Today we would like to take through a neighborhood of Rome that is sometimes overlooked, not because it has little to visit, rather because there is rarely enough time to venture into the heart of Rome. Here’s a chance to look into a major part of town called Trastevere and along with it Villa Farnesina, a beautiful noble house which was frescoed by Raphael in the early 16th century.
This part of the city may not have enormous ancient monuments but it has a special flavor to it. Its many shops, restaurants, tight colorful roads, simple as picturesque houses, churches and a feeling of bustling life.
Trastevere’s name is about as old as it can get. It comes from the Latin word “Transtiberim”, that is “past the Tiber”. This neighborhood developed on the right had side bank of the river in ancient times. It was never included in the Servian Walls, the first set of defensive walls meant to defend the city. A part was however included by the later, bigger Aurelian Walls. Possibly, due to this long-lasting weakness and the obvious lack of strategic reliability, no governmental buildings nor military installations are known to have been built. Some public entertainment structures were made but they are lost now. It was rather populated though. In fact, sailors, craftsmen, foreigners, merchants and smaller communities resided here.
The first known Jewish community lived here as excavations have found ruins of older synagogues in the area. Other temples of other religions were found here. Only one bridge connected the populated neighborhood to central Rome. Possibly an indication that this part of town was probably not considered a whole lot by Romans at the time.
In later years, Augustus will build a giant naumachia- that is a structure used to simulate ship battles – but it will soon be disused in favor of a bigger one made by Trajan near the Vatican. Two aqueducts will be made, only one being potable water. After the fall of the Occidental Roman Empire, we won’t hear much from this part of town. Being outside of the walls, as mentioned, it couldn’t be safeguarded efficiently so nothing could stop the decaying of Trastevere. Only when the situation will calm down, churches and houses will be built, also some belonging to noble families. A set of defensive walls will finally be built. In modern times it will become home to artists and shop, much appreciated by visitors.
1) Tiberine Island
The island is technically part of Ripa, the 12th district of central Rome (“rione” in Rome) of Ripa. The fact is that crossing it into Trastevere makes sense and offers photographic scenery that cannot be ignored. So for the sake of a better experience, we will include it as well. Ripa was located near the ancient fluvial port of Rome, called Ripagrande. The Tiberine Island is in the River, almost conveniently connecting the two sides of the river by means of two bridges, the Cestian and Fabrician Bridges. From under them is a mesmerizing view of the tumultuous waters of the river which cut a sharp right turn soon after the island.
It is said that the island was created the day the tyrant king of Rome Lucius Tarquinius was dethroned and exiled from Rome in 509 BC. The jubilant Romans tossed in the river grass, wheat and other produce to celebrate. The sum of those elements created the island. Years later, the Temple of Aesculapius, the God of Medicine, will be built on the southern tip of the island. From there on the island will be used as an improvised infirmary. On a bad note, in times of the plague, the ill were abandoned on the island. There’s been a great deal of sufferance on this island.
The church of St. Bartholomew, baroque style, stands at the center of the island. Modern day martyrs are commemorated in this church.
Past the church, spying to the right, one can see the tree covered right side of the river. Behind those trees, is Trastevere. Let’s go!
2) Via della Lungaretta
Via della Lungaretta
Along this road, which runs straight, there are shops and restaurants, along with other interesting stores. It’s a lively and cheerful sight, especially during weekends. A sense of pleasant normality that is so dearly welcomed, in the heart of the most picturesque district of the Eternal City.
The road dives into the district, overlapping an older ancient Roman street, once called Transtiberine Road, and leads to one of the main squares of the neighborhood, Santa Maria in Trastevere.
3) Santa Maria in Trastevere
Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere
The Church of Santa Maria in Trastevere is the main church of the neighborhood. It is also built in the place of an older church, one of the first ever made in Rome. Fine mosaics, rich colors and recycled ancient Roman columns are used in this church. The columns came from the Baths of Caracalla. The interior of the church was restored to its pre-12th century appearance, with spectacular cosmatesque floors with geometric patterns.
The story in town is that prior to the current church, an older one, dedicated to St. Callixtus, stood in its place as far back as the 3rd century AD. Inside the church is also the cenotaph (that is funerary monument, no body inside) of the most hated Cardinal in Rome at the time, Armellini. Considering the taxes he slapped on Roman businesses, this is hardly a surprise. Nor the fact that, wisely, they chose to bury the body elsewhere, to avoid other incidents.
The fountain in the square, like the supposed early church, stands approximately in the area where one of the first fountains in Rome was ever built. This is a 1692 design, largely rebuilt centuries later.
4) Porta Settimiana
This is the northern access/exit into the Aurelian Walls, built in the 3rd century AD. The origin of the name is unclear and too many ideas have been proposed to make it worthy of a debate on today’s blog, let’s just say that Latin authors had one main defect. They gave out a lot of minor, useless, and unspecified information. They took for granted the information – which we often lack so badly – would always be known so they never bothered going beyond vague description. Livy, the author, to prove our point, mumbled about the presence of a “door” which had to be present in an area between Trastevere and the Vatican prior to the Aurelian Walls as Livy lived before that construction. That’s all he said. Great help… Anyway, the door is there and proofs to be both useful in terms of shortcuts and also offers quite a view through the rounded portal.
5) Villa Farnesina
Villa Farnesina – Raphael – Cupid and Psyche
Graffiti Villa Farnesina
Little jewel, built below street level and well hidden by walls and trees, many people are not aware of the presence of this special construction. Who knows… maybe Agostino Chigi, wealthy banker and Treasurer of the Pope (Julius II and Leo X) would have wanted this feeling of seclusion. He commissioned the architectural aspects to Baldassarre Peruzzi. The frescoing was done by a group of several artists, besides Peruzzi himself and Sebastiano Del Piombo, was the great Raphael Sanzio.
The still young Raphael had left his mark at the Vatican, painting the living quarters of Pope Julius II. Raphael at this point in life wasn’t interested in spending his time stuck on the scaffolding in the Vatican nor was he willing to commit to terms and schedules that left him little time to enjoy life. Chigi was probably more understanding about that and did allow Raphael to fresco in his apartment without chocking the Urbinian artist with stressful demands. Raphael produced works on the first floor.
The house was damaged in 1527 when Rome was sacked, severely damaged, and plundered mercilessly. The perpetrators were the Landsknechts (also Lansquenets), mercenaries, sent by Emperor Charles V. The siege, probably only meant to be demonstrative, went out of control in short time and in the violent assault that ensued, nothing was spared. Troops poured into the unguarded house, they robbed all precious items and defaced the walls of several rooms with battleaxes, pikes and spears. One room, the Hall of Perspectives, still bares graffiti and a curiously long comment, against the Pope.
This is a typical noble apartment of the early 1500’s, wide rooms, richly decorated and surrounded by a garden, with flowers, trees and aromatic herbs.
Villa Farnesina currently opens Monday through Saturday from 9 am to 2 pm (last entrance is 1:15 pm), closed on all Sundays except the second of the month, provided it doesn’t coincide with national holidays or religious festivities. In which case it opens from 9 am to 5 pm (last entrance is 4:15 pm).
Little tip: If you have visited the Vatican Museums no more than 7 days prior to your visit to Villa Farnesina, you are entitled to a discount. But keep your Vatican tickets!!!
Nestled in the left corner of a modern day pharmacy, is a special museum which could be defined as an “old pharmacy”. Romans call it the “spezieria” that is the “spice store” because in the past spices and herbs were collected in ceramic jugs. Many pharmacies in Rome still keep, for decorative purposes, these jugs in cabinets or top shelves.
Managed by the Carmelitans, this museum collects all materials, tools, medicines, and chemistry laboratories that were used in the past to produce supposed cures and elixirs. Neatly displayed and preserved, there are some really unusual objects which are kept in old furniture and halls decorated with frescoes and 1600-1700 apparel.
It’s not far from Santa Maria in Trastevere and conveniently positioned in a near straight line, allowing to make good use of time if you like to visit all these sites in a single morning or afternoon. Quick note: visits to this specific museum must be booked!
7) Santa Cecilia
While there are a myriad of interesting sites, we cannot fit everything in a single day of touring. But we can propose sites that are worth that time. The Basilica of St. Cecilia is positioned further south in Trastevere.
It was built over Roman constructions that can be visited. Presumed to be an old Roman noble house, it was then modified in later stages in a condominium and remains of what are believed to be baths were identified. Legend has it, this is where the Roman authorities tried to suffocate St. Cecilia but she survived. She would be stricken by a sword and killed. Buried in the catacombs of St. Callixtus, her body was then moved under the original church in a wooden coffin and only in 1599, during major reconstructions, Cardinal Sfondrati and a team of workers will open the burial site. St. Cecilia will be found virtually intact. The marble statue under the main altar of the modern church is a faithful replica of how they found her body upon opening the tombs. Carlo Maderno made the statue. A copy will be made centuries later and put in the catacombs, in the room where the young woman was buried and recovered sometime after the fall of the Roman Empire of the West.
The current appearance of the church is a 1700’s remodeling. On the sides of the church are two monasteries.
8) Piazza Trilussa
The square is one of the features that pops into Roman’s minds when the name “Trastevere” is spoken. The square is dedicated to Carlo Salustri, a Roman poet who went by the name “Trilussa” in his professional life. His statue is on the side of the square.
Lively location, known to most Romans as a crowded ad noisy place but also immersed in a series a small roads, which develop in disorderly fashion to the more central parts of the neighborhood. There is also quite a presence of shops and restaurants in the back roads.
The fountain was originally on Via Giulia, on the other side of the Tiber, lazily pushed up against a building which was razed to allow the widening of the river and to build the protective banks and walls. In 1898, the fountain was removed from the storage it was kept in and remounted on this other side of the river.
9) Ponte Sisto
Connecting the two sides of the Tiber, is Ponte Sisto. The bridge is traffic-free, an authentic exception here in Rome. The bridge is special in many ways. Besides its architectural beauty, it’s the only bridge ever commissioned by a pope, Sixtus IV, the same pope who ordered the construction of the Sistine Chapel.
Possibly the disaster of 1450, during the Jubilee, in which the Sant’Angelo Bridge was dangerously overcrowded by pilgrims heading to St. Peter’s Basilica, leading to the collapse of the balustrades. That sent an unspecified but massive amount of people overboard and many drowned in the “Blonde Tiber” as Romans called it. Scared it might happen again, Sixtus IV, who was elected 21 years after this tragedy, made sure the Vatican had at least another reliable bridge open. Baccio Pontelli, a military architect who is also the supposed builder of the Sistine Chapel, was in charge of making this bridge.
The views one can get from this bridge, including St. Peter’s, are wonderful. To add to the legends of the bridge, it was believed that several blocks from the decaying Colosseum were recycled and inserted in the bridge.
These are just some ideas. We have great guides and availability to make your tour of the Trastevere neighborhood a truly exciting experience. Your tour can be customized! You can call or email us to organize the tour as well as forward specific requests, including reservations for lunch and/or dinner.
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