A Walk in Roma

1. Trevi Fountain

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 convenience for local use in a splendid fountain that dates to the Baroque century. Rome was home to 1 million inhabitants almost 2000 years ahead of the next western metropolis to reach that number, London 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 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.

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

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

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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 is interesting as well.
The Hebrew civilization’s great achievement is a book, The Bible. Their great arch rivals, 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 urban room 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. However, 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.

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4. Piazza della Minerva & Sta. Maria Sopra Minerva

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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. This small urban room is adorned by an impish elephant balancing an obelisk on its back. One of Bernini’s most underrated and witty creations it is a pagan tribute to rebirth. The elephant swallows seeds into his belly, where they are fertilized by the mythical shaft of light focused by the obelisk. Inside the church is an early Michelangelo of the Risen Christ holding the cross and sporting a later addition covering the genitalia—pessimo stile!.
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5. Piazza Navona

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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.
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6. Campo dei Fiori

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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.
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7. Palazzo and Piazza Farnese (c. 1500)

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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.

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8. The Mascherone (1626)

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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.

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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.

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10. Trastevere

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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.

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11. Sta. Maria in Trastevere

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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. Might it be some other tradition that is being depicted here?

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12. Tempietto

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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. 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 studied Bramante’s little masterpiece.

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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.

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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). Of course, the point is to stop and take in the sights. So this walk can take a half day, a full day, or even longer. However, by the time you get to know the route you will have strung together a series of squares or urban rooms, each one unique and unforgettable, that will become mental images or nodes in your mental map of the Eternal City. From this spine you can connect any number of other destinations.

For example, our detour to see Bernini’s Elephant with Obelisk is an example of the functioning of the urban spine as an organizing principle in cities or urban places. A second example would be finding Sta. Maria della Pace to see 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 round portico of S. M. della Pace. The courtyard or cloister is through the main doors to the left.

As this example shows, we experience the ordering of urban space in Roma as the natural extension of our sense perception and orientational abilities.

I met a fellow traveler at the piazza of the Pantheon one night. I had map, sketchbook and camera in my hands, she 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 Rome.

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 on 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 individual or group.

It is by now obvious that all along this route there are places to see and things to explore. These vary according to the traveller’s own interest and taste. The Wikipedia links provided can be used to get some ideas. However, the route itself and the experience of having moved through the most labyrinthian section of Rome unscathed has its own intrinsic 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 experience 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 eye. The distance that separates each place, typically not more than 5 minutes walking, is also calculated to make it easy to go from one to the other. Walking in Roma—provided you stay near the Trastevere-Trevi backbone—is a pleasure rather than a challenge. Finally, the manner in which all these destinations combine, and set up in relation to the rest of the city, works to engage our innate way finding abilities. I have not experienced another place in the western world that resonates so perfectly with our physical and mental abilities to experience place.

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