Description and Characteristics
Rome, the cradle of civilization, Rome, caput mundi, or simply Rome, the city of a thousand faces. Seat of the Papacy, its current countenance is the result of innumerable urbanistic and architectonic modifications that run through its layers and through the millennia.
Imperial Rome is certainly that which is best-known. The splendors of Antiquity are living and visible in the Capital today: from the Colosseum to the Imperial Forums, the Domus Aurea, the Pantheon and Circus Maximus.
At the end of the 1400s, the great Florentine Renaissance moved to Rome, where the Popes had become the important patrons of art, thus summoning the best artists to bedeck and embellish the city. Rome appeared as if it were one great construction site: churches began to proliferate (e.g. San Pietro in Montorio and its Tempietto del Bramante, or Santa Maria della Pace and its frescoes by Raphael) and already-existing churches were restructured and newly-decorated - think Santa Maria in Aracoeli, where Pinturicchio and Donatello worked their magic.
Royal palaces were built or at least adorned, among which Palazzo Farnese, Palazzo della Cancelleria, and Villa Farnesina stand out from some of the city’s most important piazzas, for example the Campidoglio, one of several of Michelangelo's masterpieces.
Then, the Baroque in Rome thrived from the 1600s on, and was dominated by architects like Bernini and Borromini. This is the Rome of Palazzo del Quirinale, current residence of the President of the Republic; of Piazza Navona with its Four Rivers Fountain; and of Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza and Palazzo Spada.
During this period, Caravaggio was the indisputable genius in town, and he bequeathed to it countless invaluable works.
In the transition from Baroque to Neoclassicism, Rome began to show off new sites such as Piazza del Popolo, and then the Vittorio Emanuele II monument (inaugurated in 1911 but finished only in 1925), known as Il Vittoriano).
The first decades of the 1900s were characterized by the creation of two very particular zones of Rome: the Coppedè Quarter, containing the splendid Villino delle Fate, and EUR, with its famous “rationalist” structures.
The Art Nouveau period can also be seen in places like Ostia, with its homes and buildings in the style that the Italians call “Liberty” (Ostia is especially appreciated for its ancient seaport ruins).
Of course, Christian Rome is comprises the the Vatican City, the Patriarchal Basilicas – San Giovanni in Laterano, Santa Maria Maggiore and St. Paul Outside the Walls – and the Catacombs.
On the southern bank of the Tiber River of northern Rome lies the area of Ponte Milvio and the newest bridge, Ponte della Musica, uniting the Flaminio Quarter - where Renzo Piano’s Auditorium Parco della Musica reigns - to the MAXXI Museum of Contemporary Art (designed by internationally-renowned Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid). Nearby are the Palazzetto dello Sport and the Flaminio Stadium (or Stadio di Nervi, work of the architect Pier Luigi Nervi), as well as the Vittorie neighborhood, the Italic Forum and the Olympic Stadium.
The Capital is not only a city of monuments, but a city alive with cultural centers and events: permanent and temporary exhibits, and both ancient and contemporary artworks abound in its innumerable museums: the Borghese Gallery, the Doria Pamphilj Gallery, GNAM, the Macro, Scuderie del Quirinale, Palazzo delle Esposizioni, Chiostro del Bramante, Villa Giulia, the Capitoline Museums, Palazzo Altemps, Palazzo Barberini, Palazzo Massimo, and Trajan’s Markets.
Rome’s ample cultural offering can also be found in its theatres: the Teatro dell'Opera’s summer season takes place at the Caracalla Baths; the National Academy of Santa Cecilia features a renowned orchestra; the Teatro Brancaccio and Teatro Sistina are Italy’s hubs for the musicals generated by Broadway and the West End (while many spectators flock to the Teatro Argentina and Teatro Eliseo for plays); and finally, the works of Shakespeare find their (summer) home in Villa Borghese’s Globe Theatre.
One lifetime is not enough to really know Rome. That, at least, is what native Romans and residents here will tell you.
Piazza Venezia can be considered the city’s central nucleus, with the unmistakable Vittoriano or Vittorio Emanuele II Monument, fronted by its grand stairway and the Altare della Patria or Altar of the Fatherland, in memory of so many of the fallen whose names never left the battleground. Behind this impressive structure, we find Piazza del Campidoglio, projected by Michelangelo Buonarroti; it is lined by three buildings, while at its center stands the Statue of Marcus Aurelius. Two of these buildings include Palazzo dei Conservatori and Palazzo Nuovo, hosting the Capitoline Museums, a collection of works that places in relief the Eternal City’s artistic and cultural evolution through time.
Here, the cordonata, or sloping stairway (constructed of large rock elements), links the Campidoglio to Piazza dell’Aracoeli, from which a completely different stairway leads up to the Church of Santa Maria in Aracoeli, in which giants of art created visions in sculpture and paint, from Pinturicchio to Donatello. Then, from nearby Piazza Venezia, important roads bearing names inextricably tied to Rome’s history fan out in every direction.
One of these is Via dei Fori Imperiali. Moving along this, the ancient Emperor’s Way, as it was known, we see that to the right the Roman Forum appears before us, the civic and economic hotbed of the city (with Trajan’s Market on the opposite side of the Via). But wait – if we look just a little bit further down this road, we may notice the outlines of one of the world’s favorite monuments, the symbol of Rome: the Colosseum. Meanwhile, it is accompanied by the Arch of Costantine, considered the largest and best-preserved in the Capital. Look closely and you will understand why some refer to it as a museum in itself; it is practically bursting with Roman sculpture.
From here, we can make our way to the Palatine Hill, one of Rome’s proverbial yet legendary seven hills. The Palatine offers a view of the Forum on one side and, on the other, the Circus Maximus. Facing this ancient chariot-racing stadium, we will find a collection of pagan temples and churches to the right, just before the Tiber. These include the Forum Boarium, the Temple of Portunus, and the Temple of Hercules Victor; the latter two are among Ancient Rome’s most intact edifices found today. We are now in Piazza Bocca della Verità, a.k.a location of the famous and intriguing Mouth of Truth. Actually, this feared and revered work resides inside the Church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, recognizable for its lovely Romanesque bell tower. The Church’s interiors are exquisite, but the line you see is full of tourists awaiting their Audrey Hepburn moment: cameras armed at the ready, they want to make sure they have evidence that they survived the bite of this marble mask. (Liars or not, we’re guessing they’ll all come out okay.) Let’s head back to the Circo Massimo. We cross the Circus to arrive on Viale Aventino, which will eventually take us to the Pyramid of Caius Cestius, funerary monument inspired by those of Egypt.
So before, we essentially started in Piazza Venezia, center from which several important city streets begin: another of these is Via del Corso, which hosts Palazzo Doria Pamphilj on its immediate left. Wait, before you continue on, look the the right and you’ll see the Quirinale Hill, site of Palazzo Quirinale and the residence of the President of the Republic. Anyways, we were saying – that Via del Corso is sort of a route for discovering some of the touristic high points of the Historic Center, for example the Trevi Fountain, and the Spanish Steps. Climb the 135 steps of the Scalinata Trinità dei Monti and you’ll be rewarded with a breathtaking view over the city. You are now on the promenade of the Pincian Hill, home to Villa Medici (currently the Headquarters of the French Academy of Rome) and Villa Borghese, the city’s third-largest park. A stroll through the park reveals a pond, decorated with a garden and the Temple of Asclepius. As we wander on, we hit on Piazza di Siena, and the Borghese Gallery and Museum, with its awe-inspiring masterpieces.
From that same Pincian promenade, we can also admire Piazza del Popolo below and the Basilica of Santa Maria del Popolo, repository of artistic and architectonic treasures left behind by Caravaggio, Pinturicchio, Andrea Sansovino, Bramante, Raphael and Gian Lorenzo Bernini.
Traveling Via del Corso from Piazza del Popolo, and ducking into one of the adjacent streets that run near the Tiber River, we can start to make out the Ara Pacis, one of the most significant traces left from the Augustan age, intended as symbol of peace and prosperity to accompany Pax Romana.
Heading back in the direction of Via del Corso, we pass Piazza Montecitorio where, in the homonymous Palazzo, the Chamber of Deputies of the Italian Republic holds court. Outside stands the Column of Marcus Aurelius, in the aptly-named Piazza Colonna. Like falling dominoes in reverse, one after another monuments and important attractions pop up everywhere: next on our list is the Pantheon, ancient temple dedicated to all divinities. Now it has been made a shrine to Italy’s former kings, rather than to the pagan gods; it is also location for the tomb of Raphael Sanzio.
And not far off is Piazza Navona, with Bernini’s Four Rivers Fountain at its center.
Several important churches and landmarks are grouped in this area of Rome, e.g. the Church of Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza, Baroque masterpiece by Francesco Borromini at the height of his creativity; San Luigi dei Francesi, with a few living and breathing Caravaggios inside; Palazzo Altemps, a second site for the Museo Nazionale Romano that exhibits historic collections of ancient sculpture; the Church of Santa Maria della Pace, with Raphael’s frescoes on the interior; and the beautiful Chiostro del Bramante (Bramante’s Cloister).
Near to Corso Vittorio Emanuele II rather, are Palazzo della Cancelleria and the Chiesa Nuova (New Church) of Santa Maria in Varicella; the Church strikes for its sumptuous physiognomy, particularly within.
On the other side of the Corso, we can observe the Statue of Giordano Bruno in Campo de’ Fiori, where he was burned at the stake for being among those that proclaimed the sun a star (and not only); if we continue along the same direction, we can gape at the spectacular (and even more spectacular inside) Palazzo Farnese, Renaissance-style construction that serves as the Embassy of France in Italy. Just beyond stands the 16th-Century Palazzo Spada, with Francesco Borromini's unrivaled perspective gallery.
Bypassing Via Giulia, we happen upon the Lungotevere – or the bank of the River Tiber – where we can then take the Ponte Sisto footbridge to get to the other side. Now, from Via della Lungara, we take a left to get to the Basilica di Santa Maria in Trastevere, with its characteristic facade glowing with mosaics, similarly to its Romanesque bell tower, decorated with the Madonna and Child. Proceeding towards the hill known as the Janiculum, we can check out the Church of San Pietro in Montorio, situated over one of the most panoramic views of Bella Roma. (Also look for the peculiar Tempietto of Bramante, with a few gems in its interior as well).
Let's go back down to Via della Lungara, reversing direction. Along the way we note the c. 1500s Villa Farnesina, home to a few of Raphael’s frescoes (specifically, the Triumph of Galatea stands out).
Also here is Palazzo Corsini, along with its botanical gardens and the National Gallery of Ancient Art, a trove of works by the likes of Beato Angelico, Rubens, Murillo, and Luca Giordano.
If we walk towards Borgo Santo Spirito, we can eventually enter into the Vatican City. This the world's smallest state boasts the world's largest Christian church, St. Peter’s Basilica. St.Peter’s can call forth emotion from even the most staid of personalities: the effect its magnificent dome and facade, hugged by Bernini’s fascinating colonnade, is indescribable. Whether it entrances your heart or mind, you will be left contemplating - even for just a little bit - this unprecedented work of human genius.
Just around the corner but within the Vatican walls are the Vatican Museums, abounding with invaluable art and history and, of course, the Sistine Chapel.
Ambling down Via della Conciliazione, we see Castel Sant’Angelo ahead; we can make a pit stop at this ancient fortress (rehashed somewhat in the Middle and Renaissance Ages) and, if we take a break in its upper-level cafe, we can witness another of Rome’s miraculous vistas.
Although they reign over various parts of southern Rome, three Papal Basilicas also make up part of the Vatican State: San Giovanni in Laterano, Santa Maria Maggiore and St. Paul Outside the Walls. The first, commonly known as the Archbasilica of St. John Lateran, is the "mother church" of not only all the churches in Rome but of every church around the entire globe. Housed in a building to its side is the Scala Sancta that, according to the Catholic Church, Jesus climbed to be tried (and eventually sentenced to crucifixion) by Pontius Pilate.
On the path between the Colosseum and St. John Lateran is the Basilica of San Clemente, with mosaics and frescoes of rare beauty in its lower (and very old) basilica. On the other hand, the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, on the Esquiline Hill, is singular for having maintained its original, paleochristian structure - even if it was embellished later in time. And just a ten-minutes' walk away is the Church of St. Peter in Chains, where the chains of St. Peter are preserved and where we can marvel at one of the most renowned of Michelangel's statues, the Moses.
Finally, the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls is the second-biggest church in Rome, after St. Peter's. To visit it, we must leave Rome's Historic Center, taking us almost to the border with the EUR district, a relatively-modern neighborhood for the city (built in the 20th Century).
A separate, exceptional itinerary is a tour of the Christian Catacombs - initially subterranean burial grounds, and eventually a place of refuge for celebrating the Eucharist in the times of Christian persecutions. Actually, the catacombs in Rome number at more than 60, but we could name the Catacombs of Sant’ Agnese, Priscilla, Domitilla, San Sebastiano and San Callisto as a start.