All eyes turned to Rome for il giorno dei due papi (the day of the two popes), the canonization of Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II. Once again la città eterna (the eternal city) became caput mundi (center of the world), a Latin expression used since Cicero's time, and tutte le strade (all roads) led to a city famous for both le sue virtù e i suoi vizi (its virtues and its vices).
Roma's long history began with a tale of love—or, more accurately, lust —almost three millennia ago. The pagan god Mars, smitten by the beauty of a Vestal Virgin, snuck into her temple in the town of Alba Longa to sleep with her. When the disgraced Vestal gave birth to twin boys, remarkable for their size and beauty, the evil tribal king ordered the infants thrown in the Tiber.
The cradle containing the babies drifted downstream and washed ashore at the base of the Palatine hill, named for Pale, a goddess of shepherds. There, according to legend, a lupa (she-wolf) suckled the twins Romulus and Remus.
In 753 B.C., after the twins had grown to maturity, they decided to build a town on the banks of the Tiber. When a violent argument erupted between them, Romulus killed his brother. Taking command, he gave his name to the settlement that would grow into a great empire.
Traces of Roma's history remain everywhere in the city, including the tops of manhole covers, which are emblazoned with S.P.Q.R., the ancient Latin abbreviation for the Senatus Populusque Romani, "the senate and people of Rome." Contemporary Italians irreverently joke that the initials really stand for "Sono pazzi questi romani." ("They're crazy, these Romans.")
Via Condotti, lined with elegant designer shops, was named for the aqueduct, or conduit, built in 19 B.C. to carry acqua vergine (virgin water) from a spring in the Alban hills south of the city. According to legend, a local young girl led Roman soldiers to the site—a discovery that the parched city celebrated for 59 days.
For centuries people bought or leased horse-drawn carriages on one of its cross-streets, Via delle Carrozze (carriages). Nearby Via della Bocca di Leone (Street of the Lion's Mouth) was named either for a statue of an open-mouthed lion or for an opening that looked like a lion's mouth leading into a sewer line.
With hundreds of water-spouting sculptures, Rome is known as la città delle fontane. In front of La Scalinata (the Roman term for what tourists call the Spanish steps), Pietro Bernini built the fountain La Barcaccia (old boat), designed to recall the floods of 1621, when the Tiber overflowed and left the wreck of a battered boat in its wake.
His son Gian Lorenzo Bernini's magnificent Fontana dei Fiumi (Fountain of the Rivers) decorates Piazza Navona, Roma's most beloved public square. Don't miss the charming Fontana delle Tartarughe (Tortoise Fountain), located in Piazza Mattei. Bernini (the younger) added the turtles a hundred years after the fountain was first constructed. (Visitors to San Francisco can find a fine replica in Huntington Square, a little park nestled on top of Nob Hill.)
Words and Expressions
Roma non fu costruita in un giorno -- Rome wasn't built in a day
Quando ce vo' ce vo' -- Romanesco for "When it's needed, it's needed," meaning there is no choice.
Fammo alla romana -- Let's do as the Romans do.
Romano de Roma -- dialect for a Roman whose family has lived in Rome for several generations
Dianne Hales is the author of LA BELLA LINGUA: My Love Affair with Italian, the World's Most Enchanting Language and MONA LISA: A Life Discovered.