ROMAN ITINERARIES – CAMPO MARZIO DISTRICT – ITINERARY 16
CAMPO MARZIO DISTRICT – ITINERARY 16
The Campo Marzio District Itinerary 16 will give you the opportunity to make a stroll along two important roads of the “main trident” of Rome, closing the tour with the amazing panoramic view from the Villa Medici’s tearraces.
Via del Babuino – Via Margutta – Via d’Alibert – Via San Sebastianello – Viale Trinità de’ Monti – Via Gabriele D’Annunzio – Piazzale Napoleone I – Via dell’Obelisco – Villa Borghese – Porta Pinciana – Via di Porta Pinciana
VIA DEL BABUINO
When Pope Paul III began the construction of the street that took the name “Pauline” from him, the area was a continuous sequence of vegetable gardens and uncultivated meadows. In all probability, a first arrangement of the area is to be attributed to Pope Clement VII, who had some works carried out between 1529 and 1534, to settle the bottom of the Pincio Hill, also tracing a driveway that took the name of Via Clementina, to be then called Via Paolina Trifaria after the intervention of Paul III (1534-1549).
Paul III, however, not only adapted and paved the street but, in order to promote the urbanization and population of this suburban area of the city, added the fiscal aspect, ensuring an exemption from taxes for all foreigners who had settled along this road to exercise their profession and a substantial tax relief for homeowners. These actions had a decisive importance for the development of the zone, so that the area between Via del Babuino and Via Margutta was filled with strangers.
In the evolution of the names that characterized this street, at a certain point the street took the name of Via del Babuino (Baboon’s Street).
THE INHABITANTS OF THE STREET
Via del Babuino immediately became a very important avenue, to the point that hotels, embassies and luxury residences moved on the street, while on the hill above the noble families built magnificent suburban villas between the 16th and 17th Century. Among the hotels, it is worth mentioning the Hotel of Russia (today Hotel de Russie), the only one that at its time could proudly boast (the only one in Rome) the presence of electricity in all rooms, and that hosted kings and princes, with sumptuous parties held in its saIons. In it, as recalled by a plaque placed at number 9, Jerome Bonaparte, known as Plon Plon, died in 1891.
In addition to kings and ambassadors, Via del Babuino also hosted famous names in the artistic field, from Mario dei Fiori to Nicolas Poussin, from Richard Wagner to the goldsmith Luigi Valadier, father of that Giuseppe Valadier to whom we owe the renovation of the People’s Square. At number 14, in 1891, the great Roman dialectal poet Trilussa was born too.
A large number of artists obviously meant to have a meeting place, and for this reason at number 165 there was the Tavern of the Baboon and at number 175 there was once the historic Milk Dairy Taddei, where the most penniless artists could feed themselves on credit.
Via del Babuino, however, was for decades the street of antique dealers, art restorers, and the studios of famous artists. It would be very difficult for a young person to maintain the high cost of a pied-à-terre located in these places, even if modest and unadorned. Today Via del Babuino is an aristocratic and slightly melancholic street, very different from what it would have been just a couple of centuries ago. It is a place where you can collect your ideas, zig-zagging from one shop window to another, in combining two of the most monumental and spectacular squares of Rome.
THE STATUE OF THE BABOON
The statue of the so-called Babuino (Baboon) sparked a violent diatribe among scholars, split on many different versions.
MONSTER OR SAINT?
According to many experts, we are undoubtedly looking at the statue of a Silenus, probably from a nymphaeum: the Silenus was a mythological character, often elderly and with animalistic attributes, endowed with great wisdom and often even divination. The one who decorates the fountain in Via del Babuino is lying on one side, with an absent air and indecipherable venerable age. According to other scholars, in particular the eminent Cardinal Dezza, the figure seemed more like St. Jerome, exhausted by penance, and this evidence was so clear to force all the clergymen, whenever they passed in front of the statue, to bow in deep reverence.
But no one, neither among the laymen nor among the cardinals, had calculated the ironic popular spirit of the Roman citizens. When the statue (silenus or saint) was placed as an ornament of a fountain for public use, wanted by Pius V along the Via Paolina, the Romans took a look at it and immediately nicknamed it “er Babuino” or rather “er Babbuino“, with the traditional double B Romanesque.
THE STUDIO OF ADAMO TADOLINI
Today the fountain awaits you, somewhat blackened by dirt, under the ancient studio of the sculptor Adamo Tadolini, the favorite pupil of Antonio Canova: from 1818 to 1967 the Atelier in Via del Babuino remained in the possession of four generations of sculptors belonging to the Tadolini family, who for two centuries handed down the art of sculpture from father to son.
The sculpture of Silenus suffered many vicissitudes: first transported along the Via Flaminia, it was later moved inside the Boncompagni Palace, then inside the Cerasi Palace, until it appeared along the road you are travelling today.
THE SIX TALKING STATUES OF ROME
According to tradition, it would be a respectable member of the congregation of the Talking Statues of Rome, in the company of the very famous Pasquino (near Navona Square) and the less famous Marforio, a gigantic river statue from the 1st Century BC (currently in the courtyard of the New Palace of the Capitoline Museums), of Madama Lucrezia, mighty remnant of a statue of Isis (now in St. Mark’s Square), of Abbot Luigi, statue of an ancient orator (on the left side of the Church of St. Andrew of the Valley) and of the Porter in Via Lata.
These statues, with their dialogues carried out with strokes of parchment leaves, compensated with their ironic and sarcastic jokes the total lack of freedom, both of press and of opinion, which unfortunately plagued the Papal State.
THE CHURCH OF ST. ATHANASIUS OF THE GREEKS
The cosmopolitan spirit encouraged by the aforementioned dispositions of Paul III is still highlighted today by a series of situations, as well as by a deep-rooted tradition. From this point of view, the palm of antiquity belongs to the Church of St. Athanasius of the Greeks, a controversial work of Martino Longhi the Elder or perhaps Giacomo Della Porta, to whom are attributed the two bell towers, built between 1580 and 1582. The consecration of the church took place on the day dedicated to the saint, on May 2nd 1583.
The interior of the church (officiated with Byzantine rite in Greek language) breaks out of the traditional schemes of its time, presenting itself with a short nave and two chapels, deep but not enough to constitute a Greek cross. Three circular apses, two in the chapel or transverse nave, the third in the straight one form a trefoil solution, almost unique in Rome.
The interior decoration is harmonious and refined, thanks to the effect of the vaults and Corinthian pilasters that detach from the body of the building, emphasizing its movement. Among the various frescoes, we point out those in the apse, realized by Cavalier d’Arpino and representing “the Crucifixion of Christ” and “the Coronation of the Virgin Mary“.
THE CHURCH OF ALL SAINTS
If the Church of St. Athanasius of the Greeks has the primacy of antiquity, the Church of All Saints has that of modernity. On the other hand, how could a Protestant church have existed before 1870?
Built in 1882 (thus representing the first Protestant church in Rome), but with a bell tower inaugurated only in 1937, with its red terracotta bricks and its “gothic revival” line is unwelcome to many purists, but represents a small tribute of gratitude to the Anglo-Saxon world.
Inside stands out the pinkish stone, coming from Arles, which is accompanied by other varieties of Italian marble. The church, equipped with three naves, has the walls of the side ones characterized by a continuous series of arches on columns, above which there are the single lancet windows that give light to the environment, with stained glass windows in neo-medieval style, probably the best decoration of the church.
Go back and take Via della Fontanella, so called because of the existence of a small fountain, now disappeared: here John Gibson, a student of Antonio Canova, had his studio.
The street ends merging into Via Margutta, a street that for centuries (until the middle of the 19th Century) has represented a reference point of European culture. The etymology of the name is extremely controversial: according to someone, it derives from the popular term “Marisgutia” (“drops of the sea“), an ironic mockery referred to the open air cloaca that descended towards the Tiber, while according to some others it derives from the name of a barber who had his store along the street, named John but known by everyone with the nickname “Margut“.
Today, there are few real artists along the road, flanked by a few antique stores. The memory, however, has remained indelible, and this represents the “psychological skeleton” of the many art galleries present. Sometimes you could find written memories too: at number 97, a torso with an inscription remembers the painter Giordano Bruno Ferrari, shot in Forte Bravetta in May 1944; in front, at number 32, there is the memory of the Uruguayan painter Carlos Federico Saez.
Via Margutta should be visited “from the inside”, observing the small balconies of the buildings and the slightly disorderly corners that are so bohemian. If you are lucky, you may enter the main door marked with the number 33 and take a look at one of these interiors, still marked by the large windows that give light to the painting studios. According to tradition, here was the studio of the painter Orazio Gentileschi, a dear friend of Caravaggio, who used to paint in the middle of classical fragments stuck in the plaster of the walls.
A little further on, at number 53/b, there was the British Academy founded in 1821 by the painter Sir Thomas Lawrence: the existence of this institution, together with the French one in the Villa Medici above, and not least the nearby studio of Canova, constituted the fascinating swan song of the Campus Martius District as a focal point of European figurative art and beyond.
THE PATRIZI PALACE
Observe now the Patrizi Palace, built by the architect Antonio Bonfigli in 1858 for the Marquis Francesco Patrizi, as recalled by a large inscription on the façade of the palace. Here was the seat of the “Band of Dutch painters“, a consortium of Dutch artists founded in 1623: among these artists, known for their carefreeness and ironically nicknamed by the Romans “birds“, there were Paul Bril and Jan Van Bylert. All of them, however, were followers of the realism expressed by Caravaggio, and from the teaching of the latter the current of the “Bamboccianti“, from the nickname of Pieter Van Laer (1592-1642) known as “the Bamboccio“, authentic glory of our street, took effect.
Finally, even if the exact location of their houses is not known, important painters such as Claude Lorrain and Nicolas Poüssin, famous for his classical characters and splendid landscapes, also lived on Via Margutta.
THE DISTRICT FOUNTAIN
After number 53 you can see one of the famous District Fountains built by the sculptor Pietro Lombardi in 1927, determined to keep the tradition of the street, embellishing his work with a decoration of painter’s easels and their stools, surmounted by a sort of basket with brushes and masks of ancient theater.
THE THEATRE OF THE DAMES
These theatrical masks were linked to a theater that no longer exists today, which stood on the corner of Via di Alibert, at the end of Via Margutta, and Via del Babuino. The small theater, called “Theater of the Dames“, was built by Count Alibert, son of a French gentleman in the retinue of Queen Christine of Sweden, endowed with an authentic business skill in the field of entertainment and fun. In 1664 he had in fact organized in Rome the game of pallacorda, in 1670 he had built the theater of Tor di Nona, in 1671 he had organized a series of shows in the small theater inside the Zuccari Palace.
Unfortunately for him, despite the good success of his performances and after the inauguration of the Theater of Dames, which took place during the carnival of 1717, Alibert failed because of the high costs involved in the shows and the sumptuous scenery, and the theater passed to a company that also included the Knights of Malta.
At this point, however, the theater lost much of its charm: if during the ownership of Alibert the theater had offered the best of the Italian production of its time (Metastasio, Goldoni, Monti and Alfieri), with the new property slipped on the dialectal genre, with low-rent comedies and even circus shows.
Despite certain works made by its last owner, Prince Alexander Torlonia, a terrible fire destroyed the theater on the night of February 15th 1863. It was a real shame because, despite the crisis that struck it, the Theater of the Dames was also one of the very first theaters where women played the female parts, thus making a decisive contribution to the elimination of castrati.
Now return to Via del Babuino and retrace a short stretch in the direction of the Spanish Steps, then take the Climb of St. Sebastianello, characterized by a large niche inserted in that wall that collapsed a few years after the construction of the staircase. In 1733 this large niche took the place of a chapel dedicated to St. Sebastian, so called for a small painting depicting the Saint: in 1967, under the now empty frame, was placed a Christian sarcophagus of the 4th Century that once was at the Oppio Hill after having been at Villa Lante in Bagnaia.
On the left, before arriving to the niche, you meet the English Catholic Church dedicated to St. George, also built at the end of the 19th Century to balance the Church of All Saints, linked to the Protestant faith. For the construction of this church the English also availed themselves of a substantial donation from Prince Torlonia. The architect Carlo Maria Busiri Vici built the church: he chose not to create a real façade, but to insert the small church with an irregular plan inside an already existing institute, dividing the space into three naves with 14 pink granite columns.
The interior of the church is rich in frescoes, some depicting the symbols of the English Martyrs and other the Monastic virtues of Humility, Meditation, Purity and Temperance, all works by Eugenio Cisterna.
After climbing the entire ramp, you will arrive on the Trinità dei Monti Avenue, one of the most famous promenades of Rome, closed on the right by religious schools and the Villa Medici buildings. You will find yourself where once the Horti Luculliani extended, which were actually flanked by the properties of Messalina, Anicii, Acilii and Pinci. The Messalina’s Gardens occupied the eastern side of the hill towards Villa Malta, while the Pinci’s Horti, which gave the name to the whole hill, extended along the current promenade of the Trinity of Mountains and the Villa Medici.
It is now time to talk about Villa Medici, before which there is a column in memory of Galileo Galilei’s visit and the trial brought against him by the Dominicans.
Please, consider that if you want to visit Villa Medici, you can contact Rome Guides to organize a private tour inside of it.
The oldest documentation regarding Villa Medici is the Plan of Rome drawn up by Bufalini in 1551. At that time the building belonged to the Crescenzi family, who sold it in 1564 to Giulio and Giovanni Ricci, nephews of Cardinal Giovanni Ricci from Montepulciano. They entrusted to the architect Nanni di Baccio Bigio the remaking of the complex, which was very expensive (with a cost of over 30,000 scudi) and was completed only in 1572. We do not know if the construction of the road of St. Sebastianello, which Cardinal Ricci had built to better access his property, was part of that huge investment, but it is possible to hypothesize that something did not work in the Ricci family, considering that only a few years later, in 1576, the entire property was sold to Cardinal Ferdinando de Medici at the insignificant amount of 13,000 scudi, thus producing a very substantial loss in just four years.
The Medici immediately made significant changes to the complex, commissioning the architectural revolution to Bartolomeo Ammannati.
THE DECORATIONS OF VILLA MEDICI
The first thing that impresses those who observe this Villa is its layout. On the Trinità dei Monti Avenue the façade is severe and austere, while the one overlooking the elegant internal garden is airy and dynamic, with plenty of movements and adorned with lots of reliefs and ancient architectural parts. From the garden, which is based on the terraces of the Horti Luculliani, you can be enchanted in front of the most original part of the building, consisting of two foreparts that seem to be the extension of the central one, made animated by the porch and the large central arch, while everything soars upwards, in partial imitation of the Church of the Holy Trinity of the Mountains, thanks to the two beautiful panoramic towers.
It is true that Cardinal Alessandro dei Medici used ancient marbles with a certain ease, even placing on the façade a series of decorations from the Ara Pacis of Augustus, but it is also true that he spared no expense to enrich his property with both ancient and modern statues, among which the famous “Mercury” by Giambologna stands out in its precarious but very elegant balance at the base of the staircase overlooking the garden. The statuette rests on the tip of the right foot and presents itself in the act of taking flight, with the left leg leaning backwards. The young god appears naked, with two small wings above the heels; the right arm is leaning forward while the left one, closer to the body, supports the caduceus, the rod symbol of the god, on which two snakes are twisted.
THE FRENCH SCHOOL OF FINE ARTS
In 1770, when both the Medici and the Grand Duchy of Tuscany became extinct, Villa Medici passed to the Hapsburg-Lorraine, that after only seven years tried to sell it, demanding however the absurd price of 80.000 scudi, that drove away every possible buyer. The disinterest for the building was now evident, so much so that when the French troops of General Berthier arrived in 1798, Villa Medici was in a state of complete abandonment.
It was also for this reason that the French School of Fine Arts, whose foundation dates back to 1666, found in 1804 a final and prestigious accommodation in this Villa, which still retains the name of the Medici. Still today the French Academy of Fine Arts welcomes every year, in September, a new group of scholarship holders, selected by an international jury on the basis of criteria of excellence through a competition based on the presentation of a project and a dossier.
Many personalities were hosted in Villa Medici: from Galileo Galilei, guest of the Grand Duke of Tuscany, after having been prisoner in the convent of St. Maria over Minerva, to Maria de Medici and the great Spanish painter Velazquez.
VILLA MEDICI AND THE QUEEN CHRISTINE OF SWEDEN
Villa Medici is also indirectly known for the extravagances of Queen Christine of Sweden, who supposedly shot there (probably during a night of alcoholic intoxication) with the “Spinosa“, a famous artillery piece of the St. Angel’s Castle, four cannon shots, just to warn one of her lovers who, in order to flee from her, had taken refuge under the protection of the Medici.
One of the four cannonballs still decorates the fountain on the other side of the Trinità de’ Monti Avenue, in front of the portal of Villa Medici, while a recess in the bronze door of the villa would still indicate the precision of the cannon shots.
THE VILLA MEDICI’S OBELISK
In the middle of the garden stands a small obelisk, a reconstruction of the so-called Medici Obelisk, found in Rome in 1550 near a Temple of Isis and then placed in this garden by Cardinal Ferdinando dei Medici. The original, just over 6 meters high and made of pink granite, was brought to Rome in the I Century B.C. and is now in the Boboli Gardens in Florence, where it was transported in 1790.
THE VILLA MEDICI’S GARDEN
The garden of Villa Medici, however, hides other surprises: among statues and sarcophagi used as fountains, in the middle of square flowerbeds, will suddenly appear before your eyes copies (the originals are now in the Uffizi Museum in Florence) of Niobe’s group and his sons. The original statues, Roman age replicas of originals dating back to the 2nd Century B.C., depict the revenge of Apollo and Artemis against Niobe and her offspring, and were found in 1583 at St. John’s Gate, being immediately purchased by Cardinal Ferdinando de Medici.
THE OTHER ROOMS OF VILLA MEDICI
In terms of pictorial decoration, do not miss the Aviary, the Cardinal’s Small Office, but especially the three rooms of the noble apartment, decorated between 1584 and 1586 by Jacopo Zucchi and equipped with luxurious furnishings, with vestments of Spanish leather adorned with gold and grotesque.
The Room of Jupiter’s Loves is now very ruined, but the other two rooms are small masterpieces: if in the Hall of the Wedding of Jupiter and Juno you will find mythology mixed with alchemy and meteorology, with a real personification of atmospheric phenomena, in the Hall of the Muses the nine half-divinities surround the central oval-shaped painting, in a symbolic union between astronomy, astrology and philosophical theories.
After the first ramp, the avenue takes the name of Gabriele D’Annunzio, the writer who set most of his novel “The Pleasure” in this part of Rome.
Before going up again, in a small widening there is the bronze group dedicated to the brothers Enrico and Giovanni Cairoli, the XIX Century creation of Ercole Rosa, who captured the climax of the clash at Villa Glori in 1867. On one side are engraved the names of the fallen in the unfortunate blitz and the words of Garibaldi: “Greece had its Leonidas, ancient Rome its Fabi and modern Italy its Cairoli“.
A little further on stands a marble lion with its paw resting on a rock; its size is far from indifferent, and it could be the symbol of the Borgo District, already known at the time of Pope Sixtus V. Not far from the lion there is the bronze statue representing the leader Alberto da Giussano, a figure whose existence has never been certified but considered the protagonist of the Battle of Legnano in 1176, with which the Italian Communes gathered in the Lombard League defeated the army of Emperor Frederick Barbarossa.
THE CASINA VALADIER
Going up a short ramp you will reach the large square dedicated to Napoleon I, and you can enjoy the view of the beautiful Casina Valadier. Built on the cisterns that fed the Acili’s Horti (which still appear around here and there with reticulated structures), it was completed in 1816 and became one of the historical places of the Campus Martius District.
The building takes its name from its designer, the Roman architect Giuseppe Valadier, who designed a cubic volume, which is supported by an elegant exedra with Ionic columns: the house, also for its panoramic position, immediately became a very fashionable location, and many important people attended it over the years. A recent renovation has restored the refined atmosphere of the neoclassical interior, rich in frescoes and paintings in Pompeian style.
THE BUSTS OF THE PATRIOTS
The idea of decorating this walk with the busts of the most important people of Italy came to Giuseppe Mazzini, during his brief triumvirate of the Roman Republic in 1849. The discussion, which involved cardinals and important religious offices of the time, focused on the opportunity to immortalize particularly controversial characters: for this reason, Girolamo Savonarola changed his appearance to become Guido Aretino, the impetuous Vittorio Alfieri became the more reliable Vincenzo Monti, and the Venetian theologian Paolo Sarpi became the composer Pier Luigi from Palestrina. Nowadays, unfortunately, vandalism levels everyone, detaching noses and ears, independently from the identity of the single characters…
THE SMALL OBELISK AND THE FOUNTAIN OF MOSES
We walk along via dell’Obelisco, which obviously takes its name from the graceful obelisk that appears in a small square. The Roman Emperor Hadrian had it erected on the tomb of his beloved Antinous, who perished in the waters of the Nile, and the hieroglyphics hand down his memory. Not far away, between the obelisk and Casina Valadier, you can see the Fountain of Moses: it consists of a large circular basin with a marble female statue in the center, bent over the water in the act of collecting the wicker basket containing the newborn Moses. The work, with its rich lake vegetation and papyruses evoking the Nile, was created by the sculptor Ascanio di Brazzà in 1868.
THE WATER CLOCK
Now return to via dell’Obelisco and, heading towards Villa Borghese, reach Viale dell’Orologio on the left, which takes its name from a very interesting water clock, a masterpiece of mechanics by the Dominican Giambattista Embriago, erected here in 1867 in the middle of a pretty artificial lake, on a scenic hill formed by rocks. Its operation is guaranteed by the jet of water below that sets the pendulum in motion, thus winding its movement and, with it, the chime by alternating the filling of two basins.
A little further on, you can see the quite rhetorical statue of Enrico Toti, Italian patriot of the First World War, cast by the sculptor Arturo Dazzi in 1922.
The corner of the Villa dominates from above the so-called Muro Torto, which must have been a part of the supporting wall of the ancient Horti, and which in 573 A.D. became the fulcrum of Belisario’s defense against the assault of Vitige, in a gigantic battle that involved the whole area from the Flaminia Gate to the Nomentana Gate.
THE PINCIANA GATE
Cross the bridge that joins the Pincio with the Villa Borghese, arriving in front of the Pinciana Gate: at the time of Emperor Aurelian, it was supposed to be at most a “posterula” (a small gate in the walls), but it acquired a different strategic importance at the time of the Gothic Wars. According to another Roman legend, the great general Belisarius spent the last years of his life as a beggar, alone and abandoned, weakened by the hardships of life, asking for charity to passers-by.
Once you pass the gate, descend via di Porta Pinciana and, after a hundred meters, you will arrive in front of Villa Malta, indicated in some ancient maps also as “Pine Garden“. The current name of Villa Malta, well highlighted on the marble plaque beside the gate, appeared only in the 18th Century, when the Bailiff de Breteuil, a sort of ambassador of the Order of the Knights of Malta in Rome, lived there.
The large estate, built in the 16th Century by the Orsini family on the land belonging to the ancient Horti Luculliani, was embellished by a watchtower, now ornamented and lightened. Passed from the Orsini to the Mattei family, the villa became in 1613 the property of the Minimi of the nearby convent of the Holy Trinity of the Mountains.
Rented to a large number of people, but sold to no one in spite of the requests made even by such distinguished personalities as Queen Casimir of Poland, Villa Malta constantly conquered the Germanic soul. Not only did Goethe plant date palms there, but important German personalities such as King Ludwig I of Bavaria, Duchess Amalia of Braunschweig, German Romantic theorist Giovanni Goffredo Herder and poetess Federica Brun (who wrote here her poem “Roemischen Leben“) chose it as their favorite residence. The secret of the Villa can perhaps be encapsulated in a recount of the romantic King Ludwig of Bavaria: “Here the king finds the man he had lost“.
Another illustrious guest was Giuseppe Balsamo, Count of Cagliostro, who held some secret meetings there in 1789, until the papal police raided the house and arrested the adventurer taking him to the jail of St. Angel’s Castle.
Inhabited by the Altemps family around 1873, they planted those roses that gave the building its third name: Villa of the Roses. After the Second World War the Villa was bought by the Jesuits, who installed there the editorial staff of the magazine “La Civiltà Cattolica” (The Catholic Civilization) carrying out for the occasion important works of extension and adaptation, but trying not to alter the style of the building: thus the grandiose atrium, the entrance staircase, the new southern wing for the writers’ residence and the large library with five underground floors were built.