Saturday, 22 March 2014

Roman walks 2

From the Pantheon to Trastevere



So [continuing from Walking in Rome 1 - published on February 15th], once the great monuments of the Forum and the Vatican have been studied and absorbed, a long walk round the centre of living Rome is recommended. It's almost impossible to stroll in this city without coming on something of interest, whether it be classical, medieval, renaissance, baroque, neo-classical or modern. It's also possible to enjoy a great deal just sitting watching the world go by. And then just in the Piazza Venezia and on the Campidoglio there are palazzi, museums and. churches enough to fill a day or two of hard. work. Just a few glances, however, are enough to set the imagination afire: look up at the balcony on the fifteenth century Palazzo Venezia and think of Mussolini, on his box, stirring the eager crowds. Or turn your eyes to Vittorio Emmanuele II, twelve metres long and high in gilded bronze, celebrating the unity of Ita1y. Or allow the cold, white columns of the monument (the stone is from Brescia, in the north, quite out of character, but coincidentally where the then-mayor of Rome came from) to take you back to the hard, heavy imposition of the Roman emperors. If you can, see it at night, with a fleeting moon behind suddenly scudding clouds, edged by the soughing pines; it can create an eerie impression. Or climb to the Piazza del Campidoglio and slip down behind to look out over the Forum, and think of the footsteps of Caesars and Saints that have preceded you.





From here, by the Campidoglio, anyway, walk back down the steps between Castor and Pollux, and follow straight, braving the traffic, down the Via d'Aracadi to the Piazza di Gesu, where you'll always find a breeze rustling the posters of the paper stall (apparently the devil and the wind were once strolling and chatting in this square when Il Diavolo had the sudden urge to slip into the church, asking the wind to wait for him. Faithful chap, the wind.)

Inside the church (La Chiesa del Gesu - http://www.chiesadelgesu.org/?lang=en - mother church of the Jesuits), apart from the illusions of the Trompe l'oeil ceiling depicting the Triumph of the Name of Jesus, and the space and grandeur of Vignola's design, you'll find the largest block of Lapis Lazuli in the world, incorporated into the magnificent tomb of Saint Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the order. Then, with the church behind you, cross the road to the right and go up the Via del Gesu and turn left at the end until you come to Piazza della Minerva, where Bernini had the bright idea of sticking a sixth century BC Egyptian obelisk on the back of an elephant. The choice of an elephant was to demonstrate how a strong mind is needed to support firm knowledge. Bernini didn't actually do the sculpting himself, and his intention was that there should be a gap under the belly, but never mind. The Basilica of Santa Maria sopra Minerva (http://www.basilicaminerva.it/home.htm) is the only truly Gothic church in Rome, though it is not at all what you would expect with that claim. It's very pleasant when the afternoon sun streams through the rose window, but its main attractions are that Saint Catherine of Siena lies under the main altar (except for her head, that is, which is in a glass case in Siena), that to the left of this is Michelangelo's Christ bearing the Cross, and that at the right end of the transept there are frescoes by Filippino Lippi, the main wall carrying his Assumption.

From here it is only a few paces to the Pantheon (one of the greatest of all man's architectural achievements). Up the Via della Minerva and into Piazza della Rotonda, and rest for a minute on the steps of the fountain to marvel at the sixteen columns of Egyptian granite, the falsehood on the architrave (although Marcus Agrippa built the first temple on this site, the emperor Hadrian was almost entirely responsible for what we see today), and the exterior of the largest concrete dome in the world until modern times (its diameter is 43.30 metres, nearly a metre more than St Peter's).  Inside, although Raphael, Victor Emmanuel II and Umberto I are all buried here, the most striking thing is the grace and. audacity of the coffered ceiling with its eye of heaven letting in the sun and air (and a little rain). Stepping gingerly on the uneven slaps of the original floor we can marvel at the way they bridged that span some 1800 years ago. The concrete was an innovation, as was the idea of filling the  areas that bear no load with light materials such as old amphorae, tufa and pumice (today they use expanded polystyrene in exactly the same way). One story about how they did it was that the brick barrel was filled with earth in which coins had been buried and when the dome had set the poor of the city dug out the interior in a scramble for 'easy' money.  Ingenious, even if apocryphal.





Leaving the Pantheon, closing the immense Roman doors behind you, go up the Salita dei Crescenzi to the left and then right across the street to the grey renaissance church of San Luigi dei Francesi (http://www.saintlouis-rome.net/). This is the national church of the French in Rome, but it is also the home of three masterworks of Caravaggio which you will find in the far left corner chapel. The one that always sends a shiver down my back is on the left, The Calling of St Matthew, where the artist has used powerful cinematic lighting to hit the very ordinary chap Matthew right between the eyes. Outside and down Via del Salvatore to the Corso del Rinascimento and you are beside the Palazzo Madama, seat of the Italian Senate, guarded by Carabinieri in their best outfits. Across the road and down the Corsia Agonale and you're in the Circus of Domitian, or what's now called Piazza Navona, famous for its lightning artists, expensive bars and Bernini fountains. The harmony is fine, and the flowery windows and tiled roofs that surround are impressive. It is a pity that they don't still flood it as they did in the summers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, allowing processions of elegant  boats and a degree of good clean fun! Nowadays the fountains seem to collect an unfortunate amount of rubbish.


If you wander up the right-hand end of the piazza and then duck down the Via Lorensi, look up a moment and admire the rather different spire of Santa Maria dell' Anima, which is the German church in Rome. Next door to this is Santa Maria della Pace, which may be closed, but behind it is a lovely cloister by Bramante which you can enter through number five dell' Arco della Pace (and there may well be a temporary exhibition on as well). Up the Largo Febo a bit you can see remnants of the Stadium of Domitian under the modern buildings, then, crossing the road, keeping to the right, follow the Via di San Agostino into the piazza of the same name. This church, the Basilica di Sant'Agostino, with its flight of steps and pleasing travertine face, contains another Caravaggio, The Madonna of Loreto,  in the first chapel on the left, as well as the most popular statue of the Virgin and Child in Rome (by Andrea Sansovino), just inside the door, smothered in lights and offerings, and in the process of being eroded by kissing. Turning right of the church the narrow Via dei Pianellari leads into via dei Portoghesi and Via della Scrofa (Sow Street, so named after a relief of a sow you can find on a fountain just by here). Turn left and follow this street, which then becomes Via della Ripetta, after the little port it used to serve on the Tiber.  Here boats once docked and there was the hustle of busy port traffic, but now grinds the traffic on the Lungotevere, high above the sweep of the river. Ignoring this, however, if you can, have a look at the beautiful friezes of the reconstructed Ara Pacis, (http://en.arapacis.it/) recently  (2006) re-housed in a splendid museum, but as is still traditional this is closed on Mondays.  The Altar (of Peace) was made, in 13BC, to commemorate Augustus' achievement of obtaining peace in the Empire. The rather grand and mournful mound once crowned with cypress, though now in restauro (under restoration - due to reopen in 2016) is the Mausoleum of Augustus and his family, which once held the ashes of Agrippa, Tiberius and Claudius, amongst others.  Mussolini had the idea of using it as his own memorial, but history did not work out that way.....





Skirt around this and make for the bulky apse of San Carlo al Corso and then pass through, keeping this on your right, cross the Via del Corso and wander up the Via della Croce. This street has some rather good food stores, a couple of interesting restaurants and an excellent old wine shop (http://www.anticaenoteca.com/), where you can still, despite sophisticated modernisation, have just a glass of local grape juice or you can pay the earth for a prestigious bottle of famous wine. Anyway, turn right off the Via della Croce here and walk two blocks to the Via Condotti and turn left. This is one of the smartest streets in Rome, noisy with the bangling of gold and the chinking of diamonds. Up to the left, at No. 86, is the best of all Cafés too, the Caffé Greco (http://www.anticocaffegreco.eu/index.php), an experience worth paying for if you feel like sitting in the back and relaxing with a drink. Just about everyone famous in the last couple of hundred years has passed some time here, though the ghosts I see most often are those of a well-wrapped but expansive Goethe and a shiny-trousered, nervous James Joyce.


Suitably refreshed we enter the last stage of the walk, climbing the Spanish Steps (unless you first want to visit the Keats-Shelley House (http://www.keats-shelley-house.org/) just to the right, at No 26 Piazza di Spagna) and wandering along the Viale Trinita dei Monti, admiring the Villa Medici on the right, and the rooftops of Rome on the left. 


If you then keep slightly right, along the Viale Mickiewicz, you come to Piazzale Napoleone and the Pincio Gardens, and from these terraces you have one of the best views over Rome, particularly attractive in the evening. Below is the Piazza del Popolo, with the church of Santa Maria on the right (two more Caravaggios, together with works by Bramante, Pinturicchio, Raphael and Sansovino can be found in here) and the great Porta del Popolo which leads out onto the Via Flaminia and the North. This was where most visitors on the grand tour arrived, dusty or muddy according to the weather - hungry and thirsty certainly.

Although you could go on from here and never stop, it is probably better to linger for the sunset and then join the passeggiata, or the weary travellers, and drift down to the Piazza either to the refined and lovely Rosati's bar (http://www.barrosati.com/)on the far side, or in the sharper and more popular Canova (http://www.canovapiazzadelpopolo.it/) at the entrance to the Via del Babuino. This is where Fellini used to have breakfast.  It must be time for an aperitif.




To get a good idea of how Rome was; you know, how it was once, in the good old days, a wander around Trastevere, the thirteenth precinct, can provide much entertainment and interest. This is the Montmartre of Rome, once the artists' quarter in a sense and traditionally the foreigners' quarter, too, the name being a corruption of Trans Tevere, meaning Across the Tiber, which implies it isn't really Rome, even though parts of it have been enclosed by walls since 87BC and it officially became a part of the city after Augustus' administrative reform.





While there are few examples of 'big stuff' (as my old flatmate Bob Brecknell used to say) here, there are many surprising gems and suggestive lanes festooned with washing, and there are many curiosities. In one ex-convent, for example, you could once find the museum of Folklore and Romanesque Poets (now the Museum of Rome In Trastevere http://www.museodiromaintrastevere.it/) Once there was also a cinema here that showed a different  film in English every day (the Pasquino, in Vicolo del Piede) and which had a ceiling that slid open in the summer to let the neighbours watch....  But it has gone now.... There is also the great Sunday market of Porta Portese, indefatigably thriving outside the Port gate, leading to Ostia, as it has for over two millennia.





Anyway I propose a walk - though no walk can cover everything - that will introduce you to this characterful zone. You can live here for years, and still keep discovering things. To illustrate the ad hoc nature of this area we start in Piazza Sidney Sonnino, named after an otherwise unremembered Italian statesman. Here buses from all over Rome used to converge and fume in the confusion of traffic lights and turnings. On the river side you can see the Torre degli Anguillara, the only surviving thirteenth century tower in the region, sometimes called the Casa di Dante, because of the institute of that name that has its library there. Note, by the way, a stone that marks a flood level of the old Tiber, before the banks were constructed to tame it.

Beyond this there's another square, dedicated to and with a friendly monument to the dialect poet Giuseppe Gioachino Belli, who left, in over two thousand sonnets, a lively picture of early nineteenth century life.





Crossing Piazza Sonnino, in a way that correctly gives you the impression that it once had the right of way, is the Via della Lungaretta. If you dive up this, past the Torre degli Anguillara you come to the pretty Piazza in Piscinula, passing on the way a fine medieval house on the corner of Via della Luce. Up to the right of the piazza and through a narrow alley (passing, under the arch, the site of a memorial to the Emperor Vespasian - i.e. a gentleman's urinal, still sometimes called a Vespasiano after the ruler who introduced public toilets - and who made a fortune out of selling urea) and down to a crossroads where you will find the church of the Ospizio dei Genovesi, dedicated to John the Baptist, but which was the home from home of Genoese sailors who landed at the nearby Ripa Grande..... the church isn't very special, but the cloister is beautiful, filled with orange trees and colourful vegetation, and sculpted in the fifteenth century from warm travertine stone. It is one of the gems of not-so-famous Rome.

Back up towards Piazza Sonnino you can find, tucked away on the right, the remains of what must be the earliest fire-station in the world, the barracks of the VIIth Coorte dei Vigili, a kind of urban police and fire brigade in the second century AD. Opposite is the slightly run-down portico (it needs weeding) of the church of San Crisogono, worth stepping inside to admire the thirteenth century Cosmatesque pavement, but also it is a curiously peaceful church, perhaps because of the press of city life and crowds that throngs around it.





Not far away, down the Via della Lungaretta, is the larger, and more famous, Santa Maria in Trastevere, one of the oldest churches in Rome , and, until the invention of spray-can-graffiti, standing in one of the loveliest squares in the city. The tympanum of the facade is a beautiful mosaic of the Madonna and ten young women, erroneously supposed at times to represent the wise and foolish virgins. The Romanesque campanile, and the harmonious clock, make a not-too-obtrusive focus of the whole area. On the right of the church, if you follow Via della Paglia (Straw Street, a reminder that the area was until comparatively recently fragranced by the smell of stables) and then turn right into Piazza San Egidio you will find the Museum that I mentioned above, tucked neatly into a restored Carmelite convent. It does not sport a large display, but the scenes of Roman life are fascinating, and it's worth dropping in. 

If you now follow Via della Scala a little way, on your left you'll see the Farmacia of the convent of Santa Maria delIa Scala (Antica Spezieria di Santa Maria della Scala), which is  still run by the barefoot Carmelites, as it had been since the sixteen hundreds. The actual  pharmacy is relatively modern (the original is upstairs and can be visited on request) but it has atmosphere, partly because of the herbal odours and partly because of the elegant decoration of the room, and it reminds you of the days when monks were often responsible for healing, when the sight of a friar gathering herbs would not have been at all unusual, as in Romeo and Juliet, for example.





Straight on, anyway, and through the Porta Settimiana, which pierces the Aurelian wall, and on down the Via Lungara, which takes you towards St Peter's, past the Queen of the Heaven (Regina Coeli) prison (originally a convent, hence the name), but only go as far as the Villa Farnesina (http://www.villafarnesina.it), one of the loveliest renaissance villas in Rome even though the gardens have been spoiled by the creation of the Tiber banks and the roaring Lungotevere. This is the current home of part of the Accademia dei Lincei, (The Academy of the Lynx-Eyed - and the other part is across the road in the Palazzo Corsini). This Academy’s mission is to promote, coordinate, integrate and spread scientific knowledge in its highest expressions in the frame of cultural unity and universality but it is really for the frescoes that it is worth entering. Some of the decorations are by Raphael, who lived nearby with his baker's daughter. There's a spacious and well-lit gallery where he and helpers decorated the ceiling with the Fable of Psyche, and in a room to the left there is a fresco of Galatea, by Raphael, as well as works by Baldassare Peruzzi and Sebastiano del Piombo.  On the first floor there is a bedroom painted by Il Sodoma, and then there is the marvellous Salone delle Prospettive, where one can glimpse pictures of sixteenth century Rome between painted columns.  It's a wonderful house, and the last time I was there I wandered alone and undisturbed for almost an hour in and around the place, while not at all far away the tourists teemed and queued.




Opposite the entrance to this jewel is another great house, the Palazzo Corsini, but this isn't anything like so attractive. The colonnade out the back and the immense palms of the garden are impressive, but a detour down Via Corsini (past a thriving magnolia and two carabinieri) will take you to the entrance to the botanical gardens (http://www.ortobotanicoitalia.it/lazio/romalasapienza/ - now owned and run by Rome University), which extend for twelve hectares on the flanks of the Janiculum hill, and which include much of what was the park of the Palazzo Corsini. These gardens boast some eight thousand plants, many of which are rare and some of which are unique in Italy: the sequoias and cypresses and cedars are particularly imposing, and there is also an orchid collection.

Back through the Porta Settimiana and turn right up the Via Garibaldi (unless you can afford to stop and eat in the garden of Da Romolo (http://www.ristoranteromolo.it/en/), where the ghost of Raphael sometimes drinks).  The road soon leads left and on the right there are some huge rusty gates; these belong to the Bosco Parrasio, a garden where the Academy of Arcadia used to meet - apparently you can get in via No. 52 Via di Porta san Pancrazio, though I've never succeeded (Visite al Bosco Parrasio: Inviando una motivata richiesta al Custode generale dell’Arcadia, per il tramite della segreteria dell’istituzione (dott.ssa Giovanna Rak, info@accademiadellarcadia.it), è possibile ottenere l’autorizzazione per visitare singolarmente o in gruppo il Bosco Parrasio). Anyway, it was in these gardens, or in the house, that members of this academy have met since the seventeenth century. Their purpose was to eliminate bad taste and to purify Italian art, and members took pastoral names. This chosen place was named after a Greek Grove sacred to Apollo.




Up some scruffy steps now to the Fontana Paola, where water from Lake Bracciano gushes out of its low pressure Roman pipes (there's a pretty garden behind this, too).  The nearby courtyard of the church of San Pietro in Montorio shelters the Tempietto del Bramante, a perfectly proportioned example of Renaissance architecture, built to commemorate the place where St Peter was supposedly crucified.





At the top of the hill, the Piazzale del Gianicolo, is a great place to sit on the travertine ledge watching the sun tinge the mountains behind Rome. Garibaldi dominates on horseback, and over the other side of the area you could once see a rather sad relic of a different Rome, a rapidly declining farm, such as impinged on the city on all sides until the post-war explosion.




In fact, until the late 1970s, this farm was still alive and kicking, with animals and tilled fields, and it made an extraordinary contrast to the hustle of cramped Trastevere. Alas, some ten years later, the only sign of life in a very closed and decaying building was a trickle of blue smoke from a chimney, slow and damp like the crawling of centuries.  You won't see even that now, however, as it has been transformed into a smart villa, with neat hedges and electronic gates, though the physical layout of the buildings is as it once was, so with quite a lot of imagination you could just about see how it used to be......








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