Ancient and modern wonders

THE Eternal City has had a 21st-century makeover. In the last few years, daring new architect-designed buildings have been springing up, while workmen sing along to Tony Bennett: “The glory that was Rome/Is of another day.” The Auditorium Parco della Musica was created by Renzo Piano, and took 12 years to build. The American architect Richard Meier has contributed two major buildings: the Ara Pacis Museum, which became in 2006 the first new building to open in the historic city in 70 years, and the curved concrete Jubilee Church to the east of the city. Old buildings have been tarted up: the 19th century Palazzo delle Exposizioni has been given a new glass and steel extension, and the Museum of Contemporary Art of Rome has been housed in an old brewery.

But the leader of the pack is Zaha Hadid’s stunning Maxxi museum. The name itself is a delightful play on old and new, using Roman numerals to spell out “Museum of Art of the 21st Century”. Hadid makes concrete seem organic, all sinuous curves on the outside, with vertiginous staircases and dizzying split levels on the inside like some Escher painting. It opened in 2010, and in October it won the Stirling Prize for the finest building in Europe designed by a British architect.

Deservedly so. But can it really compete with Rome’s established wonders? I hadn’t visited the city for a couple of years, and was grateful for an excuse to find out. But wandering and wondering round Hadid’s extraordinary creation shortly before Christmas, it seemed all style and no substance. Where’s the great art to go inside it?

There was a fun sculpture made of traffic cones stuck together. In another room, a pair of giant legs that disappear into the ceiling. A video installation by Bill Viola, two clothed dummies by Yinka Shonibare, a massive and yet minor PVC sculpture by Anish Kapoor. And the rest was blah. The collection changed in February, so you may have better luck, but on this evidence I doubt it.

Still, for those visiting Rome this summer, there’s an important exhibition of 100 works by Michelangelo Pistoletto, darling of the Arte Povera movement in the ‘60s. That runs until 15 August.

But while Rome’s newest marvel may have disappointed, thrown back on Rome’s longer-lived wonders for a second time, I discovered why they call it the Eternal City. You can go again and again, and discover something new.

I stayed in the Rome Cavalieri, which is offering privileged access and passes to the Maxxi. It stands on a hilltop overlooking the city (a free shuttle bus leaves hourly), and though it may look from the outside like a concrete council estate, on the inside it is the epitome of luxury. It has a three-Michelin-starred restaurant on the top floor (book several months in advance to avoid disappointment), and its owner is a wealthy art collector who has left a thousand pieces, both furniture and paintings, dotted around the place.

Borrow an iPod from the concierge and take the walking tour. It’s unintentionally hilarious in parts -- the American narrator’s Italian accent was evidently so offensive to the Roman ear that the titles of paintings have been overdubbed by another voice – but good at drawing the finest works to your attention.

But the best thing about the Cavalieri is the view, ah, the view! Just sitting down to breakfast is inspiring. St Peter’s is just there, to the right, with dozens of smaller domes sprouting from the mass of buildings all over the city, as though its great dome were the bell of some curious stone flower which had pollinated and spread its seeds across the capital. The rooms at the Cavalieri have their own balconies, and mirrors artfully placed to reflect St Peter’s right into your bedroom.

It sets you up well for a day of wandering. Because the real object of Rome is, well, to roam. Round every corner is some new square, or fountain, or church, or great stone edifice with gigantic pillars. And even the monuments amply repay a second visit.

At the Colosseum, I read how they used to flood the arena floor and stage elaborate naval battles. At the Pantheon, which has a large hole in the top of its perfectly spherical dome as though an eye to God, it began to snow – only the second snow here in 20 years -- the flakes falling through the opening to the stone floor like feathers shaken from the wings of angels.

Perhaps the greatest revelation was the Vatican Museum. On my last visit I’d just crowded in, buffeted and bewildered, not quite knowing what to look at outside of the Sistine Chapel itself. This time we were accompanied by a guide, a talented artist in her own right, who brought these millennia-old treasures freshly to life.

We stood before Michelangelo’s ineffably moving Pieta of the Virgin Mary with the crucified Christ, a sculpture carved from a single block of Carrara marble when the great artist was just 23. Our guide pointed out Michelangelo’s trick with scale – Christ is much smaller than the mother whose lap he is stretched out on, so that the scene suggests his birth as well as his death. And her expression and gestures are sad but accepting, as though she knew from birth that this sacrifice was ordained.

Then she pointed out a real curio: the only Leonardo da Vinci in Rome, an unfinished and damaged work. You can see the restored square where the face had been cut out of the painting, and made into a cushion for a shoe-maker to park his backside on. As Jim Royle might say, “Leonardo, my arse!”

And finally, the piece de resistance: the Sistine Chapel itself. This, too, has had a controversial makeover in the last decade, but only to restore it to its former colourful glory. Michelangelo initially refused the commission on the grounds that he was a sculptor, not a painter. Even so, he finished the ceiling without any helpers in just four years, inventing trompe l’oeuil into the bargain – the device whereby painted statues and porticoes are made to look 3D.

The side wall of the Last Judgment was commissioned 20 years later, when Michelangelo was 50, but he had lost none of his youthful fire. He painted the figure of Minos, who in Dante’s Inferno decides in which Circle of Hell to confine sinners, with the face of a prominent Cardinal who had annoyed him: a serpent is wrapped round his legs, biting him in the balls for all eternity.

The tour operator Italy With Us has wangled an exclusive licence to show visitors round in the early morning for €50 a head, before the place opens to the general public. To see Michelangelo’s greatest masterpiece unsullied by the heedless hordes is worth travelling to Rome for alone. Next to those eternal glories, the Maxxi museum is a load of Pollocks.

For Vatican tours including exclusive Sistine Chapel access, contact Italy With Us, Via Vespasiano 16-18, Rome; (+39) 06 3972 3051, Citalia is the UK’s leading specialist Italian tour operator: 0845 415 1987, Rooms at the Cavalieri start at 355 euros: (+39) 06 35092040,