Rome walking tour

PVRI Member Authors: Michiel Alexander de Raaf

This walking tour through Rome was made as social event at the PVRI Annual Meeting in Rome 2016. The tour was guided by PVRI member and medical biologist Michiel Alexander de Raaf, who lived in Rome for one year during an internship. Romans consider their squares as living rooms, full with memories of nice and romantic stories of the city. Historically, not all stories can be exactly true as they are told nowadays. However, with a city full of history, the Romans don’t care or even know about this and these stories became treasures of the Roman ambiance and culture. The stories are often not known by tourists and provide a nice glimpse in the history of Rome.


Piazza Mattei

The tour started at “Piazza Mattei”, the square called after the Mattei family who had several palaces close to this square. The Duke of the Mattei family was desperately in love with a young woman. The father of the young woman did not approve the proposed marriage, as the Duke was ‘famous’ about his gambling addiction and lost all his money. On a market day, the father visited the Duke to tell him the news that he is not willing to marry his daughter to someone without money. Of course, the Duke was desperately in love and told the father to return the next day. The next day, there was no market and the father saw for the first time the fountain of the turtles (“Fontane Felle Tartarughe”). The Duke lied and told him that he ordered to build the fountain in one night to convince the father about his richness. The father was convinced and the couple married. As the father did not want other people to see the beauty of the fountain as he did for the first time, the window facing the fountain is immured.


Area Sacrale Largo Torre Argentina

At “Area Sacrale Largo Torre Argentina” we saw the four oldest temples of the Roman Empire. They were probably already built by the Etruskians, who lived in this region before recorded Roman history. It is said that the temples were forgotten during the Roman reign, to whose Gods the temples were built for. To overcome the problem of dishonoring the gods , the complete area was called ‘sacred’. During the reign of Julius Gaius Caesar, this area was the playground of world history. As Julius Caesar was renovating the curia (senate house) at the “Forum Romanum”, the Senate of Rome used the area “sacrale” for their daily meetings. It was here, in the temple on the right side, where Caesar was murdered. Due to the age of these temples, we know that this area is also one of the oldest building sites of Rome. The area of the Roman forum and the Colosseum were still swamps in that time. It was known that a monster was living in that swampy area which could ‘grasp’ people by its bad breath; dying a horrible death. Therefore, the area was said to have ‘sick air’, which is in Latin ‘male aria’ and the base for the disease malaria.



Piazza Navona

The “Piazza Navona” square is built on the foundations of the hippodrome built by Dominitianus. Horse races were very popular in ancient Rome. There were four teams (blue, white, red, green) and racing with chariots they needed to make 7 turns around the “spina”, which is a structure in the middle of the hippodrome. In the centre of the “spina”, an Egyptian obelisk was placed and later moved to “Piazza del Popolo”.  The obelisk to be found nowadays at “Piazza Navona” is a replica made by the students of the architect, Bernini (they were not familiar with the Egyptian hieroglyphs, and placed them upside down). Bernini was not invited to the competition to make this fountain in the center, but he submitted his proposal and was chosen to construct it. The other architect, Borromini, was very angry, as he wanted the assignment. To ease the situation, he was ordered to build the church next to the fountain. The fountain consists of four men who represent the four ‘biggest’ rivers at that time; Donau, Ganges, Nile and Rio de la Plata. As the beginning of the Nile was not known at that time, the head of the ‘river god’ is covered by a cloth. The river god of “Rio de la Plata” is also special as the face is not of a human adult. One story tells that this face is a monkey as the ‘New World’ was not Christian yet. Another story tells the face is a baby because the ‘New World’ was new and immature. Borromini found a mathematic mistake in the drawings of Bernini and the fountain would collapse by the weight of the obelisk. Bernini went through his calculations several times but was not able to find his mistake. The only way to find the error and solve it, was to rely on one of his students. The daughter of Borromini was desperately in love with one of the students of Bernini. This student was sent to declare his love to Borromini’s daughter who let him in the house. At night he copied the calculations and the next day they were given to his master Bernini. Bernini was able to fix the mathematical error and the fountain was saved from collapsing. To annoy Borromini, who was still not aware that Bernini knew about the mistake and fixed it, he ‘saved’ the fountain from collapsing by stabilizing the obelisk with silk wires. As “Piazza Navona” is one of lowest areas of the city, there is the possibility to make an artificial lake of 60 cm deep, which was used in summertime during the 18th-19th century.


San Luigi dei Francesi

We passed this church and in the back and on the left, we were able to see original Caravaggio paintings. Please note that the paintings depict stories from the Bible, while the ‘setting’ is not from Ancient Rome era, but Medieval, so ‘contemporary’ in the time of Caravaggio himself. This is probably done, as in many outside Italy, to narrow the ‘translational’ gap for the Medieval people to understand better the stories told in the Bible.


Piazza della Rotonda – Pantheon

The Pantheon is built on the fields of Mars. This field was sacred in Ancient Rome and it was permitted to build buildings here. The fields were used for elections; Roman people walked to the area dedicated to a specific consul to vote for him. Also the two Roman legions in order to keep ambitious Roman generals with their legions out of the governmental center of the Empire, had their camps here. However, Rome was growing and held at its maximum approximately 1.3 million inhabitants. So, the field of Mars needed to be used for residential buildings. To keep all gods happy with this need, the first building built was a temple for all the gods; the Pantheon. And there were a lot of Gods to please, partly due to the following aspect. To stabilize the power of Rome and to destabilize Roman generals to become too powerful (the divide and rule idea by Caesar), Roman legions needed to move every 6 months from their garrison to another. This was good for stabilizing the political and military power but by this strategy the legionnaires were exposed to a lot of new cultures and religions (keep in mind 1 out of 10 Romans were in the army). Many of these religions were spread through the empire. For example, the Persian Mithras became very popular among soldiers and altars were found throughout the Empire (England, Spain, Rome, etc.). With the Pantheon, the Romans kept the ‘promise’ that all gods were represented in the city of Rome.


Sant’Ignazio di Loyola in Campo Marzio

This is one of the most beautiful churches in Rome and not so famous nor touristic. Every catholic province (with a cardinal) was allowed to build a church to represent themselves in Rome. However, most popes did not want that the church became more beautiful than their own churches as the Saint Peter in the Vatican. Therefore, the pope stopped the budget of the construction. Major problem was that without the money, the dome on top of the church could not be completed. Giovanni Tristano, the architect, ‘constructed’ the dome by painting the dome (which interior is the observatory of Galilei). When opening the church, the pope walked to the ‘yellow’ stone and was astonished by seeing the dome, not realizing that it was fake, and walked -very angry - out. Also the other breathtaking fresco which makes the church optical much higher is painted by Andrea Pozzo.


Fontana di Trevi

The Trevi fountain is probably the most well known tourist hotspot in Rome. It is said that it is called “Trevi” as this means ‘three’ and the square is the connection point of three main streets. Another story tells of the Trevi Fountain getting its water from a river with 3 different springs. When Ancient Rome was flowering, the city had numerous aqueducts feeding the city with fresh water. After the ‘Sacco di Roma’, the Gauls destroyed all aqueducts except one. This same one still functions today and gives its water to the Trevi Fountain. From there, all other fountains in the city are fed by the Trevi Fountain. Therefore, the water from the Trevi Fountain is the freshest water of the city. Drinking from the water together with your partner assures an eternal relationship.

Two anecdotes were told at the Trevi Fountain. The first was about a little girl who was living next to the fountain when it was built. As she was sick, she was afraid that she was not able to see the final result. Indeed, she died before the construction was finished and therefore the architect, Nicola Salvi (but the fountain was drawn by Bernini 50 years earlier), made a little statue of her head and placed it on the façade of the church next to the fountain, as she could now ‘see’ the Trevi fountain for centuries.


Another very nice story is revolves around the construction of the fountain. At the time, there was a barbershop on the right side of the square. Every day, the barber came to talk with Nicola Salvi. He was full of ideas -all of which had one goal. He wanted to make his barbershop more appealing; when you were looking to the Trevi fountain, your eyes were directed to his barbershop. The architect Salvi was increasingly frustrated by these recommendations, and as a result, on the very last day of the construction, he placed a big rock on the right side of the square, including a big vase on top, so that when you were looking at the Trevi fountain, you could not see anything of the barbershop.



Published in:

PVRI Chronicle Vol 3: Issue 2 cover image

August 2016

PVRI Chronicle Vol 3: Issue 2

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