This Is One of the Most Fascinating Ways to See Rome
This itinerary will take you through some of Rome’s most interesting neighborhoods, so take it at a leisurely pace with plenty of time for cups of coffee, aperitifs, and lunch.
Following Rome’s example, obelisks became urban status symbols. When New York was about to acquire its own obelisk for Central Park in the late 19th century, the New York Herald declared that “it would be absurd for the people of any great city to hope to be happy without an Egyptian Obelisk. Rome has had them this great while and so has Constantinople. Paris has one. London has one. If New York was without one, all those great sites might point the finger of scorn at us and intimate that we could never rise to any real moral grandeur until we had our obelisk.”
There are 13 standing obelisks in Rome: more than any other city in the world, more than in Egypt itself. All 13 can be visited in a day’s walking tour. But as this itinerary will take you through some of the most interesting neighborhoods of Rome, it is perhaps better to break it up into a few parts and take it at a more leisurely pace with plenty of time for cups of coffee, aperitifs, lunch and of course the sort of discursive sightseeing which makes Rome so rewarding.
You will do a great deal of walking—the whole route is around 9 miles—and develop an increased appreciation of Rome’s hilly topography: the legendary “City of Seven Hills” nickname is a geographical understatement. The speed at which you travel from obelisk to obelisk is going to be very much affected by Rome’s often challenging weather, especially in the furnace-like conditions of peak summer days and the occasional monsoon-heavy rains. The city’s good but limited underground system won’t be much help, and I’m afraid that traveling by car is both infuriating and also rather misses the point. Rome is, alas, not a good city for those with limited mobility: all those hills and the beautiful but treacherous cobblestone paving present major challenges.
1. Piazza del Popolo is a good place to start. The square’s current layout was fixed in the 19th century, but for centuries before it was the gateway to Rome for visitors from the north of Italy and beyond the Alps. Among the most notable of these was Queen Christina of Sweden, whose conversion to Catholicism was a trophy for the Church of Rome and Pope Alexander VII in particular. In order to welcome her Alexander commissioned Bernini to redesign the square’s entrance, the Porta del Popolo, and adorn it with a Latin inscription which declares “May your entrance be a prosperous and happy one.”
Santa Maria del Popolo itself has, even by the high standards of Rome, outstanding treasures for such a small church. Visitors mesmerized by the Caravaggios in the Cerisi chapel may be in danger of overlooking Pinturicchio’s murals in the Della Rovere Chapel. Before he became pope, Alexander VII commissioned Bernini to finish work on his family chapel, which had been begun to designs by Raphael. The chapel features two pyramidal tombs to Alexander’s Chigi forebears, one of them to the extremely rich papal banker Agostino Chigi, as well as two outstanding Biblical sculptures by Bernini— Habbakuk and Daniel in the Lion’s Den.
As a key entry point to Rome, Piazza del Popolo was an obvious place for Sixtus V to site one of his obelisks as a signpost for visiting pilgrims. This one, sometimes called the Flaminian, was carved in Egypt around 1,300 BCE and brought to Rome by Augustus, who used it to decorate the central reservation of the Circus Maximus racetrack. The usual story of collapse, loss and rediscovery culminated in re-erection in 1589 with a laudatory inscription proclaiming that “Sixtus V ordered this miserably broken and overturned obelisk to be excavated, transferred and restored and dedicated to the invincible cross.” Piazza del Popolo is home to two cafés with fine terraces: Rosati, the slightly smarter of the two, and Canova, which attracted celebrities and paparazzi in the Dolce Vita era. The famous trident of three streets, Corso, Babuino and Ripetta, fans out from the piazza, but we will turn our back on those to walk up Via Gabriele D’Annunzio to the edge of the Borghese gardens. Ten minutes later you will get to the top of the Salita del Pincio staircase where there is an excellent view across Rome to Saint Peter’s.
2. Another few minutes’ walk brings you to the small—a little over nine meters tall—obelisk of Monte Pincio, commissioned in the second century A.D. by the Emperor Hadrian as a monument to his recently deceased lover, the teenage Greek Antinous, whom Hadrian had deified. When Giuseppe Valadier, the architect responsible for the final design of the Piazza del Popolo, took charge of the layout of the Borghese Gardens, modern Rome’s first public park, the obelisk was re-erected not, as the obelisk historian Erik Iversen observed, to mark a significant urban space, but as a mere garden ornament. That was in 1822, during the reign of Pius VI. Today the obelisk stands as the centerpiece of a pantheon of somewhat decrepit statues commemorating largely obscure Italian worthies including a headless Carlo Botta, author of early 19th-century histories of Italy and the American Revolution, and a noseless G. B. Niccolini, poet, playwright and patriot. Nearby is the Casina dell’ Orologio, a painted wooden chalet dating from the 1920s serving excellent coffee and those dubious-looking but delicious tramezzini, little triangular white bread sandwiches. A leisurely 10-minute walk passes the Casino Valadier, a restaurant and event space, and the late 16th-century Villa Medici, home to the French Academy since 1803. The villa and its gardens, with guided tours in various languages, are well worth visiting.
3. Just after the Villa Medici we reach the top of the Spanish Steps and the small piazza in front of the not overly interesting French church of Santa Trinità dei Monti, the site of a medium sized 14 meter high obelisk. It is not known when or by whom the Santa Trinità obelisk was brought to Rome, but it once formed part of the decorative scheme of the celebrated gardens of the Roman historian Sallust. The obelisk was installed here on the orders of Pius VI in 1788-89. In spite of its spectacular location it is not an especially successful monument: its overly high plinth has long been criticized. With the obelisk and church at your back the importance of the Spanish Steps is obvious as they provide the link between the low-lying Piazza di Spagna and the top of the steep slope of the Pincian Hill. The steps were made possible by a legacy from the former French Ambassador, Étienne Gueffier, and opened in 1725 with an inscription praising Louis XV of France. Through some long forgotten PR blunder, although paid for and glorifying France, they are forever and universally known as the Spanish Steps. The fine view from the obelisk takes in the Barcaccia or “boat” fountain designed by Bernini’s father Pietro, but perhaps with a great deal of input from his son.
Now we begin a long walk down the Via Sistina, one of the great roads ordered by Sixtus V to improve the circulation of Rome’s pilgrims, straight as a gun barrel and site of numerous plaques commemorating the Roman residences of Piranesi, Thorvaldsen, Hans Christian Andersen, Gogol and Rossini. We cross Piazza Barberini, as boring as any Roman square can be but home to two Bernini fountains, the justly celebrated Triton and the charming but overlooked Fountain of the Bees. A further five minutes and we arrive at the crossroads of the Quattro Fontane and the church of San Carlo al Quattro Fontane the masterpiece of Borromini, Bernini’s one-time assistant and eventual rival. Turning left on our way out of the church we carry on down Via del Quirinale one side of which is dominated by the long and monotonous Manica Lunge—long sleeve or long wing—of the Quirinale Palace, a sometime papal residence from the late 16th century and now the home of the President of Italy. Opposite the Manica Lunga you will wish to visit the church of Sant’Andrea al Quirinale which Bernini claimed with false modesty was his only successful work.
4. Turn left out of the church and we are almost immediately in the Piazza del Quirinale, at the top of another of Rome’s hills and with a spectacular vista across the city to Saint Peter’s, a view loved by Alexander VII as he plotted the urban renewal of Rome. The piazza is dominated by the colossal statues of the Dioscuri, the horse-taming mythological twins, Castor and Pollux, originally carved for the Baths of Constantine but flanking the Quirinale obelisk since its installation in 1786 by order of Pius VI. This 14.5 meter obelisk has no hieroglyph inscriptions so its exact origin and date are unknown, but it seems to be one of a pair of obelisks brought to Rome by the Emperor Domitian and at one time erected in the Mausoleum of Augustus. The overly complicated base of the obelisk and Castor and Pollox statues features a large, bowl-like fountain installed in the early 19th century. Not one of my favourites. The neighbouring 18th-century Scuderie or stables of the Quirinal have been restored and host some of Rome’s best temporary art exhibitions. There is also a decent café and informal restaurant there.
It’s now a relatively long—20 minutes or so—walk to our next obelisk. This takes us down Via Nazionale, a major thoroughfare with the Victor Emanuel monument at one end and the Baths of Diocletian at the other. One of the least picturesque streets in Rome, but potentially useful, with its array of mid-market hotels and chain stores, Via Nazionale is also a reminder of the city’s major expansion following the unification of Italy and Rome’s designation as capital in 1871. In spite of the glories of Ancient, Renaissance and Baroque Rome, it is worth remembering that a great deal of the city is owed to this late 19th-century growth. A diverting stop along the way is the Victorian church of Saint Paul’s Within the Walls: American Episcopalian, the work of G. E. Street, architect of London’s Law Courts, and featuring heroic mosaics by Burne-Jones. A few minutes walk further, Santa Maria dei Angeli is Michelangelo’s masterly conversion of part of the remnants of Diocletian’s baths into a High Renaissance church.
5. We now approach the small and contentious obelisk of the Viale delle Terme, the last to be excavated, the latest to be erected and the least impressively sited. This red granite obelisk, inscribed with the cartouches of the Pharaoh Ramses II, was probably brought to Rome by the Emperor Claudius, and only fully excavated in 1883. Shortly thereafter, Italy, embarking on the cynical quest for African colonies that infected all European states at the time, invaded Ethiopia. The East African empire was no pushover and the Italians were badly defeated at the battle of Dogali. Subsequently this newest obelisk was erected in front of Rome’s main railway station and dedicated to the “heroes of Dogali” in 1887. The obelisk has since moved farther away from the railway station and now sits in the middle of a forlorn and ill-kept triangular square. However, it is just across the street from the Palazzo Massimo, part of the National Roman museum, and home to a large collection of Roman murals and the magnificent bronzes saved from Caligula’s first century pleasure fleet which was moored at Lake Nemi, about 19 miles south of Rome.
6. It is about a 10-minute walk to Santa Maria Maggiore, one of Rome’s most impressive churches, set on the Esquiline hill. In 1587 Sixtus V decreed an obelisk for this important pilgrimage site and used the slightly smaller near-twin of the Quirinale obelisk. This 13-meter uninscribed shaft of pink Aswan granite is set on a plinth with some of Rome’s most elegantly carved Latin inscriptions including one in which the obelisk atones for its past pagan behavior: “Overjoyed, I pay homage to the cradle of the ever living God, Christ, having with sadness adorned the sepulchre of dead Augustus.” Bernini’s father moved into 24 via Liberiana by the side of the church when he came to Rome to work on the Basilica’s Pauline chapel and the young Bernini was raised here. To the right of the Basilica’s high altar a modest floor slab marks the Bernini family’s tomb.
You may now need to stop at Cottini, a serviceable café across the street, before visiting the early Christian church of Santa Prassede. The church’s tiny chapel of Saint Zeno built for Pope Paschal in the early ninth century has some of the most beautiful mosaics in Rome as well as a questionable relic—supposedly the column at which Christ was scourged. The church also contains the funerary monument of Monsignor Giovanni Batista Santoni with a marble bust carved by the teenage Bernini, one of the earliest examples of his prodigious talent. Santa Prassede is is also tantalizingly close to the neighborhood’s best restaurant, Trattoria Monti, and if you began this walk with an early breakfast, it is nearly time for lunch. Reservation essential.
7. A brisk 20-minute walk and we arrive at Saint John Lateran. In importance second only to Saint Peter’s, Saint John Lateran is the mother church of the Catholic world and the seat of the pope in his role as Bishop of Rome. Built on the site of a Roman imperial cavalry barracks, the first church was dedicated here in 324, a mere 11 years after Constantine the Great promulgated the Edict of Milan legalizing Christian worship. The neighboring Lateran Palace was the papal residence before Vatican City. In such a grand context, it’s not surprising that the Lateran obelisk is the largest standing obelisk in the world at 32 meters high and weighing around 455 tonnes. Obelisks were almost always made in pairs, and the Lateran may be the only obelisk that was commissioned as a single megalith. It was made sometime in the 15th century BCE during the reign of the Pharaoh Tuthmosis III and 1,800 years later Constantine intended to bring it to his new capital Constantinople, but instead it was one of Constantine’s sons who transported it to Rome and had it erected in the Circus Maximus. Over 1,000 years after that, the obelisk was consecrated in 1588 at its current site, as part of Sixtus V’s plan. Any visitor to Saint John Lateran and the obelisk should also take time to visit the early Christian octagonal baptistery—the prototype for all other baptisteries—with Roman porphyry columns and a 17th-century fresco cycle of the life of Constantine.
8. A 20-minute walk from Saint John Lateran leads to what may be Rome’s least visited obelisk: that of the Villa Celimontana, tucked in the corner of a pretty park much used by Romans for dog walking and calisthenics and unknown to tourists. The Celimontana obelisk—well-proportioned if rather petite—has an unusually checkered history. It was created for Pharaoh Ramses II, taken to Rome at an inderterminate date, and erected in the Temple of Isis in the Campo Marzio; collapsed and broken, it was partially erected on the Capitoline Hill in the late Middle Ages, taken down and then, rather unusually, presented to the rich antiquarian Ciriaco Mattei in 1582 to put in the garden of his new villa on the Cælian Hill. There it remains, now surrounded by a circle of cypresses and park benches which provide a cool refuge on hot Roman days.
This walk will also bring you close to two churches slightly off the beaten path: Santissimi Giovanni e Paolo—multi-story bell tower decorated with colored tiles, Romanesque porch, dull 18th-century interior—and Santo Stefano Rotondo, dedicated in the fifth century to St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, and appropriately decorated in the 16th-century with 34 extraordinarily gruesome scenes of martyrdom.
There is now a long, say 45 minutes, walk down the hill, around the Colosseum—avoid queueing tourists, ticket touts and the usual men dressed as Roman legionnaires and demanding money to be photographed—and down the Via dei Fori Imperiali—a very wide, very straight, very uninteresting example of Mussolini’s idea of good urban planning— on the way to our next obelisk, Montecitorio. A slight detour will bring you to Enoteca Corsi, one of Rome’s most refreshingly basic restaurants, open only at lunchtime: if you can, get a table in the room which doubles as a wine shop.
9. Originally designed by Bernini as a palace for the papal Ludovisi family, the Palazzo Montecitorio is home to the Italian parliament’s Chamber of Deputies. In an effort to beautify the square in front of the palace, Pope Pius VI ordered the obelisk to be erected with an inscription on its base recording the vicissitudes of the then 2,300-year-old object: “Royally raised as a pyramid marking the time on its dial, long in a dung hill it rested, broken, disdained and forgotten, now to new splendor and dignity called…” One of the first obelisks brought to Rome by Augustus who installed it as the pointer of a giant sun dial, the Montecitorio is much damaged, rather stolid and does sadly little to relieve the bleakness of the parliament square.
10. Walk five minutes or so from Montecitorio to the Piazza della Rotonda and the Pantheon. As the most complete surviving Roman building and a supreme example of skillful and harmonious architecture, the Pantheon has for hundreds of years been among the world’s most famous buildings. So powerful is it and so overwhelming the throngs of visitors milling around, that it is easy not to notice the slim and pretty pink granite obelisk—twin to the one in the Villa Celimontana—that Pope Clement XI ordered installed as the centerpiece of a new fountain of 1711 as part of the papal efforts begun by Alexander VII to improve the appearance of the square and the setting of the Pantheon. Inevitably the square’s cafés are the worst sort of tourist traps but very close by there is an excellent restaurant—Armando al Pantheon—not to mention two reputable gelaterie—San Crispino and La Palma—and Rome’s most famous and most overcrowded café, the Tazza d’Oro.
11. It is now a two-minute walk to the Piazza della Minerva and Bernini’s elephant carrying an obelisk in front of Santa Maria sopra Minerva. Do spend some time in the church to see Fra Angelico’s tomb and the Carafa Chapel (1488-93) by Botticelli’s apprentice Filippino Lippi: the greatest example of Florentine art in Rome. As you turn left out of the square on your way to Piazza Navona, you may want to visit the shop of Ditta Gammarrelli, papal tailors and sellers of beautiful socks to stylish clergymen.
12. Ten minutes walking takes you to Piazza Navona. Created on the footprint of the Emperor Domitian’s chariot racing stadium, the square owes its grace and grandeur to Innocent X’s desire to show off the wealth and power of the Pamphili family. Bernini’s Fountain of the Four Rivers with its vertiginously balanced 93 tonne obelisk, is along with the Trevi, Rome’s most famous fountain. Unusually the obelisk was crafted and carved to order in Egypt but always intended for Rome, with a hieroglyphic inscription celebrating Domitian’s success in ‘taking over the kingdom of his father, Vespasianus, from his elder brother, Titus, when his soul had flown to heaven.’The cafés and restaurants of the square are well avoided, but a visit to the church of Sant’Agnese in Agone is worthwhile. The architecture is mostly by Carlo Rainaldi and Borromini with some contributions by Bernini. There is a proficient but relatively uninspired statue of St Agnes being burned to death by Ercole Ferrata, Bernini’s assistant who carved the Minerva elephant.
13. To get from the Piazza Minerva to the square of Saint Peter’s takes about half an hour and will take you over the Ponte Sant’Angelo. One of Bernini’s last great commissions was to decorate the bridge with statues of ten angels bearing the instruments of Christ’s passion, two executed by Bernini himself (but now replaced by copies), the others by his chief assistants, including yet again Ferrata. Turn left when you’ve crossed the bridge and Saint Peter’s faces you in the distance at the end of the grand and monotonous Via della Conciliazione, another example of Mussolini’s town planning, this time celebrating the political reconciliation between the Italian state and the Church agreed by the 1929 Lateran Treaty. Entering Saint Peter’s Square to face the Vatican obelisk you are, as Bernini intended, embraced by the curving colonnades with which he framed the square. The tall (25.5 meter) handsome, uninscribed obelisk—created in Egypt, supposed witness to the apostle Peter’s crucifixion, never toppled, moved into place by order of Pope Sixtus V in 1586—is a good place to finish our tour.
Excerpted with permission from The Artist and the Eternal City: Bernini, Pope Alexander VII, and The Making of Rome by Loyd Grossman. Published by Pegasus