Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 28, 2021
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Jubilant Jubilee

Rome shines as it sheds 25 years of scaffolding and grime

For Romans these days, walking through the city's streets means continuous stops, double takes and gasps of pleasure. Almost overnight, Rome has been transformed into a more beautiful version of itself, mostly as a result of restoration projects linked to the Roman Catholic Jubilee year. As scaffolding has gradually come down throughout the city, ancient buildings have thrown off long-worn, dark cloaks of dirt to emerge gleaming and resplendent. It's not uncommon for visitors to see locals gather in front of the faìade of travertine marble to be uncovered, gesticulating enthusiastically or staring up in awe and pointing out details that had long since been lost to the city's grime.

The Jubilee Holy Year, a Roman Catholic tradition that now takes place every 25 years, dates to 1300, when Pope Boniface VIII urged pilgrims to visit Rome after travel to the Holy Land became too dangerous. The Holy Year 2000 is especially significant as Christian churches are also marking the 2000th anniversary of the birth of Christ.

So far, the expected hordes of guidebook-wielding, camera-happy culture crusaders have stayed away. This decline in tourism may have tour operators groaning, but it comes as welcome relief to Italians who feared the worst. In return, the entire country functions and looks better, thanks to government subsidies for tourism-related projects as well as laws that gave substantial tax breaks to home-owners who prettied up their palazzi for the Jubilee.

Basilicas and churches were among the first to be spruced up and restoration projects have varied in magnitude, from the renovation of the Altemps Chapel in Santa Maria in Trastevere to the painstaking cleaning of Caravaggio's Madonna of the Pilgrims -- a fitting subject for the year -- in the church of Sant'Agostino. Frescoes dulled by hundreds of years of smoking candles have recovered their former brilliance. Witness the Baroque cupola of Sant'Andrea della Valle, with frescoes by Domenichino and Giovanni Lanfranco, or the illusionist masterpieces by the Baroque artist Baciccia in the Jesuit Chiesa del Gesú. There were even some surprises, like the discovery of an entire 13th-century fresco cycle in the convent of the Santi Quattro Coronati, which came to light during Jubilee-sponsored renovations.

But in most cases it isn't even necessary to step into a church to see the results of the Jubilee restorations, although that could mean missing out on a fresco by Raphael or a statue by the young Michelangelo. Scrubbed faìades meet the visitor throughout the city, from the subtle polychrome of St. Peter's Basilica, whose pink and green hues emerged during the three-year renovation, to that of the Basilica of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, where relics of Christ's passion -- three pieces of the Cross, a nail and two thorns -- can be found.

The church of Sant'Agnese in Agone, in Piazza Navona, is a good example of the contrast between before and after. Scaffolding on the lower part of the faìade was removed last March to reveal brilliant, white travertine marble, while the top remains the dull colour of decades past -- and is expected to stay that way until money is found to complete the project.

There's no lifetime warranty on restoration. Until Rome decides to permanently deal with its traffic problem, it's likely that many cosmetic improvements will quickly fade. For example, the faìade of Sant'Andrea della Valle, which was restored to a blinding white about five years ago, is already taking on a greyish hue, the consequence of noxious vapours emitted by thousands of cars that zip up and down the Corso Vittorio Emanuele every day.

From the museum point of view, Rome is virtually unrecognizable compared to a few years ago. Long gone are the days when museums were only open in the morning and requests for guidebooks were met with blank stares. With the Jubilee as a deadline, many of Rome's museums gave themselves a thorough makeover. Add to this the opening of several new galleries, and the capital has blossomed in terms of exhibition spaces.

Rome's "classic" museums -- for example, the Borghese Gallery and the National Gallery of Ancient Art in Palazzo Barberini with collections of Renaissance and Baroque art that are unrivalled in the world -- have been reorganized into efficient and very beautiful establishments.

The Capitoline museums have undergone radical changes that by next year will almost double the exhibition space. Even the Vatican museums now have an impressive new entrance, which means line-ups under the blistering sun are a thing of the past.

In an effort to bring the city in line with other European capitals, spaces dedicated to modern art were also given priority status. Not only was the National Gallery of Modern Art entirely restored and rearranged, but the city also opened its own contemporary art museum in a former beer-making factory. Likewise, 18th-century stables that had been built for the Pope's private horses were recently restored by architect Gae Aulenti and are now used as a temporary exhibition space.

This year, an exhibit of photographs by Sebastio Salgado will follow a show of modern masterpieces from the Hermitage. In the late fall, it will be the turn of Botticelli's drawings for Dante's Divine Comedy. And although the Jubilee year has very specific Christian connotations, Rome's pagan roots have not been discriminated against and some of the best new museums are dedicated to its pre-Christian past. ANCIENT PALACE The Domus Aurea, the Imperial palace built by Emperor Nero between AD 64 and 68, opened last June. The Palace was legendary in its time for its size and magnificence and was dismantled after Nero's death by members of the Flavian dynasty. It remained buried underground for hundreds of years, until it was rediscovered in the late 15th century. Renaissance artists were among the first to visit some of the rooms, entering through makeshift holes bored into the vaults of the halls. Their autographs can be seen alongside the stuccoed and painted decorations. Today, about 30 rooms of the palace can be visited, giving only a glimpse of its former glory.

The National Roman Museum was completely reorganized and the collection divided among three sites. Peerless Roman sculptures can be found within the gaily frescoed halls of Palazzo Altemps, near Piazza Navona, while rare first-century-BC frescoes from the so-called House of the Farnesina are visible at the Palazzo Massimo alle Terme near the train station. The original site of the National Roman Museum at Diocletian's Baths is expected to open at the end of June with a new museum on Rome's pre-history and an important section on inscriptions.

Lovers of Roman statuary should also take a peek at the Art Center ACEA power station, where part of the city's collection of Roman art has been displayed against the backdrop of immense industrial machines. And Italy's most important collection of Etruscan art was recently rearranged within the national museum in Villa Giulia, which now includes the famous Castellani collection of gold jewellery.

Finally, a museum illustrating the development of the city, mostly from the fifth to the ninth centuries, was established in the Crypta Balbi, a first-century-BC portico that had a series of additions built on to it in successive centuries. The museum will be open to the public for the first time this spring.

The excellence of Rome's museums is no longer a secret, so don't be surprised to find them teeming with culture connoisseurs. To avoid the maddening crowds, one lesser-known museum is the National Historical Museum of Medicine, part of the Hospital of Santo Spirito in Sassia, which was founded by Pope Innocent III in 1198. The museum is crammed with objects relating to medicine, from ancient Roman instruments found at Pompeii, to 16th-century surgical instruments, including drills used to bore into the brain. There's a complete alchemist's laboratory, as well as eerily lifelike 18th-century wax models of the parts of the human body that were used for teaching would-be MDs until this century.

But museum mobbing may actually be a thing of the past, as many now stay open until 7PM. During the summer some even stay open until 11PM. Other welcome additions are well-stocked bookstores that also sell tasteful souvenirs, and cafeterias that appease the hunger of the stomach, as museums aren't just about the cravings of the soul.

For all of its indoor activities, Rome is a city that begs to be explored on foot. You can mix informative sight-seeing with a simple stroll by spending an afternoon poking around the remains of the Roman Forum or the Palatine. Or simply walk aimlessly, peering into palazzo courtyards and stopping for a Campari at a sidewalk café. But be warned, listed bar prices double the second you sit down at a table.

These ramblings have become much safer since Rome's mayor closed off several piazze and streets, transforming them into pedestrian zones offering refuge and solace from buzzing motorini and Schumacher wannabes. This may have made the mayor unpopular with many Romans, but he's a hero to tourists who don't want to risk their lives every time they step out onto the street.

One of the more beautiful new pedestrian zones is in front of the Castel Sant'Angelo, where even the moat has been transformed into a promenade. A newly landscaped garden in front of the Basilica of San Giovanni in Laterano will also provide shelter against the scorching summer sun. And on Sundays the area in front of the Forum is closed to traffic and becomes a sort of immense urban park that quickly fills up with street performers and hawkers.

Tourist-friendly information booths that look a bit like turn-of-the-century gazebos have opened throughout the city. They provide up-to-date information on what's doing in the city as well as maps and various pamphlets. Another useful address is the new Jubilee Information Centre in via della Conciliazione, the street that faces St. Peter's. The centre offers interactive multimedia displays -- even virtual reconstructions of ancient Roman buildings and sites -- as well as pamphlets with information about Jubilee events and accommodations.

The centre also houses the newly established Museum of Historical Musical Instruments, affiliated with the Santa Cecilia Auditorium next door. There's a small but interesting collection of musical instruments dating from various centuries tastefully displayed in large glass cases. A second Jubilee Information Centre can be found inside the Monument to Victor Emanuel in Piazza Venezia.

If you want to escape the crowds of Rome for a day or afternoon, you can hardly go wrong renting a car and driving through the Italian countryside. Many villages have a monument or two worth seeing and a family-run trattoria with a menu stacked with local dishes. But be forewarned that Assisi is expecting many pilgrims during the Jubilee.

Still, it would be a shame not to visit the Basilica of St. Francis. It was badly damaged by an earthquake in 1997 and reopened last November after an extensive restoration, which gave new life to the frescoes that cover nearly every inch of its walls. Assisi is just a two-hour drive from Rome and there are daily buses that leave from in front of the Tiburtina Train Station.

One final warning: A visit to Rome might make an eventual visit to the chiropractor necessary -- all of those sudden double takes and neck stretches can take their toll on your vertebrae.


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