A Bothersome Cold. A Stendhal-day in Regensburg

The nineteenth-century author and flâneur Stendhal once wrote that the best way to experience a new place is to wander aimlessly in whatever direction that whim dictates. Without planning and without knowing beforehand, the cognitive faculties turn acute, and the senses sharpen as they are being constantly surprised by the surroundings. This is what happened to me in Regensburg. But that was not my plan from the beginning.

Ever since I went to Innsbruck last year, in the footsteps of my study object, Latin professor Vilhelm Lundström and his students, I have waited for an opportunity to go to Regensburg. Lundström and his disciples undertook their Grand Tour in 1909, with a three months’ stay in Rome, and a “historical-philological” course, led by Lundström, as their ultimate goal. But Rome does not begin in Rome, as any student of classical Antiquity would know. Regensburg was the first stop on their trip, as the northernmost city of the Roman empire of old, on the very border along the Danube. After months of preparation, the students were now about to encounter actual Roman remains for the first time in their lives. Their second stop was Innsbruck, then the Brenner pass and the Alps, Sterzing, Verona, and Firenze, and after ten days of travel, the group finally reached Rome. Last year in Innsbruck, I stayed at the same hotel as they did, the Goldener Adler, almost as old as the Roman empire itself, at least one of the oldest still operating hotels in Europe.

But I had to see Regensburg, too. I had read about it in Lundström’s travel report, and in some of the students’ writings. They had arrived in the afternoon (4.10 pm, to be exact), and stayed at hotel “Grüner Kranz” in Obermünsterstrasse, rather close to the railway station. And in the dining room of the hotel, the first lecture of the course had taken place. Directly afterwards, the group went out to town to inspect the Roman ruins of the old Castra Regina: Porta Praetoria, built in 179 CE, the only remaining Roman gate of its kind north of the Alps except for Porta Nigra in Trier. Among Lundström’s private papers in the Regional State Archives in Gothenburg, I had even found a postcard with Porta Praetoria on it, which Lundström had sent to his mother at home in Sweden. Before leaving Regensburg, the group also visited the small historical museum of the city – at that time located in the so-called Alte Pfarre of the church of St. Ulrich – and studied the collections in what Lundström described as a “bothersome cold”.


Hotel Grüner Kranz in an old postcard.

Lundström was a master of suggestion and emotion when it came to the study of history. The students witnessed about how, in Regensburg, he affectionally stroke, almost caressed, the wall of Porta Praetoria with his bare hands while demonstrating it that afternoon in March 1909. These images have remained with me – the postcard with the gate, and the thought of Lundström’s hands on it. The north and the south. The present and the past. And Lundström, who now also belongs to the past. I had to see the gate. I arrived in Regensburg in the evening on a late train. It was dark, and the cold temperature was more than just bothersome, it was almost unbearable. I took a quick walk down to the Danube but did not dare to go very close on the icy quay. The water murmured, wide and unruly, and a few lights from the medieval Stone Bridge glistened in its black surface. Close by, I almost stumbled upon Porta Praetoria, but decided to save my encounter with it until the next day. Now I knew that it was there, down by the river.



Porta Praetoria on the postcard that Vilhelm Lundström sent to his mother in 1909.

Next day was equally cold and also windy, which produced tears in my eyes and made the skin of my face ache as I went out. First, I passed by the “Grüner Kranz” – I already knew that it had long since ceased to be a hotel. A tap dance school was housed in its basement. But then I decided, all of a sudden, to do a Stendhal. Sooner or later I was going to the gate, and to the historical museum, but before that I felt like to just roam the small streets and see where they took me. I was in no hurry. A park near my hotel in the outskirts of the city centre belonged, as I had seen on the map, to the castle of Thurn und Taxis, a Bavarian princely family. The park, behind a fence, looked magical. Stern, large trees, here and there a small round-temple, even a sculptured sphinx lay among the trees in the snow. The daylight was hazy. The park was empty. Signs on the fence indicated that the park was included in a museum housed in parts of the Thurn und Taxis castle. Perhaps I could get in? I followed the fence until I came to a medieval church, St. Emmeram, around which the castle had been constructed in a later period, according to information outside. The church was open. I went in. It was empty apart from another curious party of two persons. Now, I decided to do not only a Stendhal, but also a “in Santa Croce with no Baedeker”, as in E. M. Forster’s “A Room with a View”: to experience the church without bothering to look up any information about the objects in it. I often find historical sightseeing and museums boring – I get tired feet, I lose oxygen, I feel trapped in a structure forced upon me, and this kills my natural curiosity. But this park, and this church, I had stumbled upon by chance, and only my curiosity, led by my five (or six) senses, had drawn me to them. And I was struck by beauty. Every stone or wooden face on every figure in the church came alive and looked at me. Every ornament was full of emotion. Every Latin inscription was talking to me from the walls – and curiously enough, many of the inscriptions started with a friendly Viator! “Hey, Traveller!” or Viator amice! “Oh, Traveller Friend!” That was me. The enchanted viator. The friend.



The Orphee.

The Thurn und Taxis museum turned out to be open only on weekends during winter season. One could enter the properties – as a small Vatican state, with no unauthorized vehicles allowed inside – but the museum entrance was firmly closed. But I did not care, since I had made no plans. Part of the magic about the park was, I reflected, just the fact that it could only be viewed from outside, by the Viator, the Traveller and the Outsider. I continued my sorgenfrei-way through the tiny city centre of Regensburg, and again I was lucky. A restaurant that had caught my attention only through its beautiful name – Orphee – turned out to be a century-old French bistro, once founded by the Hungarian Baron Aloys Finkelstein-Korntheur in an old brewing house belonging to the Thurn und Taxis family. The dark wooden panels, the small marble tables, the art noveau lamps – little had changed inside the restaurant during the last century. After lunch, I was finally ready for Porta Praetoria. But first, I went down to the river again. In daylight, it was actually blue, but the murmur of the quickly flowing water was the same as the night before. The power of the river seemed enormous. The border of the Roman Empire. No trespassing beyond these waters. The wind hit harder than ever on the bridge, and I had to wrap my scarf around my face on the way towards the city gate.

Some objects and sights struck you as of a different size than expected. Colosseum, for example, was much smaller than what I had anticipated the first – and only – time I went inside it. The Porta Praetoria experience was the other way around. It was so much larger and imposing than what the small postcard image had let me believe. The blocks of stone were huge, in stark contrast to the smallish scale of the modern city centre (with “modern” I mean basically “medieval”). The eastern tower and the western of the two arches remained, later built into a house complex, but, as I read on a sign next to the gate, it was not until in the 1890’s that the later structures were torn down and the gate was revealed. Only a couple of decades before Lundström’s journey! I was filled by a sudden joy, standing under the worn arch of the gate. I was in Rome, and I was not. I was joined with history and yet I was present, in the present. Everything seemed to exist at the same time, entangled, and yet I felt free. I removed my glove and put my right hand upon the stone wall. It felt cold. A bothersome cold. I smiled and went away to get my luggage at the hotel and, just like Lundström and his students, took the train to Rome.


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Alp Adventures (1)

When I arrived in Innsbruck it was already dark. Although it was mid-February, I could not feel any of that snow-cold winter air that I had been looking forward to. The train station was a modern creation, and stretched out along the railway tracks like a parking house in several levels which made it difficult to orientate. The streets were dark and rather empty even though it was only a bit after 9 pm. This made me suspicious towards every wanderer I met, and I kept my gaze steadily on the pavement and felt that they were watching me. Was this Innsbruck? It was not at all what I had expected.

My Baedeker.

My Baedeker.

Before my journey, I had acquired a guidebook to ”Südbayern, Tirol, Salzburg usw.”, a Baedeker edition from 1908. When I opened it, I saw the owner signature of a Dr H. GenzkenLübeck, and when I flicked through the pages searching for Innsbruck I found that the red page-marking ribbon had been set at the Innsbruck page for so long that it had left a red mark on the paper. Innsbruck! The goal of my journey. By some googling I found out that Dr Genzken had been a Latin teacher at the Gymnasium Katharineum in Lübeck in the beginning of the 20th century. I immediately felt mysteriously related to dr Genzken. Had he bought this book precisely for a journey to Innsbruck? Did he go there regularly? Did he dream of Innsbruck all of his life but never actually went there? Two hotels were underlined in the Baedeker with a thin pencil line: Arlberger Hof and Akademikerhaus, mid-priced, near the railway station. That was the only traces that Dr Genzken had made in the whole book: his signature, the red ribbon, and the two underlinings.

And now I, a Latin teacher from Gothenburg, had the book in my hands, planning to stop overnight in Innsbruck on my way to Rome just because I had always dreamt of Innsbruck ever since I started going by train to Italy some twenty years ago. But contrary to Dr Genzken – whether he stayed at Arlberger Hof or Akademikerhaus, or both, or none –  I had another hotel in mind: the Goldener Adler. And that’s where another Latin teacher, Vilhelm Lundström, professor of Latin at Gothenburg university a century ago, comes into the story. In 1909, he took his students on a two-month study trip to Rome, by train of course, and with several didactic stops during the way south, of which Innsbruck and the Goldener Adler was one. When I began looking up the history of the hotel, I was surprised to read that it was much older than I had thought: founded in the 14th century, it had through the centuries constituted The Stop for all travellers to Italy across the Brenner Pass from Kaiser so-and-so to Goethe and queen Silvia of Sweden. My Baedeker educated me even more concerning Innsbruck: it was the capital of Tyrol, an area that I previously mostly had associated, vaguely, with apple growers. At the Goldener Adler, the local Tyrolean hero Andreas Hofer had held a speech to the masses when defending the area against Bavaria and France in the early 19th century. Suddenly, there was no alternative but to stay at the Goldener Adler.

I had imagined Innsbruck as petite, picturesque, fresh. Instead, I now dragged my suitcase along streets with normal, non-picturesque, anonymous blocks of houses. I did not even try to imagine walking in dr Genzken’s or professor Lundström’s footsteps anymore. It felt like a failure, but since I thought of the whole thing as an experiment, I did not care too much. Suddenly I passed a shop window with traditional Tyrolean clothing and laughed a little to myself, because this was the first marker that I really was in Innsbruck after all. And I thought, while hesitating about whether I should take a photo or not, that the signifier is all, and reality is nothing. As long as the signifier of Innsbruck is there, it does not matter if it represents reality or not. And as I walked on, more and more signifiers appeared. First, the houses got ornamental and pastel-coloured on the Maria-Theresien-straße; then, as I entered the Altstadt, rustic vaults and stern, thick 15th-century facades appeared. Where the street ended, I spotted the Golden Roof shining modestly in the dark, one of the Innsbruck sights worth seeing according to the Baedeker, though without a star. I felt nothing particular about the Roof, reminded myself that I had read that it was from the 15th century, but I was more interested in the fact that the hotel now was supposed to be nearby. And around the corner the black-and-yellow sign ”Goethe-Stube. Abend-Restaurant mit Musik”, more brightly lit than the Golden Roof, welcomed me. I was there, at the Goldener Adler.

The Goldener Adler.

The Goldener Adler.

The receptionist was dressed in Tyrolean clothes and there was wooden panelling everywhere, as I had already seen on a virtual tour of the hotel on the Internet. The corridors were narrow, my room rather modern, but what no virtual tour would have been able to transmit was the smell of all things old: old wooden furniture, old documents behind glass (a decree of one of the Napoleons; a celebration of an Andreas Hofer jubilee; a list of early-modern celebrity hotel guests, several older oil paintings – for example a Goethe portrait – guarded by surveillance cameras), and an army of stuffed animal heads in the stairway.

I asked in the reception about guest-books from the early 20th century – I knew that Lundström and his students had signed them – but they were gone, maybe preserved in the Innsbruck city archive, right across the street but unfortunately closed on weekends. I also knew that the professor and his students had been spending their evening in the vaults of the Goethe-Stube, reading 19th-century Swedish poetry about crossing the Alps. I checked the restaurant – it was filled with uninspiring hotel guests, and I did not feel like entering. Instead, I went outside again, in the dark, to try to locate another important Innsbruck signifier: the river Inn. The hotel was supposed to be very near the bridge over the Inn that has given the city its name, so the river had to be there somewhere, and the Alps must be there in the dark, too. Almost immediately, I heard the sound of running water. There it was, the bridge, and the river, but I saw nothing in the dark, only heard its both comforting and disquieting presence. I returned to the hotel, climbed the animal-laden stairs and went to bed. I still was not sure if I really was in Innsbruck.


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Everything is going to be OK. Uppsala and the 110-year-old guidebook

Since I often write about trains, some people assume that I am interested in trains. I am not. Trains are crammed, dusty, uncomfortable, full of noise and breadcrumbs and stains and toilets out of order. They wobble and toss from side to side and bring nausea and dizziness. No, I like trains as a symbol. Or rather, the railway. The rail structure, joining together towns big and small, always there, nailed firmly to the ground, ready for ever new trains, connections, journeys, meetings, farewells. Even if many train networks all over Europe presently are ill-kept and threatened by reduction or closure, this structure still gives me the same feeling of security as traffic lights or the postal service. Someone is watching over me, someone sees to that the trains leave on time, that the traffic light turns green, and that my letter reaches you tomorrow morning. The railroad and the lights and the letters seem to tell me that everything is going to be OK.

And I have always been fascinated by railway stations. I love how the morning light falls in one’s eyes on the platform, I love the old station buildings constructed as futuristic iron palaces, I love the smell of oil and dirt, I love the announcements in the loudspeakers. I thrive in the cold and the dust and in the depressing fast-food restaurants because all this means adventure, and as much as I fear unknown surroundings and situations, I paradoxically love the possibility of adventure. The loudspeakers and the platforms and the rails that symmetrically stretches towards the horizon into an eternity perspective tell me that everything is going to be OK and that all roads lie open.

Would an adventurer use a guidebook? I’m not sure. Today I am on a train towards Uppsala, and as usual travelling together with my Baedeker guidebook to Sweden and Norway from 1906. With its small format, red cover and golden lettering it looks like a Bible, and it is immensely entertaining to read about the places I pass by from a 1906 view. The journey between Gothenburg and Stockholm took some 11 hours then, and one had to stop overnight mid-way. Information flies by as fast as the landscape outside the windows. A few lines about each town, the number of inhabitants, any larger industries or historically valuable sights, and, last but not least, railway hotels and railway restaurants if a stop would be necessary. But what good would it do me to know that Alingsås has 3900 inhabitants or that Skövde has a lovely view towards the Billingen mountain? The scant reports seem to fill only one function: to show that the guidebook knows, and so, wherever I go, I am assured that if I keep my guidebook near, everything is going to be OK.

And perhaps that is one of the most important functions of a guidebook. Not to teach us about the places we visit, but to give us a feeling that everything is going to be OK when we encounter strange and new and unknown places. We may very well look into the book now and then to find information about the nearest restaurant or the foundation year of some old church. But most of what we learn on a journey, we may not learn from a guidebook, but from people, papers, signs, discoveries and deduction.

To travel with an over hundred years old guidebook, on the other hand, is a different thing. In this case, one can be rather certain that the guidebook no longer knows, and cannot be turned to for security. Rather, the 1906 guidebook is a door to not only another world, but also what someone in that other world found worthy of notice. And as I find whenever I turn the pages in the Baedeker, things do not really change, or only very slowly.

Uppsala in 1906 had three hotels worth mentioning, to judge from the Baedeker: the City Hotel (Stadshotellet) near the cathedral, and Hotel Svea and Hotel St. Erik near the train station. None of the hotels are preserved today, but the buildings still remain. Ironically, a Hotel Sveva (!) is instead situated in between the old Svea and St. Erik hotels, but housed in a modern building. My favourite place to stay in Uppsala, Grand Hotel Hörnan (and where I write these lines), was built a few years after the guidebook was published, and is thus, for the moment, out of the game.

Grand Hotel Hörnan, Uppsala.

Grand Hotel Hörnan, Uppsala.

The main sights to see in Uppsala were the cathedral (marked with a star – the Baedeker system of pointing out the highlights of a place), the ”new” university building (built 1877–1886), the university library (the Codex Argenteus, one of the treasures of the library, gets a star), the castle (no star for the castle itself, but the view from the castle has a star) and the cemetery. And these sights are quite alive and well even a hundred and ten years later.

Intriguingly, the former owner of the guidebook has marked some places of interest in the margin of the book, but only for Copenhagen, Stockholm and Uppsala. The five must-sees in Uppsala are dutifully marked, and opening hours are underlined. For the cathedral, though, an addition has been made at the plan of the church. A pencil cross at the Bielke/Linden chapel is followed by the explanation: ”Swedenborg”. And as a matter of fact, the bodily remains of the 18th century Swedish scientist-turned-mystic Emanuel Swedenborg, who died in London in 1772, were moved to Uppsala cathedral in 1908, two years after the publication of the guidebook. Probably, the transfer had rather newly been made when our visitor came to Uppsala, and therefore it was noted in the guidebook as a bit of a sensation, or else, our visitor may have been a great fan of Swedenborg and travelled to Uppsala to see his grave. So in this case, the guidebook knew only to a certain extent, and had to be revised by its user.

I would have loved to visit the cathedral with the guidebook, being guided to Swedenborg’s tomb by the anonymous guidebook owner, but time was too short, and instead I crowned my research by having dinner opposite the old hotel Svea, in the midst of the noise of the railway station, just as a traveller in the beginning of the 20th century could have done. And the cathedral, the castle, the university, the library and the cemetery were all still there. Everything was going to be OK.

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Travel and the sense of time – with Baedeker in Italy

When we travel, something happens with our sense of time.

We can travel fast, and stay for a long time when we get to where we’re heading. We can choose to travel slow, but stay only for a short time at the goal for our journey. My last slow/fast journey was to Ghent, and I travelled for two and a half days to spend an afternoon in Belgium. Yet, the experiences of that afternoon and evening were so dense and manifold (curry! shopping! mustard! coffee! workshop! thunder! tram! dinner! nightwalk!) that it felt like several days. I have often found that only a few days in a far-away place make the sense of here and now so accentuated that time ceases to exist, or exists more intensely than ever, like a lamp that does not go out, or like an eye that never closes.

Yet, at the very moment of travelling, during the very movement of travelling, time ceases to exist too, but in a different way. As soon as a journey starts, we enter into a certain mode, be it when we pass the security control at the airport, or board a train, bus or boat. We are on our way, and that means that we are put on hold, the world stops while our vehicle keeps moving, the sceneries are whirling by outside the window in a frozen moment that constantly repeats itself and renews itself, but we can never stop this paradoxically changing still-life until the train stops, the airplane touches ground and the world stops moving as we take our first steps into a new world. And then we are the movers. The clock starts ticking again, and the present starts to produce ”now”, ”now”, ”now”. Here we are. The arrival. Now.

We have to succumb to the circumstances of travelling, since it is so restricting. You cannot get up from your flight chair, at least not too often. There’s not much space in a train either, especially when it is fully-booked and crammed with luggage. A detour now and then to the restaurant wagon, to the toilet, but basically spending a considerable amount of time sitting still in a blue chair staring at the back of the next blue chair where someone sits staring into the next blue chair. This requires immense patience, and our weapons are either amusements in the form of imagination, books and internet, or simply dull endurance. Many use a journey as relaxation, sleeping or just vegetating away in a half-awake state, waiting, abiding. Long-haul flights call for casual, even pyjama-like clothing. But travelling can also be perfect for working. Finally finishing that conference paper on the flight there, because suddenly, in that gap of non-existing time, you can (and must) do it. Noone knocks on your office door; they might call, but at least they can’t reach you by e-mail unless you happen to have access to wifi.

Travelling even mixes the elements up. You are in mid-air, perhaps even above water. You are on the ground, but sweeping forth like the airy wind. You must cross a channel or a strait on the watery waves. In case of lightning, you are safe whether in a car, a train or a plane. The rain can’t touch you, but some jet streams may shake your balance high above the earthly clouds. The altitude confuses your taste buds and makes you more sensitive to alcohol. The gentle rocking of the train or the boat makes you dizzy or nauseous. No wonder we lose our sense of time completely.

What about the time at our destination, then? Caught in the now, now, now of the sometimes successful, sometimes less lucky fulfilment of our aims, be it leisure or duty. How are we going to handle time during our stay, to make it last as long as possible and to make the most out of the hours we’ve got, without overdoing ourselves or getting caught up by Stress, the frightful vengeance goddess flying even faster than the Fama or the Erinnyes of antiquity.


In fact, as usual when it comes to travelling, our reliable Baedeker guidebook has the recipy for us. In the editions of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it is clearly specified how much time the traveller will need in order to experience the chosen land or city in an adequate way. In the guide to Italy, Rome is the indisputable queen with as much as two weeks recommended as an absolute minimum for the stay. The other cities on the route to Rome (because at this point of time, you had to travel on the ground and thus widen your scope for intermediate stops) are worthy of a little sightseeing, too, but not by far as much. Poor Pisa gets half a day, Florence at least a couple of days.

The idea of travelling slowly through Italy is, of course, a product of the Grand Tour-era, though on a much smaller scale than the season- or year-long journeys of the 17th and 18th centuries. And the one thing that stands out in the Baedeker schedule compared with the practice of today is Naples. Because the journey did not end in Rome, if you thought that you were done there. No, after Rome, you were supposed to continue to Naples, and to stay there for ten whole days. So when Rome tourists today may do a day trip to see Pompeii, the Baedeker traveller still had to enact the Grand Naples Tour. Here, after the seriousness of the Rome visit – as literary historian Chloe Chard has described it – with demanding history lessons and challenging art masterpieces, in Naples one would simply give in to the senses, to the beauty of nature, to the dolce-far-niente of the locals, to the intoxicating wine, to the ripe fruits, and to the raw force of nature on the top of mount Vesuvius. And of course, there were art collections and archaeological museums to tick off in Naples, too.

Vesuvius seen from the ferry to Capri. There is just no way to describe this sight, less so to depict it. It is larger than anything, larger than life.

I am thinking about all this while on my way to Capri and San Michele, the Swedish cultural institute in the villa formerly owned by the eccentric doctor Axel Munthe. The villa is nowadays included in the sights to see at the short day-trips to the island that most visitors choose, probably because Capri is one of the most expensive locations in Italy. In the 1926 Baedeker, Villa San Michele was not yet a tourist attraction (Munthe published his ”The Story of San Michele” in 1929, which immediately gained great success and contributed to a boom of Capri tourism). Baedeker recommends two days for seeing Capri; the many Roman remains, for example from the time of emperor Tiberius, get little attention – instead, what to see in Capri is nature itself. The Baedeker delivers a star to three sights in total: the Grotta Azzurra, of course; the view over the Faraglioni rocks from Punta Tragara (with café), and the view from Monte Solaro, the highest peak on the island. At the visit to the Grotta Azzurra, a fisher boy is said to readily take a bath in the water for a small coin in order to show the phenomenon that bodies, out of optical magic, get all mermaid-silvery beneath the water; otherwise, Baedeker informs, you can try it with your own arm.

Capri from a distance. Monte Solaro is the highest peak to the right; the Blue Grotto is at sea level far right.

Capri from a distance. Monte Solaro is the highest peak to the right; the Blue Grotto is at sea level far right.

On my last visit to Capri, I did not see the Grotta Azzurra, partly from my fear of claustrophobia (the height of the entrance to the cave is only one meter above water level) and partly from a temporary anti-guidebook-mood – this time, however, I am determined to see it, as well as the views from Monte Solaro and Punta Tragara. To be a tourist is to have duties. And I am interested in seeing whether there still is a fisher boy diving for money, as ninety years ago, or of I will have to put my own arm into the water.




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Itinerary VIII, Ponte S. Angelo to Porta Asinaria, second part

Starting point: Piazza Pasquino

Einsiedeln instructions:

In sinistra                                                In dextra

Sancti Laurentii in Damaso

Thermae Alexandrinae                        Theatrum Pompei

Sancti Eustachii. Rotunda                   Cypressus

Thermae Commodianae

My dearest itinerarists!

Here we are, together again – as you remembered, we had fixed an appointment at piazza Pasquino, at the feet of the worn statue whose history I gave you in the end of our last promenade. This mutilated marble torso also, incidentally, marks a temporary mutilation of our route, as it once in a while happens – we stand close to the modern, late 19th century Corso Vittorio Emanuele, which has cut through the medieval quarters from east to west between piazza Venezia and ponte Vittorio Emanuele. If we proceed onward to piazza San Pantaleo, we have the roaringly fast traffic right before us, and this is one of the few spots in the historical center of Rome where it is not recommended to just step out majestically in the traffic and wait for the cars and motorinos to stop (or, as I once was advised by a more experienced person: If you want to cross a busy street, just wait for a nun to come along, and then follow her closely). So, if there’s temporarily no nun in sight here, we’d better wait in order at the pedestrian crossing where tourists stream from piazza Navona towards Campo de’ Fiori. We are, however, in search of something completely different than Bernini fountains and flower markets: obediently, we look at our itinerary, which now informs us that we should have the church of S. Lorenzo in Damaso on our right hand. And so we have! A few steps to the right along the Corso Vittorio Emanuele, we can see the white façade of the Cancelleria Palace, and built into the early 16th-century palace, seat of the Cancelleria Apostolica from 1517, we’ll find the small church of S. Lorenzo. I told you about the excavations of the oldest church, right under the Cancelleria palace, in the previous promenade, and how this location has enabled us to reconstruct the correct itinerary so far. But since you seem inquisitive, I’ll tell you some more about the church. It is mentioned for the first time in literary sources in the late fifth century, but tradition has it that the church was built by pope Damasus I in the late fourth century in his very own house. An inscription, now lost but recorded in an ancient manuscript, mentions Damasus as the constructor of the church: Haec Damasus tibi Christe Deus nova tecta dicavi Laurentii saeptus martyris auxilio (Damasus dedicated this new building to you, Christ, with the help of the martyr Laurentius). And pope Damasus was really a pope of public writing: the many poems he wrote about martyrs and the churches consecrated to them were exquisitely incised by a stone cutter we happen to know by name: Furius Dionysius Filocalus.

A portion of the Damasus inscription in S. Agnese fuori le Mura.

A portion of the Damasus inscription in S. Agnese fuori le Mura.

The letter style is far superior to any inscriptions of the era: with flowing serifs and dramatically contrasting line-width, they are worth every admiration – and just imagine that the inscriptions already were some centuries old when our pilgrim walked around Rome! In fact, we can be quite sure that also the Einsiedeln pilgrim truly admired the Damasus inscriptions: no less than four of them are transcribed in the collection of Latin inscriptions that is attached to the itineraries in our manuscript.

After having sent a thought to pope Damasus and his letter-cutter, it is time for us to move on, and to have a look at which our next landmarks can be. On our left hand side, we expect to have thermae Alexandrinae, the church of S. EustachioRotunda, and thermae Commodianae. The observant itinerarist now asks if we perchance haven’t met these monuments somewhere before? And surely we have, in itinerary number II, which you find here. Then, walking from ponte S. Angelo along via dei Coronari and further on along via delle Coppelle, we had the Alexandrian baths as well as the church of S. Eustachio, the Rotunda – the medieval name for Pantheon – and the baths of Commodus on our right hand side, passing rather far north of them. Thus, we never got to actually really know them; they were too far away, and we were unsure whether our itinerary allowed any deviations or not. And the irony is, that the case now is rather much the same – only that this time, they are rather far away on our left hand side, and so, we will leave them behind once again, so as not to come too late to our distant goal, the porta Asinaria on the other side of town. I will concede you a small favor, though: sneak away quickly to the church of S. Eustachio, because there, at piazza di S. Eustachio, lies the eponymous coffee bar which competes with Tazza d’Oro about Rome’s best coffee. (My first souvenir from Rome was actually an espresso cup from S. Eustachio, so I have had a soft spot for them ever since.) I’ll wait here till you return.

A S. Eustachio coffee cup.

A S. Eustachio coffee cup.

So, deprived of the monuments to our left, we will instead be soothed by the next monuments to our right: the theatre of Pompey and the mysterious cypressus. If we leave Corso Vittorio Emanuele and enter via del Paradiso down south, we actually come right across the ancient theatre, even if we have to adjust our eyes a little to really see it. The rounded outline of the houses in piazza Paradiso and via del Biscione in fact reveals to us that the buildings are nothing but a continuation of the ancient theatre as a substructure, with restaurants and garages looming in the old vaults (it seems, as any Roman itineraries would have observed, that garages proper are one of the most common finds in ancient Roman vaults…). And this is where we actually are very close to the medieval practice in the time of our medieval manuscript: exactly in this way, churches, dwellings and other structures found their way into the grand arches of Antiquity, just as we saw in itinerary II where the church of S. Agnese was founded in the vaults of the stadium of Domitian.

The theatre of Pompey was repaired as late as in the sixth century, but afterwards fell out of use and was stripped of its marble clothing. In the 13th century, it was turned into a fortress by the Orsini family, but that was centuries later than when our Einsiedeln pilgrim passed by the towering theatre ruins. Some of its columns can be seen today in the courtyard of the palazzo della Cancelleria that we just passed by – they are supposed to have been used in the oldest church of S. Lorenzo in Damaso, in the sustainable development so typical for the Middle Ages.

The restaurant Grotte del Teatro di Pompeo.

The restaurant Grotte del Teatro di Pompeo.

And as nostalgia for some reason seems to find its way into this particular promenade, I might as well tell you that the restaurant Grotte del Teatro di Pompeo was one of the restaurants I visited as a ten-year-old on my first visit to Rome and learned to eat fettuccine, which became my favourite pasta variety, with butter or with piselli and prosciutto. And by eating inside the depths of an ancient Roman theatre I guess I was tied eternally to the eternal city from that moment on…

Let’s now return to Corso Vittorio Emanuele – because old maps seem to confirm that the modern road here follows the medieval street rather accurately. And if we pay attention, we can see the odd medieval column greet us from the façades along the way – who would have thought that this busy vein of the city surfs on medieval ground?

A medieval portico in corso Vittorio Emanuele 99-101.

A medieval portico in corso Vittorio Emanuele 99-101.

Our last landmark on the right should now be – a tree. A cypress. How on earth are we going to be able to find a medieval cypress in the middle of modern Rome? Well, thanks to a little research, we will be able to find it. Only that it now has turned into a tower. I know, this sounds mad, but if we proceed further on to the square Largo Argentina – nowadays hosting four excavated republican temples and several cats, but in the Middle Ages densely used and reused quarters – we spot a medieval brick tower down in the south-east corner of the piazza. It is the torre del Papito, which stands more or less on the spot where our cypress, or perhaps a small collection of several cypresses, once gave its name to this part of Rome. And as we are supposed to have the cypress on our right side, it seems convenient to walk down the east side of the piazza, and find some shade from the sun in the medieval portico adjacent to the tower (although that is a much later construction, but it is the medieval atmosphere that we are after, don’t you agree?).

The medieval tower in Largo Argentina.

The medieval tower in Largo Argentina.

If you at this point feel that you haven’t had quite enough of medieval structures and ancient walls, I will let you into the Museo di Crypta Balbi nearby, so that you really can go in-depth regarding Largo Argentina and its history. I will wait for you at Caffè Camerino (the famous cafffè con tre effe) on the corner. Alla prossima!


Posted in Itinerary VIII: A porta sancti Petri usque Porta Asinaria | Leave a comment

Paradise, or Where Does Italy Begin?

For a traveller to Italy from the north, there is no possible way of ignoring the Alps. Whether you are Hannibal, a medieval pilgrim, a Grand Tour pleasure seeker or an airborne tourist of the 21st century, the Alps are the symbol of the transition from ”now” to ”then”, from cold to warm, from winter to eternal spring. If travelling by train, as I did today, the passage over the mountain range forces the journey to slow down considerably, winding its way through tunnels, valleys and passes, just to prolong and thus dramatize the event that is about to happen. I boarded the night train Pictor in Munich, heading for Venice (with additional wagons to Zagreb and Budapest to be disconnected during the night), and prepared myself for being transported in my cocoon compartment through the dark mountains until the morning light outside the window would wake me up in Italy, and the transformation would be complete.

The Pictor night-train.

The Pictor night-train.

Whichever way one crosses the Alps, the contrast between north and south never fails to strike. Several climate changes occur on the way: from autumn in Germany to sudden snow in the middle of the Alps, only to stumble into verdant spring after having crossed the Italian border. The landscape, the language, the nature, the architecture – the scenery outside the train windows as well as on the train itself shifts and transforms only because of this giant alpine gate-keeper. No wonder that the effect this journey has made on travellers, historically as well as this very day, remains an almost shocking experience, often euphoric, but also sometimes disappointing when the effect for some reason fails. Leaving reality behind, entering eternal Paradise. Leaving identity behind as a worn-out old coat, getting new garments in flowing silk. Leaving troubles behind, filled by peace of mind as white as the blossoming almond trees in the valley.

”Go thou to Rome, – at once the Paradise, the grave, the city, and the wilderness”, Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote in his Adonais – an elegy on the death of John Keats. And several other writers of the 18th and 19th century in fact declare the same: Italy, and Rome, is Paradise. A Paradise on earth, with a mild climate, where fruits and vegetables are abundant, and all troubles dissolve in the warm sun. The travel writer Anna Jameson called Italy ”a sort of Golden Age”, referring to the ancient myth of an archaic period under the reign of Saturn, when mankind lived happily and in peace because earth and nature freely gave them whatever they needed. Jameson seems to indicate that the Golden Age is not a mythical past, but rather a reality rooted in the Italian landscape and which, she argues, creates the stereotypical Italian lifestyle of dolce far niente and idleness. ”At every moment the senses, lapped in delight, whisper – this is Paradise”. Also Mary Shelley in her travelogue Rambles in Germany and Italy from 1844 agrees: southern Italy and its climate is a paradise.

But travellers have, too, sought in vain for paradisiac happiness immediately south of the Alps. The weather, the time of year, what you had for dinner last night, the company, the compartment – as I started to fall asleep in my bed on the Pictor train, I decided that next morning, I would take on the identity of a romantic traveller in search of ”Italy”, asking myself the question ”When and where does Italy begin, and why?”, while trying to find the answer from my own experiences. An experiment. The Italian experiment, carried out to an extreme, indulging in preconceptions and turning back the clock to cultural pre-post-colonialism.

I woke up at seven in the morning; a pale light seeped into the compartment. It was morning, I was in Italy, I knew I was in Italy because I had received a text message from Telecom Italia wishing me welcome to Italy. When I opened the curtain and peeped out, everything outside was grey and brown. Brown muddy fields, grey houses, roads, industrial buildings, a grey river, spindly black leafless trees. Was this Italy? No. I started to think about what Italy was supposed to look like, what I was looking for, waiting for, longing for, needing. I pulled down the curtain again, got dressed and went out in the train corridor, and there they were outside the window: the mountains, the Italian side of the Alps. My compartment window apparently fronted on the wrong direction. The wonderful mountains, blueish, snow over the tops. The mountains made me feel good, alert, happy, full of expectations. The mountains were Italy by means of their beauty, their mild sloping down into an imagined spring from the stern Austrian part of the Alps. The mountains were Italy.


What else was Italy? I looked out the window and scrutinized critically what I saw. The leafless trees? No. Anonymous blocks of flats in the small towns we were passing by? No. Industrial complexes? No. People in black winter jackets on their way to work? No. School kids on the platform? No. Infrastructure? No. Everyday existence? No. I was waiting for pine trees, cypresses, bell towers, villas, ruins, picturesque huts, ochra hues. Italy is nature, but not any nature; certain symbolic species, evergreen, flowery. Italy is history, but not any history; not industrial history, working class history, no, for me, in this outdated character I chose for myself this morning, it is architectural history, archaeology, art history, church history, and all with a tint of Romanticism. Thus, an old stone house overgrown by ivy would do, as would the medieval bell tower. Italy is climate, and, obviously, the milder the better. It would never be foggy in Paradise, not the winter kind of fog, at least.

Well, but would I then like these sceneries to be inhabited? By Italians? Yes. Italians. But not ordinary people, not the everyday persons, no, I would rather like the elderly gentleman reading La Repubblica, the elegant lady in felt hat and cape, yes, probably the too-rich owners of the villas I wished for earlier. In fact, I would not want any everyday scenes at all, other than the ones of the persons who by birth or by wealth loom carelessly high above it all, because they echo my own wish to be at ease in this country. I am here as a colonist, of history, of the arts, of not having a care in the world. I do not want your 21st century civilisation, not your commuting, not your society and not your politics. I do not want your present time, no thank you! I am here to forget and to feel good. I want to see Pan disguised as the gentleman in Italian tweed, I want to see Dea Roma in furs with a Dachshund. In short, I want Paradise, I want the Golden Age, I need a pre-historical vacation, an archaic resort with olives on a plate and a glass of timeless wine in the shade.

I reflected on the fact that poverty is not picturesque any more, as it once was; it is only dirty and hopeless. The poor peasant of the previous centuries is history. Perhaps, I thought, reasoning from my chauvinist/romantic character, it is because the poor are not genuine any more. It is not the rustic inhabitants from the Campagna and the Ciociara mountains that flock the Spanish Steps now, it is globalized poverty, the immigrants and the refugees, who desperately seek any life anywhere. In fact, one might suspect that it is just that lacking rustic element that is the clue. The poor peasants and herdsmen from the fields and the woods somehow are members of the Golden Age myth: they can be terrifying, they are not to be trusted or touched, but isn’t that true of fauns and nymphs as well?

View from the railway bridge to Venezia S. Lucia.

View from the railway bridge to Venezia S. Lucia.

I had to get off the train at Venezia Mestre in order to catch the next train to Rome. Oh, so close to Venice, to Italy, the dreamy waters, the painfully beautiful canal with its palazzi, the very image of Italy, the postcard of Italy, the ”true” Italy, to be so close and yet not be allowed to arrive in Italy. The dull Mestre station, industrial worn-down modern suburb, would not do for my purposes of seeking ”Italy”. But when I dragged my suitcase down and up the stairs to reach the coffee bar at the station I heard the morning rumour all around me, and suddenly I knew: this is Italy, the crowd, the Italian phrases, the sounds of everyday life, extracted to an overall atmosphere. Individuals reduced to a crowd, a timeless crowd doing what crowds always have done: moving and buzzing. The first contact with Italian air, the first steps on Italian ground – although it happens in Mestre, in this case, present-day will do and will do very well, because it is the canvas that the impressions of the senses have to be painted on. When seeking the view, the veduta, only one’s eyes and preconceptions are at play. But sooner or later I, the traveller, have to place my body in the midst of the scene, and then there is no stopping the action of the senses, even if I do not look, and perhaps even more if I don’t. The rumour confirms that this is Italy, and because this is Italy, the views that I am after will eventually show, the climate I seek will appear, the sun will break through the fog and the rain will stop, and after all I need to be out here on the ground, in the field, to meet the history and the arts I know are waiting for me here.

When I entered the Frecciargento train bound for Roma Termini, I no longer looked out the window for views that would confirm ”Italy”. It all became very simple, and yet more inexplicable than ever. In the middle of the chaos, stress, sharp sounds, whirling smells, and pollution on the dull Mestre station I was suddenly much nearer to Italy than ever on the panoramic train bridge to Venezia S. Lucia. It made me euphoric and happy, not because it had anything to do with Paradise, but just because it happened to be the place where I got off the train and into the thick air of reality. Maybe I did not pass the test as a true Romantic traveller; maybe the Paradise thing and its sceneries is just a literary construction, conceived inside a writing chamber in northern Europe; maybe Paradise is made precisely that way – a glimpse of something far off, outside a train window, a beautiful but forever lost ray of light, something to be chased as a rainbow but never found. The result of my experiment: I preferred reality, especially when it included a cup of coffee. Who knows if they have coffee in Paradise? And who knows where Italy begins? If you find out, let me know.

Posted in The Journey to Rome | Leave a comment

The low door. A mind-travel to Oxford

It began with a twig of ivy this dark December morning, a little piece of intense greenery in the bleak autumn grass next to a grey stone wall. ”The eye has to travel”, Diana Vreeland, legendary fashion editor, once said. But also the mind has to travel, and often, it is not along the highways of the senses that the mind prefers to trail, but instead along the byways, lanes and dead end streets of memory. The core of this blog is about guidebooks to Rome, and about historical as well as contemporary travels to Rome. But every now and then, other journeys and other stories, of the eye, the mind, or the body, find their way into the blog too.

It began, ominously, with a twig of ivy, and later today, I happened to see a still from Brideshead Revisited, the TV series from the 1980s, based on the novel by Evelyn Waugh. The protagonists Charles and Sebastian (iconically interpreted by Jeremy Irons and Anthony Andrews) strike their characteristic poses, teddybear and all, in front of some sort of monument. Much as I adore the imagery of the series, as well as the novel itself, my professional self could not help but focussing on the fact that there was actually a Latin inscription on the monument behind them. Fragmentary in the photo, only some scattered word could be read: alternis vicibus, fines curriculi, nec latet ignotis, Phoebe das noctu.

Still from Brideshead Revisited.

Still from Brideshead Revisited.

I am, sadly, not particularly highly educated concerning the topoi and topographies of Oxford, and someone more versed than me in the whereabouts of the city may recognise a 16th century sundial, which took me some googling of the words in the inscription to locate. An article about Queen Elizabeth I depicted as Urania, the muse of astrology and the poetry of the heavens, kindly provided me with an image of the sundial and the full text of the inscription: an elegiac couplet about the stars, the sun and the moon, a very appropriate theme on a sundial. It begins: Aspice perpetuo labentia sydera cursu (”Behold the the gliding stars in their eternal course”), and continues, after having addressed the sundial as alma columna (”kind column”), with a wordplay on the names Phoebe (goddess of the moon) and Phoebus (Apollo, the god of the sun): Namque dices pariter, Phoebes Phoebique labores, Tempora, quisquis dies, mensis ac annus erit (”You will indicate equally the periods of time, labours of Phoebe and Phoebus, whichever day, month and year it will be”).

From the college-like surroundings in the background, I supposed that the sundial belonged to Christ Church, Sebastian’s college in the novel. And my mind began to travel.

I’ve only seen Oxford once, and in fact, it was a visit with an epigraphic genesis. I had found out that the British Epigraphy Society would hold their Autumn Colloquium in Oxford, and I immediately joined the Society, only to be able to get a reason for going to Oxford. As if one needs a reason – but I wanted to go there as a professional, as a Latinist, as an epigraphist, to be able to view Oxford from inside, not from the outsider’s or the tourist’s perspective. I wanted to be on the inside of the gate.

The Colloquium was to be held at Corpus Christi College – which I, mistakenly, read as Christ Church College, and so found myself erring around its gigantic emerald green lawn until someone showed me the way to the smaller and cosier Corpus Christi close by. And when I just now googled my way to the location of our old friend the sundial, it turned out that it is not located in Christ Church, but instead – in Corpus Christi. So I must have passed by without noticing it that day in Oxford, and why Sebastian and Charles chose to pose there for the still from the TV series I don’t know.

I had gone to Oxford by plane – this was before the happier era of travelling on the ground – and had reached Heathrow after dark an autumn afternoon, and then headed on to Oxford by bus. When I got off at the bus station, I was disappointed. The place looked much the same as any bus station in any smallish town in Sweden, a smell of hot dogs lingered in the air, and no dreaming spires could be seen. My hotel was in Banbury road, a bit north of the city center – of course, I would have loved to stay in a college, but instead I found myself in a very cold and rather unpleasant little room of an uncharming hotel.

I was in Oxford. I had dreamt of Oxford ever since I first saw Brideshead Revisited on TV as a youngster with academic aspirations – and then I read the novel, first in Swedish, then in English – and was further fuelled with longing when I came across Gaudy Night by Dorothy Sayers.

Brideshead revisited is still one of the best works of fiction I know. Recently, I attended a public lecture about the work and its author, and at the occasion, the qualities of a true classic were defined by the clever and witty Ulrika Knutson: a literary classic is a piece of work that can be read and reread again and again, because it will change with you over time. Every time you read it, the fictional landscape that you enter will be entirely new. And indeed, Brideshead revisited has been with me, and revisited by me, for so long that the definition rings more than true. But all along, it has, to me, pictured the impossibilities and deficiencies of life. When I was young, the novel seemed to show how life could and should be, and yet could not be, and for a long time it moulded my youthfully pessimistic view of life as imcompatible with my ways of living it. For me, the only watering hole in the desert of life was fiction, because fiction was fantasies, and for a fantasy anything is possible. Reality was impossibility. And thus, through Brideshead Revisited, I longed for the fiction of someone else’s fictive memory of a lost world, a mirror with so many shades and shadows that one could be trapped inside forever and never find the way out.

My inner image of Oxford, thus, was formed by the nostalgia of something lost, and of the fiction of loss. Paradoxically enough, I went to Oxford to find that something. When Charles is invited to Sebastian for lunch for the first time, he recalls: ”I went full of curiosity and the faint, unrecognized apprehension that here, at last, I should find that low door in the wall, which others, I knew, had found before me, which opemed on an enclosed and enchanted garden, which was somewhere, not overlooked by any window, in the heart of that grey city.” Sebastian and Charles are, later, depicted as wandering around in the Botanical gardens ”to see the ivy”, and we watch them disappear together behind an iron gate. One of my sightseeing goals in Oxford was, therefore, the Botanical gardens, but the gate was nowhere to be seen, so I walked through my sunken dream from college to college, up and down the narrow streets, without finding any traces of the fiction I wanted to find. I had some fine moments in the park of Magdalen college, with squirrels and holly, I admired the river and the punt boats, I saw the Bodleian library and climbed the bell tower of St. Mary, but for most of the time, it seems to me now that I went back and forth along Banbury road, freezing and feeling lonely. The road was lined with brick houses, each one of them surrounded by a garden with all the dark green plants and shrubs and trees that go so well with the reddish bricks. I admired them when passing by, suggestive at night, with long shades from the squarely cut hedges, and in daylight the houses comforted me somewhat by their assemblance to the architecture of Lund, the city of parts of my childhood and youth. The smell of wet leaves and cold earth accompanied my way along the road, and when I nowadays catch a similar smell on the way to work a wet autumn morning, it is Banbury road I recall, symbol of my failed journey in the footsteps of fiction.

The blog-author in the park of Magdalen College (taken with self timer)

The blog-author in the park of Magdalen College (taken with self timer)

Travelling, we search for homes away from home. We seek the cities of our souls, or we go looking for the home we never had. I read a brilliant article some years ago in the Telegraph about the eternal image of the same low door in the wall that Charles was looking for, and which I tried to find in the Botanical gardens in Oxford. The article even introduces the very prototype of the low door, ”the Low Door of low doors”, which apparently is to be found in – Christ Church college. But, as the article soberly states: ”Not that where a low door leads matters much: it’s the notion that’s so exciting.” Indeed. The fantasy of something hidden from reality, a life larger than life, a garden where dreams can grow, and where fiction is the queen of the emerald-green lawn.

Since then, I have come to realize that I must not look for the low door anywhere. Not in Oxford, not in Rome (where I also have done a terrible amount of looking for it over the years, in courtyards, alleyways, gardens and towers). The low door is not a passageway for escaping from reality through an emergency exit. The door is nothing else than a literary metaphor, which has fooled me and probably several other lost souls into believing that the door has a physical appearance and a fixed specific place. No, the low door, I have found, is located in myself, in my mind, and rather than an emergency exit from the world outside, it is instead a door through which I can enter into reality, and bring all my fictions and fantasies along with me. Through that door, memories walk back and forth, and through it, reminiscences from distant places can find their way onto the ordinary lanes of everyday gloom, sprinkled as dark and shiny leaves of ivy along the way.

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Itinerary VIII, Ponte S. Angelo to Porta Asinaria, first part

Starting point: Ponte S. Angelo, east side

Einsiedeln instructions:

In sinistra                                                        In dextra

Circus Flamineus. Ibi sancta Agnes           Sancti Laurentii in Damaso

Dear itinerarists, pilgrims, promenaders!

It is time, on this clear, crisp autumn morning, to begin a new itinerary, and this time, we’ll choose itinerary VIII, which will take us from ponte S. Angelo (where, as you remember, also itinerary II started out) and all the way to Porta Asinaria near S. Giovanni in Laterano. But before we get on our way, we must first decide which way to take from Ponte S. Angelo, something which will need some calculation, so I suggest that you find a peaceful spot somewhere near where you can sit down and consider the possibilities together with Rodolfo Lanciani, Christian Hülsen and some other scholars past and present.

The two first entries on this itinerary, Circus Flamineus to the left and S. Lorenzo in Damaso to the right, immediately indicate that the route from porta sancti Petri is a different one from itinerary II, where we had Circus Flamineus as the first entry to our right, and thus chose to turn left onto via dei Coronari. Then, we passed by piazza Navona (Domitian’s stadium, erroneously identified as circus Flamineus by the Einsiedeln manuscript) on the north side – and we were then also instructed to pay a visit to the church of S. Agnese, situated in the vaults of the stadium; now, we must proceed on its southern side instead. And since our first landmark to the right is the church of S. Lorenzo in Damaso, the navigable space narrows down considerably: we should aim at piazza Pasquino, in order to be on the south side of piazza Navona and to the north side of S. Lorenzo in Damaso – a church which today is found incorporated into the 15th century palazzo della Cancelleria just south of the modern Corso Vittorio Emanuele. This means that the nearest and most logical way to walk would be via dei Banchi Nuovi and its continuation, via del Governo Vecchio (marked with red arrows in the map below).

Itinerarium VIII del 1 karta

Actually, this stretch of the itinerary has been differently interpreted by several scholars in the past, partly because they assumed that the itinerary must have used via dei Banchi Vecchi and via del Pellegrino instead (marked with blue arrows in the map above), and thus choosing a more southern way, parallel to the one suggested above. It is a tempting alternative, because of the confirmed ancient Roman origins of the two streets (as documented on for example Forma Urbis Romae by Rodolfo Lanciani, constable online here), but the difficulty arising from this theory is that the present church of S. Lorenzo in Damaso would then not be situated to the right, but to the left of the itinerary. Since the earliest, late-antique structures of S. Lorenzo in Damaso long remained unknown, Rodolfo Lanciani, in his otherwise very accurate study of the Einsiedeln itinerary (see bibliography at the end of the blogpost), assumed that the first church may have been situated to the south of via del Pellegrino, and so did Christian Hülsen in 1907. However, the great champion of the early Christian basilicas of Rome, Richard Krautheimer, suggested in 1959 that some Roman walls excavated in the courtyard of the Cancelleria palace in the 1930s could very well indicate the site of the earliest church, and in a large-scale excavation in the 1980s and 1990s (a collaboration between Musei Vaticani, Biblioteca Hertziana and Max Planck Institute for Art History), it could be confirmed that the earliest church in fact was to be found under the Cancelleria palace. In the publication of the excavations, Massimo Pentiricci wrote an interesting section about how the finds served to identify the correct route of the Einsiedeln itinerary as via dei Banchi Nuovi and via del Governo Vecchio, although no excavations yet has shown any proof of ancient or medieval street paving there. However, as we shall see, the route shows exactly the same continuation of medieval and renaissance architectural structures that we have seen along the other itinerary routes, and so I find it fairly probable that this route actually is the one indicated by the Einsiedeln itinerary. Further, Pentiricci showed that on the map of Alessandri Strozzi from 1474 – which, quite in the Einsiedeln fashion, designed monuments as isolated islands more than the actual streets joining them together – a road can actually be seen as a line towards what is noted as piazza di Parione, which is todays piazza di Pasquino. To the right of the piazza, the church is located, and on the other side of the church, Campo de’Fiori.

Map of Alessandro Strozzi, 1474, detail

Map of Alessandro Strozzi, 1474, detail

Right, then! Everything settled, and we’re ready to start walking, our itinerary in one hand and a map, be it a modern tourist map or a print-out of a 17th- och 18th-century map, in the other. If you would like to refresh your memory about the monuments in the very beginning of the route – the bridge, the now lost city gate, the medieval portico in the house immediately to the right – take a look at itinerary II here, and let’s then start our walk right where via dei Banchi Nuovi begins.

Just as when we walked via dei Coronari in Itinerary II, we will recognise the so typical features of the Einsiedeln itinerary routes: narrow, medieval houses with only two windows on each floor, sometimes spolia as columns or other marble pieces mounted into the façades, Renaissance remakes of the medieval structures, with square or rounded smallish portals and the occasional decoration, which all in all points to the continuity of importance of these routes from the Middle Ages and up to the 16th century. With the Baroque period, however, whose expressions need grander scale and more spacious room, these routes tend somehow to be transformed into back streets of less importance: on our way, we will for example pass by the back side of the magnificent Chiesa Nuova from the 16th century.

And on via dei Banchi Nuovi, it is above all from the narrow alleyways on our left side that we will get this general medieval feeling, as for example vicolo delle Campanelle and vicolo di S. Giuliano. And if a portal happens to be open along the street, be sure to have a quick glance inside: you will always be rewarded by the sight of a courtyard, a sculpture, or a possibly medieval column as in the image below from via dei Banchi Nuovi no. 24.

Portal on via dei Banchi Nuovi 24

Portal on via dei Banchi Nuovi 24

And on our left hand side, we will also find a place where we sooner or later will want to have more than a quick look inside: the mythical restaurant Da Alfredo e Ada, which – at least until recently – had no written menu, and the check was written on the paper table cloth. It is quite probable that something similar was to be found along the way already in the Einsiedeln period…

The entrance to Da Alfredo e Ada

The entrance to Da Alfredo e Ada

It is still a little early for lunch, so we will continue towards the modern Piazza dell’Orologio, where the route continues in via del Governo Vecchio. Here, the medieval alleyways continue to the left, for example vicolo dell’Avila och vicolo Cieco. On no. 124 on the right hand side, a perfectly beautiful little isolated palace can be seen, the so-called Palazzetto Turci (also named ”the small Cancelleria”  because of its likeness in style to the Cancelleria palace, which we will soon pass by).    Although built around 700 years after the Einsiedeln manuscript was written, we cannot resist to stop and read its Latin inscription: Petrus Turcius Novariensis a litteris apostolicis scribendis dictandisque anno saeculari MD fecit, where we learn that Petrus Turcius from Novara, a scribe of apostolic letters, had this house made in the year 1500 – and so we have made use of the age-old practice of consulting inscriptions as ”local” guidebooks, revealing the secrets of their neighbourhood to those who are able to decipher them.


Palazzetto Turci.

Palazzetto Turci.

Soon, piazza Pasquino opens before us, named after the much worn antique sculpture in one of its corners, a sculpture that under the name of Pasquino was – and still is – one of Rome’s ”speaking” statues in the sense that poems and pamphlets traditionally have been attached to this poor ghost of a statue. It is not much of a square, just an assymmetric open space, and one would not believe that it had other historic value than the Pasquino statue – but, as we saw earlier, this was piazza di Parione already in the end of the 15th century, along one of the most important routes through Rome during the Middle Ages, and I would love to believe that Pasquino (who’s real name appears to be Menelaos) was around already then (he wasn’t, though: the sculpture was found and put up in 1501). A low column showing in the façade to the left, at no. 76, tells us, like a pendant to Pasquino, about the medievality of the neighbourhood. I won’t show you an image of Pasquino – you may be familiar with him already, or you will have to wait and see for yourself what he looks like – but how could anyone refrain from indulging in photographs of medieval columns?

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Piazza Navona, our first landmark to the left, is now just around the corner, the church of S. Lorenzo in Damaso is near, on our right side – but before we continue, I suggest that we have a coffee at Caffè della Pace, which we will find close by if we walk up via del Teatro Pace (named after  a wooden theatre in existence between 1691 and 1853) to the left just before piazza Pasquino – one of the most medieval of all the alleyways we have passed so far, where an old, minuscule man parks his even smaller car in the tiny vicolo de Cupis just as we are going to take a photograph of this unusually deserted and almost illegally picturesque area, so close to piazza Navona, so little visited and so worth exploring. See you in an instant, we’ll meet at Pasquino!

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Via del Teatro Pace.



Hülsen, Christian, La pianta di Roma dell’anonimo Einsiedlense, Roma 1907.

Krautheimer, Richard, Corpus Basilicarum Christianarum Urbis Romae, II, Città del Vaticano 1959.

Lanciani, Rodolfo, ”L’itinerario di Einsiedeln e l’Ordine di Benedetto Canonico”, Monumenti Antichi pubblicati per cura della R. Accademia dei Lincei, Vol. I, Punt. 3a, 1891, 438–551.

Pentiricci, Massimo, ”Il settore occidentale del Campo Marzio tra l’età antica e l’altomedioevo”, L’antica basilica di S. Lorenzo in Damaso (Monumentae Sanctae Sedis 5,1), vol. I – Gli Scavi, a cura di C. L Frommel & M. Pentiricci, de Luca Editore MMIX, 14–75.

Posted in Itinerary VIII: A porta sancti Petri usque Porta Asinaria | Leave a comment

Going slow or flying fast – instructions for promenades in Rome

In Madame de Staël’s novel Corinne, or Italy (1807), when the protagonists of the book are heading for Tivoli, lord Nelvil drives the four-horse carriage himself and enjoys the speed of the drive, since ”speed seems to enhance the sense of being alive”. As I stood on bus 628 this morning, and held on to the handrails the best I could as the bus jolted its way through Rome, I thought about that quote and about how accurate it was. I’ve always loved going with great speed through Rome, be it on a bus on the verge of mechanical breakdown or in a taxi, because I love seeing Rome and its monuments, crowds, and houses swirl by as a colourful and heady carousel. I love the speed because it not only conveys a feeling of being alive, but also a sense of not giving a damn. I am on my way, and therefore I’ll leave behind whatever comes my way in order to get to my faraway goal. But the sense of being alive can also very fast turn into a bolt of fear, when the night bus speeding along the dark and empty Lungotevere or a taxi on the motorway towards the airport suddenly goes too fast, and the speed of life is substituted by the fear of actually losing ones life in an instant.

On that bus, I started to think about fast and slow, and what they do to us and our perception of life. When I go to Italy by train, I prefer to think about it as slow travelling, because the whole journey from Gothenburg to Rome takes more than 30 hours. But at the same time, the train I am travelling with, be it a German ICE train or an Italian Freccia, is going by 240 km/h or so, and the feeling one gets is rather of flying across the yellow fields of Toscana and through the dark green hills of Umbria. When in a plane, which in reality moves I don’t know how many times faster than the train, the sense of speed is instead dissolved into the literally thin air 30 000 ft above ground, and the aircraft seems to be hanging in the air in a slow and at times almost peaceful flight. Still, it is the fastest way to travel, but yet, as it were, surrounded by boredom and slowness: queueing to check in, waiting at the gate, waiting for the luggage, waiting for the airport bus.

Or does fast and slow in this case actually refer more to the way we experience things on our way? A day spent flying is often a blank, empty day, when we switch off not only all electronic equipment but also, in a way, our senses. A day on the train, on the other hand, can be full of experiences: watching the landscape change, listening to the languages of the passengers succeeding each other as the train crosses yet another border, changing trains at a station in an unknown city, eating one’s lunch pack as on some adventurous picnic, or having a glass of wine in the dining car. A day on the train is exhausting not because of uniformity and dullness, but because of the stream of impressions that force themselves upon us. To travel slow is to allow oneself the time to experience, be it planned or random; to travel slow is to allow time to exist, even if that also comprises periods of boredom when the train never seems to get to its destination. To travel fast is, in a way, to deny time, to refuse the existence of time, and to get that feeling of immortality as if we were out of reach of the grasp of time and thus of death. To be slow is not necessarily to be slow-witted, but rather thorough and diligent; to be fast is not always to be sharp and quick, but also negligent and ignorant. Fast is an arrow shot in haste that often misses its goal; but being slow risks to be the delayed decision that fails to grasp an opportunity.

But what, I thought, while the Mausoleum of Augustus and via del Corso sailed by outside the bus window, what about walking? Isn’t walking the slowest kind of travelling possible? Be it strolling, promenading, pacing, rushing, marching – walking can never be fast, and however much we try to hurry we fight in vain against the impossibility of speed. Rallentare a passo d’uomo, it says on the traffic sign, slow down to walking pace – and I have often enjoyed the fact the the electrical minibuses of Rome for most of the time do just that, moving not much faster than the pedestrians on both sides of the vehicle, and that speed – or lack of speed – is just perfect for sightseeing. So is walking the perfect pace of experiencing what we pass by, with the in-built function of stopping when something particularly interesting meets our eye?

In his Promenades dans Rome (1829), Stendhal wrote that there are two ways of seeing Rome: one is to observe everything of interest in one quarter, and then pass on to the next; the other is to seek each morning for the beauty for which one feels oneself disposed on that particular day, and, not surprisingly, it is the second method that is recommended by Stendhal. The first approach is of the slow, but thorough kind – the catalogists, the categorists and the collectors would prefer this kind of organized slowness, necessarily including several thoughtful stops. The other way, however, gives instead in to the movement – moving, randomly and after one’s whim, ready to change direction in an instant when an interesting alleyway suddenly opens to the left, or a suggestive column fragment appears to the right: because the slow movement allows us to constantly evaluate what instinct to follow next. And quite as Stendhal, I much prefer the second method to the first in my own promenades dans Rome – slow but dynamic, slow but curious, slow because the pace of my feet is in perfect concordance with the pace of my senses. To float like a butterfly from sight to sight, with nothing else in mind but colour, perspectives, sounds and scents, float until the feet get too heavy and the head too full of novelties. With our feet, we not only cover and survey distances, but also time. By walking, we even create time, form our own itineraries, make our own history, while on a bus we tend to feel that we instead lose time, and never get to our goal quick enough.

To walk in Rome is a theme recurring through the centuries (as investigated for example in this brand new publication), from the ancient Roman on performative tour through the city to the pilgrims striving from indulgence to indulgence, from Bartholomeo Marliano who measured Rome with his own feet and his own eyes in the 16th century, as described in his Urbis Romae Topographia (1544), to any modern tourist guidebook, which all will assure you: walking is by far the preferred way to move around in Rome.

I went off the bus just north of piazza Navona and started walking.

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Itinerary VII, Porta S. Pancrazio to Porta Maggiore, ninth part

Starting point: piazza di S. Maria Maggiore

Einsiedeln instructions:

In sinistra:                 In dextra:

Sanctus Vitus             Forma Lateranense. Monasterium Honorii


Sancta Biviana

Forma Claudiana               Porta Praenestina

Dear itinerarists!

The time has come to conclude Itinerary VII, and to make our way from S. Maria Maggiore to reach our goal, Porta Praenestina, or Porta Maggiore as it is called today. From piazza Santa Maria Maggiore, via Merulana will lead us down to the axis of our itinerary, along the ancient clivus Suburanus, about which you can read in the preceding blog posts. When we find via S. Vito to our left, we are on our way again, and soon, the beautiful sight in the image below will meet our eyes.

The church of S. Vito and the arch of Gallienus / porta Esquilina (Wikimedia Commons)

The church of S. Vito and the arch of Gallienus / porta Esquilina (Wikimedia Commons)

This little gem, joining together antiquity and the Middle Ages in a bracelet of marble and brick, hides in this little street away from the busier areas of this part of town. The church is S. Vito and Modesto, also known as S. Vito in Macello. It is first mentioned as a diaconia in the end of the eighth century, just around the time of our the manuscript of our itinerary, which shows that the street we are walking was an important and frequented neighbourhood then, and that all of the pilgrims and visitors who strode around in Rome after the instructions of the manuscript sooner or later passed by S. Vito. In the centuries to come, however, this area lost importance and the church fell into ruin, to be restored in the 15th century by pope Sixtus IV.

The arch to which the church clings is called Arco di Gallieno, since it was rededicated to emperor Gallienus in the third century CE; the structure of the gate as seen today was built already under emperor Augustus. But the story of the gate goes way much longer back than that. This is one of the most important city gates in the old city walls of Rome, the so-called Servian wall, named after the Roman king Servius Tullius, who is said to be the first to include the Esquiline hill onto the city of Rome. The walls were constructed several centuries BCE in heavy and rough blocks of tufa stone, parts of which still are visible for smaller stretches around the city center. The circumference of the Servian wall was much smaller than the Aurelian wall built in the third century CE, and the ultimate ritual for any antiquity-aficionado would of course be not only to walk along the entire Aurelian wall (which, I am informed, takes about a day from dawn to dusk), but also, shorter but more challenging, to encircle the almost exstinct Servian wall through the more modern quarters that later have erased the better part of it. (See a rudimentary plan of the two walls here.)

The Einsiedeln manuscript does not, though usually attentive to inscriptions, report the inscription on the gate with the dedication to Gallienus (CIL VI.1106).

We reluctantly now must move on, but let’s take a last glimpse of the church and the arch though the eyes of Giuseppe Vasi in the 18th century:

Engraving by Giuseppe Vasi (Wikimedia Commons)

Engraving by Giuseppe Vasi (Wikimedia Commons)

The manuscript now calls our attention to Forma LateranenseForma, as we have seen, is medieval Latin for aqueduct – and Monasterium Honorii, but as these monuments are quite far from our itinerary, and also will recur in Itinerary VIII, we pass them by, and continue instead straight ahead towards Nympheum. And when walking along, we soon find ourselves in front of the large, busy late 19th-century piazza Vittorio Emanuele, surrounded by modern porticoes filled with shops and bars. It is actually the largest piazza in Rome, and its midst is occupied by a quite shabby park, and – our Nympheum. The large heap of bricks that towers over the west end of the piazza is the remains of the Nympheum Alexandri, a huge fountain built by emperor Alexander Severus in the third century CE.

Nympheum Alexandri in piazza Vittorio Emanuele.

Nympheum Alexandri in piazza Vittorio Emanuele.

A curiosity is that two marble sculptures from the fountain, representing war trophies, and commonly called the Trophies of Marius, are now preserved on the Capitoline hill, though in the shade of the sculptures of the Dioscuri placed at the top of the stairs and beginning of the piazza. Don’t forget to look for them, and to give piazza Vittorio Emanuele a thought when you do.

One of the trophies on the Capitoline hill.

One of the trophies on the Capitoline hill.

Possibly, the trophies were still in place on the monument in the time of the Einsiedeln manuscript, but that was not the main concern then. Instead, the Nympheum served as a gigantic landmark – of the type that the Einsiedeln itineraries are so fond of – at a crossroad. To the left, a way led to the church of S. Bibiana – correctly noted on our left in the itinerary – to which we will return in several itineraries to come, and so we do not have to hurry there at the moment. And to the right of the Nympheum, via Labicana led straight towards porta Praenestina/porta Maggiore. Via Principe Eugenio more or less coincides with via Labicana here, but preserves no traces either of Antiquity or Middle Ages, and is also in other respects quite uncharming – such a bore for us itinerarists, so I recommend that we instead take a tram from the piazza towards porta Maggiore.

The inside of Porta Maggiore.

The inside of Porta Maggiore.

And finally, we stand at our goal, the magnificent porta Praenestina/Maggiore, where the ancient via Praenestina lead to Praeneste in the east (today’s Palestrina) as well as via Labicana (now via Casilina) to Labicum in the Alban hills in the south. And as if that would not be enough, the city gate is also a knot for several aqueducts. The gate was originally constructed in the first century CE for the aqueducts’ sake – the Anio Novus and the Aqua Claudia ran straight through the top of the gate, and the channels are still visible – but was later incorporated as a gate in the Aurelian city walls. Three long inscriptions, repeated on both sides of the gate, record that emperor Claudius let the arch be constructed, and that emperors Vespasian and Titus restored the monument (CIL VI 1256-58). Our faithful manuscript immaculately reproduces the first two inscriptions – quite an accomplishment since the inscriptions are rather hard to read if the light is not perfect – but curiously leaves out the third.

We stand at the goal of itinerary VII, and the Einsiedeln pilgrim now probably incessantly would walk out through the gate to visit some martyr’s tomb or another – as for us modern itinerarists, if the light is fading as in the image above, I would rather suggest that we continue with the tram to Pigneto or Centocelle, where Rome’s most innovative restaurants right now can be found – don’t miss the incomparable Mazzo in via delle Rose! There (if booked in advance – there is only room for ten guests!), a beautiful evening awaits you as a reward for our long walk straight through Rome from west to east, before we start out on a brand new itinerary. Arrivederci!

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