Bargello was still open for another hour, so we stopped in quick (it’s still free!) We learned after the fact that the Bargello used to be a prison and that many executions were carried out in the courtyard. The same courtyard I flounced around in with my camera with a merry smile on my face because I assumed it was some stuffy rich guy’s Medieval castle.
Nope, deaths happened here
Today it is an art museum and houses sculptures from Michaelangelo, Donatello, Cellini, Bernini, and Verrocchio. I’m not very good about taking pictures of artwork, preferring to enjoy them in person as much as I can–but I am nothing if not predictable, and I couldn’t leave without recording these:
This bust of Michaelangelo will serve as a stern reminder to get writing when I am feeling extra procrastinate-y
By the time we made it to The Duomo it was getting dark and we just missed seeing the Statue of David by a few minutes. We’ll try and catch him again tomorrow.
Oh, and of course, on the menu for today:
There is espresso under here I promise!
Melon and prosciutto, my fave
For tomorrow, we continue with another day in Florence where we will attempt to tackle David, seek out the Medici, and find me some ruins to explore!
Today is the day we force my mother to atone for her sins which include waking my brother and I up for school by turning on the lights and leaving them on for over 10 years and for never understanding any of our obscure movie references. My mom always likes to say she is a good Catholic girl (I’m laughing along with the rest of you who know her well, don’t worry) so it was particularly exciting to continue her pilgrimage from last year where she received mass at Notre Dame to stepping into the Vatican itself–the holy capital of the Catholic Church and residence of the Pope.
We took an Uber since it looked like a bit too much of a walk to the Vatican City first thing in the morning sans coffee, so we enjoyed a pleasant little ride with our driver who told us about Queen Margherita when we passed the US Embassy. The location used to be the residence of her and her husband King Umberto according to our driver, and the famous margherita pizza was named after her because she had requested pizza in the colors of the Italian flag–basil, mozzarella, and tomato sauce. How true this is, I’m not exactly sure–but it certainly sounded cool to hear on International Women’s Day!
We planned in advance and booked a skip the line guided tour which we were very thankful for having done, because even though we are not visiting during the peak season (which we heard can see up to 28,000 people in one day–yikes) it was still very busy and the lines outside were incredibly long. Before getting started, however, we quickly filled up with a quick breakfast Italian style–espresso and a hazelnut croissant!
Our tour guide for the Vatican was a stylish and sassy Italian woman named Alessandra who is everything I want to be in the next 20 years. She got a degree in history and spends her free time leading tourists through a whirlwind romp of the Vatican museums cracking jokes and dishing on the sex lives of Raphael and Cleopatra to name a few, stopping for 10 minute espresso breaks, dodging Sistine Chapels guards so she can break the silence rules like a devil-may-care rebel, and topping the whole tour off by waving us into the Vatican so she could go get herself a bottle of wine. She’s my new role model. I need to get my dual-Italian citizenship so I can live that kind of hardcore history life.
Once inside, there is a fountain with fresh spring water that has been blessed by Pope Francis himself. I took a drink hoping to gain immortality or something, so that remains to be seen if it worked or not. See you in the year always and forever.
Next we toured around in the Vactican museums, ogling Medieval paintings with lapis lazuli and getting a crash course in refresher Christian history. Alessandra routinely opened the floor to questions to see if any of us knew the answers, and I got to show off a little if any of it overlapped with any prior knowledge I already had like why Peter was crucified (he wasn’t Roman, Caracalla was a douche and a half but at least he made everyone Roman and thus rendering crucification moot) or why he was buried upside down (because he didn’t believe he was worthy to die in the same way Jesus did, especially given that he had denied him). Or what led Constantine the Great to converting himself and subsequently the Roman Empire to Christianity (he had a vision, yo!). Other new tidbits we learned, however, included poor San Lorenzo who was executed via BBQ and is now the patron saint of cooks–but hey at least he gets to live on in eternity in paintings sporting a halo and the very grill that killed him.
Then we walked through the cartography room which was positively my favorite–I’ve always been a huge fan of maps, especially ones which have been painted to take up entire walls, and can easily spend hours inspecting every detail and location. My brain likes to visualize historical events by points of interest as well, so looking at a huge map for more than 10 minutes ends up turning into a History of the World for me. If there wasn’t tons of people packed along the halls and Alessandra wasn’t also eager to get her afternoon espresso dose, I could have spent all day there. Essentially, every region of the Italian Papal States and their territories were represented on those walls with a compass–and served as an early precursor to Google Maps.
My family hails from the Calabrian region!
Next, we made our way to the Sistine Chapel–the legendary commission of Michaelangelo which served as a back and forth headache between the church and artist integrity. Michaelangelo wasn’t about to go into that forced modesty thing and put any fig leaves over any private parts, and there is certainly many of that to go around in the chapel–which, unfortunately, I can’t show you. No pictures are allowed to be taken–which didn’t stop people from trying and prompted Alessandra to bark at them to cut it out and to not use flash because it can damage the art work (Seriously, she’s a hero). Suffice it to say, the Sistine Chapel is an experience everyone should have at one point in their life and I am unable to show you any of it here so you better get out there and make plans to see it for yourself!
The Holy Door, only opened during Jubilee. Pilgrims are able to wash away their sins when opened but otherwise the portal on the other side is encased in cement which can only be broken by the Pope.
We had to say goodbye to Alessandra (wine awaited, I understand) and so we headed on into the church of the Vatican and–holy opulence–the place is so massive and so grand, I definitely understood how different Christian sects in history rose up and started to complain about that (more on that later).
After I was done staring slack-jawed at the altar, we turned around and headed into the catacombs where we could spot the tomb of Peter (THE Peter, you know, Jesus’ numbero uno bro supreme, The Rock, the first Pope, etc. etc.) That was a wild experience. Unfortunately, another instance where pictures were absolutely not allowed but I will forever have his tomb seared into my brain. Among the catacombs are many other great Popes as well, the whole place felt like it was teeming with power and historical remanence.
Here is a small part of Peter’s Tomb from top level!
After looking at all those centuries old dead guys, we got super hungry and had to stop for a quick lunch before hitting Rome up again and chasing down the remainder of The Forums.
Artichoke the Rome way!
I’m a baptized Catholic but I eat meat on Friday’s during lent, whoops!
By the time we got to The Forums it was 5pm our time and they were unfortunately closed. Bummersville. We decided to walk up the small portion that happened to still be open and free and that’s when I started to notice the Stations of the Cross as we walked and realized, “We’re not in Ancient Rome anymore.”
At the top of the Palatine Hill is a church dedicated to Bonaventura–a Franciscan and philosopher–as well as a monastery where another famous Saint Leonard of Port Maurice resided. As with all things unplanned, we stumbled upon this little church and happened into a small, intimate tour with a volunteer who was excited to show us around the church and tell us more about its history. We learned that Saint Leonard was responsible for saving the Colosseum from further destruction when he consecrated it as a church. There is a glass mosaic dedicated to this event inside the chapel as well as a holy relic of Bonaventura himself. We were able to go inside and tour a little bit of the church itself and see where the friars who still live there today hang out.
Franciscans may live modestly, but I’m pretty sure they have the best view of them all. I might have to give up my dream of becoming Alessandra one day and instead live the life of a tranquil friar in Rome.
Tiber River feels
In fact, I thought a lot about what it would be like to live here–what it must feel like to walk into a building called home with old, chiseled Latin in the doorframe. To start the day with a morning jog around the Circus Maximus, or to drink espresso with book in hand on a rooftop garden overlooking a piazza below. What does it feel like to walk down a street every day and witness the time lapse of multiple centuries down a single block?
Circus Maximus with The Forum backdrop
Before getting dinner and tucking in for the night where we’ll head to Florence in the morning, we tried to visit the Mouth of Truth but suffered the same problem as The Forum. It was closed. Apparently, Truth only has a certain window of time to be evaluated. Either way, I blame Audrey Hepburn for this somehow.
For dinner, we feasted on linguine with seafood and lobster–look at this insanity!
And finished it off with delicious tiramisu from Pompi!
I’m seriously contemplating hanging it all up and staying here forever, guys, just so I can eat tiramisu and gelato for eternity and bask in the glory of Roman History.
3 days was certainly not enough, but hey–Florence awaits!
Today is a brand new day in Rome and I woke up determined to tackle as much as I could. Unfortunately, my dad didn’t feel like getting up for another few hours–my mom likes to say this is because “he’s old.” We eventually made our way without a cornetto and cafe’–too late in the day now to justify ordering one as lunch menus were being put out on the sidewalk instead. We decided to try and continue our tour of the Palatine Hill area where we left off at the Colosseum yesterday. We made the mistake of wandering into The Forum with our ticket while still on empty stomachs, and I put in a very hangry mile before I insisted we stop and eat something instead. We’ll be back to The Forum to finish it out tomorrow–it’s all free!
Among the ruins of aqueducts and living quarters lies the ancient seat of the Roman Empire. The Senate and birth of The Republic resided here too as well as temples built during the old kingdom (including the remnants of the Vestal Virgin house where the women inside were tasked with keeping the flame of Rome lit). We managed to spot the Circus Maximus from afar–picture chariot races and, well, mass Christian persecutions because Nero is a terrible person.
With my tummy grumbling, it was 2pm when we finally made it back up to living civilization and turned off on the corner to visit Angelino–a restaurant I had the pleasure of experiencing the last time I was in Rome. We grabbed a table outside on the terrace where we could look out at more remains of the old Forum as we ate. We ordered a specialty ‘Angelino’ antipasti for the table and I got myself a plate of Cacio e Pepe as I’m determined to make my way through dishes of Roman cuisine!
Oh, and since it is technically winter here in Rome (but as I reside in the polar vortex of Minnesota, I find this distinction laughable) we were told to get hot chocolate here as the Italian version is much better than anything we have back home in America. And, I’ll say right now having tried some in Rome, much better than Angelina’s in Paris (which was fantastic too) but this stuff is no joke.
With pasta and chocolate in my belly, my body was able to momentarily forget that I hadn’t had the required 5 cups of coffee I typically consume in the morning to start my day, and we were on our way again!
Since we had the evening free, I proposed a small walking touring to some other historical spots not far from our hotel before we ate some more. (Most of the day spent in Rome seems to be dedicated to killing time before the next meal here because the food IS SO GOOD. 😘👌🏼) I took us back through the alley past the Trevi Fountain and off in the direction I thought The Pantheon to be located.
It wasn’t far before the telltale sign of Corinthian columns jutting up to the sky confirmed that we had stumbled upon Hadrian’s other famous contribution to Roman history aside from his walls in the UK to his deification of boytoy Antinous–The Pantheon. It’s a Roman Temple which was built over a much older one that had presumably been destroyed in a fire and was filled with statues of the Roman gods–supposedly dedicated to all of them which is highly unusual if true, as most temples had a single deity to worship to at the time. Much more of a personal touch assured to be more successful if you’re begging Mars specifically to come down and gut your neighbor Vinnius for eating up all your garum sauce.
Inside, however, The Pantheon is much different than what the old Romans had been used to. Sometime in the 7th century, the Byzantine Emperor gave it away to the Pope in Rome at the time and he converted it into a church. Now you can find crucifixes and altars inside as well as other Christian iconography. Victor Emmanuel, the first king of a unified Italy, is also entombed inside.
Also on the list of Classical Roman things that have since been turned into Christian churches are the remains of the bathhouse of Emperor Nero. I had them marked on my map and when we walked by them, I got a good long chuckle when I saw what had eventually become of them. There is a great irony here for a man who had once blamed the fires in Rome and summarily executed a group of people who now had the sweetest revenge on his legacy–building a church on what little remained of his bathhouse ruins. Now we were on the hunt for dinner and famous gelato (another recommendation from Ileana!)
Pasquino, a talking statue in Rome. Tradition is to attach criticisms at its base (nor there is a board next to it to leave notes). I had a lot of catching up to do…
Not far from the statue was a restaurant we were all but ushered into by the friendly servers, and I was finally able to try some fried artichoke the Jewish way and chicken Saltimbocca the Roman way!
And last but not least, some gelato from Frigidarium. The greatest tragedy yet is knowing that nothing like it exists even remarkably similar to it back home.
Underneath this heavenly mound of chocolate (which Rome appears to have in plenty supply) are cherries and white chocolate and fudge and…
Alright, now to fall into the blissful tranquility of a sugary coma. Tomorrow, we see if my mother says a naughty word at The Vatican like she “accidentally” managed at Notre Dame.