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Rome Diaries - Week 38

From 2006 to 2011 Paulist Father Tom Holahan served as vice rector of the Paulist church in Rome. During that time he had the opportunity to spend time exploring the historic sites of Rome as well as the hidden ones. The blog features excerpts from this travel diary. A new selection appears each week.


October 7, 2007

Once a year, on the first Saturday in October, the Italian Banking Association (ABI) opens its many and ornate doors to the public. As the present Italian banking system was starting up in late 19th century, many palazzos were emptying. Taxes, cost of living and lack of interest in preserving their Rome properties caused the city to be burdened with many historic buildings no one desired. Often, for a token sum, banks were handed the deed, with the stipulation that they preserve the patirimony they had been given. This day is the symbolic admission that the exquisite decorative art and architecture of private banks belongs, really, to the public. Not surprisingly, vaulted, frescoed ceilings make a deep impression on “wealth management” clients. Last year, I walked through one palazzo that had the bank president’s office in the former family chapel, his desk defferentially placed to one side of the main altar. First stop is Palazzo Rondinini on the Via del Corso. I am greeted by a young man dressed in formal evening attire (it is 9 AM) who hands me off to a guide for the next 45 minutes. The rooms have been well-colonized by the bank. Modern, upolstered furniture and bright lighting clash with these ornately decorated rooms. But at the end of the tour, we descend into a paneled library with a secret apartment, right out of a murder mystery. The Palazzo Altieri’s magnificent rooms (embelished by Pope Clement X) serve as the headquarters for ABI and two private banks; the Altieri family still live in a wing of the building. Who could blame them? All has been restored to a museum-like sheen so that you must wonder how anyone can keep their attention fixed on a speaker droning on about interest rates. Back on the Via del Corso, I return to Palazzo De Cariolis, which I first saw last year. In 1714 Livio De Carolis bought up some of the noble houses on the Via del Corso and built an enormous palazzo that was beyond his means. After his death it was puchased by the Jesuits who leased it to good familes for over a hundred years. The rooms on the main floor (piano nobile) are cavernous and palacial. De Carolis, a merchant who wished to be associated with the aristocracy, even had a copy of the famous, oval staircase Boromini built for Barberinis installed in his residence.

October 9, 2007

I’ve finished a walking tour of Rome that goes past five major fountains:

Rome’s fountains are a source of celebration for today’s visitors and pilgrims, just as they were in centuries ago. This tour makes a great circuit through historic Rome, remember to allow time for the little surprises that will come your way: the sun perfectly hitting a wall of ochre buildings, a particularly talented street musician, the open door of a church usually closed. St. Peter’s Square holds two enormous fountains designed by Carlo Maderno (who also created Santa Susanna’s façade in 1603). The fountains, over 45 feet high, are amply supplied with water from Acqua Paola, a restored, ancient aqueduct high atop the Janiculum hill just above the Vatican. An obelisk from Heliopolis stands between the fountains; it served as a goal post for the ancient Circus of Nero, which stood on this spot. Saint Peter was one of the many who were martyred here and the fountains along with their central obelisk, recall the goal of these first Christians -- new life from the waters of baptism. Proceed down the grand Via della Conciliazione. It could be mistaken for a continuation of the much earlier St. Peter’s Square, designed by Bernini. Instead, the road was conceived by Italy’s Fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini, as a way of celebrating the creation of Vatican City State in 1929. The street symbolizes the accord between the pope and the government of Italy in the Lateran Treaty by linking the Vatican to ancient Rome on the other side of the Tiber. Take in the enormous fortification of Castel Sant’Angelo, on your left, which began as Emperor Hadrian’s tomb and was incorporated into the Aurelian Walls in the 5th century. Its use as a fortress and prison only ended in 1901. Follow the river to Ponte Margherita, named after the much-beloved widow of King Umberto I, who was assassinated in 1900. Cross the bridge and enter Piazza del Popolo. It was completed in 1820 by Giuseppe Valadier, official architect for the Papal States. The Aurelian Wall’s Porta Flaminia, served as entry point for visitors from the north (ancient Via Flaminia extends to the Adriatic Sea). In 1562, Pius IV reconstructed this gate, with the help of Bernini and Michelangelo, to create Porta del Popolo, a fitting statement of grandeur and hope after the reforming Council of Trent. About twenty years later, Sixtus V positioned the 75-foot obelisk, which Emperor Augustus brought to Rome’s Circus Maximus after his conquest of Egypt (31 B.C.) At the same time, two matching churches and a “trident” of streets were created to emanate from Piazza del Popolo, further embellishing the space. Valadier defined the oval shape of the piazza and added decorative fountains around the obelisk; the fan-shaped streams of water falling from the lions’ mouths come from the Acqua Virgo aqueduct, built by Agrippa in the 1st century BC and restored by Pope Nicholas V. The middle street of the trident, Via del Corso, served as the main pilgrims’ route into the heart of Rome. Imagine the exhilaration of finally arriving here after weeks or months of travel: You pass through a gloriously carved archway and before you is a soaring obelisk. Clearly, you have arrived at your destination! Before leaving Piazza del Popolo, spend some time gazing at Caravaggio’s magnificent depictions of the Conversion of St. Paul and the Crucifixion of St. Peter in the Cerasi chapel of Santa Maria del Popolo. Now make your way down the street on your left, Via del Babuino. Your very first left will take you to the parallel street, Via Margutta. Until the 1850’s it was an unattractive alley. Now artists (Fellini lived at 110) and artisans (enter the courtyard of 51A) populate this back street. Continue down Via Margutta until it ends and return to the main street. On your left, is Piazza di Spagna. Although it is not obvious today, the “Spanish Steps” were originally built to link the first and longest planned street of Sixtus V (1585). As you ascend the steps to the obelisk (found in nearby ruins of Sallust’s Gardens), you see to your right another obelisk, this is the one at the back of St. Mary Major. Via Sistina was built to take the pilgrim directly there. From your vantage point at the top of the steps (take the elevator just inside the Metro station to avoid climbing), imagine the mix of visitors to this “foreigner” section of the city. The French on the hill, with their national church (Trinità de’Monti) and Villa Medici; the Spanish to your left, below, with their Embassy and the English with their 19th century traveling poets Keats, Shelley and Byron living just by the steps. In front of you lies Via Condotti, now a famous shopping street, but originally built to define the way to the Vatican. La Barcaccia (“ruined boat”), the fountain at the foot of the steps, was completed nearly 80 years before they were built. It is the last work of Pietro Bernini, father of the more famous Gian Lorenzo Bernini. It is exquisite rather than grand largely due to the limited pressure of its water source, the restored Acqua Virgo. Travertine slabs on either end of the fountain allow easy access to the water because the beautiful fountains of Rome were also important sources of water for use by its residents. At the far end of the piazza, away from Piazza del Popolo, you come to the column erected by Pope Pius IX in 1854 to celebrate the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, promulgated that year. It stands in front of the Vatican Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples (Propaganda fide). The façade facing you is by Bernini while Francesco Borromini designed the rest of the building, it is considered to be his masterpiece. Continue past this building on Via di Propaganda; as it bears to the right and becomes Via del Bufalo, look for Via Poli and follow it across Via del Tritone to the Fountain of Trevi. Completed toward the end of the 18th century as a triumphal terminus of Nicholas V’s 15th century restoration of Agrippa’s Aqua Virgo acqueduct (19 BC). The fountain is the epitome of late Baroque exhuberance. In early plans, Bernini moved the fountain to its dramatic location and Palazzo Poli was purposely built with a blank wall so that a false palazzo façade could be constructed as the incongrous backdrop for the fountain; ultimately, Bernini’s sketches were used to create the sculptures for the fountain. Neptune (center), Abundance (on the left) and Good Health (on the right) preside over a display of tritons attempting to control sea horses cavorting amid realistically carved rocks and real cascading water. Notice that you are actually standing “above” the basin of the fountain (necessary due to low water pressure) this has the effect of putting the fountain in another world from the surrounding city. Through influential films like “Three Coins in the Fountain” (1954) and “La Dolce Vita” (1960), the Trevi, at the intersection of three streets in a dense neighborhood of Rome, became the “must see” spot of the city. Via delle Muratte (on your left when facing the Trevi Fountain) begins a pedestrian walk to the Pantheon. At Piazza di Pietra you pass the façade of the Hadrianum (145 AD), built by Antonio Pio to honor his emperor father. You can visit the church of San Ignazio by taking a left at the Hadrianum. Returning to Piazza di Pietra, follow the pedestrian path on Via Dei Pastini to Piazza della Rotonda. Here enjoy walking around the exterior of the Pantheon before entering. Its awesome interior has protected it from destruction for 2000 years. Emperor Hadrian probably had a hand in the design; it was completed in 125 AD as a grander version of Agrippa’s pantheon which burned on this spot in 80 AD. If you have the time, make your way to the nearby church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, then return to Piazza della Rotonda, following Via Giustiniani. You can take a right at Via Della Dogana Vecchia to thee the three Caravaggios on the life of St. Matthew at San Luigi Dei Francesi (further down the street is another Caravaggio in the church of San’Agostino). Return to the pedestrian path (now callerd Via del Salvatore). After one block you will see a short street to your left; Corsia Agonale is the entrance to Piazza Navona. Just beneath the surface of Piazza Navona lies the ground floor of Emperor Domitian’s stadium. If you go to the right (north) side of the oval, and enter number 49 you can view part of the 15,000 seat stadium, now used as the foundation for all the surrounding buildings. It was not until the end of the 15th century that the area became a well-known square. At that time, the city market was moved here from the Campidoglio. Over a hundred years later, Pope Innocent X began embellishing the piazza in earnest for the 1650 Jubilee Year. He first constructed his family palazzo at the center of the eastern side. An exquisite palazzo chapel to St. Agnes, who was martyred here, forms the focal point. In front of this is Bernini’s riot of shapes embodying the Four Rivers (the Ganges, Nile, Danube, and Rio de la Plata). A red granite obelisk dates from 81 AD and seems invisibly held in place. Bernini concealed buttressing as part of the rocky cascade for the rivers. The fountain (1651) is seen as a masterpiece by some and a monument to excess by others. Today the bustle and commerce of the area provide an adequate foil for the fountain’s unrelenting tension and movement. Two subsidiary fountains were added twenty years later. Until 1866, those lucky enough to live by Piazza Navona, yet unlucky enough to be in Rome during August, could process around the water-flooded piazza in their carriages on every weekend of that hottest of months. It was considered an excellent use of the waters of Acqua Virgo and a reminder of the mock sea battles staged here during the time of Domitian. Complete your circuit of the fountains of Rome by exiting Piazza Navona to the north (right if facing the palazzo of Innocent X). Once outside the piazza, take a left and then a right onto Via Giuseppe Zanardelli. Continue across the Tiber on Ponte Umberto I and take a left, you will see Castel Sant’Angelo and then St. Peter’s lined up before you. As with every experience of Rome, you have been taken across millennia, through world politics and into places filled with beauty and religious fervor. It’s quite a ride, quite a walk.

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