When It’s Great to be a Woman in Italy

Yes, there might be sexism in Italy — even up to the highest levels of government. Yes, it might be so bad that primetime news shows routinely show half-naked women, that the country lags behind in every statistic from the gender gap in wages to the number of female politicians, and that a million women protested in a nationwide demonstration last month.

But at least this Tuesday, March 8, women get a break: For Festa della Donna, the traditional Italian holiday for women, all nationally-run monuments and museums will be free for females only. In Rome, that includes sites like the Colosseum and Palazzo Massimo.

Hey, it’s something. Ladies: Take advantage!

Hidden Underground, an Ornate, 2,000-Year-Old Sepulchre

I’ve done a lot of cool things in Rome — but visiting the Columbarium of Pomponio Hylas is one of the coolest.

And it’s one of Rome’s best-kept secrets.

First off, let’s debunk the idea that Christians were the only ones who got neat underground burial chambers in Rome. In fact, the practice of interring the dead below ground went back to the pagan Romans. One popular way to do this was with a columbarium — an underground chamber built and decorated to hold the urns of Romans’ ashes, either for one family or many. (Later, around the time of Trajan in the 2nd century, pagans would stop incinerating their dead and start burying whole bodies in catacombs. The Christians took up the same idea and, along with continuing to bury their dead side-by-side with pagans in mixed catacombs, also started building catacombs just for Christians).

Needless to say, every once in a while, a new columbarium is discovered below Rome’s ground level. This one was found in 1831. And it dates way back — back earlier than the Christian catacombs — to between 14 and 54 A.D. The incredible thing? Many of the frescoes and decorations still look fresh. And lots of the burial urns are still there.

The columbarium likely was founded by Pomponio Hylas for his family in the 1st century B.C. How do we know? The extraordinary mosaic that faces you as you descend down the stairs into the space.

The chamber itself is small. But it’s filled with beautifully-detailed, and preserved, frescoes and decorations, from mythological scenes to delicate, winding vines.

There’s nothing quite as extraordinary as standing in the small chamber designed, so intimately, by a family for its dead, seeing the frescoes that they hired artists to paint, viewing the inscriptions with their individual names — and the urns that once contained their ashes. If it weren’t so beautiful, it would give you the shivers.

And you’d never guess any of this from the outside.

To book, you’re supposed to have a group of at least 10 people. Book by calling 060608. It costs €3 per person. Just promise one thing: If you go, you will not touch the frescoes, or anything else in there. That’s what destroys the artwork.

The columbarium is located in the Parco degli Scipioni, nearest to Via Latina 10. For a map, click here.

Want to find out about Rome’s other hidden gems? Check out The Revealed Rome Handbook: Tips and Tricks for Exploring the Eternal City, available for purchase on Amazon, below, or through my site here!

An Empress’s House Opens… Only Through March

Rome’s just unveiling all kinds of incredible ancient sites. Case in point: the House of Livia — a gloriously-frescoed, 2,000-year-old structure thought to belong to Emperor Augustus’ wife. After being closed to the public for years, then open on Saturday mornings only last fall, it’s reopened this month.

But go quickly. Because, so far, it’s only open this month.

Why is it worth visiting? Well, two reasons. First, if you’re wandering around the ruins of the Palatine and curious how any of these ancient houses actually would have been decorated, here’s your chance. The House of Livia still boasts (fragments of) mosaic floors and beautiful frescoes — not quite as pristine as those in the House of Augustus, but almost. (Below, the well-preserved frescoes of the garlands that symbolized Octavian Augustus’ victory — you can see them on his Ara Pacis, too).

Secondly, the house is thought to belong to Livia. Augustus’ wife. The woman that Octavian fell in love with so immediately he divorced his wife the day she was birthing his child in order to marry Livia. Who he remained married to for 51 years, even though she never bore him a child, and even though she was the daughter of a man who had been killed in battle fighting against her now-husband. Who was, herself, the mother of the second emperor Tiberius, the grandmother of Claudius, and the great-grandmother of Caligula.

And who was so powerful, the Senate tried to bestow her with the title of Mater Patriae (“Mother of the Fatherland”) — and, supposedly, such a powerful meddler that her son Tiberius retired himself to Capri just to avoid her. In short? She was a bad-ass.

How could you not want to see where she lived, loved, and plotted… or the decorations that she chose? (Note: The tour guide said the frescoes were chosen by Augustus. Why this has been assumed, I’m not exactly sure. I doubt a woman who was powerful enough to make the emperor retire would have let somebody else pick out her home’s decor.)

So, go. And go now — before the House of Livia shuts once more, to open who-knows-when.

As per the Pierreci site, the House of Livia is open only for tours that run, in English, at 9:30am and every hour thereafter until 3:30pm. That said, I was there yesterday and the house was very clearly simply open, with people wandering in and out, at 3:15. The tour guide did come in at 3:30 and gave a 15-minute tour, but it didn’t seem to be necessary to view the house’s offerings. The price of entrance is included in your 12 euro forum/Colosseum/Palatine ticket.

The Week of Free Museums Across Italy… Is Here!

From now until April 17, Italy’s state-run museums and sites are free. (Yay!) In Rome, that includes the Colosseum, Forum, Palazzo Massimo, Galleria Borghese (where you can find Raphael’s beautiful “Entombment,” above) and Baths of Caracalla… to name a few. Take advantage!

Here’s a complete list of sites with free entrances this week, from Pierreci (click on the drop-down beneath the map on the right to choose your region — Rome, of course, is Lazio).