It doesn’t take long to get acclimated to a new city. A good map and plenty of patience can get you anywhere you want to go. Most first-time visitors to Italy end up defaulting to the most popular choice, which is the Holy Trinity of itineraries: Florence, Rome, and Venice. Some may stop for a quick photo in Pisa, but for the most part, it’s a rushed trek through the Colosseum, a hurried tour through Uffizi, and an over-priced gondola ride through the Grand Canal.
However, if you look beyond the crumbling columns of ancient Rome, the medieval alleys of Firenze, and the romantic waterways of Venice, you’ll find the palaces, fountains and elegant piazzas, all waiting patiently to tell their stories. If you stop long enough to listen, that is.
Cutting South through the Piazza Navona, I found myself within three minutes time in the Campo de’ Fiori. During the Renaissance, Campo de’ Fiori (Field of Flowers) was the site of an exquisite meadow. The papal procession routinely made its way through the area, so powerful Roman families eventually built fortress-like houses along the route.
Today, the piazza is an open-air market that still preserves traces of the life that once flourished here. Hugging the banks of the Tiber River, Campo de’ Fiori lays atop the half-ruined remains of ancient Rome. The Spada Chapel, built in 1550 by Barromini, and the imposing Palazzo Farnese, created by Michelangelo, are perfect examples of the treasures found nearby and throughout the Campo de’ Fiori.
I found the palazzo alive with organized commotion in every direction. A labyrinth of stalls, all cramming their way into the tiny acre, contained a confusing maze of makeshift tables. Fresh artichokes, eggplant, tangerines, peppers, and other seasonal vegetables in colorful arrangement dazzled the eye. T-shirts, handbags, and trinkets of every kind hung at eye-level for the passer by. Fish that were swimming in the Tyrrhenian Sea earlier in the morning were proudly displayed on mountains of ice.
An overflow of people squeezed around the jigsaw-puzzle-like tables, stopping occasionally to bargain with the many merchants. Romans argued loudly with local fisherman. Tourist cameras clicked away at everything that moved - and some things that didn’t. Lovers embraced, oblivious to the fact they weren’t alone. People tried on hats, scarves, and ridiculously oversized sunglasses, striking poses for the vendors shouting “Molto Buono!” - even though well aware they looked utterly absurd.
Homeless folks hobbled by on canes, shaking empty cups they hoped would be filled by day’s end. Musicians played instruments of all kinds: violins, accordions, saxophones, and guitars. All the sounds bled into one another, creating a symphony of mismatched music, as the performers stood in front of open cases with Euros sprinkled inside. Still, it was the scent, not the sound, that brought the Piazza to life. The aroma of chocolate and freshly baked bread wafted its way through the Campo. Ground espresso led the crowds – almost in a trance - to the small trattorias that lined the piazza.
Local residents yawned, stretched, and peeked out of cracked-open shutters on the buildings above, staring down upon the commotion of the throng, satisfied that the noise had once again functioned as an alarm clock. Laughter was everywhere. I found it fascinating that the only flowers, in what was once a magnificent meadow, were now bound together with rubber bands, sold by shopkeepers who never picked them and couldn’t tell the difference between a Gardenia and a garden.
Dan Beckmann is a photographer, writer, and journalist who lives in Orlando Florida. He worked as a cameraman, producer, and editor with the Today Show at NBC News, traveling extensively throughout the Middle East, Europe, and Africa from their Tel Aviv and Jerusalem Bureaus. His work has been featured on the BBC, Sky, Reuters, Discovery Channel and Nat Geo, plus he contributes regular columns to the Orlando Sentinel.