* You are walking through Rome and all of a sudden you hear a bang. What is it? What’s happening? Nobody seems to show any concern and people go about their business as usual, except that they look at their watches. It’s midday! And the bang you heard is the 12 o’ clock cannon shot fired every day from the Janiculum Hill. This is a tradition that started in 1847 to give people a time signal to set their clocks and watches by.
* Would you ever believe that a keyhole might be considered an attraction by tourists visiting Rome? Yes, this can happen if that keyhole allows you to view trees lining a garden and in the distance the shape of St. Peter’s Basilica. All you have to do to have that great peep is go up the Aventine Hill – one of Rome’s famous Seven Hills – and wait for the sunset when the Giardino degli Aranci, or Orange Garden, closes. Then simply look through the keyhole and… enjoy!
* Learn how to always tell the truth! When touring Rome, one of the sights you can’t miss is the Bocca della Verita, or Mouth of the Truth. Everybody knows the story that in antiquity if you put your hand in there and you had committed a crime, your hand would fall off. This, though, was no coincidence: judges standing behind the wall would signal a man to cut off or let go of your hand. And people normally are not told that this masterpiece of Roman art was in fact the top of a sewer manhole originally placed in the Roman Forum!
* Roman Aqueducts: is this an ancient history lesson? Not at all! It’s modern-day Rome. Those glorious, huge structures you can admire along the Appian Way were in fact aqueducts bringing water to Rome. Below those arches the Romans also built other aqueducts and, strange as it may seem, these are still used to quench the thirst of today’s Romans – the water is excellent: it’s even bottled and exported – and to feed water to many Roman fountains.
* The “bewitched” climbing slope. Ever been driving downhill along a road and suddenly found yourself backing up or at least coming to a stop? You can have this experience along a road near Ariccia, in the vicinity of Rome! Don’t ask us why. All sorts of explanations have been given, but none really satisfactory. It’s fun to watch, though, a soccer ball or a tennis ball rolling back along the road!
* How often do you think a phrase uttered against everybody’s wishes really carried the day? Who knows, but there is one instance in the history of Rome when this was actually true. One day in 1586 workers were trying to set upright the obelisk at present standing in St. Peter’s Square. To ensure all possible concentration for the 800 workers on the job, other people in the square had been told to be absolutely quiet, on pain of death. Noticing that some ropes were giving way, someone shouted WATER TO THE ROPES! The hemp then shrank and everything turned out ok. Instead of getting a death penalty the man was awarded a prize and bestowed a title.
* Piazza Navona is perhaps the square that Romans love most. According to one of the popular stories involving two famous Italian artists who worked there, Gian Lorenzo Bernini and Francesco Borromini were at loggerheads with each other and were anxious to show their feelings. So Bernini designed the fountains in the square in such a way that a statue representing the Nile seems to turn its back on the Church of St. Agnes built by Borromini and cover its eyes to avoid the sight of such a terrible-looking church.
* Conclaves are held in the Vatican City, Rome, for the election of each Pope. All cardinals attend the conclave because only the people actually there may be elected Pope. Cardinal Carol Wojtyla came to Rome after the death of Pope John Paul I and the morning of the opening of the conclave he was running late and risked being left out. In despair he thumbed a lift along the way. A bus driver returning to his depot noticed this strange priest looking for a lift and stopped to enquire. When Cardinal Wojtyla explained things to him, the bus driver simply said: ok, I’ll take you there, you never know, we might miss a Pope! In fact Cardinal Wojtyla did become the new Pope!
* Aren’t you proud of the fact that Americans have made that wonderful, handy invention known as fast-food? Ahm, maybe you’ll be surprised to learn that that is not quite true. Romans had thought of it – and put it into practice – well over 2000 years ago. Their road network used to link Rome to the rest of its Empire and those roads were equipped with facilities that you would normally expect in a modern-day service station: gas refueling (horse changes), restrooms, diners, refreshment facilities and even take-away hot meals (they’d return the hot stone containers at the next service area).
* There is a street in Rome named Via del Porto di Ripetta (Port of Ripetta Street). What has this peculiar name got to do with Rome? The answer is that in Roman times ships could sail up to the city because Rome was 11 kilometers closer to the sea (the Tiber has discharged huge quantities of silt and sand at its mouth over the years) and the Tiber was navigable. Perhaps it will be possible to sail up the river again before long if the mayor of Rome has it his way: he is pressing for it.