Don’t think a city could trick you? In honor of April Fool’s Day, we take you on a tour of Rome’s many surprises. Around every corner, this playful city offers amusing curiosities that provoke hilarity, or simply unexpected smiles.
When visiting Rome, especially for the first time, most tourists are astounded to discover an ancient pyramid. The Pyramid of Caius Cestius has nothing to do with the ones in ancient Egypt, but rather the megalomania of an eccentric rich contemporary of Cicero, the same Caius Cestius, who wanted to be buried in a tomb like a real Pharaoh. He even left precise instructions to his heirs, as his will engraved on the east side of the monument states, obliging them to build the tomb within 330 days of his death. If they failed to do so, they would lose all rights to his vast fortune.
Less famous, but just as bizarre, is the Tomb of Marcus Virgilius Eurisace, which often passes unnoticed due to the imposing size of Porta Maggiore that towers over it. Here the remains of a freed slave, who went on to become a wealthy government bread supplier, rest in peace (as ordered by a powerful Roman magistrate, it seems). The thoroughly original tomb was built in the shape of an oven with a frieze depicting the various phases of bread making, with the workers being supervised by the owner himself. It’s self-celebration that even today treats onlookers with an unexpected note of good humor during an uneventful cultural tour.
Who isn’t familiar with the Bocca della Verità (the Mouth of Truth), one of the many symbols of Rome? The huge circular stone in the shape of a face with its wide-open mouth would supposedly bite o the hand of any liar brave enough to slip his or hers inside. But it doesn’t seem to frighten potential perjurers quite so much these days. In fact, according to legend, someone much more clever than this merciless stone judge was prepared to challenge the mouth’s sharp bite. The story goes that the young, attractive wife of a Roman patrician was accused of adultery, and called to stand trial before the injured party and a crowd anxious to obtain justice. A young man emerged from the crowd—none other than the wife’s lover—who embraced and kissed her to the initial surprise and eventual outrage of those present. The woman promptly saved herself and her lover from lynching by saying that this stranger was clearly a madman. Thus, with great courage, she put her hand in the mouth, solemnly pronouncing: “I swear that no man, other than my husband and this madman, have ever embraced or kissed me!”The Mouth of Truth had no choice but to surrender in front of such audacity,
and since then its spell has been broken. But although the lie detector is not exactly infallible, according to some, it still works to this day…
A lot has been said about the colossal, incredible fragments of the Statue of Emperor Constantine in the courtyard of the Capitoline Museums. It’s a favorite of children, who marvel at the enormous finger pointing skywards and the gigantic foot, as well as filmmakers, such as Jane Campion who immortalized the courtyard in a famous scene of Portrait of a Lady. The statue must be seen to be fully appreciated, particularly considering that the hyperbolic characterization of such a venerable monument can’t help but assume a grotesque appearance today.
On Via Santo Stefano di Cacco, be careful not to stumble on the gigantic marble foot wearing a sandal and resting on a brick base, which was once part of an ancient colossal statue of Isis. The surprises don’t end here: Pasquino, one of the famous talking statues located in the eponymous piazza, today still “talks” for the Romans. For over 500 years, anonymous commentators have stuck expressions of protest, satire, and criticism on the base of what remains of the ancient statue. There are five other talking statues scattered throughout the city: Abate Luigi on Corso Vittorio Emanuele, Madame Lucrezia in front of the church of San Marco, Marforio, inside the courtyard of the Palazzo Nuovo on the Capitoline Hill, the Facchino (water carrier) on Via Lata, and finally the Babuino (baboon) on the street that bears his name, a moniker that was given to him by the people of Rome because of his unpleasant appearance
Near the Spanish Steps, at Via Gregoriana n. 31 to be precise, is the bizarre façade of Palazzo Zuccari, a palace built by the eponymous artist as his residence and studio. The main doorway has the form of a monster-like face with an enormous gaping mouth—an unsettling welcome for entering visitors. Lateral windows echo the mouth motif, earning the palazzo the nickname the Monster House.
On the other side of the city, the neighborhood known as Coppedè is reminiscent of a magical kingdom frequented by fanciful creatures such as spiders, frogs, grifons, knights, and dames of surreal beauty, such as the statue of a young girl on Via Olona who timidly turns her back to the passers-by from her balcony.
Like an old lady full of subtle irony, Rome knows how to surprise and delight. All you have to do is look at her from a different angle to notice that, despite her serious and austere appearance, she hides a sense of humor that is truly irresistible.