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Access Rome, 8th Edition
There is -- as usual -- a wonderful myth attached to the founding of the City of Rome. According to the ancient legend, twins, Romulus and Remus, were born to the Princess Rhea Silvia and Mars, God of War. The babies were abandoned on the banks of the River Tiber, rescued by a she-wolf, and raised as her own. Romulus grew up to kill his brother in a jealous fight and founded the City of Rome in 753BC before mysteriously disappearing -- taken back by the gods, according to the tale. Every year modern Romans honor the 21st of April as being the date of the founding of the city, usually with earnest speeches about how to deal with the city's pollution, traffic, and inadequate transportation system. But when the celebration turns serious it is performed in a truly Roman fashion, worthy of the city that was once the center of the known world. Toward dusk a special brigade of firefighters with torches spreads out along the rooftops of Capitoline Hill and lights hundreds of Roman dish candles. Gradually the outlines of the buildings on the Capitoline and Michelangelo's grand staircase leading up to the Campidoglio shimmer in flickering flames. And near midnight throngs swarm the bridges over the Tiber and watch fireworks burst in the sky.
Around the time of Romulus, the area just north of Capitoline Hill was the site of the advanced Etruscan city-states that dominated central Italy. Inland to the east were tough Sabine and Latin shepherding tribes; to the south were sophisticated Greek colonial towns like Naples and Paestum. It was the fusion of their energies -- before they all variously went to war with and against each other -- that caused Rome to develop from a tiny trading post on the Tiber to a populous city. Eventually it became an empire that extended from Armenia in the east to Spain in the west, from Egypt in the south to Scotland in the north. With the growth of commerce, progressively bigger and grander markets and meeting places were needed: The Foro Romano (Roman Forum) had its beginnings in the seventh century BC and led (geographically and historically) to the last and largest -- the Foro di Traiano (Trajan's Forum), with its more than 150 shops, fountains, and covered walkways.
The next few centuries were tempestuous times, marked by the remarkable expansion of the Roman Empire and the increasing power and wealth of its emperors, who built their sumptuous homes atop Palatine Hill (from which the word palace derives). During this era, the Pantheon was erected; it is the most perfectly preserved of Rome's ancient structures, and the sight of its floodlit columns at night is unforgettable. These early centuries were also a time of religious conflict between those who remained faithful to the traditional gods and the followers of the new Christian religion. In spite of their persecution, these converts not only triumphed but made Rome their capital. The history of Christianity can be traced here, from the humble catacombs of the Appian Way to the power and glory of Vatican City.
Almost five centuries after the birth of Christ, the Roman Empire, a victim of its own success (and excess), collapsed into unattended rubble, danger, and disease. The once grand forums reverted to pasture land, the Colosseo (Colosseum) became a wool factory, and the triumphal arches and columns of the emperors were ground into marble dust. The city's population dropped drastically. Rome slumbered until about the 14th century, when the papacy returned here from its exile in Avignon. Then, as the city awoke, defensive walls were reinforced and aqueducts restored. The more than 200 towers that were constructed during this period testified to the presence of soldiers ready and able to defend Rome (when not feuding with each other) from outsiders.
Rome's full flowering occurred in the Renaissance of the 15th and 16th centuries. Ancient racetracks were transformed into piazzas -- Piazza San Pietro (St. Peter's Square) and Piazza Navona, for example -- as Michelangelo and later Bernini, under the patronage of the popes, redesigned the city's public spaces and ancient buildings to create new masterpieces. Such painters and sculptors as Raphael and Caravaggio became the interior decorators for cardinals and princes. Today, much of Western civilization's rich heritage of art and architecture can be found in Rome's museums, churches, and excavations.
A walk through Rome's Centro Storico is a splendid journey through the ages. When strolling through the center you'll pass effortlessly from classical ruins to early Christian churches; past medieval brickwork and Renaissance villas into splendid Baroque piazzas and Art Nouveau quarters. One of the greatest charms of Rome is to stumble upon a piece of Roman wall incorporated into a Renaissance palace or a Baroque fountain in the courtyard of a very modern hotel. Such juxtapositions have made travelers through the ages feel as if they have stepped into a time warp.
On most days in Rome you can shop for artichokes in the outdoor market at Campo de' Fiori or buy designer clothes in chic emporiums on Via dei Condotti; people-watch for the price of an espresso at the outdoor cafés in Piazza del Popolo or go for broke at an elegant rooftop restaurant overlooking the Roman Forum; walk hand-in-hand around the Colosseum in the moonlight or dance the night away in a New Wave disco on Via Veneto. All of this is possible because Rome has ensured her survival by transforming herself with each new epoch -- without ever giving up her past. This, more than anything, has earned her the title "The Eternal City."Access Rome, 8th Edition. Copyright © by Richard Saul Wurman. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.