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A Grand Tour in Rome

I am lying on my back upon the uneven stone pavement of what was once the Appian Way contemplating my Grand Tour of Rome. The wealthy gentlemen who arrived in the Italian capital during the eighteenth century for their grand tour would, of course, not be found prostrate upon the city’s sidewalks. English noblemen like Francis Basset, or eminent poets like Johann Goethe, made a point of traveling to Rome on their European circuit in order to obtain intellectual, political, and ethical education abroad. What most of them spent their time doing was collecting rare antiques and having their portraits painted in front of Roman ruins. I haven’t come to Rome to be politically or ethically tutored, but to search for the inner workings of this antiquarian city.

Rome to me represents ancient Western civilization and though I know there are much older sights in other parts of Europe, I have always imagined this city to be the epitome of preserved antiquity. To see the works of the ancient Roman empire, to be able to walk on the same streets as the Caesars and touch the walls that once listened to the likes of Cicero and Ptolemy is a special treat for me. However, it is the Romans‘ ingenuity and practicality that I especially admire. Their urban planning, their innovations of engineering, and their penchant for recycling are as beautiful to me as the classical artwork they produced.

Drama Underground

Although I am not in Rome for the broad education that English aristocrats received, I have fallen into some of their habits. While I would never dream of having myself painted in front of Roman ruins, I have purchased a sepia tinged watercolor of the Colosseum. It was being sold by an elderly lady on the Spanish Steps who spoke no English. I assumed she had painted the scene herself and she gave me no contradiction otherwise. Her artwork vaguely reminds me of the sketches I have seen drawn by Piranesi for eighteenth century tourists of Rome. The Colosseum fascinates me, not because of its colossal size or eye staggering symmetry, but because of what lies underneath its stage. Entertainment for the Roman masses was not lightly undertaken. The Colosseum was a theater where elaborate tableaux of war and mayhem took place. To achieve the intended jaw dropping scenes, props and backdrops had to be maneuvered from underneath the open air platform. Beneath the arena floor lies an overwhelming array of engineered lifts, tunnels, and passageways designed to bring up animals and gladiators at the appropriate times.

Once the machinations of the Colosseum were well hidden, but today their ruins lie open to investigation. Instead of the flat stage I look down upon a maze of half eaten paths. Once there was a pulley system among these tunnels that brought up out of trap doors elephants, forests of live trees, and even miniature ships. Though only the remnants of the original system exist, it is easy for me to imagine the underground of the Colosseum to be like the backstage of a modern theater. I picture the tumult of angry, caged animals, prop hands screaming directions, the squeal of chain against stone, and the palpitations of gladiators waiting to be shot out of the dark. On the outside, the Colosseum is simply a classical ruin, but deep underground it reveals itself to be the perfect tool for Roman drama.

Rome_PantheonBath Inner Works

The city itself reminds me of a congested painting by Giovanni Panini titled “Modern Rome.” Ancient pillars and decaying temples still survive in a higgledy-piggledy fashion next to matchbox apartment complexes and twentieth century office buildings. One of the strangest things I have seen is graffiti sprayed onto the side of a second century aqueduct support. Underneath both the modern edifices and the ancient ruins is what I consider the backbone of Rome. Public bathing, like public entertainment, was one of Rome’s essential tools to keeping the populace content. At the Caracalla Baths, despite their ruined state, the effort made to cleanse the masses is still impressive. But, it is down a staircase in the middle of the forty meter walls where I discover the thrill of Roman sauna engineering. Underneath the sprawling spa and gymnasium lies a tiered and vaulted lattice of tunnels where the true work of the baths took place. Here an entire second city of slaves tended to ovens heating the caldarium and tepidarium. Huge channels, now carefully displaying artifacts, once brought gallons of fresh aqueduct water to feed the pools above. Most underground spaces seem cramped and overwhelming, but I could happily wander about in this airy and spacious labyrinth. These passages are so wide they could easily become a subterranean route for cars. The sheer size of the structure below the baths gives me a sense of the massive operations that must have gone on during their heyday. The multiplex underneath that I see, with its huge skylights and columned water regulation system is beautiful to behold. Here, I can really get an idea that geometry and engineering were excruciatingly important to Romans. As important as chatting up the neighbors while getting clean.

Rome_Trevi_FountainBuilding For Eternity

They say nothing lasts forever, but it seems to me that Rome’s architecture defies that phrase. On the outside the city built by an ancient empire may be crumbling, but underneath, there is a marvel of engineering that has escaped the hands of time. Archaeological sites in Rome like the ancient Marcia aqueduct and the grinding mills on Janiculum hill showcase the many ancient innovations that continue to influence our lives today. Below the classical, antiquated arches and marble mosaics, Rome tells the timeless story of designing masterpieces on technically solid foundations. As I continue my grand tour of Rome, I feel my contemporary education in antiquarian design will be as culturally rich and aesthetically beautiful as that received by any eighteenth century socialite. Rather than having been dusted over by the past as an aged artifact, ancient Rome’s engineering reveals an evolving story about modern marvel.


Rome was only one of the stops on an eighteenth century aristocrats’ Grand Tour of Italy. Other cities which were visited for their atmosphere, museums, and classical ruins were Venice, Pompeii, and Florence.


16 replies »

  1. An old post but I often stumble across gems like this when I least expect to. I adore Rome and will happily read anything about it and your post didn’t disappoint. Your images are amazing as well. My husband and i used to try and visit every two years: it never lost its charm and we found something new every time we visited.

    • Thank you so much for your kind words. I loved exploring Rome and all the history it had to offer. And I’m grateful that this post brought back sweet memories of your own time there.

    • Thank you marjma2014 for the reblog! Rome is such a great city, full of ancient history and modern delights. So glad you were able to enjoy it on your anniversary – very romantic!

  2. Rome is high on my list as well. I thought about visiting over Easter, but the traveling gods conspired against me. Maybe next Easter since i would love to see it then. Too bad I’ll miss the Pope’s first Easter, but that’s life.

    • We missed the Pope too (by a day), but the Vatican was absolutely jaw dropping! I think Rome is wonderful to visit during Spring/early Summer. Hopefully, your travel plans will work out for you next Easter, TB!

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