Our last three Mini Pods have introduced some of main things to see in the three largest of the Five Zones into which I’ve divided Rome. These are the Capitoline Zone, the Zone of the Three Hills, and the Campus Martius. Today, still moving counterclockwise, we cross the Tiber and visit the two zones on the right bank, those of the Vatican and of Trastevere.
In its general character, the Vatican Zone contrasts sharply with the Campus Martius. The Campus Martius is sprawling, and its main sites are scattered among apartments, restaurants, shops of all kinds; and its warren of short, bending streets is made for getting lost. In the Vatican Zone, the main sites are surrounded by walls, isolated from the life of the neighborhoods nearby, and navigation is rarely a problem. First, Vatican City is a walled city: on the inside are the Vatican Museums, the Vatican Gardens, the Vatican Necropolis, and the Basilica of St. Peter. The second most important site in this zone is also surrounded by walls; I mean Castel St. Angelo. Exceptions to this rule are Piazza Cavour, the Palace of Justice, and the Street of Reconciliation, but these are not sites of the same stature as the ones first mentioned.
Whereas the Campus Martius has thirty or forty very different sites at which to pause, the main sites of the Vatican are densely grouped together in a few packages. These packages are remarkably rich—just think of the Vatican Museums, which include the Sistine Chapel, the Raphael Rooms, several rooms of classical sculpture, and much more—but there is no wandering through distinct neighborhoods to visit them, as there is in the Campus Martius. Put differently, a large fraction of the Vatican Zone is inside of one big church and two museums; most of the Campus Martius is filled with busy streets and neighborhoods, interspersed with beautiful churches, public architecture, and a few museums.
It might sound, then, as though it would be easy to visit the sites of the Vatican Zone in a day, but it is not. The vast basilica has a dome and a crypt, and between the two are at least eleven chapels, twenty-five altars, fifty statues, and other works of art. We have so far devoted five Episodes to it, numbers nine, twelve, fifteen, nineteen, and twenty-two, and there are more to come. The Vatican Museums are even more filled with beautiful works of art and reminders of different ways of conceiving the world we live in. Thick books have been written on the Sistine Chapel and Raphael Rooms, and a great German thinker of the 18th century devoted an entire book to one of the Vatican’s statues, The Laocoön. I’ve so far published five episodes based on the Museums, especially on the Raphael Rooms, numbers forty, forty-four, forty-five, forty-six, and forty-seven, and these are supported by three other Mini Pods twenty, twenty-one, twenty-two, and twenty-three. If you are listening and wonder why I bother to mention these numbers, I do so for those who are using my website, where each number is also a hotlink to an Episode or Mini Pod.
The Castel Sant’Angelo is outside the walls of the Vatican, but it is connected to them by a fortified passageway called the Passetto di Borgo. The castle began as a tomb but was drafted into service as a fort during the Gothic Wars of the sixth century. Later, it was taken over by the papacy and powerful papal families, with its most dramatic military service coming during the Sack of Rome in 1527, a brutal event often taken to signal the end of the Renaissance in Rome. Forts built to defend sometimes fall into the hands of attackers, and then they can be used against those who built them in the first place, as for example when Napoleon’s troops used the Castel Sant’Angelo to help them hold and loot Rome. This rich and complicated history makes me eager to return to Castel Sant’Angelo, as does the architecture of the tomb-turned-fort, and the beautiful views one can enjoy from its top level.
When I succeeded in marching my students through the sites of the Vatican Zone in a single day, we did it by going first to Castel Sant’Angelo, then to the Vatican Museums, and finally to the Basilica, and I think this may still be possible. The official websites for both the Castle, which is closed Monday, and the Museums indicate that they accept reservations and sell ticket on line: this promises to speed things up. If you want to add the Vatican Necropolis, reservations must be made far in advance. It helps to know that there is a good cafeteria inside the Vatican Museums, located near and below the Pinocoteca, that is, the gallery of paintings, so a lunch break is possible inside the museum.
Our Fifth and last Zone of Rome is Trastevere, which is south of the Vatican Zone. You can reach it from our Fixed Point, the Wedding Cake, by starting down one of Mussolini’s roads, the Via del Teatro Marcello, passing by the Portico of Octavia and crossing the bridges that link Tiber Island to the opposed banks of the river. This route also offers a good chance to visit the Jewish Ghetto, where Jews were constrained to live from time of the Counterreformation until the popes lost the power to rule Rome. Only then was the large synagogue built that stands near the approach to Tiber Island.
Trastevere is like the Campus Martius in being a pleasant part of Rome in which to wander. It has a high density of cafés and restaurants, and even though it is very popular with tourists and has several campuses of American universities, it still feels very Italian. If you want to know what I mean by this, watch the film “Mid-August Lunch,” which is set in Trastevere.
Trastevere is the only one of my five zones that you can see in a day, but the day becomes a longer one if you wish, as I do, also to walk up the Janiculum Hill on the back side of Trastevere. On the way up, you can visit the Tempietto di Bramante, which is in a courtyard adjacent to the church of San Pietro in Montorio. The Tempietto marked the new renaissance taste in domes and served as a sort of model for the dome Bramante proposed for St. Peter’s. From here the Via Garibaldi will take us to the battlefield where Garibaldi resisted the French troops that came to put Pope Pius IX back in power in 1849. Along the way, we encounter Mussolini’s monument to those who fought with Garibaldi and soon thereafter the large fountain built by Pope Paul V and favored as a backdrop for wedding pictures. At the top of the hill are the statues and other monuments we discussed in episodes thirteen, sixteen, twenty, and thirty-five. There is also a little museum dedicated to Garibaldi in the gate of San Pancrazio and a pleasant bar across the street.
Back in Trastevere proper, there are not that many sites sought out by tourists, but they are spread out, so a little wandering is required. Enthusiasts of Raphael and Renaissance frescos will go first to the Villa Farnesina, in the northern part of Trastevere. Across the street is the Galleria Corsini, but it is currently closed.
A second stop would be in the heart of Trastevere, the Piazza and Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere, a beautiful church with rich mosaics, some designed by the much-admired Pietro Cavallini, and excellent examples of columns taken from former ancient structures. Called “spoglia,” or “spoils,” the reused parts of Ancient Rome are visible in many or most of the churches of Christian Rome.
My impression is that this church has a more active congregation than many others in Rome, especially because of an affiliated organization called the Community of San Egidio: perhaps it offers evidence that Modern Rome is not quite as thoroughly secularized as it often appears to be.
Another church worth visiting is San Crisogono, where—unless things have changed in the last few years—the sacristan will let you down into the crypt for a small tip. The two remaining churches of special interest will take you further south. They are Santa Cecilia and San Francesco a Ripa. The former has some early frescos Pietro Cavallini that you must pay to see, and the latter has one of Bernini’s statues that is either pious, erotic, or both.
If you are pressed for time and need to cut a day, one way to do it is to visit Santa Maria Trastevere in route to dinner in the area, for the church is open until 830, and wander Trastevere before and after dinner. Then, alas, you leave the rest of Trastevere and the Janiculum for another time. Unfortunately, Santa Cecilia closes at 600, so it is harder to visit in this way.