Non-Touristy Things to See and Do In Rome
Rome of the Popes: The Leonine Wall
The Leonine Wall runs along the back streets from the Castel Sant’ Angelo to the Vatican, where the shops specialise in rosary beads and cardinals’ socks. The place is often empty, for most tourists approach St Peter’s along the statuesque Via della Conciliazione. Like Florence’s Vasari Corridor, the Leonine Wall houses a secret passage—the Passetto di Borgo—which connects the Vatican to the Castel Sant’ Angelo. More than one pontiff has beaten a hasty retreat along this ‘passageway of the popes’. Il Passetto translates as ‘little steps’ – running in full papal garb could prove difficult.
The Castel Sant’ Angelo was built in the 2nd C by the Emperor Hadrian as a tomb for himself and his family, and Pope Leo IV added the Passetto di Borgo in 846 after the Saracens sacked Rome. By medieval times it had become a fortress, for being the tallest building in Rome, it towered over the city walls.
After Rome’s sacking Pope Leo IV also began the Leonine Wall in 848 AD, enclosing the Leonine City, which included the Vatican and The Borgo. (Borgo is derived from the German burg, or town, for this was the place where the first pilgrims to visit St Peter’s stayed. By medieval times the numbers had swelled, forming a small town.)
The Borgo, Rome
Of the three original gates in the wall, only one remains: the southern Porta Santa Spirito, origianlly called the Posterula Saxonum. (By the 8th C a great number of Anglo-Saxons pilgrims were visiting Rome. The Venerable Bede recorded how “Nobles and plebeians, men and women, warriors and artisans came from Britannia”.)
Nearby is the church Santo Spirito in Sassia, built on the site of a church erected by King Ine of Wessex, and decorated with the most delightful frescoes. Around the corner is the Ospedale Santo Spirito, Rome’s oldest hospital and still functioning until 2000, when it became a convention centre. (Although the San Bartolomeo Hospital on the Isola Tiberina can trace it’s history to Roman times, an actual hospital was not built there until 1584.) The ruota degli esposti, or baby hatch where unwanted babies could be left anonymously, still remains.
Artists of the Borgo
During Renaissance times, artists such as Raphael and Michelangelo lived in the Borgo, as well as noblemen and high ranking church officials. In later times, it became known for the selling of religious goods, and peopled by the likes of coronary (rosary makers), as well as the umbrella makers of the Vicolo degli Ombellari. Intriguingly, Rome’s executioner also lived here, forbidden by law to live on Rome’s left bank.
Unfortunately, much of the area’s character was lost when Mussolini and Pius IX, much like Hausmann in Paris, began a redevelopment project to open up the area and provide sweeping views of St Peter’s. The construction of the Via della Concillazione came at the cost of destroying many of those small alleyways and twisting streets which gave the area its character. Even so, the area around the Leonine Wall remains a relative oasis in the heart of tourist Rome, filled with cobbled streets, cafes, and shops for buying those last minute rosary beads.
Shop Where a Cardinal Shops
When in Rome, one shops—why not leave the prosaic world of Prada and Valentino behind, and instead shop a little closer to Heaven?
Priests and nuns from all over the world can be seen browsing the shops along the Via dei Cestari and surrounding streets behind the Pantheon. Despite the sights nearby, this area is a Rome of locals, not tourists. Small trattorias and cafés jostle alongside alimentari (grocers), enoteche (wine bars) marcelleris (butcher) and panetteria (bread shops), as well as shoe-repair shops, hardware and other shops selling those things essential for day-to-day life.
No shop is more symbolic of the area than Gammarelli. Opening its doors in 1798, and still run by the Gammarelli family, this tailoring shop has dressed many popes, including His Holiness Francesco.
Nearby, De Ritis sells not only casual, ready-to-wear clothes for priests as well as made-to measure vestments, chasubles, robes for altar boys, and the dark grey overcoats favoured by many nuns. Ghezzi, also on the Vei dei Cestari, sells church fittings and artefacts, ranging from crucifixes to altars, as well as those cases priests use to carry the accoutrements for the Anointing of the Sick.
And in case there is no room in your bag for an altar—most shops now have an online catalogue, perfect for when you need a pair of red cardinal socks.
Visiting the Pantheon
Both religious clothing and Rome’s best coffee are found near the Pantheon, the only perfectly preserved ancient building in Rome. When designing the temple in 125AD, the Emperor Hadrian made the unique design of a Roman dome on a circular base, in the form of a Greek temple. All were blended in perfect proportion and symmetry. The dome of the Pantheon is higher than St Peter’s, and its consecration in 609AD prevented the plundering which destroyed so much of Ancient Rome following the Empire’s protracted fall.
I hope one day to return during a thunderstorm, when the rain splatters through the roof’s circular opening onto the marble floor, and lightening illuminates the tomb of Raphael.
The Best Coffee in Rome
The narrow Via Palombella runs from the Pantheon to the Piazza di Sant’ Eustachio. At any time of day this small piazza is crowded with locals spilling out of the tiny Sant’ Eustachio Café, coffee in hand. Personally, I feel it brews Rome’s best coffee. The only way to get served is to be confident, exuberant, and use your elbows. The café’s specialty is a coffee served heavily laced with aniseed, giving it an almost mystical quality.
Both café and piazza are named after the small Basilica Sant Eustachio. After seeing a stag with a crucifix balancing in his altars, Eustachio was converted to Christianity and later martyred. The pediment of the church is topped with a deer head complete with a cross between its antlers. Records from the 8th C show the church offering refuge and succour to the poor and sick. It is well worth a visit, especially to restore the soul after the struggle to order a coffee.
© 2016 Anne Harrison