ROMAN ITINERARIES – CAMPO MARZIO DISTRICT – ITINERARY 18
CAMPO MARZIO DISTRICT – ITINERARY 18
Once out of the SPAGNA stop of the Metro Line A, cut the crowd that fills the Spanish Steps at all times and take Via Borgognona, apparently quieter than the other parallel streets, to start the Itinerary 18 of the Campo Marzio District.
Via Borgognona – Via Bocca di Leone – Via del Corso – Via della Fontanella Borghese – Via della Pallacorda – Piazza Firenze
The name derives from the fact that foreigners from Burgundy resided on the street at the end of the 15th Century; Via Borgognona did not only host artists, scholars or merchants, because it acquired a certain “fame” due to the massive presence of prostitutes and leisure houses.
The first part of the street is slightly downhill: in the Fifties, the building on the left hosted the first, and then unique, Chinese Restaurant of Rome, which immediately became known for being frequented by various exponents of the “Dolce Vita” of the time, more than for the novelty it represented.
THE HOTEL OF ENGLAND
At the intersection with Via Bocca di Leone, so called because of the ornament of a manhole of the Trevi Water, stands a small square in front of the famous Hotel of England: an inscription recalls the Roman stay of the Polish writer Henryk Sienkiewicz, author of the novel Quo Vadis?, but much more numerous were the presences of illustrious figures, including Vincenzo Gioberti, who stayed there in 1848 and who among the popular enthusiasm changed the name of the street from Via Borgognona to Via Gioberti (unfortunately for him, for a very short time).
THE TORLONIA FOUNTAIN
Next to it, you can see the modest fountain with Latin inscription wanted by Marino Torlonia, who to build it demolished the building where his family’s money-changing office was located. You can see a large Roman sarcophagus, carved in bas-relief with maidens and fauns around the medallion with the portrait of a togato man. A large mask pours water into it in a fan shape, which then flows out through two spouts inserted at the base of the sarcophagus, raised on two lion-like legs.
Opposite you can see the Nuñez-Torlonia Palace, built in 1660 by Giovanni Antonio De Rossi, probably on a project by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, for the Marquis Francesco Nuñez-Sanchez and then passed, at the beginning of the 19th Century, first to Lucien Bonaparte, Napoleon’s brother, then to Jerome Bonaparte and finally for a short time also to Letizia Ramolino, the emperor’s mother. The renovation of the palace was carried out by the architect Antonio Sarti, who embellished the interior, replacing the travertine steps of the most luxurious marble shelves, enriching the vaults with valuable stuccoes and adding magnificent statues and bas-reliefs to the bare landings.
And here we are at the crossroads with Via Mario dei Fiori, so called in memory of the studio of the painter Mario Nuzzi (1603-1673) who, considering his preference for painting flowers, ended up being remembered also in his nickname for this characteristic.
THE RUSPOLI PALACE
The last part of Via Borgognona up to Via del Corso, which already announces a short distance with the imposing façade of the Ruspoli Palace, is a succession of ateliers of well-known designers of both clothing and leather goods, giving the street a very different color and liveliness compared to the first part of the route.
Reached Via del Corso, in front of it there is the imposing Ruspoli Palace, built in 1556 by the architect Bartolomeo Ammannati for the Rucellai family, then passed to the Caetani family and finally purchased by the Ruspoli family in 1776. The Ruspoli obtained their four quarters of nobility with the concession of the marquisate (later to become principality) of Cerveteri in 1647, as recognition by Pope Clement X in exchange for the complete supply of military equipment for a papal infantry regiment.
The Ruspoli Palace hosted personalities of considerable historical importance: in particular the former Queen of Holland, Hortensia, with her son Louis Napoleon, who later became Napoleon III, lived there.
THE CAFFÈ NUOVO
In his famous Diary, Stendhal counted the Ruspoli Palace among the twenty-five palaces of secondary interest in Rome, dwelling in particular on a specific part of it: the “Caffè Nuovo“, considered in his time as one of the most beautiful in Rome, especially important for being frequented by an authentic elite in Europe.
The Caffè Nuovo is very famous for a curious event, which unfortunately put an end to his glorious career. On July 4th 1849, during the fall of the Roman Republic, a small handful of French soldiers, who entered the Café, were refused even water. Their command reacted by transforming the Café into a small dining room for the troops, and this remained so until 1870.
THE FAMOUS STAIRCASE
With the description of the Stendhal you can have a valid idea of this place: “The frescoes in the rooms occupied by the Cafe are by a French painter. The large hall in which Mr. Demidoff had the vaudevilles represented is very curious to see, and the staircase is magnificent“.
It is precisely this staircase, designed by Martino Longhi the Younger and composed of 100 marble steps three meters long, to represent the highlight of the Ruspoli Palace, because in a well-known nursery rhyme it was mentioned (along with the Borghese’s Harpsichord, the Farnese’s Dice and the Carboniani’s Gate) as one of the four wonders of modern Rome. The fame of this staircase obscures even the decorations of the noble floor, with the frescoes by Jacopo Zucchi, depicting “The Genealogy of the Gods“, “The Triumphs of the Gods” and on the walls “The Seven Kings of Rome” alternating with ancient busts of emperors.
VIA DELLA FONTANELLA BORGHESE
Cross Largo Goldoni and go on Via della Fontanella Borghese. As many other ones, this street too was characterized by an evolution of its toponymy, as it was initially called Via del Clementino, then Via della Trinità, and finally Via Caetani, for the aforementioned events of the Ruspoli Palace. The actual name would have been attributed to it for the presence of a small fountain still existing at the corner with Via del Leoncino, surmounted by a small sacred 18th Century aedicule.
This street is marked by an admirable perspective vision too: with an urban planning direction that tried in every occasion to combine practicality and aesthetics, Via della Fontanella Borghese frames from any point the steps of the Spanish Steps, the Sallustian Obelisk and the Church of the Trinity framed by the two bell towers.
The street is a sort of widespread museum, thanks to the presence of numerous antique dealers and restorers: paintings, statues, artistic objects of different nature, Greek and Roman vases ogle from the windows, launching messages full of charm.
The street leads to the Fontanella Borghese’s Square, which seems to be all one with the Borghese Square. The square is filled with a lively antique market that, though less solemnly than the stores mentioned above, offers the public a stall full of antique prints and books.
THE BORGHESE PALACE
We have already talked about the well-known popular nursery rhyme that, in the 16th and 17th centuries, stated that there were four wonders in Rome: the Borghese’s Harpsichord, the Farnese’s Dice, the Caetani’s Staircase and the Carboniani’s Gate.
THE BORGHESE FAMILY
The Borghese family was one of the most powerful noble families in Rome. The enormous fortune reached by the family is still evident today from the presence of numerous palaces, boundless gardens and several properties scattered everywhere. The notoriety of the Borghese family was decisively pushed forward by the ascent to the papal throne of Pope Paul V in 1605 (at the registry office, Camillo Borghese), who was elected thanks to his diplomatic ability and his ability to keep well away from the political currents of his time and from the love impulses that knocked down other possible contenders. Rigid and intransigent to the extreme in many matters, the Pope was, on the other hand, largely munificent towards his relatives, to whom he assured dizzying rents, important assignments and considerable wealth. The ostentation of luxury and wealth became the norm for the members of this family, originally from Siena.
The Della Genga family had an elegant residence built in the second half of the 16th Century in this place, probably commissioning the work to the architect Vignola. When the Borghese family became the owners of the building, purchased in 1605, they had it completed by the architect Flaminio Ponzio, who would create a curious “keyboard” façade, which gave the building the nickname of “harpsichord” thanks to the plan of the building which, being trapezoidal, resembles the ancient musical instrument. If you don’t have it present, you can visually imagine a large grand piano that, instead of shrinking on the opposite side of the keyboard, tends to widen forming a sort of “tail”.
This coup de genius, however, is not the official entrance to the Palace, although it is the most famous part of it: it was a sort of double panoramic balcony, which made its way through the hodgepodge of the port area, providing a panoramic view of the lively universe of the Tiber.
THE PORTALS AND THE GARDENS
The main entrances of this enormous building are two, one on the Borghese Square and the other on the Fontanella Borghese’s Square: they are two large portals, each with its own balcony, but only the first one is surmounted by a curiously smooth coat of arms. The most important of the two is the second, because through the main door you can access a first majestic courtyard, designed by Martino Longhi the Elder, enriched by two orders of arches on matching columns, which acts as an atrium for the second courtyard, more intimate and secluded, designed by Carlo Rainaldi and decorated in a spectacular way, with three fountains and beautiful classical statues (Diana, Flora and Venus).
Until 1891, the Borghese Palace was famous for its famous art gallery, later transferred to the Borghese Gallery, in the villa of the same name. Currently the interior rooms show a very eye-catching decoration, with works of artists such as Ciro Ferri and Francesco Grimaldi. Since 1922, the Hunting Club has been located on the main floor.
THE CURIOSITIES OF THE BORGHESE PALACE
The Palace is also mentioned by documents as a place of joyful banquets and parties, with some particularly folkloristic notes, such as the Palio (a traditional competition) among the boatmen of the Tiber, organized in 1626 by the Borghese (spectators from their double terrace), or the extravagances of the beautiful Pauline Borghese, sister of Napoleon Bonaparte, who scandalized a puritanical Rome not only in the lively dance parties, but also by being portrayed naked by the sculptor Antonio Canova. To admire this last statue, you can join the Borghese Gallery Tour organized by Rome Guides.
THE NICOSIA SQUARE
Now take the short road that connects this square with Via di Ripetta and reach the Nicosia Square, decorated by what we might call the most “unlucky” fountain in Rome, often buried by dozens of cars in a wild parking lot.
The fountain, which has been in this square only since 1950, was the first one designed by the architect Giacomo della Porta and executed by the French stonemason Giovanni Leminard, and was built in 1572 to be placed in People’s Square. When that square was restored by the architect Giuseppe Valadier, he decided to eliminate it to make room for the four fountains with lions, moving the old fountain in front of the Church of St. Peter in Montorio.
However, even this positioning had to be inappropriate, because the fountain was again disassembled and reassembled here, in the Nicosia Square, mutilating part of its original structures: the only original part is the large basin, obtained with the use of ancient Roman column bases, while the central part, the dolphins and the basin are elements of restoration.
According to a well-established tradition, the four tritons placed in the Fountain of the Moor in Navona Square were initially intended for this one.
Reach now Via della Pallacorda. The game of pallacorda was a sort of ancestor of tennis: it is a very popular hobby in Rome between the end of the 16th Century and the middle of the 18th Century. It was precisely because of a game of pallacorda that the famous painter Caravaggio assassinated his antagonist Ranuccio Tomassoni, being so forced to a daring escape and permanent exile from Rome.
Game aside, this alley hosted for 155 years, from 1715 to 1870, a theater initially called “of Pallacorda” and later (from 1840) the Metastasio Theater: the building hosted works by Goldoni, Rossini and Donizetti, and in 1852 the tenor Toto Cotogni sang there.
THE FLORENCE PALACE
The narrow alley leads to the Florence Palace, so named (like the Venice Square) for the presence of the embassy of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany. From 1861 to 1870 the palace became Austrian property, while later the Ministry of Grace and Justice settled there, before becoming the seat of the Dante Alighieri Institute.
The history of the building is actually much older. Originally, it was the representative palace that the Apostolic Secretary Giacomo Cardelli had had built between 1515 and 1516 by the architect Pierino De Gennaris from Caravaggio. After the Sack of Rome in 1527, the building passed to the Reverend Apostolic Chamber on behalf of Pope Julius III who, forgetting to have obtained it with public money, immediately gave it to his brother Balduino. It was he who commissioned the architect Bartolomeo Ammannati to build the sober and elegant façade and the pleasant inner courtyard. Passed to the Medici family, the palace became the Grand Duke’s Palace and today hosts the Dante Alighieri Society.
THE INNER DECORATIONS
The pictorial decoration of the rooms of the Palace was realized, in two distinct moments, by Primaticcio and Prospero Fontana: the second was dedicated to the decoration of three rooms (the Loggia on the first floor, the Chamber of the Continents and the Hall of the Grand Duke). The most interesting location is the Loggia, whose vault is decorated with scenes from mythology and ancient history which, while not forming a unitary cycle, allude in various ways to the owners, with coats of arms and allegorical symbols.
Ferdinando dei Medici completed the decoration, entrusting his trusted painter Jacopo Zucchi (already found in the description of Villa Medici) with the decoration in mythological key of his two small studios, the Room of the Elements and the Room of the Seasons.