An off-the-beaten track tour.
Rome has been built on seven hills. Its most famous are the Capitoline Hill, the focus of political power for centuries and situated just behind the monument to Vittorio Emmanuele II and home to the Campodoglio and the Capitoline Museum, and the Palatine Hill, where Romulus, after having broken with his brother, established Rome in 753BC.
Remus established himself on another of the seven hills: the Aventine Hill. The Hill is circumscribed by Via Marmorata on one side and the via del Circo Massimo on the other, then by the viale Aventino and the Lungotevere Aventino on the other sides. It spills a bit from these boundaries but not by much—it’s only a few square kilometers.
During the height of the Empire, the Aventine was were all the rich Roman who were not part of the reigning families (who lived on the Palatine Hill) lived. The quarter was so rich that it was the one that was first looted by Alaric’s Goths in 410AD. The Aventino is now a quiet, affluent, exclusive residential quarter, where luxurious houses sit side-by-side with ancient structures.
We start from the church Santa Maria in Cosmedin (mostly famous for the Bocca della Verità), going up the hill along the Via del Circo Massimo (by way of via della Grecca) up to the Piazzale Ugo La Malfa where the patriot Giuseppe Mazzini’s monument sits. The sculptures on three sides of the monument are quite impressive and allegorize Mazzini’s exploits. Along the way there are incredible views of the back of the Palatine Hills and Augustus’s House. Under the trees on a bench, three nuns in full black habit sit, talk and eat McDonald sandwiches.
To the right of the monument we climbed the via di Valle Murcia with Rome’s communal rose garden, where they grow fairly rare roses. Already we feel we’re leaving the touristy bustle of the centro. The sounds are more muted
We continue on the via San Sabina until we arrive at the Parco Savello, or the Orange Garden (because of the orange trees planted there), right beside San Sabina church. The parc is an oasis of tranquillity and freshness with its white gravel walks and parasol pines. Kids from the nearby kindergarten school come play here during recess under the parents’ watchful eyes. At the back, a marble terrace overlooks the city. The view is magnificent: you can see the Tevere, the dome of St Peter’s, Vittorio Emmanuele’s monument, the church of Santa Maria in Trastevere and the Gianicolo (Janiculum Hill). We sit there for a while, watching children run and play soccer and wash peaches larger than their hands in the running water of the fountain. There are maybe ten tourists here; mostly it’s people living their day-to-day lives. They ignore us, as if, by having entered there, we were part of the life. And when a tour comes in, it’s a small one led by a priest. We check the time; they’re obviously waiting for the San Sabina church to open at 3pm. Only a few minutes left. Most scatter or sit on the granite benches, quietly. It is so quiet, here, it’s impossible to hear city traffic.
Going out of the garden onto the piazza Pietro d’Illiria, we find a fountain made out of a basin and a stone face that comes from Roman baths.
In the portico before the entrance stands the wonderful statue of Santa Rosa da Lima, illuminated by the soft light coming from side windows.
We enter San Sabina church from a small wooden door into near total silence. This is a very different church than we’ve seen so far, less adorned but no less impressive. The main nave separates two smaller ones by twenty-four Corinthian columns that sustain arches, above which runs a multicoloured marble frieze dating from Roman times.
In the center of the marble floor in the main nave is a funerary plaque, a rare example of mosaic work dating from the 14th century, of Muňoz de Zamora, Master General of the Dominicans.
In the left nave, a chapel dedicated to Saint Catherine of Siena. Above the altar, which is illuminated by a window from the side, hangs a picture from G. B. Salvi (Sassoferrato) from the 17th century showing the Virgin with Saint Dominic (mu patron saint) and Saint Catherine of Siena. Close to the entrance there is a small column with a roman weight, as well as a small chapel, which signals the spot where Saint Dominic used to pray.
Most of the church is empty, its chairs for service stowed on the sides, and it gives this church a feeling of grandeur. The many windows near the ceiling flood the church with light but it is soft and seemed to be absorbed by the walls and floor rather than being reflected by them.
Coming out of the church, we turn right again on via San Sabina to arrive at Piazza San Alessio (about 100 steps) where the church of the same name sits and which houses the relics from San Alessio (Saint Alexis) and San Bonifacio (Saint Boniface).
San Sabina’s exterior was all brick and offered its side to the street. San Alessio offers its facade through an wrought iron gate. The church is closed for lunch and will re-open at three-thirty. We wait, and finally we can go in. The portico with four arches leads to a courtyard where a small fountain covered in ivy bubbles happily. The facade is of neo-renaissance style while the campanile from the 13th century rises to the sky.
The interior has three naves. The largest divides the church with Corinthian pillars. The coffered ceiling is 19th century and mainly trompe-l’oeil. The colours are surprising: there are a lot of blues and pinks, colours we haven’t seen in that way before. The church is obviously used often for marriages—the courtyard is full of confetti and the prie-dieux are draped with blue velvet, as if they were waiting for potential newlywed.
The floor of the church is obviously much older than the ceiling with similar marble mosaics in green, white, and deep red.
The superb altar cupola is held by four porphyry columns. At the back of the left nave, through a wrought iron door, we can see a charming garden with a view of the dome of St Peter’s.
Even though the church is much fancier than the first one, San Sabina, there’s not the same feeling of almost being able to touch the divine that we had before. Maybe it’s the colours, or maybe it’s because of the way the church is used. There has been too much joy, too much elation, too much hope and excitement with all those weddings going on and the church has absorbed that energy. Then again, it may only be because the church is much younger, and we couldn’t feel the weight of time in the same way we did at San Sabina.
Outside the church we turn right again and walk about 100 paces to the Piazza dei Cavalieri di Malta (Knights of Malta), which has, on one side, a wall carved with the order’s emblems and the other the entrance portal to the Priory of Malta. The portal has the famous “keyhole,” through which you can see St Peter’s dome framed by garden hedges. The view is very surprising and delightful. The dark green hedges, through which is filtered sunlight, seem to funnel the eye to the end where the luminous cupola of St Peter’s shines like a diamond.
Behind the piazza’s wall is San Anselmo’s church, which can be reached by ambling a short walk. The brick church is quite recent. You can reach the church by crossing a cortile where a statue of Saint Anselm stands in front of a small fountain and a garden. St Anselm eventually became the archbishop of Canterbury. Unfortunately, we were not able to visit the church due to a conference being held inside.
We continue to the right on the via di Porta Lavernale, past the piazza di Tiempo di Diana (no temple there, only a parking lot) to the piazza San Prisca and the church of the same name. This is a fairly long walk through very expensive houses. It’s very quiet here; the only sounds are the rare car passing through or kids playing at recess. It’s difficult to imagine that the Porta San Paolo and Piramide are only a few streets below.
San Prisca’s church is locked tight so we continue to go down the hill, crossing the Piazza Albania (very busy) to climb the via San Saba to reach its eponymous church, which was originally a monastery, one of the oldest in Italy, dating from 768AD. We can still see inside a portion of the original monastery with parts of the frescoes still on the walls.
To get to the church we must climb several steps then pass under a covered arch, dating from the 13th century. The facade has six columns that supports a gallery, which forms a portico leading to the interior of the church.
The inside is simple and austere and, once again, we are struck with reverence and barely dare speak in whispers. At the back, behind the altar, three frescoes. The art is more naive than what we’ve seen so far. At the top, the larger one depicts Christ with Saint Andrew (San Andrea) and Saint Saba. In the center, the Pascal Lamb, flanked with a procession of lambs; below, the Virgin Mary with the Child and the twelve apostle. The dome overhanging the altar is quite ugly and appears to be made of cement. The ceiling is surprisingly made of wooden beams, blackened with age.
While we were visiting, several men in suits carrying suitcases—obviously coming from work—came in separately to pray. It is obvious that San Saba calls for contemplation and devotion.
Coming out of the church, we turn left and follow via San Saba around the church to arrive at the Piazza Lorenzo Bernini. Rare two-story duplexes circle the piazza. Each duplex is separated by a small garden. It is a complex of houses that was built between 1906 and 1923 and is a fine example of urbanization of the times. The piazza has a wonderful park in its centre with great trees that provide a lot of shade. It’s cool here and it’s nice to sit on a park bench and rest our feet.
We go back down via San Saba to piazza Aventia, where we stop for espresso. Once fortified, we decide to walk home (the Ponte Testaccio is very close) although we could have taken a bus at piazza Aventina or a bus or metro at Piramide, which was about five minutes walk from where we were.
We left the apartment at 14:00 and came back at 18:00, but since we took our time and sat down several times, we found the tour quite manageable. All told, it’s less than 5 kilometres, and it was more than worth it. Even discounting the churches, which were completely different—and more striking in their own way—than the grandiose ones we’d seen before, we were able to see another slice of Roman life, this one affluent and luxurious. Very posh and upper-class. I must confess, I was envious.