In recent podcasts I’ve designated the Wedding Cake as Rome’s “Fixed Point,” and divided the city into five zones that surround it. Then I made a brief inventory of major sites in each zone and indicated which ones are closer together and might be visited with minimal walking time between them. Adding more spots to visit in each zone would be easy, especially in the Campus Martius, but it’s even more important to show that these five zones are not the whole story, for there is much more to Rome. In the language of Mini Pod 24, I’ll now turn to “expansion” rather than “infill.” So, today we’ll stay in Rome but go outside of its center. In our next and last pod in this series, we’ll look at some possible daytrips that are outside of Rome altogether.
The main tourist sites not yet included in my zones of Rome, lie mostly to the south, east, and north of the places we’ve covered, loosely following the Aurelian Walls. Two exceptions pertaining to Mussolini are the Foro Italico, a short tram ride north from Piazza del Popolo, and the EUR district, which is reachable by three stops on the Metro B Line. Both are worth a visit, if you are in Rome a little longer than we are. Another exception, which most would not consider a tourist site but which my students enjoyed visiting, is the Grand Mosque of Rome, just a couple of stops on a commuter train line running north out of Piazza del Popolo. Though Italy’s Moslem population is much smaller than that of France, it is growing, and I read that this is the largest mosque in Europe.
The more peripheral sites that tourists enjoy fall into an arc of two sections, one to the southeast of our Fixed Point, the other to its northeast.
Starting to the south of our Five Core Zones, we find the Aventine Hill. Of the famous seven hills of Rome, I put three in the Capitoline Zone and three in the zone I called “three more hills.” This leaves unmentioned just one of original seven hills of Rome, the Aventine, which stands off by itself on the south side of the Forum, Palatine, and Circus Maximus. In contrast to the Quirinal, Viminal, and Esquiline, its borders are well delineated, and it supports a quiet residential neighborhood, devoid of cafés and restaurants. Its main sites are as follow: 1) the most classic of all the early Roman basilicas, Santa Sabina; 2) the very pleasant Garden of the Orange Trees, 3) a keyhole popular among tourists, and 4) the Benedictine Abbey of San Anselmo, which—surprisingly—was not built until after the popes lost power in Rome in 1870. Of these, Santa Sabina stands out for its fidelity to ancient architectural patterns and for its carved wooden door panels, which may date as far back as the fifth century. Interestingly, its visible antiquity is partly owing to restorations carried out by one of Mussolini’s main architects, Antonio Munoz. The basilica and its convent are of interest also because they served as a center for the Dominicans and were the residence of Saints Dominic and Thomas Aquinas when they stayed in Rome.
At the northern base of the Aventine, on the Tiber, is a cluster of sites easily added to a visit to the Aventine. The area is called the Forum Boarium, which means “cattle market,” but it is now the location of two temples from Rome’s Republican Period, the round Temple of Hercules Victor and the Temple of Portunus. The relatively good condition of these temples is owing to their conversion into Christian churches long centuries ago. Only during Mussolini’s regime were they deconsecrated and returned as much as possible to their original condition. Here also is the Basilica of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, and just across the street from the Temple of Portunus is the Casa dei Crescenzi, which has a curious look and has had a fascinating history.
So, moving now still further south, always on the left bank of the Tiber, we find a neighborhood called Testaccio, which means “ugly head” or “nasty mound,” and refers to a hill made up of smashed pottery. In the form of amphoras, the pottery transported olive oil and other goods in the time of Ancient Rome, and, once the containers were unloaded and had done their job, they got tossed here, which was near Rome’s port on the Tiber. It’s a good-sized hill, considering its origin, and archeologists still study its composition.
The surrounding neighborhood has a great market and some very characteristic restaurants. The other main tourist attractions of the general area are to the east of the mound. We first encounter the Cemetery for non-Catholics, where English poets John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley are buried, as is Antonio Gramsci, the Italian theoretician who breathed fresh life into Marxism by revising it. Then we reach the Pyramid of Caius Cestius, and then great gates in the Aurelian Walls, the Porta San Paolo. Nearby is a park dedicated to those who resisted the Nazi occupation of Rome in September 1943, which includes a tribute to the USA and other nations that helped end Fascism in Italy. Just outside Porta San Paolo is a train station with train lines that run to Ostia Antica, the ancient port of Rome, and to Ostia, the beach of Rome. This station is also reachable by a metro stop on the B line. This name of this gate, the Gate of St. Paul, is a reminder that the Papal Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls is reached by exiting this gate. You can take a long walk or ride the Metro mere two stops to get there.
The combined train and metro station is also worth a quick look. It was built with a visit to Rome by Adolph Hitler in mind, and still shows panels that are noticeable fascist in character. The road out front was then named Via A. Hitler, but it now refers to those of his victims killed at the Fosse Ardeatine.
Further up the walls is San Saba, a good example of a fortified monastery, now in a pleasant neighborhood, and further still are the vast Baths of Caracalla. All this makes for a manageable walk, at least if you like walking in Rome. Judging at least by the usual tourist preferences, the Baths of Caracalla and the Forum Boarium are the most important destinations I’ve mentioned so far today. When it comes to baths, I’d visit those of Diocletian first, for they have the advantage of being partly a museum filled with precious finds.
Here the walls here bulge sharply to the east, and it takes a lot of steps to follow them. The reward is a little museum dedicated to the Aurelian Walls; it’s located at the gate of San Sebastiano. Remarkably, it’s free. The Porta San Sebastiano also marks the beginning of the Via Appia Antica, the Queen of Roads, and the most famous road in the history of Ancient Rome. Following it outside of the walls would lead to several of Rome’s more famous catacombs, including the Catacombs of San Sebastanio. It also heads to the Fosse Ardeatine, but I doubt you would want to do this on foot. I’m sure our group will forego this extra hike.
Imagining that we are back at the Baths of Caracalla, we would next arrive at a stretch of familiar territory, first the Caelian Hill, then San Giovanni in Laterano, and then Santa Croce in Gerusalleme. We will pass over this and consider the second section of Rome’s second outer arc, the one to the east and north of our fixed point. One cluster of sites on this arc includes the Basilica of San Lorenzo outside the Walls, which is between the large and historic Verano Cemetery and the University of Rome, historically called, “La Sapienza” and showing many buildings built under Mussolini. The Père Lachaise Cemetery is famous in Paris, but Rome’s Campo Verano is almost twice as large and marks a place of burial that goes back to the early Christian period, so perhaps this begins to explain why I once took the time to visit it.
Further north is a second cluster, which includes the Basilica and Catacombs of Sant’Agnese, the ruins of a larger and older basilica dedicated to Sant’Agnese, and the church of Santa Costanza, which is generally said to have been built by the Emperor Constantine for his daughter, Constantia or Costanza, though the point is contested.
I enjoy visiting both of these clusters outside the walls of Rome, but they do take a little extra time to get to.
What is absolutely worth visiting on this outer arc north and east of the Campus Martius is the Galleria Borghese. I discussed it in episodes twenty-five, twenty-eight, and thirty-one, and I’m not yet done with it. It is one of the finest of Rome’s art galleries, and it let’s you see quickly how palatial are the grandest of Rome’s palaces. It’s also closer in and easier to reach than the other sites on the outer arc.
My priorities for the sites mentioned in this Mini Pod, if forced to choose, would be like this. First by far comes the Galleria Borghese, then Santa Sabina on the Aventine and the Forum Boarium beneath it. Finally, time permitting, I’d head for Sant’Agnese and Santa Costanza. Although a little further out, they can be reached by a bus that runs out the Via Nomentana. And for dinner, I’d head for Testaccio and its pile of pottery.
We have now introduced Rome in five key zones and in an arc of sites to the southeast and northeast of the city center. It is true that we have covered a lot of ground in a very short span, but this overview should help you get to know the layout of the city a little better, should help you group your visits better, so you waste less time getting from one point to another, and should help you take to heart the need to make sure the church or museum you want to visit is actually open when you expect to visit it. You would be right to say I have not answered all questions here, but the web page associated with this podcast has dozens of links that should help you out.