ROMAN ITINERARIES – PARIONE DISTRICT – ITINERARY 22
PARIONE DISTRICT – ITINERARY 22
Once upon a time there was a fabulous animal, called the Griffin: the ancient Greeks depicted it with the head and wings of an eagle and the body of a lion, it was sacred to the god Apollo and guarded its treasures in the far away country of the Hyperboreans, in the extreme northern regions of the Earth. The Parion District took the Griffin as a symbol of pride and nobility and included it in its coat of arms in a silver field.
The name Parione (from the Latin “paries“, wall) refers to a leftover ancient wall, perhaps belonging to the fence that separated one order of steps from the other in the Stadium of Domitian. This wall was enormous in size and the people called it “Parietone” (big wall), the word from which Parione derived. Legend has it that leaning against the wall was a medieval tower belonging to the legendary Palace of Cromatian, a building rich of mosaics, crystals and gold.
Via di Parione, which goes from Via della Pace to Via del Governo Vecchio, was called in the 12th Century Via di San Tommaso in Parione, a name derived from the church of St. Thomas consecrated in 1139.
THE PARIONE DISTRICT IN THE ANCIENT ROME
The area of the District is partly that of the IX Regio Augustea, called the Circus Flaminius. In the area there were the Stadium of Domitian, the Odeon, the Theatre and the Curia of Pompey. The stadium, which stood on the site of the future Navona Square, was built by that emperor around 85 AD and was restored in the III Century by the Emperor Alexander Severus: 275 meters long and 106 meters wide, it could accommodate about 30,000 spectators. The outer perimeter consisted of two orders of arches on travertine pillars with semi-columns; two main entrances opened on the long sides and one in the center of the curved side. The stadium (of which one of the arches is visible both from the street level and entering the Archaeological Area of Domitian’s Stadium) was richly decorated and decorated with statues, one of which could be the one that today is called Pasquino, a copy of a Hellenistic group probably representing Menelaus supporting the body of Patroclus.
Since it was a stadium and not a circus, there were no “carceres” (the gates from which the valleys came out during the races) and no “spina” (the dividing wall of the arena around which the chariots ran): the space was therefore free and there was not the obelisk that currently surmounts the Fountain of the Four Rivers in Navona Square and that comes, instead, from the Circus of Maxentius on the Appian Way. Domitian wanted the construction of this stadium, so that the athletic games of the Certamen Capitolinum, the competitions instituted by the Emperor in honor of Jupiter Capitoline, could be held here.
To this emperor we also owe the construction of the Odeon, restored by Trajan and located approximately in the area limited today by the Church of St. Pantaleo and Corso Rinascimento. It was a building to host the poetic and musical competitions and of which remains as a single trace the beautiful onion column that now stands in the Square of the Massimi. The curvature of the façade of the Massimo Palace overlooking Corso Vittorio Emanuele II reveals the shape of the cavea dell’Odeon, on which it was erected in the 16th Century.
THE PARIONE DISTRICT IN THE MIDDLE AGES
In the Middle Ages the District was called “Parione and St. Lawrence in Damaso“, after the name of the church that was later incorporated in the Chancellery Palace, and was always densely populated until it reached great importance in the 15th century with the area of Campo dei Fiori transformed into a market square (with the famous horse market that was held on Mondays and Saturdays) and a passage for the papal processions, sovereigns and ambassadors. Via degli Orefici was also opened (for the goldsmiths’ stores that stayed there), later nicknamed Via del Pellegrino (Pilgrim’s Way) on the basis of a trattoria that housed the various pilgrims who would eat there and then go to St. Peter’s.
Thanks to the interventions of Popes Sixtus IV and Alexander VI, at the end of the 15th Century, the arrangement and opening of some streets favored the building development of the District, with the construction of many palaces, such as the Orsini Palace and the De Cupis Palace in Navona Square, the Palace of Cardinal Condulmer at the Theatre of Pompey and Le Roy Palace.
At the same time the architects of the 16th Century employed famous artists such as Polidoro from Caravaggio and Maturino from Florence, commissioning them to decorate the façades of their buildings. This tradition, which originated in northern Italy, spread in Rome, both with the technique of graffiti and monochrome, with subjects repeated several times, such as mythological scenes or stories from the Old and New Testament. Certainly, if the buildings were grandiose and well decorated, the streets were very narrow, and often the buildings opened towards the inner courtyards instead of the outside: there were therefore houses with porticoes, with wide courtyards, with small and large loggias, with small turrets and many internal staircases.
The importance acquired by Campo dei Fiori also provoked the rise of vice and corruption, with a real army of high-class professional whores who settled in hotels and inns, and a multitude of highly rated artisans, goldsmiths and silversmiths who opened their stores in these streets (giving them the name of their business). The book trade also flourished, at first manuscripts and then printed by the typography of Corrado Schweynheim and Arnoldo Pannartz, tenants of the first floor of the Massimo Palace.
In the 16th Century, this intense and varied commercial activity moved to Navona Square, in whose houses lived notaries, lawyers and important artists. Unfortunately, gradually, the square lost this cultural atmosphere that had characterized it and opened up to less noble trade. In vain, Pope Innocent X tried to give it back its lost dignity, even by organizing great parties, but over the years Navona Square was increasingly frequented by the middle class, who flooded it with great pleasure.
Many medieval towers still stood here and there: the Mellini Tower, demolished to enlarge the Pamphilj Palace, or the Arpacata Tower, built on the ruins of the Theatre of Pompey.
THE PARIONE DISTRICT IN THE RENAISSANCE AND MODERN TIMES
In the Renaissance, the Popes tried to give a new noble face to Rome, the center of risen Christianity on the ruins of paganism, thanks to the increased building of the city. Under Paul II and Sixtus IV, at the end of the 15th Century, there was the first real development in the Parione District with the construction of the palace of Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia, which was later called “the Old Chancellery“, and the De Cupis Palace which was later enlarged in the 16th Century. The Parione District lost its medieval appearance to acquire a typically Renaissance regularity: Via dei Balestrari and Via dei Giubbonari were, for example, greatly improved in terms of layout and hygiene, and Pope Sixtus IV built the fundamental Sixtus Bridge, a link between the districts of Trastevere and Parione, which came to assume the importance of a sort of new historical center of Rome.
In the 16th Century the urban planning activity reached its maximum development, defining the road network that would remain intact for three centuries: new palaces were built with alacrity and commitment (among others, the Massimo Palace at the Coulmns and the Turci Palace) and at the same time enormous quantities of marble were removed from the ancient buildings. Raphael Sanzio was even appointed by Pope Leo X as Superintendent of Antiquities, promoting studies of ancient topography and archaeology.
The brilliant pontificate of Paul V (1605-1621) worthily inaugurated the 17th Century thanks to imperious building works: the admirable façade of the New Church dates back to 1605, while the construction of the Oratory of the Philippines is dated 1640. A few years later, even Navona Square assumed a new look thanks to the arrangement wanted by Pope Innocent X and thanks to the artistic skill of Gian Lorenzo Bernini.
The 18th Century marked a clear transformation of the District, thanks to the decoration of churches and buildings with noisy and sumptuous stuccoes, while the long pontificate of Pius IX, in the 19th Century, saw the construction of more functional buildings. The opening of Corso Vittorio Emanuele II brought about an evident urban transformation, respecting the monumental buildings of the district with its flexuous course: if some overhanging building obstructed the opening of the street, the facade was demolished and faithfully rebuilt, but a few meters back (for example, the Vidoni Palace).
In the period between the two world wars, the main work is the opening of Corso Rinascimento, opened in 1938 and belonging on the right side to the Parione District and on the left side to the St. Eustace District: the road was built to connect the Umberto I Bridge and Corso Vittorio Emanuele II. In this operation the Church of St. James of the Spanish underwent a radical cut, with a subsequent reconstruction as close as possible to its original appearance.
THE PARIONE DISTRICT – ITINERARY 22
The Itinerary 22 of the Parione District starts from Via di Parione to reach Navona Square and its surroundings. It is one of the longest and densest itineraries of our Roman Itineraries, and requires adequate time to be fully enjoyed.
Via di Parione – Via della Fossa – Piazza del Fico – Via del Governo Vecchio – via della Chiesa Nuova – Vicolo della Cancelleria – Via dei Leutari – Piazza di Pasquino – Piazza Navona – Via dei Canestrari – Passetto delle Cinque Lune – Via della Cuccagna – Piazzetta dei Massimi – Corso del Rinascimento – Piazza di Tor Sanguigna – Via di Tor Millina
THE CHURCH OF ST. THOMAS IN PARIONE
As previously mentioned, Via di Parione was formerly called Via di San Tommaso in Parione. The street, which is irregularly wide and not straight from Via del Governo Vecchio to Via della Pace, seems in some places not yet contaminated by modern renovations.
The road is dominated by the Church of St. Thomas in Parione: consecrated on the day of St. Thomas in 1139 by Pope Innocent II and elevated to the cardinal rank in 1517 by Pope Leo X, it was restored 65 years later to a design by Francesco from Volterra, thanks to the munificent donations of the Roman nobles Mario and Camillo Cerrini. In this church gathered the Congregation of the Writers of Rome, which enjoyed various privileges, among which the exemption to go to war during the years of plague or famine, as well as the payment of the road tax.
The brick façade consists of two orders: the lower one is tripartite with travertine pilasters with Ionic capitals and has a portal with a triangular tympanum in the center. The interior with a nave and two aisles had on the high altar a “St. Thomas touching the rib of Jesus” by an anonymous artist of the 17th Century, now disappeared; in this church was buried the painter Giovan Battista Gaulli, known as Baciccia, who died in 1709 while he lived in the adjacent building.
At number 37 of Via di Parione there is the Palace of the Nardini College, founded by Cardinal Stefano Nardini in 1475. This institution was favoured by Pope Alexander VII in the 17th Century, but one century later it ended its activity for lack of economic means. The building, with a 15th Century portal surmounted by Nardini’s coat of arms, consisting of three stars with the head of Anjou and the inscription “COLLEGIVM NARDINVM“, was restored in the late 19th Century by the architect Virginio Vespignani on commission of the Pius Congregation of the Picens.
THE PIUS CONGREGATION OF THE PICENS
The Palace that is today known as the Pius Congregation of the Picens, at number 7, was the home of Pope Sixtus V. It was built by the Pontiff who, although he did not live here, frequently visited his great-granddaughter Flavia Peretti. Around the middle of the 17th Century the palace was donated by the new owner, Monsignor Giovanni Andrea Castellani, to the Confraternity of the Holy House of Loreto of the Picens, which later became the Pius Congregation of the Picens. The façade has arched and architraved windows on the first floor, while the main door shows a beautiful architrave with two roses, which are a heraldic element of the Orsini coat of arms. The atrium leads into a small columned courtyard with grotesque decorations, probably designed by Giacomo Della Porta. Observe the rich cornice and, in the central wall, the frieze with winged cherubs, masks, birds and vases, surmounted by a band with carved bear heads with roses in the mouth (heraldic elements of the Orsini family).
The internal decorations are very pleasant. Inside there is a columned loggia with a ceiling painted in the 16th Century by Cavalier d’Arpino and Federico Zuccari; the ducal apartment also has walls frescoed with allegorical subjects and a valuable wooden coffered ceiling with golden roses. The coats of arms of the Peretti and Orsini families appear from several parts. There are paintings by Antoniazzo Romano (15th Century), Federico Barocci (16th Century) and Francesco Podesti (19th Century). In reality, the palace is not characterized by grand halls or majestic courtyards, but offers small spaces, pretty rooms and that delightful upper courtyard, with its exquisitely scenic appearance, intended as a hall for concerts or theatrical performances in the family.
VIA DEL GOVERNO VECCHIO
Now reach the Fig Tree Square, so named for a fig tree that once existed in the center of it, and from there reach Via del Governo Vecchio. This street was once called Via Papale (Papal Street) because the processions that accompanied the Pope, when he went to the Basilica of St. John in Lateran to take possession of it, paraded along it. As in the Nardini Palace (at number 39) there was the seat of the Governor of Rome since 1624, the street later took the name Via del Governo, until in the 18th Century the offices were transferred to the Madama Palace on the order of Pope Benedict XIV, thus giving the street the name Via del Governo Vecchio.
Since not all of the street belongs to this District, in this Itinerary 22 you will cover only the part included in the Parione District.
THE NARDINI PALACE
Start exactly, at number 39, with the grandiose Nardini Palace, built in the years 1473-1477 by Cardinal Stefano Nardini (on the architrave of the windows is still written the name of the founder, “Nardinus“) and that, as just said, was also the seat of Government. Partially a fortress and partially an elegant Renaissance residence, the Palace also had three towers and three different façades in the early days. On the sides of the portal, decorated with a diamond-point frame, there is a plaque depicting the relief of Christ, which attests the Cardinal’s donation to the Pious Saviour’s Hospital in Lateran and the Academy of Humanistic Arts. The vast courtyard reveals the phases of construction with inequalities and asymmetries, in contrast to the wide porticoes and airy loggias typical of the Renaissance.
THE FORNARINA’S HOUSE
Return now to Via del Governo Vecchio and stop at number 48 in front of the Sassi Fornari Palace, which once housed many ancient masterpieces. After the 19th Century restoration, only the 15th Century portal remains with the family coat of arms (lion’s head and transversal band) and an inscription placed in the atrium, telling that the Fornarina, named Margherita Luti, Raphael’s lover, would have lived here: “Raphaeli Sanctio quae claruit dilecta hic fertur incoluisse” (it is believed that here lived the one who became famous because she loved Raphael Sanzio).
Returning to Via del Governo Vecchio, stop to observe the Fonseca Palace at number 62: the building was purchased by the doctor of Pope Innocent X, the Portuguese Gabriele Fonseca, who had the palace completely renovated by the architect Orazio Torriani. The palace was then sold to the religious Rosa Venerini, who used it as the seat of the Order of the Pious Teachers she founded, to which it still belongs. The two-storey façade of seven windows, architraved on the first floor and framed on the second floor, opens on the ground floor with a beautiful portal with marble frame.
THE SMALLEST HOUSE OF ROME
A curiosity is constituted, at number 66, by what is considered the smallest house in Rome: it consists of a single floor and a single window, currently has the main door inside a store, because it has been incorporated into the adjacent building.
At number 104 there is one of the most curious buildings of the entire Via del Governo Vecchio. It is a 15th Century house rebuilt in the 18th Century which, in addition to the graffiti on the second floor, shows in the second window on the top floor a fresco depicting the owner of the house (the lawyer Bartolomeo de’ Dossi) looking out onto a small loggia together with his secretary. An oculus surrounded by festoons overlooks the main door, on the architrave of which there is a table of the Archconfraternity of the Sacred Stigmata of Rome overlapped by the inscription that remains partially hidden: “D BARTO NV LIBER“. The cornice is very nice too, decorated with heads, shells and rosettes.
Now take Vicolo della Cancelleria, which goes from Via del Governo Vecchio to Corso Vittorio Emanuele II. In the 16th Century, the street was called “road of the stables“, because here were the stables of the Cardinal Peretti.
The term “Cancelleria” comes from the scribes of the courts of ancient Rome who were arranged “intra cancellos fori“, that is separated from the rest of the courtroom, from which “cancellieri” and “cancelleria“; probably also the verb “cancel” comes from “gate“, because, when it was necessary to delete a writing, they drew lines on it for long and crosswise so as to draw almost a gate.
You arrive in Via dei Leutari, whose name comes from the lute makers who worked there. Flaminio Vacca, sculptor and architect of the 16th Century, narrating the discovery of a colossal statue of Pompeo in 1553, says that it took place “in the street where the luthiers lived at the Chancellery Palace“.
THE STATUE OF POMPEY
The finding of this famous statue of Pompey generated a furious quarrel, because it was found with the head in the property of a person and with the rest of the body in the property of another person. The Judge of the Court ruled, in a solomonic but very foolish way, that the statue should be divided into two parts: luckily for the sculpture, the Cardinal Capodiferro turned to Pope Julius III, who decided to buy the statue from the two contenders and then donate it to the Cardinal, who satisfied placed it in his palace.
A (false) tradition would say that at the foot of this statue was pierced Julius Caesar in the Ides of March 44 BC. The statue, which probably depicts instead the Emperor Domitian, is of later date and is now in the Spada Palace, in the main hall of the Council of State.
THE STATUE OF PASQUINO
Via del Governo Vecchio opens almost like a funnel into the Pasquino Square, whose statue stands on the corner of the Braschi Palace. It is a marble torso, replica of an ancient group of statues from the 3rd or 2nd Century B.C., which perhaps represents Menelaus supporting and defending the body of the dying Patroclus, struck by Hector in the Trojan War. It was discovered in the area in 1501 and was placed by the Cardinal Oliviero Carafa close to his palace, which later became the Braschi Palace.
The people nicknamed the mutilated statue “Pasquino“, the name of a hunchbacked tailor or a very ironic barber who lived nearby. As a consequence, Roman citizens called “pasquinate” the mocking and salacious epigrams against prominent figures (government men, cardinals and Popes) that were posted on Pasquino’s pedestal, written in Latin, Italian and especially in Roman dialect. Even today you can still see several sheets of paper affixed on the base of the statue or in the immediate vicinity of it.
Since the time of Pope Leo X, shortly after the placing of the statue, the pasquinate did not give peace to the authorities, representing in a certain sense a sort of “opposition press“. Although this may seem extravagant, Pasquino signed the anonymous satires and had other statues as interlocutors: Madama Lucrezia (a gigantic bust that came to light during the works for the Venice Palace considered the goddess Isis, currently in St. Mark Square), Marforio (a sea or river goddess placed today in the New Palace of the Capitoline Museums), the Porter (at the beginning of Via Lata), the Abbot Luigi (a Roman toga statue in the Vidoni Square) and the already examined Babuino (which adorns a fountain right along Via del Babuino). All these talking statues formed the “Congrega degli Arguti” (Coven of the Witty Ones).
Several times the Popes thought to destroy the statue of Pasquino, but they were discouraged by the fear of unleashing violent popular protests. Even Hitler, during his visit to Rome, was the object of a famous sarcastic invective.
THE CHURCH OF THE NATIVITY OF JESUS
In front of the statue of Pasquino is the Church of the Nativity of Jesus, officiated by the Society of the Nativity, which prayed for the dying prisoners and for those condemned to death. Tradition has it that here are preserved the bands that wrapped Jesus. The church, which underwent various transformations, today shows itself in its 17th Century appearance, with a portal with finely decorated jambs and at the sides two niches with a shell vault. The interior, with a single nave with barrel vault, contains works such as the Nativity by Cesare Caroselli (1847-1929), the Circumcision by Giovanni Paolo Melchiorri (1664-1745) and the St. Anthony Abbot by Michelangelo Cerruti (1666-1748).
Take Via di Pasquino, skirting the Braschi Palace on the right and having the Pamphilj Palace on the left, leave the labyrinth of alleys you have walked so far and arrive, as if by magic, in the scenic Navona Square, the beautiful, bright and airy living room of Rome.
In order to celebrate the victory of Granada, achieved by the Catholic Kings of Spain Ferdinand II and Isabella against the Muslims on January 2nd 1492 after ten months of siege, the Spanish Pope Alexander VI held great celebrations in Navona Square.
The Square was a place where the festivities, even those of the famous Roman Carnival, took place very frequently. It was also the site of a popular game known as the “cuccagna tree” that was raised in the center of the square: it was a smooth pole sprinkled with soap, on which those who wanted to grab the rich food prizes tied at the top climbed.
THE ARRIVAL OF POPE INNOCENT X
Wednesday then was market day, and in Navona Square a big town fair took place, where money and gossip were exchanged. The dismantling of the market was imposed by Pope Innocent X in 1651, when the Pontiff (determined to dignify the space destined to the Church of St. Agnes) evicted greengrocers, chickens and junk dealers; on the death of the Pope, however, the Cardinal Chamberlain Antonio Barberini abrogated that papal provision, so that all the merchants returned with their stalls, agreeing to pay for the occupation of public land nine hundred scudi per year instead of the previous eight hundred. The charlatans returned, the square and the fountains continued to be soiled, despite the threatening edicts in favor of urban cleanliness.
In 1869 the market was moved to the Campo dei Fiori Square, but after 1870 Navona Square was again invaded by the stalls on Christmas holidays, selling figurines for the nativity scene and sweets for children. At the moment, this joyful and cheerful atmosphere is a bit ruined, as the few stalls left today only sell commercial junk.
THE “ARTIFICIAL LAKE” OF NAVONA SQUARE
Another popular amusement was the “lake“, obtained by shutting down the keys of the Fountain of the Four Rivers and the Moor Fountain. The famous “naumachiae” (the simulations of naval battles) known in Ancient Rome certainly did not take place in this stretch of water: the flooding affected only the southern part of Navona Square. Since 1652, every Saturday and Sunday in August, carriages ran around the square bathing the children, some horses slipped, and there was even some noble aristocrat who appeared with a carriage transformed into a gondola, while the musicians sang and played in the middle of the lake. They watched from the loggias lavishly decorated with ambassadors, princes and foreign nobles. The fireworks completed the show.
It is not known for sure when the last flooding took place, but it was certainly no longer known after 1870.
If you want to visit Navona Square during a Tour, please choose the City Center Tour organized by the Association Rome Guides.
From a panoramic view, for example through one of the top floor windows of the Braschi Palace, Navona Square reveals a great harmony between churches, palaces and fountains within its particular shape, resulting from having used the ancient foundations of Domitian’s Stadium for new buildings. The chronicles tell that, at the time of its reconstruction, Pope Innocent X often wandered around the square, supervising the works and wishing to give it a scenic appearance, a sort of contemplative architectural pause for the enjoyment of the eyes and spirit.
THE LANCELLOTTI PALACE
The Braschi Palace and the Lancellotti Palace close the square to the south. The Lancellotti Palace, at number 114, was built in the 16th Century, incorporating several houses, at the behest of the Spanish Archbishop Ludovico de Torres and by the architect Pirro Ligorio. In the 18th Century, the palace housed Girolamo Mainardi’s chamber printing house, while in the 19th Century the architect Giuseppe Valadier arranged the rooms for the performances of famous operas. For a decade there was also the seat of the Tiberine Academy.
The façade, regular and severe, is balanced but has no original cues, with arched portal and architraved windows; the cornice is decorated with leonine protomes, ovules, notches and rosettes. The entrance has a grotesque painted vault, while inside stand out the beautiful wooden ceilings and the Hall of Landscapes by Agostino Tassi.
THE CHURCH OF ST. JAMES OF THE SPANISH
Continuing along the right side of Navona Square we stop in front of Via dei Canestrari, so called because the basket makers worked here. On the left is the Palace of the Spanish Establishments, whose main door is surmounted by the traditional “pilgrims’ shell”.
Then there is the Church of St. James of the Spanish, today the Church of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart: the church was built by the Bishop of Seville Alfonso Paradinas (whose name can be read in the votive inscription on the portal) around 1450 with a façade on Via di San Giacomo, a street that today no longer exists for the opening of Corso Rinascimento. The Renaissance façade was executed at the behest of Pope Alexander VI in 1500 on Navona Square, and just 14 years later Antonio da Sangallo the Younger renovated the church.
Starting from the 18th Century on, as a consequence of the political and religious events in Spain, the church underwent a slow decline and in the 19th Century it was sold to the French missionaries of the Sacred Heart. In 1938, on the occasion of the opening of the Corso Rinascimento, the orientation of the naves was turned upside down and the apse, which overlooked the Sapienza Palace, was destroyed, building a façade with a vaguely Renaissance tone on Corso Rinascimento.
But now look at the most interesting façade, the one overlooking Navona Square: it is longer than high and is divided by pilasters into three parts, in each of which is a rose window and an arched window. In the central part there is a rich 15th Century portal, with in the pediment two angels holding the coat of arms of Castile and Leon; under the right angel there is the signature “opus Mini” and under the left one “opus Pauli“, which made us think of the sculptors Mino from Fiesole and Paolo Romano. The tympanum on the portal has a frieze below with festoons and faces of angels and is surmounted by a statue of St. James, which is also attributed to Paolo Romano.
The interior, without apse and transept, has three naves with side chapels. The important works contained here have been partly transported to St. Mary in Montserrat and to Spanish museums. The Chapel of St. James remains, built by Antonio da Sangallo the Younger and frescoed by Pellegrino Aretusi at the beginning of the 16th Century. Above the altar there is a copy of the statue of St. James by Jacopo Sansovino, whose original is in the Church of St. Mary in Montserrat. Take a last look at the vault of the church, frescoed by Baldassarre Croce, and the 16th Century marble chancel attributed to Pietro Torrigiani.
THE CURVE OF NAVONA SQUARE
Continuing to walk along the perimeter of Navona Square, neglecting the bars and restaurants that overlook the square, you can see the Scaretti Palace (with facades on Navona Square and Madama Square), built in the 17th Century by the Cornovaglia family and remodeled in the 18th Century, with a long balcony on the façade to diversify it from the others.
Reach at this point the curve of the square, where the houses were demolished in 1936 for traffic needs and then rebuilt respecting the ancient shape and the silhouettes of the frames and roofs. At number 50 you can see a baroque shrine of the “Vergine Advocata Nostra“, a late 18th Century painting with harmonious colors.
Enter at this point in the courtyard at number 48, to be delighted by the view of the Vignola Palace, which is modest in size but harmoniously structured, with its elegant portico overlooked by triglyphs and trophies and windows decorated with vases and festoon friezes.
THE INNOCENTIAN COLLEGE
Once you pass the Via di Sant’Agnese in Agone, you will see in front of your eyes the great construction of the Innocentian College of the Pamphilj family, which offered the preparation for the priestly career to the sons of the aristocrats. The palace was built by the architect Francesco Borromini in 1654 on the area of the demolished Rivaldi Palace, purchased by the Pamphilj. The façade on Navona square is dominated by a serliana window, which is a pendant to the one on the left of the church. Noteworthy in the interior is the helicoidal ramp and the courtyard with three orders of slender columns.
The very rich library of Pope Innocent X on the main floor, increased by the various members of the Pamphilj family, was for years the destination of students of various institutions in Rome from the 18th to the 19th Century, while remaining a library for the private use of the family. The vault of the Library Room has frescoes by Francesco Cozza representing “The Apotheosis of the Pamphilj” and the allegory of the three virtues “Liberality“, “Justice” and “Faith“.
THE CHURCH OF ST. AGNES IN AGONE
Observe now the beautiful Church of St. Agnes in Agone.
The word “agone” refers to the medieval term “Navona” Square, as a dialectal corruption of the Greek word “agòn” (arena, place of competitions). A very old church already stood near the Stadium of Domitian, where the Saint would have suffered the martyrdom of the brothel (under the Emperor Diocletian or perhaps Valerian), being exposed to the pillory completely naked, but immediately covered with flowing hair, only to be beheaded or perhaps burned at the stake.
In the 12th Century, Pope Callisto II enlarged the small church, where in 1384 she was baptized Francesca Bussi, nicknamed Ceccolella and later became St. Francesca Romana, who was born in a house in Via di Santa Maria dell’Anima, right in front of our church.
In 1652 Pope Innocent X completely rebuilt the church, entrusting the task to Girolamo Rainaldi and his son Carlo. In 1653, however, after only a year from the beginning of the works, due to misunderstandings with the architects, the Pope dismissed them and called Francesco Borromini in their place, who demolished most of what had been built to recreate on his project the façade, the dome and the bell towers. Borromini’s bad temper and disagreements with the Pope led to the resignation of the great architect and, on the death of the Pope, his nephew Camillo charged a commission of architects to continue the work, contacting Giovanni Maria Baratta, Antonio del Grande and Carlo Rainaldi himself.
The concave façade, an absolute masterpiece by Borromini, is composed of a single order and has pillars and columns with a large dome and a tympanum in the attic; at the sides there are two bell towers, whose bells come from the cathedral of the city of Castro, destroyed in the war with the Farnese.
THE INTERIOR DECORATIONS
The interior, Greek cross-shaped, has the four altars open in the pylons of the dome frescoed by Ciro Ferri, a pupil of Pietro da Cortona, with the baroque and exuberant “Glory of Paradise“, flanked by the pendentives painted by Giovan Battista Gaulli with the four Cardinal Virtues. Borromini left in this church his very evident imprint, while respecting the layout designed by the Rainaldi family: the building, although not gigantic, gives the impression of a grandiose vastness.
The Church of St. Agnes is a sort of ecclesiastical museum, containing works by the most talented sculptors of the 17th Century: “Death of St. Alexis” by Giovanni Francesco Rossi; statue of St. Agnes and “Martyrdom of St. Emerenziana” by Ercole Ferrata; “Holy Family” by Domenico Guidi; “Death of St. Cecilia” by Antonio Raggi; “St. Sebastian” by Pier Paolo Campi; “St. Eustace” by Melchiorre Caffà.
Above the exit door, towering over the worshippers, there is the funeral monument of Pope Innocent X, created by Giovan Battista Maini, while in the basement of the church you can admire the splendid “St. Agnes dragged to martyrdom“, a masterpiece by Alessandro Algardi.
THE PAMPHILJ PALACE
Connected to the Church of St. Agnes, the Pamphilj Palace was built in 1650 by Girolamo Rainaldi at the behest of Giovanni Battista Pamphilj, elected Pope with the name of Innocent X. The Pontiff decided to enlarge the pre-existing 16th Century palace of the family, buying most of the adjacent buildings including the Cybo Palace and all the properties of the Mellini family.
At the end of the 18th Century, the Pamphilj family, now related to the Doria family, decided to live in the palace in Via del Corso, transforming this palace in Navona Square into a residence for cardinals and illustrious men including the poet Vincenzo Monti, the cardinal Brignola and Tommaso Riario Sforza. The palace hosted the Philharmonic Roman Academy, for which a hall (later named after the composer Pierluigi from Palestrina) was restored by the architect Andrea Busiri Vici and inaugurated with the performance of Rossini’s “William Tell“. Since 1960, the Pamphilj Palace hosts the Embassy of Brazil.
The building has a main façade on Navona Square and another one, secondary and without reliefs, on Via di Santa Maria dell’Anima. The first has an extreme monumentality and rich decoration, which makes the architectural motifs converge towards the balcony. On the main floor, the windows are now with acute tympanum and curvilinear, and on each of them there is the dove of the Pamphilj.
From the grandiose portal you enter the large main courtyard which has, on three sides, two rows of arcades with pilasters on two orders, Doric on the first floor and Ionic on the second floor. The second courtyard is joined to the first by a portico with a side with two orders of arches.
THE INTERIOR DECORATIONS
The apartments inside are spacious and luxurious, with the main hall with splendid friezes painted by Francesco Romanelli and wonderful landscapes frescoed by Gaspard Doughet.
The palace’s masterpiece, however, is undoubtedly the vault of the very long Aeneas’ Gallery, painted by Pietro da Cortona with “The stories of Aeneas“. More than 33 meters long and 7 meters wide, built on a project by Francesco Borromini, it was painted in 1651, after the frescoes in the Hall of the Barberini Palace in Rome: the Gallery evokes considerable amazement, imitating on the vault gilded frames, marble statues of nudes, bronze medallions and laurel wreaths. Gods and heroes, represented with naturalness and verisimilitude, tell the story of the Trojan Aeneas, who landed on the coasts of Latium to give rise to the Latin lineage (from which the Romans were born).
LADY OLIMPIA MAIDALCHINI
In the Pamphilj Palace lived the despotic Olimpia Maidalchini, sister-in-law of Pope Innocent X. This figure, because of its importance and its disruptive personality, deserves a few lines of explanation.
Olimpia Maidalchini was born in Viterbo on May 26th 1594. She was one of the three daughters of Sforza Maidalchini. As often happened at the time, the three sisters entered the convent: two wanted to fulfill their vocation, but Olimpia, who had no desire to do so, immediately denounced her confessor for having tried to rape her. The poor priest, completely innocent, was arrested and suspended “a divinis“; only many years later Olimpia, trying to compensate him for her falsehoods, made him bishop.
At the age of 18 Olimpia married Paolo Pini, but she was soon widowed (and very rich). At that point, in her early twenties, she conquered and married fifty-year-old Pamphilio Pamphilj, thus having the opportunity to meet and conquer her brother-in-law, Monsignor Giambattista Pamphilj, destined to become the future Pope Innocent X.
Again, the sudden death of her husband (perhaps poisoned) completely cleared the field for her, allowing her to become the Pope’s main confidant. Folk tales said that, from then on, Olimpia stopped wearing her usual mask of humility and modesty to reveal herself in her true nature: ambitious, greedy and insatiable with riches and power.
Under the statue of Pasquino appeared salacious epigrams about her, the most famous of which was “olim pia, nunc impia” (once pious, now ungodly). The citizens were noisy under the windows of the Pamphilj Palace and called her “Pimpaccia“, while Olympia threw handfuls of money to appease the hostile demonstrations. In 1652, several convents had to be suppressed because of the small number of religious, but for Olimpia the papal decision yielded three hundred gold coins for each convent that she was suppressed. The greatest artists, in order to be commissioned by the Pope, had to offer “a little gift” to the powerful Lady: Gian Lorenzo Bernini, for example, managed to obtain the favors of Olimpia Maidalchini by making her find, in the rooms of the Pamphilij Palace, a model in solid silver, one and a half meters high, of the Fountain of the Four Rivers. Olimpia appreciated it very much and showed it to the Pope, who was forced by her to commission the architect to build the fountain. Everyone talked about the frequent visits between the Pope and his confidant and even talked about the gold weighted litter with which Olimpia was taken back, after the meetings, to her Villa on the Janiculum.
On the death of Innocent X, Olimpia pulled out two boxes full of gold from under the papal bed and took them away: to those who asked her to participate in the expenses of the Pope’s funeral, she replied “What can a poor widow do?“.
At the end, divine justice reached her too. Olimpia, who had been deprived of high papal protection, had to leave Rome and take refuge in her palace in San Martino al Cimino, where she died of the plague. The corpse was brought to Rome and buried in the Church of St. Agnes in Agone, with the priest to remember the virtues of the woman during the funeral prayer and all the Roman people sneering.
From the Pamphilj Palace you can contemplate the entire magnificent square with its three characteristic fountains, whose history is quite different.
THE FOUNTAIN OF THE MOOR
The “Congregation of the Fountains”, in the 16th Century, had planned two fountains for the square, to be placed at both ends of it. In 1574 the architect Giacomo Della Porta began the works, designing the shape of the fountains with a mixed plan and surrounding them with a balustrade. The one towards the Braschi Palace was adorned with a series of decorations that had actually been made for the fountain of the People’s Square: four tritons blowing in the little seashells alternated by four masks between two dolphins with the dragon of the coat of arms of Pope Gregory XIII in the back. The authors of the tritons and masks (Simone Moschino, Taddeo Landini, Egidio de Malines and Giacobbe Silla Longhi) would not be happy to know that their works are no longer here today: what you see are in fact 19th Century copies, made by Luigi Amici, while the originals are now, without a valid reason, in the “Garden of the Lake” in the Borghese Villa.
In the center of the fountain, however, something sufficiently representative was missing. Gian Lorenzo Bernini tried to adorn the central part of the fountain with the so-called “slug“, a group of dolphins with their tails intertwined to support a shell, but the work was not appreciated by Olimpia Maidalchini: after less than a year, the sculpture designed by Bernini was removed and can still be found today in the gardens of the Pamphilj Villa.
Bernini’s second attempt was luckier: the so-called “Moor”, a man with negroid features sculpted by Giovanni Antonio Mari on the basis of Bernini’s sketch, still stands out among the tritons and masks, while with great strength he holds a dolphin by the tail. The work is considered by many as one of the least successful of the great baroque architect and sculptor, who transformed the dolphin into a clumsy fish and the man into a sort of funny caricature: Pope Innocent X himself was not satisfied with it.
THE FOUNTAIN OF NEPTUNE
The twin fountain, on the north side of the square, had a much longer and troubled history. Having been neglected by the Pamphilj, because it was not close to their buildings but located in the most modest part of the square from an architectural point of view, the fountain had been nicknamed “of the Calderari” because many craftsmen who made basins worked in the area, giving their name to the alley.
Originally, the fountain had been built by Giacomo Della Porta exactly identical to its twin one, with the only variation of a marble column in the center of the basin, on which rested a ball from which water flowed. All the statues and masks that adorned this fountain were then inexplicably transferred to the fountain in the Rotunda Square, thus transforming the fountain into a crude drinking trough for horses.
Only in 1878, after the Unification of Italy, it was decided to decorate the fountain to create a symmetry with the twin fountain on the other end of the square: at this point, sculptors Antonio Della Bitta and Gregorio Zappalà sculpted “Neptune trying to pierce an octopus” and the groups of sculptures on the sides, representing “Nereids with cherubs and sea horses“.
THE FOUNTAIN OF THE FOUR RIVERS
Now go and admire the central fountain, the most splendid ornament of the square that the Pamphilj considered the court of their palace.
According to many critics, the idea of a fountain with the four most important rivers in the world surmounted by an obelisk was suggested by the architect Francesco Borromini, Bernini’s great rival, who, however, as mentioned above, managed to get into Donna Olimpia’s good graces and replaced the rival architect. In 1648, therefore, the construction of the fountain was entrusted to Bernini, in spite of all the projects already presented by Borromini. The work was completed in just three years, and in 1651 it was inaugurated.
In the center you can see a large cliff pierced by caves, on which rests the obelisk that was in the Circus of Maxentius, and which narrates the life and works of the Emperor Domitian. Around this “spire” were placed the four allegorical statues representing the “Danube”, symbol of Europe, the “Nile” of Africa, the “Ganges” of Asia and the “Rio de la Plata” of America, works respectively by Antonio Raggi, Claude Poussin, Giacomo Fancelli and Francesco Baratta. The statues are made of white Carrara marble, in contrast with the animals and plants made of travertine, and each statue shows a peculiar attitude linked to various anecdotes: the Nile, for example, has its head covered by a veil, probably to allude to the then unknown springs.
The most untrue of the anecdotes connected to this fountain concerns the Rio de la Plata which, according to an old popular tradition, would raise its arm towards the Church of St. Agnes to hide the view of the building built by Borromini, as if the façade or the dome could collapse. Such anecdote is absolutely impossible, since the church was built six years after the fountain.
The obelisk, enriched with the papal coats of arms, bears on the base façades epigraphs that explain the symbolic meaning of the decorations: the four continents pay homage to the Pamphilj family, whose heraldic coat of arms (the dove with the olive branch in its beak) is placed on the cusp of the obelisk.
THE SQUARE OF THE MASSIMI
Leave now Navona Square, taking in the southern part Via della Cuccagna, whose toponym alludes to the tree of the cuccagna that was erected, as said, in August in Navona Square on the place where is the Fountain of the Moor.
The alley leads to the small Square of the Massimi, which is a real secret treasure chest of Rome’s memories. A column of cipollino marble, found during the excavations of 1838, was placed in the center to remind us that nearby there was the porch of Domitian’s Odeon. The back of the Lancellotti Palace overlooks the square, but certainly the one that most strikes your attention is the so-called 15th Century Istoriato Palace, extensively restored by Baldassarre Peruzzi in the 16th Century.
The palace is nicknamed “Istoriato” because it has monochrome decorations made in 1523 by the school of Daniele from Volterra and that unfortunately have suffered a strong degradation. You can still see the “Wedding of the Virgin“, a fight, “Esther and Ahasuerus” and “Judith putting in a bag the head of Holofernes“. The palace was the seat of the Pontifical Post Office, as the Massimo family had the honor and the burden of being its Superintendent until 1967: that’s why from here also the Via della Posta Vecchia starts, in which were the post offices of the horses (i.e. the resting places) used by the couriers who carried the mail.
Corso Rinascimento is considered by many to be an illogical disembowelment of the neighborhood, with its path that runs constantly on the border between the Districts Parione and St. Eustace. It was opened between 1936 and 1938 on a project by the architect Arnaldo Foschini and joins the Churches of St. Andrew of the Valley and St. Augustine. For the occasion, many houses were demolished, important alleys such as Vicolo dei Calderari and Via delle Cinque Lune disappeared and the Church of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart was mutilated.
Walk now on the left side of Corso Rinascimento (the right side belongs in fact to the St. Eustace District): at number 23 you will see a plaque that recalls the water level of the Tiber during the flood of 1805, while at number 27 there is the Renaissance portal with coat of arms, dolphins and shells of the Church of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, a church that, as said, has changed shape and orientation several times over the centuries.
Corso Rinascimento leads to the Five Moons Square, which owes its name to the five moons growing on a cross, coat of arms of the Piccolomini family. Just on the opposite side of St. Apollinare Square (which belongs to the Parione District), you can see the massive INA building that preserves the remains of Domitian’s Stadium, of which one of the arches is visible in Tor Sanguigna Square.
THE SANGUIGNA TOWER
The Tor Sanguigna Square takes its name from the 13th Century tower (still existing, even if incorporated into the buildings) of the noble Roman family of Sanguigni, and the reddish bricks with which it was built confirmed its name to the people. At the end of the 15th Century, the tower was occupied by the French soldiers of Charles VIII; three centuries later, other French soldiers, this time the soldiers of Napoleon, in 1798 threw stones at the beautiful icon of the Assumption within a frame surrounded by angels, a true 18th Century jewel.
The street was inhabited by elegant courtesans, among them the famous Antea, near whose apartment took refuge the arquebusier who had killed Benvenuto Cellini’s brother. The goldsmith waited for him for hours outside the house, surprised him and stabbed him in revenge.
THE CHURCH OF ST. NICHOLAS OF THE LORENESI
At the end of Via di Tor Sanguigna you will see the Church of St. Nicholas of the Lorenesi, built on the place where once there was a small chapel dedicated to St. Catherine de Cryptis Agonis, built precisely on the fornici (crypts) of the ancient Stadium of Domitian. In the 17th Century the church was entrusted to the Lorenesi by Pope Gregory XV and it was entirely rebuilt in 1636, recycling the materials of the stadium.
The façade has two tripartite orders of Doric and Ionic pilasters, with a large triangular tympanum on the top, which recalls that of the portal. The interior, which in the 18th Century was enriched with polychrome marbles and splendid stuccoes by Gian Battista Grossi, has on the vault and in the dome remarkable frescoes by Corrado Giaquinto, who also painted the canvas of the transept which represents the “Sermon of St. Nicholas“.
Observe with curiosity also the wooden crucifix of the 16th Century, coming from the demolished Church of St. Saviour in Thermis, in front of which the Roman couples swore eternal love for centuries.
THE MILLINA TOWER
Take the long Via di Santa Maria dell’Anima, which runs parallel to Navona Square, and arrive at the corner with the homonymous church (which, as you know, belongs to the Ponte district), where you can admire the 15th Century Millina Tower. It is part of the Millini Palace, an ancient Roman family that boasted among its members conservatives, lawyers, bishops and cardinals. The family, which died out in the 18th century, saw its houses and towers demolished to enlarge the Pamphilj Palace.
The Millini Palace, together with the old tower, dates back to the last twenty years of the 15th Century: both were adorned with beautiful decorations (coats of arms, candelabra, girali, cornucopias and bucranias), which are barely visible today but which remind us of the splendor of this family, which had its peak when Mario Millini married Ginevra Cybo, nephew of Pope Innocent VIII. The tower, crowned by beaks and Guelph blackbirds, still affirms the ancient power of the family with large relief letters in which you can read: MILLINA.
Here ends your first Itinerary of the Parione District, in the hope that this stratification between baroque, renaissance and medieval Rome have awakened in you the feeling of how much the city has changed over the centuries.