I recollect last weekend’s field trip through the dream-like quality of a scenic documentary, like the ones seen on a Sunday afternoon PBS special. Lazy yet cerebral, with long silent shots that cut to transitional moments of the view out a train window. This is the appropriate lens through which I reconstruct our field trip for you. Please add in close ups of the sun bouncing off water droplets and the sound of crunching gravel as you see fit.
Take one: In the early morning hours on the bus through Lazio, our heads bobbed with a buoyancy only achieved in shallow bus slumber. We climbed out of the bus for the first time that day at the site of Palazzo Barberini and we were greeted with so many stairs (pan up for dramatic effect). The Palazzo Barberini is built on top of where the temple for Fortuna Primagenia once stood overlooking a vast procession of terraces. “You have to go up before you go down,” our studio professor Jerry Wells said with a cryptic chuckle. So thirty hunched hipster sloths trudged up the hillside, taking care only to protect beloved cameras. When we finally reached the summit of the complex, we had the great pleasure of looking down onto the valley and distant mountains framed by the hug of the palace arms behind us. We sat on the amphitheatre steps for a while before entering the Palazzo, which is now a museum for Roman and Etruscan ruins unearthed during World War II bombings. (This is where I make the first ponderous voiceover in this documentary, preferably in a deep British accent) It is hard to explain what we felt, but I think it was a form of cerebral peace that we would encounter for the first time that day, maybe even the first time since we have been in Rome. But Palestrina was only the first of three stops we were to make that day.
Scene two: The second stop on the itinerary was Villa d’Este in Tivoli. When we entered the white courtyard of the villa, we looked at the plans in our handout and vaguely remembered Vince and Andrea fawning over the grainy drawings of the estate. But then we entered and I will forever fawn. We stood atop a balcony that looked over a vast garden complex. Though thorough, our handy packets had done little to explain the immense scale of the gardens. From the balcony the carefully planned landscape fell out from under us. To my right, grand water fountains marked the edge of the garden and faced the cliffside view on my left.
“It’s like Disneyland!” someone whispered. Yes, yes it was.
Looking back from the lowest level of the garden was my favorite part. The elevation of the villa erupted from its pedestal of steps. Insert: a clip of a distinguished expert saying that “the tension produced by the pine trees reaching upwards and the water pulling downwards creates a precarious energy in the garden that is unparalleled.” It was like a collage of terraces that threatened to topple upon me, a life size pop-up book of how the hanging gardens of Babylon might have been described in the Secret Garden. I can say confidently and collectively that we never wanted to leave.
Cut to Hadrian’s Villa, where we ended our day trip. Like the other sites we had seen that day, Hadrian’s Villa was massive, composed of about thirty buildings. The complex is larger even than some of the ancient cities. And this was Hadrian’s summer retreat. Unlike Palestrina and Villa d’Este however, we were required to use a bit more imagination in reconstructing the site. A misleading model in the entrance showed us in detail the complex as it may have appeared in Hadrian’s day, but the site in reality is much less intact. There are many “summer dining rooms” (i.e. rooms which the purpose of is still foggy). But get ready for my special effects. The ruins transform into extravagant spaces as the corner of a wall extends to recreate a perfect pumpkin dome and a piece of preserved tiling tessellates to cover the entire floor in a colorful mosaic. Continue this transformative montage through theatres and a thermal bath, concluding with a shot of the long pool found in Hadrian’s Villa. It is surrounded by statues of men bearing the weight of a once covered walkway. Fade out.