Via del Mascherone angolo, Vicolo dei Venti, 00186 Roma RM, Italy
Once again, welcome to Historic America & UCPlaces’ audio walking tour of Rome. We’re glad you could join us! I’m Aaron, your guide (but I also respond to professional history nerd). This is the part of the tour where I fit in my shameless plug for our websites (www.historicamerica.org & www.ucplaces.com) and invite you to use #historicamericatours on social media while traveling alongside us today. Let’s begin the journey.
Behold, one of Rome’s great Renaissance palaces (the one with the French flag). This is the Palazzo Farnese. Way back in the 1500s, the palace was built by Italian nobles from the Farnese family in order to show off their newly achieved wealth.
Sparing no expense, they hired none other than Michelagelo to design the place. I’m sure you would too if money was no object! Michelagelo emphasized symmetry in his work and made sure the central balcony was the focus of the facade. That’s where the Farneses would give their speeches to the crowd gathered down in the piazza below where you now stand.
Michelagelo’s clever design, including the enlarged central window and jutting roofline, has become the standard for Roman architecture since the Renaissance. We will see plenty of the buildings he inspired along the way today.
Notice the old rustic looking stones by the main doorway, the half columns (pilasters) embedded in the facade, the triangular and arched pediments above the windows, and the balustrade railing of the balcony. These will all be common features you can spot on other buildings along the way. Keep a sharp eye out for these and you’ll be an expert in Renaissance architecture in no time!
If you are wondering about the French flags and security presence, the Farnese’s palace is now home to the French embassy.
Now walk over towards the twin fountains behind you in the piazza.
Piazza Farnese, 106, 00186 Roma RM, Italy
Romans love water. Always have. You will see lots of spectacular fountains on the tour today. They’re everywhere!
Beginning in ancient times, the Romans could rely on waters flowing from municipal aqueducts, marvels of ancient civic engineering, to drink and wash with. These two fountains date from the third century and were once tubs in the great public baths of the emperor Carcalla.
The Romans loved a good bath almost as much as they loved conquering new nations to enlarge their empire! Emperors were constantly building great public works to impress their citizens and win their love, and baths were a popular means toward achieving this end.
The water which flows from these fountains comes from an ancient Roman aqueduct, the Acqua Vergine. The Romans were so skilled at hydraulic engineering that even now after the better part of two millennia, the Acqua Vergine still brings flowing waters into the heart of the city! In fact the Acqua Vergine feeds just about all the fountains we will see today.
Now turn your back to the palace and walk past the fountains. Walk along the Via Dei Baullari for one block until you emerge at our next stop: the Campo de’ Fiori, a bustling public market on a small square
Via Dei Baullari, 40-33, 00186 Roma RM, Italy
Welcome to one of Rome’s most colorful spots – the Campo de’ Fiori! The square is busy all day long. In the mornings, a fruit and vegetable market takes up the square. In the evenings, tourists fill the square’s cafes and restaurants, and on the weekends, this medieval square turns into one big boozy street party!
With closely clustered neighborhoods connected by a maze of winding lanes and not a single skyscraper to gum up the skyline, Rome has a unique feel among the world’s major capitals.
Standing here in the Campo de’ Fiori it's hard to believe that you are actually within a city of 3 million people! This square has been the city’s “living room” for centuries.
The city first expanded into this pleasant field in ancient times. It was the site of the massive Theater of Pompey. The complex went on for several blocks and contained the site of Julius Caesar's assassination! In medieval times, the square was a stopping point for pilgrims on the way to the Vatican.
The square kept its medieval character intact through successive waves of top down urban development. In the middle of the square stands the statue of Giordano Bruno. He was an intellectual who ran afoul of the church and met his fiery end on the spot where the statue now stands.
The pedestal depicts scenes from his trial and execution. The inscription reads “and the flames rose up.” Here he now stands, his face turned resolutely to the Vatican administration building which still stands in this square.
Bruno died in 1600 but the statue dates from 1889 when the brand new Kingdom of Italy was feuding with Rome’s long time rulers in the Vatican. The statue was a shot across the bow of the meddling church. The Vatican protested but the locals argued in favor of their new neighbor and he won the day.
Since that event, the square has been the perennial site for Rome’s antiauthoritarian demonstrations.
If you look closely at the apartments that line the square you will catch glimpses of how Romans recycle the old into the new. Look for a pinkish beige building on the east side of the square behind the statue.
Half way up you will see two columns embedded in the brickwork. Those columns date all the way back to the theater of Pompey! There is plenty of good food to be found here in the Campo de’ Fiori, so you may want to come back for some pizza after the tour!
Now make your way to the northern corner of the square and out along the Palazzo della Cancelleria. Walk one block and you’ll arrive at one of central Rome’s few busy streets: the Corso Vittorio Emanuele II.
Corso Vittorio Emanuele II, 176, 00186 Roma RM, Italy
The Corso Vittorio Emanuele II dates to the end of the 18th Century after Rome became part of the newly formed Kingdom of Italy.
The buildings that run along it are mainly built in a neo-Renaissance style that was popular at the time. It is one of the few boulevards in this part of town that can sustain motor traffic.
Other than public transportation, vespas, and taxis, traffic in central Rome is basically restricted to politicians and their friends.
Now cross the Corso Vittorio Emanuele II and pass through the traffic pentagon.
Via della Cuccagna, 12, 00186 Roma RM, Italy
Piazza Navona, 110, 00186 Roma RM, Italy
Welcome to the Piazza Navona! Filled with fountains, outdoor cafes, palaces, churches, and happy visitors, this is one of the most popular spots in the city.
The Piazza Navona is best enjoyed at night when it is filled with street musicians, fire eaters and people eating gelato – which is much tastier than fire. The piazza has been the center of Roman life since ancient times. It began as a training track for charioteers built by the Emperor Domitian around 80 AD, hence the piazza’s oblong shape.
The charioteer course opened the same year as the coliseum when the ancient city was at its peak! That being said, much of the modern square dates back to the 1600s when the city received a long overdue facelift.
In those days, Rome was ruled by the Papacy, and they had a lot to answer for in the 1600s. With the Church mired in a series of scandals, the popes undertook a local charm offensive.
Taking their cues from the Roman emperors who preceded them, the popes knew that the way to the Roman heart was through big public infrastructure! The Piazza Navona was essentially an apology gift to the people of the city from their increasingly unpopular overlords.
The first building on your left is the Palazzo Pamphili, today Brazil’s embassy. The Pamphilis were big patrons of the arts and one of them even made pope! Pope Innocent X was a Pamphili and the man behind this square.
In the middle of the piazza stand three Baroque fountains (and as I always say when it comes to fountains, if ain't Baroque, don’t fix it).
At the south end where you stand is the monumental Fontana del Moro. It depicts a North African Moor wrestling a dolphin. In the 1600s Moors represented all things exotic and foreign to the people of Rome.
Across the square from you at the north end is Fontana del Nettuno which depicts the Roman sea god Neptune killing a giant octopus. Evidently Neptune had a taste for calamari.
The centerpiece of this square is the Four Rivers Fountain by Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Bernini was the Roman sculptor of the 1600s. The fountain is topped with an Egyptian obelisk. Obelisks were popular with ancient Roman emperors because they were often associated with the Egyptian belief that rulers were divine.
Go and admire Bernini’s statues at the fountain’s base. Set amongst a jumble of eclectic flora and fauna, these four burly river gods represent the four corners of the earth. Go counterclockwise and take them in.
Closest to the nearby church is dashing Danube representing Europe. He reaches back and grabs the coat of arms of Bernini’s Pamphili patron. Next is bearded Ganges, holding an oar between his legs, representing old Asia.
Next to the carved palm tree sits shrouded Nile for Africa. His head is covered because the river’s source had yet to be found. Rio de la Plata represents the Americas. Notice his facial features. In the 1600s, most Europeans were unfamiliar with Native Americans, so Bernini sort of made it up.
The spilled coins represent the wealth of the “New World” ripe for the taking.
Rio de la Plata is looking at the Church of Sant’Agnese which dominates the square. It was built by Bernini’s student and rival Francesco Borromini. Borromini’s signature was concave lines and curving symmetry.
This church is actually a lot smaller than it looks. Despite the grand facade, the church itself is only as wide as the four middle columns. Legend has it that Bernini sculpted Rio de la Plata to be recoiling in horror from his rival’s church, but unfortunately the fountain predates the church, so it’s just a fun story absent any connection to reality. The kind of story I like best!
Now walk back down past the Fontana del Moro and turn left out of the square. Walk two blocks down the narrow Via dei Sediari.
Via del Teatro Valle, 40, 00186 Roma RM, Italy
Piazza di S. Eustachio, 85, 00186 Roma RM, Italy
Piazza della Rotonda, 2, 00186 Roma RM, Italy
Piazza della Rotonda, 2, 00186 Roma RM, Italy
You are now standing behind the Pantheon. Turn left and walk up to the front of the temple. This is the best place to hear the story and engage with your surroundings.
Salita de' Crescenzi, 35, 00186 Roma RM, Italy
The Pantheon is ancient Rome’s most outstanding surviving building. Pantheon is latin for “all the gods.” Across from the Pantheon stands an Obelisk dedicated to the goddess Isis.
The columns on the Pantheon are 40-feet of solid granite giving you a sense of the sheer scale of Roman architecture. The inscription above the columns reads “M. Agrippa built this,” but actually the temple was built by his successor Emperor Hadrian in 120 AD.
The temple is topped by a dome that has inspired great buildings around the world from Michelangelo’s St. Peter’s Basilica, across the Tiber in the Vatican, to the Thomas Jefferson Memorial, across the Atlantic in Washington, DC.
If it is open and you are lucky enough not to have to stand in line for the rest of your day, pop in and have a look! It is free but typically packed. Once you are done exploring this vast temple head past the obelisk and fountain and out of the plaza via the Piazza della Rotonda.
Piazza della Rotonda, 2, 00186 Roma RM, Italy
Piazza Capranica, 94, 00186 Roma RM, Italy
As you enter the Piazza Capranica, directly opposite you stands the Palazzo Capranica. The Renaissance style palace once had a much taller tower on top but when a new stronger central government arrived in town, all the local nobles were cut down to size by having the towers of their palaces removed.
Now all that remains is the stump of the once ostentatious tower. To its left stands a six story building built to provide middle class housing in the 1600s.
The church on the square is Santa Maria in Aquiro. While like many Roman churches it sports a Baroque facade, the church is much older. It dates back to the troubled centuries following the downfall of Rome over a thousand years ago.
Note the small circular shrine on the street corner between the palace and the apartment building. It has been serving pilgrims to Rome for centuries.
Now leave the square on the opposite corner that you entered. Head out on the Via in Aquiro. Go down the block and turn left at the end.
Via della Colonna Antonina, Piazza di Monte Citorio, 53, 00186 Roma RM, Italy
At this point, you’re probably thinking to yourself – “Boy, Rome sure has a lot of squares doesn’t it?” That’s true - and here’s another one!
This square is called the Piazza di Montecitorio and it is home to Italy’s parliament and another ancient obelisk over two and a half millennia old! Let’s start with the obelisk. It was brought to Rome by Emperor Augustus to celebrate his victory over Mark Antony and Cleopatra.
Made of red granite, it stands 70 feet tall on its own and well over 100 feet tall with its base! To the Egyptians obelisks symbolized the rays of the sun god Ra. Like I said before, Roman emperors prized them as a symbol of their own divinity. That’s why someone like Augustus had this one taken down from its original temple home in Egypt, rolled on logs all the way to the Mediterranean sea and shipped to Rome so that it could grace his newly built Solarium Augusti temple to the Roman sun god. That is some serious souvenir shopping!
After the fall of Rome the obelisk was lost to history under centuries of debris, but in the 1700s it was rediscovered and re-erected by the pope, who knew a thing or two about divine right.
Back in the times of Augustus, the obelisk worked as a sundial and calendar. Every year on the emperor’s birthday the shadow of the obelisk would fall across the sun god’s altar in the solarium. In fact the obelisk still acts as a huge sundial! Zodiac markings on the pavement of the square work with the shadow of the obelisk to tell the date and time.
Behind the obelisk stands Italy’s fractious parliament. Security is tight at this impressive building. You might see politicians coming and going, news crews setting up, and protestors letting their legislature know what is bothering them. The palazzo has a long history as a center of governance. Note the relief to the right side of the front door depicting Lady Justice.
Before the unification of Italy in the 1800s, this building was home to the high court of the Papal States. Bernini (you remember Bernini right?) designed the spacious facade.
At both ends of the facade lie strips of jagged stone. This “back-to-nature” technique was a popular trick amongst Baroque architects like Bernini. We will see the technique at its best coming up at the Trevi Fountain.
The parliament building stands on Rome’s smallest hill, the Montecitorio. It is actually the mound of dirt dug up by Augustus when he was building his sun temple here.
Now keep walking along the Via della Colonna Antonina for one more block until you come to the next great square.
Via del Corso, 353, 00186 Roma RM, Italy
This square’s center piece is the massive Column dedicated to famed Roman emperor and well known stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius.
Built in the second century AD, the column is about 12 feet across and nearly 100 feet tall! The base alone is 30 feet. The column is carved from the world’s finest white marble from the quarry at Carrara, a favorite of both the Roman emperors and Michelangelo.
The column isn’t a solid piece. It is actually 28 cylindrical blocks stacked one atop the other. Each weighs 10 tons! A carved freeze finds its way up the column retelling the exploits of Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius and his battles against the barbarians.
At the bottom of the column you can pick out the images of a couple boats as Marcus Aurelius launches his campaign across a pontoon bridge spanning the Danube into enemy territory. In a way, however, one could say that the column is the height of Roman propaganda.
While it highlights Marcus Aurelius’s triumph, in truth already by the second century the barbarians were starting to gain the upper hand. Rome’s slow descent had begun.
Where once Marcus Aurelius’s statue stood, now the column is topped by the great Christian evangelist and epistle writer, Saint Paul who helped bring Christianity to Rome and the wider world. Notice the little slits in the column. They’re windows. The column is actually hollow with a spiral staircase winding up.
In ancient times, this square was the sight of a temple also dedicated to Marcus Aurelius. Today it stands by the headquarters of Italy's cabinet. That would be the big white building. The big beige building with the clock is home to the right-wing Il Tempo newspaper. They should feel right at home. In the 1900s, the building was home to Mussolini’s fascist party.
Walk across the busy Via del Corso to the right of the column.
Galleria Alberto Sordi, Via dei Sabini, 5, 00187 Roma RM, Italy
The Via del Corso is Rome’s main north-south boulevard. In ancient times, it was the Via Flaminia, the highway that ran from the forum in downtown Rome to the Adriatic coast on the other side of the Apennine Mountains which divide the Italian “boot.”
Well you know what they say, “all roads lead to Rome,” and for 2,000 years all travelers arriving in Rome from the north entered on this road. In the Middle Ages the road was a major pilgrimage route to the Vatican. During that time it was also the site of an annual Carnival horse race. The horse race continued to be run every year until the late 1800s when a string of fatal accidents brought it to an end.
In 1854 the Via del Corso became one of Rome’s first gas-lit streets. Today it is a center for high end shopping. In the evenings Romans like to promenade on the Via del Corso to show off their newly purchased finery.
All the way up the street to the north stands the Piazza del Popolo where Rome’s ancient north gate once stood. At the southern end of the street stands the Victor Emmanuel Monument like a massive over done patriotic wedding cake.
As you walk two blocks down the Via dei Sabini to the Trevi Fountain make sure to be on your guard about pickpockets. They like to hang out in the crowds surrounding the fountain.
Via dei Crociferi, 1, 00187 Roma RM, Italy
The Trevi Fountain is the ultimate showcase for Rome’s love affair with water. Designed by Nicola Salvi in 1762, this Baroque avalanche of stone and water cleverly incorporates the palace behind it as a theatrical backdrop. In the center sits the sea god Neptune in a shell shaped chariot.
Water gushes from 24 spouts and tumbles over thirty different types of plants. Winged horses and conch shell blowing Tritons attend the surfing sea god. There has been a fountain of one kind or another in this square since the early days of the city.
Opposite today’s fountain stand the remains of what was once a covered Roman square. The old columns have been incorporated into the shop that faces the fountain in classic Roman recycling fashion. In ancient times, the residents of this neighborhood would gather in the covered square (arcade) balancing jugs of water on their ancient Roman heads, but in the sixth century invaders destroyed the section of the aqueduct that brought in the neighborhood’s water.
During the Renaissance the aqueduct was renovated and restored to once more bring the music of running water back to the space. The Trevi fountain was built to celebrate that momentous occasion as a Roman rebirth. Trevi is really a contraction of tre via, “three roads” for the three ancient roads that converged here in the square.
After 1,000 long years of slumming it with stagnant well water, the denizens of Rome could once more enjoy a torrent of fresh clean spring water. The square is always a lively and romantic scene.
Legend has it that if you toss a coin in the fountain it will ensure you a return visit to Rome. OIndeed, over the years a whole system of superstitions have arisen around the fountain. Toss two coins in for romance and three for marriage! Once your romantic future has been assured head north behind the fountain on the Via Poli.
Via del Tritone, 207, 00187 Roma RM, Italy
Via del Pozzetto, 123, 00187 Roma RM, Italy
Largo del Nazareno, 19, 00187 Roma RM, Italy
Via di Sant'Andrea delle Fratte, 6, 00187 Roma RM, Italy
Via Frattina, 152, 00187 Roma RM, Italy
To your right stands the white and yellow colored Palazzo di Propaganda Fide. In the 1600s this was the Church’s main office for spreading, or propagating, the gospel, essentially the Church’s PR office. During those years, the Catholic Church, once the undisputed religious authority in western Christendom, was challenged by the blooming Protestant Reformation and it was from this palace that the Church fought back.
The building was the teamwork of our buddies Bernini and Borromini. The Vatican flag flying here reminds us that this building is still church property. Walk over to this square’s impressive column.
Piazza di Spagna, 42, 00187 Roma RM, Italy
Atop this grand column presides the Virgin Mary. She wears a bronze diadem of stars for a halo and stands upon a crescent moon and globe squashing a satanic serpent.
The column celebrates the Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, the idea that not only Jesus’s birth was without original sin but his mother Mary’s as well. The doctrine has circulated throughout the Catholic world since the Middle Ages, but in 1854 Pope Pious IX officially made the doctrine a position of the Church and erected this column in celebration.
To highlight the ancient roots of the doctrine, the architect appropriated an ancient Roman column for the statue to stand upon. At the column’s base sit venerable sages and prophets signaling their theoretical approval to the doctrine.
Every year on December 8th a feast is held here to celebrate the Immaculate Conception. With the pope in attendance the fire department brings out a ladder truck to give the Virgin fresh flowers. Following the public gathering, Romans go home and decorate their Christmas trees in like fashion.
To Mary’s left stands the Spanish embassy to the Vatican. Rome gets a double share of embassies because of the location of the Vatican, the world’s smallest country, within the confines of the city. The Spanish embassy has stood here for 300 years; thus, the square, and its famous steps, are called “Spanish.” Head beyond the column to the base of the famous steps.
Piazza di Spagna, 63, 00187 Roma RM, Italy
This wide curving staircase is one of Rome’s most iconic sites.138 steps lead up from the Piazza di Spagna below. Partway up, the steps part for a terrace and make a butterfly shape. At the top stands an obelisk flanked by two Baroque church towers. You likely expected to see people hanging out on the iconic stairs but recently the city has imposed a 250 euro fine on anyone lollygagging. No joke!
At the foot of the steps is the Sinking Boat Fountain. It was built by Bernini’s father, Pietro. The fountain draws its water from the same Acqua Vergine as the Trevi Fountain and the fountains back at the Piazza Farnese. Here the water pressure isn’t as good, so instead of great spouts of water, Pietro settled for a lowkey design.
The Piazza Spagna was known as a hang out for the Romantics. Writers like Keats, Goethe, and Wagner brooded away lovely afternoons here in the plaza cooking up their great works to come.
To the right side of the steps stands the orange building where Keats died of tuberculosis at 25. Across the square at #66, lived his fellow Romantic Lord Byron.
The nearby Cafe Greco has been a watering hole for artists and writers since 1760. For the British aristocrats of that bygone era, this plaza marked the culmination of the hallowed “Grand Tour” of European historic and cultural sights. Rome was popular, then as now, for its picturesque crumbling ruins and warm weather. Not far from the steps stand the classy heart of Rome’s fashion scene.
Before you head off for your next Roman adventure, take another minute to visually explore this plaza. You’ll see all the highlights of Rome we have discussed on this tour. Fountains, obelisks, great public squares, and statues.
Rome is called the “Eternal City.” It is a place where past and present seamlessly blend into a laid back and harmonious whole. From the ancient city to the modern day, Romans have always known how to live well.