ROMAN ITINERARIES – PIGNA DISTRICT – ITINERARY 33
PIGNA DISTRICT – ITINERARY 33
The Pigna District Itinerary 33, will let you start to explore a portion of the city that, despite its small size, is probably the most monumental among the Districts of Rome. Just the Pantheon, the Church of Jesus, the Church of St. Ignatius and the Church of St. Mary Over Minerva would be enough to give it this supremacy, but in addition to them the Pigna District includes a plethora of noble palaces, churches and outstanding monuments, among which the common houses, even these of great architectural interest, appear as crushed.
The streets of the District sometimes have the appearance of tunnels, and to walk through them you sometimes will have the feeling of being in the middle of narrow and winding mountain gorges, with creeks frighteningly perpendicular: even the small squares usually tend to be of modest size, with the stone and travertine to loom over them.
THE SYMBOL OF THE PIGNA DISTRICT
The singular curiosity of the District comes from its name: it does not derive from the typical conifer fruit and specifically from the pine tree, a very common variety along the coast of the Lazio region, but it takes its name from a bronze statue depicting a large pine cone, originally placed at the Baths of Agrippa (located within the perimeter of this District) and also mentioned by Dante in his “Divine Comedy“: “His face seemed to me long and big as the pinecone of St. Peter’s in Rome“. As the great poet explains, it was moved during the Middle Ages in front of the ancient St. Peter’s Basilica, and it can now be seen inside the Pine Cone Courtyard in the Vatican (to admire it, simply book the Vatican Museums Tour organized by Rome Guides).
The coat of arms of the District is still today represented by a gold pinecone on a red field.
THE PIGNA DISTRICT IN THE ANCIENT ROME
In ancient times this area was marked as VII Regio Augustea, and the excavations carried out have made it possible to reconstruct this area quite clearly. Via del Caravita and Via del Seminario, which delimit the ward from the north side, indicated the course of the Virgin Water, which along the current Via del Corso reached the Saepta, to feed the Baths of Agrippa.
The Saepta were a rectangular space surrounded by porticoes, in which in the Republican period the meetings that provided for the election of the highest public offices were held.
To the left of the Saepta, which then became a simple square, there were the Pantheon, the Basilica of Neptune and the Baths of Agrippa, which had their center in Via dell’Arco della Ciambella. The Temple of Isis and Serapis, from which probably comes the famous bronze pinecone that gave the name to the entire District, was instead located near the current Via del Gesù: the Temple must have been very wide, because it is from here that most of the many statues of Egyptian import and Roman manufacture now scattered throughout Rome, as well as five obelisks, come from.
On the spot, as a partial and very modest consolation, there are still now a colossal marble foot and the statuette of a small feline, also in marble, which gave the name respectively to the Via Pie’ di Marmo and Via della Gatta, and a bust of a statue representing, according to some, the Goddess Isis, and according to others, a priestess of the Goddess, known as “Madama Lucrezia”.
The sanctuary dedicated to Isis, a very popular cult at the time of the Triunvirate, was probably erected around 43 B.C. and, in spite of the repression under Tiberius, it was then reconstituted and consecrated again by Caligula, only to be entirely rebuilt with an immense economic effort by Domitian in 80 A.D.
In the part of the District that extends southwards was once the remarkable extension of the Sacred Area, today partially visible in the Argentine Square, while in Via delle Botteghe Oscure was the large portico called “Minucia Frumentaria“.
FROM THE MIDDLE AGES TO THE BAROQUE
The Pigna District had an articulated history also in the Middle Ages: around the already mentioned Sacred Area the “Calcarario“, a sort of permanent forge to reduce ancient marbles to lime and material for new buildings, was set up from the 11th Century: in this place some of the most important monuments of the area have disappeared. The “Calcarario” has given name to at least three churches, probably built using the lime taken from the ancient finds: St. Lawrence, St. Nicholas and St. Lucia, called precisely “in Calcarario”.
In the Renaissance, the Pigna District, as well as the other neighboring wards, was subject to extensive renovation work. In 1535 the Via Capitolina was opened up to the current Via del Gesù, and the old palace of the Cenci family, which was located on the Altieri Square, was razed to the ground; just three years later, in 1538, the current Via del Plebiscito was opened, while for the Jesuit Church were demolished several hovels of medieval origin and the Altieri Square changed its name to the Jesus Square in celebration of the new church that still overlooks it today.
In the meantime, using the “sampietrini” (blocks of basalt squared to work of art and housed using sand and pozzolana, in imitation of the old Roman basalt), Via dell’Ara Coeli, Via Pie’ di Marmo and Vicolo dei Cesarini were paved. This historical period saw the disappearance of more or less illustrious churches such as St. Mary of the Road, St. Andrew in Pallacina and St. Saviour in Calcarario, as well as some houses with unique painted façades, which were to represent a real open-air painting museum.
THE PIGNA DISTRICT IN THE MODERN TIMES
The Pigna District today is very much modified due to the extensive works carried out between the 19th and 20th centuries, such as the enlargement of Corso Vittorio Emanuele II, the creation of the Grazioli Square and the demolitions that took place immediately after the First World War in the Sacred Area in the Argentine Square. Currently, it is almost impossible to detect the medieval and renaissance appearance of the District, whose monuments now stand out on squares and streets redesigned by the needs of the Counter-Reformation and those of the Unification of Italy.
PIGNA DISTRICT – ITINERARY 33
Let’s start the Pigna District Itinerary 33 exactly where you finished the previous one, from the Argentine Square, concentrating on the Sacred Area in the middle of it, visible today for the most part under the open sky.
Piazza Argentina – Via di Torre Argentina – Via delle Botteghe Oscure – Largo di Santa Lucia dei Filippini – Via dell’Arco dei Ginnasi – Via Celsa – Piazza del Gesù – Via della Gatta – Via di Santo Stefano del Cacco
THE SACRED AREA OF ARGENTINE SQUARE
The Sacred Area of the Argentine Square, a few meters deep and protected by a small wall equipped with grating and plexiglass panels, is the result of the excavations carried out between 1926 and 1929 by Giuseppe Marchetti Longhi, who strenuously protected his work from the subsequent urban destruction.
In almost all the study manuals, the buildings of the Sacred Area are marked with the first four letters of our alphabet, and in a quick and exhaustive reconnaissance we can therefore specify that (observing the excavations from the opposite side to the Argentine Theatre):
- The Temple A, the second in chronological order of the entire complex, is located on the right, is dated around the middle of the III Century B.C. and should be dedicated to Juturna (Goddess of water sources). Rectangular in shape, it had six columns on the front and back side, and nine columns on the sides, all of tuff stuccoed with Corinthian capitals. The Christian use of the temple occurred from the 9th Century using the central part, and this is proven by the presence of the apse with pictorial decorations depicting saints, with frames imitating marble. During the work of recovery of the temple also came to light a votive stone of the 12th Century entirely in marble, with a compartment intended to preserve the relics of the saints. Here stood the famous Church of St. Nicholas de Calcarario, later demolished.
- The Temple B is the most recent one, also in consideration of the slight elevation compared to other buildings. With a circular plan, it has a small porch with Corinthian columns which is accessed through a short staircase in tuff and travertine. Probably, after a fire, the empty spaces between the columns were filled with bricks and stucco to improve its stability. Also in consideration of some statuary fragments (including a splendid colossal head), now on display at the Centrale Montemartini (you can visit it by booking the Museums and Galleries Tour organized by Rome Guides), this Temple was dedicated to the so called “Fortuna Huiusce Diei” (the Fortuna of the Present Day) and should have been founded by Quinto Lutazio Catulo around 100 B.C., after having brought back the military victory over the Cimbrians.
- The Temple C is the most ancient of the four, being probably datable to the III Century B.C.. It lacks of the colonnade and is characterized by a high podium. It was presumably dedicated to Feronia, archaic goddess of Italic origin, protector of woods and grain production.
- The fourth and last temple in the area, marked with the letter D, is the largest of the four. According to the most eminent scholars, it was built in 179 B.C. by Marco Emilio Lepido and was dedicated to the Lares Permarini, protectors of sailors. It is still located, for the most part, under the road surface.
In order to visit the area internally you need a specific authorization from the Superintendence, but you could approach it going down the stairs that lead to the Animalist Associations that take care of the feline colony installed inside the Sacred Area, maybe adopting one of the cats (even at a distance).
THE PAPITTO’S TOWER
Before leaving this important archaeological site, you should consider a couple of important notes. Meanwhile, just behind the Sacred Area stood the so-called Curia of Pompey, the place where Julius Caesar was assassinated by the conspirators in the infamous Ides of March.
Moreover, looking at the height of the street level you will see a small medieval tower of the 13th Century, the Papitto’s Tower: entirely made of bricks and heavily restored around 1940, it owes its name to the Antipope Anacleto II, a member of the Pierleoni family and known for his short stature, so much so that he was nicknamed “papetto” (little Pope).
VIA DELLE BOTTEGHE OSCURE
Now take Via delle Botteghe Oscure, so called because of the large half-buried arches that once belonged to the Balbo’s Theater. At number 6 you can see a small palace of the 18th Century with a beautiful shaped portal, and immediately after the Arch of the Ginnasi, erected in 1628 to connect the two palaces that belonged to the Ginnasi: observe between the windows the remains of a medieval portico that presents five bare columns with particularly decorated Ionic capitals.
Continuing along Via delle Botteghe Oscure, on the left, you can admire a Roman temple discovered in 1938, which scholars believe was the Sanctuary of the Nymphs located in the so-called “Villa Publica“, where the censors’ archives took place. The Villa Pubblica, in spite of its name, was by no means a park or garden open to the public, but the place used for all the operations related to the census, the military service and the ambassadors’ receptions.
On this area there was also the Temple of Bellona, archaic goddess of war, and the historical reports remember that the senators, who assembled in 82 BC in this temple, were able to hear the screams and the tortures of the Samnite prisoners slaughtered by order of Silla in the Villa Publica.
NATIONAL ROMAN MUSEUM OF CRYPTA BALBI
On the opposite side, at number 31 of Via delle Botteghe Oscure, you can access the National Roman Museum of Crypta Balbi, installed in the buildings built above the porticoed courtyard annexed to the Balbo’s Theatre, built in 13 BC by Lucio Cornelio Balbo.
The Museum (which represents a perfect stratigraphic cross-section of Rome, although it is particularly technical and therefore not recommended for first time visitors in Rome) researches and documents the evolution of this specific area of Rome, its settlements and its uses over the centuries.
Particular attention is paid to the findings that prove the artisan activities (materials, tools, productions) carried out in the place in the postclassical and early medieval age, highlighting the continuity of the work and the quality of the products.
THE JESUS’ SQUARE
Now reach the Jesus Square, once called Altieri Square, where stands out the Cenci Bolognetti Palace, built in the 18th Century by Ferdinand Cenci Bolognetti and,since 1994, seat 1944 of the most important Italian political party of the 20th Century, the Christian Democracy.
At number 48 there is the Petroni-Borgana Palace, which has a severe 16th Century portal engraved in the architrave with the name of the Borgana family. Close to the portal there is a sacred aedicule of the 18th Century that, according to popular legends, began to cry together with 26 other similar images in front of the invasion of the Church State by French troops. On the basis of the inscription connected to it, the image would grant two hundred days of indulgence to anyone who recites a prayer in front of it.
THE ALTIERI PALACE
At number 49 of the Jesus’ Square is the gigantic Altieri Palace, property of a family of great importance in Rome since the Middle Ages, which over the centuries gave the Church several cardinals and even a Pope, Clement X. Until the middle of the 16th Century, this family literally owned all the buildings overlooking today’s Jesus’ Square, and the Church of Jesus itself could only be built because the Altieri family sold one of their palaces, then demolished to allow the building of the church.
Once in 1670 Clement X ascended the papal throne, the palace was restored by the architect Giovanni Antonio De Rossi, who transformed it into a sort of papal court. The vast size of the palace favored its various uses over time: it was used, among other things, as a film set, as the seat of the Japanese Embassy in Italy and as a school of lower secondary school Visconti High School, and lived there the actress Anna Magnani and the writer Carlo Levi.
The façade on the Jesus’ Square is naturally the most monumental, organized on three orders of architraved windows with small windows underneath; the portal is flanked by two columns that support the balcony, enriched with festoons. Inside you can admire the vast porticoed courtyard, while a grand staircase connects the two wings of the palace and is adorned with ancient statues, including the famous “Barbarian prisoner” from the Theatre of Pompey. Inside the sumptuous apartments, furnished with period furniture and paintings, have splendid frescoes on the ceilings and walls such as the “Triumph of Clemency” by Carlo Maratta, “The Chariot of the Sun” by Fabrizio Chiari and “The Allegory of Love” by Niccolò Berrettoni.
THE “WINDOW OF THE OLD LADY”
The Jesus’ Square is very famous in Rome for a legend that has more than a background of truth: it is the so-called “window of the old lady“.
Observe the small window that is out of place, on the right of the large portal of the Altieri Palace. Tradition has it that when the Altieri family bought the whole block to build their noble palace, they used good and bad manners to take possession of the various buildings of the place, until they found themselves fighting against the stubbornness and intransigence of an old lady who did not want to sell her hovel for any amount of money. The promises and threats were useless. The matter was reported to Pope Clement X, who proved to be fair and generous: he allowed the old woman to stay in his little house, as long as she did not object to seeing it incorporated into the huge palace that would soon be built all over the square. In exchange for this, the Pope also granted her a lifetime pension.
THE PROFESSED HOUSE
The Professed House of the Jesuits, located on the right side of the façade of the Church of Jesus, was built between 1599 and 1623 on the modest hovels that had previously housed the first Jesuits. The building was built by the architect Girolamo Rainaldi at the behest of Cardinal Odoardo Farnese, and extends on four sides, in a certain sense embracing with its huge and articulated bulk the Church of Jesus itself: inside, among a myriad of rooms, opens a garden of great charm, which covers an area equal to about half of the entire building covered.
If you were lucky enough to get permission to visit it, do not forget the original 16th Century rooms, where St. Ignatius lived until his death, richly frescoed with episodes of his life and canonization by excellent painters such as Andrea Pozzo and Borgognone.
GIUSEPPE GIOACCHINO BELLI
A few steps from the Professed House lived for years and died one of the greatest poets of Rome: Giuseppe Gioachino Belli.
Born in Rome on September 7th 1791 by Gaudenzio and Luigia, he had a very sad childhood, punctuated by the flight of his parents, persecuted for suspected complicity against the French troops. He lost his father at eleven and his mother at sixteen. In order not to be a burden to his uncles, he abandoned his studies to work as an accountant in the employ of Prince Rospigliosi, and then passed into the employ of Prince Poniatowski, with whom he remained until 1813.
He married a rich widow, ten years older than him, and finally found the time to devote himself to study and poetry. In 1827, Belli began writing the first of those 2279 sonnets in Roman dialect, which are not only the greatest title of his glory, but a monument to the people of Rome and one of the masterpieces of universal literature.
At the death of his wife, in poor health and troubled by political events and a deep religious crisis, he tried to destroy all his poetic work en bloc, which he defined as “just a whim, the result of a deranged mind“. He did not succeed, fortunately for him, who died in the very palace that overlooked this square on December 21th 1863.
THE GRAZIOLI PALACE
Head towards the Grazioli Palace, notable for its exterior architecture, especially on the façade overlooking Via del Plebiscito: it was for centuries the home of various personalities, including the Ambassador of Austria and Marie Louise of Borbone, who died there in 1824.
VIA DELLA GATTA
Now arrive at the corner with Via della Gatta, so called because of the feline small statue placed on a cornice on the back side of the Grazioli Palace: a little animal unearthed in the so-called Iseo Campense, linked to the gigantic Temple of Isis and Serapis described in the introduction of the District.
THE CHURCH OF ST. MARTHA
Continue along Via della Gatta and leave the imposing Doria-Pamphilj Palace and the Roman College Square, which will be described in Itinerary 35, on the right for now, to stop in front of the Church of St. Martha.
The first building was commissioned by St. Ignatius of Loyola in 1542 to house the “malmaritate“, defined “women married in public sin“, who wanted to rehabilitate themselves. The hospice had in reality a short life, as the nearby Augustinian convent appropriated it and soon reduced it to a boarding school for girls of high lineage. The church, on the other hand, was consecrated in 1570, and has a single nave with six side altars that surround the high altar like a crown; it was then renovated in the 17th Century, with the works carried out by Giovanni Antonio De Rossi and from 1674 by Carlo Fontana.
The façade is very elegant, decorated at the top with a fresco by the painter Baciccia that also decorated the interior vault. The church, however, always had a tormented life: in 1872 it was incorporated into the State property with the entire monastery and stripped of furniture and paintings, which were dispersed, to be transformed into a military warehouse and workshop. Today it is a venue for conferences, conventions, exhibitions and concerts, and is the property of the Ministry of Cultural Heritage.
THE CHURCH OF ST. STEPHEN OF THE CACCO
As you turn on the left of the church, head to Via di Santo Stefano del Cacco, where at number 33 you can see a beautiful 17th Century portal of the former convent of St. Martha, which still preserves remains of polychromy under the niche. Arrived at the small square, you can see the modest Church of St. Stephen of the Cacco (name that comes from “macaque”, statuette now exhibited in the Vatican Museums and coming from the Iseo Campense, perhaps representing the god Anubis).
The small church was probably built in the IX Century by Pope Pasquale I and then restored in 1162, when the bell tower was incorporated into the convent in 1607. The interior of the church is particularly interesting for the twelve precious marble columns and for a fragment of early Christian pluteus; on a pictorial level, it preserves a fresco by Perin Del Vaga depicting Christ in piety and the painting of the apse depicting the Martyrdom of St. Stephen by Cristoforo Casolani.