We have been enjoying all the feedback we’ve been receiving from readers and clients about our new series of posts this month featuring interviews with our top Italy and Switzerland guides, including an insider’s look at Florence with Elvira, Pompeii with Antonio, and Bologna with Nathalie …all trusted professional guides who have shared the treasures of their cities with countless of our clients over the years!
We are staying stateside for the moment and haven’t been able to reconnect with our guides as we usually do each year. These posts have been a powerful reminder of the passion and commitment that drives Italy’s licensed guides, who train for years, pass a rigorous licensing exam, and hold university degrees in everything from archaeology to art history.
This week we stop in the Eternal City to chat with Alessandro Celani, our long-standing go-to guide in Rome. In addition to being one of the most dedicated and informed guides in Italy’s capital city, Alessandro has published a number of books and photography projects that reflect his interest in Italy’s history and culture. Read on to hear about his career as a guide and to pick up some secret tips to discovering the beauty of Rome.
Be sure to stay tuned for our next guide in the series that will take us across the border into Switzerland!
Tell us about yourself! Where are you from, what did you study, and how long have you been a tour guide?
I was born in a small town south of Rome named Alatri, home to lots of art and ancient Etruscan and Roman roots. Being from such a historic place and having a painter as a grandfather, of course I was drawn to studying archaeology and art history. I went to Umbria for that: the University of Perugia, where I still live part time. I have always been fascinated with traveling and I spent two years in Athens to earn my master’s degree in Greek art and archaeology. Later, my interests and studies took me to Rome to explore the ancient Roman, Renaissance, and baroque periods, fields in which I have published books and articles. More recently, I have been exploring new areas such as photography, poetry, and travel writing. It’s hard to believe that I have been a tour guide for 20 years now!
What attracted you to becoming a guide?
I have always traveled, either with my family, my friends, fellow students, or, at times, alone, and I have met many people along the way. I always think of traveling as a dialogue. As you walk and observe, you speak, learn and remember, and love. Talking about beauty and history with new people is like seeing things with new eyes. I have gotten a lot more from being a guide than I have been able to give.
What is the one thing all visitors in Rome should see in your opinion?
It may seem like a trivial answer, but I must say the Pantheon. It is all the harmony of the world and universe condensed into a single building. I have been to the Pantheon hundreds of times, but any time I step into the circle of its dome, it’s like feeling the space for the first time.
What is your favorite secret treasure that you love to share with visitors?
Rome is a secret. Its name, as they said in ancient times, is a false name created to shelter the real one, unknown. Amor (Roma backwards) for somebody, love. My own personal secret place is the Villa Farnesina, the vision of a Renaissance cardinal from Siena, Agostino Chigi, and his architect, Baldassarre Peruzzi. The villa is full of artworks by the greatest painters of the time, including the divine Raphael. Not too much nor too little, a perfect measure of beauty overlooking the Tiber River.
Complete this sentence: If you really want to experience the spirit of Rome, you should…….
. . . walk through the ancient ruins early in the morning alone, and breathe.
Name a sight or activity that visitors should avoid in Rome.
Taking an open bus tour. They are intrusive, pollute, and offer a superficial vision of the city.
What is your favorite Roman dish, and is there a specific place visitors should try it?
Simplicity is always the best way to me. Pasta cacio e pepe, great at Felice a Testaccio. The waiter comes to your table and, using the spoon like a magician, makes of what looks like white pasta and a sad pile of grated pecorino cheese the most creamy and tasty food you’ve ever tried.
Share your favorite memory from a tour you have given.
Hard to tell. My tours are like my children, as one says. I want to be unconventional. I once went to the Borghese Gallery with a family composed of parents with their two grown children, one of whom was a painter. Any time I started my explanations, he would walk away. At one point he came to me and said. “Do you mind if I wander around? I don’t want to offend you. I like being silent before art.” I felt his tremendous love for art, his physical way of feeling the paintings as he walked through the gallery like a feline. In a single word, I felt his being an artist. He was like a fish in the water. I have never been so happy not to be listened to.
Can you recommend a book or film for those planning of visiting Rome?
Two films I would mention are “Roma” by Federico Fellini and “La Grande Bellezza” by Paolo Sorrentino. In both of them, Rome is depicted as timeless, where anything has happened a million times over three thousand years. That is what makes Rome special. Time. When there, your own very ordinary life may appear loftier and glorious to you, because the Eternal City has witnessed it.
What changes do you foresee in Rome’s tourism due to Covid-19?
Like any event of this kind, it is difficult to tell which way things will move. Personally, I really hope Covid-19 will lead us to travel with more responsibility and respect for cities and the environment. I always try, when guiding, to share with clients the idea that quality is important, not quantity. Probably in the near future it will be harder to travel and harder to access places when traveling. But we will adapt and love it more.