interesting places and curiosities
A holiday in an apartment in Rome can be the occasion in which to discover tucked away corners of the Eternal City. Rome is so rich in things to see, that tourists are often forced to limit themselves to visiting the more celebrated monuments. We recommend two itineraries so as to see a different Rome, over and above the classical Forum and Colosseum.
The first itinerary covers seven curiosities inside Saint Peter’s. The second itinerary covers some small curiosities that are in any case worth seeing if one is on holiday in Rome.
Legends and curiosities of Saint Peter’s Basilica
Michelangelo’s only signature
The celebrated Pietà, commissioned to Michelangelo by Cardinal Giovanni Bilhères de Lagraulas, French ambassador to Rome, and that one can admire in the first chapel of the right-hand aisle of Saint Peter’s, is one of the great master’s most important works, and the only one to have been signed by him.
It is told that the great artist, that was then 24 and still little known, hearing the opinion of some art experts who were praising his work but attributing it to Cristoforo Solari, was piqued and decided to put the author’s true name on it, by signing the belt that girth’s the Madonna’s breast.
Index of the Turism in Rome
The "Coronation Wheel"
Few are those who, having come to Rome for a holiday, notice a great disk in red porphyry, set in the pavement just past the door to the aisle. This is the famous rota porphyretica or wheel of coronation, that comes from the old Saint Peter’s, the ancient basilica built by Constantine. It was on this stone that stood the emperors when they were crowned by the popes. On this great wheel, opportunely preserved, knelt the great Charlemagne, king of the Franks, the eve of Christmas of the year 800 when Pope Leo III (795-816) crowned him "Roman Emperor" (so was he acclaimed by all those present), placing the Imperial Diadem upon his head.
On that same wheel numerous other emperors were also crowned, among them Lotarian I, Ludvic II, Lambert of Spoleto, Berengar, the two Ottonians, Frederick Barbarossa and Frederick II.
The cathedral … that is not Saint Peter’s
Inside Saint Peter’s there is the pontifical throne said to be of Simon, known as Peter, the first Pope. It is placed in a colossal case that rests against the wall of the apse and was built by Bernini in bronze, marble, stucco work, gold and glass, and is sustained by four saints: St. Ambrose and St. Augustine at the front, and St. Anastasias and St. John Crisosthomus at the back. The composition is so masterful that it must be seen during a holiday in Rome.
Further to careful analyses conducted during restoration carried out by a special commission of experts nominated by Pope Paul VI (1963-1978) in 1968, it turned out that the pontifical seat – known as the Cathedral of Saint Peter – only dates back to the IX century. It is probably the Carolingian throne brought to Rome by Charles the Bald in 875 when he was crowned in the basilica by Pope John VIII (872-882).
The phases of maternity
According to a legend reported
by Willy Pocino, in his book Curiosities of Rome (pub. Newton
Compton), Pope Urban VIII (1623-1644) charged Bernini with the task of
representing the various fazes of maternity, from conception to birth,
this on the base of the columns of the baldachin of the Vatican basilica,
so as to free him from the votive promise that he apparently made whilst
waiting for the birth of his nephew Taddeo’s son.
A pillar the size of a church
The four gigantic pillars that support the dome of Saint Peter’s have an irregular pentagonal shape. Each is about 30 metres high and has a circumference of about 71 metres, and each one could contain Borromini’s church of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, known as San Carlino for its modest size.
The statue of Saint Peter
The much revered
bronze statua of St. Peter was made, tradition has it, by Pope
St Leo the Great (440-461) after having met Attila (452).
The best looking lions and the hidden elephant
The most beautiful
marble lions are considered to be those that adorn the sepulchral monument
of Clement XIII in the Vatican Basilica and that are the work of Antonio
Canova (1792). These marble compositions are worthy of a visit, during
a holiday in Rome. The two beasts are crouched, one roaring and the other
sleeping, and symbolise Pope Clement XIII’s strength and at the same time
the good sense that moderates it. So as to portray them live Canova left
his apartment in Rome and went to Naples to draw those in a cage in the
Other curiosities in Rome that merit visiting
At Piazza Navona, one of the statues of the Fountain of Rivers (the fountain in the centre of the square) has a hand held up to protect its eyes, as if it in some way feared the collapse of the façade of the church before it. But in reality it all boils down to the rivalry between architects in Rome. Bernini, who made the fountain, doesn’t want to "see" the church façade, that was made by his rival Borromini.
Formula for making gold
In the centre of Piazza Vittorio, near Termini Station, there are some ruins. One can here admire the Magic Gate, an arch upon which, according to legend, is inscribed the alchemical formula for making gold. In 1600 the owner of the villa where now stands the magic Gate offered an alchemist on holiday in Rome an apartment in his home, as well as funds and equipment with which to perform the miraculous transformation. The alchemist one night fled the apartment, leaving a fistful of gold on the table and the formula later inscribed on the monument.
The dome through the keyhole
From Piazza dei Cavalieri di Malta one can have a restricted but original view of Saint Peter’s from the keyhole of the portal to the Palazzo dei Cavalieri, through which one can see the dome of the basilica. All of the garden, the portal and the square were all designed so as to allow for this optic effect.
The museum of purgatory in the Prati neighbourhood
delle Anime del Purgatorio (Souls of Purgatory) is situated in a small
building next to the sacristy of the church of Sacro Cuore del Suffragio
at number 18 of Lungotevere Prati. In a long cabinet one can see reproductions
of strange findings, most of them from France, found between 1636 and
1919. These are impressions made with fire left by the dead on cloths,
books, shirts and night caps as well as wooden tables. The story of each
of these strange imprints is described. The idea for this singular museum
on purgatory was born after a fire on 15 September 1897 that damaged the
chapel of Madonna del Rosario that then existed. On one side of the alter
the smoke left a strange image of a suffering face, still to be seen in
a photograph kept in the museum.
Borromini’s perspective gallery
On the ground floor of the noble and elegant Palazzo Spada (Piazza Capo di Ferro) one can admire a grandiose colonnade with in the background the imposing statue of Mars. It is a well known tromp l’eoil by Borromini, because the whole is contained in about 9 metres in length and Mars is less than one meter tall. The grandiose effect is given by a clever trick of perspective that creates this interesting and rather charming illusion. If you are on holiday in Rome, leave your apartment and go and enjoy one of the most extraordinary effects of perspective in the world.
Via Veneto: Guido Reni’s vengeance
When Cardinal Antonio Barberini, founder of the church of Cappuccini in Via Veneto, he ordered Guido Reni to paint a picture representing The Archangel Michael Vanquishing the Devil (first alter to the right), and he made the artist promise that he would give the face celestial beauty. The cardinal’s wish was amply fulfilled, to the point that contemporaries judged the Archangel worthy of being compared to the Apollo of the Belvedere, that is in the Vatican in the courtyard of the papal apartment. Guido Reni instead tried to depict the devil as ugly as possible. He drew the devil with the physical features of Cardinal Giovanni Battista Pamphili (later to become Pope Innocent X) as vengeance for having been ill-treated by the man!
The museum of skeletons
In the cellars of the church of Cappuccini in Via Veneto there is a rather strange artistic cemetery, in which there is a collection of the bones of something like 4.000 friars who died between 1627 and 1870. The bones decorate the walls of four chapels, in somewhat dubious taste. A touch of the macabre that is worth visiting whilst on holiday in Rome.
Saint Clement’s, a river under the alter
Under the very ancient basilica of Saint Clement there is a small underwater river that has a little waterfall. Onetime they were both visible but in late, for reasons of prudence, they were hidden by a wall through which one can still today distinctly hear the noise of running water.
Swearword in a church
In the lower basilica of Saint Clement one can admire numerous and interesting frescos (IX-XII century) and among them a series of cartoons (XI century) in medieval Italian, the precursor to the Italian language, that could be considered as the first comic strips ever. They tell the story of St. Alexius and St. Sisinnus. According to tradition, Sisinnus, a perfect pagan of Rome, tells his henchmen to capture the Pope. When they go to tie him they end up tying a heavy column by mistake that they find impossible to move, the Prefect shouts an imprecation, calling to his men "fili de le pute, trahite !" or "sons of whores, pull!"
Tiberina Island and the sacred snake
In 293 BC, so a legend tells, whilst Rome was struck by a terrible plague, a commission of experts went to Epidaurus in Greece, to ask Aesculapius the god of medicine for help. Suddenly, a large serpent, the symbol of the god, comes out of the temple, heads for the Roman’s ship and climbs aboard. The event is interpreted to mean that the divinity wishes to … transfer itself. Delighted, the Romans head for home. Once in proximity of Tiberina Island, there is another surprise, the snake jumps off the ship onto the island. This too is interpreted as a sign and a fine temple to Aesculapius is immediately built there. It is almost as if the god of health had transferred himself to his apartment in Rome. The plague immediately disappeared. In medieval times a church dedicated to St. Bartholomew was built upon the ruins of the temple.
The cannonball of the miracle
In the chapel of the church of Saint Bartholomew upon the Isle, there is a large (14cm diameter) cannonball lodged in the wall where it struck it during the siege of Rome of June 1849. When it hit the building it was full of people , who went miraculously untouched. The cannonball, known as of the miracle was left in the wall as a memento of the event.
Castel Sant’Angelo, the angel and the plague
angel that one can see on top of Castel Sant’Angelo is linked to an ancient
legend according to which, in 590, during a terrible plague in Rome, Pope
St. Gregory I the Great (590-604) led a procession with a miraculous image
of the Madonna. Also some of the sick, pressed by their faith, left their
apartment so as to follow the religious event. As the procession arrived
before Hadrian’s mausoleum – as Castel Sant’Angelo was then known – Pope
Gregory had a vision of an angel putting his sword back in its sheath.
The famous canterani
The famous canterani, the two buildings that were thus depreciatively named by Filippo Raguzzini because they are made in the shape of the furniture of the time, look onto the incredibly beautiful square of Sant’Ignazio. Despite early critics they are now much admired. To have an apartment in one of those canterani is today a sign of distinction.
Father Pozzo’s fake dome
many Baroque works of art that generate stupor for the excellence of their
illusionary technique, there is certainly that of the dome of the church
of Sant’Ignazio, a dome that does not exist but would appear to be there
if one looks up at it from within. The author of this masterpiece of architectural
and pictured perspective was one Father Pozzo. It was done in 1685, on
a canvas 13m wide. As soon as it was completed, many Romans and foreigners
on holiday in Rome rushed to see it. How they marvelled to discover that
the dome "looked at from an angle, looked as if it was about to collapse".
populace is well known for its polemical spirit, above all addressed at
the powerful. In Piazza Pasquino, at the back of Palazzo Braschi, there
is the armless bust of a group of statues from the Hellenic period, that
has gained fame under the name of Pasquino.
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