A Walk in Roma

2500 years and counting the Eternal City is still the best place to experience human scale urbanism. Walking in Roma we move around in a concrete example of the old classical principle: ‘the whole is greater than the sum of the parts’.


Sigmund Freud, in his second to last book, chose Rome as the metaphor for a new idea: The proposition that when the mind forgets nothing really gets lost. According to the great Austrian theorist and psychoanalyst, what we experience as forgotten remains hidden beneath new layers of experience:

Historians tell us that the oldest Rome was the Roma Quadrata, a fenced settlement on the Palatine. Then followed the phase of the Septimontium, a federation of the settlements on the different hills; after that came the city bounded by the Servian wall; and later still, after all the transformations during the periods of the republic and the early Caesars, the city which the Emperor Aurelian surrounded with his walls. We will not follow the changes which the city went through any further, but we will ask ourselves how much a visitor, whom we will suppose to be equipped with the most complete historical and topographical knowledge, may still find left of these early stages in the Rome of today. Except for a few gaps, he will see the wall of Aurelian almost unchanged. In some places he will be able to find sections of the Servian wall where they have been excavated and brought to light. If he knows enough—more than present-day archaeology does—he may perhaps be able to trace out in the plan of the city the whole course of that wall and the outline of the Roma Quadrata. Of the Buildings which once occupied this ancient area he will find nothing, or only scanty remains, for they exist no longer. The best information about Rome in the republican era would only enable him at the most to point our the sites where the temples and public buildings of that period stood. Their place is now taken by ruins, but not by destruction. It is hardly necessary to remark that all these remains of ancient Rome are found dovetailed into the jumble of a great metropolis which has grown up in the last few centuries since the Renaissance. There is certainly not a little that is ancient still buried in the soil of the city or beneath its modern buildings. this is the manner in which the past is preserved in historical sites like Rome.

Civilization and its Discontents, pp. 6-7

Writing in 1930, the author of Das Unbehagen in der Kultur—The Unrest in the Culture,  translated as ‘Civilization and its Discontent’—had experienced Roma almost without cars. Yet, vehicular pollution, the vibration imparted on the ancient monuments by the friction of rubber tires on pavement, and the soot that washes over new and old stones, is not necessarily a fate worse than what greeted Romans in antiquity. Trading carbon-monoxides for the dung and straw of streets full of horse and mule pulled wagons, defecating and urinating in the public rights of way, may not be a bad bargain after all. Historians in the Imperial period report a Roma complete with rush hours and standing still congestion twice a day, morning and afternoon. Julius Ceasar banned wheeled traffic from the center of Rome during the day, inadvertently causing an insufferable racket at night. Emperor Hadrian finally put a limit on the number of teams of horses and loads of carts permitted to enter the city altogether (AD 117-138, builder of the Pantheon).

I have shocked some of my best colleagues in urbanism by suggesting that compared to Roma, Paris is merely a provincial capital. This walking tour explains why.

Today we see little of the achievement that was the ancient city. More than 1800 years would pass before London would be the first to match Roma’s first century population of one million inhabitants. It would not be until the 20th century that Chicago—the city by the lake—would deliver an equivalent daily flow of fresh water to match the capacity of the 11 aqueducts feeding the Eternal City. A municipality has yet to match the program of free bread to its citizens that made Egypt the bread basket of the Capital. Considering the annual tonnage of grain, shipping the 13 Egyptian obelisks that have populated the city to this day seems matter of course. Even if this legacy were visible today, it would be no less comprehensible to our modern eyes. We still lack a theory capable of explaining the essential bits—including the gore—that made up ancient Rome. A place enduring most of our urban problems of today without any of our modern means.



1. Trevi Fountain

Wikipedia | Google Images 
Hollywood provides the starting point for our tour of the Eternal City in a post-WWII film. One of many clarion calls of the advancing American hegemony, “Three Coins in the Fountain” (1954) features the Fontana Trevi.  Like so much that is Roman, the name has a specific meaning: ‘Tre Vie’ identifies that ‘three roads’ meet at this place. The fountain marks a place in this greatest of cities where one of 11 aqueducts ended, bursting its freight of clean, potable water for all to use in a splendid fountain that dates to the Baroque century. Rome was home to 1 million inhabitants almost 2000 years before London would reach that number at the end of the Georgian era in the late 1800s.
Facing the fountain, exit on the street to your left at the south west corner of the square. Head west on this, a street where the street end is hidden from view. The streetwall bends slightly to enhance the sense of enclosure in a space made with walls twice as high as the street is wide. The proportions are calculated to shield the street and its fronting windows from the hot Mediterranean Sun. Palladio noted in the 1560s that southern Italian cities had narrow streets made to shade the hot sun; while northern Italian cities had wide streets that let the sun penetrate to the sidewalk to give warmth in the cooler northern climates.

Next, cross the arrow-straight Via del Corso, the cardo of the Roman plan. Looking north along Via del Corso you can see the northern gate ¾ miles away at Piazza del Popolo.

P. del Popolo itself is a worthy destination with Bernini’s twin churches, and Santa Maria del Popolo (the older sister in the NE corner) home to Caravaggio’s masterpiece “Vision of St Paul” and art by Rome’s beloved Raffaello.


2. Piazza di Pietra (engraving: Alo Giovannoli, 1615)

Wikipedia | Wikipedia | Google Images 

One block after crossing the Corso you will come upon an urban room with eleven columns along the left side identified in a small plaque at the opposite corner as Piazza di Pietra. It is in fact a small remaining fragment of a much larger, and more important, Temple of Hadrian. Walk for another block or so, still heading away from Trevi.


3. The Pantheon (drawing by Panini c. 1720)

Wikipedia | Google Images 

Our next destination comes as you reach a clearing, Piazza della Rotunda. The The Pantheon will be on your left as you enter this quintessential urban room. The Pantheon is the best preserved surviving Roman building. The square in front is of interest as well.

The Hebrew civilization’s great achievement is a book, The Bible. Their great arch rivals and conquerors, the Romans, left us this city and this round temple as testament to their prowess. The dome has a hole at the top where the sun, the moon and the rain come in. The exquisitely spherical marble floor sheds the water to the edges on those rare days when it rains. The Pantheon inside, and the piazza outside, join as a kind of double indoor-outdoor set for all seasons supporting social functioning in a manner rarely equaled anywhere else. In bad weather, you can meet inside. In good, the meeting place moves outside near the fountain. In the evenings you can try one of the restaurant tables that set up al fresco in the square. We recommend Campo di Fiori and the perimeter of the Navona as the best places to eat.

The Pantheon was commissioned by Marcus Agrippa as a temple to all the gods of Ancient Rome, and rebuilt by Emperor Hadrian in about 126 AD. The obelisk of Ramses II stands outside in the Piazza, one of 13 obelisks of ancient Egypt brought to Rome in ancient times and re-erected in the Renaissance and Baroque centuries. Those are the important facts after a fashion: 13 obelisks; 11 aqueducts; 1 million people. The obelisks arrived in Roma alongside a more precious cargo. Egypt was the bread basket of this great city. And the daily bread for its occupants was made from wheat grown on the banks of the Nile. One great civilization borrowed from the other.


4. Piazza della Minerva & Sta. Maria Sopra Minerva

Wikipedia | Google Images 

Stand facing the Pantheon, and take the street on the left. Pause when you get to the square with the elephant carrying a small obelisk on his back. This small urban room is adorned by an impish elephant improbably balancing an obelisk. One of Bernini’s most underrated and witty creations it is a pagan tribute to rebirth or renaissance. The elephant swallows seeds into his belly, where they are fertilized by the mythical shaft of light focused by the obelisk. Many have remarked of the similarity between this elephant carved by Bernini’s workshop and a sketch of Pope Leo X Medici’s pet elephant Hanno. The animal had been a gift to the papal court, and only survived two years in Roma before succumbing to intestinal problems. But Hanno was not only Pope Leo’s favorite, he had won the hearts of the entire city. An admiration that is thought to have lived on into Bernini’s time.



Hanno the Elephant, copy of lost drawing by Raffaelo, c. 1514

Inside the church is an early Michelangelo of the Risen Christ holding the cross and sporting a later addition covering the genitalia—pessimo stile!



5. Piazza Navona

Wikipedia | Google Images 

Return to the Pantheon and exit the square heading west towards Piazza Navona. After walking for one block you will encounter an inmovable obstacle: a city block stands in the way of getting to Piazza Navona. Go around to the right or the left. If you go left, then you will be walking beside of La Sapienza, the University of Rome. It counts among its buildings and courtyards a stunning masterpiece: Borromini’s chapel of Sant’Ivo (1650) complete with a magnificent courtyard outside. Once you are around the large city block find the small street that leads into the Navona. At night a clue that leads in the right direction is given by the din made by people talking at Piazza Navona. The noise is audible from more than a block away, growing louder as one approaches.

The streets around the periphery of Piazza Navona contain some of the most unforgettable treasures in Rome. One could spend a week in just looking at Navona, and exploring the sites (and family restaurants) dotting the road that circles it one block removed from the central square. This is the longest continuously inhabited site in the western world.


6. Campo dei Fiori

Wikipedia | Google Images
Head south from Navona for another 500 feet crossing ground littered with antiquities of all kinds (including the Pasquino—one of the famous talking statues of Rome). Reach the Corso Victor Emanuel. It was constructed in the 19th century by shaving the front half of Renaissance palazzos and anything else that got in the way. Then, face the challenge of dodging the next two city blocks standing between you and Rome’s next surprise: the Campo di Fiori. An alternative route is to seek out the Chancelleria (1513) attributed to Bramante. The Cancelleria meets the Campo at the southern corner of its stunning Renaissance façade.

Once site of a flower market (mercato di fiori) and a food market today, arriving at Campo di Fiori we enter one of Rome’s most enigmatic urban spaces. Adorned by the statue of Giordano Bruno in the centre it meets Via die Giubinari on its south east corner, American planner Alan Jacob’s ‘Great Street’.

Once the fresh food market closes by 4 p.m. this place becomes the choice location for a wine tasting and tapas in Roma. A good meal can be had in any of its restaurants. Pick the ones with the least number of tourists.


7. Palazzo and Piazza Farnese (c. 1500)

Wikipedia | Google Images

Exit the campo south and walk for one block to Piazza Farnese, fronted by the Palazzo Farnese (now French Embassy). Begun circa 1513 it was designed by a who’s-who of Renaissance artists: Bramante, Sangallo the Younger, Michelangelo, Vignola and Giacomo della Porta. The twin fountains in the piazza are crafted from bathtubs taken from the Baths of Caracala.

Standing facing the Palazzo Farnese, the French Embassy, exit the Piazza on the street along the left side of the Palazzo. The street terminates in a fountain called the Mascherone. As you make your way down the street make sure to look back over the garden wall on your right to see the garden façade of the Palazzo. The three arches in the rear side are by Michelangelo, as is the arch that spans over the street with the Mascherone.



8. The Mascherone (1626)

Wikipedia | Google Images

One block away from the Piazza Farnese, walking towards the Tiber, is Via Giulia, Rome’s most important Renaissance Street. The Mascherone wall fountain is famous the world over, if not exactly a great work of art.


9. Ponte Sisto

A pedestrian bridge links Rome to its ancient neighbourhood Across-the-Tiber or Tras-Tevere. Finding your way to the centre of Trastevere is easy: just follow the fall in the ground and you will arrive at Sta. Maria in Trastevere beckoning from one of the oldest squares in Rome.



10. Trastevere

Wikipedia | Google Images

This wonderful neighbourhood, somewhat invaded by tourists, dares us to sit in a local restaurant for a meal or a brief sojourn. Our objective here is Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere, the urban room at the heart of this venerable Roman quartier. Getting there is half the fun. Once more, there are no straight routes. However, the fall of the floor or the ground plane towards the square is a powerful urban trope assisting our way finding abilities. The Byzentine basilica fronting the square makes its presence felt from whatever side we may approach it. But don’t get too busy looking for the basilica that you don’t notice all the great urbanism greeting you every step of the way.



11. Sta. Maria in Trastevere

Wikipedia | Google Images

Here, and also at Sta. Maria Maggiore, we can glimpse one of the most remarkable legacies of the medieval period. The Apse mosaic of Christ seated with his mother the Virgin Mary. The pair looks for all practical purposes as the depiction of a Bride and Groom, not a mother and son. That is a very young woman seated at the right of a very young man. Might it be some other tradition that is being depicted here reaching back to the first three centuries when the canon and the story were still in flux?



12. Tempietto

Wikipedia | Google Images

A quarter of a mile away as the crow flies from Santa Maria in Trastevere stands one of the greatest works of the Renaissance. Tucked away in San Pietro in Montorio is Bramante’s Tempietto (little temple, 1502), scaled to function either as a garden folly or as the center piece of a never realized cloister or courtyard of a quality impossible to imagine. Leon Batista Alberti had proposed a round colonnaded temple of smallish proportions at the center of his painting of an ideal city square (the Urbino Panel c1460s), and written the first treatise on classical architecture since antiquity forty years earlier. The Tempietto renders the theory concrete and palpable even at this diminutive scale.  It picks up on Alberti’s ideas and sets the model that all later Renaissance architects will follow, from Michelangelo to Palladio to Borromini. All of these great masters stood here and marvelled at Bramante’s little masterpiece.

Tiempietto: detail of square column capital meeting the round lintel

The date given for its completion makes it contemporary to Michelangelo’s David (1501 – 04) executed in the northern Medici stronghold of Firenze (Florence). Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is believed date from this time as well, between 1503 and 1506.



Walking Map of Roma [red]

Google Driving Map for Same Destinations [blue]

The Meaning of Place

The distance covered by the walking tour is about 2 k.m. long, taking 20 minutes to walk if you don’t stop (shown in a dotted red line in the ‘Walking Map of Roma’ above). Of course, the point is to stop walking and take in the sights. So the walk can take a half day, a full day, or even weeks. However, by the time you get to know this route you will have strung together a series of squares or urban rooms in a sequence. Each place is unique and unforgettable, some will burn mental images in our memory or imaginations. However, the sequence itself will take on a meaning all its own becoming a kind of ordering presence in the city. From this urban spine you will be able to connect any number of other destinations and remember them all without need to resort to a map or a GPS device.

For example, our detour to see Bernini’s Elephant with Obelisk reveals this functioning of the urban spine as an organizing system. One doesn’t have to know precisely where it is. To find it we only need to find the Pantheon and then go around to the left. A second example would be finding Sta. Maria della Pace and Bramante’s masterful cloister (1504):

SM della Pace is located to the west of Piazza Navona. Exit the piazza just north of Bernini’s fountain of the four rivers and turn at the second street on the right. Look north and you will see the incomparable round portico of SM della Pace. The courtyard or cloister is through the main doors to the left.

It soon becomes clear that the ordering system is operating on spaces or ‘voids’ in the city. I’ve likened this to the whole in the donut. What makes the American pastry quintessential is a hole—the absence of pastry—right in the center where the good stuff is supposed to be.  The ordering of urban space seems to follow a similar rule. The parts of Roma that  present themselves in both sequential and hierarchical order seem to be ‘the spaces’. So, there is an instruction set that will get us from Navona to SM della Pace, or from Trevi to Trastevere. However, the great discoveries is that rather than stepping on stones to cross the river, in Roma we are stringing together sequences of open spaces. It is these magical places that stick to our memory and our imaginations. The Navona, the street, the portico and the cloister are not objects but ‘spaces’. They are empty holes—brimming with life, activity and culture to be sure. But it is the experience and memory of voids full of ether that mark our way and make the deepest impression in our psyches. We don’t look at them as we do a Venus in the temple, or a fresco on a ceiling. We come upon these places and move through and around them. And in the process we form a lasting impression of Roma.




Rome is built of the accumulation of these place experiences, each one defined by its own unique characteristics. Yet all sharing of the same basic human functioning.

I met a fellow traveler at the piazza of the Pantheon one night. I had a map, sketchbook and camera in my hands, she only had a map. She spoke English and asked me if I knew the direction to the Trevi Fountain. I pointed her in the right direction, then remarked that Piazza Navona lay in the same axis, but in the opposite direction. “Oh,” she said, “If Navona is over there, then I know how to get to Trevi from Navona.” I smiled as she set off to Piazza Navona, walking in the opposite direction of where she wanted to go. She was another soul engaged in the process of building her own mental map of Roma.

It is worthwhile to note that according to Google Map it would take 32 minutes—and we would cover 9.3 km—to drive to all the same destinations (shown with blue arrows in the map). The streets that connect these places are too small for the cars, thus traffic is dispersed in a maze of one-way routes leading in all different directions in order to preserve something of the footprint of the city intact for the walking experience of place.

It is by now obvious that all along this route there are places to see and things to explore. Places to sit and great food to taste all varying according to personal choices. The Wikipedia links provided give access to the pertinent facts. However, the route itself and the experience of having moved through the most labyrinthian section of Rome unscathed has its own meaning. It is the experience of human scale in urbanism: a city designed, built and fine-tuned over two millennia to resonate with the human sense of place. With the meaning of place.

The size and shape of each of the urban rooms, as well as the height of the buildings fronting, have been determined to fit within the proportions that are most pleasing to the human eye. To our place experience. The distance that separates each place, typically not more than 5 minutes walking, is also calculated to make it easy to go from one place to the other. Yet, there is just one more thing.

The sequences of piazze that set up—the mental map we create just by walking there—that has been one of the most rewarding discoveries in urbanism. It is the ‘whole greater than the sum of the parts.’ It has taught me something about this place, obviously. But it has taught me something more. Walking in Roma—in and around the Trastevere-Trevi backbone—reveals a new way of understanding cities. The manner in which all these destinations combine, and set up in our imagination, resonates our sense experience in an unexpected way. I have not experienced another city in the western world tuned so carefully to our physical and mental abilities to experience place. The piazze or places, their shape and size, and the distances that separate them, the ways and byways that connect them and their shapes, all fine-tuned over two and a half millennia to resonate with our sense experience, combine to give us a sense of a great whole. A place we can move around in and experience again and again with all the idiosyncrasies that for reasons unknown are so fascinating. Discover it and marvel in it. The gelato is very good, each of the places is so much better.

4 thoughts on “A Walk in Roma”

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