A fine morning in Rome isn’t to be wasted; at 6:30 AM, I wandered out. As usual, without a plan. I was in Rome, and I needed to see what I could see during my short stay.
I wound down Via della Scrofa, a street noted for its restaurants (including Alfredo alla Scrofa, the birthplace of Fettucine Alfredo. The restaurant, established in 1914, apparently became quite famous with celebrities, starting with American movie stars Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. Who knew? ) Via della Scrofu becomes Piazza di San Luigi de’ Francesi, which is where you’ll find the French Catholic church in Rome.
Chiesa de San Luigi de’ Francesi (Church of St. Louis of the French), the work of Giacomo della Porta, is an imposing 16th century church (partially funded by Catherine de’ Medici, the Italian-born French queen) with spare exterior decoration—there are four statues of French historical and religious figures (Charlemagne, St. Clothilde, St. Louis, and St. Jeanne).
Rounding the corner into the adjacent alley, Via del Salvatore, you walk between the church and Palazzo Madama, which is home to the Italian Senate. The palazzo (16th century with 17th century facade) was built for the Medici and was constructed over the remains of ancient baths.
Cross Corso del Rinascimento, duck down the alley on the left—near the colonnade—and enter Piazza Navona. I’ll talk more about this gorgeous square in a different post, but I will say here that, to my mind, Piazza Navona is most beautiful very early in the morning.
There are no crowds, and the light hits the monuments just perfectly. In the morning there is an indescribable something about the piazza—all cool air, soft light, and gleaming marble.
Turn to the right and stroll past the fountains, the empty gelaterias, and lonely souvenir stands. Take Via Agonale and exit onto Piazza di Tor Sanguigna; at your left, there are some ruins of Stadio di Domiziano (AKA Circus Agonalis)—the Stadium of Emperor Domitian that lies under Piazza Navona (it’s a UNESCO world heritage site; you can tour it if you like).
The stadium was constructed in AD 86, and it was largely used for athletic contests (although occasionally gladiators did battle there). St. Agnes was, according to legend, martyred in the stadium before an audience (hence the location of the 17th century church, Sant’Agnese in Agone, in Piazza Navona).
Just across street stands Tor Sanguigna, the remains of a medieval tower now built into the adjacent palazzo. Apparently few of these towers remain; this one has an especially bloody history (including a member of the Sanguigna family’s beheading by an Orsini and people being chucked out windows). On the opposite side of the piazza, there’s an ornate 18th century tabernacle—a Madonelle—above street level
Turning right, the piazza merges with Via Giuseppe Zanardelli, and you see in the distance that the road leads to a heavily decorated palazzo; before arriving there, you need to pass an assortment of hotels, trattorias, and two museums. One branch of the Museo Nazionale Romano—housed in the Palazzo Altemps–backs onto the edge of the piazza. This arm of the Roman museum features collections of Renaissance and Egyptian art. A bit further down the street, the Museo Napoleonico—also in a palazzo–presents a vast collection of Bonaparte family treasures. Admission to this museum is free, by the way.
Ponte Umberto I, with three arches and just 344 feet long, was built in the 19th century and named for the country’s then-king. Once on the bridge, you see—to the right—the busy Ponte Cavour; to the left, Ponte Sant’Angelo and, beyond that, the great dome of Saint Peter’s Basilica.
The bridge ends across from the grand Palazzo di Giustizia (built 1888-1910, following the naming of Rome as Kingdom of Italy’s capitol). It’s the seat of the Italian supreme court, and it’s closed it the public; however, you can admire it from the outside: its façade is incredibly ornate in the baroque style.
While this palazzo was being built, the marshy land gave up a few five sarcophagi from the 2nd and 3rd centuries. One of those buried was a young woman called Crepereia Tryphaena. Inside of her sarcophogas, alongside the girl’s remains, were jewels and a small, articulated ivory doll. The sarcophagus and the doll are on display at museum Centrale Montemartini.
Travel down to the left on Piazza dei Tribunali, and the street becomes Lungotevere Castello. “Lungotevere” (refers to any road that runs alongside the Tiber). Here, the bare pavement gives way to a shady path along the river. Stalls, where vendors offer books, art, souvenirs, and more line the path. A short way down, you can have a coffee at Biblio-bar, an open-air café by the stalls. The coffee is very good and well-priced (for Rome!).
After a short rest, continuing along the riverside, you shortly come to Ponte Sant’Angelo: Bernini’s bridge of angels. The “bridge of angels” must be one of the most photographed monuments in Rome, and with good reason. Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s sculptures are a delight, and the bridge offers views of monuments, bell towers, tree-laden hills, as well as the austere. imposing Castel Sant’Angelo. Both structures originated during the Roman Empire.
Emperor Hadrian (117-138 AD) ordered the bridge built c. 134-135 AD. Made of regional materials, including Travertine, it was to provide passage to the Emperor’s mausoleum. It’s been called Castel Sant’Angelo since the 600s when, according to legend, the Archangel Michael appeared atop the structure and rid Rome of the plague.
Beginning with the Barbarian invasions, Castel Sant’Angelo was gradually repurposed as a fortress, and it was finally acquired by the Papal court in the Middle Ages. The Papal court continued using the building as a fortress, as well as a treasury and prison.
It was acquired by the Papal court in the Middle Ages. There is a secret passage, called the Passetto di Borgo, that connects Castel Sant’Angelo with the Vatican, which has permitted past popes with a clean means of escaping invading armies. Castel Sant’Angelo remains a papal property and is now a museum.
Like the mausoleum, the bridge was renamed following the legend of Archangel Michael’s visitation. Originally called Pons Aelius, it became known as Ponte Sant’Angelo even before the sculptures existed. Under the direction of Pope Clement IX (1600 –1669), Bernini added the angels in the 17th century; the ten figures hold instruments that represent moments in Jesus Christ’s passion.
The bridge is completely pedestrian, so there are no worries about cars (although some motorized vehicles are to be expected). It does tend to get crowded beginning in the late morning as people move from the historic center and toward the Vatican; there is a constant flow, so there isn’t always time to pause to explore the angels and take in the views.
Once over the bridge, to the left is Lungotevere Tor di Nona, which is named for a grain storage facility that stood here long ago.
Walking along the Tiber, the views remain magnificent throughout. Watching the water’s movement, how the bridges, the castle, and the court weave behind and emerge from the riverside foliage–it’s nearly hypnotic. Perhaps too soon, Via Zanardelli reappears, and the loop is closed.
If you like the time and space to indulge in Bernini’s sculptures, the sound of the Tiber, the monumental buildings, and how these things rouse imagination, then early morning promises that time and space. And you can always pop into one of the riverside cafes for your morning cappuccino and cannocino.