If mystery is what you want, look no further. Rome is not only La Dolce Vita, and Roman Holiday. Rome is also the new Babylon, the Great Harlot of the Apocalypse, it is the epitome of all deceptions—as it has been regarded by so many, through the centuries.
GREGORY PECK IN THE OMEN
One modern version of such a peculiar standpoint is contained in Richard Donner’s The Omen (1976), which opens with Robert Thorn (Gregory Peck)—US Ambassador to Italy—rushing to a hospital in Trastevere, not quite exactly a classic romantic Rome tour. Upon learning that his wife has suffered a miscarriage, he is persuaded by a priest to adopt an orphaned boy who has come into the hospital’s care. Right away things start getting weird. The nanny commits suicide, baboons in the zoo go berserk, and the kid freaks out when they try to take him to church. And of course, the parents are always the last to figure out that their kid’s really a demon.
Peck’s character is actually a continuation of his character in Roman Holiday. Twenty years later he’s still in Rome. He’s changed his name, married, and gotten into politics, all in a desperate attempt to smother the memory of Princess Ann. Then it all comes crashing down when he accidentally triggers the apocalypse by adopting the Antichrist, nothing less. This isn’t a film you should rent if all you’re looking for is a cinematic preview of Rome. However, a few remarkable parts of the city are paid homage within the first ten minutes. In the opening scene, Thorn parks his car in Piazza di Santa Maria in Trastevere. The square takes its name from the medieval basilica in the corner, one of the oldest and prettiest churches in Rome, and the first in the city to be dedicated to the Virgin Mary. It’s actually not by chance that the filmmakers chose that as the birthplace of the Antichrist, because St. Calixtus is believed to have established the first place of Christian worship in Rome on that very spot in the early third century.
Several times in the film, the hospital near Santa Maria in Trastevere is referred to as “Ospedale di Cappuccini”. This isn’t its name in real life, but it is a clever reference. The Capuchins are an order of Catholic friars that have been active since the sixteenth century. They’re infamous in Rome for a crypt that lies under Santa Maria della Concezione, right next to Piazza Barberini a famous must-see piazza that is part of most Rome itineraries. The bones of four thousand friars are morbidly displayed on the walls of the crypt in elaborate floral patterns. I guarantee that no matter how much time you spend in Rome, this is the weirdest thing you will ever see.
In the scene where Thorn comes home with the news of his promotion, we see that he lives in the neighborhood called Quartiere Coppedé. This area, designed by the artist Gino Coppedé before the first World War, is one of the coolest sections of modern Rome. In an attempt to create a place that would epitomize Rome’s status as the new capital of Italy, Coppedé designed a neighborhood that was as eclectic as his influences. Elements of Gothic, Baroque, and Renaissance architecture blend together on the buildings’ facades, most of which are crawling with images of sea horses, honey bees, spiders, and mythological creatures. It’s a beautiful part of town, and as the film suggests, you’d need an ambassador’s salary to live there.
The Omen is far from required viewing for an Italian vacation. The areas referenced in it, however, are certainly worth a look. After all the city of Rome is a celebration of life and a celebration of La Dolce Vita not less than it is the center of the darkest mysteries and intrigues—as Dan Brown so much was aware. If you have seen Roman Holiday, make sure that you also take a chance with The Omen. At any rate, now you are perfectly ready to know the real Rome and discover our Tours of Rome.
(Just make sure you rent the classic and not the stupid remake).