Puzzling and Bumbling on the Palatine Hill

The word “palace” is derived from the name Palatine—the hilltop where Roman rulers and aristocrats lived, high above the busyness of the Forum. The ruins of their grand homes and the chance to look out over the city just as they did make the climb worthwhile. As it turned out, Mr. Penfire and I ended up ascending twice, once via stairs, once along the roadway. Clearly, we had no idea what we were doing.

We had toured the Colosseum in the morning, then marched straight over to the Forum. Now in its southeast corner, we stared up at multistoried, multi-arched ruins: the Palace of Tiberius, later enlarged by Caligula who, from its heights, could spy on the doings in the Forum far below. Just beyond this mass of brickwork, was a wide stairway, lined on either side with cascading flowers. Who could resist?

On a landing partway up, we were amazed to find the entrance to a grotto, where water cascaded down a craggy, moss-covered wall; an artful soundtrack mixed gentle music with the drumbeat of rainfall; and written messages flashed across the cave-like walls. This was the nyphaeum—shrine to nymphs—of the Farnese Gardens, which had just reopened after a five-year restoration. These extensive formal gardens with terraces, priceless statuary, and twin aviaries, were the first private botanical gardens in Europe, dating to 1550. The fact that Cardinal Alessandro Farnese was able to build this pleasure ground atop the ruins of ancient Rome’s Imperial residences is testimony to the power of his family (his uncle was the Pope)—and of course to the Renaissance mindset that denied the value of Rome’s archaeological treasures. From the grotto we climbed to the charming aviaries, enjoyed the views, then retraced our steps, not realizing that the gardens themselves were a feature of the Palatine Hill and well worth exploring.

Back down in the Forum we, puzzled our way to the base of the steep Clivius Palatinus, and followed this high-walled roadway up the hill. Again! A sign—Vigna Barberini—drew us into a greensward bisected by a gravel walkway. The walls around us were remnant of the palace of Domitian who had ruled toward the end of the first century; the walkway was thought to have traced its portico. (The building’s archeological remains were buried after excavation to keep them protected.) Continuing on, we came to an extensive terrace thought “likely” to have been the Garden of Adonis.
No sign of Adonis, but wonderful views—elevated close-ups of the Colosseum, the Arch of Constantine, and the circular outline of the Meta Sudans, where gladiators had washed away the blood and gore of combat. Beyond, in both directions, the historic sites and skyline of the Eternal City.

No time to sigh over scenery; there was so much more to see. As we hurried back toward the roadway, we saw that a parade of tourists led by an umbrella-waving guide was already trekking down the gravel path. Hoping to head them off, Mr. Penfire decided on a short cut down shallow embankment. Oops! Suddenly, he was on his kafoomphkenagle (well, that’s what he tells the grandchildren it is when they fall on theirs). Two young men from the tour group dashed over to help him up (this is what happens when you have gray hair).
His right forearm was bloody and badly scraped, but we soon found water, rinsed off the dirt, and soldiered on. (Good to know that throughout Rome are numerous fresh water fountains where reusable bottles can be filled and bloody scraped can be rinsed off.)

Continuing to the top of the hill, we stopped wherever we saw numbered signs, and tapped our audio guides to find the corresponding commentary. And so we found Domus Flavia, where stones erupting from the sweep of deep green grass marked the outlines of massive rooms: a portico; a private chapel; a throne room 98 feet wide and 131 feet long (its walls had once been lined with magnificent statues); an equally massive basilica. (We tend to associate the word basilica with a church; but in fact it’s an architectural term for an oblong shaped room or building with double colonnades and a semicircular apse; in ancient Rome such rooms were used for courts of justice of for public assemblies.). Behind these rooms, courtyard with a central fountain (peristyle). Legend has it that Domitian (who knew he was much hated) had the walls here faced with reflective stone so he could keep an eye on those behind him.

When I was a kid, we used to a create pretend house in the vegetable garden—off season of course—by laying out the long wooden 2 x 2s my father used as tomato stakes to mark off the outlines of rooms and hallways. We would tiptoe carefully from room to room, being careful not to walk through any walls. These ruins reminded my of those pretend “houses,” for the stone outlines were just enough to suggest the shape of rooms. For all the rest, you had to depend on your imagination.

It was late afternoon. We had been bumbled our way over the western half of the hill, peeked over the crumbled walls along its southern side to view the famed Circus Maximus. But we had completely missed the ruins on the other side—of Casa di Livia, Casa di Auguso (remains of imperial residences which were actually far more complete than those we had seen), of Tempio di Apollo, and especially of the Capanne del Villagio di Romolo (Cabins of Romulus) ruins of the round huts that represent the very earliest traces of the city.

We hadn’t stopped for lunch. We decided to end our day of sightseeing and walk to one of restaurants recommended by our innkeeper. Along the way, Mr. P had his eye out for a place to purchase a giant bandage, so as not to horrify fellow diners with the grisly sight of his bloody arm.

Luckily, along Corso Vittorio Emmanuale II we happened upon Farmasalus Srl Antica Sanitaria dal 1890—a modern pharmacy that traces its history to the oldest “healthcare shop” in Rome. Despite the language barrier, the pharmacist (uniformed in the kind of white coat American doctors often wear) quickly grasped what we needed. He gestured us to an alcove where he followed carrying a box of large bandages and a box of antiseptic spray. It quickly became evident that he was not going to simply sell us the supplies but dress the wound himself, which he proceeded to do, quite expertly. We were quite astonished. Imagine receiving this level of kindness and care at the likes of CVS, Rite Aid, or Walgreen’s. When done the pharmacist handed Mr. P the supplies, instructed him to change the dressing daily, and led us to the register to pay for them. “But what about paying for your time?” Mr. P asked. “No, no,” he said, shook his head and waved his hand dismissively. We were glad that at least we knew how to say, “Grazie, mille!”

We had been in Italy just a little over 24 hours. During that time, we had learned three important things. First, just as Rome wasn’t built in a day, neither can its historical sites be seen in a day. Second, when it comes to ruins, arrange for a guided tour, or at least, read your guidebook before you go. Preferably, both. Third, the bloodthirsty cruelty of ancient Rome has long since been replaced with a kindness of spirit the world would do well to emulate.