Across the Tiber
St Peter’s and the Trastevere quarter
An exploration of the area west of the Tiber, between St Peter’s and the Trastevere quarter. For a while you’re detached from the main tourist stream as you cross the Gianicolo (Janiculum) Hill and marvel at the panorama of Rome spread below.
Start: St Peter’s – see map. Begin on the roof of St Peter’s basilica and get to it by climbing the stairs or taking the lift/elevator on the right inside the central nave. Do this early (the basilica opens at 7 am) and from the great terraces round the dome you will see Rome awaken. Up there you can drink coffee, shop for souvenirs and use the WCs. Climb higher to the gallery and look down inside the dome. People and huge statues on the floor of the nave, more than 100 m down, are pigmies. No statistics give such a vivid idea of the tremendous scale on which this building was conceived and realized. If a choir is singing below the sounds are funnelled up in an overwhelming diapason of harmony.
You can even climb a narrow stair to the lantern balcony under the orb and cross, which put the finishing touches to the labours of Bramante and Michelangelo in 1589 and completed 1,200 years of St Peter’s history. The panorama of Rome expands around you. Vatican City and its gardens are at your feet.
Descend, cross St Peter’s Square and walk down Via delia Conciliazione to the Tiber bank. The stately avenue commemorates the pact which re-united Pope and city in 1929 after decades of hostility. Mussolini achieved that, and built the road, and to him we owe the modern view of St Peter’s Square, where Bernini’s perfectly proportioned columns, 380 of them with half as many statues, curve out from the basilica in welcome, embracing the world.
At the Tiber end of Via della Conciliazione you pass the round fort of Castel Sant’ Angelo, as seen on Rome’s best-selling picture-postcard. Emperor Hadrian built it for his mausoleum AD 135-39. When the barbarians came to Rome they raked out his ashes and dumped them in the Tiber. The Castel is now a picture gallery and armoury.
Instead of crossing the Tiber, follow the river downstream. You are heading for the Trastevere quarter and there are two options: walk straight down Via della Lungara or bear right where that street begins and take the Passeggiata del Gianicolo or ‘Janiculum Walk’. It crosses that celebrated hill and Piazza Garibaldi and descends on Via di Porta San Pancrazio. There you cross Via Garibaldi and enter Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere. Several lanes and streets hereabouts are confusingly named for Garibaldi. Here the fiercest fighting took place when in 1849 the papal troops and their French allies drove the ‘Liberator’ and his freedom fighters from Rome. (A useful book is G.M.Trevelyan’s Garibaldi’s Defence of the Roman Republic.) All along the Janiculum you pass busts of Garibaldi, his wife and comrades-in arms, nowadays targets for spray-gunners and graffiti artists. There is even a memorial lighthouse, donated by Garibaldi’s sometime homeland, Argentina. During the week the Passeggiata is a quiet shady walk, frequented chiefly by nuns and convent children. You have uninterrupted views of central Rome. At weekends the route tends to be burned up by adolescents on motorbikes.
You arrive at Santa Maria in Trastevere, one of Rome’s most distinguished churches, perhaps its oldest ecclesiastical foundation. Tradition says that Saint Callixtus established it about AD 220 and that it was the first ‘St Mary’s Church’ in history. When you have examined the mosaics on the facade, go inside and feast your eyes on a more elaborate pictorial series of mosaics. They are by Cavallini and, like the church that now stands here, are of the 12thC.
Then sit a while on the piazza and absorb the Trastevere scene. You may see black-eyed children playing venerable street games against a fountain which is portrayed in one of the Santa Maria mosaics: the spot where they say oil gushed out at the moment of the Nativity in Bethlehem. You see washing strung high above the skeins of alleyways. Round the corner in Piazza San Callisto there may be one or two workmen, sprawling on the steps in their dinner break, a raw onion in one hand, a hunk of bread in another and a flask of vino brusco at their feet, eating and drinking from each in turn.
Not even mass tourism, which equatles the Trastevere with Local Colour, can ruin the character of a village-within-a-city whose inhabitants think little of imperial Rome and whose very shop signs and restaurant menus proclaim their own dubious dialect. The word Trastevere itself – ‘beyond the Tiber’ – implies detachment. But the tourist buses roll in and the spuriously atmospheric bars and trattorie proliferate. Gipsy flower girls, all smiles, can turn nasty when rebuffed. We are assured that mugging is unknown; bag snatching is not.
Trastevere churches are of all periods, some of them built on the cells of saints with almost forgotten names. For an education in the legendary saints, popular poets and customs and beliefs of the district, look in at the folklore museum (open Tuesday – Sunday 10 m – 8 pm) on Piazza Sant’ Egidio, which forms the third of an interlocking trio of piazzas with Santa Maria and San Callisto. Then walk down Via Lungaretta to Piazza Belli near Ponte Garibaldi on the Tiber bank. (Gioacchino Belli, 19thC vernacular poet, celebrated the earthy side of Roman life.) Take the main artery, Via Trastevere, and turn left for the cloister and garden of San Giovanni dei Genovesi and the charming little fountain in the garden of Santa Cecilia, a church of 5thC origins with an important Guido Reni painting inside.
In nearby Piazza dei Mercanti there are tourist restaurants and at the end of Via Anicia, going south, you come to the baroque church of San Francesco a Ripa (‘Saint Francis on the riverbank’). It holds one of Bernini’s last statues and in the adjacent convent the cell of Saint Francis of Assisi is preserved.
Now it is just a step to Via Ascianghi and Porta Portese, the flea market of Rome – mostly old clothes and bric-à-brac with occasionally some unusual antiques on the stalls which are set up every Sunday morning on the square and in the side-roads leading off it. Another step takes you to Ponte Sublicio, formerly Ponte Aventino, Rome’s oldest river crossing whose wooden bridge Horatio defended in Macaulay’s well-known poem; and to the Lungotevere bus routes under the Aventine Hill.
St Peter’s and The Vatican
Time presses on the traveller in Rome, but spare a few hours for the spiritual side. March boldly into St Peter’s, pausing only to observe, far right and high up, the stove-pipe from which on the election of a Pope a puff of white smoke tells the world ‘Habeamus Papam’ – and far left the sentries of the Pope’s Swiss Guard. Their slashed coloured breeches recall a ragged regiment that stumbled in defeat through Tuscan gorges – figures of fun to all beholders. News of their heroic last stand followed them, and the tattered breeches became the papal guards’ badge of honour.
In the central nave see at least Michelangelo’s Pietá (Virgin and dead Christ) in its chapel near the entrance; Bernini’s bronze baldacchino or canopy over the central throne; the blackened 12thC statue of St Peter near a central pier, his big toe worn away by millions of devout kisses; and behind him the steps to the crypt, with the Vatican grottoes beyond it, containing 2,000 years of civil and religious monuments, among them a tomb lately uncovered which is probably that of St Peter himself.
Beyond the north side of St Peter’s facade are the Vatican museums, 27 of them – most visitors try to see Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel (properly ‘Sixtine’ for Pope Sixtus), the Raphael rooms and the Pinacoteca or art gallery. Behind them are the Vatican gardens with some amusing fountains – formerly rarely seen, but now open daily in summer except Wednesday.
Entrance near Piazza Risorgimento or you can take the hourly bus right into the gardens from the Vatican Information Office in St Peter’s Square. Vatican City is crammed with bizarre things, including all the mini-panoply of a sovereign state and the Pope’s own railway station.