We have chopped Rome into Five Zones, and are proceeding to introduce each. We last discussed the Capitoline Zone and its three hills, the Capitoline, Palatine, and Caelian. Now, moving counterclockwise, we’ll take up a zone that is made up of three more of the famous Seven Hills of Rome.
These are three low hills, or ridges, that rise up to the northeast from the low area around the Forum and the Colosseum. Though they are ridges sometimes indistinguishable one from another, they are known as the Quirinal, Viminal, and Esquiline Hills, and they are thickly populated with apartments, restaurants, shops, and sites worth visiting. Regarding ruins of Ancient Rome, the Viminal boasts the ruins of the vast Baths of Diocletian, which house part of the National Museum of Rome. Find it directly in front of the Termini Train station. Another part of this National Museum is in nearby Palazzo Massimo, and a third part is in Palazzo Altemps. A combined ticket gets you into these separate venues and more. Just be sure to check the hours here. I’d start with museum in the baths, so you can appreciate the architecture, and then move on to Palazzo Massimo. Palazzo Altemps is near Piazza Navona, in a different zone, and so is better left for another day.
The Baths of Diocletian were so big that Michelangelo could turn another part of their ruins into the vast Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli e Martiri. This monumental church sits on Piazza Repubblica, which is the eastern end of the Via Nazionale, one of the “Four Roads” I suggested you keep in mind. Built by the New Italy and sitting in the center of the Piazza, the Fountain of the Naiads reflects a turn away from the values of Papal Rome, and its sexual suggestiveness created a scandal at the time of its installation. Another, smaller fraction of the ruins of the Baths of Diocletian was converted into the church of San Bernardo alle Terme. “Terme,” is Italian for “baths,” and the nearby Termini Train Station in Rome got its name because it is near these baths, not because it is a terminal or end point. While waiting for a train, consider hunting for the ruins of the Servian Wall both next to and inside of the Termini Station.
To help you get a good sense of the size of the baths, which were the largest in Rome, find #3 on the Via del Viminale, and you will see the ruins of another part of them. As you might infer from its curved shape, it was once symmetrical to the structure used to make the church of San Bernardo.
Also on the Viminal is the Monument to the Italian troops killed in an imperialist adventure in Dogali, as discussed in Episode 38, and very close by is Rome’s ugliest statue.
So that’s a glance at the Viminal. The Quirinal Hill is also rich with sites. The Piazza del Quirinale offers nice views over the city, an obelisk that used to stand at the entrance to the Mausoleum of Augustus, and monumental statues of Castor, Pollux, and their horses. It is the site of the huge Presidential Palace and frequent political pageantry involving the changing of the guard, marching bands, and the like. The palace once served as the chief residence of popes, and it was from here that Pius IX fled in disguise in November of 1848, soon after the assassination of his Prime Minister. The Palace is currently closed to visitors, but the adjacent building that once served as a stable sometimes has some very good exhibits. Walk the ridge to the east, and you will encounter three churches built by Rome’s two finest Baroque architects, Gian Lorenzo Bernini and Francesco Borromini. First comes Bernini’s Sant’Andrea al Quirinale, then Borromini’s San Carlino alle Quattro Fontane, then Bernini’s Santa Maria della Vittoria.
On the north slope of the Quirinal Ridge is the magnificent Barberini Palace, packed with great art and enjoying a high spot on my list of places to visit. Just downhill from it is Piazza Barberini, with two Bernini statues and the so-called “bone church,” which is perhaps a little more popular than it should be.
In the same general area is Via Rasella, scene of an attack on a Nazi patrol in March of 1944, which has left still-visible scars on the buildings near the intersection with Via Boccaccio. In retaliation, the Nazis executed 335 Roman civilians, ten for each of its soldiers killed in the attack. Of course, many of the civilian victims were Jewish. Since I wanted my young students to see that human beings have for a long time found it difficult to live together in permanent peace and justice, I would try to compound the impact of a stop on Via Rasella by also visiting the Fosse Ardeatine and the former SS Headquarters on Via Tasso. Keep an eye out also for the bronze markers in the pavement in front of the houses of the Jews who were rounded up in Rome and killed in the Holocaust. Related matters are discussed in my very first Mini Pod.
If we move over from the Quirinal to the Esquiline Hill, it too has much to offer. Perhaps its main claim to fame today rests on its several churches with early Christian mosaics, namely, Santa Pudenziana, Santa Prassede, and the Papal Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, or “Mary Major,” which is a vast treasure house of art and architecture. My current impression is that the early mosaics in these churches, like the early art in the Catacombs, help to show some of the ways Christians changed over their long centuries in Rome.
If we walk down the Via Merulana from Mary Major, we at some point leave the Esquiline Hill, though I challenge you say exactly where, and we soon arrive at the Archbasilica of St. John Lateran. Adjacent to it are its famous baptistry, falsely alleged to be the site of Constantine’s baptism, and the Holy Stairs which Saint Helen reportedly brought back from Jerusalem. This was also the location of the Papal Palace for a thousand years: the Vatican only took on this role in the Renaissance, a mere half-millennium ago. Finally, you can here get a good look at the Aurelian Walls and at one of the main gates in them, the Porta San Giovanni, though it has been much enlarged to accommodate the traffic of the modern city.
If you have the time, as I doubt we will, you are now not too far from Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, first built in the time of St. Helen and her son Constantine, and now packed with relics. You are also close to the old SS Headquarters on via Tasso, a good reminder of the Nazi occupation of Rome. Rossellini’s Rome, Open City is the best old film on this subject.
Lower and closer to the base of the ridge that rises to become the Esquiline Hill are the main ruins of Nero’s Golden House and the Basilica of St. Peter in Chains, home to Michelangelo’s funeral monument for Pope Julius II, which we discussed in episodes forty-one and forty-three, and Mini Pod 18.
So how, in practice, is our group likely to visit these three hills? Since our apartment is at the base of the Esquiline, we will start by walking up Via Cavour, one of the Four Streets you now know well. We will stop first at San Pietro in Vincoli. After a good look at both the church and the adjacent cloister, now occupied not by monks but by the College of Engineering of the University of Rome, we will head uphill to the three churches with apse mosaics in this order: Santa Pudenziana; the Papal Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, or “Mary Major”; and Santa Prassede. Mary Major is particularly packed with rich and varied art, so giving it a good look will take some time and energy. Santa Prassede includes the important Chapel of St. Zeno. All three of these churches offer a good opportunity to review the basic elements of a Christian basilica, such as nave, apse, aisles, triumphal arch, clerestory windows, and altar.
Next, we would go higher on the Esquiline and at some point pass imperceptibly to the Viminal and visit the Baths of Diocletian and Palazzo Massimo. We’d also take at least a quick look at the statue of John Paul II, the Obelisk to the fallen at Dogali, Piazza Repubblica, and the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli. Our strength will by now have faded, so a late lunch break is in order about now, and we will have to forego the Lateran Basilica and associated sites. After lunch, I’m hoping for Palazzo Barberini and at least a couple of the churches on the Quirinal. If we finish up at Piazza Quirinale, it’s just a short walk down to see the Trevi Fountain and enter the Campus Martius, which will provide refreshment and offer us a preview of our busy next day.