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Enjoying the Gilt: A Stroll Through the Baroque Quarter

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The most important clue to the Romans is their Baroque art—not its artistic technicalities, but its spirit. When you understand that, you'll no longer be a stranger in Rome. Flagrantly emotional, heavily expressive, and sensuously visual, the 17th-century artistic movement known as the Baroque was born in Rome, the creation of four geniuses, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Francesco Borromini, Annibale Caracci, and Caravaggio. Ranging from the austere drama found in Caravaggio's painted altarpieces to the jewel-encrusted, gold-on-gold decoration of 17th-century Roman palace decoration, the Baroque sought to both shock and delight by upsetting the placid, "correct" rules of the Renaissance masters. By appealing to the emotions, it became a powerful weapon in the hands of the Counter-Reformation. Although this walk passes such sights as the Pantheon—ancient Rome's most perfectly preserved building—it's mainly an excursion into the 16th and 17th centuries, when Baroque art triumphed in Rome.

We wend our way through one of Rome's most beautiful districts—Vecchia Roma (Old Rome), a romantic nickname given to the areas around Piazza Navona and the Campo de' Fiori. Thick with narrow streets with curious names, airy Baroque piazzas, and picturesque courtyards, and occupying the horn of land that pushes the Tiber westward toward the Vatican, this has been an integral part of the city since ancient times. For centuries, artisans and shopkeepers toiled in the shadow of the huge palaces built to consolidate the power and prestige of the leading figures in the papal court who lived and worked here. The greatest artists flocked here to get commissions. Today, artisans still live hereabouts but their numbers are diminishing as the district has become one of Rome's ritziest.

From Earthly to Heavenly Glory

We begin just off the main thoroughfare of Rome, the Via del Corso, about four blocks northwest of Piazza Venezia's traffic hub. Heading up the Corso, make a left turn down tiny Via Montecatini to emerge into the delightful proportions of the ocher and stone Piazza di Sant'Ignazio. Any lack in size of this square is made up for in theatricality. Indeed, a Rococo theater set was exactly what its architect, Filippo Raguzzini, had in mind when he designed it in 1727. The exits and entrances these days, however, are by carabinieri, not actors, the main building "backstage" being a police station. With perfectly matching concave facades, two other buildings make up "the wings." A rare example of the barochetto—that is, the "cute" Baroque—a term that demonstrates how Italian art critics have a name for everything.

At one time the chapel of the gigantic Collegio Romano, the church of Sant'Ignazio —on your left—was Rome's largest Jesuit church. Honoring the order's founding saint, it is famous for its over-the-top Baroque spectacle—few churches are as gilt-encrusted, jewel-studded, or stupendously stuccoed. This is the 17th-century Counter-Reformation pulling out all the stops: religion as supreme theater.

Walk down the vast nave and position yourself on the yellow marble disc on the floor and prepare to be transported heavenward. Soaring above you, courtesy of painter-priest Fra Andrea Pozzo, is a frescoed Allegory of the Missionary Work of the Jesuits (1691–94). While an angel holding the Jesuit battle motto HIS (In Hoc Signo)—“In this sign we conquer"—just below, upward, ever upward, soars Saint Ignatius in triumph, trailed by a cast of thousands. A masterly use of perspective opens giddying vistas where clouds and humans interact until the forces of gravity seem to flounder. Diavolerie—“fiendish tricks”—a commentator of the time called such wonders. To rephrase a hopefully not too sacrilegious modern essay: Not until Superman comics does anything get close.

Looking back toward the entrance door, notice how the painted columns—continuations more or less of their real marble equivalents below—seem to rise straight into heaven. Now walk 20 yards back toward the door, and gaze again. And experience an optical earthquake: Those straight columns have tilted 60 degrees. Believe it or not, the whole towering edifice of classic arches, columns, and cornices from the windows upward is entirely flat.

Time to walk down the nave and admire the massive dome—although it is anything but. Dome, windows, the golden light, they're all illusion—all that majestic space is in reality flat as the top of a drum, mere paint masterfully applied across a round canvas 17 meters in diameter in trompe l'oeil fashion. Funds for a real dome ran out, so Pozzo created the less costly but arguably no less marvelous "flat" version here. Another disc set in the marble floor marks the spot where his deception takes maximum effect.

God's Little Mascot

Head out of the church, turning left to find Via S. Ignazio, then left again to Via Pie' di Marmo, which leads into Piazza Santa Caterina di Siena and the Piazza della Minerva, site of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, the only major church in Rome built in Gothic style, and famous as the home of Michelangelo's Risen Christ. But the object of our delight is right on the piazza: the Obelisk of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, an astounding conceit of an obelisk astride an elephant, masterfully designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Romans pet-name it Il Porcino, or “little pig.” The obelisk is a soaring emblem for theology and the vertiginous weight of knowledge, the beast beneath embodying that which is needed to support it—a mind that is both humble and robust, and never, thank heaven, beyond a jest, even when at its own expense.

Straight ahead is the curving, brick-bound mass of the Pantheon, the most complete building surviving from antiquity, and a great influence on Baroque architects. Follow Via della Minerva to Piazza della Rotonda and go to the north end of the square to get an overall view of the temple's columned portico: it once bore two Baroque bell towers of Bernini's design but, after being ridiculed for their similarity to "donkey's ears," they were demolished. Enjoy the piazza and side streets, where you will find a busy caffè and shopping scene.

Counting Noses

For some merriment around the Piazza della Rotonda, head to Via de' Pastini 99, where you'll meet not one Pinocchio but several hundreds, still or animated, from life- to pocket-size. The artisans responsible are the Bartolucci, and this family keeps Pinocchio not just alive and well, but multiplying to a dizzying degree.

Returning to the Piazza della Rotunda, continue northward on Via della Maddalena and proceed into Piazza della Maddelena. In the corner is the excellent Gelateria Pasqualetti. Meanwhile, in front is the Rococo facade of the church of S. Maria Maddelena, its curly and concave stone appearing as malleable as the ice cream that you may have just eaten, a gelato for the eyes. Inside the church observe how the late-17th-century Baroque twists and meanders into the 18th-century Rococo style. Marble work was seldom given such ornate or sumptuous treatment, and here is often gilded as well, as is the magnificent organ loft.

Head to Via Pozzo delle Cornacchia, directly opposite the church facade, and take it one block to the looming church across the square, San Luigi dei Francesi, the church of Rome's French community. In the left-side chapel closest to the altar are the masterpieces painted by Caravaggio on the life and martyrdom of Saint Matthew—these three gigantic paintings had the same effect on 17th-century art that Picasso's Demoiselles d'Avignon had on 20th-century artists. Illuminated in Caravaggio's landmark chiaroscuro (light and shadow) style, these are works unrivaled for emotional spectacle. The artist's warts-and-all drama was a deeply original response to the Counter-Reformation writings by St. Carlo Borromeo and the result is Baroque at its sublime best.

The Sting of Wisdom

Continue south on Via della Dogana Vecchia to Piazza di Sant'Eustachio. As culture-vulture exhaustion may be setting in, it's time for a coffee. There's no better place than Il Caffè, which, a true Roman will tell you, serves the best coffee in Rome, if not the universe. Inside the bar a cup costs only €1; outside, the price triples, but then, up on your left, the best available view of S. Ivo's dome is thrown in. Sant'Ivo alla Sapienza is considered by many to be Francesco Borromini's most astounding building. To get another look at the bizarre pinnacle crowning its dome (the church's rear entrance is on Piazza Sant'Eustachio), head down Via del Salvatore and turn left on Corso del Rinascimento to Number 40. Here a grand courtyard view of the church reveals Borromini—Bernini's great rival—at the dizzying top of his form.

Admire the church's concave facade and follow your gaze upward to see how Borromini mixes concave and convex shapes like a conjurer in stone. This performance is topped first with the many-niched lantern, and then the spiraling, so-called puntiglione, or giant stinger. Some suggest Borromini was inspired by that ziggurat of ziggurats—the Tower of Babel, featured in many paintings of the time. A more popular theory cites the sting of a bee, and indeed the nickname means just that. This would also square with the building having been begun under Pope Urban VIII of the Barberini family, whose three-bee'd crest is much in evidence all over Rome. Neatly enough, the bee is also a symbol of wisdom and this palace of Sapienza was once the hoary home of the University of Rome.

The Queen of Piazzas

Leaving the courtyard, follow all the crowds one block to reach that showstopper of Baroque Rome, Piazza Navona. The crown jewel of the centro storico, this showcases Bernini's extravagant Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi, whose statues represent the four corners of the earth and, in turn, the world's great rivers. Emperor Domitian's stadium once stood on this site, hence the piazza's unusual oval shape. Before someone figured out that the piazza's church of Sant'Agnese in Agone was designed prior to the fountain, common belief held that Bernini's fountain-figures were poised as if looking in horror at the inferior creation of Borromini, Bernini's rival. For lunch, grab a ringside caffè seat and take in the piazza spectacle—this is some of the most delicious scenery on view in Europe.

After lunch, escape the madding crowds by exiting the piazza on the little vicolo (alleyway) to the right of the church complex, Via di Tor Millina, to turn right on Via di S. Maria dell'Anima. Continue to the soaring bell tower of the church of S. Maria dell'Anima, then make a sharp left up a narrow alley to emerge on pretty Piazza della Pace. The centerpiece of one of the city's cutest streetscapes is the church of Santa Maria della Pace, commissioned by the great Chigi-family art patron, Pope Alexander VII. Although there are two great Renaissance treasures inside—Raphael's Sibyls and Bramante's cloister—the Baroque masterstroke here is the church facade, designed in 1657 by Pietro da Cortona to fit into the tiny piazzina, created to accommodate the 18th-century carriages of fashionable parishioners.

Grand Palazzos Come in Threes

Take the street leading to the church, Via della Pace (past the always chic Antico Caffè delle Pace) and continue a few blocks south down to the big avenue, Corso Vittorio Emmanuele II. Turn right for one or two blocks to reach the Chiesa Nuova, another of Rome's great Counter-Reformation churches (with magnificent Rubens paintings inside) and, directly to the left, Borromini's Oratorio dei Filippini. Head across the Corso another two blocks toward the Tiber along Via D. Cartari and turn left on Via Giulia, often called Rome's most beautiful street. While laid out—as a ruler-straight processional to St. Peter's—by Michelangelo's patron, Pope Julius II, it is lined with numerous Baroque palaces (Palazzo Sachetti, at No. 66, is still home to one of Rome's princeliest families). At No. 1 is Palazzo Falconieri, probably Borromini's most regal palace and now home to the Hungarian academy—note the architect's rooftop belvedere adorned with the family "falcons."

Looming over everything else is the massive Palazzo Farnese, a Renaissance masterpiece topped off by Michelangelo himself. You can tour the palace (today the French Embassy) on Monday and Thursday at 3, 4, and 5 pm, though not from July 24 to September 7.. Inside is the fabled Galleria, with frescoes painted by Annibale Carracci. These florid depictions of gods and goddesses were among the first painted in the Baroque style and were staggeringly influential.

If you can't get into the Farnese, no problem. Just a block to the south is the grand Palazzo Spada. The rich exterior trim of painted frescoes on the top story hint at the splendors within: grand salons nearly wallpapered with Old Master paintings capture the opulent, 17th-century version of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.

But don't miss the colonnato prospettico in the small courtyard between the library and the palace cortile. While the colonnaded tunnel, with a mythological figure in marble at the far end, seems to extend for 50 feet, it is actually only one-third that length.

Due to anamorphic deformation used as a trick by the designer, once thought to be Borromini himself (now seen as the work of Giovanni Maria da Bitono), the columns at the far end are only two feet high!

Puccini's Choice

For the finale, head four blocks northward along Via Biscione back to the Corso Vittorio Emmanuele. Landmarking the famous Baroque church of Sant'Andrea della Valle is the highest dome in Rome (after St. Peter's).

Designed by Carlo Maderno, the nave is adorned with 17th-century frescoes by Lanfranco, making this one of the earliest ceilings in full Baroque fig.

Richly marbled chapels flank the nave, the setting Puccini chose for Act I of his opera Tosca. The arias sung by Floria Tosca and her lover Cavaradossi (load it on your iPod) strike exactly the right note to conclude this tour of Rome.

Updated: 10-2013

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