A rare snowfall on the Spanish Steps (February 2012)
Peter Steffen/Corbis

“So many centuries of history are wound inextricably into the city and confront the visitor,” wrote the late art critic Robert Hughes in Rome: A Cultural, Visual, and Personal History. “It wasn’t built in a day and can’t be understood in one, or a week, or a month or year.”

The trip my fiancée, Chana, and I made was plagued, as Hughes suggests, by the glorious and confounding realization that we could survey no more than a fraction of the aesthetic and historical landscape. It was Chana’s first time in Rome and my third. She is trained in art history, while I have been a lifelong sucker for archaeology; we make as good a pair of travelers, I suppose, as any other. Even with five days in Rome, we could not manage to return to some of my favorite places from previous trips — the Catacombs, the Giolitti gelateria, the bar at the Hotel d’Inghilterra. Yet to savor Rome on any given vacation is inevitably to be selective.

Tradition holds that if a visitor throws a coin into the Trevi Fountain, he is ensured a return to Rome
Taylor S. Kennedy/National Geographic Stock
Our luxurious base on this visit was the Rome Cavalieri, a Waldorf Astoria Hotels & Resorts property (see sidebar), from which we set out for each day’s explorations and to which we generally returned for a break after lunch. Rome is a scintillating city, a riot of sensory input, and for that same reason it can be an overwhelming city too. Rather than frog-march ourselves for hours on end, we divided each day into sections, generally devoting one to art and another to archaeology, dining more casually for lunch than for dinner and abandoning any pretense of being all-encompassing.

On our first full day, we settled for a once-over-lightly stroll through some of the most famous and crowded tourist destinations — the Spanish Steps, the Trevi Fountain, the Via Veneto. We opted to spend more time instead at the church of Santa Maria della Vittoria for the sole purpose of viewing one sculpture: The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa by Gian Lorenzo Bernini. With apologies to Michelangelo and Caravaggio, Rome arguably belongs to Bernini more than to any other artist; his hand is present in the Piazza Navona, the Fountain of the Four Rivers and St. Peter’s. There is an exceptional selection of Bernini’s sculptures in the Borghese ­Gallery, including his famous David, biting his lip in concentration and determination as he prepares the slingshot for Goliath.

Bernini’s Saint Teresa was likely modeled, according to Hughes, on the artist’s comely mistress. Whatever the inspiration, Bernini has the saint parting her lips in rapture as her side is pierced by an angel’s spear. This masterpiece is a paean to divinity that also happens to throb with very human sensuality. In its multiple meanings, its elision between soulful and sybaritic, The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa made an ideal distillation of Rome itself.

Ten or 15 minutes of easy walking from Santa Maria, at the edge of the Borghese Gardens, we came to a more secular kind of landmark: the Hotel Eden. Its claim on history is as the redoubt of creative artists, including the cinematic auteur of Rome, Federico Fellini. The rooftop terrace, our destination for a late-afternoon drink, was awash in western sunlight and the sounds of Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. As we beheld the Vatican in silhouette, a tuxedoed waiter delivered us martinis and a gratis array of olives, nuts, foie gras and other hors d’oeuvres. Here was cocktail hour and the appetizer course wrapped into one.