Strange Days Among the Ruins

Agnes Crawford |

Rome Normally Hums With Visitor Buzz. Now It’s Changed.

 The Colosseum with more guards than visitors. (Photo by the author).
  The Colosseum with more guards than visitors. (Photo by the author).

These are strange days in Rome. The Covid-19 emergency seems to have been humming in the background since the dawn of time. In fact only three weeks have passed since an outbreak in a cluster of towns in Lombardy and Veneto was first reported. I work as a private guide in Rome and soon began receiving cancellations, in numbers which, like the contagion, gathered speed exponentially. Normal rhythms broken, time has lost its form rather: a rubber band which has breached its elastic limit. A curious and intriguing state.

Last week I took my suddenly vast reserves of free time to visit some museums “off the clock”, so to speak. I went with a couple of friends to the Vatican Museums and we wandered its suddenly empty halls, I visited the Borghese Gallery and had Bernini and Caravaggio all to myself, and on its opening day I went to the long-awaited Raphael exhibition at the Scuderie del Quirinale.

Tourists were largely absent but everything else carried on.

On Thursday, schools and universities were closed down: a precipitation of the state of uncertainty. Late on Saturday night, the situation further changed dramatically. A prime-ministerial decree was signed extending the quarantined area from the initial handful of small towns to the vast majority of Northern–and part of central–Italy. Milan, Venice, Padua, Parma, Modena, and Urbino are among the cities within this zone, an area which counts some 17 million inhabitants. This “lock down” means movement between towns and regions is only allowed with justifiable–and provable–cause (unavoidable work commitments, health reasons); gatherings of more than 9 people are not permitted; many restaurants, coffee bars, and shops are open but must limit customers to ensure safe distances and must close at 6pm (to avoid evening aperitivo crowds). All cinemas, theatres, libraries, cultural events, sporting events, gyms, and swimming pools are completely closed.

I awoke to this news on Sunday morning when I had an arrangement to meet a client who, tempted by Instagram photos of deserted sites, opted for a tour of the Palatine Hill, with the specific purpose of visiting the small (now underground) section of Nero’s Domus Transitoria which opened to the public last year. Given the decree I was half expecting to find the Parco Archeologico del Colosseo closed, but when we met at the Arch of Constantine first thing on a glorious morning with a piercing blue sky and not a soul about, everything seemed eerily quiet but otherwise all open as normal. We entered the site and meandered up the verdant slopes of the Palatine.

This is the hill where legend says Romulus founded Rome, where the big hitters of the Roman Republic had their town houses, and where the emperors subsequently built their palaces. Houses were built upon houses; palaces upon palaces. All of this brick and concrete and marble is underpinned by the hazy legend of Rome’s divine origins: the hill is pervaded by the genius loci–the spirit of the place–with which the Romans were so fixated.

It is an evocative place on even the most ordinary of sweltering July days: bucolic centuries-old olive groves and medieval churches (including a still-active monastery) are superimposed upon the sparse remains of the palace complexes of the erstwhile masters of the universe. It is a vast reminder of the fall of an Empire that once stretched from Scotland to Sudan, from the Atlantic to — briefly — the Gulf of Persia. On this particular warm spring morning as we wandered the site alone but for the occasional bird, the poignancy and fragility it evokes was sharpened. We were unaware that the entrance had been open for only twenty minutes before closing — along with all other Italian state museums and archeological sites, as well as cinemas, theatres, gyms, swimming pools — by government order. We had slipped in under the wire, and had the twenty acres of the Palatine and the ten acres of the Roman Forum all to ourselves.

We arrived at the Domus Transitoria for our timed visit, and as I saw from a distance an ominous gathering of Park employees I assumed the underground area was off limits. And so it was. How disappointing, but pazienza, as they say in these parts. What can you do? We continued our wander over the hill and ten minutes later we found ourselves called back. It could be visited after all, we were told. Of course the timed slot had lost all meaning, we were the only people visiting and they kindly suggested we might as well take advantage before the whole site was definitively closed by orders from on high. So down we went, into part of the first palace of Rome’s fifth emperor, Nero.

In his biography of the emperor, Suetonius mentions the Domus Transitoria as preceding the even vaster palace complex Nero would build following the great fire of 64 CE (when he is said to have “fiddled”):

There was nothing however in which [Nero] was more ruinously prodigal than in building. He built a palace which extended all the way from the Palatine to the Esquiline, which at first he called the House of Passage [Domus Transitoria], but when it was burned shortly after its completion and rebuilt, the Golden House [Domus Aurea].
Non in alia re tamen damnosior quam in aedificando domum a Palatio Esquilias usque fecit, quam primo Transitoriam, mox incendio absumptam restitutamque Auream nominavit. (31)

Following Nero’s death, and the civil war which followed, Rome would be ruled by the three emperors of the Flavian dynasty, the last of whom, Domitian, would rebuild the Imperial residence on the Palatine Hill. Below is a glimpse of a small part of the opulence of Nero’s palace: fragments of stucco, elegant frescoes, and coloured marble inlays hint at the grandeur of what was surely then the most extravagant residence anywhere in the world. Its vast courtyards and halls–once echoing with the sound of elaborate and extravagant fountains splashing on imported coloured stone–have been brutally sliced up by the rough foundations of the palace of Domitian above, itself long since a ruin. During these strange days it is a sobering reminder of transience and hubris. We came back above ground, and walked down to the Arch of Titus, where we were unceremoniously kicked out by a custodian who clearly wanted to go home.

As I write this on Monday evening, the “locked down” area has been extended to all of Italy, I shan’t have any guiding work any time soon and have cancelled and refunded over two month’s tours. I shall be going for the occasional walk, finally weeding the pots on our terrace, reading the pile of books which I’ve not got round to. Put that way it sounds quite agreeable, but it is very, very odd. Suddenly Sunday morning seems an awfully long time ago. People have long bemoaned the overcrowding of major tourist sites in Rome. Now they’re deserted. Strange days indeed.

Agnes Crawford graduated from Edinburgh University in 1999 with an M.A. in Architectural History. She has lived in Rome since 2000 and is a licensed as a professional guide in Italy. Her website is, and you may follow her (excellent) posts on Twitter and Instagram.


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Agnes Crawford

Qualified Rome guide specialising in personalised tours & online talks on all things Rome. Native Londoner, naturalised Roman. (Instagram: understandingrome)


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