Earlier known to be sacred ground, the Piazzas have now transformed into a giant central stage which stands witness to public life that Rome represents.. KALPANA SUNDER

“I n Rome, I first found myself...” said Shelley the great English poet. What is it about this ancient city that appeals to our imagination? We realise that being in the Eternal city is not just about finding out where Julius Caesar was slain or where a particular art treasure is displayed. It's more about people-watching at piazzas, some grand and others miniscule and private. When the ancient Romans built their towns, they began with a grid based on two roads and where they crossed was considered sacred ground. Here there was a majestic temple, a civic forum and shops. Today, in Rome, an Italian piazza is still the centre of public life, a mosaic of the colour and vitality that this city represents. A piazza is like a theatrical stage and a playground rolled into one; it throbs with life, conversations, quarrels, romance and everyday life...A piazza transforms with the passage of seasons and even between day and night.

A live stage

Our favourite piazza is the gargantuan Piazza Navona in Rome, thronging with life night and day. This piazza is ringed by brown and umber buildings, three magnificent fountains, and filled with caricature and portrait artists, buskers, and flocks of pigeons, street shows and fashionable alfresco restaurants. This used to be a stadium— the scene of Chariot racing, medieval jousts and games during the reign of Emperor Domitian. Often, it was the stage for mock naval battles when the piazza was flooded and the fountains blocked! We see a motionless mime dressed in gold Lycra as an Egyptian Mummy and earning a few Euros, from shutterbug tourists! The largest fountain here is the Quattro Fiumi, by Lorenzo Bernini, where there is an ancient, red granite obelisk, and four figures, representing the rivers in each of the Continents. According to a local story, Bernini carved the arm of the statue lifted up, to avoid seeing the church, which had been constructed by his arch rival Borromini! The fountain on the southern side of the piazza is the Fountain of the Moor, where the sea god Triton rides a dolphin. We make the mandatory visit to Tre Scalini, the most famous café here to taste the frozen balls of tartufo ice cream (named after the prized mushroom truffles which it mimics) with bittersweet chocolate, cherries and whipped cream. A walk from the Piazza Navona takes us to the famed Da Bafetto Pizzeria for a genuine wood fire piazza. Crammed in a table with many others, it's short on ambience but more than makes up in taste.

The ancient Pantheon is our favourite building in Rome— a pagan temple which later became a church. Its dome with an oculus supplying natural light was the inspiration for the Renaissance artists. The Pantheon is the resting place for Italian luminaries and is a stunning feat of engineering, intact after two thousand years! Opposite the Pantheon is the Piazza Della Rotunda. Like all self-respecting squares, it has a fountain too. Sparkling water spouts out from grotesque masks and elongated dolphins, topped by an ancient Egyptian Obelisk, designed by Giacomo Della Porta in the 16th Century. This magical square, lined with cafes and gelato shops, is a favourite hang out of the young at night- the Pantheon is a theatrical stage, lovers cling to each other and guitar- totting musicians sing serenades! The Piazza di Spagna with the iconic Spanish Steps is where, Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn meet, in Roman holiday, after an adventurous but chaste night spent together. This area used to be the home of many literary English expatriates like Keats, Shelley and Byron. Keats residence is now a memorial house with the memorabilia of poets like Shelley and Robert Browning. The Spanish steps is dominated by the photogenic Trinita da Monti Church at the top of the steps and populated by legions of tourists as well as ultra chic Roman signoras soaking in the sun and the ambience. At the foot of the Steps is the famous Baraccia Fountain. This portrays a sinking boat, where the middle of the boat is submerged in water and the bow and stern peek out! We hear that this was inspired by the historic flood of the River Tiber in 1588, when many homes were destroyed. We have a piece of ‘old England ‘here with tea at the famed Babington's tea-room. If retail therapy is what you crave for, the most stylish shopping street of Via Condotti is at hand. The vibrant Piazza Del Popolo was for centuries, the northern entrance to Rome.

Transformations and more

Before the age of railroads, this was the traveller's first view of Rome and therefore was designed to impress. For centuries it was also the place for public executions! Today we see a trident of shopping streets leading into the city set off by two almost identical churches. There are carabinieri (police) on bikes, rosy cheeked bambinos with their nonnas, shoppers laden with bags, and teenagers making a fashion statement. This big oval piazza has an imposing, three thousand year old Egyptian Obelisk brought by Augustus, and fountains that represent the four seasons. This is the favoured local spot for political rallies, open air exhibitions and concerts due to its dimensions. This seems to be a great place for people- watching and we linger here with a high-octane cappuccino, looking at a group of mini fountains with lion sculptures. The up market cafes Canova and Rosati are the haunts of the bold and the beautiful. The church of Santa Maria Del Popolo is tucked into the gates of the piazza with two Caravaggio masterpieces and the Chigi Chapel designed by Raphael (remember Angels and demons?) The piazza is linked with steps leading to the Villa Borghese Gardens- an oasis of green. Dotted with trees and fountains it's the perfect place for us to watch a Roman sunset.

The author is a Japanese language specialist and travel writer based in Chennai.