Thursday, April 26, 2012

Natale di Roma

In Italian the word natale (nah-TAH-lay) means “day of birth” (though when capitalized it means Christmas, short for Natale di Gesù).  Legend puts the founding of Rome on April 21,  753 BC, so last weekend there were events to remember the natale di Roma, culminating with a parade on Sunday featuring historic recreations of Romans from the time of the Empire and earlier.  

An event that has been occurring every April 21st for about 1900 years, whether anyone was aware of it or not, demonstrates one apparent function of the Pantheon, which was built by the emperor Hadrian in the first quarter of the second century AD.  On that day the sun shining through the oculus projects a beam through the doorway and out into the entry porch.  At noon the brilliant, focused solar spotlight just grazes the underside of the doorway and the sides of the entry passage, and in imperial times illuminated the emperor as he arrived at the Pantheon to commemorate the founding day. 
The unmistakeable Pantheon dome. 
Theory and practice for the April 21st noon sunbeam.  The drawing comes from here.

Another free event last Saturday was a multi-hour military band concert performed in the newly refurbished Piazza d. San Silvestro, just off the Via del Corso.  It was a pleasant, sunny spot, and it was fun to see and hear the different bands:  The Penitentiary Police, the Navy, the Air Force, the Carabinieri, and the Guardia di Finanza.  Here are pictures of the first four, with a video clip of the Navy band marching in.  (The music directors among you may find their finish interesting.)  They were the best, in our opinion, though the Carabinieri clearly won in the uniform contest.  The music selections ranged from classic Sousa and other military marches through Italian opera (Aida, William Tell), Neapolitan favorites, and even a bit of “Jesus Christ, Superstar.”  All of us in the older generation sat comfortably around the piazza while small children used some of the open space for impromptu dancing and military strutting to the music.

The Penitentiary Police Band

 Above and below, the Navy Band.
(If the video is missing or won't play, go to this YouTube link.)

The Air Force Band

The Carabinieri Band.
Below, check out those uniforms!

About noon on Sunday the big parade got underway from the Circus Maximus, passing near the Bocca della Verità circling clockwise around the Palatine and Capitoline hills, along the Via dei Fori Imperiali, and on past the Colosseum.  There were about fifty groups participating—possibly a thousand people—who came from all over Italy and much of Europe, including several Roman Legion re-enactment groups from Great Britain.  I didn’t see Romulus (or his slain brother Remus), but a goddess or two and a few representations of early tribes showed up.  Most of the marchers portrayed military legionaries from the later Republic and Imperial Rome, but there were also many women in groups dressed as Vestal Virgins, Roman matrons or dancers.  A fair number of senators were there as well, plus several of the emperors themselves.  Along with a few representative photos I’ve included a short video to give a feel for the parade.  (If the video is missing or won’t play for you, go to this YouTube link.)

The parade was led by this goddess, the personification of Roma.

Many marchers bore authentic Roman military gear.

Here's a video sample.  Those are the Sybilline prophecies at the end of the first segment.
  Click here if the video is missing.

Vestal Virgins

Roman Matrons


Above and below, a Patrician's funeral.  There were ululating mourners, too.

From early in Rome's history, Etruscans.
More goddesses, secondo me.

Two lictors bearing fasces accompany an imperial personage.
The emperor Hadrian and his wife Vibia Sabina.


Some had an easy time with the parade route.
Others didn't seem quite so pleased.

A dopo,

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Dolci di Pasqua

In Italy, the Christian holy day of Easter (Pasqua) is the source of many traditions both religious and cultural.  And when I say cultural, I mean food.  And when I say food, I really mean sweets, dolci.  Oh yes, there are the customary fish during Lent and lamb for Easter dinner and even the savory cheese-flavored bread known as pizza pasquale.  But for weeks leading up to Easter the two vital food items in bakeries, pastry shops and grocery stores are chocolate eggs and the sweet and eggy yeast bread called colomba.

The Trastevere shop Innocenzi has window after window
of commercial chocolate and other candy for the season.

Commercial confection companies have saturated the western world with chocolate eggs (and bunnies and chickens), but in Italy there is an older tradition of handmade (fatto a mano) dark chocolate eggs, often with a prize inside (con una sorpresa!).  They are to be found in pastry shops (pasticcerie) all over the country this time of year and range from simple eggs that will fit in a hand to enormous creations a meter high (over 3 feet) with elaborate decorations in piped-on icing or chocolate.   Many include salutations such as Buona Pasqua (Happy Easter) or Auguri (Best Wishes, appropriate even for pagans celebrating primavera–Spring).

These eggs were for sale in the BIO market,
made with organically-grown and fair-trade materials.

The upscale pasticceria Dagnino near Piazza Repubblica
has tempting uova in many styles.

More Easter offerings from Dagnino, including lambs made of marzipan.

Eggs fatto a casa (made in house) at Barberini.

The Trastevere pasticceria Valzani displays un'abbondanza di cioccolato.
The egg below is almost a meter tall and includes a painting of Roman ruins by the sea.

Colomba is the Italian word for dove, the bird associated with carrying an olive branch of peace and adopted as a symbol for the holy spirit by the Church.  The colomba bread now ubiquitous in shops in Italy is similar to Christmas panettone but is shaped from five lobes of dough to resemble a dove.  It often has a very thin, meringue-like top crust sprinkled with crunchy sugar nuggets and sliced almonds (mandorle).  The interior can be plain or studded with chunks of candied fruit, or these days even have chocolate chips.

The somewhat dove-shaped colomba, outside and in.  This one was from Pasticceria Barberini.

Beautifully wrapped Colombe tempt passersby

Colomba in various sizes at Pasticceria Barberini.
Below, our choice.

In the interests of research we have sampled  colomba, pizza pasquale (both savory and sweet), and various forms of chocolate eggs.  The colomba was delicious, and the Lindt foil-wrapped eggs, too.  We’re eagerly awaiting Sunday so we can find out what sorpresa is hiding in our big chocolate egg.

Uovo di cioccolato fondente (dark chocolate egg)
from Pasticceria Barberini in Testaccio.

Sunday, April 1, 2012


Aqueducts are among ancient Rome’s best-known engineering successes due largely to the beautifully rhythmic arcades and bridges that still stand in France, Spain, Italy and elsewhere.  Symmetry, scale and pleasing geometry make them eye-catching and memorable, and the ruinous sections can be romantic and historically evocative.  But there is much more to aqueducts than you might think.  For one thing, without the abundant water supplied by them, Rome itself would not have been able to support its million-plus population.  The legacy of that abundant water remains today in the form of both decorative and utilitarian fountains everywhere in the city.  The Trevi Fountain is one among many that publicly celebrate the arrival of an aqueduct. 

After spending an afternoon in Rome’s Parco degli Acquedotti, the park of the aqueducts, and taking a guided tour of a usually inaccessible section a bit closer to the city, I was motivated to find out more.

The Aqua Claudia in Parco degli Acquedotti

Toward the end of the Imperial era, say 300 AD, the city of Rome was served by about a dozen aqueducts (acquedotti), the oldest dating from 312 BC and the last completed in 226 AD.  Until they were cut in 510 AD by besieging barbarians, they supplied more water than the city needed, allowing for abundant public fountains and bath complexes and expansive private gardens.  If you know where to look it is possible to find remaining bits of those ancient constructions throughout the city, a few arches here, some foundations there, or even more recent aqueducts piggy-backed onto ones from the Empire.

Remains of the aqueduct supplying the Palatine Hill.

Most of Rome’s water came (and still comes) from springs in the hills to the east, also the source of the River Aniene (or Anio in Latin) that joins the Tiber north of the city.  Many of the water conduits followed similar paths and entered from the same southeast corner of town after following circuitous paths of as much as 90 km (54 miles).  Astonishingly, for most of that distance the aqueducts were in underground passages dug by hand and lined with stone and waterproof plaster or concrete.  Only for the final 10 or 15 km (6-10 miles) did the channels emerge from the earth and proceed across the plain on arcades as the ground elevation fell away toward the River Tiber. 

Routes of ancient Rome's 11 major aqueducts.

The most spectacular aqueduct in the parco is called the Aqua Claudia, begun by Caligula in 38 AD and finished under Claudius in about 52 AD.  Though many of the arches are now broken, there are still long, continuous arcades, and while impressive from a distance (they’re easy to see from the train line toward Naples), their true magnitude only becomes apparent when a person stands right against a pillar.  This was the tallest of the ancient aqueducts and arrived in Rome high enough above the ground to serve all the regions of the city and delivered nearly 50 million gallons of water a day.  But thinking big, a second aqueduct channel was built at about the same time, known as the Anio Novus, with a source even farther up in the hills, giving another 50 million gallons a day of even cooler, purer water.  Once it emerged from the ground it was routed atop the Aqua Claudia to save building another arcade.  The Anio Novus channel can be seen above the Aqua Claudia where the arches have broken.  When in use the channel had a roof, though both channels were vented to free air.

Views of the Aqua Claudia/Anio Novus arcades.  The two stacked channels are quite apparent.

The Aqua Claudia, now much higher as it gets closer to the city.
Below,  Roberto and Cinzia reveal how big the pillars are.

Two channels can be seen within a broken arch.
The Aqua Claudia is below, the Anio Novus above.
The upper channel would have been deeper and covered when in use.

Another set of arches seems to climb out of the ground in the parco, though of course really the ground is dropping away.  This was once the Aqua Marcia, much older—140 BC— and said by ancient authors to have had the best water of all.  It also came from high in the hills, traveled about 90 km, and supplied about 50 million gallons a day.   Channels for two other much shorter aqueducts, the Aqua Tepula and Aqua Giulia, were later piggybacked atop the Aqua Marcia, and hints of those can be seen in a few places.  But driven right through the old structures is a much more recent aqueduct, the Acqua Felice, which takes its title from the given name of Pope Sixtus V, Felice Peretti.  In 1586 he built the first new acquedotto in Rome in 13 centuries.  The Felice is still in operation, so its arcade continues uninterrupted, getting taller as it goes.

Remnants of Aquae Marcia, Tepula and Giulia at right.
Emerging at left is Acqua Felice, the 16th-century interloper.
Small concrete pyramids like the one here mark the course of the aqueduct when it is buried.

The arches of Aqua Marcia slowly rise from the earth.  Four channels can be discerned.

The still-active Acqua Felice aqueduct has been tapped to feed a small pond.

Aqua Claudia in the background.

Sighting through a section of the Aqua Marcia.
Acqua Felice disappears toward Rome in the background and below.

At the northern end of the Parco degli Acquedotti the ancient Aqua Claudia and the Aqua Marcia cross paths, and when they do, the 16th-century intruder Acqua Felice shifts over and starts using the Claudia arches instead as it continues into Rome.  A well-preserved stretch of full-height arcading remains a few kilometers down the road near Via Tuscolano in what is a usually-closed private park area owned by the Bank of Italy.  (Access is tightly controlled because located there is the facility where used currency is destroyed, and many millions of Euros may be on site at any time.)  Recently I was able to join a rare guided tour of this aqueduct section thanks to FAI (Fondo Ambiente Italiano), a group dedicated to preserving Italy’s patrimony.  Here the Acqua Felice bores right through the old Aqua Claudia pillars and the repairs done to strengthen it by Hadrian.  A medieval-era house that had been built into one of the arches also fell victim to the Acqua Felice as it burrowed right through the main living level.

A large surviving section of aqueduct on Bank of Italy property.
The red brick in the arches represent repairs and strengthening done by Hadrian.

The 16th-century Acqua Felice bores through the old pillars.
Below, a medieval house built into one of the arches
now has the Felice channel driven through its living level.  The
other side of the house can be seen in the lower photo.

The Acqua Felice announces its arrival in Rome at the Moses Fountain.
The inscription above ensures that everyone gives proper credit to Pope Sixtus V.

For me the wonder of these aqueducts lies not only in their longevity and suggestive beauty but equally in the sophisticated engineering they evince.  Here are problems that Roman engineers had to solve:

1. After selecting the mountainside water source and the end of the line in Rome, determine the difference in elevation between them.

2. Decide on the desired overall slope of the aqueduct balancing the need to keep it always flowing downhill but not flowing so fast that the force can blow apart the structures.  The Anio Novus for example drops 330 meters (1082 feet) so in theory might develop about 1000 psi at the bottom if it ran straight downhill.  So it meanders enough to add friction and to reduce the slope to less than a half inch down in ten feet of travel (0.38%).

3. Survey a path for the water channel using little more than sticks and plumb-lines aligned by eye and mechanical levels, with three quarters of the channel underground, that will result in the desired length and slope overall.

4. Dig perhaps 40 miles of ditch and tunnel using iron and bronze tools following the planned route and slope, then line it all with stone where necessary and waterproof it with hydraulic cement. 

5. Build many miles of stone arcades to carry the aqueduct the last stretch into the city, maintaining the necessary gradient.  (This includes quarrying, shaping and moving thousands of tons of stone to the building site.)

The model shows the reusable wooden centering
 used to support the masonry arch during construction.

6. Add settling tanks, interconnect channels, distribution towers, piping and thousands of fountains and outlets, each with a device to control the rate of flow.

The more I think about it the more awed I am by the accomplishments.  And in some ways building the long lines of arches that we marvel at seems like the easiest task in that list.