Currently the posts are filtered by: December 1
Reset this filter to see all posts.

A trip to the Port of Trajan, outside Rome


We were lucky to get into the area of the old Port of Trajan, just south of Fiumicino airport. The website states that it is “open” between 9am and 1pm on the first Saturday and last Sunday of the month, and gives a Google map with a pin stuck in it close to the Parco Leonardo railway station. So we took a train there, on the first Saturday of the month, and arrived shortly after nine thirty. No museum in sight. I rang the number and was told that the guided tour had already begun, that there was no way we could join, that in any case a prior booking was necessary. We could come back on the last Sunday of the month. “No,” I said, “you don’t understand. I’ve NEVER been in Rome on the right day of the month before. This time I am! It’s my only chance! We really want to join the group. Tell us where they are!” We set off on foot, along the busy Via Portuense, with the prospect of several kilometres to go, narrowly missing being flattened by trucks. Then a godsend: a man stopped and gave us a lift. The entrance gate was just under a motorway flyover (marked A on the map). By extraordinary good fortune, the tour was just inside the gate, inspecting the remains of what had once been a portico fronting a line of granaries belonging to the old Port of Claudius.

The ports were laid out here in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD, first by Claudius and then by Trajan. The sea has retreated some three or so kilometres west since then, and most of the area has dried out or been drained, but some of the old contours remain. The grain stores, though overgrown with weeds, still clearly retain parts of their old flooring, built up on brick stilts known as suspensurae, a device designed to minimise damp.

Suspensurae in the floor of an old warehouse


Claudius’ port was, in its heyday, the largest in the Mediterranean, with 800m of wharf. But it was unsheltered and very vulnerable to storms. In AD 62, for example, 200 ships at anchor were wrecked in a gale. The complex was altered, with a new harbour further inland, by Trajan. We left the Claudian area by means of a short colonnaded street (B), with a double enfilade of chubby travertine columns running up it. On one side we were shown a brick archway filled in with bricks arranged in the crosswise opus reticulatum pattern. The archway was never open, the guide explained. It was placed there to give greater strength, to direct the downward thrust of the wall outward to the buttressing piers on either side, at a point where there is no stable ground directly underneath. We were also shown two pieces of fallen travertine column. One of them, a capital, had two iron pegs sticking out of its underside. It was with these that the capital was fixed to the block below it, but with a “glue” of molten lead, which was poured in along specially cut runnels (shown in the next illustration). Lead, unlike iron, has a certain amount of elasticity, which can better withstand seismic shocks.

View of the colonnaded street
Load-distributing arch
Capital with iron fixing pegs
Block with square hole for fixing peg and runnel for molten lead


At the end of the colonnaded street we turned right, to the site of the old Darsena, Trajan’s inner harbour (C). There is little to see now but a reed-filled marsh, but at one side the stone harbour wall can be seen. Analysis of the warehouses that stood alongside this harbour has shown that the stores of marble, the heaviest item to move, were—perfectly logically—placed closest to the dock. On the further side were warehouses that had possibly held grain, or some other commodity sensitive to damp, since the walls had been coated in a layer of pozzolana, a waterproof cement made from a mixture of lime and volcanic ash.

View of the Darsena


From here we walked out onto a broad, flat path, grass-grown now—though once it had been filled with water, for this was the channel (D) that linked the old Port of Claudius with the hexagonal Port of Trajan. It is wide enough for several ships to have passed along it at once. At its far end we could see the remains of large warehouses (E). We turned past them, onto a narrower path (F), again once a water channel linking the harbour complex with the Fossa Traiana, the canal that Trajan dug to link his port to the Tiber.

We were all impatient to see the famous hexagonal port, but there was wildlife to be admired: a herd of fallow deer; enormous funghi that were erupting from the soil practically before our eyes; a long black-and-yellow chequered snake; and scatterings of porcupine quills. The land is a bit unkempt. Much of it belongs to the Torlonia family. It could be a magnificent park, if time, energy, money and enthusiasm could be found…

Part of the hexagonal basin is flanked by warehouses of the Severan period, probably built during the reign of Antoninus Pius. It was possible to climb onto a sort of viewing platform, to get a glimpse of the basin (G). But the view from the ground is nothing compared to the sight of it that you have from the air, when flying from Fiumicino. This huge six-sided harbour has always been full of water. In the Middle Ages it was stocked with fish. No one is sure why a hexagonal shape was chosen. The information board at the site was non-committal. Our guide was keener on the more interesting story: that it was the work of the great genius Apollodorus of Damascus, the architect who designed the Markets of Trajan in the Imperial Fora. That he chose a hexagon because the ripples caused by ships moving into it would create “echo-waves” coming from the side, which would meet the outgoing wave and effectively cancel it out. We experimented with this at home, with a six-sided container but, sadly, managed to prove nothing. The tour was long, but very interesting. Today, as Blue Guide Rome so aptly puts it, most overseas traffic to Rome still docks here: the airport of Fiumicino could not be located in a more appropriate spot.

 

Information for visitors:

Open on the first Saturday and last Sunday of the month. Call ahead to book: T: 06 6529192. Meet at the Museo delle Navi, Via A. Guidoni 35 (Fiumicino Airport). Tours begin at 9:30 and last approximately three hours.

For updates on the ongoing archaeological project of the British School at Rome/University of Southampton, see here.

19.11.2012
15:33

Pour l’honneur de la France

In the church of San Lorenzo in Lucina, just off the Corso in central Rome, is a simple, unobtrusive little monument to the French artist Poussin. He died in Rome on 19th November 1665 and the monument was placed in the church by Chateaubriand in 1832, at the height of the Neoclassical age, ‘pour la gloire des arts et l’honneur de la France’. The glory of God is not mentioned. Poussin is most famous as a painter of romanticised classical landscapes. The relief carving on the monument shows shepherds in an olive grove grouped around a tomb, trying to make sense of the words inscribed in its surface. It is a direct reference to a famous work by Poussin, now in the Louvre, in which exactly the same scene is shown. Written upon the tomb are the words: ‘Et in Arcadia Ego’. Death, in other words, comes to us all, even to the carefree creatures of idyllic Arcadia.

(An extract from Pilgrim’s Rome: A Blue Guide Travel Monograph)

06.11.2012
15:37

An early-morning visit to Sant’Andrea delle Fratte, Rome

At half past seven on an early November morning, the sun is gilding the rooftops but the streets below are still in deep shadow. The newspaper kiosk is doing a slow trade. Few people are about as yet. There are street cleaners, and dog-owners bringing pooches out to empty their bladders, and sandalled nuns and neatly dressed ladies making their way to the church of Sant’Andrea delle Fratte.

It is an old foundation, dating back to the days when this part of Rome was still open countryside. “Delle Fratte” means “of the bushes”. In its present aspect, the church is Baroque, built of warm café-au-lait-coloured brick. Its unfinished tower and tall, slim campanile are the work of Francesco Borromini. The campanile can only really be seen from the street that runs alongside the church, Via Capo le Case, from where, after dusk, the Gabriel audio equipment store projects laser beams onto the church’s lateral flank.

Borromini’s campanile by day
The Gabriel Store laser show by night

Morning Mass is celebrated in a steady stream, at 7, 7.30, 8 and then every hour until midday. The altar that is in use is not the main one. Instead, the chairs and pews are turned to face a chapel on the north side, with its altare privilegiatum, its “privileged altar” from which, at a time when such things were condoned, you could come away after Mass with a plenary indulgence. This is the “Chapel of the Apparition”, so called because one January day in 1842 the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared in a vision to a young French Jew by the name of Alphonse Ratisbonne, converting him to Christ. St Maximilian Kolbe, the Polish Franciscan who elected to die in place of another in Auschwitz and who is now the patron saint of political prisoners, celebrated his first Mass at this altar in 1918.

A priest clad in penitential purple arrives to officiate. He begins with a prayer for all deceased Minims, members of the Franciscan order of mendicant friars founded by St Francis of Paola in 1435. A chapel dedicated to the founding saint stands on the other side of the church, with an altarpiece by the late-sixteenth-century Renaissance artist Paris Nogari. It was perhaps painted when Pope Sixtus V gave the church to the Order of the Minims. The chapel also contains a scale model of the passenger liner Cristoforo Colombo, dedicated to St Francis of Paola in his guise as patron saint of Italian seafarers.

Members of the small congregation hastily scribble petitions to the Virgin on little slips of paper which they place in a basket on the altar rail. Behind them an aged prelate in voluminous black robes slumbers sprawled in his confessional. As the Mass progresses, he begins to receive clients and is constrained to wake up and shut the doors.

The priest is reading from the New Testament. I recognise the words of the Sermon on the Mount: blessed are the meek, the pure in heart, the peacemakers. In the apse, above the unused high altar, is a fresco of the miracle of the loaves and fishes and below it, in a cartouche, a line in Latin from St John’s Gospel: “Andrew saith unto him, there is a lad here, which hath five barley loaves, and two small fishes.”  This is the only reference that I can see to Andrew, the church’s titular saint. To the left, in another chapel on the north side, is Giovanni Battista Maini’s sub-Berniniesque statue of St Anne, depicted lying on her side, her hand clasped to a palpitating stone bosom.

The Feeding of the Five Thousand, by Pasquale Marini (17th century)

A number of artists from Rome’s foreign community were buried here in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Among them was Angelica Kauffman, known for her portraits and her ceiling and wall paintings. Her plaque is beside the door on the north side, below that of her husband and fellow artist Antonio Zucchi.

“Here lies buried Angelica, daughter of John Joseph Kauffmann of Schwarzenberg, who by the merits of her paintings earned a cenotaph in the Pantheon but who ordered that she herself be laid to rest in the same grave where Antonio Zucchi was placed, that she may live in peace with her husband after death. She lived 66 years and 6 days, and died on the nones (5th) of November 1807. Hail and farewell, most excellent of women.” A bust of Kauffman was erected in the Pantheon in 1808.

Flanking the chancel are the church’s two greatest works of art, Bernini’s angel with the crown of thorns and angel with the titulus, two originals from the series on Ponte Sant’Angelo. I don’t much care for them. I find their facial expressions and exaggeratedly postured limbs absurd. I don’t like their billowing drapery. But they are by Bernini, so I pay them my respects before leaving via the side door into the cloister.

The cloister is a lovely, peaceful space, planted with orange and lemon trees. In the brick pavement the word “Charitas” is picked out, the motto of the Minims, who are enjoined to show brotherly love to one another. Like all Franciscans, they take a vow of poverty. But the Minims of Munich, in order to keep body and soul together, began brewing beer. They named it Paulaner, after the town of Paola, the birthplace of their founder. Hence the beer’s logo of a cowled friar.

Mass is over by the time I go back into the church. Ite, missa est. The congregation shuffles out, shriven, contended, fed with the body of Christ and ready to face the day. A young sacristan from Goa scurries over to the altar to tidy up and another priest in purple arrives to take the next Mass, a tall, handsome young man from Nigeria. A new congregation shuffles in. The process of writing petitions to the Virgin begins all over again. Exaudi orationes servorum tuorum.

05.11.2012
12:00

Church of SS Luca e Martina reopens above Roman Forum

Last week, for the first time in my life, I visited Rome without going into the Forum. Usually I pop in to check out any new developments, to visit parts of it that were roped off the last time, or simply to enjoy the thrill of just being there. But this time, I have to confess, I couldn’t face it. Rome seems more crowded every year. Not very long ago, the Forum was free. You could wander in at will at any time of day or night. Now there are fences and turnstiles. The exit beside the Arch of Septimius Severus, with its high barricade and tall barred gate looks like something from a high-security prison. No way in. Did I really want to fight my way through the crowds along Via dei Fori Imperiali, past the gaudy carts selling fizzy drinks and hot dogs, to join the long, long line at the ticket office? No. I couldn’t face it.

But just when I begin to think curmudgeonly thoughts, that Rome has had its day, has lost its elegance and charm, I see something to make me fall in love with it all over again. It always happens and this afternoon was no exception. I glanced behind me at Pietro da Cortona’s severely symmetrical façade of SS. Luca e Martina. The door was closed as usual, but there was a notice on it that I had never seen before. I rushed up the steps to take a closer look and this is what I saw:

Oh joy! The sign itself was beautiful, with the tall columns of the Temple of Saturn reflected in its shiny plastic surface. But its message was even better: the church would be open on Saturday! A miracle! This church isnever open…

Well, it is now. On Saturdays, from 9–6 in October to April and from 9–8 in May to September.

The first church on this site was built by Pope Honorius I in the seventh century. Honorius’ pontificate was not uniformly glorious but he was particularly keen on building or embellishing churches on the site of martyrdoms and to him we owe the lovely basilica of Sant’Agnese fuori le Mura (as well as the Senate House in the Forum, which has survived so well because he converted it into the church of Sant’Adriano). This church, between Sant’Adriano and the old Mamertine Prison, was dedicated to the Roman martyr Martina and later also to St Luke, when Pope Sixtus V gave the building to the Accademia di San Luca, the artists’ academy. This was not pure altruism. Pope Sixtus wanted to enlarge the square outside Santa Maria Maggiore, the basilica which was to house his magnificent funerary chapel, and to do so he needed to demolish the academy church of St Luke. In exchange, the academy received this one, and gave it a second dedication to the patron saint of artists, following a tradition that St Luke painted a number of portraits of the Virgin Mary. Several academicians chose to be buried here, among them Pietro da Cortona himself, who designed the church we see today.

Monument to Pietro da Cortona (d.1669), architect of the church

Pietro da Cortona was a Tuscan painter and architect. He worked for the Medici in Florence and for another Tuscan family, the Barberini, who made their fortune in papal Rome. The design of this church is largely by Pietro, assisted by his nephew Luca Berrettini. The façade bears the papal insignia and name of Pope Urban VIII (Maffeo Barberini), for whom Pietro also produced the splendid trompe l’oeil ceiling in the salone of Palazzo Barberini.

The façade of SS. Luca e Martina is austerely elegant, apparently symmetrical but not completely (which gives it interest), and firmly placed at the restrained, harmonious end of the Baroque spectrum. The interior is airy, light and beautifully proportioned: much of the structural detail and the pale colour scheme dates from the early eighteenth century, departing from and complementing the Baroque in a very pleasing way. The current upper church stands much higher than ground level, for this is a damp site and the crypt below has suffered from flooding. De-humidifiers are at work flat out, and from the peeling walls, one can see why they are needed. The crypt was designed by Pietro da Cortona partly as his own mausoleum and his tomb remains (his monument is pictured above).

In the upper church, above the high altar, is an effigy of St Martina, whose remains were found when work began on Cortona’s remodelling. The altarpiece itself is a copy of Raphael’s St Luke Painting the Virgin.

Because this is a minor “sight”, there are no crowds here, no couples taking pictures of each other on their smartphones, no lecturers with iPads discoursing to their flocks, no guides shouting semi-accurate factoids at voluminous tour groups, no commercially-operated mendicants camped on the steps. If you happen to be in Rome on a Saturday and can’t face the queues for the Forum, come here. It is peaceful and beautiful and is the masterpiece of one of Italy’s finest Baroque artists.

For more on the church of SS. Luca e Martina, and on the Roman Forum, see Blue Guide Rome and Blue Guide Literary Companion Rome.

How the tide turned at the Milvian Bridge

Image © Anthony Majanlahti


Christianity did not conquer the Roman Empire with the sword—and yet it was with the sword that the groundwork was laid, at the Milvian Bridge. Today the place is peaceful: but this not particularly impressive-seeming footbridge over the Tiber was the scene, in late October of the year AD 312, of one of the pivotal battles of Western history, where the forces of Constantine vanquished those of his rival emperor Maxentius.

The bridge today is not very much frequented, except by lovers, who used to come here to clip a padlock to one of the bars placed at intervals along it as a symbol of everlasting attachment. The clotted love tokens have now been removed and unimpeded you can peer over the parapet and look down on the Tiber below, watch it burbling swiftly over a shallow cataract, and imagine the clash and clamour of horses and men.

Frieze from the Arch of Constantine showing Maxentius' horses and men floundering in the water of the Tiber.

Maxentius championed Rome. He made it his capital—he was the first emperor for a hundred years to do so—and set in motion a train of great building projects aimed at restoring the city to its central position within the empire, not just symbolically but actually. He named his son Romulus and dedicated a temple in the Forum (either to his dead son or to the great eponymous founder of the city). His sister Fausta married his co-ruler, the man whom Shelley ostentatiously called the ‘Christian reptile’. Constantine was not so much reptilian as amphibious. He was born a pagan but emerged from the water as a Christian, and so died.

And he was unable to share a throne with Maxentius. The two soon came to blows, and battle lines were drawn at the Milvian Bridge across the Tiber. In order, as he hoped, to cut off his adversary’s retreat, Maxentius had destroyed the bridge before the battle commenced. It was an action that proved his undoing. With his horses and men he was forced back into the water and there drowned, yielding the day to his rival. Constantine built an arch to celebrate his victory. It is one of the most famous of Rome’s surviving ancient monuments, standing beside the Colosseum. On its short west face is the goddess Luna in her two-horse chariot. On the long south face is a scene of the Battle of the Milvian Bridge. The short east face has a roundel of the sun god rising from the ocean and a depiction of Constantine’s adventus into Rome. On the north face we see Constantine in Rome distributing gifts. The inscription which appears on both the north and south faces (identical on each) contains a famously ambiguous religious reference to a ‘divinitas’, a divinity, in the singular. What or who was this god? It is an early and important witness of the slow change from the worship of many deities to the worship of a single, all-powerful one. The process by which this happened is fascinating and can be traced all over Rome in its art and architecture.

IMP·CAES·FL·CONSTANTINO MAXIMO

P·F·AVGVSTO S·P·Q·R

QVOD INSTINCTV DIVINITATIS MENTIS

MAGNITVDINE CVM EXERCITV SVO

TAM DE TYRANNO QVAM DE OMNI EIVS

FACTIONE VNO TEMPORE IVSTIS

REMPVBLICAM VLTVS EST ARMIS

ARCVM TRIVMPHIS INSIGNEM DICAVIT

“To the Imperial Caesar Flavius Constantine, the Great, Pius, Felix, Augustus: inspired by a divinity and in the greatness of his mind, with his army and by the just force of arms he delivered the state both from a tyrant and from all his faction; thus the Senate and the People of Rome have dedicated this arch in token of these triumphs.”

An extract from Pilgrim’s Rome: A Blue Guide Travel Monograph . Text and bottom two images © Blue Guides

16.10.2012
13:50

A compelling reason to visit Trapani province

The expressive statue of a young man in a finely-pleated linen tunic, Il Giovane di Mozia, was found at Cappiddazzu on the northeast side of the island of Mozia (the ancient Phoenician Motya) in 1979. In the stance of a victor, with hand on hip, the pose of the statue expresses great confidence in his youth, beauty and power. This remarkable work, made of white marble and dating from the 5th century BC, is thought to be by a Greek artist. It was found buried under a layer of rubble, face up in the road by the sanctuary. The face and the front are abraded, possibly from when the bronze accoutrements were torn from the statue during the attack of 398 BC by Dionysius I of Syracuse. When the statue was loaned to the British Museum in London for the duration of the 2012 Olympic Games, it was universally referred to as ‘The Motya Charioteer’. But this identification has not always been so certain. It is true that the work shares similarities with the famous charioteer of Delphi. But there have been numerous other theories: one suggests that the statue may represent Melqart, a Phoenician god and titular divinity of Tyre, identified by the Greeks as Heracles. He was probably wearing a lion’s skin made of bronze (which would have partially covered the head) and a bronze band around the chest—the holes where this would have been fixed can still be seen. Another theory suggests that the statue may represent an athlete, or an unknown Carthaginian hero. The fact that it was not recovered and replaced in a temple, in spite of its enormous value, would be explained if it indeed represented a god. The shocked survivors of the battle against Dionysius may have thought their god profaned and buried it where it was found. Perhaps. I haven’t seen any claims for Melqart recently. Certainly not since Brian Sewell, in the London Evening Standard, announced: “This standing figure, larger than life-size, broken off at the ankles, is a charioteer. His dress is no ordinary chiton, the standard male garment of the day, but one that falls full length to protect his body from the clouds of dust kicked up by horses’ hooves.” Whatever the truth, if you didn’t see it in London, get ye to Motya.

See here for information about Blue Guide Sicily and how to buy online.

St Augustine and his mother at Ostia

An extract from Pilgrim’s Rome: A Blue Guide Travel Monograph.

When you get off the train at Ostia Antica, you will do so together with a small huddle of visitors bound for the ruins of the ancient port city. Walk with them across the footbridge from the railway station, stick with them until you reach the main road of the little town; and then leave them: instead of turning left towards the excavations, turn right towards the castle and follow the road as it skirts around its moat. The church of Santa Aurea stands in the little cobbled Piazza della Rocca, a medieval village square with a medieval village atmosphere, surrounded by neat little cottages, supplied with a public drinking fountain, a restaurant in Via del Forno, and a church, all facing the massy protecting flank of the castle itself, built by Giuliano della Rovere, the future Pope Julius II, when he was bishop of Ostia in 1483–1503.

The medieval village of Ostia, with the church of S. Aurea

Behind the high altar a lamp has been placed upon a slender stump of column, balanced on a pretty fluted stand. These are certainly spolia from Ostia Antica itself, whose ruins lie somnolently basking under tall umbrella pines. As you make your way along the grass-grown basalt slabs of thedecumanus, you can easily imagine St Augustine and his mother doing the same, walking out to the shore through the Porta Marina, past the synagogue, to inquire about their boat to North Africa. We do not know exactly where they were staying, but we know that it was a house with a courtyard garden and there are plenty of surviving brick-built ruins that might have been it, some of them even with traces of an upper-floor balcony. In his Confessions, Augustine describes standing at a window with his mother, leaning out and chatting, speculating about the nature of the life beyond. Together they share a brief mystic moment when they seem to touch Eternal Wisdom. Two weeks later Monica was dead, of a sudden fever. Though her initial wish had been to be buried beside her husband, she maintained at the end that she had no fear of dying in a foreign land, for God would surely know where to find her when the Day of Judgement came. Very touchingly Augustine describes how he comes to terms with his grief, examining why he feels so bereft at the death of one who wished to leave this world and who has not, in any real sense, died. Psalm 101 was read over Monica’s body:

My song shall be of mercy and judgement: unto thee, O Lord, will I sing. O let me have understanding in the way of godliness.

Augustine returned from his mother’s graveside and went to the baths. We cannot know which baths those were; there are several that survive among the ruins of Ostia. Bathing did not soothe him. He retired to bed, wept freely, recited a hymn of St Ambrose (his mentor in Milan) and found himself much comforted.

The church is small and very simple, aisleless, with a painted tie-beam ceiling and Stations of the Cross in bold white relief against a vivid blue ground placed high along the walls. In a chapel on the south side, behind glass, is a piece of the tombstone of St Monica, the mother of St Augustine, who died here suddenly in 387, aged fifty-five. Opposite the tombstone there is an Italian transcription of the full epitaph, which translates as follows:

‘Here your most chaste mother laid her ashes, Augustine, a further light upon your own merits, you, who as a faithful priest of the holy message of peace instruct by your life your faithful adherents. You are both crowned with immense glory by your works, you and your most virtuous mother, who is made more blessed still by her son.’

St Augustine’s own tribute to his mother is as follows:

May she rest in peace with her husband, her only one, after whom she married no other. She served him with patience and obedience, bringing forth fruit unto thee, and at the end won him also for thyself. O Lord my God, inspire thy servants my brethren, thy sons and my masters, whom I serve with voice and heart and pen, that whosoever of them shall read these words, may remember at thy altar Monica thy servant, with Patricius her husband, by whose bodies thou broughtest me into this life, though how it was done I know not. May they remember them in this failing light, they were my parents and also my brother and sister, subject to thee our Father in our Catholic mother the Church, and they will be my fellow citizens in that eternal Jerusalem for which thy people yearn all the days of their pilgrimage. (Confessions Book IX)

(NB: For a fascinating delve into early Christian Ostia, as well as for an alternative reading of Monica's tombstone, see here.)

Fragment of the tombstone of St Monica
15.10.2012
13:54

Visiting St Paul’s in London

News has just come in that the Occupy London protesters marked their first anniversary by chaining themselves to the pulpit of St Paul’s and reading out a ‘prayer’ criticizing St Paul’s for collusion in the world domination of big bad business. Cathedral staff, says londonist.com, were happy for the protesters to do this. I can’t help feeling a bit miffed, as if cathedral staff treat protesters better than they treat ordinary visitors. This is what it was like a month ago, when I went to St Paul’s to try to admire it, not to voice disapproval or chain myself to its furniture:

“If there are any pre-paid tickets please, anyone with any pre-paid tickets at all, if you’d like to just come to the front of the queue please, pre-paid tickets come right round to the head of the line….”

It was three thirty in the afternoon, on a warm, sunny Saturday. The line was extremely long, extremely chaotic and few of its members spoke English as a mother tongue. The guard was trying to be helpful but she had made no attempt to grade her language, to speak slowly or to remove superfluities from her sentence construction. Consequently the only people who understood what she was saying were ourselves. And we didn’t have pre-paid tickets.

So we waited. And then paid £15 each, were given a content-free handout with an inadequate floor plan and were helpfully asked to be aware that the cathedral would be closing at half past four.

That gives us an hour, we thought. We won’t need more than that.

How wrong we were!

We decided to make climbing to the top of the dome the first step. Or rather steps, because there are a lot of them. (Warning: if you suffer from claustrophobia and don’t have a head for heights, are pregnant, semi-mobile or even the slightest bit unfit, do not embark on this! Once you have started, there is no turning back.) The Whispering Gallery was good. From there you have a splendid view of the Thornhill monochromes in the dome. But “Whispering” has become a misnomer. An unfortunate guard is stationed there and her only role seems to be to bellow “No photographs! No cameras!” at visitors every few seconds. Here is the photograph I took after she shouted at me. I shouldn’t have done it, but the whole thing was beginning to get my goat:

Then we set off to the Golden Gallery, right at the top. This involves a very narrow, open-tread spiral staircase which shudders under the weight of climbers. Progress was extremely slow because at the top, on the look-out balcony, space is very limited and everyone has to wait until everyone else has been round, taken their photos (and with all the bullying indoors about not being allowed to, people go click crazy at the top) and begun the descent. There is one narrow stairway up and another down. For long, long minutes we were prisoners on the iron steps, suspended in space. But at least it meant we made friends with the people above and below us, who were amused by the barrage of signs saying “Way up”, as if there were any realistic alternative.

The views from the top, of the tiny remaining Wren churches crouching among recent office blocks, are worth the long haul to get there. Tate Modern and the Wobbly Bridge are in full view, so is Tower Bridge, the Shard, the narrow green canal that the great Thames river has become. Here is a photo taken from the top, of the Monument to the Great Fire:

By the time we had made our way back down, there was almost no time left to explore the rest of the cathedral. Guards were beginning to bustle about officiously, closing off aisles and transepts with lengths of municipal tape. It was a bit like being at an airport. We managed to crane our necks over one stretch of tape to get a full-frontal view of Nelson’s monument, but it wasn’t satisfactory. It is by Flaxman and is an important work of Neoclassical funerary sculpture. Not that Flaxman’s name is mentioned on the St Paul’s website. You need Wikipedia or a Blue Guide to tell you that. Anyway, it was hopeless trying to get a decent look at it. And by this time everything beyond the crossing had been barred off too, which I was upset about, as I had particularly wanted to see the monument to John Donne, which survives from the Old St Paul’s.

I sat on one of the plastic conference-room chairs that fills the nave and looked up to admire the dome. Thornhill’s monochrome scenes from the life of St Paul are really splendid. I would have liked to spend more time on them. I found myself getting interested in the subject of how a newly-built Protestant cathedral sought to make itself look Protestant, even though the exterior is Italianate and the floorplan is identical to any of the old Gothic cathedrals, built before the Reformation. But the atmosphere isn’t conducive to thoughts like that. The assumption is that the general visitor is too gormless to care and that anyone who does care will be able to gain special access on some scholar’s permit. Not the case. I was only in London for 24 hours. And I don’t want special access. I’m happy with the hurly burly of humanity around me. As long as they seem to be getting the best out of it. Which I’m not sure any of us were. “No photographs, no photographs!” shouted the guards, as some unfortunate visitor tried to snap a view down the nave as a memento. I began to feel so cross, and even crosser because I wondered if I was just being a ghastly blimp and a snob. Out of pique I snapped the dome, and felt a sense of triumph at having done so without being yelled at. Then I felt guilty, because I am usually a rule-obeyer. Here is the photo:

Didn’t manage to see The Light of the World or the Crypt, which the St Paul’s website tantalisingly describes as containing “monuments to conflicts and other outstanding achievements. Had the merest glimpse of Wellington, aquiline nose in the air, before we were hustled out.

We sat on the steps and felt miffed. Why? I suppose because we had paid £15 each and hadn’t had time to see enough. And had felt all the time that we were being shooed through a sheep dip. I know it’s difficult when there are so many visitors. But none of us were morons. We would have appreciated more adult-oriented treatment. It was lovely and warm on the steps. I noticed that the fluting on all the paired Corinthian columns which support the west porch has been filled in, to about chest height or higher. Why? I wasn’t sure who to ask. Next time I’ll bring my chains.

Latest

The Seuso Treasure: a new display
Life in Color
Hungary Food Companion
Baroque-era spinach patties
Perfect paprika chicken
A spring recipe from 1891
Master of Leonardo
News from Florence
Gellért 100
Unsung Hero
The Corvina Library
Modernists and Mavericks
Dracula: An International Perspective
Lorenzo Lotto: Portraits
Leonardo's Leicester Codex
A tale of two Camparis
Best restaurants in Brescia
Budapest Art Nouveau
Transylvanian Book Festival
Flawless ... and 100 years old
Extreme dairy farming in Sauris
Islamic Art in Florence
The Seuso Roman silver: on display at last
The Wonders of Pontormo
Builders of Budapest
Crowded Times
Good news from Florence
The Heartwarming Middle Ages
Waves of Art Nouveau
Bookshops in Budapest
Budapest at the Biennale
Living with Leonardo
The Zeugma Mosaics Saga
News from Syracuse
Raphael in Bergamo
Titian in Brescia
Comments and Updates on Blue Guide Budapest
Heroism on the Danube
The 'Romanesque Hall' in Budapest
Dürer in Milan
Re-interpreting the Trojan Horse
Charles I: King and Collector
Fleming and Honour Remembered
Pictures from Lake Maggiore
A late Art Nouveau treasure in Budapest
Anna: Female destinies in Transylvania
What’s on in Florence
Art Within Limits
A Time in Rome
Diana Athill, 'A Florence Diary'
Season’s Greetings
Christmas with the Gonzaga
Aegean Turkey: Troy to Bodrum
Collectors in Florence
European rail changes 2018
A people who changed history
Return to 'A Room with a View'
Italian island food
The Scythians at the British Museum
Rogues' Gallery by Philip Hook
Ferragamo's Return
Silence of the looms
Grammar and Grace
The Seuso Saga
Giuliano da Sangallo
The Black Fields of Kula
Leonardo's "Adoration of the Magi" restored
Venice before Easter
Selectivity at the Uffizi
Guide to the Via Francigena
What Ariosto could see
News from Florence: Giovanni dal Ponte
More than just the David
The formidable Empress Matilda
Life, Art and Kenneth Clark
Hedonist's travel, Hungarian wine
Remarkable Manuscripts
Abstract Expressionism at the RA
Comments on Hungarian Wine: A Tasting Trip to the New Old...
Transylvania Launched
Which 50 Sites of Antiquity?
A Treasure in Cagli
The Transylvanian Book Festival
Comments on Travels in Transylvania: The Greater Târnava...
Roman Brixia
The new Museo degli Innocenti
Wine guide wins prize
Jesters at the Court of the Medici
Budapest, Freedom and the Olympics
The Roman Forum Reconstructed
Bernini's Beloved
Blue Guide Paris on Amazon
The Imperial Ramp in the Roman Forum
Sabbioneta, Cryptic City
Secret delights of Florence: the Bellini private museum
Cutting-edge mosque design in Albania
St Francis in Florence
To Austria’s Lake District by rail
Pilgrimage pathways to and from Rome
Five major London museums
Napoleon and Paris: Dreams of a capital
Whither Tate Britain?
The many lives of Nasreddin Hoca
Lesley Blanch: On the Wilder Shores of Love
The Middle Ages on the Road
Hellenistic bronzes in Florence
Europe by rail - an introduction
Frescoes in a convent of a closed order of nuns
Michelin starred Paris
A Michelangelo discovery?
Jan Morris: Ciao, Carpaccio: An Infatuation
The Venus de Milo fights back
Winter in Florence: a new look at Donatello
Tea (or coffee) with the Sultan
Artwork of the Month: January. Medieval stained glass
Which? ranks Blue Guides #2
Giacomo Leopardi: A poet in film
Sassoferrato and the Aion Mosaic
The Aventine and Turner in Rome
Artwork of the Month: December
Rendez-vous with Art
Rembrandt and the Dutch Golden Age
Giovanni Battista Moroni
London The Information Capital
Changes to European rail services for 2015
Comments on Blue Guide London
Egypt, Greece, & Rome
The Medici Villas of Tuscany and Tourism
Artwork of the Month: November. Reason, Unreason and the...
The first collectors of 'Primitives'
From Pompeii: The Afterlife of a Roman Town
Artwork of the Month: October. The Arch of Constantine
Sorting out the Uffizi
Waging war with a view
Dull London? Surely a mistake
Artwork of the month: September. Watercolour of the Great...
Italian Venice: A History
A tale of three museums
Rissëu
All Aboard the Cheese Train
National Gallery London to allow photography
Artwork of the Month: August. Bust of Augustus Caesar from...
Sacred Splendours: reliquaries of Florence's pious grand...
Book Review. Helena Attlee: The Land where Lemons Grow
Holiday reading
Artwork of the Month: July. The Phaistos Disc
Budapest to Vienna and Salzburg by Railjet
Marvellous and Macabre: the art of Jacopo Ligozzi
David Esterly - The Lost Carving: A Journey to the Heart of...
Artwork of the month: June, Pordenone's Noli me Tangere
Budapest to Serbia by EuroCity Avala
Saving the Great Bear: Trieste's floating crane
News from Florence
Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
Baccio Bandinelli: a rehabilitation
Artwork of the month: May. "Flora", Pompeii
Travelling around Britain in style
In praise of plague cakes
Princesses from the Trabzon Empire
Artwork of the month: April. The Seuso Silver
Uffizi selfies come to Budapest
Florentine Mannerists at Palazzo Strozzi
Rome: seasonal stations
Sustainable living in Bolzano
Artwork of the month: March. Murillo's Flower Girl
Tastes change
Francesco Laurana's serene beauty
Being Mithridates
Florence and Buda: two cities of learning
Thoughts on Rome
Copyrighting Heritage
Food is the new Florence
A Grumpy Visit to Westminster Abbey
The Honey Of Hybla
So what is the Turkish Van?
The Pike: by Lucy Hughes-Hallett
Smoothly off the buffers
Under Another Sky
'Art under Attack' at Tate Britain
Comments on Smoothly from Harrow
Renaissance art from Florence to Paris and back
Comments on Blue Guide Venice
Hepworth's "Winged Figure": 50th anniversary
Tying the Knot in Urfa
Venice and the Politcs of Washing
Comments on Staten Island: A Blue Guide Travel Monograph
Comments on Short Guide to London 1953
Turin restored and rejuvenated
A palatial art museum in Trieste
The cloisters of Santa Maria Novella
The wonderful Palazzo Grimani, Venice
Pope Benedict: an unorthodox farewell
Obscure St Valentine and his famous Feast Day
Burano in February
The St Agnes lambs
Leonardo’s “Adoration of the Magi” in restoration
Cathedral picks: Exeter
The real Patrick Leigh Fermor?
The joy of Giambattista Tiepolo
Leonardo’s “Battle of Anghiari”
In praise of Venice’s water transport system
The Red Rooms at the Uffizi
The Blue Rooms at the Uffizi
A trip to the Port of Trajan, outside Rome
Pour l’honneur de la France
An early-morning visit to Sant’Andrea delle Fratte, Rome
Church of SS Luca e Martina reopens above Roman Forum
How the tide turned at the Milvian Bridge
A compelling reason to visit Trapani province
St Augustine and his mother at Ostia
Visiting St Paul’s in London
Hadrian, Antinoüs and the Christian Fathers
Earliest-known image of a martyrdom
Can’t face the Vatican crowds? Try San Lorenzo
Turin, Pisa and mathematics
Ideal cities are all around us. It’s simply a matter of...
On Canaletto and Guardi and Venetian Light
Mithraism: a Roman Mystery Religion
Random Musings on Pontormo and Vermeer
The Amphitheatre of Londinium
Edward Lear and Crete
A handful of favourite things to see in Sicily
The mystery of the veiled virgins
Venice without the crowds
Cividale del Friuli and the Lombards
The Trouble with Snake Goddesses
The tragedy of Maximilian, Emperor of Mexico
Oranges, lemons and relic cults: an escape from the queues...
City Picks: Verona
Hitherto unknown language discovered in east Anatolia
Painting of the Day
Museo Barracco: a little-visited gem
Santo Stefano Rotondo in Rome
Staten Island: Upcoming Exhibition …
International Gothic at the Uffizi
Celebrating Santa Rosalia, patron of Palermo
Delhi Ghost Trail
Comments on Pilgrim's Rome: A Blue Guide Travel Monograph
The Roman Villa at Balácapuszta (Baláca, Nemesvámos,...
The Bard of….Messina? Was Shakespeare Sicilian?
Rereading Ruskin
Sicily’s emblem: the Trinacria
Luca Signorelli on exhibition in Umbria
The Tribuna of the Uffizi reopens
The Venice equivalent of the anonymous Tweet?
Comments on Blue Guide Sicily
Sicilian Holiday Reading
Attila the Hun and the Foundation of Venice
Death in Venice cocktail a hit
The Gentry: Stories of the English
381 years ago this June
Brooklyn Bridge: a New York landmark
A Venetian Update
Sixth-century church to reopen
Roman Aquileia
Springtime in Friuli
Northern Italy dining and accommodation recommendations
Al Dente: Madness, Beauty & the Food of Rome
A celebration of Lucca
Romantic music in a Baroque setting
Blue Guide India Delhi Launch
Nikolaus Pevsner: The Life
The Man of Numbers: Fibonacci’s Arithmetic Revolution
Comments on Blue Guide India
The Roman Forum
Whispering City: Rome and its Histories
The 15th-century Health Museum at Edirne
City of Fortune, How Venice Won and Lost a Naval Empire
Books about Istanbul
Comments on Blue Guide Istanbul
Comments on Blue Guide Florence
Constantine: Unconquered Emperor, Christian Victor
Comments on The Venice Lido: a Blue Guide Travel Monograph
Comments on Blue Guide Literary Companions: Rome, London,...
Comments on Blue Guide Italy Food Companion
The 54th Venice Biennale stars Tintoretto
Holy Bones, Holy Dust
RECOMMENDED PLACES TO STAY AND EAT ON CRETE
Delhi: Adventures in a Megacity
Full Circle: How the Classical World Came Back to Us
Comments on Blue Guide Turkey
Comments on Blue Guide Rome
Comments on Blue Guide Hay-on-Wye
Comments on Blue Guide Greece the Aegean Islands
Comments on Blue Guide Crete
Comments on Sites of Antiquity: from Ancient Egypt to the...
Comments on Blue Guide Tuscany
Familiar face
Comments on Blue Guide Concise Italy
Comments on Blue Guide Paris
Comments on Blue Guide New York
Comments on Blue Guide Central Italy
Comments on Blue Guide Southwest France
Blue Guide Northern Italy
Comments on Blue Guide The Marche & San Marino
Comments on Blue Guide Museums and Galleries of London
A day trip to Ostia Antica from Rome - highly recommended
Comments on Blue Guide Southern Italy
Comments on Blue Guide Concise Rome
A day trip from Venice up the Brenta Canal
A day trip to Murano from Venice
Pietrasanta, Pisa: in search of Stagi
Reading list for Venice
Reading list for Florence and Tuscany
The Best Credit / Debit Card for Travel
Ruskin on Venice
Reading list for Rome
Comments on Blue Guide Greece the Mainland

Archive

follow us in feedly