by Mark Russell
Hot and bothered. That’s one way to describe Rome during the summer months. To be honest, I enjoy the city’s vitality, be it in the clamorous Piazza Navona or Campo de’ Fiori; in the Pantheon’s hushed and cavernous perfection; in the metro and on the broiling buses full to bursting; or along the crowded sidewalks of the Corso Vittorio Emanuele,the air palpitating with a cacophony of ear-puncturing sirens, car horns, and the high-pitched crackle of motorini. And watch out for all the fast-moving metal! The only time I felt certain of reaching the other side of the Piazza Venezia on foot was when encouraged by an elderly nun to follow her lead.
There are times, however, when the hustle and bustle not only rings in my ears but gets under my skin. It goes without saying that Rome’s major monuments and museums are stunning and mustn’t be missed. But I have to admit that in the stanze of the Vatican I feel propelled by a human current sweeping me past Raphael’s frescoes. In San Pietro in Vincoli I seem to spend more time looking at the back of someone else’s head than at Michelangelo’s Moses. And, to be absolutely honest, I’ve found visits to the Sistine Chapel underwhelming: the continual buzz and activity of the compressed throng, not to mention the repeated and ineffectual calls for “silenzio!” and “no photos!” drives me to distraction. This is simply the reality when making the rounds of Rome’s “greatest hits” during the summer months.
But thankfully, the city offers several sanctuaries from the noise and madding crowds of high tourist season. Perhaps most popular are the gardens surrounding the Villa Borghese. My favorite destinations include Bramante’s elegant, stately cloister at Santa Maria della Pace; the Palazzo Mattei, near the Jewish Ghetto, with its fascinating collection of well-preserved Roman sculpture; the hushed atmosphere in the ninth-century church of Santa Prassede which boasts breathtaking medieval mosaics; Borromini’s theatrical and uplifting Baroque masterpiece, San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane; and that quarter of Trastevere situated to the east of the Viale Trastevere. Its narrow, quiet, stony lanes and squares, framed by timeworn structures, offer a restful, atmospheric return to medieval Rome.
Santa Maria della Pace
Of course, many visits to the Eternal City are short and focused on its most important monuments and sites. But if enjoying an extended stay, and seeking a more sustained and substantial respite from the energetic city center, I suggest spending a morning, afternoon, or entire day exploring the Caelian Hill (Il Celio). Along with the Aventine, the Caelian is the southernmost of Rome’s seven hills. The historic monuments that frame the area attract throngs of visitors: the Colosseum, to the north; the Basilica of St. John Lateran to the east; the Baths of Caracalla to the south; and the Palatine Hill and Circus Maximus to the west. But the Caelian Hill is mostly skirted by tourists unaware of what they are missing.
Home to wealthy Romans in Imperial times, the area was devastated by the Normans when they sacked the city in 1084. It is now a leafy and sparsely populated quarter covered with large green spaces; although just steps from the historic center of Rome, it feels almost rural. As such, it is representative of the way much of Rome remained from the time of the city’s ancient decline until it became the capital of the Kingdom of Italy in 1871. If you enjoy strolling in a peaceful, picturesque, tree-shaded atmosphere animated by birdsong instead of sirens and horns; and if you are looking to experience several centuries of historic monuments and artworks in an unhurried, unbothered, even meditative fashion, the Caelian Hill should be on your itinerary.
Santi Giovanni e Paolo
The most picturesque way to ascend the hill is from the Circus Maximus following the Clivo di Scauro, an ancient Roman road that leads to the Piazza Santi Giovanni e Paolo. Its gentle incline passes directly under the buttresses of the church of that name which sits atop Roman houses and an early Christian oratory. Of course, the Caelian Hill, like the rest of Rome,is a layer cake composed of centuries of history. Santi Giovanni e Paolo is an ancient foundation that was sacked by the Normans but restored several times thereafter. Its tall and impressive campanile was completed in the twelfth century and its interior, often decorated for one of the many weddings celebrated here, was restored in the eighteenth century. Opposite the church is a gateway to the Villa Celimontana first built for Ciriaco Mattei in the sixteenth century and now occupied by the Italian Geographical Society. The large, green oasis which surrounds the villa, with its parrot-inhabited trees and winding pathways, is a shaded and relaxing place to stroll, picnic, and enjoy a brass band during the day, or a jazz concert in the evening. It also offers views over southern Rome and the Baths of Caracalla.
Exiting the park through its main gate on the Via della Navicella you will find Santa Maria in Domnica on the summit of the Caelian Hill. “Anchored” in front is an ancient stone boat that was transformed into a fountain in the sixteenth century. The church was first constructed in late antiquity, but was extensively rebuilt in the sixteenth century. Thankfully, a splendid ninth-century apse mosaic of the Virgin and Child has survived; it is worth coming here just to see it. Only steps away, across the tree-lined Via della Navicella, is the church of Santo Stefano Rotondo one of the largest circular churches to survive from the ancient world and the oldest of its kind in Rome.Offering a very different spatial and spiritual experience from that of most Roman churches, its large and impressive interior space is segmented by antique columns. And yet, it is not all harmony and tranquility: during the sixteenth century, the walls of the church were frescoed with a cycle of gruesome martyrdom scenes that are a testament to Counter Reformation vigor. Of these, Charles Dickens famously wrote: “such a panorama of horror and butchery no man could imagine in his sleep, though he were to eat a whole pig raw, for supper.”
(end of part I) – Part II is here