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The Charm of Italy, Part 3

By March 10, 2023March 11th, 2023No Comments
Classic view of the Roman Coliseum, scene of many bloody events in ancient Rome, taken from a distance and framed by trees.

Classic Roman Coliseum, scene of many bloody events in ancient Rome. © Jerry Ginsberg


By Jerry Ginsberg

In part one of my recent trip to Italy, I described the photographic opportunities in and around the fascinating and unique city of Venice. In part two I headed south and west to Naples, Capri and the Amalfi Coast. For this third and final installment, I headed to “the Eternal City,” Rome.

Editor’s note: Even the most avid nature photographers occasionally travel with spouses and families, go on vacations where landscapes and wildlife aren’t the primary focus. What do you do then? How do you apply nature photography techniques to urban settings? What do nature and travel photography have in common? Jerry Ginsberg, a frequent contributor on national parks, recently went to Italy. Here is the last of his three-part series describing how he approached it.

With visions of Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck dancing in my head, I made my triumphal entry into Italy’s capital. While it was disappointing that my arrival was not heralded by cheering throngs tossing flowers into my path as I rode by leading a parade of chariots drawn by prancing horses as in days of yore, I managed to make do.

My own observations revealed Rome to be a city of polar opposites. The contrast stems from the magnificent remains of the iconic Roman republic and empire that bequeathed to our civilization many of the customs and standards that survive to this day. In addition to the alphabet and large numbers of English words, these cover law, architecture, government, trade, culture, transportation and even plumbing.

On the other hand, there is a rather tired and somewhat dirty aspect to Rome with streets strewn with trash, overflowing dumpsters and once grand but now run down neighborhoods. I attribute these signs of decay to a governmental system that promises much, but delivers very little.

Relief within the Arch of Titus depicting the sacking of Jerusalem by rhe Roman Legion in 70 CE.

Relief within the Arch of Titus depicting the sacking of Jerusalem by the Roman Legion in 70 CE. © Jerry Ginsberg

Know in advance

Both media and guidebooks emphasize the danger of pickpockets in Rome.

Flashing an expensive camera can easily make one a target for street crime.

I have had that experience in another country. It did not end well for the would-be muggers.

Anyway, as a precaution for this trip, I loaded a cheap wallet with scrap paper and carried it very conspicuously in my back pocket in the hope that it would draw such scoundrels away from my camera. Even though I was in crowded tourist areas quite a bit, I never got bumped or had any problem at all.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that it can’t happen at any time.

A strong police presence is very visible. In cars and on foot officers of the various law enforcement forces are present in numbers wherever crowds of visitors are the most numerous.

The familiar stories about Roman traffic being lethal are no longer true. Years of strict enforcement have resulted in a firm adherence to traffic lights and pedestrian safety. Drivers now assiduously stop for pedestrians in crosswalks at any time. Even the hordes of aggressive motorcycle riders have developed some respect, albeit grudging, for human life. Frankly, after all the legends of the anarchy of Roman traffic, it’s a bit unnerving!

All else aside, the classic sights of this eternal city are truly thrilling. Places like the Forum with its many arches, columns and temples, the stunningly elegant Pantheon and Vatican City with its vast spaces crowded into just one square mile are like no other.

Wherever possible, purchase tickets for such venues* online well in advance.

Failing to do so will likely result in spending wasted time in long waiting lines to gain entry to the best places. I was obliged to wait for a full week after arriving in the city to gain entry to the Forum.

The vast interior of the Great Synagogue of Rome in the heart of the Ghetto in Rome, Italy. © Jerry Ginsberg

The ruined remains of the Roman Forum stand today as a reminder of the origins of Western civilization in Rome, Italy. © Jerry Ginsberg

Iconic places

The places where you’ll say “This is what I came to see!” are:

  • The Forum (actually several fori in one place) The birthplace of republican government.
  • The Coliseum – contiguous to the Forum. This is THE Coliseum!
  • Circus Maximus – very close, historic, but a little underwhelming.
  • Trevi Fountain – bring some coins
  • The Pantheon – Classic, elegantly simple and stunningly enormous all at once. Outstanding! (Free)
  • Piazza Navona – breathtaking sculptures and fountains
  • Castel Sant Angelo – explore its secrets
  • Capitoline Museum – a classic. World class. Designed by no less than Michelangelo.
  • Vatican City – No matter what your faith, this is truly a magnificent and awe-inspiring place. In addition to vast St. Peter’s Basilica are the Vatican museums. I am privileged to have visited most of the great museums of the world. The Vatican Museum is right up there in the front rank.! It’s enormous. Do not miss it. Very fast wide angle recommended. A 24/2.0 would be ideal.
  • Galleria Borghese – A truly magnificent gem of a small museum. Not to photograph yourself, but as a great lesson in visual art. Besides the absolutely incredible Bernini sculptures, if you want a lesson in two dimensional creation, the design and flowing geometry of composition, use of shadow detail, negative space and how the viewer’s eye was directed with light during the flower of the Renaissance, spend some time here studying the works of Caravaggio and his contemporaries.
Bernini's magnificent marble "David" in the Galleria Broghese, Rome, Italy.

Bernini’s magnificent marble “David” in the Galleria Broghese, Rome, Italy. © Jerry Ginsberg

Ancient and historic Castel San' Angelo on the bank of the Tiber River in the heart of Rome, Italy.

Ancient and historic Castel San’ Angelo on the bank of the Tiber River in the heart of Rome, Italy. © Jerry Ginsberg

Words of advice

Photographing these sights presents several dilemmas familiar to nature photographers. The Forum, for instance, is a large area containing a large number of structures. Like a busy, complicated landscape, the temptation is to whip out your wide-angle lens and capture the whole scene. But the key is to simplify, simplify, simplify. Find a main subject and work with it. Use your point of view, the light, etc. to focus attention on one thing and let the rest provide context.

Vatican City and St. Peter’s Square are vast spaces where you have to use leading lines, light and shadow to guide the viewer’s eye.

The dome of the Pantheon is a study in geometric patterns and of light and dark. Wherever you’re shooting, you’ll find yourself applying the same skills and techniques you use for landscapes to this ancient, vibrant city.

The daily schedule is quite simple. Get out in the streets well before sunrise, shoot like crazy until the light becomes too harsh, spend mid-day in one of the innumerable restaurant cafes or better, a museum, and shoot again for the last two hours of light.

It cannot be over emphasized: get to these A-list sights as early in the day as possible. Arriving once the tourists have flooded them will result in disappointment.

Rome is a great city to walk. And walk. And walk. So bring sturdy shoes.

Part of the fun is getting a bit lost as you wander the tangled and twisting back streets of today’s Rome. A rabbit warren has a better grid plan.

The Galleria Borghese isn’t the only place where a lesson in art history can help you better enjoy your visit and take better photos. Besides the ancient Roman history and remains of so many once grand structures, the city teems with Renaissance and pre-twentieth century buildings that are gorgeous works of art in their own rights. Don’t reflexively pass them by as you hurry from one major site to another. Stop frequently to admire their beauty and elegance. Rome, whether in museums, looking across plazas, or exploring ancient ruins, is a wonderful place to study how artists, architects and artisans arranged elements in their compositions, used light and color, dimensionality, leading lines and all the tools we use when photographing nature.

Elegant and classic with perfect proportions and an enormous dome, the Pantheon was built in the First Century CE in Rome, Italy.

Elegant and classic with perfect proportions and an enormous dome, the Pantheon was built in the First Century CE in Rome, Italy. © Jerry Ginsberg

Elegantly graphic, but a bit dizzying ramp in the vast Vatican Museum in Vatican City, Rome, Italy.

Elegantly graphic, but a bit dizzying ramp in the vast Vatican Museum in Vatican City, Rome, Italy. © Jerry Ginsberg

Gear up

I went to Italy carrying about a dozen lenses, both zooms and fast primes. My feeling was, “I bought them: I’m taking them!”

After all that, over eighty percent of the images made during my month long itinerary were shot with my trusty 24~70/2.8. On several occasions I could have used a little more reach. A 24~90 or, even better, 24~105 would have been really ideal, but with today’s high megapixel files I could afford to be a little loose in the frame. Once in a while, I reached into my bag for a 15 or 20mm, but the 24-70 carried the day. Will I ever learn to stop over-packing? TBC

It’s difficult to anticipate one’s needs on the very first trip to a new location.

Jerry Ginsberg is a multi-award winning and widely published photographer whose landscape, Nature and travel images have graced the covers and pages of hundreds of books, magazines and travel catalogs. He is the only person to have photographed each and every one of America’s 63 National Parks with medium format cameras.

Jerry has been awarded Artist Residencies in several National Parks across America and has appeared on ABC TV discussing our national parks. His works have been exhibited from coast to coast and have received numerous awards. Jerry’s photographic archive spans virtually all of both North and South America along with large chunks of Europe and the mid-East.

More of Ginsberg’s images are on display at