Richard Meier has left his mark on Rome with the museum surrounding the Ara Pacis. The first new structure to rise in the city center in seventy years, it is an essay in mediocrity (he had to compromise his plans over the course of the ten-year project). However, the monument it houses—the Emperor Augustus’s first century B.C. altar to peace, with its superb bas-relief carvings—is one of the great wonders of Rome. The contrast between the work of modern man and that of ancient days is remarkable.
1603, Carlo da Maderno
City Secrets is a series of innovative guidebooks whose contributors, from art historians and professors to novelists and architects, choose their personal “city secrets” to share. Read a Q&A with founding editor Robert Kahn. The following is a pick from City Secrets: Rome by Judith Chatfield, an Italian garden historian and author.
A seldom-visited gem is the Borromeo chapel of the Monte di Pietà. Its completely preserved Baroque octagonal design by Maderno features reliefs in marble and stucco depicting charitable virtues and events in the Old Testament. The use of colored marble is spectacular. Inquire for an appointment within the Unicredit bank in the Piazza di Monte di Pietà, which now occupies the former state pawn institution.
The Castel Sant’Angelo, otherwise known as the Mausoleum of Hadrian, was originally constructed as a tomb for the Roman emperor and his family. After years of looting and pillaging by the Goths, the structure was rebuilt in the 14th century to serve as a Papal fortress and residence—Pope Clement VII sought refuge here during the Sack of Rome (1527)—as well as a prison. The Passetto di Borgo, or fortified corridor connecting the castle to St. Peter’s Basilica, was most recently made famous for its appearance in Dan Brown’s 2000 novel (and the 2009 movie) Angels and Demons. Don’t miss the castle’s underground prison, which displays ancient torture devices that are sure to amuse the kids.
Constructed between 70 and 80 AD, the Coliseum is one of the most magnificent ancient structures still-standing in Europe and an iconic symbol of imperial Rome and its breakthrough achievements in architecture and engineering. With seating capacity of close to 50,000, the Coliseum was once used for gladiatorial contests and public spectacles, including executions, re-enactments of famous battles and dramatic theater. It is rumored that roughly 500,000 people and over one million wild animals died during the ancient Coliseum games. Open daily 9:00 am until sunset.
Fontana di Trevi
This massive Baroque fountain, which rises higher than 85 feet, has been featured in many films and draws crowds of tourists. Reportedly some €3,000 worth of coins are tossed into its turquoise water every day (if you come early in the morning, you can observe city workers fishing out the loot).
The city’s finest collection of Baroque art is housed in a beautiful palazzo. The rooms, adorned with frescoes and gilt carvings, are the perfect showcase for Bernini, Raphael, Canova and Caravaggio. Reservations are mandatory.
Even though Rome is small, it’s easy (and fun) to get lost wandering the cobblestoned streets and alleyways. But before you lose yourself completely, head up to the highest of the city’s hills. Go (by taxi) a half hour before sunset to the Fontanone, or the Pauline Fountain. The terraced area in front of this magnificent late-17th-century fountain has one of the most romantic views in the world.
The Capitoline Museums are a group of art and archeological museums located on top of Capitoline Hill in the Piazza del Campidoglio. The architectural plan for the space was conceived by Michelangelo in 1536 and executed over the course of 400 years. The museums contain a number of ancient Roman statues, including of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius.
After a visit to Trastevere’s stunning Villa Farnesina, walk to Rome’s thirty-acre Botanical Gardens, which comprise a lovely Japanese garden as well as several greenhouses.
City Secrets is a series of innovative guidebooks whose contributors, from art historians and professors to novelists and architects, choose their personal “city secrets” to share. Read a Q&A with founding editor Robert Kahn. The following is a pick from City Secrets: Rome by Sloan Rankin, an artist.
If you have seen and done it all and have a bit of time to rove, find Piazza Orologio and walk behind the piazza through any of the streets. Keep looking up at the windows and see if you can find the ones that were painted to look like windows. There are numerous trompe l’oeil painted shutters, and one in particular has a putto peeking out. Get lost and discover it yourself.
Palatine Hill and The Forum
After touring the Colosseum, walk to the Forum and enter Il Palatino (Palatine), the archeological birthplace of Rome, through the “back entrance” on Via Gregorio. Ancient highlights not to miss: Arch of Constantine; Basilica Julia; Cryptoporticus; Domus Augustana; Domus Flavia; House of Livia; Septimus Serverus; Temple of Jupiter; Temple of Saturn and the Via Sacra.
Roughly 2,000 years old, the Pantheon is arguably the most well-preserved ancient building in all of Rome; its columned facade and massive 141 ft dome (whose radius equals its height) have remained intact since its completion by Emperor Hadrian in the 2nd century AD. Apart from its structure, however, the Pantheon has undergone several transformations. First conceived by Emperor Marcus Agrippa in 27 BC, it was originally built as a temple dedicated to all the gods of ancient Rome. In 609 AD, Pope Boniface IV converted into a Christian church and during the Renaissance it was used as a tomb for numerous Roman artists, including Raphael. Today, Romans go to the Pantheon for mass, particularly on holidays and special occasions. Mondays through Saturdays 8:30 am to 7:30 pm, Sundays 9 am to 6 pm.
Tourist hordes and bad restaurants somewhat diminish the visitor’s experience, but seek out Bernini’s incredible Fountain of the Four Rivers, with its obelisk at the center of the piazza. The four rivers represented are the Nile, Danube, Ganges and Plate.
San Luigi dei Francesi
San Luigi dei Francesi, the national French church of Rome, was built during the Renaissance in honor of the Virgin Mary and St. Louis IX, the then King of France. The most famous attraction in the church is Caravaggio’s “St. Matthew” cycle of paintings in the Contarelli Chapel. These three works (The Calling of St. Matthew, The Inspiration of St. Matthew and The Martyrdom of St. Matthew) portray the controversial genre of realism as well as the artist’s innovative use of light and shade that redefined Renaissance painting at the time. Open Fridays through Wednesdays 8:30 am to 12:30 pm and 3:30 to 7 pm, Thursdays 8:30 am to 12:30 pm.
1626-1650, Orazio Grassi, Alessandro Algardi
City Secrets is a series of innovative guidebooks whose contributors, from art historians and professors to novelists and architects, choose their personal “city secrets” to share. Read a Q&A with founding editor Robert Kahn. The following is a pick from City Secrets: Rome by Francesca Santoro L’Hoir, a teacher in the Classics Department at Temple University’s Rome campus.
Stand on the strategically placed discs in the pavement on the nave. On the first star, look at the vaulted ceiling and then at the “cupola” with the beam of light sifting through one window. Then look at the floor while you walk to the star under the cupola. Now look up: the cupola has collapsed. It’s only paint applied to the ceiling—trompe l’oeil. You can do the same thing under the central fresco. If you walk to a corner the entire ceiling tilts. Then go outside to the piazza with its “scenery,” “entrances” and “exits”—it’s a stage setting, and the people in the piazza are the actors.
Santa Maria del Popolo
This glorious church contains two Caravaggio paintings: Crucifixion of Saint Peter and Conversion of Saint Paul. This church is close to the steps that lead up to leafy Pincian Hill.
Santa Maria in Vallicella (Chiesa Nuova)
Between Piazza Navona and Campo dei Fiori, don’t miss this Baroque church, housing Barocci’s stunning painting Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple. Adjacent, Casa dei Filippini includes an oratory designed by Francesco Borromini.
Not far from the Piazza Navona, this is one of the first Roman Renaissance churches. While its exterior is simple—architect Giacomo di Pietrasanta built the façade with marble taken from the Coliseum church contains the Madonna di Loreto (“Madonna of the Pilgrims”), one of Caravaggio’s most important and influential canvases as well as work from other Renaissance artists. Open daily 8 am to noon and 4 p.m. to 7:30 pm.
Vatican City is not just the center of the Catholic Church, it’s a country unto itself. There are dozens of museums, galleries and, of course, the definitive church, St. Peter’s Basilica, on its 109 acres. You will need appointments to visit many areas, including St. Peter’s Crypt and the mosaic workshop. The two-hour guided tours of the Vatican Museums and the Sistine Chapel include the tapestry and antiquity galleries as well as the Raphael Rooms; the guides are widely knowledgeable, so it is worth hiring one to make the most of your visit (see Indagare Intelligence). There is also a two-hour tour of the Vatican Gardens offered a few times a week from March to October (and only on Saturdays from November to February). Getting a chance to visit the Sistine Chapel after hours without the crowds or in the company of a former bodyguard of the pope (see Indagare Intelligence) is an unforgettable experience. Beware: Children are expected to behave and remain quiet inside St. Peter’s. In addition, a dress code for visitors is strictly enforced. Women are advised to wear pants or a skirt below the knee, and men to wear long pants; no short skirts or sleeveless shirts are allowed.
Many of Rome’s treasures are still on display in their original settings: churches. For centuries, the Catholic Church was the biggest arts patron, and viewing the paintings and sculptures as they were intended to be seen is an opportunity not to be missed. Caravaggio’s series of three paintings in San Luigi dei Francesi still elicits oohs and ahs. Bernini’s The Ecstasy of St Teresa, in Santa Maria della Vittoria, is one of his most famous works. (Via XX Settembre 17; open 8:30 a.m.–noon and 3:30 p.m.–6 p.m. Monday to Saturday; 3:30 p.m.–6 p.m. Sunday.)
In Italian, the word “villa” refers to a country estate (not just a single building), so the “Villa Borghese” is actually the entire 148-acre park surrounding the palazzo that houses the Galleria Borghese. It’s a beautiful leafy enclave in the middle of Rome and perfect for a stroll, jog or picnic near one of its many fountains.