Rome – the eternal city

A gentle walk through the centuries in Rome…

The Roman Forum and Trajan’s Market to the Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps: stroll through the heart of Rome

I’d like to suggest an atmospheric stroll through the heart of Rome. Begin next to the Capitoline Hill and admire the remains of the great meeting point of the Forum that was Rome’s commercial and political centre. Adjacent to the Forum were numerous temples, workshops, public buildings and several triumphal arches. The Roman Empire was governed from this place. Excavation began here in the 18th century. Often funded by wealthy aristocrats, visiting Rome as part of the The Grand Tour

Rome - The Forum, 1814 - CW Eckersberg, National Gallery, London
A view of the Roman Forum – 1814, by Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg, now in the National Gallery, London.

In this accurate and detailed painting, the three surviving columns of the Temple of Castor and Pollux can be seen on the left. The arch of Septimius Severus, behind the trees on the right, was still buried in centuries of earth and dust. When the early Grand Tourists arrived in Rome the area around the Forum was a ‘campo’ or field used for grazing cattle. Herders and shepherds would tend their flocks, whilst snoozing against the base of a broken Roman column. When you gaze at the Forum you are looking at the remains of a city that governed most of Europe, the Middle East and the Mediterranean Sea, two thousand years ago.

From the Forum stroll up the hill to Trajan’s Market, built during the reign of the Emperor Trajan, this is a huge area of shops, offices and workshops. Originally thought to be a market, in reality it was probably also a centre for all types of commerce, business and trade with a number of administrative offices too. Trajan was a successful soldier and leader, he extended the Roman Empire significantly during his time as Emperor from 98-117 AD. Trajan’s Column presides over the area – this is an obelisk built to commemorate Trajan’s numerous battle victories. Completed in 113 AD, Trajan appears on the column no less than 58 times. From here we head north into the narrow cobbled streets of medieval Rome.

Trajan's Market
Trajan’s Market – an area of trade, commerce and offices, built around 100 AD

Trajan’s Column, built 1st century AD

At this point we move from the Roman city into a city of medieval times, a city of narrow streets and small, densely packed houses, often with shops, bars and cafes at street level.  The streets seem dark and gloomy after the brilliant sunshine and dazzling light of the Forum and Trajan’s Market. As your eyes become accustomed to the shadows it is easy to imagine a merchant or a priest rubbing shoulders on these streets as they hurried to their shop or to the nearby church.

It is interesting to remember that as the Roman Empire began to decline, and fragment, the official religion became Christian. Early Christians who had lived, secretly, in Rome since shortly after the martyrdom of Christ where able to live in Rome, openly and freely. The establishment of the Christian Church in Rome led to the construction of numerous churches and basilicas. By the Middle Ages Rome was an important place of pilgrimage, with Christians travelling from all over Europe to worship at St Peter’s Basilica, said to be the place where St Peter was buried.

One of the limiting factors when it came to the development and growth of the city of Rome was water supply. Southern Italy has a typical Mediterranean climate, summers are hot and dry, whilst winters are cool and rainy. Generally rainfall is quite low. So first the Romans and then their successors had the challenge of creating an adequate and reliable water supply for the growing urban area. In Roman times a series of aqueducts were built to bring water into the city from the surrounding hills. These aqueducts were later repaired and extended. Water was effectively piped, under gravity, to troughs and fountains and stand pipes in the heart of the city. Fountains started off as functional water distribution points but it wasn’t long before the city leaders saw the opportunity to memorialise themselves, and their personal achievements with increasingly elaborate structures including statues, nymphs and dancing plumes of water. In the hot, dry, summer months the fountains were a magnet to parched locals, they could drink, cool themselves and collect the water supply for their homes. The fountains were a meeting point and a place for conversation.

Holding this thought in mind, the ten minute walk north from Trajan’s Market ends as we walk into the Piazza di Trevi. A small square dominated by the huge and theatrical backdrop of the Trevi Fountain. The initial impact of the enormous fountain in a tiny square is literally jaw-dropping. The Trevi Fountain that we see today is carved from pure white marble, to an elaborate design of Nicola Salvi, completed in 1762. The Trevi Fountain marks the principle point where the Acqua Vergine, originally a Roman aqueduct, delivers a clean, clear water supply into the heart of the city. The fountain looks like a stage set, with statues, carvings, niches and friezes. It is designed to look like the stage of a theatre, as the star of the show, the water supply of Rome, makes its dramatic entrance. The Acqua Vergine water starts life as rainwater falling on the Colli Albani (Alban Hills) to the east of Rome, it then percolates through miles of hard, volcanic rock, before emerging in marshland about 10 kms east of Rome. From here it is carried by aqueduct, much of it unchanged since Roman times to the centre of the city. The Trevi Fountain is one of the most photographed places in Rome. It’s even starred in numerous films. A pause here to think and throw three coins in the fountain is essential!

The Trevi Fountain, Rome - at night

From the Trevi Fountain it’s a short walk north – passing the Accademia San Luca, one of the oldest and finest art academies in the city. Accademia San Luca dates from the 15th century and houses a vast collection of paintings, sculpture, art and marble. Opposite is the Hotel Accademia, where I stayed many times, whilst working as a tour guide for large groups of American high school students in the 1980s. I can honestly say that the high school kids had no interest whatsoever in a 15th century art academy, even if it was, quite literally, on their doorstep. It always amuses me to think about those trips to Rome with American teenagers in tow, they were great fun, full of life, and the girls were mostly obsessed with meeting Italian boys. I spent many hours plucking them from the back of Vespa motor scooters – often with only seconds to spare.

From here it’s just a moment or two to Piazza di Spagna. This is one of Rome’s most elegant squares. A vast oval-shaped open space, with the Spanish Embassy – Palazzo di Spagna at the southern end, giving the square its name. Rising above the square are the spectacular, and recently restored, Spanish Steps, 135 white marble steps leading up to the Trinita dei Monti Church, on the top of  the Pincio Hill. The Spanish Steps were built in the 1720s, to link the Piazza di Spagna and the Spanish Embassy with the Trinita dei Monti Church. In the days of the Grand Tourists Piazza di Spagna was the point of arrival in Rome for visitors. There are some wonderful cartoons showing carriages arriving in Piazza di Spagna, two hundred years ago, being surrounded immediately by all types of characters, desperately trying to sell the occupants all manner of souvenirs, trinkets, hotel rooms, valuable Roman treasures, maps and tour guide services. For this very reason the America Express Office was located here until just a few years ago.

The important thing to do in Piazza di Spagna is to relax and absorb the ambiance that is Rome. There’s the Babington Tea Rooms for a really good cup of tea on one side of the Spanish Steps. Whilst on the other there’s a small museum that was home to John Keats, the poet and later his friend Shelley. Today it is the Keats Shelley Memorial House.

This short walk has taken us from Imperial Rome of the first century before Christ to the Baroque Rome of the 18th century. That’s almost two thousand years of history. We deserve to sit down and rest, enjoy an ‘aperitivo’, and inhale this curious, fascinating, vibrant and eternal city.

Notes:

  • This walking tour is approx. 1.5 kms, mostly flat with some cobbles. 
  • Written in the spirit of WG Sebald, whose wonderful, wandering monologues have inspired me profoundly.
  • The Grand Tourists often arrived in Piazza di Spagna, it was their first introduction to the City of Rome. The Grand Tour

The route of the walk:

Rome - walking tour from Forum to Trevi Fountain and Piazza di Spagna
Rome – walking tour from Forum to Trevi Fountain and Piazza di Spagna

Note – Created for Oxford University for their Alumni weekend in Rome / 16-18 March, 2018.

A young traveller arrives in Rome, Piazza di Spagna - 18th century, Royal Collection, London Piazza di Spagna at night - key meeting point in Rome and Bernini Fountain

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