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Trastevere: The Village Within the City

Charming, cobblestoned Trastevere is often called the Brooklyn of Rome. Staunchly resisting the tides of change for centuries, the off-the-beaten-path district was known—until the millionaires and chichi real estate agents arrived a decade ago—as "the real Rome." It’s heavily populated by romani di Roma—those born and bred in the Eternal City for at least three generations—who call themselves the only true Romans. To brook no arguments, they named their charming July fete the Festa de Noantri: the "Festival of We Others," as the people of Trastevere pugnaciously labeled themselves so as to be distinguished from "Voiantri," the "you others" of the rest of Rome or anywhere else.

In fact, the Trasteverini have always been proud and combative, a breed apart. Dating back to republican times when it hosted both Jewish and Syriac communities as well as assorted slaves and sailors, the area was only incorporated into the "Urbs" (or city proper) by Emperor Augustus in 7 BC. By the Middle Ages, Trastevere still wasn't considered truly part of Rome, and the "foreigners" who populated its maze of alleys and piazzas fought bitterly to obtain recognition for the neighborhood as a rione (district), or official district of the city. In the 14th century the Trasteverini won out and became full-fledged Romans, while stoutly maintaining their separate identity.

It's been the case ever since. Trastevere has always attracted "outsiders," and those have included celebrated artists and artisans. Raphael's model and mistress, the dark-eyed Fornarina (literally, "the baker's daughter"), is believed to have been a Trasteverina. The artist reportedly took time off from painting the Galatea in the nearby Villa Farnesina to woo the winsome girl at the tavern now occupied by the district's most toothsome restaurant, Romolo's. Long cocooned from "the strange disease of modern life," the district these days has been colonized with trendy boutiques and discos. Today, it’s newly hip with actors and alternative thinkers. No matter: tourists still love the place, with good reason. Long considered Rome's "Greenwich Village," Trastevere remains a delight for dialecticians, biscuit eaters, winebibbers, and book browsers alike.

A Midsummer Night's Dream

Rome's most charming festival begins on the first Saturday after July 16, when a statue of the Madonna is dressed in precious clothes and jewels and transported from the church of Sant'Agata to the church of San Crisogono. The eight days it remains there signal a local holiday: Trastevere streets are hung with colored lights and lanterns and everyone joins in festive merriment, complete with open-air singing contests, cocomero (watermelon) vendors, public dances, and stornellatori (quip makers) passing from table to table.

Tiber's Island

The best gateway to Trastevere turns out to be one of Rome's most picturesque: the Ponte Fabricio over the Isola Tiberina, the island wedged between Trastevere and the Campo area. As you stride over Rome's oldest bridge, let's not forget that Trastevere, literally translated, means "across the Tiber."

In Rome every stone worth its weight has a story attached. The one behind the Tiber Island, writes ancient historian Livy, is that Etruscan leader Tarquin, on his banishment, left behind a crop of grain in the Campo Marzio. For various superstitious reasons this was uprooted, put in baskets, and thrown into the Tiber for good riddance. Mud and sediment did the rest. The resulting island was eventually walled in the shape of a ship, ready to take on board another myth: allegedly this is where Aesculapius, god of medicine, landed from Greece (or his serpent double did). Whichever, the medical tradition continues to this day in the Hospital of Fratebenefratelli, the large building to your right. For one of Rome's most unique ancient survivals, head (in the opposite direction) down the embankment to the island's southern tip to the ancient "stone prow" carved with medicine's serpent. Take in the 18th-century facade of the church of San Bartolomeo, built above Aesculapius's Temple. Off to the right is what some call the world's most beautiful movie theater, the open-air Cinema d'Isola di Tiberina (which operates during the summer festival of Estate Romana). Cross the bridge—the Ponte Cestio (dated 26 BC)—to get to Trastevere proper.

Time-Tested Taste Treat

On the right of Ponte Cestio you will see the beloved kiosk of "La Gratachecca del 1915." Using recipes going back to ancient Roman times, its variety of ice crushes are famous enough locally to cause lines 100 feet long in summer.

Medieval Nooks and Crannies

You're now on the Lungotevere riverside road but continue for another block into the district to hit Piazza in Piscinula (from piscina, pool), one of Rome's most time-stained squares, home to S. Benedetto in Piscinula, a 17th-century church with a much earlier campanile, one of the smallest and cutest in Rome. Here St. Benedict, the founder of Western monasticism, once had a cell. The church has recently been restored by the Brazilian "Heralds of the Gospel" who, in resplendent uniform, are there on Sunday to greet visitors and worshippers alike. The multicolor 12th-century floor is a wonder in itself. On the opposite flank of the square is the 14th-century Casa dei Mattei, replete with cross-mullioned windows and loggias.

History nestles quietly in every nook and cranny off the square, but opt for the charming incline at the northern end, the Via dell'Arco dei Tolomei, graced with a medieval house built over an arch. One block north, let history take a rest in Via della Luce at a bakeshop par excellence—just look for the sign “Biscotti.” Several blocks farther north, the "Middle-Aged" want to detour up to Piazza Belli, where they'll find one of the largest medieval structures in Trastevere, the Torre degli Anguillara, a much-restored mini-fortress whose main tower dates from the 13th century.

Back under the Tolomei arch, this street leads into the Via dei Salumi and one block leftward brings you to Via dell'Atleta, with a number of picturesque medieval houses. Via dell'Atleta runs into Via dei Genovesi, which commemorates the Genovese sailors who thronged Trastevere when it was the papal harbor in the 15th century. These gents roomed in the vicinity of the 15th-century church of San Giovanni dei Genovesi, which has an extraordinary cloister. Whether Christopher Columbus ever stayed here is not recorded, but the dates would fit. Meanwhile, at a ring of the bell (at No. 12 Via Anicia), the cloister is still visitable every afternoon 3–6.

Wherefore Art Thou, Romolo?

No visit to Trastevere is complete without a visit to its landmark restaurant, Romolo (Via di Porta Settimiana 8), not far from the Villa Farnesina. Haunted by the spirit of Raphael—who wooed his Fornarina here—it has Rome's prettiest garden terrace, menus embellished by Miró, and scrumptious specialties, like the chef's famous artichoke sauce.

Saintly Portraits in Stone

Via dei Genovesi leads directly to one of the district's majestic medieval landmarks, the church of Santa Cecilia, which was built atop the Roman house of this martyr and patron saint of music. In 1599 her sarcophagus was found, her body inside miraculously intact. Sculptor Stefano Maderno was summoned to attest in stone to what he saw, and sketched before decomposition set in. In a robe-turned-shroud the saint lies on her side, head turned away, across her neck a deep gash, which she's supposed to have survived for three days after suffocation in a steam bath had left her not only unscathed but singing (all this sent Marquis de Sade into rather dubious raptures). With its almost mystically white marble, the work has a haunting quality that few statues can match. But the greatest treasure can be seen only if you exit and ring the bell on the left: for €3 a nun will show you to an elevator that ascends to a Christ in Judgment by Pietro Cavallini, whom art historians believe was Giotto's master. Painted in 1293, the frescoes are remarkably intact.

Leaving the church, turn left and walk down Via Anicia several blocks to Piazza S. Francesco d'Assisi and San Francesco a Ripa. The fourth chapel on the left features Bernini's eye-knocking statue of the Blessed Ludovica Albertoni, a Franciscan nun whose body is buried beneath the altar. It has been remarked that the Baroque, at its most effective, served not just to educate but to sweep you off your feet. Here's an example. Marble pillow, folds, and drapery in abundance, all set off the deathbed agony and ecstasy of the nun—her provocative gesture of clutching at her breast is actually an allusion to the "milk of charity."

Majestic Santa Maria

We now set off for the walk's northern half by heading up Via di San Francesco a Ripa, one of Trastevere's main shopping strips. But this dreary stretch actually enhances the delight at finding, at the end of the street, Santa Maria in Trastevere, famously set on one of Rome's dreamiest piazzas. Noted for its fountain and café, it is the photogenic heart of the rione. Fellini evidently thought the same, making it a supporting star of his film Roma.

Staring down at you from the 12th-century church facade are the famed medieval frescoes of the Wise and Foolish Virgins. Dramatically spotlit at night, these young ladies refer to the "miraculous" discovery of oil here in 39 BC. In the mosaic, the Virgin is set between the wise virgins and two foolish ones—the latters' crownless heads bowed with shame at having left their lamps empty, the flame extinguished. In the church's presbytery the fons olii marks the spot from whence the oil originally flowed.

Thanks to its gilded ceiling, shimmering mosaics, and vast dimensions, the church nave echoes the spectacle of an ancient Roman basilica—the columns are said to have come from the Baths of Caracalla. The church's main wonder, however, must be the golden mosaics behind the altar. The famous mosaics of Pietro Cavallini depict episodes in the life of the Virgin so often revisited during the Renaissance. With its use of perspective, the work—completed in 1291—is seen as something of a watershed between the old, static Byzantine style and the more modern techniques soon to be taken up by Giotto. This is the very dawn of Western art.

The piazza outside is the very heart of the Trastevere rione. With its elegant raised fountain and sidewalk café, this is one of Rome's most beloved outdoor "living rooms," open to all comers. Through innumerable generations, this piazza has seen the comings and goings of tourists and travelers, intellectuals and artists, who lounge on the steps of the fountain or lunch at Sabatini's, whose food has seen much better days but whose real estate, with its tables set up directly in front of the fountain, is among Rome's most coveted. Here the paths of Trastevere's residents intersect repeatedly during the day; they pause, gathering in clusters to talk animatedly in the broad accent of Rome or in a score of foreign languages. At night, it's the center of Trastevere's action, with street festivals, musicians, and gamboling dogs vying for attention from the throngs of people taking the evening air.

Raphael Was Here

Directly north of the church is Piazza di S. Egidio (the small but piquant Museo di Trastevere is here) and then you enter Via della Lungara, where, several blocks along on the right, the Villa Farnesina stands (hours are 9–2 daily, except Sunday). Originally built by papal banker and high-roller Agostino "Il Magnifico" Chigi, this is Rome at its High Renaissance best.

Enter the Loggia di Galatea to find, across the ceiling, Peruzzi's 1511 horoscope of the papal banker, presumably not foretelling the family's eventual bankruptcy and the selling off of the same property (and horoscope) to the wealthy Farnese family. Off left, next to the wall, sits Sebastiano di Piombo's depiction of one-eyed giant Polyphemus with staff and giant panpipes; this is what, just next door, Raphael's Galatea is listening to in her shell-chassis, paddle-wheeled chariot. With the countermovement of its iconic putti, nymphs, sea gods, and dolphins, this legendary image became a hallmark of Renaissance harmony.

In the next room, also—or at least mostly—decorated by Raphael, is the Marriage of Cupid and Psyche. After provoking the jealousy of Venus, Psyche has to overcome a number of trials before being deemed fit to drink the cup of immortality and marry Cupid. Here, of course, is an alter ego for Agostino Chigi. The paintings are made still more wonderful by Giovanni da Udine's depictions of flower and fruit separating one from the other as if it were a giant pergolato (or arbor)—gods float at every angle while ornithologists will delight in spotting Raphael's repertoire of bird species. Climbing upstairs one passes through Peruzzi's Hall of Perspectives to Chigi's private rooms. Here, in Il Sodoma's Alexander's Wedding, Roxanna is being lovingly undressed by a bevy of cupids. Note the one so overexcited he attempts a somersault like a footballer after a winning goal.

Queen Christina at Home

Directly across the street from the Villa Farnesina is the Galleria Corsini (Tues.–Sun., 8:30–2), entered via a gigantic stone staircase right out of a Piranesi print. This was formerly the palazzo of pipe-smoking Christina of Sweden, immortalized by Greta Garbo on the silver screen and to whom history, that old gossip, attaches the label, "Queen without a realm, Christian without a faith, and a woman without shame." Her artistic taste is indisputable.

The second room alone contains a magnificent Rubens, Van Dyck's Madonna of the Straw, an Andrea del Sarto, and then, courtesy of Hans Hoffman, surely the hare of all hares. Worth the price of admission alone is Caravaggio's John the Baptist. In other rooms, for aficionados of high-class gore, there's Salvator Rosa's Prometheus, the vulture in flagrante and on Prometheus's face a scream to rival Munch. A visit to the Botanical Gardens that stretch behind the galleria is well worth a visit, if just to restore a sense of calm after all that Baroque bloodletting.

To get back to central Rome, continue on up Via della Lungara (past the church of Giacomo Apostolo, which has a fine Bernini inside) and cross over the Ponte Mazzini. Taking advantage of one of the bus stops by the Tiber, you can take any number of buses, including the famous No. 64, back to the centro historico.

Updated: 2014-07-28

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