Trastevere: a fascinating Roman neighbourhood

By | Category: Travel destinations
palazzo and S Maria in Trastevere

Santa Maria in Trastevere © Archivio Comune Roma Turismo

Rome is a city so stuffed with churches, monuments and ancient sites that the sheer magnificence of it can prove overwhelming. Visitors rush around trying to fit everything into a few days – of which they’ll remember little other than exhaustion. A visit to Trastevere (it means ‘across the Tiber’) proved different. We enjoyed getting to know this historic Roman neighbourhood at a gentle pace. In fact, although only a stroll over the pedestrian Ponte Sisto took us to the main sights of Centro Storico with the Foro Romano and the Colosseum but a short tram ride away, we hardly wanted to leave Trastevere. It is, in fact, almost a microcosm of the great city with just the right number of churches, monuments and galleries to explore without culture fatigue – and plenty of good restaurants and bars in which to relax if ever it threatens.

It is a very old (even by Roman standards) neighbourhood made up of attractive painted houses and tiny winding lanes called vicoli, the equivalent of Venice’s calle. This means that initially you get lost but within a very short time you’ve worked out the geography. As a previously working-class district, at one time it was right off the tourist circuit but nowadays it attracts writers and artists and has becoming trendier, so it can get very busy in summer.

We were fortunate in that our stay was during the low season and there were no crowds – and even more fortunate that the sun shone and the sky was blue every day. We were staying very near the Basilica and Piazza di Santa Maria in Trastevere, the heart of the area. Apparently there has been a fountain in the Piazza since the 800s, making it the oldest fountain in Rome. The Basilica too one of the city’s oldest and the first to be dedicated to the Virgin. The façade of its arcaded portico is decorated with a glittering golden mosaic depicting Mary and the Baby Jesus. Inside in the apse there are more wondrous shimmering mosaics. Like many other churches in the area it is said to be on the site of a domus, or house in which early Christians met to worship.

Villa Farnesina

This part, west of the wide Viale Trastevere also contains the two most prestigious grand houses open to the public in Trastevere, Palazzo Corsini and Villa Farnesina, which in fact are opposite to each other.  We found Villa Farnesina a total delight especially as we seemed to have it to ourselves throughout our visit. It is a big, lavish palazzo set in great gardens built in the early 1500s for the fabulously rich papal banker Augustino Chigi.  As a measure of his wealth, two beds in the villa inlaid with gold and precious stones were said to have cost more than the land on which the villa stood.  Chigi was also something of a joker: for a bet he held a banquet to which the Pope and fourteen cardinals were invited. Delicious food was served and music played and everyone admired the gold hangings on the walls – which Chigi then had whisked aside to reveal that they were actually dining in his stables. His  parties in fact were legendry, in 1518 at one held in his logia on the banks of the Tiber, the food was served on gold and silver platters which were then  dramatically cast into the river– what the guests did not know was that nets had been placed on the river bed to catch them…

All this goes some way to explain the sheer opulence of Villa Farnesina. Chigi was one of the young Raphael’s patrons and there are numerous marvellous frescos designed by him but often painted by others, it is said because he himself was too busy dallying with his mistress Margherita, daughter of a nearby baker. He did however paint a magnificent Galatea,  in which the sea nymph  is depicted standing in a seashell coach pulled by dolphins surrounded by  tritons, nereids and sea creatures with a lively host of cupids shooting arrows from  the sky above. As well as these masterly frescoes  the villa is remarkable for the  vast hall of trompe l’oeil  perspectives by Baldassarre Peruzzi in which pillars  and columns painted to resemble  precious marble open out and frame painted cityscapes and landscapes  which look disconcertingly real.

Orto Botanico

Just across the road is the baroque Palazzo Corsini, which now houses part of the national art collection. Here too the galleries have wonderful trompe l’oeil perspectives and frescoes but also glorious paintings by Caravaggio, Titian, Fra Angelico, Van Dyck et al. The Palazzo was previously the palace of the abdicated Queen Christina of Sweden who moved into it with her court in 1662. She too threw great parties in this magnificent setting.

Behind the Palazzo Corsini, on land which previously formed part of the estate, Rome’s botanical garden stretches up towards the steep Gianicolo Hill, effectively the backdrop to Trastevere. The Orto Botanico was originally part of the Papal gardens devoted to the herbs and plants needed for medicinal treatments but was laid out in its present form in 1883 and is now part of the Sapieza University of Rome. Once again this is a little known gem and apart from a couple of families with children running around and enjoying the space, we seemed to be the only visitors. We appreciated the rich bamboo collection, the triton fountain and  the stepped waterfall as well as the tall Washingtonia palms, now colonised by flocks of colourful squawking parakeets.

Strolling back, just beside the Porta Settimiana we passed a modest house bearing a plaque saying that it was at one time La Casa della Fornarina, the baker’s house, home of none other than Margherita, Raphael’s beloved. He obviously didn’t have far to go…

In this area too is the Piazza di Sant’Egidio and on another day we popped into the small Museo di Rome in Trastevere. It is a modest affair which focuses on the local area with waxwork characters depicting tabeaux  and some nostalgic black and white photographs.

Mercato San Cosimato

Almost opposite we spotted a new art gallery Expo Palazzo Velli and enjoyed an exhibition of collage paintings by the Sicilian artist Andrea Chiesi.

One thing we absolutely have to do in Italy, is visit the local market, so the following day we set off for the Mercato San Cosimato in the piazza of the same name. As always it was absurdly lively and colourful; yellow courgette flowers, scarlet strawberries, vivid broccoli florets and violet aubergines making a cheering scene. We watched men taking young artichokes, rubbing them with lemon and trimming them to look like roses, asking ourselves,  could such effort go into preparing a vegetable here? While revelling in the colourful profusion of the fish, (including bucketfuls of eels) vegetables and fruit we suffered the same regret as usual that (a)  in no area of this size in England would you find such produce and (b) that we didn’t live here so couldn’t make use of it.

This feeling was compounded when we discovered a shop on the corner of the piazza, Drogheria Innocenti. It was simply the most amazing grocery store we’d ever entered. Although unassuming from the outside and a warren of little rooms inside, it was a veritable Aladdin’s cave of produce from all over the world; sacs of beans,  sacks of flour, sacks of every sort ofpasta, dozens of types of coffee and tea (including Earl Grey) plus sweets, wine and much much more.  The  variety was incredible, for not only were there basics but also luxury items to rival Fortnum & Masons including candied fruits, marzipan, marmalade, Tiptree jams  and even Marmite!

It was here too that we got a tip for out next visit when a woman in the shop told us we should pop in to the local hospital L’Ospedale Nuova Regina Margherita just a stone’s throw away. We were rather surprised but she explained that it was a proper functioning hospital but within a very old monastery and that there were lovely antiquities to see. “Just walk straight through,” she said. “No one minds.”

Ospetale regina Margherita

Well we did and she was right. It was completely unexpected to see, alongside a notice saying ‘this way to the diabetic clinic’ a long gallery to the wall of which were affixed dozens of antique artefacts which had obviously been excavated during the monastery’s conversion, This gallery was one side of an arcaded cloister with, in the middle, a garden with roses and a huge orange tree laden with fruit. We sat there for a few moment enjoying the sunshine and reflecting on how in Rome, fragments of the past which would be in museums in this country are often basically preserved in situ so nothing is wasted.

We had been told that we absolutely had to see the view from the top of the Gianicolo Hill – but had been daunted by the idea of the long steep climb. Now just round the corner from the hospital we found the bus stop for the little 115 bus which took us swiftly up to the very top. We got off by the Piazza Garibaldi and admired the statue of Garibaldi on his horse (this hill was the scene of one of his battles in the unification of Italy) before being completely wowed by the vast panoramic view of Rome set out before us. On the way back we noticed the huge Fonatna Paola which is fed by water from 2o miles away by an aqueduct. It is also said to have inspired the Trevi Fountain – but fortunately here, there wasn’t a single person taking a selfie.

Our time in Trastevere was coming to an end. It only remained for us to explore the part east of the busy Viale Trastevere. As soon as we crossed this wide boulevard we noticed a subtle change in atmosphere; this was  once a busy district because of the Ripa Grande Port but now it seemed  very quiet with few people milling about. It too was going upmarket though,  art galleries were opening up, always a sure sign. Perhaps the oddest was in a tiny 8th century church Sant’Andrea de Scaphis. Apparently the British born but New York based, owner Gavin Brown, had seen this deconsecrated church years before but only very recently acquired it. Passing by there was nothing to indicate to us that it was a gallery but we were temped in by the open door which gave onto a stone floor and half-stripped walls with he vestige of an altar at one end  – and on looking closely at the walls- we saw modern works art. A a strange but pleasing juxtaposition and a unconventional use of an intriguing space.

The gallery in Sant Andrea de Scaphis

Here too in the eastern section of Trastevere,a grand basilica dominates, that of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere. With a spacious courtyard entrance, it has an impressive eighteenth century façade although it was apparently built centuries before on the top of the saint’s house – and that on the top of an even earlier  titulus where some of the first Christians met. Saint Cecilia, patron of music, was decapitated for converting to Christianity but is said to have survived for three days – singing all the while. Within the basilica is an important 13th century fresco The Last Judgement by Cavallini and below it a decorated crypt (which we were too late to see).

Opposite, on the Piazza Santa Cecilia we came across more evidence that this part of Trastevere too is on the way to becoming trendy. A new smart children’s bookshop had not long opened at No 18 and at no 16 we found a new shop selling tempting designer and vintage clothing and as we walked up Via Vascellari we came across more boutiques and antique shops.

We said goodbye to Trastevere reluctantly, content with our discoveries but happy too that we had not exhausted all that this relatively small neighbourhood has to offer – leaving us good reasons to return.

For more about Rome, click here.

Images, unless stated, © Patricia and Dennis Cleveland-Peck







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