ROMAN ITINERARIES – PONTE DISTRICT – ITINERARY 19
PONTE DISTRICT – ITINERARY 19
The Itinerary 19 interests the Ponte District (“Bridge District”), that is supposed to take its name from the St. Angel’s Bridge, which, however, belonged to this District only until Pope Sixtus V (1585-1590). In fact, after the creation of the Borgo District, the marvelous bridge (today adorned with statues of angels bearing the symbols of the Passion of Christ, made by Bernini and his students) became nominally part of this last District.
PONTE DISTRICT – THE ANCIENT TIMES
In ancient times, this area was included in the Regio IX Augustea: indeed, the St. Angel’s Bridge follows the ancient Helium Bridge, built by Emperor Hadrian to join the left bank of the Tiber to his Mausoleum, now transformed into the St. Angel’s Castle. In addition to this, next to the Hospital of the Holy Spirit you can still see, especially when the river Tiber is dry, the remains of the Neronian Bridge which was also called “triumphal” because it was crossed by the Via Trionfale, which was traveled by armies returning from victorious wars. In axis with Nero’s bridge was the Via Recta, which corresponds to the route of the modern Via dei Coronari.
This part of the city indirectly follows the course of the Tiber and this side, in ancient times, was protected by the Aurelian Walls (flanked in the inner part by a basular road, of which several stretches have been found), in which opened the Cornelia Gate and a series of secondary posterulae (still today, many streets and churches of the district recall in the name these posterulae), the most important of which was the Posterula Domitia where the boats that brought the material to be used for the construction of buildings in the Campus Martius stood on the Tiber.
Not far from Nero’s Bridge was probably also the Trigarium, so called because of the word “triga” (the chariot pulled by three horses), as reported in a memorial stone from the age of Emperor Claudius, found near the Church of St. Blaise. Here, in a sacred space, was held the ritual race of the “october equus“: a race of three-horses chariots linked to a festivity of archaic Rome, concerning the king and the god Mars. After the race, the horse on the right of the winning chariot was sacrificed to the god Mars by the Flamen Martialis, the priest of Mars, and then his tail was quickly transported to the Regia to drip its blood on the sacred fire of Mars.
The Ponte District today includes the north-western area of the ancient Campus Martius, once characterized by an extremely archaic place of worship, called Tarentum. Religious ceremonies dedicated to Dite and Proserpine were held here, and probably the funeral ceremony of Emperor Hadrian was also performed here, before his burial in the Mausoleum that bore his name.
At the port where the marbles destined for Roman building were landed, wine was landed too: there was in fact a wine port called “ad ciconias“, in relation to a cult in which storks had to have a mythological component. From this area, the wine was then transported to the warehouses of the Temple of the Sun, which were located where the Church of St. Sylvester is today.
PONTE DISTRICT – THE MEDIEVAL TIMES AND THE RENAISSANCE
In medieval times, the Ponte District, together with all that part of Rome that was located near the Tiber, continued to be inhabited because it guaranteed an easy retrieval of water that was taken directly from the river. The hills, in fact, had been largely abandoned, having been cut by barbarian invaders and later by the armies of the Goths and Byzantines the aqueducts: Rome, now, was heavily depopulated and had an almost rural economy. The Ponte District also enjoyed another advantage: being crossed by the final stretch of the streets that went towards the St. Angel’s Bridge (and then to St. Peter’s), it was continuously crossed and inhabited by pilgrims who stayed in inns, ate in taverns and fed the trade of sacred objects.
After the transfer of the papal seat from the Lateran to the Vatican, the Ponte District grew in importance for its road component. Its streets were renovated and paved again, with Pope Sixtus IV providing the paving of the road that reached the St. Angel’s Bridge. Thanks to these urban works, throughout the 16th Century the Ponte District enjoyed an intense urbanistic activity: many families, both aristocratic and mercantile ones, built houses and palaces to whose decoration contributed the best artists of Rome, such as Raffaello, Giulio Romano, Perin del Vaga, Federico Zuccari, Pirro Ligorio and others. The frescoes of these painters not only adorned the halls of these buildings, but also embellished the external façades: in this way, the Ponte District became famous for the external decorations of the buildings too, unfortunately progressively vanished with the passing of the centuries.
While palaces and churches were being built, the Ponte District began to assume its own conformation, divided into three distinct zones: Via dei Coronari with the sellers of religious objects, Via dei Banchi with the moneychangers and bankers, and Via dell’Orso with the courtesans. The most frequent and most popular spectacle attended by the inhabitants of the district was represented by the so-called “Procession of the Crucifix“, with a crucifix carried on the shoulders of the members of a confraternity and, on a cart immediately behind, a condemned man in chains who continuously kissed an image of Christ: the goal of this procession was the pitchfork, placed near the St. Angel’s Bridge, on which the condemned man was hanged, while some priests gathered the crowd presenting the event as an exemplary consequence of sins.
The Ponte District was unfortunately devastated, as well as other areas of Rome, by a tremendous natural disaster, the Tiber floods, which obviously affected the areas of the city closer to the river. Sometimes the water flowed slowly, warning the population of its arrival, but other times the flood was sudden and violent: that of 1598, for example, flooded suddenly the cells of the basement and the first floor of the Tor di Nona jail, causing the drowning of a hundred prisoners.
PONTE DISTRICT – THE MODERN TIMES
The real transformation of the district took place thanks to the construction of the walls, which imprisoned the river Tiber, and the Bridges Humbert, Victor Emmanuel II and Prince Amadeus of Savoy, not forgetting the temporary bridge nicknamed “del soldo” (“of the coin“), for the fee to be paid to cross it. These bridges connected the old Rome to the St. Peter’s area and to the Prati District, symbol of the deep urban transformation of the late 19th Century. With the construction of the walls, the Ponte District (together with the other districts overlooking the river) lost the scenic façades of the houses with windows and balconies overlooking the water of the river and which had narrow streets and paths that went down to the banks.
Today, the Ponte District is still filled with various artisan activities, among which are those of gilders, furniture makers and antique dealers. With a bit of luck, among the streets of the district it is still possible to find a library of old and used books or a showcase decorated with antiques. It is still a relatively “human” aspect, in spite of the noisy and intense traffic of Corso Vittorio Emanuele II.
Via dell’Orso – Via di Monte Brianzo – Piazza di Ponte Umberto I – Piazza Sant’Apollinare – Piazza Fiammetta – Via della Maschera d’Oro – Piazza Lancellotti – Piazza San Salvatore in Lauro
The Itinerary 19 of the Ponte District starts from Via dell’Orso (so called probably thanks to the presence of the Locanda dell’Orso, the Inn of the Bear, whose sign showed two bears facing each other), at the point where the road forks onto Via dei Pianellari, so called because here were the stores of the merchants of the pianelle (slippers for women).
THE “MONKEY TOWER”
Here also stands a beautiful brick tower of the 15th Century, crowned by pecks and already belonged to the Frangipane family and Augustinian monks: the tower, linked to the Scapucci Palace, is nicknamed by the Romans the “Monkey Tower“, thanks to a popular legend told also by the American novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne in his French and Italian Notebooks. The palace to which the tower belonged was once inhabited by a nobleman, who had only one son and a monkey as a pet. One day, the animal took the child up to the top of the tower, thus triggering the desperation of the father, who entrusted his prayers to Our Lady: meekly, persuaded by the Virgin Mary, the monkey descended and brought the child back to his bed. In memory of this episode, a small lamp is lit in front of the statue of Our Lady placed on top of the tower, at the will of the father of the creature so miraculously saved.
Along Via dell’Orso there were palaces of a certain importance, like the one at number 25, designed by Antonio Sangallo the Younger with a double rusticated portal. Go past Vicolo del Leuto, one of the narrowest and most winding streets of medieval Rome, so called because of the presence of a popular tavern that showed how to teach a lute, and observe (at the angle with Via dei Soldati) the corner fragment of a Roman sarcophagus of the second half of the III Century A.D. depicting a lion biting an antelope, symbol of death that comes suddenly.
THE INN OF THE BEAR
Not far from here stood the ancient Inn of the Bear, opened in the 16th Century and considered one of the best hotels to stay in Rome until the 17th Century. During the following two centuries, unfortunately, it declined more and more, since the tourist center of the aristocratic travelers and artists moved to the surroundings of the Spanish Steps. The Inn of the Bear found itself then to host coachmen and modest travelers, taking on the appearance of a house rearranged at best until its final closure in 1937.
PALACES AND CHURCHES
At one time, in front of the Inn of the Bear, Via di Monte Brianzo opened up: it was, in the Middle Ages and during the Renaissance, the most important communication route along the Tiber between Campo Marzio and Tor di Nona. The street led to the lost Piazzetta dell’Orso, which towards the Tiber was crowned by ancient buildings, including the Renaissance Martelli Palace, the Caetani Palace (famous for its loggia and its garden on the river) and the Church of St. Mary in Posterula. The frescoes painted on the façades of the buildings on Via di Monte Brianzo showed scenes from the Odyssey, the “Enterprises of Alexander the Great” and a series of naval battles.
THE PRIMOLI PALACE
Climb the short staircase at the corner with Via dei Soldati and you will reach the modern level of the Humbert I Bridge Square, where the Primoli Palace overlooks. This palace, dating back to the 16th Century and originally built by the Gottifredi family, was purchased in 1828 by Luigi Primoli, whose son Pietro married Carlotta Bonaparte, nephew of Napoleon.The descendant of this marriage was Count Giuseppe Primoli who, at the beginning of the 20th Century, had the palace extensively restored. Due to the construction of the walls on the Tiber, the palace needed to be adapted to the changed conditions of the area.
The first floor thus became the ground floor of the building, with the façade facing the Tiber set in a monumental way, with columns and corner loggias, and a new main entrance opening on Via Zanardelli, decorated with a beautiful cornice with ancient statues.
THE NAPOLEONIC MUSEUM
Today the Primoli Palace houses the Napoleonic Museum and the Primoli Foundation. The museum’s collections are divided into three distinct sections, concerning the Napoleonic period proper (as evidenced by paintings and busts of the major artists of the time, portraying the members of the imperial family in courtly poses), the so-called “Roman period” (the one from the fall of Napoleon I to the rise of Napoleon III) and the period of the “Second Empire” (with paintings, sculptures and furniture of the time). A small part of the Museum is often used for temporary exhibitions.
THE PRIMOLI FOUNDATION
The Primoli Palace also contains a rich collection of photographs and a library of 30,000 volumes that give the Primoli Foundation the opportunity to foster cultural relations with France, as provided for by its statute. Passionate about the great invention of photography, Count Primoli loved to document with snapshots the life of his family, his friends and above all the major and minor aspects of Rome and its people.
The Primoli photographic collection therefore constitutes one of the greatest documents of the life of the city between the last years of the 19th Century and the first decades of the 20th Century, testifying to the fashion and daily life of Rome, which would later undergo profound urban transformations.
THE ALTEMPS PALACE
Through the short staircase next to the Primoli Palace you go down to Via dei Soldati, so called because of the presence of an inn with the military as traditional customers.
On the street there are the side windows of the Altemps Palace, whose main façade opens onto St. Apollinare’s Square: the plan of the palace, with a curious L-shaped plan, can be dated back to 1480 and was wanted by Count Girolamo Riario, nephew of Pope Sixtus IV, but it was never inhabited so much that, at the death of the Pope in 1484, it was even looted. About a century later, the Spanish Embassy chose it as its residence, and then it became first the property of Cardinal Soderini and finally, in 1568, of Cardinal Marco Sittico Altemps, nephew of Pope Pius IV.
Once in possession of the palace, the cardinal commissioned Martino Longhi the Elder to restore it. In 1617, inside the chapel of the palace, completely restored and decorated with frescoes by Antonio Circignani with images of saints and by Ottavio Leoni with “Stories from the Life of St. Aniceto“, the relics of St. Aniceto, one of the first popes (155-166) and the only one to have been buried in a private residence, were placed. These relics were placed in a yellow marble urn of Numidia, which according to legend was the burial urn of Emperor Alexander Severus.
THE NATIONAL ROMAN MUSEUM
The Altemps Palace now houses one of the seats of the National Roman Museum (visit it choosing the Museums and Galleries Tour organized by Rome Guides), with a valuable collection of antiquities, based on three different collections:
- The Boncompagni Ludovisi Collection, a collection of precious ancient marbles that Cardinal Ludovico Ludovisi kept in his property on the Quirinal Hill. Many of these sculptures were reintegrated into the missing parts by some of the most important 17th Century sculptors, such as Gian Lorenzo Bernini and Alessandro Algardi. Among the most famous sculptures, admire the group of Galata suicide with his wife, the Ares, the Juno’s head and the famous Ludovisi Throne, probably a Greek original from the V Century BC.
- The Collection of Cardinal Marco Sittico Altemps, originally consisting of 120 sculptures from the Greek and Roman periods, of which there are currently fifteen, four of which are visible under the arches of the northern portico.
- In the porticoes of the courtyard and in the rooms on the second floor are exhibited works related to the Mattei Collection, including the famous Dace Mattei in antique yellow marble, collected by the family to decorate Villa Celimontana.
THE CHURCH OF ST. APOLLINARE
The façade of the Church of St. Apollinare is the result of the last reconstruction, carried out in the 18th Century by the architect Ferdinando Fuga on behalf of Pope Benedict XIV: the church presents an elegant design of balanced 18th Century shapes marked by pilasters, and ends with a double broken tympanum.
Actually, the original church (from the beginning dedicated to St. Apollinare, bishop of Ravenna) dates back to the 7th Century: built on the remains of a Roman building, it had three naves, apse mosaics and cosmatesque floor.
The interior of the present church shows an atrium with the function of a chapel, where is preserved an image of the Virgin Mary to which is linked an episode in the history of Rome: in 1494, during the pontificate of Alexander VI, the king of France Charles VIII came down to Italy with his army and triumphantly entered Rome. Many soldiers of his army camped in the portico of the ancient St. Apollinare (remember the adjacent Via dei Soldati) and then a pitiful hand covered the image of the Madonna with some plaster so that she would not see the goodies of the soldiers. The image remained hidden from everyone’s sight for about two hundred years, until a tremor shaken off the plaster and brought the fresco to light.
Today the church has a single nave, beautifully adorned with marble and stuccoes and, among the most interesting pieces, preserves the statues of “St. Francis Xavier” by Pierre Le Gros and “St. Ignatius” by Carlo Marchionni.
THE PALACE OF ST. APOLLINARE
Next to the church you can see the Palace of St. Apollinare, restored by Ferdinando Fuga himself. Originally the palace was the seat of the religious orders that had jurisdiction over the church, but later lived there Cardinal Napoleone Orsini and the future anti-pope Benedict XIII (1409-1424). In 1465 it was completely renovated by order of Cardinal d’Estuteville, and in 1574 it passed to the Jesuits, who lived there for about two centuries. It then housed the Schools of the Academy of St. Luke until 1825 and then, by the will of Pope Benedict XV, became the seat of the Pontifical Institute of St. Apollinare.
Inside, where once there was the library of the German-Hungarian Jesuit College, there is now the chapel with the depictions of the founder of the order, St. Ignatius of Loyola, and the other great missionary saint, Francis Xavier, both works by Andrea Pozzo as well as the artist himself is the “Ascension of Mary“, made in tempera, which adorns the ceiling.
Go back and turn left into Via della Maschera d’Oro, which takes its name from a golden mask that was painted together with other valuable frescoes on the façade of the Milesi Palace (number 7), thanks to the meticulous work of Polidoro from Caravaggio and Maturino from Florence: the paintings have unfortunately disappeared today.
Only by a stroke of luck are still visible traces of the decorative motifs made by Jacopo Ripanda on the façade of the nearby Lancellotti Palace, which still bears on the door the stars, stem, but heraldic of the Lancellotti family. The decoration consists of friezes that distinguish the respective floors and depict erotic and vegetable elements on the second floor, female figures with containers filled with fruit and cornucopias on the second, fantastic figures taken from the marine world on the third and dragons on the fourth.
Even the Gaddi Cesi Palace, located at number 21, was decorated with valuable ornaments made by the same authors of the Milesi Palace in chiaroscuro and graffiti. The building, equipped with a large portal on the first floor, occupies the entire Via della Maschera d’Oro, also turning in the Lancellotti Square. It belonged at first to the Gaddi family and then from 1567 to Angelo Cesi, who commissioned, among other things, the famous chapel of St. Mary of Peace. His nephew Federico Cesi equipped it with a botanical garden where the first meetings of the Lincei Academy, founded by Federico himself in 1603, were held. Thus began, in this palace, the history of one of the most important cultural foundations in the history of Italy, of which scientists, sculptors, artists and intellectuals were members.
THE TOR DI NONA PRISON
Pass over the Lancellotti Square and take via Tor di Nona.
This was one of the towers of the Aurelian wall that bordered the Tiber and served in the 15th Century as a prison of the Apostolic Chamber, after having been used as a warehouse in support of the port: from this function derives its name, which was originally in fact the Annona Tower. In this prison was held prisoner the famous goldsmith and artist Benvenuto Cellini, and always here was located the cell called “the bottom“, where criminals of the worst kind were thrown after they had passed through the sadly famous torture chamber. The tower ceased to be used as a prison after the new prisons along Via Giulia were opened. The Romans, however, remembered for a long time the limbs of the condemned men who had been quartered hanging from the battlements of the tower.
THE APOLLO THEATRE
In 1661 Pope Alexander VII gave the tower to the Archconfraternity of St. Jerome of Charity, who included it in the project of building a theater, favored by Queen Christine of Sweden, now a permanent guest of Rome after the abjuration she had made to Protestantism. The theater, built in wood by Carlo Fontana, began to function in 1670 and was the first open public theater in Rome. The theater was actually too small, although it had six rows of seats and 35 boxes, and was demolished in 1696 to be rebuilt in 1773, at the expense of Pope Clement XII, by architects Domenico Gregorini and Pietro Passalacqua. The fate of the theater was, however, very inauspicious: in 1781, in fact, a fire destroyed it completely.
The architect Felice Giorgi rebuilt it, by order of the Apostolic Chamber, with four orders of twenty-nine boxes and 678 seats for the audience. The curtain with the representation of the “sun on his chariot” was realized by the painter Felice Giani and, inaugurated in 1795, the new theater was named Apollo Theatre.
In 1812 the Apostolic Chamber put it on sale and it was bought by the Prince of Santacroce, who in 1820 resold it to the Torlonia family; Prince Alessandro had it renovated by the architect Giuseppe Valadier, who enriched it with other rooms decorated with frescoes.
From 1850 to 1870 the Apollo Theater knew the maximum popularity, but unfortunately the fate was not benevolent: the works of arrangement of the Tiber led to the sacrifice of the theater and only in 1925, on the parapet of the Lungotevere, was erected a stele in memory of the lost theater that undoubtedly marked the participation of Rome in the most representative moments of history both theatrical and opera in Italy.
THE CHURCH OF ST. SAVIOUR IN LAUREL
Now take Vicolo dei Marchigiani, arriving on the St. Saviour in Laurel Square.
On this square opened the Barracks of the Corsican Guard and in 1664 Pope Alexander VII erected a monument surmounted by a pyramidal spire as a sign of atonement for the outrage that the Corsican soldiers of the papal guard had done to Duke Crequy, ambassador of the King of France. In 1668, however, Clement IX, after the renewed peace with the kingdom beyond the Alps, ordered the demolition of the monument.
On the same square there is the convent of the Church of St. Saviour, on whose façade you can see a fountain decorated with a lion. The inscription reminds us that, as in the Campus Martius a tame wolf more than a lamb gives the Virgin Water to the people, so here a mild lion more than a kid pours the Virgin Water. The inscription closes by alluding to the heraldic dragon that mourns both animals: it is, of course, the coat of arms of Pope Gregory XIII.
The word “laurel“, linked to the name of the Church, would derive from an ancient laurel grove that was to rise nearby, from which the laurel was drawn for the crowns of the winners of the races of the nearby Domitian Stadium (today’s Navona Square). In the refectory of the church you can admire the funerary monument of Pope Eugene IV, who was driven out of Rome in 1434 under a rain of stones and arrows while, dressed as a monk, he crossed the Tiber by boat.
The Church of St. Saviour in Laurel has been known since 1177. In the 15th Century it was decorated with a fresco by Antoniazzo Romano depicting the “Madonna and Child“, now kept in the seat of the Pius Congregation of the Piceni, and other frescoes by Perin del Vaga.
Destroyed at the end of the 16th Century by a violent fire, the church was rebuilt by Ottaviano Nonni, known as Mascherino. Acquired in 1669 by the Pius Congregation of the Piceni, it was however reopened to the public, although without the façade, only in 1774. It was the architect Camillo Guglielmetti who designed the façade around 1860, according to the rules of the late neoclassical architecture, and the sculptor Rinaldo Rinaldi put there the great relief representing the “Transfer of the Holy House of Loreto“.
The interior, with a single nave, is worth a visit to admire the Chapel of the Nativity, by Pietro da Cortona, and the funeral monuments of Cardinals Simonetti and Marefoschi.
Have a look at the charming cloister too, decorated with a beautiful fountain, frescoes and reliefs from the old Church of St. Saviour.