Report from History Trip to Italy

At the end of March, students from History as well as other courses in Humanities visited Rome, Naples and Pompeii over six days. The weather was kind to us as we averaged between twenty to thirty-thousand steps per day in visiting a number of fascinating and diverse historical sites. There was also time for lots of other essential experiences of Italian culture, from pasta, pizza, coffee, gelato, and the lottery that is Italian public transport.

When in Rome…

We stayed in Rome for three and a half days. The first was devoted to the heart of Christian and Renaissance Rome. After a quick visit to St. Peter’s basilica, we ventured to the Vatican Museums, where we were able to explore a range of fascinating collections from the Greek, Etruscan and Roman eras, as well as some of the masterpieces of Renaissance art, including the Raphaelite rooms and Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel.

Outside St Peter’s Basilica on Day 1

The second day centred on a tour of ancient Rome and walk around the Colosseum and Imperial Fora, the beating heart of the ancient city. There was also space to enter and explore the impressive Vittoriano building, otherwise known as the ‘Altar of the Fatherland.’ This was erected to celebrate the unification of Italy in 1861, intentionally placed next to the city’s historic treasures, including the impressive Campidoglio, which contains other features designed by Michelangelo. We spent the afternoon taking in other sites as we strolled through the historic centre of Rome, including Largo Argentina (the site where Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44 BC, and now a cat sanctuary), the famous Pantheon, and Trevi Fountain.

The final part allowed a few us to visit via Rasella. This relatively unremarkable street was the site of a surprise attack by Italian partisans on 23rd March 1944 against German troops during WWII. The bullet holes from German officers attempting to fire back are still visible, and are a sign of the legacy of this event. In our final full day in Rome, we visited the Mausoleum of the Ardeatine Caves, the site where 335 Italians were summarily executed by German forces in response to the attack of Via Rasella. German commanders ordered the reprisal, which was meant to represent 10 Italians for every one of the 33 Germans killed, to inspire terror in the local population and thwart any further resistance activity. The Mausoleum stands as a monument to this tragic event, which also acts a powerful learning tool for the experience of the war in Italy. It is still a legacy that finds itself being contested and debated in Italy in the present day (see here).

While in Rome we also explored the famous EUR district. Established in 1942, it was designed to host an exhibition which didn’t take place due to World War II. In 1937, the Italian Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini announced the project which planned to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the March on Rome. However, the war and the loss of Mussolini meant the exhibition never took place and the district was abandoned. The area was designed to symbolize the achievements and ambitions of Fascism, and buildings such as the Palazzo della Civilta’ Italiana and the Basilica of St Peter and St Paul (originally designed to be Mussolini’s Mausoleum) are fascinating instances of Fascist ideals and aesthetics in stone. These ideas were loosely based on the recreation of a new empire inspired by ancient Rome.

Naples and Pompeii

Our final two days were spent in the Bay of Naples. Staying in the lovely coastal town of Sorrento allowed for some respite from the chaotic hubbub of Rome. This was soon superseded by our Neapolitan experience. Intense traffic and ‘dodgy’ public transport meant we were late for our first appointment, which was a special lunch at Enzo Coccia’s famous La Notizia pizzeria (you may remember Enzo from his appearance on Stanley Tucci’s Searching for Italy). Here we were treated to authentic Neapolitan pizza, and a lot more! This made our afternoon walk through Naples quite challenging, given we were all so full.

However, we did get a brief glimpse of this very unique and lively city, venturing deep into the historic Spanish Quarters. Often regarded as some of Naples’ poorest areas, this district is also extremely characteristic of the city’s culture and traditions. As long you survive the speeding mopeds, you get to see little shops and stalls selling lots of traditional food and produce. We also got to see the famous murals and unofficial shrines of the city’s most beloved hero, Diego Maradona. Our final day was spent at the historic site of Pompeii, the ancient Roman town destroyed but carefully preserved by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. It is a remarkable place to visit, not only given the scale, but also because the level of preservation provides allows you to get a real feel for the way ordinary people may have lived 2000 years ago. It was a perfect way to end a great (but equally tiring) trip.

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