12 April 2014

Roman walks 3

The Protestant Cemetery to the Fiddler's Elbow

One curious and romantic place that many English and American visitors to Rome want to see is the Protestant Cemetery (Cimitero Acattolico - http://www.cemeteryrome.it/), with its peaceful conglomeration of monuments and the quiet burial places of Shelley's heart and Keats's body, guarded by a million cats and the shadow of Gaius Cestius's pyramid.

To get here take the bus, tram, or metro to Porta San Paolo, one of the best preserved and most impressive gates through the Aurelian walls. The entrance to the cemetery is at No. 6 Via Gaio Cestio, behind the pyramid and down the inside of the walls. Ring the bell if the gate is shut.

After communing with the poetic spirits go back to the main road, the Via della Marmorata, and follow it away from the Porta San Paolo. Cross at the busy junction of several roads and go uphill to the left, up the Via Asinio Pollione and then, where that splits up, take the left again up the Via Porta Lavernale. This leads to the Piazza dei Cavalieri di Malta, quaintly designed by G-B Piranesi, in 1765, to resemble one of his own engravings. He also designed the Villa of the Priory of the Knights of Malta and it is at the gate here that you will probably find a huddle of people, seemingly playing 'what the butler saw.'  When it's your turn you'll see what the fuss is about: through the keyhole you see a gallery of trim trees and, floating in a bluish haze, at the end, the cupola of St Peter's. It's a fascinating trick, and since it cuts out all the impedimenta of modern Rome it is one that can set the imagination reeling.

You are now on the Monte Aventino, and if you walk down the Via San Sabina, passing San Alessio and his pleasant garden, you come to the little Piazza Pietro d'Illiria, named after a fifth century priest who founded the glorious church of Santa Sabina. Partly because of the beautiful proportions and partly because of tasteful reconstruction (in the 1930s) this basilica is one of the loveliest in Rome. The light filters through the selenite (a crystalline form of gypsum) and reflects on the friezes of polychrome marble, the mosaics, the frescoes, the Corinthian columns and the wooden ceiling - the effect is illuminating.

Outside the church, on the entrance, in the atrium, are carved panels of cypress wood from the fifth century that show biblical scenes. Connected by this atrium is the thirteenth century Dominican Convent, where St Thomas Aquinas once taught. Outside, in the piazza, there's a handsome fountain spouting through a great Roman mask into a bath of Egyptian granite, and behind this there is the attractive orange garden (Giardino degli Aranci) of the Parco Savello, from which there are views of Trastevere, the Tiber and much of old Rome.

Leading out through an iron gate you can take the cobbled path of the Clivo di Rocca Savella. At the foot, turn right and head for the delicate bell tower of Santa Maria in Cosmedin (http://www.sacred-destinations.com/italy/rome-santa-maria-in-cosmedin). If you like the clash of brass, the smoke of incense and the dignity of Byzantine Greek singing, this church is a wonderful place to pass a Sunday morning. At any time, though, it is pleasing to explore, though the rumble and scramble of traffic at the crossroads outside does not improve the peace.

In the portico is an old drain cover called the Bocca della Verita, named after an old tradition that it bites the fingers off liars. Inside, some of the building shows signs of its classical origin, as it was raised on the site of the Roman food depot, but the church was built for Greek refugees in the sixth century and then was adapted, added to, beautified by the Cosmatesque pavement and the choir, and than it was eventually repristinated to what it is today.

Across the road. are two other exquisite temples. The round one is know as the Temple of Vesta, but was actually dedicated to Hercules the Conqueror (or Hercules Olivarius - Protector of Olives). This is the oldest marble temple in Rome, having been erected in the second century before Christ, and restored in the time of Tiberius. The other one is also misnamed, bearing the title of the Temple of Manly Fortune, but which is now believed to have belonged to Portunus, the god of the river port.  It is about 2150 years old, constructed of tuff (tufo) and travertine.  Despite the roses and lawns that now surround them, these two little buildings among the trees can conjure the past in a way that often grander ruins fail to do.

Pressing on, past the vast, Kafkaesque Anagrafe (the public records office) you come to more evidence of the distant past in the form of the church of San Nicola in Carcere, which has been built on the remains of three temples, probably first as a prison and then as a church; then it was almost buried itself in medieval fortifications from which it was only liberated in 1912.

This area was originally where the Roman cattle market was held (The Forum Boarium), and a little further on was the fruit and vegetable market (The Forum Holitorium). In fact, these sites may pre-date Rome, as commercial gatherings happened before the fortification and development of cities. Here also you will find the remains of the Theatre of Marcellus, built by Augustus and dedicated to his nephew and son-in-law, Marcus Claudius Marcellus, who died in 23BC when he wasn't even twenty years old. The colonnades have been nicely capped by a renaissance palace (in place of an earlier fortress) now called the Palazzo Orsini and subdivided into many apartments (one of which belonged to Iris Origo, who died in 1988). Until the fascist period the arches housed many shops and the piazza was a busy market, but now it is an asphalt desert, watched over by the lonely remains of the Temple of Apollo, with its three columns and a trace of pediment.

Slipping past this you enter the Ghetto (https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/vjw/Rome.html#5), where in darker days Jews were forced to live within nocturnally fastened gates. Now there is a fine synagogue by the river and. a thriving community exists in the houses ancient palaces of this intricate area. At the beginning of the Via del Portico d'Ottavia is the porch itself, with the little church of Sant'Angelo in Pescheria, which gets its name from the ancient fish market (The Forum Piscium) on this site commemorated by a Latin inscription on a marble slab under the arch which says that The heads of fish longer than this stone must be given to conservators, up to the first fins. Ottavia, by the way, was Augustus's sister.

To the left of the gateway as you face it is a narrow alley which leads into an almost always silent back-street, seemingly stuck in time. Odd windows and festoons of washing catch your eye, and geraniums watch you from occasional brackets. Sometimes a door is open and you can glimpse the feet of stairs, but it's all dark and medieval. Keep to the right and you skirt the brick apse of a church and then cross over in front of the Palazzo Clementi to go down the Via dei Delfini to the Piazza Margana. Here five streets meet, in my day observed patiently by a police car that guarded the back of the PCI (Partito Communista Italiana) headquarters (though those days, like the communists, are gone now, subdivided and etherised into shades of what they once were) or perhaps the front of an elegant restaurant (http://www.latavernadegliamici.net/). 

All around is an architectural hotch-potch of medieval and renaissance as well as seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It's quiet and restful, and it seems a world away from the pouring traffic that mutters in the background, but you've only to follow the Via di Tor Margana a little way and suddenly you're back in it all, vying with the flood and the dis-harmony of the Piazza Venezia.

Now for the eastern hills of Rome. Although there are a number of well-known tourist attractions in this area, there is a surprising amount that is not so famous but which certainly merits attention. We will start outside the FAO building, the headquarters of the giant Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (http://www.fao.org/home/en/), easily reached by metro, tram or bus. There was (until it was restored to its original place under African skies in 2005) a curious obelisk here, called the Obelisk of Axum, a fourth century stone picture book that Mussolini plundered from Ethiopia in 1937. The Piazza here, named after the ancient Porta Capena that stood at the beginning of the Appian way, is like the confluence of mighty rivers. We want to climb the narrow lane by San Gregorio Magno, opposite FAO, and across from the denuded park of the Circus Maximus, so take care..... don't necessarily trust the green man walking sign, at a junction like this it doesn't always mean there won't be a filter turning your corner. Anyway, when you've made it, climb the narrow road below the steps of San Gregorio. It's an attractive travertine facade, which is in a sense false, because there is an atrium behind it before the church. Here there are a couple of interesting monuments to English men of the court of Henry VIII, one of whom, Sir Edward Carne, died. here in 1561; he had been sent by the king to discuss divorce from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. In the garden are three tiny chapels, one of which contains frescoes by Guido Reni and Domenichino.

Follow the Clivo di Scauro up the hill to Piazza dei SS Giovanni e Paolo, an elegant piazza with (one of) the best Romanesque campanile (1150) in Rome. The entrance to the church is impressive, but the inside is, for me, rather claustrophobic baroque. The main interest lies underneath. In the far right of the church a spiral stair leads down into the excavated remains of trio Roman houses from the second and third centuries, which have traces of paintings on the walls (http://www.caseromane.it/en/index_en.html). This is supposedly where two ex-officers of Constantine were martyred by beheading for refusing to obey the orders of Julian the apostate. Whatever the truth, it is fascinating to wander the rooms and corridors of buried houses, and it forms an interesting preparation for San Clemente which, time allowing, will be seen later.

Back in the fresh air, a turn in the park of the Villa Celimontana, which has an entrance opposite the church, is refreshing after the subterranean fustiness. This park is one of the most attractive in Rome, largely because of its rich vegetation and the care with which it is tended but also because it slopes gently southwards and catches the sun among the palms and conifers. Cats, who know a thing or two, often congregate here to bask a few hours away. If you are a picnicking type, this is a park to remember.

However, to proceed, take the exit that is also the entrance to the Villa itself (which houses the Italian Geographical Society) and turn left into the church of Santa Maria in Domnica, for a moment, just to admire the mosaics created by Paschal I in the ninth century.

Outside, in the middle of the road, is the Fontana della Navicella, made from a model of a Roman ship, which is a copy of an ancient ex-voto offering. Then to the left a little and then right is the Via di Santo Stefano Rotondo, and a few paces up here is the entrance to the church of the same name, which is the national church of Hungary in Rome as well as the seat of the German-Hungarian Papal College.  When I originally wrote this you had to ring a doorbell and ask a nun to let you in, as it was in a state of restoration and had been for many years, but now this treasure (dating from the fifth century this is one of the oldest circular churches in Italy) is open every day and is worth seeing, partly because of its horrifying frescoes, which show some of the atrocities inflicted on Christian martyrs.

Return to the main road near the fountain and turn right, strolling down the wide Piazza Celimontana past the military hospital. At the end turn right, then first left, and then first right again and up the steep, narrow Via dei Santi Quattro Coronati until you can turn into this corpulent, imposing building (http://www.santiquattrocoronati.org/index_enn.htm). There are two courtyards here, and in this medieval pile, where kings and popes used to take refuge and where there has been an enclosed order of Augustinian Contemplative since the sixteenth century, there is the loveliest cloister in Rome dating from the thirteenth century. You find it through the church on the left and you may have to ring a bell. There is also, through a room off the first courtyard, a fascinating chapel with byzantine-influenced frescoes that depict imaginative scenes from the life of Saint Sylvester, particularly his curing Constantine of leprosy. For this you once had to ask for the key at a metal grille; the key was then given to you through a revolving drum which is also used. as a dumb waiter to serve bowls of pasta to down and outs (and was also used to accept unwanted babies).  Nowadays you will be buzzed in electronically on receipt of a few euros. However, nowhere in Rome that I know has the same air of continuum, of the years rustling by like winter leaves. The goldfish in the cloister fountain, and the smiling, patient nuns don't look ancient or modern - they just are.  Recent restoration by the World Monuments Fund (supported by the J Paul Getty Grant Program) is ensuring that this place will not crumble and fade.

If you've not been bewitched on the way, and if you started. early enough, you may be in time to go underground once more in San Clemente (http://www.basilicasanclemente.com/). To get there go back down the Via dei Santi Quattro Coronati, then take the first right and the first left and you're there. It's an interesting, appealing church in its own right, and it is administered by Irish Dominicans so if you're tired of trying to speak Italian there is some respite here. The upper church has a marvellous mosaic, entitled, the Triumph of the Cross, as well as a fine choir among other treasures, but the lower church, and the Mithraeum, only discovered some hundred years ago, are what most people come here for. There is so much here that it is best to leave it to the guides to explain, but don't be discouraged if you've missed the morning opening, as it will open again after lunch. And do make the effort, and ask for explanation; few excavations in Rome hold as much excitement for the visitor.

Continuing down the Via San Giovanni in Laterano you have the Colosseum rising before you, and, just before that, the so-called Ludus Magnus on your right. This was one of the lodging and training centres for gladiators, a good percentage of whom would end their brief but glorious lives on the sands of the amphitheatre. Across the Via Labicana, if you enter the Parco Oppio, you begin your assault on Monte Esquilino. On the top of this are the remains of the Baths of Trajan, who tried to obliterate the memory of Nero by bull-dozing the Golden House of that infamous emperor and by building a monumental health centre atop of it. Well, he succeeded, in a way, except that in the long term he preserved it, and now we have, if you can take it, another quasi-subterranean visit, this time of a distinctly eerie and pagan nature. Poke your nose in, if you dare (and if you can, despite twenty-five years of restoration, recent floods have closed it again, and its future is uncertain); also be warned that not everyone finds it a comfortable experience - it is a peculiar place! Once it must have been so grand, partially clad in gold, with mosaics, paintings, sculptures, a water-staircase and a room with a moving ceiling; now it can touch the base of the spine with a damp chill, if you're not careful (the temperature is maintained at ten degrees Celsius.

When you've done with it - whatever you've done with it - carry on over the top, through the ruins of Trajan's baths, up the Viale del Monte Oppio to the church of San Martino ai Monti. You could have had enough of churches and subterranean sights by now, but this is a slightly different church in its appeal. It has ancient origins, and is built on classical blocks - you can see this best from outside - but it also has a couple of paintings of historical curiosity. They date from the seventeenth century and show St Peter's and St John Lateran as they were then. These are at either end of the left hand wall.

Behind the apse of this church is the great brick tower of the Capocci, which used to be part of a more extensive fortress. Go up the narrow Via San Martino ai Monti opposite and then (unless the Druid's Den - a bar that's almost sculpted out of ancient walls - is open http://www.druidspubrome.com/) turn left into the even narrower Via di Santa Prassede, and enter the rather unprepossessing door on the left. This church was built by Paschal I, the pope - later canonized - who created the magnificent mosaic in Santa Maria in Domnica that we saw earlier. Here there are more mosaics, especially in the exquisite chapel of San Zenone. This is byzantine art as can be seen nowhere else in Rome. It is also a church that seems alive, glowing with well-used life. It's the sort of place in which even the most dedicated atheist can feel at home, as it doesn't alarm with its greatness, nor intimidate with its philosophy: it is a human place, as well as an ancient temple.

It must be late now, and, though-you could continue and explore the great basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, you could relax and stroll up the rest of the lane of Santa Prassede and then turn left into the wide opening of Via dell'Olmata (Road of the Elm Tree). Here, on the right just after the Finance Police Headquarters, over the rise, you'll find an Irish Pub, the Fiddler's Elbow (http://www.thefiddlerselbow.com/fiddlers_rome/rome_eng/welcome.htm), where a pint of Guinness, and a chat in your mother tongue, should round off the day very nicely.


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