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Berry Tramel  

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Italy travelblog: The Colosseum takes you back in time

by Berry Tramel Modified: June 30, 2014 at 9:05 am •  Published: June 30, 2014
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Tricia and Berry Tramel at the Roman Colosseum.
Tricia and Berry Tramel at the Roman Colosseum.

Buon giorno.

Sometimes we get caught up in our own little world. Or century. Sometimes we believe those people who say 99 percent of the world’s knowledge has come in the last 15 years. Or 15 months. Or 15 minutes, as the case may be.

And then you have a day like Sunday, walking among the Roman ruins. You tour the Colosseum. You walk among the grounds of The Forum. You climb to the top of Capitoline Hill, to the Piazza del Campidoglio and stare at three magnificent buildings designed by Michaelangelo, none of which are going to be mistaken for Stage Center. You stroll into the Piazza Navona, where once the chariot races were held and now is home to art and architecture that will make your jaw drop. You walk into the Pantheon, a building constructed 2,000 years ago, rebuilt 150 years later and still standing strong.

Then you realize the world’s greatest minds haven’t always worked for Apple.

Awesome. That’s what my Sunday in Rome was. Awesome. Not awesome as in somebody’s new sports car is awesome. Awesome as in Pacific sunset awesome. Awesome as in landing-on-the-moon awesome. Awesome as in, this-is-too-fantastical-to-believe awesome.

Rome, home of the catacombs, is a Time Tunnel. A step back in history. Walking where Caesars walked. Marching where Roman soldiers marched. Standing where philosophers stood. The whole danged city is a museum. Ancient times to us back in Oklahoma are dusty downtowns that sprung up overnight in land-run hotbeds like Guthrie and Oklahoma City. Ancient times in Rome really are ancient.

Here’s what I saw.

 

THE STANDARD

You know how we like to designate Camden Yards as igniting the renaissance of baseball parks? How every stadium since Camden was influenced by Baltimore’s beautiful ballyard?

The Roman Colosseum did a little influencing itself. Some of its features were being repeated — 1,900 years later.

The triple deck configuration in Tennessee’s Neyland Stadium or old Texas Stadium or even the Staples Center in Los Angeles? The Colosseum had triple deck seating.

You like concourses that allow large groups of people to move quickly? The Colosseum had concourses, decently-sized concourses, concourses not so different in size from Wrigley Field’s today. The Colosseum’s concourses still stand. You can walk through them today.

You like multi-purpose arenas? A ballpark that can host the NFL one day and baseball the next? An arena that can host NBA playoffs one week and a rodeo the next? The Colosseum was multi-purpose. Sure, there were battle royales among gladiators and various athletic events, but there also were mock sea battles. The Romans could flood the floor and put boats in the Colosseum.

You like fan convenience? The Colosseum even had a canopy system that would cover many of the Romans who came to cheer on the gladiators or the Christians or the lions. Retractable roofs weren’t the braindchild of some late-20th century architect.

And the place is still standing! You literally can walk completely around the inside of the Roman Colosseum.

It’s not in use, of course. Hasn’t been used in hundreds of years. Maybe 1,000. The seating is gone, though you can clearly tell where the three decks sat, and the third deck is only on one side, which means all those lopsided-looking football stadiums, which OU’s used to be, weren’t in such bad company after all. Heck, even the floor is gone, which only reveals more of the Romans’ brilliance.

The Colosseum had a wooden floor, covered by sand, which sat atop an elaborate underground structure, a two-level subterranean network of tunnels and cages. Even had an elevator system to bring animals to the floor.

The arena floor is mostly gone now, and you can see the elaborate lower levels.

Elevators and portable floors and movable canopies and somewhere between 50,000 and 80,000 seat capacity, all in a free-standing arena that was built 2,000 years ago.

You can’t believe it until you see it. I’ve read about the Colosseum and heard about the Colosseum, but until I saw it, I didn’t appreciate it.

Tiger Stadium opened in 1912, closed in 1999 and was demolished in 2009. Old Yankee Stadium opened in 1923, was renovated in 1976, closed in 2008 and was torn down in 2009. Same story for a lot of grand old places.

Wrigley Field and Fenway Park and Notre Dame Stadium remain vibrant, give or take 100 years after their opening. But anyone want to wager they’ll still be standing 1,900 years from now?

The Colosseum was built between 70 AD and 95 AD. It was used for several hundred years, fell into disrepair during the Middle Ages, was used as such things as a quarry and as apartment space, was taken over by the Catholic Church in the 16th century and hailed as a sacred site because of early Christians who were martyred there.

And since about 1800, Romans and Italians and Europeans and citizens worldwide have taken steps to salvage it.

It’s something to behold.

We give our modern stadiums two names. A surname and a Christian name, if you will. Busch and Stadium. AT&T and Center. Petco and Park.

In Oklahoma City, we’ve had the Ford Center. And Chesapeake Arena.

We should pay homage to the standard bearer. And I don’t mean Camden Yards. Chesapeake Coliseum sounds about right.

 

A FABULOUS THING HAPPENED…

Here’s really what I knew about the Roman Forum before this trip.

1. There was a Broadway musical called “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.”

2. The Lakers named their second Los Angeles home “The Forum.” Which is pretty cool when you think about it. LA already had the Coliseum. Then it had the Forum. Dodger Stadium should have been called the Pantheon.

I never really read much about The Forum. I knew it was largely ruins and just assumed it was a shelled-out, once-magnificent building.

I was wrong. The Forum was downtown Rome. Seriously. Downtown Rome. Think downtown Oklahoma City today. Or downtown Dallas. Or downtown anywhere.

That was The Forum. Housed the big religious temples. Housed the financial institutions, such as they were. Housed the meeting places of the philosophers. Housed a literal main street, where victorious Roman armies marched upon their return from battle.

We walked that main street Monday. Walked past the ruins, most of which are rubble but some of which still have a façade.

The Forum was Rome’s downtown. Elections, trials, speeches, all were staged in the Forum. Statues and monuments were built in the valley between two major hills, Palatine and Capitoline. You look out over the Forum now and it seems almost pastoral. Like ruins in the desert. But The Forum was very dense. Lots of people, lots of building, some of them quite tall, especially for 500 BC, which is when The Forum was developed. It lasted as the vibrancy of Rome for almost 1,000 years.

Massive columns and buildings and monuments dotted the Forum. Some of the facades still stand and are jaw-dropping impressive.

Here’s what the Roman Forum really is. A ghost town. Except unlike the ghost towns of Oklahoma, which stretch for a block or two of crumbling and clapboard material, this ghost town stretches through a maze of Roman roads, with remnants of magnificent architecture.

By the 18th century, citizens began to realize what they had and started trying to preserve The Forum.

It’s not as epic as the Colosseum. Still doesn’t stand as tall as it did in the days of Caesars. But the ghosts are there. And you don’t have to look hard.

 

HELLO, MICHAELANGELO

We’re going to see the Sistine Chapel on Monday. I assume it will blow my socks off. Everything Michaelangelo did always has blown everybody’s socks off, for 500 years.

Atop Capitoline Hill, overlooking The Forum, sits Piazza del Campidoglio, home to the Capitoline museums.

Michaelangelo Buonarroti created the design of the plaza between 1536-1546, at the commission of Pope Paul III.

The greatest Italian mind — or non-Italian mind, for that matter — is not necessarily Leonardo da Vinci. Michaelangelo was a painter supreme, a sculptor extraordinaire and, as you can tell by the Piazza del Campidoglio, an architect of great renown.

I would vote for da Vinci, since he designed flying machines 400 years before man actually took flight, but I’m not arguing with anyone over it.

Michaelangelo turned the face of the plaza away from The Forum and toward the Vatican. He placed a magnificent statue of Constantine, the first Christian emperor, in the middle of the plaza. Centuries later, the statue was found to actually be that of Marcus Aurelius of pre-Christian fame. Oh well, mistakes happen.

Michaelangelo provided new fronts to the two official buildings of Rome’s civic governments, and today they form two of the three Capitoline museums. Palazzo dei Conservatori and Palazzo Nuovo. The third building is the home of the mayor of Rome, an equally opulent structure.

Give it up for Rome. 70 AD. 1536. 2014. Doesn’t matter. Rome treasures its history.

 

THE ROME DOME

When Houston’s AstroDome was completed in 1965, it broke the world’s record for the largest dome.

The record it broke was the Pantheon in Rome. Which opened in 126.

That’s right. 126.

The Colosseum is fabulous. But it’s a relic. The Forum is cool. But it’s in ruins.

The Pantheon is pristine. It could host the wedding of the year there in 2014.

It has been in continuous use throughout its history; the Pantheon has been used as a church since the seventh century.

The Pantheon consists of only one large room, a massive rotunda that contains tombs (popes and kings) and artwork and a small sanctuary setting.

It was built originally as some kind of temple to the gods, and just like its purpose, its decorative features have changed. The marble floors don’t go back 2,000 years. And some of its interior has been renovated.

But the structure itself is the same one built 2,000 years ago.

The architecture is such that you can’t even tell it’s a dome until you walk through the doors (which are original). Your eye moves to the top of the ceiling, and there’s the unreinforced dome, a monument to ancient architecture.

The dome spans 150 feet and is open in the middle. That’s right. Open. So if it rains, it just rains. A drain rests in the marble floor in the center below the dome, and the floor is slanted so that water drains.

It’s as much wowser as the Colosseum.

 

RIGHT BRAIN VS. LEFT BRAIN

We spent a good part of the day with another OU group. The Fine Arts crew is headed to Arezzo, too, and joined the Engineers for the tour Sunday and will do so again Monday at the Vatican.

It was funny to watch the differences between the engineers and the artists. The engineers are a little more by the book, the Fine Artists a little more free-spirited. Except for the little more parts.

One of the artists had colored hair sort of purple. I asked the Dish how many engineering students had colored hair. She said in 25 years, she couldn’t think of one.

But by the end of the day, the engineers were acting a little more carefree. The entire group even started waiting on a few scraggling engineers late for an appointed time.

It was great to get together. Robert Bailey, an Art History professor who will teach at Arezzo this summer, led our tours of the Colosseum and the Forum. We were given headsets that connected to microphone worn by Robert, so we could hear him talk as we walked around. I learned a ton.

There are more students from Fine Arts (25, I think) than Engineering (22) headed to Arezzo. Plus the Business College will be there, and Arts & Sciences. The OU presence in Italy is no small thing.

 

ROME ON THE RANGE

* Piazza Nanova is where our journey ended. It’s a city square where chariot races once took place and now is a huge plaza, adorned by the family palace of Pope Innocent X.

Papal palaces have fallen out of favor — the humility of Pope Francis I has energized the world– but I can attest. Innocent’s old place isn’t all that innocent. It’s a palace. The plaza itself is great, with monuments galore.

* When we arrived at the Pantheon, the Piazza della Rotunda in front was quite festive. Including an inspiring sight.

Perhaps 100 Ukranians, either nationals or expatriates, stood in a circle, singing The Ukraine national anthem and holding signs. I couldn’t read the signs, but I’m pretty sure they were something along the lines of “Go to hell, Putin.”

The song was strong and their voices clear. It was a beautiful anthem.

* The incessant street vendors will turn you off in Rome, and quick. They hawk ladies hats and purses, ice water and toys, flowers and laser pointers. And they come in waves.

But they can be comical, too. They’re not supposed to be there. And they play a cat-and-mouse game with the cops.

We were walking near the Colosseum, past a line of guys with their hats for sale on a blanket, when suddenly the vendor scooped up his hats by lifting each corner of his blanket. A peace officer of some kind had been driving down the pedestrian boulevard. He pulled over, jumped out of his car and feigned jumping a short fence to apprehend the villain. The guy scattered and the cop turned around.

The same scene replayed with sunglasses later in the Piazza Navona, except this time a female cop — who actually was dressed like a civilian but worse a Poliza Roma Capitale vest — chased them away. Literally. Ran after them like kids playing tag.

What’s funny is I don’t think the cops really want to catch anybody. They just want them to scram.

The female cop hung around, so no one came back. But the guys on the sidewalk? They were back 10 seconds after the officer drove away.

* The Colosseum is the coolest thing this side of actually riding in a Ben-Hur chariot, but just outside the Colosseum were about four or five guys dressed in authentic Roman soldier uniforms. They were posing for pictures and charging, of course. But two of the soldiers were dragging on a cigarette. Sort of loses its authenticity.

* For lunch, the Dish and I went by a pizzeria near the Colosseum and got a small mozzarella pizza for four Euros, plus the Dish got a fruit bowl off a street vendor for 2.5 Euros. We sat under a tree and ate our lunch. It was quite nice.

I risked the wrath of Rome’s finest and made a street purchase — two bottles of water as we headed to lunch. I figured anywhere we went would charge 2-3 Euros for a bottle of water, and these hard-working guys hawking on the street were asking one Euro. And it came with a bonus. Their bottles were basically frozen. The Dish and I had each brought a water bottle to keep us replenished. Which meant we could pour our water over our newfound ice and have cold water. We kept that up through much of the day, filling back up when we came across one of the Roman fountains that spew good water.

* For dinner, we joined Jim and Julie Sluss, Theresa Marks and Darrell Bull at Alessio’s, around the corner from our hotel. A classic Italian place that sits below street level. You enter through the front door and walk down.

Lovely place. We had all kinds of good stuff. I had more seafood pasta. The Dish had a spaghetti dish. Jim Sluss’ steak looked great, and Darrell had veal. We had an appetizer of meats and cheeses. Just big-time good.

And I had a rare drink of alcohol. I had a glass of wine about 10 years ago. That’s about it for me.

But after our meal, they brought us shot glasses of this yellow stuff. Said it was some kind of lemon drink with vodka. Wasn’t big enough to have much lemon or vodka. Seemed like more of a celebratory end to the meal. I took a sip out of the shot glass, expecting to taste something like Sierra Mist. Instead, I got lighter fluid.

I have a question for everybody. How do you drink that stuff?

* I bet we walked eight miles today. I think I’ve worked off more calories than I’ve eaten. My calves say give it a rest, but the Vatican awaits.

* Another day wearing a Thunder cap. Another day of no bites. I’ll keep fishing.

Arrivederci.

by Berry Tramel
Columnist
Berry Tramel, a lifelong Oklahoman, sports fan and newspaper reader, joined The Oklahoman in 1991 and has served as beat writer, assistant sports editor, sports editor and columnist. Tramel grew up reading four daily newspapers — The Oklahoman,...
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