“In Rome I’m quite different, I said. There I don’t get so excited, so out of control, and I’m more predictable. Rome calms me down- Wolfsegg works me up. Rome has a soothing effect on the nerves, even though it’s the most exciting city in the world, but at Wolfsegg I’m always agitated, even though it’s so peaceful here. I’m a victim of this paradox, I said. In Rome I express myself quite differently, I talk to everyone quite differently. Gambetti once told me, I said, that whenever I returned from Wolfsegg I talked in a very agitated manner, but only when I’d been to Wolfsegg. On that occasion I had told Gambetti that my family was to blame, He said my thinking had got out of phase with its normal rhythm, what might be called its Roman rhythm.”
-Thomas Bernhard, Extinction
After another breakfast at San Calisto, we stay transpontine and visit Trastevere’s most famous church, Santa Maria in Trastevere, which gives its name to the piazza that is the meeting-place and centrepiece of local life. Sadly the famed and beautiful facade is under scaffolding. A church has stood here since 217, and it is considered Rome’s oldest, and a decent amount we see today is from the ancient world; the floor is thought to be C4th, and the entrance portico displays a huge number of fragments of Latin text, that look like they have come from tombstones of Rome’s early Christians.
The nave is lined with astonishing, gigantic columns from the Baths of Caracalla; once again, their sheer size vastly outsizes anything you would see today. The apse has excellent mosaics showing the Life of the Virgin by the early C14th artist Pietro Cavallini, and one could spent hours in front of them picking out details; preachers, little lambs, the folds in people’s robes.
An interesting Baroque side chapel by Gherardi features a quartet of angels holding up the cupola. There are plenty of fine sculptures and paintings throughout the church, but the brain can only really focus on one thing and for me it is almost always the mosaics.
One curiosity is a marble panel marked ‘Fons Olei’; there is a story that in ancient times a source of oil miraculously appeared from this spot, which happened simultaneously, the Christians later decided, with the birth of Christ. Some historians suggest that this urban myth sprung from Augustus drawing a well here, to supply water for the mock naval battles in Piazza Navona.
Trastevere’s other celebrity church is Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, built on the site of the musical saint’s Roman home after she was killed by either Marcus Aurelius or Severus Alexander (decent emperors both). Although its facade is C18th this is very much in the format of those early churches, set back from the street with a walled courtyard garden and fountain before the entrance portico, that gives us an idea of what the original St Peter’s would have looked like (and carries an echo of the Mosque patios in Al-Andalus).
Apart from more lovely Cavallini mosaics around the apse, the interior is also C18th, but good C18th for once.
Cecilia being the patron saint of music, there are tiny organs and musical motifs in tympanums on the arches.
Under the altar is Maderno’s intimate and gentle marble sculpture of St Cecilia’s body, made after her tomb was opened in 1600 and the body (so they say) found to be incorrupt. Her head rests shrouded, the blows of the soldiers’ swords have left marks on her neck, and the pose suggests a young girl taking a nap. The altar’s balustrade is lined with sculpted pomegranates.
There are two options for extending your stay in S. Cecilia; both the crypt and the upstairs choir can be visited for €2.50 each. The subterranean area contains mosaic pavements and grain stores from a Republican-era Roman house, perhaps Cecilia’s, and a very arts-and-crafts crypt with mosaics, pillars and a semi-circular tomb one can walk around.
A German tour guide spends almost an hour in front of the crypt with her group, telling them -as far as my GCSE German can deduce- the entire history of Rome and Constantinople. An American pensioner also jumps out at us from a dark and musty corner, addressing us with an imperious “Baaaath-room?”
The choir is accessed through the convent, which smells of incense and school dinners. A Latino janitor answers the bell, takes our payment and directs us to the electric lift, from which we enter a small hall with grilles that look down into the church, and one wall covered with Cavallini frescoes.
His frescoes are possibly even more vivid than his mosaics. They predate Giotto’s Scrovegni Chapel but are tapping into the same revolutionary inspiration; the painting injects formerly aloof icons full with feeling, with Jesus surrounded by the solicitous faces of saints and angels.
There’s time to fit in one more Trastevere church before lunch, so we check out San Francesco a Ripa, where St Francis based himself when visiting Rome, and which served as a Bersaglieri barracks until 1943. Guide books say the room he stayed in is occasionally open, still featuring the black stone he used for a pillow, but it doesn’t seem to be so on our visit. We do see De Chirico’s tomb, and it’s mildly surprising to realise that he lived until 1978.
There are some fancy tombs around which skeletons twist their frames, and the second-most famous Bernini sculpture of an orgasmic woman; a dramatic Blessed Ludovica, clutching her breasts and throwing her head back in abandon. I find this even more risqué than its more famous neighbour over the Tiber.
We visit the fruit-and-veg market in Piazza San Cosimato for supplies, and I spot Gianni di Gregorio scoffing a piece of street food and making off down the road; to my regret, I’m too star-struck to stop him and tell him how much I enjoy his films, or ask for a selfie. We stock up on veggies for later, then visit a busy Italian deli. Italian delis customarily operate ticketed queueing systems; one old man, in a display of furbizia, tries to jump the queue by claiming his #83 ticket is #73; then acts all innocent, claiming that his eyesight is failing, when the old ladies call him out on it. We get some prosciutto crudo, a big ball of fresh buffalo mozzarella scooped from a vat of milky water, egg pasta ribbons and spicy olives. We try to get a table at Da Enzo for lunch but the queue appears to start in Ostia, so instead we pick up arancini and suppli from a takeaway place and eat them by the river. The arancini have a creamy cheese filling, the suppli are tomatoey rice around a stick of mozzarella.
After a coffee, we take the tram out to the Lateran basilica. This church is next to the Porta San Giovanni; although it’s fairly far from the touristy centre, it gets a large and continuous stream of pilgrims. The Laterani were a well-to-do family, Juvenal mentions their opulent home and describes a playboy riding a coach past “his ancestors’ bones and ashes”; one was the first plebe to make Consul, two were killed for conducting affairs with Messalina and Agrippina. Later the Imperial cavalry bodyguards had their fort here, and after they fought for Maxentius at Ponte Milvio, Constatine disbanded them and gave the land to the Pope; before the flight of the Popes to Avignon this was their base, and people talked of ‘the Lateran’ as we talk of ‘the Vatican’. The latter was chosen for an HQ on their return as the Lateran had been badly burnt, but it was restored in time and remains a prestigious place to the church, and one which gave sanctuary to Jews during WWII (including future PM De Gasperi).
A modern-looking bronze of St Francis is posed a stone’s throw away, arms aloft as if in awe, which seems like an Italian equivalent to the Betjeman statue at St Pancras station. The double-porticoed facade is topped with statues St Peter’s-style, and the foyer contains a gigantic sculpture of Constantine and the original bronze doors of the Roman Senate. It blows my mind to stand in front of them and think of the tales they could tell.
Most of the interior is C18th, but there is material from all ages. The nave is dominated by a dozen enormous Borromini sculptures of apostles, some making grisly reference to their deaths. St Bartholomew, flayed to death, holds out his outstretched skin. Each is literally larger-than-life and thrustingly dramatic, making even the action of looking something up in a book appear dynamic.
Up in the apse are mosaics and frescoes; there is so much, all of it stretching so tall, that the effect is dazzling. On the altar, the supposed heads of Peter and Paul are kept in a golden ciborium over a vast Gothic altarpiece.
There are Popes buried all over the place and Martin V, who brought the whole show back from Avignon, has pride of place in front of the altar. Off to one side, a small scrap of surviving Giotto has a grandiose and outsized altarpiece built around it.
Across the road from the Lateran is an open-air apse containing mosaics, fragments of which are said to be survivors from ancient versions of the Lateran that were demolished over the centuries, and a building with the Santa Scala, one of Helena’s relics. There are 28 marble steps, said to come from Pilate’s palace and to be the steps Jesus walked up for his trial. It is an indictment of how hard I was pushing us that we were too exhausted to cross a couple of busy carriageways and see this. Pilgrims visit to ascend them on their knees and there is a good story about Luther getting halfway, saying ‘Who knows if it’s even true?’ then standing up and walking the rest.
Behind the cathedral is the world’s oldest baptistery, built in the year 440; there are excellent mosaics inside, and the largest surviving Egyptian obelisk outside -covered in hieroglyphics that are remarkably unspoilt, but to me as incomprehensible as ever- that somehow managed to get lost for 1,200 years after the fall of Rome.
Down the road from the Lateran is Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, so called because the original church was built over a shipload of soil from the Holy Land, and built to house the relics brought back to Rome by Constantine’s mother Helena (thought to be a propaganda stunt, after the convert emperor appalled his pious new friends by killing his son and his wife). It was built on the site of a temple to the sun god Sol Invictus, brought to Rome by the notorious transgender Elagabalus, and later a forerunner to Christianity when people used Him to try and nudge the empire towards monotheism.
The church is not Rome’s finest, and the relics have been discredited by historians, but they are interesting to see, housed as they are in a weird 1930s extension that also contains a room dedicated to the cult of a pious Italian girl who got very sick, wrote letters to Jesus, and died young. The relics are supposed to be Pilate’s tablet, the thorns and nails from the crucifixion, and so on. They have been donated a photostat copy of the Turin shroud, which I had never properly seen before. It is more literal than I expected; blotted by bloodstains from the front and rear of a body, it looks like a Rorschach drawing.
Walking back from the Lateran towards ancient Rome, we pass the monastery/church complex of Quattro Coronati. The ‘four crowned martyrs’ are an odd addition to the roster of saints, being four nameless soldier martyrs from the reign of Diocletian, but they were evidently a big deal; they also have statues on the gallery outside Florence’s Orsanmichele. The building is built on the summit of a hill and looks more like an impregnable fortress than a church. Inside the walls, we pass two cloisters and ring a bell. A nun appears behind a grille, takes your €1 and permits you to enter the Oratorio di San Silvestro.
This is a small room covered in quite brilliant Romanesque frescoes, painted in 1248, of the Pope curing Constantine’s leprosy, baptising him, and finding Christ’s cross on Calvary. I thought this would be one of the more obscure sights in Rome, but its proximity to the Colosseum seems to bring a lot of people; during our short visit we share the space with large school trips from the Netherlands and Germany. We have a look in the main church itself, which is dark and atmospheric. It has a huge apse and an oddly truncated nave in the Romanesque style, because the original was destroyed when Rome was sacked by Robert Guiscard.
Around the corner from Quattro Coronati is one of Rome’s most intriguing spots, San Clemente, run by Irish Dominicans whose order was long ago expelled from England. It features an C11th church on the ground floor, an early church on the level below, a Mithraic house/temple on the level below that (Mithraism of course being the mystery cult that for some time rivalled Christianity), and even a villa warehouse thought to have been burnt in Nero’s great fire on the fourth level down. I would like to explore this place properly some day, but tickets to the lower levels are €10, they are closing in 10 minutes, and I suspect the price has a lot to do with the Colosseum being next door. In the upper church, the mosaics are hidden behind scaffolding, but you are able to glimpse just enough scraps to see that they are technicolour and brilliant.
We contemplate the Colosseum, and the vastness of eternity and history, as you do, and get flak from the touts outside whose services we don’t want, as you do (one prick sneers at me, “Why aren’t you smiling? You’re supposed to be on holiday”). After the great fire, Nero took a vast chunk of downtown Rome for himself and his ‘Golden House’, but after he died Vespasian partially reversed this unpopular land grab by building this wonderful stadium on the site of his lake. Romans would have called it the ‘Flavian Amphitheatre’ but the Colosseum name stuck because there was a 30-metre-tall bronze statue of Nero stood next to it. No-one knows when this disappeared, but from the C5th onwards Rome found itself on the wrong end of any amount of free-for-all trashings.
Taking a wrong turn after the Colosseum (there is a huge building site because Colosseo metro is being connected to the new Line C, that runs out to hipster Pigneto) we walk into a dead end at the Forum turnstiles, and get a glimpse of a startlingly vast structure that turns out to be the last remaining aisle of the Basilica of Maxentius. More of him later, but he spent a lot of time playing the architect in Rome after decades of neglect from emperors who wished to station themselves in cities nearer the frontiers of the Rhine, Danube or Armenia. Once we’ve found it we walk back down Via dei Fori Imperiali, looking in at the remains of the Forums and markets, before hopping on a #8 tram from the wedding cake. Spritzes and crisps at San Calisto before we pick up a bottle of wine and have dinner at home.
Having pushed ourselves too far the previous afternoon, on Day 4 we don’t make it outdoors until mid-morning. We cross the river and look at the adjacent Republican-era temples to Hercules and Portuno, as well as the Bocca della Verita made famous by Roman Holiday and Gregory Peck pretending it has bitten his hand off. The ‘mouth of truth’ originally served as an ancient drain cover, and as always there is a very long queue of tourists waiting to pose for pictures.
We check out the tiny island of Isola Tibernina, which has an old church and hospital built on the site of a temple to Aesculapius. The church, San Bartolomeo, has pillars from the original temple. The side chapels are dedicated to modern-day martyrs, with chapels facing each other covering the victims of Nazism & Communism; I smile imagining the outrage on Left Twitter. There are also chapels for the victims of Europe (Spanish Civil War, priests killed by the Mafia in Sicily, victims of terrorism in France) and Asia (various C20th events through to ISIS).
Determined to get a table at Da Enzo this time, we arrive at noon on the dot only to find out that they open at 12:30. We kill the time sitting in the sunny courtyard of Santa Cecilia, and having coffee in a trendy place called 404 Not Found. We saunter back round to Da Enzo at 12:28, and find ourselves at the back of a 40-man scrum, only getting a table by the skin of our teeth. Trastevere has no shortage of family-run trattoria that seem far closer to what you want than the tourist traps of Piazza Navona, but it can be quite tricky working out which ones to choose. All of them have a string of bipolar internet reviews running from ‘best food I have ever eaten’ to ‘worst food I have ever eaten’ within the space of the same week. There are none that haven’t had plenty of one-star reviews, and I found the trick was to spot the ones whose one-star reviews all said nonsense like “I couldn’t believe it, they charged us for mineral water” or “I turned up at 5pm and the restaurant was not yet open, in Norway this would be unacceptable”. Da Enzo was one of these, and although they really squeeze the tables into a small area I would not hesitate to recommend it. We have puntarelle (a sort of wild chicory) and artichokes to start, followed by the day’s special; bowls of fettuccine with courgette, pork jowl and pecorino cheese, all done to perfection. The leaves on the fried artichoke are like crisps, the heart tender and creamy. The fresh, handmade pasta is on a different level from the everyday supermarket sort. It’s a delight, and reasonably priced. The staff are rushed off their feet, but remain kind and good-natured. Our table is up against that of a Chinese/Canadian couple who have travelled up from Sicily. They enthuse about Siracusa, where everything costs three-quarters less than it does in Rome, and I make a mental note.
In the afternoon, we cross Ponte Sisto again for more church-hunting in the centre. We take a look a Pasquino, a weather-beaten fragment of ancient sculpture that became Rome’s first ‘talking statue’. It was found in 1501 on a dig to create a new road, and placed on its pedestal; soon afterwards people began attaching poems and epigrams attacking the powers that be to its base. Many of the Popes disliked this practice, but it was thought to act as a safety valve on the frustrations of the people, and has carried on to the present day. Anonymous broadsides in Roman newspapers are still sometimes attributed to Pasquino, and it gave the English language the word ‘pasquinade’. There are plenty on there when we visit, one of which appears to be mocking the woman who is currently Rome’s first Five Star mayor and has presided over several crises regarding rubbish collection and public transport.
On one of the streets circling Piazza Navona, we look into Santa Maria dell’ Anima, so named because there are small carvings of two souls in purgatory on the facade. The church is typically loud Baroque, one of those with a Tardis effect where an apparently small plot of land turns out to contain something almost cathedral-sized. It is presently the Roman base of the German Catholic church, and for the 500th anniversary of the Reformation it is hosting an exhibition about Luther and the Prods. There’s the tomb of the last non-Italian Pope for five centuries, Utrecht-born Hadrian VI.
Behind this church are the very aesthetically-pleasing Santa Maria della Pace and the adjoining Bramante cloister. The latter, built in 1500, is a very fine piece of Renaissance architecture that has been adapted to accommodate a café, a bookshop and contemporary art exhibitions.
The former has a striking facade by Pietro da Cortona, with a round portico in front (the inspiration for Nash’s All Souls?), flanked by two wings behind; the effect is that the church seems to be stepping into the piazza. Inside, a narrow nave opens out into a tall, wide, octagonal space.
The art is substantial and varied; there are Sphinx tombs for cardinals, and one tomb uses black marble from the Roman temple to Jupiter.
There are wonderful Raphael frescoes covering the odd subject of angels with tablets, giving instructions to the Roman sibyls; a stretching, if endearing, Renaissance attempt to reconcile two opposed worlds. The oak leaf motif in the church is the crest of the Chigi family.
We pass the tantalising Ivo della Sapienza tower again, and the Pantheon, before stopping at Bernini’s adorable, obelisk-supporting elefantino and the scaffold-covered facade of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva; a name that gives away the land’s conversion from pagan temple to church (there’s one with the same name in Assisi), although they later found out it had actually been a temple to Isis.
This place was the power base for the Inquisition and the place where Galileo was forced to recant, and its dogmatic reputation still seems to hang over it. In a city of light and Baroque, this church is a rarity in that it is dark, gloomy and Gothic, with Gothic arches and a neo-Gothic ceiling added late enough for the look to be back in fashion. Catherine of Siena, Fra Angelico and the two Medici Popes are buried inside. The incense is heavy and thick in the air. Mass is going on, so we can’t get right inside to see Michelangelo’s sculpture of Christ bearing the cross or the Filippino Lippi frescoes. There are two hours til closing time, though, so we decide to come back later, and stroll the city centre, enjoying the stylish typefaces on shop fronts.
We cross Via del Corso to take a look at the Trevi Fountain, which is a bloody silly idea on a late Saturday afternoon with thousands and thousands of people all pushing past one another, and on the way back we briefly try, and fail, to make sense of Marcus Aurelius’ column (which is also on an impossibly crowded thoroughfare). Marcus Aurelius was a bookish type who had been singled out for greatness by Hadrian. The old man chosen as stopgap emperor until Marcus came of age, Antoninus Pius, unexpectedly lived on for 23 years, meaning Marcus Aurelius did not assume the purple until he was 39. Shortly afterwards, war broke out and the stoic philosopher had to turn soldier, a duty he did not enjoy but carried out well, defeating diverse Germanic tribes on the Danube frontier.
We wander back in the direction of Minerva and, as mass must surely be about to finish soon and it would be nice to sit down for a while, we grab a pew. The priest is giving an absurdly detailed analysis of the Biblical assertion that “many are called, few are chosen” which is followed by interminable singing, ritual, and segments where everyone has to kneel for prolonged periods on hard wooden benches. All of this continues for over an hour, right until 7pm at which point the church promptly closes up, with no chance to enjoy the Lippi or Michelangelo. Torquemada 1, Voltaire 0. As the procession of priests passes us on their way out, I notice that one is wearing Adidas Samba under his robes.
Looking for a non-tourist trap bar in the centre, we strike lucky with a place called Da Simo that is favoured by young locals and does €1 beers and €3 spritzes. Tipsy, I get us lost and expecting to reach one of the bridges into Trastevere, I instead am confronted by the Castel Sant’ Angelo which is miles away. Built by Hadrian to serve as his mausoleum, it would have been covered with magnificent white marble at the time. During the Renaissance it served faithfully as a fortress/hiding hole for the Pope every time the city was being sacked by Frenchmen, Spaniards or Germans.
We walk along the Tiber back to the Campo de Fiori area and check out the classic Roman take on a fish and chip shop, Dar Filetto a Santa Barbara. Fairly late on a Saturday evening, it is extremely busy with very few staff, and looks like a formica Italian café from fifties London. A brusque, pissed-off looking man who seems to be managing 30+ tables on his own eventually notices us and tells us to wait outside, and we get seated at a bench in the square 20 minutes later. They have run out of puntarelle so we order two cod fillets, battered courgette and beers. The portions are pretty small and overpriced, however the Romans seem to adore the place.