Secret Alleyways

by Danilo Brunetti

Explore the quaint and quiet corners of the big city. Federico Schiaffino leads the way

Rome is a monumental city of undeniable scenographic impact and a beauty that immediately strikes the observer, putting itself on display from virtually every angle. But next to the ostentatious and often pompous side of Rome’s grand piazzas, there’s another more discreet side to the city that often hides in the shadows of the more celebrated monuments. It finds its own vital space between the walls of narrow alleyways or on the streets of one-time working-class neighborhoods. It’s a microcosm that survives, despite the impetuous advance of the modern world, somehow managing to preserve the traditions, crafts, and rituals of everyday life, which are elsewhere disappearing.

Vicolo del Piede

These authentic pockets of the city, where residents congregate, where the local accent is strong, and where shop signs bear the names of all but forgotten trades, are irresistible, especially to tourists in love with the quaintness of a clothesline stretched across an alley or a window box filled with geraniums. Rome’s alleys still faithfully mirror this humble spirit, despite the fact that the prices of real estate, thanks to the tourist market, have reached soaring heights. But the curious visitor, who wishes simply to discover the secrets of Rome’s backstreets and explore a part of the city where even the sun has trouble shining, is invited to take a pleasant stroll, making sure to stop at one of the traditional osterie where the joys of both palate and conviviality can be sampled.

Due to its dense network of streets and narrow alleyways, Trastevere is arguably the neighborhood with the most interesting and amusing corners. Just glance at the evocative place names, such as Vicolo del Piede (Alley of the Foot), Vicolo del Canale (Alley of the Canal, where there once was a small pier), Via Titta Scarpetta (named after a piece of shoe which stuck out of the wall and was later stolen), Vicolo del Moro (Alley of the Moor, named for the historic Ca è del Moro at no. 24), and the renowned Vicolo dell’Atleta (Alley of the Athlete). It was at this last that the Apoxyomenos, a Roman marble copy of a Greek bronze statue depicting an athlete, was unearthed in 1844. Here you can also find the facade of an early medieval building, believed to be the site of Rome’s first synagogue.

Cross the river and lose yourself in the veritable labyrinth of narrow streets that surround the market square of Campo de’ Fiori. Many of them are inspired by long-forgotten trades and artisans, such as key makers (Via dei Chiavari), trunk makers (Via dei Baullari), master locksmiths (Via dei Chiodaroli), cattle hands (Via dei Bovari), rope makers (Via dei Funari), and chair makers, (Via dei Sediari, where they are still working today).
Many of Rome’s alleyways are so concealed that they’re almost impossible to find. Via di Sant’Angelo in Pescheria, for example, is ensconced in the maze of streets of the Jewish Ghetto, but once you find it you’ll be rewarded with the unusual perspective of the half-shaded Portico d’Ottavia, with its crumbling columns and ancient decorations. Like Trastevere, the Ghetto is a world apart that lives in a reality of its own, immune to the trends of the day and deeply entrenched in its history and the customs of its long-time inhabitants.

Other alleyways, scattered around the city, are named after everything from odd legends to the coats of arms of the Roman nobility. Vicolo delle Palle (Alley of the Balls) refers to the six spheres of the crest of the Medici family, who owned many buildings in the neighborhood. Near the Trevi Fountain is Vicolo Scanderbeg, referring to the nickname of the Albanian prince Giorgio Castriota. The palace in the eponymous piazza, once the prince’s home, now hosts the Pasta Museum. Near Piazza Capranica, Vicolo della Spada di Orlando (Alley of Roland’s Sword) preserves an unlikely historical relic: a stump of an ancient marble column bearing a slash allegedly made by the paladin’s mythical sword, the Durendal, during the course of a duel. Although there are no records to prove that Roland was ever in Rome, nor that a sword, even one wielded by a hero, could cut through hard cipollino marble, legends require no explanations, just the desire to dream and believe in the unique heritage that Rome’s alleyways—a bastion against the uniformity of civilization—have managed to preserve.