Explore the cobbled streets of the Ghetto and Trastevere, the echoes of the reign of Augustus beneath the winding streets of the Field of Mars, the splendid treasures of the Galleria Borghese, and stroll along the Appian to wonder at the aqueducts.
The Jewish community in Rome is the oldest in Europe. The first Jewish settlers arrived directly from the Holy Land, ambassadors sent in the 2nd century B.C. to forge an alliance with the Roman Republic in defence against the Syrian king, Antiochus. This military alliance swiftly became a trading alliance and the Jewish community grew on the west bank of the Tiber, in Trastevere. In the late Middle Ages the Jewish community gravitated across the river. In 1555, deep in the throes of the Counter-Reformation, a papal Bull issued by Paul IV decreed that the community be segregated from the rest of the city and the walls of the ‘Ghetto’ were built around this area where the community was based. The walls were finally demolished in the late 19th century and the area today is the vibrant heart of Rome’s Jewish community.
The Tempio Maggiore, the city’s major synagogue, was built at the turn of the twentieth century, its opulence emphasising the change in fortunes of the Roman Jewish community following the Unification of Italy. On the edge of the old Ghetto, the splendid ruins of the Portico of Octavia and the Theatre of Marcellus are a reminder of the area in the Augustan period, but also the site of the deportation of Jews during the Nazi occupation of the city.
Crossing the Tiber Island (over a bridge which has survived two millennia) we enter Trastevere. From the Latin trans tiberim, it takes its name from its position ‘across the Tiber’. This ‘otherness’ is celebrated every year in the “Festa di No’antri”, the festival of ‘we others’ the name for Trasteverini in the dialect of the area, traditionally different from that of the rest of Rome. The prettily cobbled Trastevere area, we can visit the churches of Santa Cecilia and Santa Maria. The beautiful tranquility of the courtyard of the convent of Santa Cecilia, and the church itself with 9th century mosaics, is a million miles from the bustle of the city. When opening hours permit we can visit the organ loft with the surviving fragments of the grand frescoes carried out by the great Pietro Cavallini in the late 13th century.
Crossing over the Viale Trastevere we come into the busier northern area of Trastevere. The Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere is the heart of the area, the focus of evening passeggiate. The central fountain provides an underlying soundtrack to gossip and the occasional thwack of a football against the ancient columns of the church. Inside the cool quiet of Santa Maria itself we can admire mosaics of the 12th and 13th centuries, and a splendid amount of recycling of ancient stone.
Piazza Santa Maria is a charming place to finish the tour, leaving you free to find lunch or an aperitif in one of the nearby piazzas.
The cost of the tour does not include your entrance fees to the Synagogue and Museum, currently 5 euro per person.
Outside the boundaries of the Republican city, the Campus Martius occupies an area of low-lying land within the loop of the Tiber. Initially reserved for military training, the area took its name from an altar dedicated to Mars. The once swampy central area was associated with the entrance to the Underworld in archaic tradition, and a legend claims that it was here that Romulus was received into the afterlife. In 7 BC, soon after the birth of the Roman Empire, Augustus divided the city into administrative riones one of which occupied the area of the Field of Mars. This marked the beginning of major building projects in the area, by now drained but still at constant risk of flooding. The addition of the largely empty area to the city, and the space it offered, made it a perfect place for the experimentation of new architectural styles.
The new cults, borrowed from Egypt, of Isis and Serapis were housed in temples in the area, and the temple to all of the gods was built here. This Pantheon is of the defining monuments of the area, arguably one of the most influential buildings ever constructed. Throughout the Imperial Age the area became particularly associated with entertainments, an area of theatres and racetracks. The most notable, and visible, of these racetracks was the stadium built by Domitian where today we see the beautiful Baroque Piazza Navona. Following the collapse of the Roman Empire, and the massive slump in population which followed, the Field of Mars remained fairly densely populated, becoming the heart of the late medieval and Renaissance city. Today cobbled streets snake from piazza to piazza, often tracing the forms of the ancient monuments which lie beneath the furniture restorers and fruit-sellers.
The following itinerary is a three hour tour focusing on the central part of the area.
Constructed as a ‘Theatre of the Universe’, the villa was built as a museum of ancient and modern art, but also as a setting for musical concerts, for the study of nature (it had an annexed aviary and garden of rare plants), and for modern technology (it once contained a collection of clocks and orreries). Its mastermind was Cardinal Scipione Borghese, the art-loving nephew of Pope Paul V. As well as being a place of entertainment, the villa was also an important tool in the diplomatic relations of the court of Paul V, for example receiving the Japanese ambassador in 1616.
The Galleria Borghese contains a spectacular collection of works created for the Cardinal by his protege, Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Another artist favoured by the Cardinal was the tormented genius Caravaggio, here represented by six of the twelve paintings originally in Scipione’s collection. The upstairs picture gallery includes works by Raphael and Titian.
Manageable in size, what makes this such a jewel of a museum is not simply the extraordinary collection it contains, but the setting itself. The building and the works displayed, many in the rooms for which they were created, offer an unrivalled view of the evolution of Roman taste in the 17th and 18th centuries.
The cost of the tour does not include your entrance fees, currently €8.50 per person
Away from the bustle of the city centre we will begin at the Baths of Caracalla, built in the early 3rd century A.D. by the tyrannical Caracalla on the stretch of the Appian Way closest to the heart
of the city. Here we will discuss the particular ‘Roman-ness’ of the bath complexes, how they worked, and their role in social and political life.
From the Baths we will begin our journey along the Appian Way, exiting the walls of the ancient city by the Appian Gate. We will discuss when they were built, and what they signify for the decline of the Roman Empire. The Appian Way was the regina viarum, the Queen of Roads, and fundamental for the growth of the Roman Republic and subsequently the Roman Empire.
As the most important of the routes into the city it was lined with countless tombs, of which the most spectacular to have survived the Middle Ages is that of the daughter of a wealthy family of the late Republic, Cecilia Metella. The road was also the site of the grandest just-out-of-town residences, like the Villa of the Emperor Maxentius which boasted its own chariot race track. We will stroll along a section of the Appian Way which offers a tranquil view of the ‘Campagna Romana’, the Roman Countryside which the Grand Tourists found so beguiling. From the Appia Antica we will go to the Park of the Aqueducts, where a spectacular section of the most important of all of the Roman aqueducts reminds us how the Romans were able to build those bath complexes in the first place.
If wished this tour can be extended to four hours and combined with a visit to one of the catacomb complexes on the Appian Way, the burial areas of early Christians excavated from the volcanic rock.
Any alterations to the suggested itinerary are very welcome, and will be accommodated wherever accessibility permits.