Get to know the story behind 7 famous Roman buildings
Rome is like an ancient open-air museum. But what do you really know about famous buildings such as the Colosseum, Pantheon or Castel Sant’Angelo? I went out looking for the most intriguing stories! Let’s expose 7 of Rome’s most famous buildings.
The nearly 2000-year old Colosseum is widely known for gladiator fights and animals battles. But did you know it was possible to fill up the Colosseum with water from the Tiber to organize naval battles? Most of these battles lasted for hours. Luckily, being ‘hangry’ didn’t exist back then because the crowd was served free food! Actually, visitors didn’t need to spend a single Aureus (old Roman currency). The entree was free of charge as well. Nowadays, this seems like a missed opportunity because the Colosseum could fit between 50,000 and 80,000 spectators inside.
Every visitor had their seat assigned but don’t expect anything luxurious. Evidence showed an average of 40cm width per spectator and 70cm legroom. That’s about half of the width compared to an average economy seat! The seating itself was divided into three tiers. Of course, the most ‘important’ people got the best seats. Magistrates and seniors sat in the lowest tier, wealthy citizens in the middle, and the plebs in the highest tier. Oh, and what about us girls? We got the leftover seats at the top (except for vestal virgins)…Equality? Say whuuut?
Originally, the world famous building was named Ampitheatrum Flavium. The name comes from the powerful Roman emperor family “Flavian dynasty“. During the 10-year construction period, 50,000 Jewish slaves were used. They had to drag travertine rock for 30 km from Tivoli all the way to Rome. I can’t even imagine how hard and cruel that must have been. It seems that any form of compassion did not exist in ancient Rome…
The Colosseum was used for 390 years. During that time more than 400,000 people and 1,000,000 animals lost their lives during the battles. Entire species even disappeared entirely from their natural habitat, like the hippo and the North African elephant. So sad! Eventually, the Colosseum stopped its activities. The cost to procure animals, train gladiators, and maintain the facility became too high. So what happened with the immense building after that?
One of the first interesting ideas came from Pope Sixtus V. He proposed to turn the Colosseum into a wool factory to employ prostitutes. This seems like a nice way to help out the community. Also productive, but maybe just not appreciated by all? In fact, the project never got off the ground.
As time went by a better idea came around. The Colosseum turned out to be the perfect place to grow a botanical garden. Back in the day, there were over a hundred different species of plants. Nowadays, there are fewer species but the flora ecosystem is still one of a kind.
2. St. Peter’s Basilica
The St. Peter’s Basilica is located in the Vatican City (independent city-state within Rome). Did you know the current basilica is not the original? The original church was nearly falling apart and got tore down. Pope Julius II then decided to build a new church. He hired the best architects and artists. And with best, I mean someone like Michelangelo. At that time he was already over 70 years old! Early retirement? Nope. Michelangelo became the main architect and designer. Eventually, it took 120 years and over 20 popes before the basilica was finally completed.
The masterpiece of St. Peter’s is the magnificent dome, designed by Michelangelo. He used the dome of the Pantheon as his inspiration. Interested to see the dome from up close? You can climb your way up to go see it! It’s 551 steps or 320 if you take the small elevator. After the intense climb, you get a gorgeous view of Rome.
Inside the basilica, you can find LOTS of art from famous artists like Michelangelo, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Donato Bramante, and Raphael. If you think of art typically paintings are one of the first things that come to mind. However, the St. Peter’s is filled with 150+ beautiful mosaics! They are so detailed that people often mistake them for paintings.
One of the basilica’s masterpieces is the Pietà statue by Michelangelo. Back in the day, nobody believed he was the artist. So to end the gossip Michelangelo sneaked into the church to sign the statue. Pretty badass! It’s the only work he has ever signed.
The breathtaking Pantheon is a special church. Say what? Isn’t this a temple? It was once, but in 609 the Pantheon became the “Basilica of Santa Maria and Martyres”. You can still attend a mass here! The fact it became a church is the main reason the nearly 2000-year old Pantheon is so well-preserved. It escaped much of the plundering which destroyed many of Rome’s ancient buildings.
And yes, LOTS of ancient Roman buildings got destroyed. Even the first two Pantheons. Huh? Yep, the current version is actually the third Pantheon. The first two burned down in fires…The designer of the first Pantheon, Agrippa, is honored on the porch. The translation of the Latin text is “Marcus Agrippa, son of Lucius, consul for the third time, built this”. What a nice gesture!
The dome of the Pantheon is truly unique. It’s the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome. To support the dome the brick walls had to be made 6 meters thick. That’s my length (I’m 1.70 cm) times 3,5. Wow. In the dome, you could fit a perfect sphere which is a symbolic reference for a sacred place. Hence the name “Pantheon” (“pan” means “all” and “theos” means “god”) which is ancient Greek for a temple dedicated to all gods. Naming a building was so easy back then!
Can’t find any windows at the front? That’s right! There are no windows anywhere in the Pantheon. Instead, there is a large oculus. This opening is considered to be the connection between the temple and the gods. When you visit the Pantheon on April 21st (the founding date of Rome), there is a really cool lighting effect inside. At noon sunlight pours through the oculus. If you stand under the dome it looks like you are in the spotlights!
Afraid of rain falling through the oculus? Don’t worry because the Pantheon has its own drainage system. The slightly sloping floor and 22 well-camouflaged holes make sure the water drains away.
The Pantheon contains the tombs of several Italian Kings (such as first two kings of the unified Kingdom of Italy, Vittorio Emanuele II and Umberto) and poets. Also famous artist Raphael and his fiancée Maria Bibbiena are buried here. Sadly, this wasn’t as romantic as you might think. Raphael had a love affair with the daughter of a local baker and never married Maria. Oh boy, I wished for a better ending…
4. Palazzo Poli and Trevi Fountain
Did you know the backdrop of the famous Trevi Fountain is actually a palace? The Palazzo Poli belonged to several wealthy families. Oh, and Russian princess Zinaida Volkonskaya used to throw cool parties in the palace. Today it’s a bit quieter in the palace because it’s used as National Institute for Graphic Art.
To build the Trevi fountain they had to remove the center part of the palace in order to create space. Before they could start constructions serious money was needed. The best solution according to Pope Clement XII? Why not use the money from the Roman lottery? He used the third extraction of the lotto game to help build the Trevi Fountain. What a smart guy!
Nicola Salvi was chosen to design the Trevi Fountain. Some believe Nicola wasn’t the first pick. Apparently, Pope Clement threw a design competition to select a winner. It was said that Alessandro Galilei was the winner of the contest. However, Galilei came from Florence (oops!) and not Rome. So Nicola Salvi, a native Roman, was chosen instead.
Unfortunately, Nicola Salvi never saw the Trevi Fountain completed. It took 30 years and several architects to complete the fountain in 1762. During construction, lots of men got injured. Some even died and got crushed when working the travertine (the same material that’s used to build the Colosseum).
About 80 (!) million liters of water flows through the fountain every day. Luckily, the water is not spilled and gets recycled! Feeling hot during the summer in Rome and thinking of going for a swim in the fountain? I have to disappoint you because swimming and drinking is illegal. Even dipping your feet can lead to a €450 fine.
Of course, you can’t leave Rome without throwing a coin in the fountain. Throw a coin and a visit back to the Eternal City is ensured. It’s as easy as that! Did you know there is a coin-tossing etiquette? Throw your coin with your right hand over your left shoulder with your back facing the fountain. Or watch the trailer of Three Coins in A Fountain to see how it’s done!
All the coins, about €3000 each day, are swept up from the basin on a regular basis. In about 1,5 hour the ACEA team extract all coins from the bottom. The good thing is the money is donated to Caritas, a Catholic charity that helps the poor and homeless in Rome.
5. Trinità dei Monti church and Spanish Steps
Sometimes you need a little perseverance to complete a project like the Trinità dei Monti church. In 1502 Louis XII gave the order to build the church to celebrate his successful invasion of Naples. And just when you think you are getting a fantastic church bad luck happens. The Sack of Rome caused serious damage. And due to financial issues the church was finished only 60 (!) years later in 1587.
Outside of the Trinità dei Monti, there’s an Egyptian-Roman Obelisk. On the obelisk, you can spot several mysterious engravings. Or maybe not? Nope. They are just an exact copy from the obelisk at the Piazza del Popolo. However, some of the inscriptions are even misspelled. Oops!
When the church was finally completed a ‘small’ inconvenience was noticed. There was a cliff separating the Piazza di Spagna (Spanish Square in front of the church) and the Trinità dei Monti. To fix the problem, France decided to be generous! They donated a staircase hoping to find peace with Spain, which also had its embassy at this location.
That, by the way, also explains the name of the Spanish Steps. The name of the square simply carried over to the steps. Ever wondered how many steps there are? 135 steps! If you count them you think might think it’s 136 in total, but the first step doesn’t count. It’s just an elevated drainage system.
This beautiful staircase is the widest one in Europe. It’s often used as a meeting place. But don’t think you can’t use it to have a picnic on! Eating and drinking on the steps is strictly forbidden. And yes, a fine will follow when you do. Oh, and also don’t be loud by shouting or singing. I understand Rome’s got you feeling all romantic, but serenades are forbidden. Don’t mess with ancient Rome sites!
6. Castel Sant’Angelo
The Castel Sant’Angelo is now a museum, but it hasn’t always been one! It was actually a mausoleum (a type of tomb) that Roman Emperor Hadrian had built for himself and his family. After that, the building had MANY purposes such as a fortress, papal residence, and a prison. A prison? Yes. And it also had a torture chamber. Sorry, if you thought this castle was a romantic place.
The name of this castle doesn’t come from the previous owners. The origin of the name goes all the way back to 590! To save Rome from a terrible plague Pope Gregory I organized a procession. He hoped that the Virgin Mary would protect the city. During this event, Archangel Michael appeared with his sword. Legends say the plague immediately stopped! To honor the angel the castle got named “holy angel” (Sant’Angelo in Italian).
The castle also has a secret…Well, not anymore! It used to serve as a refuge when popes felt they were in danger at the Vatican. The solution? A secret passage called the Passetto di Borgo was created. It connects the castle to St. Peter’s. The 800-meter escaping route came in handy on two occasions. Both Pope Alexander VI and Pope Clement VII managed to escape safely by using the passage.
7. Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore
The Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore is the largest church dedicated to the Virgin Mary. What’s so special about it? The basilica is built on the highest hill of Rome AND it has the tallest medieval bell tower. Oh, and it just happens to be one of four major basilicas in Rome besides St. Peters, St. Paul and the Basilica of St. John.
This church has had many different names. Besides Santa Maria Liberiana and St. Mary of the Nativity, it was called Saint Mary of the Snow. Snow? Yes, snowfall decided the location of this church! Pope Liberius had a dream where he saw the Virgin Mary. She indicated him where to build the church through snowfall. And guess what? It started snowing the next day on the Esquiline Hill!
This miracle is still celebrated in Rome every year during the La Madonna Della Neve. It’s one of the highlights during the summer. You can enjoy music and even artificial snow. Count me in for a dance in the snow anytime.
The basilica was restored, redecorated and extended many times. But you can still spot original elements that are over 1500 years old! The bell tower, marble floors, and mosaics are from the 5th-century.
Besides the beautiful mosaics, the ceiling designed by Giuliano da Sangallo stands out immediately. It’s made out of wood and covered in gold! It was the first gold that was brought back from the New World. Columbus brought it with him as a gift to Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain. How generous!
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