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By Anya M. Shetterly
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 1984 Anya M. Shetterly
All rights reserved.
The Artisans and the Bourgeoisie: Around the Piazza Navona
Starting Point: Corner of Via della Scrofa and Via dei Portoghesi
This walk forms a wide semicircle around one of Rome's most important and beautiful landmarks, the Piazza Navona, in an area said by many Romans to be the heart of the city. Rather than visit celebrated Renaissance and baroque attractions we will meander down narrow streets crowded with the inhabitants of this once prosperous bourgeois quarter. It is remarkable how much the neighborhood still reflects its late-fifteenth-century origins, when it blossomed as a center for artisans, intellectuals, merchants, and tourists.
It is also remarkable how much life has been crowded into this small area, embraced by a half-loop of the Tiber River. The earliest documentation still available indicates that this was the private reserve of the Tarquins, those Tuscan tyrants who were so hostile to the Roman population confined on the Palatine Hill. When they finally drove the Tarquins out, the Romans consecrated the low- lying plain to their favorite deity, Mars, the god of war. During the republic the Roman legions conducted their maneuvers here, on the Campus Martius, and the population on the surrounding hills used it for sport and recreation. By the time of the empire this expanse of open field provided the space for a new monumental quarter. The Pantheon, the Thermae of Agrippa (the first of those public baths that were to become such a rage in Rome), the Basilica of Neptune, and other structures were built in a setting of gardens and porticoes.
But fires, war, and time destroyed the grandeur of the ancient Campus Martius. After the sixth century the destruction of the aqueducts forced much of the city's population from the hills onto this plain near the river's edge, providing them with both easy access to water and predictable disaster during winter floods. Only when the Church reestablished its power and prestige after the Great Schism did the area regain some of its grandeur, reinterpreted in the Renaissance mode. Because of its proximity to the Vatican this became an ideal residential district for nobility, upper-class merchants, and clergy. It also became a tourist center with many hotels, restaurants, and shops to serve the visitors and pilgrims to the Vatican. The physical renewal initiated in the fifteenth century continued through the end of the eighteenth as the blocks around the medieval street network became dense with new developments, and the remaining medieval structures were replaced with residential and institutional buildings.
Except for the first block of our walk we will be on streets of the Ponte and Parione riones, "quarters," of the city. These divisions, originally imposed by Augustus Caesar for the purpose of governing and administrating the city and now used only by the post office, identify sections of town and conjure up tales about the city's history. Ponte means "bridge," in this case the quarter's lifeline to the Vatican. Parione derives from the Latin for "wall," and probably refers to the barrier around the Roman port that once stood on the river's edge.
Our walk will begin at the corner of Via della Scrofa and Via dei Portoghesi. There, and for a block, we will be standing in the confines of the rione of S. Eustachio, a name that dates back to the early days of Christianity in Rome. Legend has it that S. Eustachio was a man named Placidus who played an important part in the Dacian campaign as a general in the army of Trajan. One day, while hunting in the mountains between the Tiber and Praeneste, he saw a stag at bay and clearly defined between the antlers was a grave face "with eyes that penetrated his soul." (This vision of the head of the Savior between the antlers of a stag is now on the coat of arms for that rione.) Placidus returned to Rome and was baptized, along with all the members of his family, under the name of Eustachius. This act had immediate and disastrous consequences: he lost all his property and was forced to migrate to Egypt, where his wife was kidnapped by pirates and his children reportedly were taken away by wild beasts. Eustachius's leadership and valor were not forgotten in Rome, however, and when Trajan faced another war, this time against the Persians, he commanded that his best general be found. Eustachius was discovered working as a hired laborer in Egypt and was brought back to Rome, where a more tolerant emperor, Hadrian, had recently taken the helm. For a short time Eustachius's life reverted to its former dignity; his campaign against the Persians was a success, his wife and children were found, and he was honored in Rome with a great triumphal procession. But when he refused to perform the traditional sacrifice of the victor to Jupiter, a ceremony held here on the Campus Martius, he was condemned to death along with all the members of his family. This is not an unusual story of martyrdom during the early days of Christianity, but the courage and faith of this Roman general made a very deep impression in this fledgling community: it is one of only two of the city's twenty-two riones that bears the name of a Christian saint.
If you would like to fortify yourself with a quick bite before you begin your walk, or just feast your eyes on sumptuous displays in an Italian delicatessen, step into Volpetti's, just behind you at Via della Scrofa 32. You should at least take a peek; many Romans drive across town just to shop here — one of the two or three best rosticcerie in town. The shelves have wine from all over Italy and the counters are piled high with gourmet delights. And you don't have to wait to sample; there is a counter where you can order a sandwich or a plate of any of the prepared items on the shelf.
This done, return to the Via dei Portoghesi. Only the optical shop to the right, on the corner, is a reminder of modern exigencies. The bar, the pharmacy, the wine shop, the tobacconist, and the barbershop all look as if they have been here for the last hundred years, and they probably have. A few yards to your left, at no. 12, is the entrance to the Palazzo di S. Agostino. This palazzo was originally built to house the Augustine Order, whose main church is a block away (it is one of the earliest Renaissance churches and is important for its artistic treasures). The building, now occupied by the city's Ministry of Justice, presents us with a courtyard that is rather bland considering the artistic heritage associated with this religious order. When occupied by the monks, followers of St. Augustine, it was a fifteenth-century-style cloister. Only the tombstones in the portico remain to give a hint of this courtyard's more gracious past. These tombstones, including that of Cardinal Piccolomini, nephew of Pope Pius II and a fellow humanist and patron of the arts, are typical of the workshop of Andrea Bregno. The reliefs are in the manner of Nino da Fiesole. Both Bregno and da Fiesole were important stonecutters and sculptors during the Renaissance.
This palazzo also houses the Angelica Library, one of the best research libraries in Rome. Its location here reminds us of one of this neighborhood's characteristics: until recent times this was considered the center of Rome's intellectual life and, therefore, a favorite location for printers, publishers, and booksellers. A 1526 census shows that twenty-four publishers and booksellers were located in the immediate vicinity, along with numerous writers. The publishing trade began in Rome at the end of the fifteenth century and blossomed during the seventeenth and eighteenth in conjunction with the art of engraving, which was to become one of Rome's most flourishing trades. In this neighborhood Lafrery printed his Speculum Romanae Magnificentiae, an important documentation of Roman archeological sites; de Pérac printed his famous plates; and the offices of di Rossi provided the Vatican with the basis for its collection "Calcographia Camerale" that includes, among other important engravings, the plate for the great map of Rome by Nolli published in 1748 by Giangiacomo di Rossi. Today the publishing trade is not nearly as active here, but the tradition is carried on by the many antiquarian book and print shops concentrated in this section of town.
To your right, behind an iron gate, is the national church of Portugal, S. Antonio dei Portoghesi, crowned by heraldic angels blowing trumpets. Founded as a pilgrim hospice in 1417 the present church was begun by Martino Longhi in the mid-seventeenth century and continued by Carlo Rainaldi and Cristoforo Schor until 1695. The two virile figures holding up the side vaults, along with the magnificent angels that seem capable of flying across the tile roof of the Palazzo di S. Agostino, achieve the delightful, theatrical effect that is so central to baroque architecture. If the church is open, it's worth a visit for its collage of rich marbles. Missing since the eighteenth century, when Rome was occupied by the French and a number of Rome's treasures were shipped to various points in Europe, is the chapel of the baptistry decorated by Luigi Vanvitelli and Nicola Salvi. It was dismantled stone by stone and taken, along with the paintings and silver candelabras, to Lisbon, where it now stands in the Church of S. Rocco.
Directly in front of us, above the barbiere sign, is the tower of an old Frangipane fortress that was incorporated into a sixteenth-century residence. This is known to all Romans as the Torre della Scimmia, Tower of the Monkey. Readers of Hawthorne will recognize it as Hilda's tower in The Marble Faun. He describes the view from where we stand:
... indeed what might be called either a widening of the street, or a small piazza. The neighborhood comprises a baker's oven, emitting the usual fragrance of sour bread; a shoeshop; a linen-draper's shop; a pipe and cigar shop; a lottery office; a station for French soldiers, with a sentinel pacing in front, and a fruit stand, at which a Roman matron was selling the dried kernels of chestnuts, wretched little figs, and some bouquets of yesterday. A church, of course, was near at hand, the façade of which ascended into lofty pinnacles, whereon were perched two or three winged figures of stone, either angelic or allegorical, blowing stone trumpets in close vicinity to the upper windows of an old shabby palace. This palace was distinguished by a feature not very common in the architecture of Roman edifices; that is to say, a medieval tower, square, massive, lofty and battlemented and machiolated at the summit.
At one of the angles of the battlements stood a shrine of the Virgin, such as we see everywhere at the street corners of Rome, but seldom or never, except in this solitary instance, at a height above the ordinary level of men's views and aspirations. Connected with this old tower and its lofty shrine there is a legend which we cannot here pause to tell; but for centuries a lamp has been burning before the Virgin's image, at noon, midnight, and at all hours of the twenty-four, and must be kept burning forever, as long as the tower shall stand; or else the tower itself, the palace, and whatever estate belongs to it, shall pass from its hereditary possessor, in accordance with an ancient vow, and become property of the Church.
I will pause to recount the legend to which Hawthorne refers because it gives the tower its Italian name. The event took place in the seventeenth century when the house was inhabited by the Scapucci family. One day a young married couple's pet monkey carried their small child to the top of the battlements. The infant's cries attracted attention, and the father was summoned to the scene. Standing in the center of the street he invoked the aid of the Madonna and whistled to the ape who then obediently climbed down the tower along a waterpipe, clutching the child in its arms. As an offering of thanks for this miracle the father erected the shrine to the Madonna, which we see at the summit of the tower. The lamp is still kept burning, as Hawthorne describes, and though the palace is not in the hands of the Church, it is owned by a quasi-religious group. I imagine the wind must have blown out the candle for a few minutes!
There is also a legend dating back to the Middle Ages having to do with the origin of the name Frangipane, the family that built this tower. In 725, during an especially vicious flood of the Tiber, Flavio Anicia rowed around town in a boat dispensing bread to stranded people. When they saw him coming they cried out, "Frange nobis panem," Latin for "divide some bread with us." He and his descendants became known as Frangipane, a name they later adopted; they also added to their family crest a large loaf of bread between the feet of lions. The Frangipanes were one of the most powerful families in eleventh-century Rome.
In medieval times these towers played decisive roles in the clan fights betwen papal and antipapal factions. Their purpose is sometimes vividly described by chroniclers who make them sound like part of a Hollywood stage set with siege towers, fortified walls, and moats. In actuality only a few of these towers were so heavily fortified. Many were built as status symbols; the higher the tower, the more prestige. The Torre della Scimmia was built late in the thirteenth century, and this late date, along with the remaining travertine ornamentation, indicates that it was probably constructed with status rather than warfare in mind.
From Hilda's tower we take the street to the right, Via dell'Orso, past the Albergo Portoghesi with its Parisian-style streetlamps. But that's the only thing about this street that is not Roman. Named for a famous hotel located at the far end, this street has undergone several transformations since the fifteenth century. In 1480, Pope Sixtus IV paved this road for the first time and it became known as the Via Sistina. In 1488, when another Via Sistina was built, this became the Via Pontificium, after the papal processions here. In 1516 it became a section of the Via Recta Papalis, again after the papal parades; and when this route was changed, it assumed the name Via dell'Orso, Street of the Bear. The name isn't the only thing about this street that's changed over time. Originally known for its livery stables and hotels, in the 1800s it became known as a street of antique dealers. In fact, Cardinal Fesch, uncle of Napoleon I and Napoleon's ambassador to the Vatican, is said to have found the first piece of Leonardo da Vinci's painting of S. Jerome in a shop on this street. Thanks to Cardinal Fesch's passion for collecting, we can now see the entire panel at the Vatican Museum. In this century the antique shops have moved to Via dei Coronari, Via Giulia, Via Babuino, and Via dei Cappellari. Today, in their place, the ground-floor shops belong to artisans — carpenters, jewelers, gilders, lampshade makers, furniture restorers, brass workers, and upholsterers. All these crafts can be seen as you walk down the street. If you find yourself here in June you may also see the annual outdoor handicrafts show.
As the street became less fashionable so did its façades, but it is being improved now that high rents can be had any place in the center-city. No. 64–67, with the jewelry shop on the ground floor, is still part of the large palazzo that was attached to Hilda's tower in the late 1500s. To your right you will pass two streets reminiscent of the Middle Ages: the Vicolo dell'Orso, which ends suddenly after a few steps because a building has obstructed its passage, and the Via del Cancello, named after a gate that once protected pedestrians from the river's edge.
To your left, on the corner of Via dell'Orso and Via della Palomba, is no. 74, an eighteenth-century building of particular interest at the time of this writing because it is all closed up and covered with signs announcing that it has been illegally restored. This is an increasingly familiar example of some of the current urban renewal and legal battles taking place in the historic center of Rome. Restoration is welcome and helpful, but the city is trying hard to protect the rights of long-term tenants and the integrity of the original architectural plans. It is not an easy project to undertake, and, as we see here, violations can lead to bureaucratic battles (in this case, more than six years long). In the meantime this building stands empty in a city where the need for housing is critical. I am told that in the courtyard behind the locked gates is a beautiful three-tiered antique fountain.
Excerpted from Romewalks by Anya M. Shetterly. Copyright © 1984 Anya M. Shetterly. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Information and Advice,
Before You Go,
Food and Drink,
Telephone, Telegraph, Post Office,
Money and Banking,
A Word of Warning,
Glossary of Architectural Terms,
A Brief History of Rome,
Walk 1: The Artisans and the Bourgeoisie: Around the Piazza Navona,
Walk 2: The Empire, the Church, and the Jews: The Jewish Ghetto,
Walk 3: Streets of the Papacy: The Neighborhood of the Campo dei Fiori,
Walk 4: A Village Within the City: The Island and Southern Trastevere,
Restaurants and Shops,
Other titles in this series,