A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

Another travelogue from Italy. This stop: the Colosseum, Forum, and Capitoline Museum.

Arch of TitusI was shoved by mobs of French, German, and Japanese tourists; directed to stand in four different lines half a mile apart from each other; accosted by pushy tour guides offering tours of the Colosseum in two different languages; and nearly run over by a police car chasing a pickpocket.

Okay, maybe it wasn’t funny. Guess you had to be there.

I’d said that I was surrounded by hordes of tourists everywhere I went in Italy, but the Colosseum is where they all seemed to converge. Now, I’d decided up front that I was going to be in full-on tourist mode for this trip: not only was I going mainly to check off the sights I’d been wanting to see ever since I was a kid, but when you’re in a foreign country, sticking to the tourist areas is usually the least hassle.

Every tour guide or travel book scoffs at tourist traps, gives tips on how to avoid touristy areas and how (supposedly) to “live like a local.” That used to be my thing when I was younger, but I just don’t get that attitude anymore. If I want to live like a local, I’m not going to get that in a few days or even a couple of weeks. Besides, I’m on vacation; I can live like a local back home. When I go to Rome, I want to gawk at the Colosseum or the Forum and take pictures of crumbling buildings and statues without really understanding their significance and I want to eat a lot of overpriced ice cream.

It’s overwhelmingly evident that I’m not the first person to discover this enormous building of antiquity, so why would I want to pretend that I were? If I were delusional enough to believe that I was the first guy to stumble onto the Pantheon, then I wouldn’t need to go on vacation at all. I could just sit in my living room and pretend I was in Pompeii or, for that matter, Yavin 4. (Come on, admit it: you’ve wanted to go there ever since that first shot of the temple). So hooray for tourists!

Except for the crowds. Buying a ticket to wander around a ruined building doesn’t break the illusion of travel adventure all that badly; waiting in line to buy a ticket definitely does. And in the case of the Colosseum, it just shatters any sense of history or even of place. It’s now the architectural and archeological equivalent of the Mona Lisa: it’s no longer appealing on its own merits; it’s become nothing more than a thing you go to see.

The museum at the top does a remarkable job of trying to put everything into context: it focuses on Vespasian’s life and his rule, shows a bit of the history of Rome up to the Colosseum’s construction and its use, offers reconstructions of how the building looked while it was in use, and presents archeological findings (like the remains of animals killed during exhibitions). It’s a noble attempt, but in the end, it’s all overwhelmed by its status as a tourist attraction.

The Forum and Palatine Hill have kind of the opposite problem: it’s a wealth of stuff without any real context. Especially if you visit it second (and you’re tired of walking), you’re left to just trudge through with a vague understanding that you’re somewhere Very Ancient and Important, but without enough information to get your bearings. In my case, this was the point where my feet had finally decided they’d had enough and kept threatening to just stop working altogether. So I was left to just stumble over cobblestones and ruins and snap pictures of every column, arch, and statue I saw with the hopes that I could piece together their significance afterwards. The end result is like looking at pictures in a textbook or travel guide: neat, but does it mean anything?

On the other hand, The Capitoline Museum, on the Campidoglio above the Roman Forum, is something I hadn’t even known existed before this trip. For me, it was one of the highlights of Rome. It’s a large but not overwhelming museum (only one side was open; the other was closed for renovation), and it was my first exposure to the kind of ostentatiousness you get when you combine Europe, time, and lots and lots of money. Most of the rooms were less like walking through a museum than wandering through a palace: enormous paintings on the walls, chandeliers and ceilings with elaborate detail work, and the ability to see priceless sculptures up close, just standing in the center of the room as if they were incidental decoration.

There’s a more modern section of the museum as well, the highlight being a beautifully-designed space added to house the equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius that used to stand outside in the plaza.

At the time I was there, there was a temporary exhibition of medieval religious art, including some amazing illuminated texts and hymnals. Photographs weren’t allowed, but imagine a bunch of pictures of Mary and lots of gold leaf, and you get the idea.

Unrelated, but while I’m thinking of it: another highlight of Rome was an exhibition of woodcuts by Hiroshige at the Museo del Corso. It was an exhaustive collection that was really well done; I got the impression it’s a traveling exhibition, so if it comes your way (or if you’re in Rome) I’d highly recommend it.

More pictures are up on my Flickr site: The Capitoline Museum, and The Colosseum and Forum. To get the full effect, use your preferred method of making yourself salty and moist all over, stick your feet into hives of angry hornets, and have foreigners shove you at random intervals.