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In the Hood: A Visit to Trastevere

Laura Flusche

Interested in spending some time in Rome's Trastevere neighborhood? Here's an itinerary that begins with a sweeping view of the city, then takes you to a Renaissance palace, a medieval church, and a masterpiece of Baroque culture.

As the Renaissance palace, the Villa Farnesina, is open only in the mornings, Monday-Saturday, this is an itinerary that is best begun in the AM hours. Throw in a long lunch, however, and you can spend the day wandering through one of Rome's most charming neighborhoods.

The Janiculum Hill

Begin your morning with a hike (or a cab ride) that takes you up the Janiculum Hill to Piazza Garibaldi, where a statue of Garibaldi marks the general area in which Garibaldi fought French forces in 1849 in an effort to defend the Roman Republic.

From Piazza Garibaldi, you'll want to take in the sweeping view of Rome (anyone up for a game of "Name that Dome" before continuing on?).

Travel southward on the Passeggiata Ganicolo, take a left on via di Porta San Pancrazio, and continue downhill until you reach a huge fountain that is locally called the Fontanone but is properly named the Aqua Paola.

Fontanone, also called Aqua Paola

The Fontanone - also called Aqua Paola

Rising high above the Trastevere neighborhood, the fountain was constructed in 1612 by Pope Paul V Borghese when he restored the Acqua Traina, an ancient aqueduct built by the Roman Emperor Trajan in the early 2nd century AD. Note the four gray columns on the façade of the fountain: they came from the Old St. Peter's Basilica—the one constructed by the Emperor Constantine in the 4th century AD and torn down by Pope Julius II in the first decade of the 16th century.

The piazza in front of the Fontantone also offers a spectacular vista of Rome.

San Pietro in Montorio & Bramante's Tempietto

(note: the gates to the Tempietto do not open until 10:00am)

From the Fontanone, take Via Garibaldi downhill until you see a church rising on the left side of the street. This is the church of San Pietro in Montorio, built (probably) by Bacio Pontelli for King Ferdinand & Queen Isabella of Spain between 1481 and 1500. The church itself is dark, but as you stroll through its cool interior, be sure to admire Sebastiano del Piombo's painting of the Flagellation in the first chapel on the right. Sebastiano often worked from designs and drawings by Michelangelo and this painting may be an example of the cooperation between the two artists. You'll be seeing more paintings by Sebastiano in the Villa Farnesina as your walk continues.

San Pietro and Tempietto

San Pietro and Tempietto

Next door to San Pietro in Montorio (to the right of the façade), you'll find a cloister that houses one of the jewels of Rome's Renaissance. The Tempietto (the name means "little temple") was built for the Spanish monarchs about 1500 by superstar architect Bramante. The temple-like building is really a miniature church that memorializes a site that medieval pilgrims believed to be the place on which Saint Peter was crucified.

The design of the building marks Rome's first real foray into the Renaissance. The architect Bramante demonstrates his knowledge of ancient architecture by creating a building that uses the Doric Order almost in the manner of ancient architects. It's certain that he studied ancient round temples in order to better understand the rules and proportions by which ancient buildings were composed.

The Villa Farnesina

(note: the Villa Farnesina is open from 9am-1pm, Mondays-Saturdays; closed on Sundays)

Leaving the cloister that contains the Tempietto, look to the left and you'll see a set of steps leading downward. Follow the steps downhill and you'll find that they end on Via Garibaldi. Turn left, following Via Garibaldi downhill until it intersects with Via di Porta Settimiana. Turn left on Via di Porta Settimiana, walk through the late 15th century Porta Settimiana (an archway spanning the road) and continue down the street (now called the Via della Lungara) until you reach number 230 where the Villa Farnesina is located.

The Villa Farnesina

The Villa Farnesina

You'll have to pay a modest admission fee to enter the Villa Farnesina, but it's a small price for the treasures that you'll find inside. Constructed between 1506-1510, the villa was a luxurious getaway for Renaissance mogul Agostino Chigi, who was banker to the Popes and a marketer of a valuable mineral called alum.

Chigi asked the architect Baldessare Peruzzi to design this villa for his mistress (you might think of it as a "love shack") and called in the best artists in town to paint the interior. Works by Raphael, Sebastiano del Piombo, Peruzzi, and Sodoma adorn the rooms, both upstairs and downstairs. Their paintings depict the great mythological love stories of classical antiquity and particularly notable is the entrance loggia (designed by Raphael and painted by his students) depicting the story of Cupid and Psyche. For a recap of that story, click here.

Click here to read about best-selling novelist Dave King's work-in-progress, which features the Villa Farnesina.

The Galleria Nazionale D'Arte Antica in the Palazzo Corsini

If you're a real lover of painting, there's a treat in store when you leave the Villa Farnesina. Just cross the Via della Lungara and pay a visit to the National Gallery of Ancient Art in the Palazzo Corsini.

The building itself is an 18th century building and you'll have to climb to the first floor to enter the museum. Inside are a variety of Renaissance and Baroque artworks by such artists as Fra Bartolomeo, Fra Angelico, Peter Paul Rubens, and Antony Van Dyck. One of the stars of the collection is Caravaggio's Saint John the Baptist. There's also a room in the gallery in which Queen Christina of Sweden is said to have died in 1689, so if you're a particular fan of hers (or of the movie in which Greta Garbo played her) you may want to pay homage here.

The Church of Santa Maria in Trastevere

Leave the Farnesina or the Palazzo Corsini by retracing your steps down Via della Lungara. Once you've passed back through the Porta Settimiana, continue straight onto Via della Scala. Follow this street to Piazza Sant'Egidio and turn left when the piazza dead ends into Via della Lungaretta. Follow Via della Lungaretta for a few short blocks and you'll emerge into Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere.

The focal point of the piazza is the medieval Church of Santa Maria in Trastevere and it's absolutely gorgeous. The church is said to rise on the site of a miracle that occurred on the day that Christ was born, when a fount of oil sprang from the ground. If that is the case, the church may well be the oldest in Rome.

Interior of the Church of Santa Maria

Interior of the Church of Santa Maria

What is certain is that the church was built (or rebuilt) in the mid-4th century and then restored in the 8th century and again in the 11th century. The building today is more or less a product of the 11th century when the gorgeous golden mosaics on the façade were installed. Be sure to take a stroll inside to see more stunning medieval mosaics in the apse. Some of the mosaics are attributed to the Roman artist Pietro Cavallini (you'll be seeing more of his work in the Church of Santa Cecilia—see below).

Click here to read about a Christmas ritual that takes place in the church of Santa Maria in Trastevere.

The piazza around the church is the very center of the neighborhood. You may want to take a rest in one of the bars and watch the people go by. (After dark, the Piazza becomes a college student hang-out and is not so much fun for grownups.)

The Church of San Crisogono

Leave the Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere on the Via della Lungaretta (near the newsstand) and continue down this road until it intersects with Viale Trastevere. At that intersection, to your right, you'll see the 12th century church of San Crisogono with its 17th century façade.

If the church is open, take a look inside. You'll find it's the typical medieval church that's been fancied up with baroque decorations installed by the Borghese family in the early 17th century.

San Crisogono floor

Floor of the Church of San Crisogono

If you're interested in underground Rome, go to sacristy at the end of the left aisle of the church, give the sacristan a small monetary offering, and ask if you can go down into the excavations or scavi below the church. You'll find the remains of an earlier 4th century church below as well as some of its medieval frescoes which date between the 8th and 11th centuries.

The Church of Santa Cecilia

Leaving the church of Santa Cecilia, go back to the Via della Lungaretta, cross Viale Trastevere, and continue down the road for a block until you're standing in Piazza del Drago. Turn right, passing a (not-so-good) pizzeria called Ponentino, and then turn left on the small and windy Via dei Salumi. Follow Via dei Salumi for some blocks until it dead ends into Via dei Vascellari. Turn right on Via dei Vascellari which, after a block, will become Via di Santa Cecilia. Keep walking until a large Piazza opens up in front of you and you see the church of Santa Cecilia on the right.

Photo of the Church of Santa Cecilia

The Church of Santa Cecilia

You'll want to admire the beautiful garden in front of the church before entering the 9th century church. Under the altar you'll find a 17th century sculpture of Santa Cecilia by Stefano Maderno depicting the way the saint's body looked when her tomb was discovered in the catacombs and opened in 1599.

At the back of the left aisle of the church, you can buy a ticket that will allow you to visit the excavations or scavi beneath the church. There you'll find the ruins of ancient buildings, part of which are said to be the hot room of the baths in which the Romans tried to suffocate Santa Cecilia as a punishment for her Christian beliefs (they didn't succeed and eventually beheaded her instead—note the wound on her neck in Maderno's sculpture of her under the altar of the church).

As you leave the church, turn and look at the façade again. You'll notice a door on the left side. Ring the bell and the nuns that care for the church will sell you a ticket and accompany you upstairs in an elevator where you'll have the opportunity to admire the remains of some stunning 13th century frescoes that were rediscovered in 1900.

The frescoes, which depict the Last Judgment in gorgeous jewel tones, were executed by the Roman painter, Pietro Cavallini (whom art historians now see as a competitor to Giotto for the title "Father of the Renaissance"). Click here to read more about this debate.

The Church of San Francesco a Ripa and Bernini's Sculpture of Blessed Ludovica Albertoni

Leaving the Church of Santa Cecilia, retrace your steps on Via di Santa Cecilia until it intersects with Via Genovese. Turn left on Via Genovese and follow it until the intersection with Via della Luce. Turn left on Via della Luce and follow the street until it enters Piazza San Francesco a Ripa where you'll see the Church of San Francesco a Ripa.

Blessed Ludovica Albertoni

Blessed Ludovica Albertoni

Reconstructed in the 17th century, the church was founded in the 13th century next door to the hospice where Saint Francis stayed while visiting Rome in 1229.

Inside the church, be sure to have a look at the sculpture of Blessed Ludovica Albertoni in the last chapel on the left aisle. The holy woman spent her life caring for the poor and was prone to the kind of religious ecstasies depicted in this artwork. Done by an elderly Bernini in 1674 (he was 71 when he began the sculpture), the work bears a resemblance to his earlier and more famous Saint Teresa in Ecstasy in the church of Santa Maria della Vittoria.

Dr. Laura Flusche is the Assistant Academic Dean of the University of Dallas Rome Program. She is the founder of the Institute of Design & Culture in Rome and of Friends of Rome. www.idcrome.org

© Dr. Laura Flusch, 2008

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