Having a big picture in mind helps you find your way around Rome. I offer one here consisting of a Fixed Point, Four Roads, and Five Zones.

Show Notes

I mentioned earlier that I was about to “Get Ready for Rome” in a more immediate and practical sense, for—COVID and the European Union permitting—I’m headed to Italy with some family members in about ten days. I’ll be putting aside for a while my usual theme of the dialogue and disagreements among the monuments and art of Classical, Christian, and Modern Rome, which I pursue in search of the identity of what we call the West or Western Civilization. Instead, I’ll be busy planning my own trip, and I’ll publish my thoughts on how best to do this in short Mini Pods on Thursdays.

So here is the first such practical pod. I call it, “Navigating Rome,” and my goal is to present a simplified picture of the layout of the city to help us get around. Then, in coming weeks, I’ll populate this mental map with many of the most visited sites of the city and explain how I’m planning to budget my time for my upcoming visit. For now, let’s think about the general layout of Rome.

Most of you are by now experts in navigating with your cell phones, and I remind you that I’ve got an interactive map of Rome on my website, and this map has pins marking the sites for which I have published podcasts. Click the pin, and you’ll be taken to the podcast. It’s easy to find the map at Get Ready for Rome dot Com: just click “Map.” I think you will find it less cluttered than Google Maps.

Even if armed with a cell phone, you will enjoy Rome more if you have a bird’s eye view of the city in mind. This will take you a step closer to the pleasure of wandering from one landmark in the general direction of the next, without keeping your head down and staring at a phone or a map. It will also help you get to know how the sites are located in relation to one another.

So here is an overview of Rome in four parts. The first is “A Fixed Point.” The second is “Four Streets.” The third is “Five Zones.” The fourth is “Complications.”

The Fixed Point is the Capitoline Hill or the vast monument to modern Italy that dominates it. I refer to the Vittoriano, often called the Wedding Cake. The Capitoline is also just above Piazza Venezia. Think of all this as a Fixed Point, and understand all other sites around the city in relation to it. For simplicity, I’ll just call the Fixed Point “the Wedding Cake.”

Four important streets have their starting point at or very near our Fixed Point, so they can be likened to the rays emerging from it. It will help if you learn them.

The four streets are:

Via del Corso: it runs due north from the Wedding Cake to Piazza del Popolo.

Via Vittorio Emanuele II: it runs from the Wedding Cake to the Vatican and St. Peter’s

Via Nazionale: it runs from the Wedding Cake to the Termini Train Station

Via Cavour: it runs from 300 yards behind the Wedding Cake, toward the Colosseum, to the Termini Train Station

Rome is much more complicated than this, but here’s our start: four streets. Via del Corso, Via Vittorio Emmanuele, Via Nazionale, and Via Cavour.

If you’ve been listening to my podcasts, you know that three of these four streets were named in Rome’s modern period, after 1870. Vittorio Emmanuele was Italy’s first king. Cavour was its first Prime Minister. And via Nazionale proclaims the birth of the Italian nation. These three streets were also built after 1870. By Roman standards, they are new, and this is why they are fairly straight.

The Via del Corso, on the other hand, follows the path of the very ancient Via Flaminia, which after leaving Rome’s northern gate stretched across the peninsula to the Adriatic Sea.

Now that you know four key streets, here are “Five Zones.” A river divides them into two groups. The left bank of a river is the one that is on your left when you are moving downstream. The larger three of our Five Zones are on the left or eastern bank of the Tiber, the side occupied by Ancient Rome. I call them the Capitoline Zone, the Three Hills, and the Campus Martius. The smaller two zones are on the right or western bank. These are the Vatican Zone and Trastevere.

Be careful when using this river, the Tiber, to navigate the city because it is not straight. While flowing through Rome, it has two major bends, which give it the shape, roughly, of a top-heavy “S.” Arriving from the north, the Tiber first bends to the west, creating a big bulge on its eastern or left bank. This big bulge is the Campus Martius, our third zone. We mentioned it many pods ago when speaking of the Ara Pacis Augustae and the Mausoleum of Augustus. Below this turn to the west, the Tiber bends back to the east, creating a bulge on its right bank, though a smaller one. This bulge is Trastevere. It is immediately west of Rome’s one island, Tiber Island.

Here is a brief introduction to the Five zones. I’ll move in a counterclockwise direction, starting from the southeastern quadrant, the Capitoline Zone.

The Capitoline Zone includes the Forum Romanum, the Colosseum, the Imperial Forums, the Circus Maximus, and three of Rome’s Seven Hills, the Capitoline, the Palatine, and the Caelian.  It also includes the Wedding Cake and the beginning points of the Four Roads I mentioned above. This zone is not the only place to find the ruins of Ancient Pagan Rome, but it has the largest concentration of ancient ruins.

Moving East and North, my second zone is The Three Hills, namely, the Quirinal, Viminal, and Esquiline. You won’t really see them, as you do the Capitoline and the Palatine, and it is very difficult to tell where their borders are, but if you walk up the Via Cavour, you will know you are going up, and it’s the Esquiline you are climbing. And when you walk up the street called Venti Quattro Maggio or Via dei Serpenti, you are climbing the Quirinal.  These ridges meet on what gets called the Viminal Hill, whose main landmarks are the Termini Train Station and Piazza Repubblica.

Moving north from our Fixed Point, the Wedding Cake, our third zone is The Campus Martius. It is the large flat zone of central Rome, which is centered on Piazza Navona. The Via del Corso, one of our “Four Roads,” runs right through the middle of it. It includes a mix of both ancient monuments, of which the Pantheon is the most famous, and Christian churches, such as Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, Sant’Agnese in Agone, and others, including the Pantheon itself, which became a church 14 centuries ago. It also includes the Trevi Fountain, the Campo de’Fiori, the Mausoleum of Augustus, and the Ara Pacis. Its northern limit is Piazza del Popolo.

Moving counterclockwise from the Campus Martius, we cross to the west bank of the Tiber to reach The Vatican Zone, which includes the best-known, largest, and most opulent Catholic Church in the world, St. Peter’s Basilica. It also includes the Vatican Museums and the residence and offices of the Pope. Nearby is Castel Sant’Angelo, which is the main remaining monument of the Ancient Romans in this area. Like the Pantheon, Castel Sant’Angelo was built by the Emperor Hadrian and was an important monument for the Ancient Pagans but was later altered and preserved by the Church for rather different purposes.

Moving south, and staying on the west or right bank of the Tiber, we soon encounter The Zone of Trastevere.  Trastevere means “across the Tiber,” which is where this zone is when considered from the perspective of Rome proper. Trastevere was outside of the religious boundaries of Ancient Rome, and I can’t think of impressive ancient ruins in this area, but Christian Romans built beautiful churches in this part of the city. Like the Campus Martius, it is a zone favored by tourists for its charming streets and good restaurants. On opposite sides of Trastevere are the Janiculum Hill, which is a favored site for monuments to Garibaldi and the Risorgimento, and Tiber Island, which made it possible for the Ancient Romans to bridge the Tiber with two short bridges rather than with one long one.

That’s it! I’ve been able to chop Rome into only Five zones only by making the zones rather large and by excluding sites that deserve attention. The Romans themselves divided their city into fourteen “Rioni” or districts, and their approach allows for more accuracy and completeness than mine does. But fourteen is a lot to swallow in just one gulp, so I’ve started slowly.

To improve on this simple beginning, we turn to part four of my story for today. I call it “Complications.” To address these complications, we need “Infill” and “Expansion.” By “Infill,” I refer to our need to add more points of interest in each of the Five zones, especially in the Campus Martius.

By “Expansion,” I acknowledge that not all important sites are included in my Five Core Zones; others are found especially in an arc sweeping from south to north on the eastern side of the city’s core. The first key area to add in an expanded look at Rome would be the so-far unmentioned seventh hill of Rome, the Aventine. I’ve put the Capitoline, Palatine, and Caelian in the Capitoline Zone and then viewed the Quirinal, Viminal, and Esquiline as ridges that radiate out from this zone to the northeast. The Aventine stands alone to the south of the Capitoline Zone. I’ll add other areas outside my Core Five Zones in a later podcast.

This just is a start, and more will become clear as these pods unfold and as you walk the city with open eyes. As for what is in these first Five zones, and what sites you might like to visit, that’s our challenge for next week.

Share this podcase episode