Off the beaten track in Rome

Blessed with thousands of historical sights, the Eternal City is a treasure trove of monuments of all sizes, shapes and ages.

Piramide Cestia (Pyramid of Cestius) was built around 18 BC to 12 BC. 

First-time visitors to Rome typically follow the tourist trail that includes some of the most famous tourist destinations in the world — the Colosseum and its surroundings, St Peter’s Basilica, Navona Square, the Pantheon, the Bocca della Verità (or Mouth of Truth, of Roman Holiday reminiscence) … you name it.

However, a city with more than 2,700 years of history is home to thousands of sights that are considered of secondary interest only because they live in the shadow of some of the greatest sights in the world, or are simply overlooked because of a lack of time and planning.

Did you know there is a real pyramid in Rome? And that you can visit a museum located inside the walls that once protected the city from barbarian hordes? And that Rome beat London by three years to set up a museum in a disused power plant?

Begin at the pyramid in Testaccio, once a working-class area that has become a trendy part of Rome and one of its culinary centres (more on this later). Piramide Cestia (Pyramid of Cestius) was built around 18 BC to 12 BC, a time when a craze of all things Egyptian followed the conquest of Egypt in 30 BC. It was the tomb for Gaius Cestius, a wealthy magistrate and member of the Septemviri Epulones, one of Rome’s four powerful religious corporations or guilds.

A view of the Pyramid of Cestius (Photo: Sovrintendenza Speciale Archeologia Belle Arti E Paesaggio of Rome)

The pyramid, built with concrete and bricks, is covered in white marble and measures 30m at the base and 37m in height. This confers a particularly steep shape, which is not found in the original pyramids of Giza, Egypt, but that may have been inspired by the Nubian (present-day Sudan) pyramids.

Inside is a simple burial chamber, which was decorated with frescoes that rapidly deteriorated after it was opened in 1660 and now are barely visible. In 2015, the pyramid underwent major restoration works, thanks to the contributions of Yuzo Yagi, a Japanese entrepreneur and philanthropist, and now it is back to its original white splendour. Over time, the pyramid served other purposes as well.

Between 271 AD and 275 AD, Emperor Aurelius and his successors built a wall around the city to protect it from the tribes from the north and the east that were advancing at the German borders. In order to speed up construction, several existing elements were incorporated into the wall, and the pyramid was one of them.

A detail of the Museo Della Via Ostiense (Photo: Sovrintendenza Speciale Archeologia Belle Arti E Paesaggio of Rome)

So it is not by chance that next to it is Porta San Paolo (St Paul’s Gate), which hosts the Museo della Via Ostiense. The gate was the main access point to Rome for goods and visitors coming from Ostia (hence the name), the main port of Imperial Rome. This section of the Aurelian wall is one of the better preserved and the museum showcases artifacts excavated from the archaeological sites located between Rome and Ostia.

However, the most striking feature of the museum is the location itself. Outside, two powerful crenellated towers dominate the surrounding space and inside, well, it is like going back in time and you can inhale more than 1,700 years of history. Close your eyes and you can be part of that history.

In the shadow of the pyramid lies another hidden jewel of the Eternal City — the Non-Catholic Cemetery of Rome. For centuries, the Catholic Church would not allow burials of non-Catholics in churches or on consecrated ground. As the non-Catholic population kept growing (and they needed to be buried somewhere) at the beginning of the 18th century, Pope Clement XI gave permission to members of the Stuart Court to be buried in a plot near the pyramid. In the 300 years that have passed since then, and following two expansions, the cemetery became the final resting place for many famous travellers and local residents who chose (or otherwise!) Rome as their last abode. Two of the most illustrious guests are buried in the old part of the cemetery — John Keats, who died in Rome in 1821 and on whose tombstone are engraved the words “Here lies one whose name was writ in water”, and Percy Bysshe Shelley, who died in a boat accident in 1822 in Italy. However, the best-known tomb and, possibly, the most beautiful sculpture is the Angel of Grief, designed by American sculptor William Wetmore Story as a monument for his wife, Emelyn.

The best-known tomb is the Angel of Grief, designed by American sculptor
William Wetmore Story as a monument for his wife, Emelyn (Photo: Michele Greenstein)

Farther down along Via Ostiense is the Museum of Centrale Montemartini (Montemartini Power Plant). It is a prime example of industrial archaeology and predates the Tate Modern of London, another power station converted into a museum, by three years.

The exhibition space was conceived in the second half of the 1990s to temporarily host part of the Capitoline Collection while the Capitoline Museum was restored and enlarged. It was decided to turn it into a permanent site in 1997.

The result is stunning. The contrast of ancient statues gracefully staged against the backdrop of restored industrial machinery such as steam boilers and turbines guides visitors thorough a virtual journey across time. The ample spaces and high ceilings allow sunlight to create an exquisite play of light and shadows that give the museum a dreamlike atmosphere.

The museum, on top of its permanent collection, hosts several temporary exhibitions. The current one is titled “Etruscan Egyptians. From Eugene Berman to the Golden Scarab”. The exhibition focuses on the relationship between the Etruscans — an ancient civilisation that inhabited large swathes of central Italy and has mysteriously disappeared, leaving (almost) only finely decorated tombs — and the Egyptians.

Ancient statues juxtaposed against a backdrop of electric machinery (Photo: Sovrintendenza Speciale Archeologia Belle Arti E Paesaggio of Rome)

The exhibit runs until Oct 31 and displays many Egyptian artifacts dating from the 8th to the 3rd century BC discovered in Vulci (about two hours north of Rome). Also on show are artifacts on loan from the Egyptian Section of the National Archaeological Museum of Florence.

Testaccio is not only a stimulating place for the mind but also a feast for the palate. Here you can taste the many traditional Roman dishes in a distinctive and friendly atmosphere. Roman cuisine is often referred to as the “cuisine of the poor” as it makes ample use of parts that are often discarded — innards (mostly deep-fried), trippa (tripe) and ox tail (the most famous dish is coda alla vaccinara, where the tail is cooked for hours in a tomato sauce with herbs and spices until it so soft that it literally melts in your mouth).

Other very popular dishes are spaghetti alla carbonara (with bacon, eggs and grated pecorino cheese on top), penne all’arrabbiata (very spicy short pasta), vermicelli cacio e pepe (sort of spaghetti with cacio cheese and pepper) and carciofi alla romana (Roman-style artichokes).

A list of tasty treats would be too long to be exhaustive, but one of my favourites is pizza romana at Pizzeria Remo, a 15-minute walk from the pyramid. A real pizza romana is a thin, crispy dough topped with tomato sauce and mozzarella cheese. And after having recharged the body, off you go for another leisurely stroll in the shadow of history.


This article first appeared on Sept 24, 2018 in The Edge Malaysia.


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