Since the time of the Etruscans in the seventh century BC, Rome has been the most important city in Italy. Built on the seven hills of ancient times, it is divided by the Tiber River. During the Roman Empire it was the center of government and is now the capital of Italy. It is additionally important because it contains the headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church and Rome is known as the ‘Holy City’ or the ‘eternal city’, both of which are appropriate names for the city which is a cultural, artistic and religious center for western civilization.
From the time of the Renaissance the city was intermittently under papal rule and when the troops of a uniting Italy made Rome the capital in 1871 the pope refused to give up his sovereignty. However, the pope gave up all claim except for the Vatican in 1929 when the Lateran Treaty created the latter as an independent state within the city of Rome. Papal rule had been responsible for many of the artistic monuments in Rome, particularly those created during the Renaissance. The Vatican city itself contains many of the world’s art treasures. Within its grounds is the Sistine Chapel, with its magnificent ceiling by Michelangelo and frescoes by Botticelli and other Renaissance artists. The Vatican library, founded in the fifteenth century, is the oldest known public library and contains many rare manuscripts and books.
Many people travel to Rome today as pilgrims to be blessed by the pope in St Peter’s Square and many attend Mass celebrated by the pope in the square.
Because Rome has been continually occupied since ancient times, it contains a history of European Man. The forum with the two stone arches of Titus and of Septimus Severus, and the huge Colosseum, capable of seating 45 000, are reminders of the glories of the Roman Empire. Churches such as St Peter’s, St Mary Major and St Lawrence without the Walls indicate the strength of the Christian Church and of papal influence.
Palaces and villas, many of which are filled with paintings, sculpture and magnificent furniture, illustrate the lifestyle of the nobility. The Palazzo Farnese, the French Embassy since 1871, is considered one of the finest palaces of Rome. The beautiful building of the Palazzo di Venezia, where Mussolini had his offices, is now a museum.
The city has been built around a series of piazzas or open places, such as the huge colonnaded circle before St Peter’s built by Bernini and the Piazza del Campidoglio with its intricate, star-patterned pavement designed by Michelangelo for Pope Paul III. Rome is a city of fountains and more than 300 adorn the city. Some of the most beautiful ones were designed by Bernini, including the magnificent Four Rivers Fountains on four street corners, but perhaps the most famous is the huge Trevi Fountain by Longhena. It has become a tradition for tourists to toss coins into this fountain to ensure that they will return to Rome. There are also tiny drinking fountains in some streets that are more than a thousand years old.