By Federico Schiaffino
While not officially secret, some of Rome’s magnificent treasures are hidden from the view of millions of visitors who pass unknowingly within a few feet of them. These masterpieces are just about everywhere, waiting for you to discover them. We selected 12 of Rome’s secrets: a tribute to the Eternal City and our Christmas gift to WHERE readers.
Ludovica Albertoni Live – Born into a noble family, Ludovica Albertoni married a fellow nobleman and gave birth to three children. Widowed at a young age, Ludovica dedicated herself and her wealth to the poor. Working as Franciscan tertiary, she spent a great deal of time among the poor in squalid living conditions. Her health suffered as a result and Ludovica died a painful death in 1553. A presumed miracle worker, and revered by the Franciscan community, Pope Clement X beatified her in 1671, while her canonization is still pending. Her likeness rests in the Church of San Francesco d’Assisi, crafted by none other than Lorenzo Bernini. Like many of his marble creations, the Blessed Ludovica leaps to life from her pedestal, writhing in agony as she slips towards death, and cluthing her breast in the throes of religious ecstasy. Oft overshadowed by the Bernini’s Ecstasy of Theresa, the Ludovica is a fine example of Bernini’s genius, and the power of marble in motion. Church of San Francesco d’Assisi a Ripa Grande.
Pietro Canonica’s Abyss – Born in the last part of the 19th century Pietro Canonica honed a personal style of sculpture, vastly influenced by the Florentine Renaissance, contemporaneously conscious of the current trend for realism. At 24 years of age, he was awarded by the Salon de Paris for his work Dopo il Voto (After the Vow) and rose to sudden success. His refined and elegant portrait style made him a favorite among the noblewomen and silent film stars. Canonica explored his own artistic ambitions as well, several of which are widely regarded as his masterpieces. L’Abisso (The Abyss) features two lovers (most likely Dante’s fated lovers Paolo and Francesca) on the brink of a tragic end. Be it their inevitable parting or the proximity of death, the figures seem to burst from their marble forms in an urgent last embrace. The Fortezzuola – Villa Borghese.
Livia’s Garden – One of history’s model wives and mothers, Livia Drusilia, wife of Emperor Augustus and mother of Emperor Tiberius, was considered an icon of virtue and a veritable partner during her husband’s reign. Adored and most of all respected by her husband, Livia ordered the construction of a splendid country house just outside the city. Most of the house has diminished with time, fortunately however, excavations (circa 1860) uncovered a glorious garden fresco, which has since been excellently restored. A popular decoration style within villa-dwelling set, the Roman garden frescoes first emerged in the lavish residences of Pompeii, and offer artistic and accurate insight on the gardens of the period. Livia’s garden features an incredible array of flora: firs, pines, cypresses, oaks, oleanders and date palms set the scene for playfully swooping doves, magpies and blackbirds. Roses climb the walls and poppies, daisies and irises dot the lawn. The garden is veiled in a dreamy haze, rendering it perhaps more idyllic than the actual gardens surrounding the villa. A.S.W Find it: The Frescos of Villa Livia are on display in the Palazzo Massimo Wing of the Museo Nazionale Romano (Largo di Villa Peretti, 1. Tel 0639967700) Tues-Sun 9 am- 7:45 pm.
The Garden of Paradise – Pope Paschal I (817-24) is known for being one of the few Pontiffs who were denied burial in the church of Saint Peter. He was accused of protecting two murderers who blinded and beheaded an official who had testified against him. Fortunately, this Pope is also famous for more virtuous acts: he commissioned Saint Praxedes’ Basilica on the Esquiline Hill. Built in honor of his mother Theodora, the church hides the Chapel of Saint Zeno that hosts a true gem of medieval art, displaying mosaics in Byzantine style from the 9th century. The central mosaic depicts Jesus surrounded by the apostles and by two female figures, generally interpreted as the Church of the Jews and the Church of the Gentiles. On the ceiling there is a medallion of Christ Pantokrator. On the far left is Paschal himself, with a square light-blue halo around his head indicating that he was portrayed when he was alive. Last but not least, there is a mosaic of Paschal’s mother Theodora, also portrayed with a square halo, next to Saint Praxedes, Pudentiana and the Virgin Mary. The chapel also hosts the relics of Saint Zeno and Saint Valentine, brought here from the Catacombs as part of Paschal’s project which involved retrieving all the skeletons of the Christian Saints buried there. The quality of the tesserae and the preciousness of the colors give a marvelous effect of light refraction and provoke true shock for the eyes. S.R.S.W Find it: Walk into the church and turn left. Open from 7am- 12 pm and 4-6:30pm. Via di Santa Prassede 9a. (near Santa Maria Maggiore).
Raphael’s Galatea – Nestled into the leafy landscape of the Trastevere area, the Villa Farnesina hosts one of Rome’s myriad hidden treasures. In 1505, wealthy Sienese banker Agostino Chigi commissioned the design and construction of a lavish villa. Raphael is among the artists represented on the frescoed walls. Often overlooked on the Roman art tour, his striking depiction of mythological lovers sea nymph Galatea and Acis adorns a massive space in the eponymous Sala della Galatea hall. Raphael most likely modeled the nymph beauty on Chigi’s courtesan -nicknamed Fornarina- with whom he later fell in love, threatening to suspend his work were she not allowed to spend the evening with him. Either love or money won out, and the Galatea was completed to breathtaking results. A.S.W Find it: The Villa Farnesina (Via della Lungara, 230. Tel 0668027268) is open to the public Mon-Sat 9 am-1 pm.
Mosaici di Gino Severini (1934-35) – Rome has always been the city of mosaics. After the 1600s, mosaic art was set aside to become newly popular in the late 1800s and especially during the twenty years of fascism, which marked a definite return to this unjustly neglected art. The Roman spirit of the regime inspired artists to recover the formal legacy inherited from antiquity, which had a strong impact on the creation of the most emblematic works, i.e. the EUR district and the Foro italico sports complex. Among the artists who contributed to this revival of mosaics, Gino Severini stands out for his marked personality and immense technical skills, together with an in-depth knowledge of the Greek-Roman world. In 1932, Mussolini called upon Severini to decorate the interior of the Foro Italico (the Duce’s personal gym): the sporting campus was extensively decorated with indoor and outdoor mosaics between 1934 and 1937. The mosaics are very large and depict powerful black figures racing and competing on a white background characterized by a strict geometrical balance.W Find it: Take bus 32 from Piazza risorgimento to Lungotevere Maresciallo Diaz. 5 minute walk.
Borromini’s Perspective (1652-53) – One of the most ingenious techniques of the Baroque age, the trompe l’oeil (literally “fool the eye”) was developed to deceive the senses and create optical illusions. A great patron of the arts and a lover of perspective tricks, Cardinal Bernardino Spada commissioned Borromini to modify his Palazzo in the baroque style and to create the false perspective in the arcaded courtyard. Walking through the courtyard from the main entrance, visitors will be forgiven for thinking they are in front of a 35 m long corridor. The long gallery is only an illusion as the actual length is 9 m, and the lifesize-looking sculpture at the end of the gallery is only 60 cm high. Aided by a mathematician, Francesco Borromini created this astonishing masterpiece by reducing the dimensions of the colonnade as it receded while placing an uphill mosaic floor, thus making the gallery look three times as long as it actually is. This astonishing site was recently restored and, if you ask nicely, the guards may let you get close. S.R.S. W Find it: The gallery is right in front of the main entrance to Palazzo Spada’s courtyard. Open Tue-Sun 8:30am -7:30pm. Tel 066832409. € 5 adults, € 2.50 reduced, children free.
Meier’s Church of Sails – As if anyone would need an excuse to visit Rome, here’s another. In celebration of the 2000th anniversary of Christianity, Late Pope John Paul II commissioned the Jubilee Church (Chiesa di Dio Padre Misericordioso). New York architect Richard Meier was awarded the commission in 1995, thus joining Bernini, Borromini and the others in the prestigious list of the great church architects of Rome. The church opened in October 2002 and it is one of the proofs of Rome’s architectural rebirth. Built in the neighborhood of Tor Tre Teste, in the Roman outskirts, the Church of Sails is characterized by its three white concrete sails swelling out as if blown by an easterly wind; the sails are curved walls separating three distinct spaces: the main sanctuary, the weekday chapel and the baptistery, each with a separate entrance. Glass walls and skylights nestle within the concrete walls as natural light sculpts the Jubilee church interior. With its simple yet severe design features, the church has been hailed in magazines and university textbooks. Via F.Tovaglieri. Tel 062315833.
The Scala Santa and Sancta Sanctorum – You can’t walk where Jesus once did, but you can crawl. The 28 marble Scala Santa or Holy Stairs were transported from Jerusalem to Rome in 326 AD. The stairs once led to Pilate’s residence, and the historical Jesus would have climbed the stairs before his final condemnation. Catholic tradition allows pilgrims and the pious to ascend on hands and knees, and many Popes have performed this act of great devotion. There are however, regular stairways flanking the Scala Santa for the curious. The stairway leads to the Sancta Sanctorum chapel to Saint Lawrence, the former private Papal chapel, and only extant component of the original Lateran Palace. Inside you’ll find a wealth of relics: commissioned and donated by numerous popes including Stephen III, Leo III, Innocent III, and Nicolas III, who ordered the Cosmatesque mosaic floor and ceilings. Frescoes since restored adorn the walls. 28 gothic tabernacles contain various relics dating as far back as the 6th century, if not earlier. One such wooden depiction of Christ is said to be the work of Saint Luke and an angel, a “work not of human hands.” Regardless of its age and fragility, the relic occasionally makes an appearance during religious processions. Find it: Piazza S.Giovanni in Laterano near the Basilica. Open from 7am – 12 pm and 3.30pm-7pm
Borromini at San Carlino – At age 35 Borromini designed his first cupola solo, and the result was splendorous. At the church of San Carlino you can observe his love for perspective and trompe l’oeil all throughout. The rectangular cloister appears to be octagonal, and definitely worth a perplexing stroll. As mentally tormented as he was genial, Borromini was meant to be buried inside the crypt of the church, but after a gruesome suicide attempt he was barred from the sacred burial spot, and buried instead with his brother in a family gravesite. Find it: Visit the church of San Carlino – Via del Quirinale 23. Open Monday-Friday from 4-6 pm.
Fontana Galea (1620-1621) – The Vatican gardens date back to medieval times, when vineyards and orchards extended to the north of the Apostolic Palace. Ever since the gardens were founded, every Pope has left a mark on them, by commissioning grottoes, sculptures, secular creations, plants and landscape designs for all tastes. It was Paul V’s idea to commission the Fountain of the Galley in 1620. A baroque whimsy in the form of a galleon, this very peculiar fountain is the scale replica of a three-mast ship. The miniature details are impressive and the masts, riggings, capstans, portholes and cannons shoot streams of water. The fountain was designed by Flemish artist Jan Van Xanten from the Bernini school but it was laid out at different times, mostly late Renaissance and Baroque. The fountain was initially set against a rural backdrop: a sort of lake with rocks and grottoes. Today, the garden surrounding the background hosts different types of marsh plants, including papyrus. S.R.S.W Find it: In the Vatican Gardens, between the Vatican Building and Innocent VIII’s Palazzo. Open Tue, Thu and Sat from 10 am. € 9 (including guided tour). Last Sun of the month free. Booking required. Viale Vaticano. Tel 0669884676
Cosmati Floor – The Cosmati family provided four generations of skillful architects, sculptors and mosaic workers, famous for the invention of the so-called Cosmatesque technique: elaborate inlays of triangular and rectangular-cut colored stones and glass mosaics forming complex geometric designs that have attracted many math-lovers and geometric-perfection enthusiasts. The Cosmati designs are made of four colors only (red, green, yellow and brown) combined in squares, circles, hexagons and octagons, forming a unique and very original style. For their works, the Cosmati used to collect pieces of colored marble from ancient Roman columns and monuments. The Cosmatesque technique was widely used by the family and by its artistic successors for the floors of over 100 Italian churches and cathedrals and it is said to be a development of the Turkish inlay techniques. Well hidden off the beaten track, the Church of San Lorenzo Fuori le Mura shows one of the best examples of Cosmati floors. The floor decoration resembles an enormous rug covering the whole central nave in a sinuous and complex evolution. The thousands of designs and color combinations reveal the Cosmati’s vivid imagination in the continuous variation of the ornamental motifs. W Find it: Inside the Church of San Lorenzo Fuori le Mura, Piazzale del Verano. The church is right by the Cimitero del Verano, Rome’s biggest cemetery.