Rome: 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 is really 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 heart of Roma during the day, inadvertently causing an insufferable racket at night. His edict was soon reversed as Roman families regained their night sleep. 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).

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




1 | Trevi Fountain

Wikipedia | Google Images 
Hollywood provides the starting point for our tour of the Eternal City in an Eisenhower era film. One of many clarion calls of an advancing American hegemony, Three Coins in the Fountain (1954) features the Fontana Trevi the endpoint to the Aqua Virgo, one of the 11 aqueducts.  Like so much that is Roman, the name has a specific meaning: ‘Tre Vie’ identifies that ‘three roads’ meet at this one place. The fountain is really a public basin where the rebuilt 19 BCE aqueduct—renamed Acqua Vergine in the Baroque century—could burst its freight of clean, potable water for an entire neighborhood to use, Yet, more than just a splendid fountain it is also a neighborhood place.

Facing the fountain, exit on the street to your left at the south west corner of the square. Head west on this bending street that hides the street end vista from view adding to the sense of mystery and enclosure. The walls are twice as high as the street is wide using proportions 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 open streets that let the sun penetrate to warm the sidewalks and buildings in the cooler northern climates.



NAVONA TO CORSO (Nolli Map, 1748; in use until 1970)

2 | Piazza di Pietra

 Wikipedia | Google Images (engraving: Alo Giovannoli, 1615)

Next, cross the arrow-straight Via del Corso, the cardo of the Roman plan. Looking north along 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 occupying the NE corner is home to Caravaggio’s masterpiece “Vision of St Paul” and art by Rome’s beloved Raffaello.


.One block after crossing the Corso you will come upon an urban room with eleven columns stuck into the walls the buildings that front along the left side. Identified in a small plaque at the opposite corner as Piazza di Pietra, this remarkable place is a small remaining fragment of a much larger, and more important, Temple of Hadrian. Continue for another block or so, in the same direction still heading away from Trevi.



3 | The Pantheon

 Wikipedia | Google Images (drawing by Panini c. 1720)

Our next destination comes as you reach a clearing in the city, 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, of course, is of interest as well.

The great achievement of the Hebrew civilization is a book, The Bible. Their greatest arch rivals and conquerors—the Romans—left us this city and this round temple, among many other scattered bits and pieces, 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 setting supporting high levels of social functioning all year round. In bad weather, you can meet inside. In good, we would meet outside near the fountain. In the evenings the space is flooded with restaurant tables for dining al fresco in the square. We recommend Campo di Fiori and the perimeter of the Navona as the best places to eat. However, stopping here is not a bad option.

The Pantheon was commissioned by Marcus Agrippa during the reign of Augustus as a temple to all the gods, and rebuilt by Hadrian in about 126 CE. The obelisk of Ramses II was erected in 1711 to stand outside the Pantheon. These obelisks 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. The daily free bread for its citizens was made from wheat grown on the banks of the Nile. We hear its echo in the third century Lord’s Prayer: Give us each day our daily bread. Great civilizations borrow from one another.


Bernini’s Elelphant, 1667 (left); Hanno the Elephant, copy of lost drawing by Raffaelo, c. 1514


4 | Piazza della Minerva & Sta. Maria Sopra Minerva

Wikipedia | Google Images 

Stand facing the Pantheon, and take the street that runs along the left side. 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.

Inside the church is an early Michelangelo of the Risen Christ holding the cross and sporting a ‘later addition’ covering the groin area—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.




Exit to the west along the middle of the piazza near the obelisk and the Bernini Fountain of the Four Rivers. On the second street crossing, look right for SM della Pace (above). The round portico alone is worth the trip. It is reminiscent of Borromini’s tricks with marble on display in and around the Navona as well. However, the real jewel is inside.

In Bramante’s design for the courtyard or cloister renaissance urbanism finally takes flight. Observe how columns carry architraves (flat stone lintels, or beams) and arches are ‘punched out’ from a flat wall surface. Alberti had discovered this over at the Colosseo which you can also see for yourself. That single observation put the lie to five hundred years of medieval classicism providing a sure guide for what comes after Alberti, and what came before. The second important fact about this small jewel of a place is that its is created according to simple number ratios. The courtyard is square. The sides are 1.2-times longer than they are high.  Thus, we are in a cubic space measuring 12 x 12 x 10. The columns of the upper level form a square, while the arches on the ground level observe a proportion of 16 x 10, or the ‘golden section’. The proportional relationships correspond to the musical harmonies on the monochord. According to the renaissance way of thinking, what was pleasing to the ears will also be pleasing to the eyes. Here at SM della Pace the place has been ‘tuned’ to resonate with the human sense of place experience. Try, see what happens.



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 in the Current Era in Roma when the canon and the story were still in flux?




12 | Tempietto di Bramante

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 on a hill 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.


Urbino Panel, school of Leon Battista Alberti, c 1460

Leon Batista Alberti had proposed a round colonnaded temple of smallish proportions at the center of his painting of an ideal city square, at about the same time he first published the first treatise on classical architecture to be written since antiquity. The Tempietto renders the theory concrete and palpable even at its 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 once stood here and with a wide-toothy grin 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. As is






The distance covered by the walking tour is about 2 k.m. (shown in a dotted red line in the ‘Walking Map of Roma’ above). It takes 20 minutes to walk from start to finish if you don’t stop along the way. Of course, the point of the walking tour is to stop—and stop often—to take in the sights. The Google map comparison reveals something else that is totally different: Roma was made for walking. Cars don’t make a lot of sense here.

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