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No Place Like Rome

Image: The Colosseum

Rome was already hundreds of years old by the time what we know of as the Colosseum was opened in AD 80. We know of it as a place of gory spectacle where convicted criminals were thrown to wild animals to be killed and where those same wild animals were in turn killed by others or by armed men. Gladiators fought to the death to please the clowds who flocked to enjoy the drama and the deaths.

At the same time it was a place which revealed to Romans some of the wonders of the world. Besides seeing lions, rhinoceras, elephants and bears the crowd for many years saw them during morning sessions being hunted amidst scenery set up to represent their home habitats. Roman emporers showed off their position and power by the hunting shows and games and they effectively were showing some wonders of their world to the audiences. Duels to the death were what the public wanted but they still got some sense of the exotic lands beyond their own horizons.


Even a Roman soldier has to eat. Modern tourists can be photographed next to actors in costume which helps put a human dimension into the vast, ruined arena. Making a first-time visit recently brought home the sheer size and complexity of the Colosseum and just how crowds of modern spectators can thread themelves amongst the tiers of galleries. There's a sense of the scale of building work that it required using thin bricks by the million and blocks of stone by the thousands of tons. Then think of the whole spread of Roman remains across the modern city and beyond its boundaries. We might be impressed by Hadrian's Wall and a few amphitheatres but this is history which is literally on an imperial scale. Visible in the photo above right is a partial 'platform' added recently to illustrate the level of the main arena floor.

Image: The Roman Forum, Trajan's Column etc

Above: Trajan's Column celebrating his victory in wars in a series of carved pictures spiralling up the face of the stonework; the Arch of Constantine; 'SPQR' - For the Senate and People of Rome' appearing on a modern pavement grid; Colosseum visitors; a street within the Roman Forum.

Image: Street Performer by the Trevi Fountain

Street performers go back thousands of years and ancient Rome will have had its own variety. The 'living statue' variety if common today around the globe. Some keep as still as a stone sculpture, others burst into movement to make the audience jump and kids squeal; this one by the Trevi Fountain writhed and gestured to attract people closer, make them laugh, have their photos taken with him - and of course donate some coins. If his style was anything to go by, he will have done well.

Image: The Trevi Fountain

The fountains of Rome are famous and this is maybe the most famous - the Trevi Fountain. Only having seen photos of it or scenes in films which showed it close up meant that there was a surprise finding how cramped-in it is within a square of buildings. Evening was closing fast and a thunderstorm approaching but at this stage it was a place where people sat and chatted and took more photos; a pleasant, very human sort of place where watching the spraying, pouring waters of the elaborate carved figures became a pleasant way to spend part of your evening. Throw three coins in, make a wish ... but Audrey Hepburn still didn't appear.

Image: St Peter's, Rome

Vatican City is, of course, an independent state within Italy and within Rome, although its boundaries are only noticed when they coincide with the high walls which once protected the papal enclave from the outside world and threats of attacks: the popes were often highly engaged in politics which could get violent as factions clashed.

On the other hand the basilica of St Peter is designed as the focal point for religious travellers - pilgrims and church workers alike - from all over the world, and that means religious tourism. While the Vatican radio station, newspaper and internet pages carry the communication necessary to serve members of the Roman Catholic church around the globe, the physical presence of St Peter's, both inside and out, has a function which only travellers can experience. To be in the place with every sense engaged is a more powerful form of communication than any mass medium. The sights and sounds, the feel of the pavement, steps and stonework; even smells and tastes - incense, flowers, communion wine and wafers - the interaction with other people and with the activities of the church, make this communication outdo all the others. Communion here is so special, but so is the social communion of believers and non-believers who might be visiting. The vast open space in front of St Peter's allows for huge audiences and congregations to partake in events after they might have arrived from all round the globe.

Image: Inside St Peter's, Rome

Through the medium of travel - and therefore of tourism - this particular message of religion is communicated. It uses the language of architecture as well as of liturgy. Sight, sound, smell, touch and taste all take part. It's a good example of tourism as a mass medium, in which a few can speak to the many, even after those who prepared the massages are long departed. There are writers and artists, editors, opinion makers and the audiences who listen and watch all round the world.

Image: The Vatican Museum

[More will follow]

Where In The World? - 3: Answers

see Blog 08.12.08


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