A day of contrasts

I hiked to Tridente today to visit the Ara Pacis and the Mausoleum of Augustus. On the way, I took my little detour to visit Il Gesu.

Unfortunately, the Ara Pacis (Altar of Augustan Peace) is inaccessible due to galloping mounds of scaffolding that are impressive even by Italian standards. Richard Meier is apparently in the process of building a museum space for the Altar that he thinks Rome will finally appreciate. I'm not so confident, but I'll reserve judgement for now. In stark contrast to the flurry of activity at the Altar, the Mausoleum of Augustus next to it looks a bit bedraggled. The grounds are ill-kempt, and sitting as it does below the current ground level (the ancient ground level was about 4 meters lower), this burial place of the most powerful Roman emperor ever, looks small and insignificant. The marble and travertine cladding was pillaged in the Middle Ages, the remains removed, and the building subsequently renovated into a fortress and later into a theater / stadium. It's now surrounded by a square clearly designed by the Fascists, which is used primarly for a car park. The small park in which the Mausoleum sits serves primarly as a place where the homeless sleep and people let their dogs poop. This seems very, very disrespectful.

I climbed the Quirinal to Quatro Fontane and went inside of Borromini's church of San Carlos. The grey feeling that I had been carrying in my chest since visiting Augustus could not have found a more effective place to dissipate.


carlos' dome

My pictures can't do this tiny church justice - the feeling of height and light has to be experienced in person.

Next, walking along the via Nationale, I noticed that the church of San Vitale was open, which is rare. I went down the flight of stairs (this ancient church is about 3 meters below the current street level), and paused briefly in front of the immaculately carved doors before heading inside. Inside the church felt comfortable in a way that neither Il Geso nor San Carlos had. The ceiling was coffered with huge but simple wooden beams, and unlike the Il Gesu -- which was opulent to the extreme -- San Vitale does not have any noticeable expanses of marble verneer. In fact, the walls are painted with lovely trompe l'oeil renderings of pilasters and columns and of all the precious marble cladding and ornamentation that this church lacks. It felt a bit like the church had been decorated with the ancient equivalent of Formica and Linoleum, but I liked it - it felt like home.

I finished my day off with a stroll behind the Palatine to San Gregorio Magno, then across the Aventine, and down to the Pyramid of Cestius and Testaccio before heading home.


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