ROMAN ITINERARIES – BORGO DISTRICT – ITINERARY 53
BORGO DISTRICT – ITINERARY 53
The Borgo District is, from an administrative point of view, the youngest of the Roman Districts: it lies on the right side of the Tiber, in the plain that since ancient times was called Ager Vaticanus, bordered by the Vatican Hill, the Janiculum Hill and Monte Mario. The ground has two very different geological compositions: to understand the difference, it is necessary to think back to the time when the soil of Rome was covered by a wide and deep sea. The first hints of an emerged land were the hills on the right bank of the river. At that point an intense volcanic activity erupted and the lake basin was gradually filled by the eruptive material, creating a solid tuffaceous and basaltic base, while the flat area was reached by alluvial deposits. Clay, sand and tuff are therefore the materials that form the ground that hosts the Borgo District, and these materials have always been used by craftsmen and potters for local constructions.
Two famous writers of Ancient Rome, Martial and Juvenal, often mentioned the amphorae for wine and the dishes made of the Vatican clay. Martial himself described the sourness of Vatican’s wines and this, as well as the wine making methods of that time, is certainly due to the tufaceous soil of the cultivations.
THE AGE OF THE ANCIENT ROME
Although the first owners of these places were Etruscans, at the time of Augustus the city’s laws decreed that the territory of the modern Borgo District was included in the Regio XIV called Transtiberim, which covered everything that extended on the right side of Tiber river. The site, very fertile and full of groves and small waterfalls, was owned by Agrippina, mother of Caligula, who built the circus that was later completed by Nero; the property was then bequeathed to his daughter, also called Agrippina, who became the mother of Nero.
After the famous fire of Rome, which broke out in 64 AD, the territory hosted by order of Nero himself many citizens of Rome who had lost their homes. Nero was also responsible for the construction of the Triumphal Bridge, known as the Neronian Bridge, which stretched between the present Church of St. John of the Florentines and the Church of the Holy Spirit: the bridge collapsed in the V Century, and in the days when the water level of the Tiber is very low you can still see the remains in the river bottom.
Many other emperors built important monuments in the area. Domitian and Trajan endowed the area with a basin for naval representations, called “naumachie”: archaeologists discovered several remains of this structure in the area of Risorgimento Square, calculating that it could contain over 19,000 spectators. Hadrian had his mausoleum built there, which then became a papal fortress with the name of St. Angel’s Castle, and it was again Hadrian in 134 AD to build the Helium Bridge, now called the Bridge of the Angels.
With the advent of Christianity, the region became a fervent religious center: indeed, it not only housed the tomb of St. Peter, but also the first basilica dedicated to the Saint, built by the Emperor Constantine. Monasteries and religious buildings began to rise around this church, despite the fact that the Popes continued to reside in the Lateran Palace because of the unhealthiness of the Vatican area.
In reality, with the death of Caracalla in 217 AD, the mausoleum of Hadrian ceased to be a tomb and, thanks to the intuition of the Emperor Aurelian, became a fortress integrated in the walls built around Rome by the same Emperor (Aurelian Walls). The walls, however, left the Ager Vaticanus unprotected as Aurelian probably believed that the simple bulwark represented by the Hadrian’s Mole was enough to defend this side of Rome: in 547, he was punctually contradicted by Totila, who not only besieged Rome with great violence, but indirectly gave the name to this District, defining the area with the Germanic expression “burg“.
THE MIDDLE AGES
In the 9th Century, Pope Leo III built a new defensive ring of walls, with the intention of protecting the tomb of St. Peter from the attacks of the Saracens who, in 846, came from Ostia to Rome without encountering resistance, plundering the treasure of the Basilica. Once this devastation had occurred, Pope Leo IV rebuilt the walls in a more monumental form, transforming the area into a real fortress detached from any authority and municipal order.
During the exile of the Popes in Avignon, Borgo (which was not yet considered an autonomous District) suffered a great decay, also because of the vicious struggles between the various noble families of Rome, deprived of a solid central government; once the Popes returned to Rome, the area had a clear recovery, thanks to the intervention of Nicholas V in the mid-15th Century and especially of Alexander VI who, for the Jubilee of 1500, opened a road leading from St. Angel’s Castle to St. Peter’s Basilica, exempting from taxes all the families who had embellished the area with palaces and ornaments.
THE XVI CENTURY
The Sack of Rome by Charles V’s Landsknechts in May 1527 brought great despair and terrible destruction to the city. Following this crucial experience, the Popes finally understood the fundamental importance of the “passetto”, the aerial connection between the Basilica and the Castle, with the latter being strengthened in terms of defense both by Pope Paul III and Pope Pius IV in the 16th Century.
And here we come to the fateful day when Borgo was crowned the XIV District of Rome.
On December 9th 1586, the Conservators, the Senators and the Prior of the Captains met in public council in the Capitol and decided to name the area “fourteenth district of Rome with the name of Borgo“. As with the other thirteen, the new District had a flag and a coat of arms, depicting a lion on a red field lying on an iron chest, with three hills and a star on the top. The lion can be explained with the coat of arms of Pope Sixtus V, who was on the papal throne in those years, while as far as the iron chest is concerned, it is necessary to tell a curious anecdote: in one of the rooms of St. Angel’s Castle it is still possible to see a huge chest, with two smaller ones next to it. They are all three made of wood lined with iron, and they all date back to the time of Pope Sixtus V, the Pontiff who first used the Castle to keep the Vatican treasures and archives. In those three chests, about a century and a half later, three million gold coins, several pounds of silver, two pontifical rings and jewels worth about seven thousand scudi were found.
Except for the very long works on the Basilica of St. Peter and the continuous maintenance of the Castle, the nucleus of the new Borgo District for many years did not experience changes in terms of urban planning: only the Church of St. Mary in Traspontina and the Church of St. Anne of the Palafreniers were built, in addition to the embellishment of the Vatican Loggias.
THE MODERN TIMES
It is necessary to arrive at the end of the 19th Century, with the conquest of Rome (which became the Capital of Italy) and the consequent interruption of the papal sovereignty, to observe a clear change in the Borgo District, both from an administrative and urbanistic point of view. On October 2nd 1870, indeed, the inhabitants of the Borgo District voted unanimously in favor of the annexation to the Kingdom of Italy, thus ending the temporal power of the Popes and physically separating the Vatican from the rest of the neighborhood. From this moment on, what some scholars have ironically called “the second sack of Rome” took place: the Borgo District witnessed the rapid birth of the Prati District, in a vast area immediately behind its borders.
The other event that, between 1936 and 1950, radically changed the District was the demolition of the “Spina di Borgo” and the reconstruction of the places as you can see them now.
The demolition of the “spina”, a labyrinthine urban conglomerate that was located where today is Via della Conciliazione, led to the permanent disappearance of an essential part of the history of Rome, not only from the urban and social perspective, but also from the artistic point of view, with the destruction of very important buildings and squares, such as the Scossacavalli Square.
Substantially, the District was mutilated, reduced to the triangle delimited by Via di Porta Angelica (this gate was also demolished and is now reduced to a few marble decorations embedded in the walls), the Passetto and Borgo Angelico.
Until its autonomy from the Trastevere District, and until the urban transformation of the 20th Century, Borgo was mainly an ecclesiastical neighborhood, sleepy and semi-deserted, with the exception of the Jubilee times. The name itself, deriving from the Germanic “burg”, recalls a closed and isolated place, surrounded by high walls, on which looms the immense bulk of the Fortress of the Angel. In spite of this name and this defensive stratification, the Borgo District does not give the idea of a medieval area: there are no narrow winding streets or austere watchtowers, but only the striking “passetto” that recalls the hasty escapes of the Popes.
BORGO DISTRICT – ITINERARY 53
Excluding the area of the Vatican, which is only indirectly part of this District as it is completely another Country in the middle of Rome, the Borgo District can be easily divided into two different Itineraries, obviously dominated by the spectacular St. Angel’s Castle.
We will start the Itinerary 53 of the Borgo District from one of its natural entrances, the Bridge of Angels, once called Aelius Bridge, which leads to the massive Mausoleum of Hadrian.
Ponte Sant’Angelo – Passetto di Borgo – Via della Conciliazione – Vicolo del Campanile
THE ST. ANGEL’S BRIDGE
The bridge was built by Emperor Publius Aelius Hadrian to reach this portion of the city which at that time was called “minor field“. According to the engravings that have survived through the centuries, the Aelius Bridge was displayed with an elegant roof supported by 42 columns, to provide shade to visitors and worshippers during the summer and protection in case of rain during the cold season: the bridge did not only reach the mausoleum of one of the best Emperors of Ancient Rome, but later it also directed the pilgrims to the tomb of St. Peter, thus serving to access the ancient Vatican Basilica.
The Aelius Bridge was built in 136 A.D. to replace the ruined Triumphal Bridge; it was later named St. Angel’s Bridge when, in the 6th century A.D., Pope Gregory the Great had a miraculous vision of an angel sheathing his sword, alluding to the end of the plague in Rome. Around 1660, Pope Clement IX wanted to fix the bridge, entrusting the task to the great architect and sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini, who transformed the bridge into a striking Baroque monument, deliberately contrasting the severity of Hadrian’s building.
Bernini inserted a series of iron grids in the bridge’s parapets, so as to allow those who crossed it a constant view of the Tiber river below. Then, he placed over the balustrades ten large marble angels carrying the instruments of Christ’s passion. Two of them, the angel with the crown of thorns and the angel with the scroll, were sculpted directly by Bernini: they were later moved inside the Church of St. Andrew of the Fratte, not far from the Spanish Steps, because they were considered too beautiful to be kept under the inclement weather: they were replaced by two very similar copies, sculpted by Paolo Naldini and Giulio Cartari.
Around 1080, the bridge was burdened by a tax toll at the behest of Pope Gregory VII. To collect the payment a tower was built, which was later replaced by two chapels built by Pope Nicholas V in memory of a serious disaster that occurred on the bridge during the Jubilee of 1450: thirty-seven people fell into the tumultuous waters of the river because of the scuffles caused by the papal mule bolted because of the riots. It was not the first time that such disasters happened, given the narrowness of the path and the large number of pedestrians and wagons passing over the bridge, especially during religious festivities: the outlet on the side of the castle was particularly narrow, restricted by the presence of the massive protective walls of the St. Angel’s Castle, with only one door (St. Episcopus Gate) allowing the exit in the small square, and it was therefore easy to cause an unmanageable traffic jam.
Dante Alighieri himself, who came to Rome as a pilgrim during the Jubilee of 1300, narrated in the Divine Comedy the ungovernable chaos of the passage across the bridge, compressed in the crowd heading towards the Vatican Basilica.
The small square between the bridge and the castle also hosted public executions for criminals guilty of adultery. Among them, it is possible to remember the one that took place on April 15th 1502, reported in the Urbino Codex preserved in the Vatican Library: “Saturday there was the execution of justice for husband and wife. The woman’s nose and ear were cut off, and the husband was sentenced to perpetual imprisonment, because he consented to his wife’s adulteries. Two large horns with rattles were also placed on the husband’s head”.
THE MAUSOLEUM OF HADRIAN
After crossing the Bridge of the Angels, you arrive in front of the gigantic castle, of which it is necessary to give a long introduction, starting with some biographical notes on its builder.
Publius Aelius Hadrian descended from a senatorial family from Italica, an ancient Roman city in southern Spain. Born in 77 AD, he became Emperor in 117, being adopted on his deathbed by his predecessor Trajan, who was without direct heirs. Hadrian’s Empire lasted twenty years, and was an era of enlightened government: Hadrian gave up the expansionist policy that had characterized many of his predecessors, and preferred to visit all the Provinces of the Empire, in search of new experiences. His great love was the young Antinous, who unfortunately perished in the waters of the Nile, and in his honor Hadrian erected statues and cities. Among the great monuments financed, and in some cases designed by Hadrian, are the extraordinary Hadrian’s Villa at Tivoli, the restoration of the Pantheon (severely damaged by fire in 80 AD) and his monumental tomb, which is exactly where you are now, being the nucleus of the castle.
Remember that Augustus also built his own Mausoleum at the beginning of the I Century A.D., which is now almost opposite that of Hadrian. Hadrian died without being able to see his tomb completed, and this task was carried out by his successor, the Emperor Antoninus Pius.
The Mausoleum was formed by a square plinth of 84 meters of side, entirely covered with travertine. Above it there was a large cylinder, twenty meters high and once adorned with marble and crowned with statues; on top, among trees and hanging gardens, stood a bronze quadriga with the statue of the Emperor. The burial cell was at the center of the building and it was accessed through a helicoidal ramp still existing today, paved with mosaics (now almost completely disappeared). The Mausoleum was enclosed by a gate (decorated with two beautiful peacocks now on display at the Vatican Museums) and equipped with a large bronze door in front of the Aelius Bridge.
FROM MAUSOLEUM TO CASTLE
In the III Century A.D. the Emperor Aurelian, who built the long circle of walls that still characterizes the city, understood the defensive potential of the colossal Mausoleum of Hadrian. The invasion of the Visigoths, in 410 A.D., immediately demonstrated the impregnability of the fortress, as did the Greek-Gothic wars of the following century: however, this also led to the end of the original decorative architecture, as the besieged defended themselves by breaking the statues of the Mausoleum and throwing the fragments on the invaders.
Starting from Pope Leo IV, in the 9th Century, the castle assumed once and for all a defensive function, not only for the Borgo District but for the whole city of Rome. After the Avignon Captivity of the 14th century, the Popes gave the castle a personal use, connecting the fortress to the papal apartments with a sort of “umbilical cord”, the “Passetto di Borgo”, a long corridor that would have defended the Pontiff not only in case of external attacks, but also in case of internal revolts within the city of Rome.
At that time, the conditions of the fortress must have been disastrous. For this reason, at the end of the 14th Century, Pope Boniface IX undertook a first restoration of the monument, which was then reinforced and enlarged by Nicholas V to house the papal court: in this period the castle was provided with two square towers on the head of the bridge and three round towers on the external corners.
The most significant intervention was however that of Pope Alexander VI: the Pontiff contacted his most trusted architect, Antonio da Sangallo, who was specialized in military constructions. For the interior decorations, the painter Pinturicchio, who was a sort of celebrity in Rome at the end of the 15th Century, was hired. The two towers of Nicholas V were incorporated into the defensive walls, and warehouses and stores for oil and provisions were built. The next Pope, Julius II, built the graceful loggia overlooking the Tiber, designed according to tradition by the architect Donato Bramante, while Michelangelo designed the small chapel at the behest of Pope Leo X.
THE SACK OF LANSQUENETS
On September 20th 1526, the thugs of Pompeo Colonna attacked the Borgo District and besieged the Vatican. It was a sort of general test, which convinced the Pope and the Roman Curia about a defensive guarantee that was far from being adequate and sufficient, considering the immense treasures that had accumulated over the centuries around the tomb of St. Peter.
The following year, on May 6th 1527, the most evident and discouraging proof of it occurred.
The hordes of Charles V, the notorious Lansquenets, swooped on the city through the Teutonic Cemetery using the Via Cornelia, the same consular road that the Christian martyrs had travelled in the I Century A.D. to reach Nero’s Circus in the Vatican.
The Swiss Guard, composed of only 200 men under the command of Captain Gaspare Ronst, fiercely opposed the fury of the Lansquenets, but was annihilated. A similar fate happened to the Captain Giulio from Ferrara, slaughtered together with his men in the unequal fight led, block by block, through the streets of the District.
Pope Clement VII, surprised by the invasion while he was praying at the tomb of St. Peter, had just enough time to take shelter in the Castle, using for the first time the “Passetto di Borgo”, the long corridor that connected the Vatican palaces with the fortress of Hadrian.
The Borgo District, during the Sack of the Lansquenets, suffered the worst damages and iniquities, since it received the first impact of the imperial fury, and the Hospital of the Holy Spirit was the stage of unspeakable massacres: the sick, the friars, the children and the nuns could not certainly contrast in any way the homicidal madness of a horde deprived of any order and precept, and the German soldiers vented their lowest instincts, with an inexcusable violence.
At that point, the Lansquenets laid siege to the St. Angel’s Castle, after having devastated and sacked the Basilica and the apostolic palaces, set fire to the Sistine Chapel and violated the archives: the siege lasted seven months, during which the Borgo District became a battlefield full of corpses. Until its liberation, Pope Clement VII vowed to never cut his beard, which grew very long.
THE EVASION OF BENVENUTO CELLINI
The papal goldsmith Benvenuto Cellini, certainly exaggerated in his self-celebration, told in his work “Vite” (Lives) how important had been his work in defense of the Pope and of the castle. A few years later, Cellini himself was imprisoned in the Castle on a charge of fraud, and was one of the very few prisoners to have managed to escape, even if only for a few days, from this gigantic prison. When he reached the house of a friend, Benvenuto Cellini was once again captured and this time locked up in a very dark and humid cell, where any other attempt to escape would have been impossible: according to a legend handed down by Cellini himself in his autobiography, he would have engraved on the wall of this cell a Crucifix drawn in charcoal, today almost invisible.
FROM 16TH CENTURY TO THE MODERN AGE
Having become a sort of alternative residence of the Popes, the castle began to host parties, balls and banquets, being increasingly transformed by the various Pontiffs into a sumptuous residence, eager to make the rooms more comfortable and luxurious. At first Paul III commissioned Perin del Vaga, a pupil of the great Raphael, to decorate his apartment, and then in the 17th Century Pope Urban VIII transformed the fortified structure, lightening and embellishing it.
It was Pope Clement XII who inaugurated the splendid bronze statue of the archangel sheathing his sword, placed as a symbol of peace and city health at the apex of the castle, replacing the previous statue, now placed in the Angel’s Courtyard.
After the unification of Italy it was initially used as barracks, and then became a museum. For this purpose it was subject to restoration work by the army colonel Luigi Durand de la Penne and by captain Mariano Borgatti, destined to bring the monument back to its ancient aspect and to make it the seat of the constituting Military Engineering Museum, inaugurated on February 13th 1906.
THE ITINERARY OF THE ST. ANGEL’S CASTLE
Once you have crossed the entrance courtyard, you will find yourself inside the ring corridor that divides the perimeter wall from the enormous cylindrical mass of the ancient Mausoleum of Hadrian. Climbing up the ramparts of the quadrangular wall on the side of the Bastion of St. Mark, you can take the walkway that will give you the opportunity to visit the four bastions, which bear the names of the four Evangelists.
After a short staircase built by Pope Alexander VI, you will reach the sepulchral cell, overlooked by a masonry bridge built in 1822: observe the small marble slab, on which are engraved five beautiful verses that the Emperor Hadrian addressed to his own soul.
Two ramps of stairs lead to the Courtyard of the Angel, so called because of the marble statue sculpted in 1544 by Raffaello da Montelupo, which once crowned the castle before being replaced by the current one in bronze, sculpted in 1752 by Pierre Von Verschaffelt. The courtyard was also called “Courtyard of the cannon balls”, because here lay accumulated several munitions in stone arranged in a pyramidal shape. On the left it is possible to enter the so-called Rooms of Clement VIII, the Hall of Justice, the Room of Apollo (where there was the ancient elevator of the castle) and the famous chapel, as already mentioned wanted by Pope Leo X and traditionally attributed to a project of Michelangelo Buonarroti.
Going up the stairs, you will be able to walk along the entire ring of the upper floor, which has different names according to the Pope who carried out its construction or restoration. At this level you’ll find the so-called “Giretto of Pius IV“, marked by small rooms used as a prison, the Loggia of Pope Paul III, which overlooks the rear of the castle, and that of Pope Julius II, which instead offers an admirable view of the Bridge of the Angels.
From this Loggia, going up a short staircase, you can access the Papal Apartment wanted by Paul III: the Paoline Room, the most luxurious and imposing, has the walls richly decorated with frescoes by Perin Del Vaga and Pellegrino Tibaldi depicting St. Paul and Alexander the Great, while the Perseus Room was intended to house the papal throne and the Room of Cupid and Psyche, with its decidedly licentious decorations, was used as the Pope’s bedroom.
Crossing the short Pompeian Corridor, from the Paoline Room you can move on to the majestic Library, entirely decorated with grotesques and adorned with an imposing fireplace; two different doors then lead to the Hall of the Festoons and above all to the famous Prison of Cagliostro, a disturbing character of the 18th Century, half wizard and half impostor.
Returning to the Library, before going up to the splendid terrace, take a quick look at the small Treasure Room, characterized by the presence of gigantic chests once full of gold and jewels, and later used as an additional prison.
Going up the stairs, you will reach the panoramic terrace of the castle, without a doubt the most suggestive point of the tour. Once there, you can turn to admire the majesty of the bronze statue of the archangel sheathing his sword, but also the small bronze “Bell of Mercy“, so called as it rang every time an execution took place: the Castle in fact, as mentioned, was the place where death sentences were carried out.
Going back and descending the steps to the lower floors, you will then have the opportunity to visit two other important places of the castle. The first is the Courtyard of Alexander VI, known as the “Courtyard of Oil”, because of the presence under the floor of the warehouses that kept the precious commodity, useful for lighting, cooking and to be thrown hot on the enemies who besieged the walls; in the courtyard overlooked the prisons and the torture chamber of the castle. The second place, which will take you to the exit of the monument, is the long helicoidal ramp built by Hadrian to access his own sepulchral cell, which rises gently overcoming a drop of twelve meters and that once had the floor covered with mosaics and the walls coated with ancient yellow marble.
THE PASSETTO OF BORGO
Continue your Itinerary 53 of the Borgo District, once you leave the St. Angel’s Castle, going to see the long masonry corridor called “Passetto of Borgo“, on one side attached to the Bastion of St. Mark and on the other side to the Apostolic Palaces of the Vatican.
This is an elevated pedestrian passageway, built in 1277 by Pope Nicholas III during some restoration work due to the poor state of the Vatican Walls.
The corridor was often used to lead individuals to the prisons of the castle whose stay or imprisonment should not be known, such as Cardinal Carafa, but it was especially useful to the various Pontiffs whenever dangers or threats to their safety forced them to take shelter in a place better defensible than the Apostolic Palace.
Inside, the passageway, which can only be visited by means of a special Guided Tour, resembles a sort of long corridor, partly indoors and partly outdoors, which in the first part surmounts the Castle’s gardens and then extends, in a vaguely sinuous pattern, parallel to Via della Conciliazione, bypassing the streets below with wide arches built to facilitate the modern road system.
THE DEMOLITION OF THE “SPINA”
The demolition of the so-called “Spina of Borgo“, a wedge of houses piled up between the two straight roads leading to St. Peter’s Basilica, has a history that goes back almost four hundred years, considering all the failed projects of the last centuries. Already Carlo Fontana, architect of St. Peter’s Basilica, at the end of the 17th Century, published a tome full of data and drawings under the title “Vatican Temple“, in which he foresaw the complete destruction of the “spina”, which he called “an ugly view of hovels“.
In 1776, under the pontificate of Pius VI, the architect Cosimo Morelli proposed the same solution, with the demolition of the “spina”, supporting the project with drawings and plans: for this project, the French administration of Rome allocated the exorbitant sum of one million francs, but without starting the work.
In 1812, then, came the project of demolition and reconstruction of Giuseppe Valadier, which provided with the demolition of the “spina” and the creation of a large street adorned on the sides by twisted columns and statues of St. Peter and St. Paul. This project, too was never carried out, like the one elaborated in 1850 by Domenico Capranica, which foresaw only a partial demolition.
Starting from 1870, with the annexation of Rome to the new Italian State, a lot of projects flourished, also because the town-planning scheme of 1873 provided for huge demolitions around St. Peter’s Basilica, so that Michelangelo’s dome could be finally appreciated in its right perspective.
The concrete steps for the demolition, however, were made only after the Concordat between the Fascist government and the Church, on February 11th 1929. The project of the demolition was entrusted to the architects Attilio Spaccarelli and Marcello Piacentini, with the expense borne exclusively by the Italian State, without the Vatican having to pay a penny. The Curia was also in favor of the demolition, because in this way it would have had a wide and representative road, which served as a scenic introduction to its territory.
The demolition of the “spina” began on October 28th 1936 and ended, after an interruption due to the Second World War, in 1950, with the final arrangement of the Via della Conciliazione.
THE BORGO DISTRICT BEFORE THE DEMOLITION
But what was here before the urban gutting?
Two parallel streets started from the Castle to encircle the “spina” up to the Basilica: the first one, called “Old Borgo“, was more modest and destined to the transit of carts, while the second one, called “New Borgo” or Via Alessandrina (having been wanted by Pope Alexander VI) was more luxurious and destined to pedestrian traffic. To the extreme left of these two streets was the Borgo of the Holy Spirit, with a myriad of obscure buildings plotted in alleys often smelly.
Before the construction of the medieval district, however, here there was a monument very famous throughout Ancient Rome, now irretrievably disappeared: a giant pyramid, demolished in 1499, about 32 meters high (and therefore more impressive than that of Caius Cestius, still standing at the St. Paul’s Gate, which has a height of 27 meters). Tradition has it that the giant pyramid was the tomb of Romulus, the mythical founder of the city of Rome, but in reality, since the funeral cell was very large, it was probably used as a convenient silo to store the grain needed by the Basilica and the ecclesiastical community.
THE CHURCH OF ST. MARY IN TRANSPONTINA
Let’s leave aside the question of the opportunity of this demolition, which was much criticized by scholars of the 20th Century because it was considered a very serious massacre that made irreplaceable places disappear in order to understand the atmosphere of medieval Rome and that permanently altered the baroque illusion desired by Gian Lorenzo Bernini for Saint Peter’s Square. It would be too long and controversial a matter to examine in the course of our Roman Itineraries, and might even be boring.
As you walk down Via della Conciliazione towards the Basilica of St. Peter, pause on the right side in front of the beautiful Church of St. Mary in Transpontina. Since the 12th Century there was, next to the St. Angel’s Castle, a primitive church called “trans pontem” (beyond the bridge), located right at the end of the Aelius Bridge. The small church was demolished in 1564 to allow the rebuilding of the bastions of the Castle, and in the same year the construction of the present church was started, entrusting the project to the architect Sallustio Peruzzi: the church was shifted from its original place and moved away from the castle in order not to be in the middle, with its dome, of the cannon shots fired from the walls of the fortress.
The works took place very slowly, and the dome was erected only in 1669 by Simone Broggi, with the church consecrated by Pope Benedict XIII only in 1728.
After a short flight of steps, approach the central door surmounted by a tympanum with the image of the Madonna and Child; before entering, observe the vaguely disharmonious façade, considering the many architects who worked on it, and cast a glance at the small Baroque bell tower on the left of the façade, designed in the 17th century by the architect Francesco Peparelli.
THE INTERIOR OF THE CHURCH
The interior is in the shape of a Latin cross with a single nave, on which five chapels open on each side. The most precious piece of the sacred building is undoubtedly the baroque altar, designed in 1674 by Carlo Fontana, which keeps inside a beautiful medieval icon.
Among the various chapels, it is worth paying particular attention to the first one on the right: it is the Chapel of St. Barbara, commissioned by the Company of Bombardiers of the Castle and decorated with a painting of the Saint made by Cavalier d’Arpino. St. Barbara is still today the patron Saint of artillerymen, obviously also of those of the Castle, whose company was founded in 1592 by Pope Clement VIII so that they would no longer have to hire mercenary troops to use the cannons.
In the church there are still some furnishings of the small holy building that once existed near the castle, such as a 14th Century terracotta Pietà (first chapel on the left), a Crucifix (fourth chapel on the right) and some column shafts that you can admire in the third chapel on the left.
THE HOUSE OF THE EXECUTIONER
Making a short detour to the right of the church and taking Vicolo del Campanile, you will find at number 18 the so-called House of the Executioner.
The building was once covered with paintings and graffiti made in such a way as to resist the weather, as was the fashion at the beginning of the 16th Century: the most common way was to mix fragments of burnt straw ashes to the mortar, and then to cover everything with a layer of white lime, finishing the walls with a chiaroscuro decoration. According to tradition, this decoration was made by Giulio Romano, a favorite pupil of Raphael Sanzio.
In this alley, and probably in this house, lived Mastro Titta, real name Giovan Battista Bugatti, the executioner of Rome who debuted in his terrible career on March 22th 1796, when he was only seventeen years old, hanging and quartering in Foligno Nicola Gentilucci, guilty of having killed a priest.
The task of the executioner was to procure the wood necessary to build the stage for the executions, which had to present four stairs and had to be built in a single night, in a strict hierarchy of gestures and propitiatory rituals.
Once on the stage, the condemned man was almost deafened by the songs and psalms recited by priests and religious companies, but at the end of them Mastro Titta would hang him by throwing him into the void and grappling him to increase the weight of the condemned man. At that point, he decapitated him with a masterful blow, then stabbing his head on the tip of a spear and showing it to the people gathered in the square.
If the sentence also included quartering, Mastro Titta divided the body of the executed into four parts with determination, as an expert butcher would do, hanging the macabre remains on the four corners of the scaffold.
Mastro Titta had a long and famous career, carrying out as many as 516 executions between 1796 and 1864. Bugatti had a very generous salary and also benefited from numerous subsidies of various kinds, both for executions and for additional duties. This allowed him to maintain a certain elegance: he was clean and accurate in every detail and even a bit of a snob. Mastro Titta, however, had to follow some strict rules: for example, he could never “cross the bridge” to go to the center of Rome. Moreover, being a Catholic and a faithful servant of the Pope, he had to go to confession and take communion every time he had to execute someone.
Return now to Via della Conciliazione, approaching number 30 where the Torlonia Palace stands, whose construction began in the 16th Century at the behest of Cardinal Adriano Castellesi. The façade faced the already mentioned Via Alessandrina, which Pope Alexander VI had opened in view of the Jubilee of 1500, to facilitate the flow of pilgrims to St. Peter’s Basilica. Giorgio Vasari attributed the construction to the architect Donato Bramante, while more recent studies attribute it to Andrea Bregno. Cardinal Castellesi donated the palace to King Henry VIII of England who, in 1519, assigned it to Lorenzo Campeggi, legate of Leo X at the Court of England.
As a result of the Anglican Schism, the palace was confiscated by the Apostolic Chamber, which owned it until 1760, when it was purchased by Cardinal Giraud. In 1820, finally, the palace was purchased by the Torlonia family, who had it restored and expanded by the architect Gennari. The Torlonia Palace still presents a style linked to the end of the 15th Century, with a harmonious courtyard with arcades on square pillars, decorated with statues, ancient busts and two fountains with marble reliefs.
PALACE OF THE CONVERTENDI
Continuing along Via della Conciliazione, at number 36 there is the Palace of the “Convertendi”, which once stood in the middle of the famous “Spina di Borgo” and overlooked the destroyed Scossacavalli Square: from the old palace, now demolished and rebuilt in the ancient forms, only the beautiful entrance portal remains. The “convertendi” were the heretics who had asked for the consolation of the Catholic religion.
Passing now on the left side of Via della Conciliazione, go to number 51 to admire the Cesi Palace, built for Cardinal Francesco Armellini, who was the treasurer of Pope Clement VII and who was able to save himself from the Sack of the Lansquenets by being lifted up on the walls in a large basket: his luck was short lasting, however, considering that the cardinal died of a broken heart inside the St. Angel’s Castle, for having been forced to abandon in the hands of looters the money contained within this building. The Cesi Palace is decorated by a beautiful portal with Doric pilasters; on the corner, at the height of the main floor, you can see an ancient marble lion’s head.