Dense is an appropriate word to describe Rome. Dense with history, dense with museums, dense with churches, densely woven narrow streets, dense with tourists, densely populated, dense with richly individual Riones, including Trastevere. Over the past two weeks, I have found myself wandering the small region on the southern end of Rome, trying to acquaint myself with the population and characteristics of this traditional residential area.
Trastevere comes from the Latin Trans Tiberim – across the Tiber. Until the Middle Ages and the creation of the Jewish Ghetto, it was a strong Jewish center. It is home to two of the oldest churches in Rome – Santa Maria in Trastevere, and Santa Cecilia. I have found that the Trasteverini – the natives of the Trastevere Rione, to be the friendliest and most welcoming population in Rome. The historical intercultural character of the area makes it attractive to tourists, artists and expats. Today, it is full of restaurants, shops, and tourists. In the early mornings, however, you can still catch a fleeting glimpse of the neighborhood as it was.
Although I’ve read a substantial amount of information about the area of Trastevere, it wasn’t until recently that I really began to explore it. The center point of my earliest ventures inside the Rione was the Museum of Rome in Trastevere. I highly recommend a visit to this small museum. I first visited because of the 2016 World Press Photo exhibit, but the museums permanent displays proved just as interesting. On permanent display in the museum are the gallery of Roman scenes, a collection of paintings with Rome as the central theme, as well as the scenes from Roman life, where mannequins in period costumes are set in tableaus of ordinary scenes from days gone by.
If you find yourself in Piazza Sant’Egidio, I highly recommend a stop in to look around. The museum is currently hosting a show on the photographic works of Vivian Maier. Ms. Maier is a fascinating story, if you haven’t heard of her you can view her work on the official website. Ms. Maier’s photographs are stunning and well worth a visit to the museum.
It is the confluence of her story and her photographs that make this exhibit so interesting. Many of the photos were never developed in her lifetime. The photographer would never see this stunning collection of photos beyond the view piece of her camera. Now, we are presented with a lens by which to observe what she saw, and interpret it as we will. What do you see reflected back to you in the portraits and every day scenes given to us through the talent of Ms. Maiers?
“Photography is the utmost proof of our own existence… and faced with Maier’s incredible talent and desire to keep her photography activity a private matter, we are dazed and confused. In observing her body of work it’s us who try to complete the information we have on her life with what we presume through her pictures; we attempt to guess whether she was happy, distressed, whether her hardened stare is the testimony of a hard life, or simply a moments concentration.” From the Museum guide of the Maier photography exhibit
Running concurrently is an exhibit on the history of Chinese propaganda posters. I found this exhibit fascinating not only for the beautiful art, but the descriptions which had a much more sympathetic view of Chinese Communism than that which I am used to reading.
The Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere is located just around the corner from the Museum of Rome. The Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere dominates the lively square, anchored with restaurants and usually filled with tourists resting on the steps of the fountain, relaxing to the sounds of the ever present street musicians.
Rome is densely populated with churches, and the Trastevere district is no exception. If you are only going to visit one church in this district, Santa Maria in Trastevere won’t disappoint. I have seen an overwhelming number of churches and cathedrals in Europe, and this one stands out. It ranks among my top three favorite in Rome. The others being Santa Maria degli Angeli near Termini and Santa Maria Sopra Minerva near the Pantheon.
Santa Maria in Trastevere is magnificently mosaicked in gold with an intricately designed tiled floor. I was awed by the gilded interior of this church. According to the book A Catholic’s Guide to Rome, this church is perhaps the site of the first public Christian liturgy in Rome, the earliest Marian devotion, and the first parish organization. According to legend, this church was erected on the spot of a mysterious fountain of oil sprang from the ground on the day that Christ was born. There is a marker in the church, but, alas, I was so stunned by the mosaics that I appeared to have walked right past it.
On the day of my visit to the Vivian Maier exhibit, I left my maps at home. This was a miscalculation on my part, and in my effort to look less like a tourist, I ended up adrift among the dense warren of narrow crooked streets. I have to tell you, wandering through Trastevere without a map, or a clear idea of where you are going, is not the best way to see the area. Because I knew the way to Piazza San Egidio, I armed only myself with a faint copy of a map from a guidebook, and attempted a self-styled walking tour of Trastevere. With only my internal sense of direction to guide me, it was not a resounding success. I did manage to visit two other churches, but instead of walking the circumference of the region, I somehow ended up circling back the way I came. I did, however see some very lovely streets, many of them more than once.
The next church I stopped in was Santa Maria del Orto, because I found myself walking past it and it was open. The most interesting thing about this church is that many of the altars were sponsored by guilds, including the chicken sellers. According to the churches own website, it was built at the site of a miracle which occurred in the form of a vision of Mary in the garden.
Eventually, I found myself standing in front of the Basilica of Santa Cecilia in Piazza Santa Cecilia. It was around lunchtime, but I decided to check and see if the church was still open. It was, and I had an exceptional visit, where I nearly got locked in a crypt. Following my close call in the basement of the church, I was quite hungry and set off to find a place to eat. It was then that I discovered the best suppli in Rome, at a small take-out place called I Suppli on Via di San Francesco a Ripa 137. This was a serendipitous discovery, one which I discovered because I was lost, and this place had no line. What I didn’t know until later is this place is famous for its traditional suppli, and usually has quite a long line. Most of the suppli you find in Rome have very little flavor in the sauce, these pieces of deliciousness are bursting with flavor. Oh. My. Goodness. A visit to I Suppli is worth a trip to Trastevere. I also had a piece of the pizza taglia – pizza by the slice. I took my delicious discovery and ate it on the steps of the fountain in Piazza Santa Maria, enjoying the serenading street performers.
Although my morning was dense with discoveries, I still had plenty of time before I needed to catch the bus home. I decided to conquer the Gianicolo Hill and observe the view. This hill is the site of a daily cannon firing, and the location of some of the best views in Rome. I stopped a Trasteverini out walking his dog and asked him for directions. He corrected my pronunciation of Gianicolo, told me it was a beautiful place, then he told to go up, until I needed to go right. It made perfect sense.
On the way up, I passed a very crowded side street, but since I could still go up, I assumed it wasn’t yet time to go right.
Eventually, I ran out of sidewalk. I decided it was time to go right. I went up a set of stairs, half hidden by branches and fallen leaves and exited into a field near a large monument. I knew I was in the right area, because I remembered reading about this particular monument – a memorial to a battle with the French soldiers that fought against Garibaldi and his troops engraved with the saying Roma o Morte – Rome or Death.
Just up the hill from the monument was another site I had read about, a fountain erected to mark the opening of an aqueduct. Across the street was the Spanish Embassy, and it has lovely views. I’m not sure where I thought they could fire the cannon from, but in my mind I had reached the apex of the Gianicolo Hill. Sadly, this was not the case. I admired the view, admired the fountain, and headed back down to catch the bus home.
To my great disappointment, when I returned home I realized that I had not in fact reached the summit of the Gianicolo. Had I brought a map, I most likely would have realized this, but seeing the layout of the land on the map the directions to go up until I needed to go right made much more sense. A week later, I returned to Trastevere, with a map and a guidebook. This time, I would stay out of the basements, and check my map regularly and find the actual top of the Gianicolo Hill.
Piazza Garibaldi was not much further from where I had turned around the first time. I had discovered a slightly shorter path up the hill, which brought me to the foot of the San Pietro in Montorio. I climbed the wide increasingly steep staircase and passing the stations of the cross before I exited in front of the church’s courtyard. Visible through a locked gate is the Tempietto di Bramante – the temple of Bramante, built for the Spanish royal family in 1502 to mark the spot of the martyrdom of St Peter. It is considered by many to be the first great building of the high Renaissance, although the spot of the martyrdom of St Peter was later determined to have occurred elsewhere. I peeked into the church, but it was dark, and after my close call the previous week I was not going inside.
Continuing up the hill and turning down the aptly named Passegiatta del Gianicolo, the walk along Gianicolo, I arrived slightly before 10 am. This is before the venders and street hawkers have a chance to set up their wares, and Piazza Garibaldi is crowd free and peaceful. It was a bit hazy over the city, but it was a lovely quiet view of Rome. The park at the top of the hill is full of the busts of men I assume are compatriots of Garibaldi and heroes of long ago. I returned down the hill, taking a set of stairs that emptied into the same crowded street I had seen the week before.
On this visit to Trastevere, I decided to visit the large palazzi, once homes to Roman elite, and now open for the general public. The first visit was Villa Farnesina, known for the frescoes painted by Raphael. The most well-known of the frescoes by Raphael are found in the Vatican Museums. In my visit to the enormous museum, I didn’t quite make it to the Raphael Rooms. By that time on the tour, we just wanted to escape the crowds. In Villa Farnesina, for just 6 euros, you can enjoy some lovely frescoes in a far more peaceful environment. Aside from the painted walls and ceilings, it is unfurnished. Unless you purchase the audio guide, or come in with a guide, it won’t take long to get through. It is lovely, but small.
With quite a bit of time left I decided to visit the larger Corsini Gallery, located just across the street. The ticket to this gallery is a bit more expensive, but if you visit Palazzo Barbarini within ten days, you receive a discount on the entrance fee. I thoroughly enjoyed this gallery. Each room contains a map detailing the paintings and statues you’ll find there. I thought it was much like a slightly smaller version of Villa Doria Pamphilj or Palazzo Barbarini. It is full of lovely paintings and sculptures, although I probably wouldn’t have known many of them if I hadn’t visited so many other art museums in Rome. Among the paintings there, you will find Caravaggio’s St John the Baptist, several paintings by Guido Reni, a painting by Artemisia Genteleschi’s father, and a couple by Rubens.
When I visited, there was a special exhibit with paintings by Daniele da Volterra. The two Caribinieri officers standing guard in the room indicated that these were indeed special paintings. Da Volterra is best known today as the painter who covered the nudes on Michelangelo’s last judgement, but his paintings are beautiful. His Madonna and child was exquisite, but under glass and casting too strong a reflection to capture in a photograph.
As much as I enjoy strolling through these large palazzi, I find it just a bit sad as well. These beautiful museums were at one time the homes of people who lived a lush insular existence, never dreaming that one day their world would be so changed that the public they sought to separate themselves from would traipse through their private rooms and that they would exist only in the histories and our imaginings of their opulent lives.
After the visits to the museums, I wandered through the streets and over to the Isola Tiberina, and once again aimlessly wandered the streets of Trastevere, before catching the bus home.
Over the course of my two visits to Trastevere, I managed to walk a grand total just under 16 miles. I didn’t see quite everything in this Rione, how could you capture centuries of life in just two days, no matter how densely packed your travels are?
Head over to the Daily Post it you’d like to see some more examples of Dense.