We met on the Tiber Island today for another intense walking lecture with Dr. Antonella De Michelis. The Tiber Island is home to the Sant Bartolomeo Church on it’s southern point and to a hospital (the best neo-natal hospital in town – all the celebrities come to have their babies here…) on its northern tip. The last Roman King – Tarquin the Proud – was expelled from the city and sheaves of wheat from his former stores were thrown into the Tiber, where they accumulated with the deposition of silt from the Tiber and eventually formed the Island. The island is actually part of the geology of the Capitoline Hill and Ancient Roman legend notes that this was the site where Aesculapius – the God of Medicine and Healing – came ashore (in the form of a great snake) and ended a plague that was, well, plaguing the city at the time. Ancient re-constructions of the original temple on the island show that part of the complex was fashioned as the prow of a ship – complete with relief carvings of Aesculapius (wavy locks blowing in the wind) holding a staff entwined with s snake. Part of that travertine ruin is still on the island today.
The Island is linked by the Ponte Fabricio – which connects it to the Campus Martius and the Jewish Ghetto, and also by the Ponte Cestio – which links to Trastevere – where the students have their residences. San Bartolomeo is 10th century – and it’s here where we met to begin our afternoon. The lecture took us through the Jewish Ghetto to the spectacular ruins of the Portico Ottavia – the oldest 4 sided portico in Rome – built by Augustus. It was stunning and incredibly atmospheric; a heavy rain had just ended and the sun had come out through the clouds. It felt (at least to me) that we were walking through – and in – a colorized version of one of Piranesi’s views of Rome. We continued through the Jewish Ghetto (Note to self: must sample 150 year old generational bakery for biscuits and ricotta-cake – recipes that have been documented in 16th and 17th century texts and are sold an an un-named bakery known to locals as… wait for it… “The Bakery.”) We learned how to forensically dissect and understand buildings and their contexts in order to understand how layers or meaning can be understood from and through space. We learned about the layered and fascinating history of the Jewish Ghetto through generations of continuity of social and cultural practice and the spatial implications of those traditions – still alive and flourishing in the city today. We continued through to the beautiful courtyards of the Centro Studi Americani (think John Soane’s Museum – except in Italy… and free of charge), then navigated (with some Nolli maps of course) to the Balbi Crypt to end our day – a terrific museum, designed to document the layers of history still apparent in the city – from antiquity, through the medieval, modern (which includes the Renaissance, by the way) and contemporary (Think Scarpa – except in Rome… and if Scarpa had material from 19BC to work with…). We’re going to parallel this visit with a stop at San Clemente in a couple of weeks to see more layers of city – beginning with the ruins of a Mithraic temple.
To top off our palimpsest-filled afternoon, I found a Shawarma place (“The Falafel King”) where I had dinner – just behind the Vatican – to add a gastronomic dimension to our palimpsest love-in in Rome.