If ever a destination needed no promotion or embellishment, that would be Rome. Other cities around the world may claim longer continuous habitation by humans, but no major city can outshine Rome in the sheer texture and magnificence of its millenniums of history. Indeed ‘all roads lead to Rome’ and your path will be met by some of the great Emperors of Rome, some of the most talented artists of all time and nearly three thousand years of history. Once the capital of the Roman Empire, the most powerful in the ancient western world, Rome has retained its impressive cultural, historical and artistic relevance over the centuries.
Rome, the Eternal city and Caput Mundi (capital of the world in Latin), has more than 2700 years of numerous civilizations that have coexisted here since 753 BC, when it was founded. Through the centuries it became the most sophisticated city in ‘Europe’ first in the Etruscan period and the birth of the Republic, but it mostly flourished as the strategic headquarter of the Great Roman Empire, which from here expanded into a conquest of outstanding proportions including today’s Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa. The Roman Empire marked the development of western civilisation, leaving a cultural heritage in all the areas it had stretched to. After the decline of the Empire in 476, the Middle Ages were followed by the Renaissance and the Baroque periods, which found a fertile ground to be expressed here in all their magnificent art and architecture. Following Italy’s reunification in 1870, Rome became the capital of Italy.
Samuel Johnson is famed for saying, ‘When a man is tired of London he is tired of life,’ and of Rome it might be said, , ‘He who has no desire to visit Rome must be tired of living.’ In Rome, literally every piazza, street and alleyway keeps a record of the history of its glorious past, which is, needless to say, only a part of the city’s charm.
Route 1: The Historic Center
The ‘centro storico’ – the historical center of Rome, covers an area from the Colosseum (east) to Castel Sant’Angelo (west), embracing some of the most important squares of Rome: Piazza di Spagna, Piazza Navona and Campo de’ Fiori. A walk around these surroundings will leave you breathless!
Nestled in the bend of the Tiber lies Piazza Navona, one of the most famous squares in the world! Built in the oblong shape of an ancient race track, it was constructed on the ruins of a stadium built by Emperor Domitian. With its outstanding fountains and church created by the masters Bernini and Borromini, today’s look of this ancient arena is ‘pure baroque’ in all its essence.
In early times, athletic games were held in a large stadium in what is today’s Piazza Navona. The piazza is a marvel of baroque art and architecture, and people flock here to sit and enjoy the amazing sights and sounds of Rome’s most famous piazza, where three incredible fountains grace the long esplanade: the Moor Fountain, Neptune’s Fountain, and the Fountain of the Four Rivers – the Nile, the Ganges, the Danube and the Plata – designed by Bernini and depicting rivers representing the four continents.
Along the western side of Piazza Navona is the church of Sant’Agnese in Agone notably made by Bernini’s rival Borromini and inspired by the gutsy 13 year old martyr it is named after. Agnes was a 4th century girl who refused to renounce Christianity and marry her Roman suitors. Piazza Navona is full of local artist stalls (some of significant talent), vendors of all kinds, and caricaturists. Particularly famous is the sweets market on the 6th of January (Epiphany), or better known as the ‘Festa della Befana’: a local festivity, when the ‘befana,’ an old lady/witch, brings sweets to children.
Just a short walk from Piazza Navona is the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi (Via Santa Giovanna d’Arco). This Roman Catholic Basilica was dedicated to the Virgin Mary, St. Denis the Areopagite and St. Louis IX King of France, and houses three canvases from the baroque master Caravaggio: The Calling of St Matthew, The Inspiration of Saint Matthew and The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew.
A marvel of classical architecture and one of the few ancient structures still intact, the Pantheon was first built by Marcus Agrippa in 27 BC, and then rebuilt by Emperor Adrian in AD 125. Originally a temple to the Greco-Roman gods, it was converted in AD 608 into a Christian church.
The outside is imposing, but the inside is glorious. Its breath-taking dome is a marvel of 2nd century engineering: its height is equal to its diameter, with no visible supporting structure, and with the only light in the building coming through an open hole in the dome’s apex. The building
also houses the tombs of Vittorio Emanuele II and Raphael, while in the piazza in front of the church stands Bernini’s lovely elephant sculpture, burdened by an Egyptian obelisk on its back.
The area around the Pantheon is the ‘financial district’ of Rome as well as the location of many government buildings. Nearby you’ll find Palazzo Montecitorio, which houses the Italian parliament and the stock exchange.
Campo Dei Fiori – Field of Flowers
Cross the Corso Vittorio Emanuele II from Largo del Teatro Valle, directly in front of the Church Sant’Andrea della Valle, and take Via del Paradiso until you reach the beautiful square of Campo de’ Fiori.
Once the city’s execution ground, today it brims with life, with its colorful flower market in the morning and the most popular aperitifs in the evening. This square attests to papal power and abuse of the time, as in 1600 the philosopher Giordano Bruno was burned here for heresy; a monument in his memory stands in the piazza today. This ‘alternative’ spirit is also at the core of this vibrant neighborhood, to which Campo de’ Fiori is certainly the focal point. Narrow cobblestone streets are named after the tradesmen who once plied their crafts here. For example, Via dei Cappellari – the hat makers’ street, or Via dei Chiavari – the lock makers’ street. For a heavenly slice of ‘take out’ pizza (pizza al taglio), try one of the two bakeries (bakery is forno in Italian) by the fountain in the square.
A short walk from Campo de’ Fiori is the Palazzo Farnese (Piazza Farnese) and the Palazzo Spada (Piazza Campo di Ferro). Palazzo Farnese, much of it designed by Michelangelo, houses the French Embassy for over a century, setting a dignified and austere tone to the flamboyant scene, while Palazzo Spada is more playful both inside and out. The facade is covered by sculptures, and in the interior, an optical illusion by Borromini makes the colonnaded gallery seem four times longer than it actually is.
Heading toward the Jewish Quarter, you’ll cross the unique Largo di Torre Argentina, a busy square centred by Roman ruins, home of an old cat rescue association and home to many abandoned cats of Rome. The site offers a unique and much photographed mix of Roman ruins as setting for undisturbed felines enjoying the sun and the tourists’ attention all year long. The square is also home to the beautiful 18th century Teatro Argentina, and the largest Feltrinelli bookstore, while it is also a central connection for many tram and buses.
Jewish Quarter (Ghetto)
Along the river in the south-eastern corner of the area is the Jewish Quarter, still called ‘the ghetto.’ From Largo di Torre Argentina, take Via Paganico till Via di Portico d’Ottavia and you’ll arrive at the old Jewish Quarter. For over 2000 years this picturesque neighborhood has been the area of the oldest Jewish community in Europe, who settled here in the 2nd century BC. Its main road Via di Portico d’Ottavia connects to narrow streets that have witnessed both prosperity and persecution. Its beautiful Synagogue faces the river on Lungotevere de’ Cenci and is also home to the Museum of Jewish Culture. Segregation, anti-Semitic laws and deportation took place here during World War II, even in the form of physical walls containing the ‘ghetto,’ facilitating simultaneous protection and prejudice. Today the Jewish Quarter is mostly known for its relaxed atmosphere and its gastronomic delicacies (such as Jewish-Roman traditional restaurants, and Jewish/Kosher delis and bakeries).
Route 2: In and Around the City
The ‘Tridente’ is an area extending southward from Piazza del Popolo, forking down in V.Del Babbuino, V.del Corso and V. di Ripetta, and is home to some of the most exclusive shops and homes in the city. Artists have long flocked το this area of the city as for centuries it has been a magnet for international literati such as Keats, Shelly and Byron, who had lived in Rome and now rest in peace in the non-Catholic cemetery of Rome, near the Pyramid of Rome in Ostiense. Today this area is also the most luxurious destination for high-end and mainstream shoppers.
Piazza del Popolo
Piazza del Popolo is the Renaissance gateway of the city of Rome; it is opposite Piazza Venezia and connected by the long shopping street Via del Corso. Today Piazza del Popolo is a large pedestrian area of exquisite elegance, a perfect setting for the numerous concerts and political events that are held here. The piazza is dominated by a 24 meter (~79 feet) high obelisk built in the era of the Pharaoh Ramses II and Merneptah and brought to Rome by Emperor Augustus. Art and culture lovers will be spellbound by the many sites of artistic and architectural importance in Piazza del Popolo including the Twin Churches of Montesanto and St. Maria dei Miracoli that mark the entrance roads to the Piazza. The Church of St Maria del Popolo at the northeast corner is considered to be of immense artistic value, housing paintings by Caravaggio, frescoes by Pinturicchio, sculptures by Andrea Bregno and Bernini, not to mention showcasing the architecture of Raffaello and Bramante.
The Piazza del Popolo lies inside the northern gate within the Aurelian Walls, once the Porta Flaminia of ancient Rome, and back then called the Porta del Popolo. This was the starting point of Via Flaminia, which was the road to Ariminum (modern day Rimini) and the most important route northwards. At the same time, before the age of railroads, it was a visitor’s first view of Rome upon arrival.
The Twin churches (Chiese Gemelle) of Santa Maria dei Miracoli (1681) and Santa Maria in Montesanto (1679) were begun by Carlo Rainaldi and completed by Bernini and Carlo Fontana. Close examination reveals that these churches are not mere copies of one another; both neoclassical projects vary in detail, yet also offer a variety within their baroque symmetrical balance. From Piazza del Popolo walk down the posh Via del Babbuino where you are likely to bump into some celebrities, while enjoying art galleries and exclusive boutiques till you reach the stunning Piazza di Spagna.
Piazza Di Spagna
One of the most popular spots in Rome is definitely the ‘Spanish Steps’ or Piazza di Spagna. Named after the Spanish Embassy to the Vatican housed near the base of the stairs, the Spanish Steps were built in Gallic style by a French financier between 1723 and 1726, and form an elegant staircase rising up to Trinità dei Monti (Piazza Trinità dei Monti) on Pincio hill. In the spring and summer, urns of Azaleas are displayed on the steps and fashion shows are also held here. At the bottom of the Spanish steps you will find the delightful and quirky Boat Fountain (Fontana della Barcaccia), created in 1629 by Bernini in collaboration with his son Gian Lorenzo. From the top of the steps follow Viale Trinità dei Monti to the Pincio gardens for a fabulous view of Rome; designed by the 19th century’s star architect Giuseppe Valadier, it is a favorite place for afternoon strolls or picnics.
Rome is of course famed for its shopping and we will try to name its more well-known streets: Via del Corso includes ‘mainstream’ options with brands such as Diesel, Zara, and Puma. Via de’ Condotti is home to the most exclusive shopping in Rome, including flagship stores such as Gucci, Prada, and La Perla. Via del Babbuino offers itself for high end shopping that includes Tiffany’s, Miu Miu, and Chanel. Via Margutta is great if you’d like something unique and original, just off Via del Babbuino; all in all a great spot to enjoy brunch and discover several artists’ ateliers. Another spot not to be missed is the beautiful Galleria Alberto Sordi. Named after Italy’s most loved actor, it is a mixture of restored art deco and stucco ceiling decorations and beautiful mosaic floors, and includes many shops, cafés and bookstores.
Piazza Venezia and Palazzo Venezia
Piazza Venezia is a major roundabout of the city, while Palazzo Venezia is a palace next to the church of Saint Marco, the Patron Saint of Venice. In fact, it was the Venetian Cardinal, Pietro Barbo (later Pope Paul II) who had requested that the Palace be built here, and Palazzo Venezia was the former Embassy of the Republic of Venice in Rome. It later became the office of Mussolini, and the window from which he spoke to the crowds. The piazza is just below the Capitoline Hill and next to Trajan’s Forum, while the main road of Viale dei Fori Imperiali connects this square to the Roman Forum and to the Colosseum.
Today the palace is home to the National Museum of Palazzo Venezia. The museum offers a collection by artists such as Carlo Maratta, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Guido Reni, Pisanello, Benozzo Gozzoli and Beato Angelico, Giorgione, Giotto, and includes stunning sculptures, pottery, silverware, textiles, medals, glass, tapestries, and enamels.
Monument to Vittorio Emanuele II
The entire area between Piazza Venezia and the Capitoline Hill is dominated by the imposing Monument to Vittorio Emanuele II. The Altare della Patria (Fatherland’s altar), also known as the Monumento Nazionale a Vittorio Emanuele II (National Monument to Victor Emmanuel II), or ‘Il Vittoriano,’ is a monument built in honor of Vittorio Emanuele, the first King of the unified Italy, and was completed in 1925. The monument is built of white marble and features stairways, Corinthian columns, fountains, an equestrian sculpture of Victor Emmanuel and two statues of the goddess Victoria riding on a chariot drawn by four horses. The base of the structure houses the museum of Italian Reunification and in 2007 a panoramic elevator was added to allow visitors to ride up to the roof for a 360-degree view of Rome. You may also notice a continuous burning flame protected by guards: it burns in memory of the Unknown Soldiers who died in World War I.
Via Veneto (La Dolce Vita)
From Piazza Venezia or Via del Corso grab a taxi or bus for a quick ride up to stylish Via Veneto. Alternately, if you’re up for an outstanding experience, walk up to the top of the Spanish steps and follow Via Sistina, then Via Ludovisi, or Via degli Artisti, and find yourself off the beautiful area of Via Vittorio Veneto. The area gets its name from its main street Via Vittorio Veneto, which snakes through what was once the Ludovisi family estate between Piazza Barberini up to Villa Borghese.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the newly booming film industry gave an international gloss to Via Veneto as it became the hot spot for celebrities. In fact, Cinecittà studios in Rome welcomed Hollywood productions such as Cleopatra and Ben-Hur, and movie stars flocked down Via Veneto being spotted at Café de Paris, Harry’s Bar, and the Hotel Excelsior (now The Westin Excelsior Rome). However, the major glory of V. Veneto came in 1960, when Federico Fellini based his famous film La Dolce Vita – a black & white classic – on the sweet decadent lifestyles of the rich and famous of the area! The term ‘paparazzo’ came from the actual surname of a real photographer who snapped pictures of the beautiful people and who appeared as himself in the film.
Villa Borghese & Its Museums
At the top end of Via Veneto, right after the arch is the stunning Villa Borghese park. Today a superb public park containing museums, a hippodrome, statues, lakes, a zoo (the Bio-parco), and a theater/cinema, this large area was once the land that belonged to the Borghese family. Centrally located, it offers Romans and visitors alike a paradise-like break from city life. During your walk, don’t miss the Temple of Diana, an open-air neoclassical structure between Porta Pinciana and Piazza di Siena. If you are an early riser you may also want to catch the ‘Corazzieri’ (the President’s Palace guards) of the Palazzo del Quirinale, who each morning take their horses for a stroll in Villa Borghese, passing by Via Veneto before returning to the palace. Villa Borghese is also home to three museums: Galleria Borghese in Piazzale Scipione Borghese, which houses a spectacular private Borghese collection; the National Gallery of Modern Art in Viale delle belle Arti, which houses a collection of 19th and 20th century art that includes artists such as Canova, De Chirico, Morandi, Modigliani, as well as foreign masters such as Cezanne, Van Gogh, Rodin and Klimt; and Villa Giulia in Piazzale di Villa Giulia, a museum that covers the pre-Roman era and is widely considered the most significant Etruscan museum in Italy.
Route 3: From Empire to Roman-Catholic Capital
Capitoline – Campidoglio
Just above Scalinata dell’Aracoeli is Piazza del Campidoglio, a star shaped square designed by Michelangelo Buonarroti with an equestrian statue of Marco Aurelio in the center. This square is home to Palazzo Senatorio, designed by Giacomo Della Porta and Girolamo Rainaldi, and today houses the offices of the Mayor of Rome; Palazzo Nuovo, designed by the Rainaldi brothers; and Palazzo dei Conservatori, the construction of which was initiated by Michelangelo Buonarroti and completed by Giacomo Della Porta. The square also houses the very interesting Museo Capitolino, with an impressive collection of paintings from the Middle Ages to the late 18th century, including works by Tiziano, Veronese, Rubens, Caravaggio and Pietro da Cortona.
Adjacent to the Campidoglio is the Roman Forum: it is on these stones that republicans, emperors, philosophers, patricians and plebeians met to discuss and debate the political, social and judicial matters of the day. At the far eastern end of the forum, Emperor Vespasian built the Colosseum. Walking through the Forum, you will be introduced to the various temples and palaces that will take you through the heart of life in ancient Rome!
Between the Colosseum and the Forum you will find the Palatine Hill, ancient Rome’s most exclusive residential location. This area was close enough to the business and political center of the Forum, but far enough from the chaos of the city to be a quiet and pleasant place to live. Emperor Augustus was born and lived here in a modest home, while Emperors Tiberius, Caligula, and Domitian built palatial homes on this hill. But well before the Republic or even Imperial Rome, it is said that Romulus founded Rome on the Palatine in 753 BC. According to the popular legend, the twins Romulus and Remus were raised by a she-wolf in a cave on Palatine Hill!
Next to Constantine’s arch stands one of the most famous and emblematic structures in the world. The Anfiteatro Flavio, known throughout the world as the Colosseum, is the symbol of the city of Rome! A structure of elliptic form, this majestic amphitheater seated at least 55000 (some say even 87000) spectators who entered and exited through its 80 arched entrances. Standing here you might yourself realize that the Colosseum’s architectural plan has formed the basis for amphitheaters and sports arenas to this day!
When Emperor Nero committed suicide in AD 68, his outrageously opulent house Domus Aurea was demolished and the estate’s private lake was drained – in that exact place in AD 79 Emperor Vespasian built the Colosseum. The Colosseum was inaugurated by Tito and became the theater of frighteningly cruel games, in which gladiators fought each other and blood sports became the hallmark. The fights were between professionally trained gladiators (who were often slaves, condemned criminals, or prisoners of war) and untrained unfortunates and wild animals (typically lions) fighting one another to death. In the lower part of the Colosseum one can see the underground passages and the tunnels where the lions were kept until AD 523, when animal fighting was abolished. The central box with front-row seats was reserved for the Emperor and the senators, while priests and magistrates had the next tier up, with the foreign diplomats above them. Women were relegated to the top floors, with the exception of the Vestal Virgins who lived in the Forum’s Temple and had front-row seats next to the Emperor.
Baths of Caracalla
Entrance to the Roman Baths is on Via delle Terme di Caracalla 52. The Thermae Antoninianae, one of the largest and best-preserved ancient thermal complexes was built in the southern part of the city under the initiative of Emperor Caracalla in the year AD 212-216. Take a guided night tour of the baths for a magical experience of this massive site and the amazing light effects of the ruins, and if you happen to be around don’t miss an open-air opera concert held in the Terme di Caracalla in the summer, an experience of outstanding beauty.
Basilica Di San Giovanni in Laterano
From Caracalla, hop in a taxi for a short ride to the Arcibasilica commonly known as San Giovanni in Laterano, the stunning church that is the Diocese of Rome and seat of the Bishop of Rome (the Pope). It is also the first of four papal basilicas and the oldest and most important church in the western Roman-Catholic world; in fact, described perfectly by the inscription written at the entrance, which translated from the Latin reads: ‘Most Holy Lateran Church of all the churches in the city and the world, the mother and head.’ This Basilica was founded by Pope Miltiades between AD 311 and AD 314 on a property of the family of Plauzi Lateran, given to him by the wife of the Emperor Constantine. It is thus claimed as the oldest basilica in the world considering that its foundation dates fourteen years before that of St. Peter’s Basilica. Over the centuries it was renovated and rebuilt several times, while the outer walls were reinforced in later centuries; an interior restoration was made by Borromini on behalf of Pope Innocent X in the Jubilee of 1650; and its imposing travertine facade overlooking Piazza di Porta San Giovanni was built in 1735 by the famous architect Alessandro Galilei. On top of the balustrade are 15 gigantic statues of saints, with the ‘Redeemer’ in the center, surrounded by the titular saints of the church.
Route 4: Must See & Trendy Spots
In the late 16th century the papacy moved its summer residence to Palazzo Quirinale at the top of a hill of the same name, but with the Italian unification in 1870 came the end of the papal rule and Rome was made the capital of the new nation. It was then that the papacy left the Palazzo, which then became the Royal Palace and later the Presidential Palace. On one side of Piazza del Quirinale you will find the stunning art gallery of Scuderie del Quirinale, housing some of the most important exhibitions in Rome, such as the one of Caravaggio and Van Gogh.
Via Di Quattro Fontane
As you exit the Quirinale take a left and walk on Via del Quirinale towards Via di Quattro Fontane, a busy junction with four fountains on each side – often missed by a distracted tourist. This group of late renaissance fountains located at the intersection between Via di Quattro Fontane and Via del Quirinale were commissioned by Pope Sixtus V and installed between 1588 and 1593. The figures of the four fountains represent the River Tiber (symbol of Rome), the River Arno (symbol of Florence), the Goddess Diana (symbol of chastity) and the Goddess Juno (symbol of strength). The fountains of the Arno, Tiber, and Juno are the work of Domenico Fontana, while the fountain of Diana was designed by the painter and architect Pietro da Cortona. Next to the Quattro Fontane you will also find the Baroque Church of San Carlo by Francesco Borromini.
Fontana Di Trevi
Next stop is the masterpiece known around the world, Fontana di Trevi (Trevi Fountain). It can be said that you haven’t been to Rome if you haven’t stopped to admire the splendour of the Trevi Fountain, a monument known throughout the world, where throwing a coin in the waters is said to guarantee your return to the ‘eternal city.’ The modern Trevi myth of throwing a coin into the fountain is a practice memorialised from the 1954 film film “Three Coins in a Fountain.” Once a week the basin is cleaned and the coins are donated to the Italian Red Cross (Croce Rossa Italiana).
To reach the fountain, either continue on Via di Quattro Fontane and make a left onto Via Rasella, or head back toward Piazza del Quirinale and take the more popular route from Via Dataria. No matter which way you arrive, you will be impressed by the overpowering Fontana di Trevi, which takes up most of the space of the small Piazza di Trevi. The marble fountain depicts the sea god Neptune riding a chariot pulled by two horses. Two tritons manage an unruly horse on one side and a calm one on the other, representing the two opposing aspects of the ocean.
Based on the design of Nicola Salvi, inspired by the sea with a huge shell drawn by sea horses in turn led by tritons, with the statue of the Ocean by Pietro Bracci, whilst in niches on either side are the statues of Abundance and Wealth by Filippo Della Valle. The Trevi Fountain is the perfect example of the combination of baroque sculptures and architecture, an aquatic masterpiece that is even more captivating at night when illuminated.
Esquilino & Monti
The Esquilino hill southeast of the Quirinale was home to the wealthiest families of ancient and papal Rome; while Monti, the low swampy slum between the two hills was left to the urban poor. Today, Monti is one of the trendiest areas of Rome, with some great restaurants, several interesting shops, and designers and craftsmen who ply their trade with the passion of their spiritual forefathers. Meanwhile the Esquilino has since lost its gloss and become a more multicultural area of the city, especially known for its diversity and colorful mix of cultures from many parts of the world.
Some churches of importance in the area are San Pietro in Vincoli, which houses Michelangelo’s Moses and Santa Maria Maggiore. Santa Maria Maggiore in Piazza di Santa Maria Maggiore is an architectural marvel, successfully integrating several different styles: Romanesque, Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque – with front and rear facades on two large piazzas. The legend of its creation is that the Virgin Mary came to Tiberius in a dream, instructing him to build a church in a place where he found snow and on August 5th 356, it snowed on Esquilino hill. The interior is incredible with gilded coffered ceilings, opulent chapels, magnificent detailing in marble, bronze, and porphyry, and spectacular mosaics that are among the wonders of the four major basilicas in Rome.
Rome’s Trastevere district at Piazza Trilussa, where Lorenzo Ferri’s statue of the famous Roman dialect poet Trilussa stands, is a tangled web of little lanes and alleyways that wind their way through Trastevere past a number of lively little bars, pubs, and bistros. Often open until late in the evening, the Roma in Trastevere Museum is the perfect place to learn about life in the capital city during the 18th and 19th century.
Trastevere’s main square is named after the Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere, believed to be one of the oldest churches in Rome. The exterior of the church might be impressive, but it is incomparable to the magnificent 13th century mosaics that can be found inside. Also in the area you will find the nearby Porta Portese market, the largest flee market in Rome, if not all of Italy. However, the best time to visit Trastevere is at night, when this picturesque quarter is full of people looking to enjoy a delicious low-key dinner or a drink at one of the ‘birreria.’
Monti, Trastevere and Gianicolo are the best choices to enjoy an evening out in Rome. Following your dinner and drinks, be sure to end your evening with a special and most incredible view of the city from Gianicolo, just above Trastevere – we promise you won’t regret it!
Route 5: Castel Sant’Angelo and Vatican City
Castel Sant’Angelo (Castle of the Holy Angel)
Sant’Angelo’s bridge is a magnificent sight adorned with statues of angels and saints leading to the Castle of Sant’Angelo; it once connected to the Vatican by an underground passageway known as the ‘passetto,’ an escape route for the Pope in case of an attack! The castle has come to symbolise fortified Rome, but it initially functioned as the Hadrian family mausoleum.
The building was later used by the popes as a fortress and castle and is now a museum and venue that hosts numerous exhibitions of various genres throughout the year. It also houses the National Museum of Castel Sant’Angelo, in which ceramics, furnishings, armoury and renaissance paintings are displayed. Every part of the building can be visited, from the Pope’s apartments, rich in exquisite décor and frescoes, to the underground prisons.
The Vatican is the smallest sovereign state in the world. It has a population of under 900 and occupies 109 acres including a post office, a radio station, a newspaper, a publishing house, pharmacies, schools, and even an internet domain of ‘.ve,’ and of course its political influence is felt throughout the world. This is the true heart of Catholicism where on occasions of great religious importance, thousands of people gather. Millions of tourists visit the Vatican every year regardless of their religion in order to experience the beauty and majesty of its masterpieces, such as the Piazza San Pietro, St Peter’s Basilica, the Vatican Museums and the Vatican Gardens.
The Vatican lies on what was swampland in the 1st century BC. Emperor Caligula decided to build a circus-stadium for chariot races, a project completed by his nephew Nero when he became Emperor in AD 54. Instead of chariot-races, Nero’s circus became the place where Christians were tarred and burned alive. It is believed that St. Peter the Apostle and first Bishop of Rome (later called the Pope) was crucified in the circus and buried nearby. On his tomb, Emperor Constantine built in AD 326 the first church of St. Peter, fulfilling the promise included in the gospel of St. Matthew.
Throughout the centuries, pilgrims continued to visit the tomb of St. Peter, the most sacred of all Catholic shrines. The nearby Borgo developed around the church, a ‘town’ to accommodate the religious tourists of the Dark Ages. As part of the urban plan undertaken during the fascist regime, the ‘borgo’ was partly destroyed in 1936 to build the main road Via della Conciliazione connecting the city of Rome to the Vatican.
Piazza San Pietro
Enclosing in a loving embrace, Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s colonnade welcomes both tourists and faithful alike to St Peter’s Basilica. As you approach, take notice of the two stones between the obelisk and the fountains on each side. When standing at this place, the four rows of Doric columns create an optical illusion and appear as one!
The colonnade and the Vatican obelisk were built between 1656 and 1667 for Pope Alessandro VII Chigi, with the colonnade sustained by 284 columns and topped by 140 statues. Standing at the center of the piazza, the Vatican obelisk was brought to Rome by Caligula in order to stand at the center of the Circus Gai et Neronis. It was Pope Sixtus V who had the obelisk moved and placed in the center of the piazza. And of course, every Sunday one can enjoy the Angelus given by the Pope to the crowds of St. Peter’s square from his apartment in the Vatican.
Basilica di San Pietro
Legend has it that St. Peter’s Basilica was built on the site of the tomb of the Apostle Peter, who was crucified in AD 60. Although the Basilica’s origins date back to AD 315, it was not until the 16th and 17th century that St. Peter’s assumed the appearance that is admired today. The Basilica di San Pietro is the most imposing work of art in the Vatican City and particularly its dome is one of the undisputed symbols of Rome. The Basilica was enlarged over the centuries with the contribution from artists such as Michelangelo, Baldassare Peruzzi, Donato Bramante, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Raffaello, and Antonio Sangallo. Home to many of the world’s most valued works of art, such as Michelangelo’s ‘Pietà’ and Bernini’s ‘Baldacchino,’ it was completed in 1614 and opened in 1626, and has a capacity to hold twenty thousand people.
The dome, or Cupolone’ as the citizens of Rome fondly call it, is the symbol of the majesty of St. Peter’s dominating the Italian capital’s skyline. Designed by Michelangelo, who supervised its construction right up until his death, the dome was completed by Giacomo della Porta. The elliptic external piazza with flights of steps on three levels and a quadruple colonnade connected to the Basilica by two arms is the work of Gianlorenzo Bernini. The interior is divided in three principle naves with a series of chapels, including the Chapel of the Relics, the Gregorian Chapel, and the Chapel of the Column where the masterpiece ‘Pietà’ by Michelangelo can be found. The apse houses the spectacular bronze pulpit created by Bernini. It is important to note that visitors wishing to enter the Basilica should remember to observe the regulations of appropriate dress (both arms and legs should be covered)!
The Vatican Museums are one of the most famous museums in the world, and an entire day is needed to admire its endless works of art including treasures of ancient Egypt and Rome, medieval tapestries, maps and manuscripts, the Pinacoteca, the Sala dell’Immacolata and the Borgia apartment with frescoes by Perugino. The Vatican Museums include the Etruscan Museum, the Egyptian Museum, the Pio Clementino Museum and the Borgia Apartment. Following the route from the entrance, one can visit the Candelabri Gallery, the Arazzi Gallery, the Gallery of Geographic Papers, and the rooms of Raphael. Continuing onwards you will also find the Collection of Modern and Religious Art with more than 800 works of art by 25 artists from around the world, from Matisse to Picasso.
Inside the Vatican Museum there are certain rooms that require hours of queueing, the most famous of which are the Raffaello rooms and the incredible Sistine Chapel. The Sistine Chapel is the main chapel of the Vatican and is also the ‘meeting room’ of Conclave during which all the Popes in history have been chosen.
The best known of the artworks within the Vatican Museums is the Sistine Chapel ceiling fresco by Michelangelo that depicts The Last Judgement, and the frescoes on the lateral walls by Pinturicchio, Perugino, Botticelli, Signorelli, Ghirlandaio and many others. Finally, visitors can also see the Sacred Museum and the Apostolic Library, as well as the Vatican Pinacoteca.
All school children were once expected to know that Rome was founded in 753 BC by Romulus, who with his brother Remus had been saved and fed as infants by a wolf after being sent in a basket down the Tiber River by an evil king. Another story claimed that Rome had been founded c.1100 BC by Aeneas, who fled to Italy after the Trojan War. In fact, Rome was settled by at least 800 BC by people drawn to the Tiber River and the seven hills adjacent to it. Now known as Latins, these early settlers found themselves ruled by the Etruscans from the north until 509 BC, but when the Latins rose up against the Etruscan King they founded the Republic of Rome. During the next century the Romans had to fight off many hostile peoples around them, and these wars involved three of the most celebrated ancient Romans: Horatius (‘at the bridge’), Cincinnatus (who like Washington, renounced military rule and returned to his estate); and Coriolanus (the angry hero of Shakespeare’s drama).
From about 400 BC to 264 BC, Rome continued to fight various enemies, including other neighboring Italian peoples, the Gauls of France (who actually occupied and burnt Rome in 390 BC), and the Greek city-states in the southern region of the peninsula. During this period, the Romans were already becoming a major military power and building the roads and frontier outposts known as coloniae, which would eventually become the basis of their Empire. Starting in 264 BC, Rome then engaged in three so-called Punic Wars, facing the Phoenicians, who were the other emerging military and colonial power in the Mediterranean. The last of these wars only ended in 146 BC with the destruction of Carthage, the Phoenicians’ western capital. This same year also marked the Romans’ final subjugation of Macedonia-Greece with the capture of Corinth. As a result of the Punic Wars, Rome would take over Sicily and Spain, much of North Africa, reduce Egypt to a client state, and threaten the states along the east coast of the Mediterranean Sea. In effect, Rome had become the master of the Mediterranean.
Although nominally a republic – and certainly far less repressive than most governments of that era – Rome was hardly a democracy in the modern sense. Most Romans, after all, were farmers, and with the passage of time, the wealthy senate class effectively dominated society. The catalyst for the change to an Empire was none other than Julius Caesar, who after his military victories in Spain, Gaul, and Britain, in 49 BC returned to Rome after crossing the Rubicon, a mere stream in northern Italy and soon eliminated his rivals and effectively became the ruler of Rome and its territories. Again, all school children should know how this ended, if only from having to read Shakespeare’s version of Julius Caesar’s assassination in 44 BC. In the ensuing power struggle, Caesar’s grand-nephew and appointed successor, Octavian, defeated his rivals – including Mark Antony, who had fled to Egypt, where he died with Cleopatra in 31 BC.
In 27 BC, Octavian took the title of Augustus along with virtually total rule of the government, and in so doing overtly converted Rome from a republic to an Empire that would last until the final Emperor was deposed in AD 476 by a Germanic chieftain, Odoacer. During the first 200 years of that Empire, Rome did thrive both economically and culturally. This was the time when literally all roads led to Rome (an expression that first appeared in writing in the 7th century AD), when the city of Rome erected the massive structures such as the Colosseum, when Roman military had prevailed as far east as the Caspian Sea and Persian Gulf, and when the Romans’ language, law, and culture spread across Europe.
In the following two centuries, however, Rome became synonymous with extravagance and eventually decadence. In AD 395, the division of the Empire into the West Roman Empire and East Roman Empire with its capital at Constantinople, with time turned the once great city of Rome to be the victim of constant strife, waged first by invading barbarian peoples from the north and then by competing Italian families. Arguably the most momentous developments of this era resulted from the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth, as Roman soldiers stood by to preserve order. Yet ironically, the very Rome that had allowed this would become the center of the new Christian religion that grew out of that event. The change began with Emperor Constantine’s recognition of Christianity in 313. Although Saint Peter is called the first Pope, the bishop of Rome only gradually came to be recognized as the ‘first among equals’ and it was Leo the Great whose papacy (440-461) truly established the Pope as a supreme leader of the Roman Catholic Church. Although the authority of the Roman Pope was often challenged throughout the Middle Ages, the papacy even acquired control of some cities and provinces in central Italy. Above all, it was the papacy and the organized church that gave Rome whatever continuity and authority it did retain during these grim centuries.
In the 1400s, Rome once again began to attain its status as both a prominent and dynamic city, and again it was the Popes who led the way. During the next 300 or so years – the period known as the Renaissance – the Popes and their favored families, while increasing their own wealth and power, patronized many scholars, artists and architects; and sponsored the construction of the numerous great churches and public works that impress visitors to Rome to this day. Napoleon’s forces took Rome in 1798 and in 1809 Napoleon actually annexed it to France, but the Papacy regained control of the city in 1814. The Kingdom of Italy was proclaimed in 1862 but the Pope continued to claim Rome as the Church’s territory until in 1871 Italian troops moved in and made Rome the capital of the new nation. Even then, the papacy refused to yield sovereignty over Rome until 1929, when the Lateran Treaty forced the papacy to settle for recognition of the Vatican as an independent state.
Under Mussolini in the 1920s and 1930s, Rome became the capital of his Fascist dictatorship as he sponsored several new buildings, including the modern railroad station, which was not completed until 1950. Mussolini’s most ambitious project was the Esposizione Universale di Roma (E.U.R.), a complex of modern buildings that house government and private offices along with some apartments. In World War II, the Allies recognized Rome as ‘an open city’ and did not bomb its structures before entering it on June 4, 1944. In any case, most of the millions of visitors who descend on Rome year in and year out are amazed at the buildings, works of art, and remains from earlier centuries that continue to be carefully maintained and accessible.