For some reason we always end up in Rome on the way to other places. We were on our way to San Gimignano to pick up a campervan to drive back to England over 30 days so we were in Rome for a day and a half. What to do? We had decided for convenience to stay at a hotel near Termine Station as we were catching a train up to Florence and on to Poggi Bonsi as a route to San Gimignano. Our hotel was the lovely Gioberti Art Hotel that was just out the side entrance and down Gioberti Street from Termine. I have always liked a clear plan for seeing the sights of a city and I had been wanting to try the ‘Seven Hills of Rome’ as a method to delineate the extent of a day’s sightseeing. Given that our hotel was in the Esquiline Hill district, I decided it was time to check out the sights of Esquilino, a district without the famous sites of other areas of Rome and a district with a less than attractive reputation for the living conditions of many of its citizens. Even in ancient times its reputation was less than attractive.
“the Esquiline kept for a long time its fame of as a miserable and cursed place, in memory of the most remote times, when the area was miasmatic, unhealthy and destined to burial for slaves, prostitutes and those condemned to death. The story was repeated also in the Middle Ages when magicians, witches and necromancers chose the Esquiline to hold night meetings and celebrate mysterious rituals” (romasegreta.it)
I enjoyed strolling its streets immensely with a good map and a pre-defined itinerary.
Before the light faded the previous evening we had gone for a quick walk round the district and on our way back to our hotel, we passed a large public garden where the ageing Nonnas were sitting, chatting with their friends and keeping an half an eye out for their grandchildren. It was Piazza Manfredo Fanti and I decided it would be our first stopping point the next morning.
PIAZZA MANFREDO FANTI
Apart from being one of the few available green spaces in this crowded district, the piazza has two claims to fame in the history of Rome. The highly ornate building on the site was built in the heady days after Italian Independence in the 1880s. It was initially designed as an aquarium, thus its name, ‘Acquario Romano’ but only kept this role for a couple of years. Despite being a gorgeous building, it has had many different roles. One was as a store house for the Roman opera as well as significant time abandoned as its owners pondered what to do with it.
However the main gem of the piazza is a section of the oldest city walls of Rome, the Serviana wall, built in the sixth century BCE by Servius Tullius, the sixth king of Rome. Walking around the Esquilino is a fabulous walk through the many stages of Roman history.
The map of the district shown earlier tracks our walk around this area of Rome. While we didn’t keep exactly to the suggested destinations indicated on the map, we did try to keep close to its guidelines for much of our time that morning.
Our next destination was Piazza Vittorio Emanuele II, the largest urban park in Rome, but across the road from this space, stands a lovely forlorn old church called Chiesa Sant’Eusebio. Saint Eusebio was apparently a martyr of the political disagreements back in the late fourth century when the early church spent a lot of time arguing about what they actually believed was the nature of Jesus and about God; resolving the trinity issues (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) was long and complex and some blood was spilt along the way, particularly St Eusebio’s, who died a martyr’s death, fighting for the truth of the famous Nicene creed. (“I believe in one God, the Father the almighty, creator of heaven and hell and all things seen and unseen…”
PIAZZA VITTORIO EMANUELE II
In its heyday after it was constructed from 1882-1887, the Piazza Vittorio Emanuelle II would have been a wonderful sight, full of beautiful public gardens and a mecca for the citizens of Esquilino in their free time. Suffering from the neglect of the last 100 years, the Piazza is being entirely renovated and reconstructed. All we could see of the park in May 2019 was the hoarding that completely covered the fence of the piazza. Printed on the plastic hoarding were images of the past and the future for this large piazza. Less law-abiding tourists than myself had resolved the problem of looking inside the hoarding by cutting holes in the plastic covering. The photo below left is the result of photographing the remains of the Trofei de Mario (Trophies of Mario) fountain through this illegal gap in the hoarding. This large curious structure is the remains of a third century ‘Nymphaeum’ (like its descendant, the Trevi Fountain) built by the Emperor Alexander Severus. The reconstruction image on the right is an attempt to imagine what it would have looked like 1600 years ago.
Early in this article I noted the curious reputation of the Esquilino… “when magicians, witches and necromancers chose the Esquiline to hold night meetings and celebrate mysterious rituals.” This is probably a reference to another famous remnant in the Piazza, the ‘Magic Door’ as seen in the image below. When building the Piazza, a large process of demolition occurred and one of these lost buildings was the Villa Palombara which had been built in 1653; the magic door being the only preserved remnant of this villa. The villa was famous for its gatherings of alchemists, magicians and scientists who were searching for the secrets of the philosopher’s stone…the ability to turn ordinary metals into gold. Apparently various of these secrets are inscribed on the magic door but alas nobody has been able to use them for financial success, either in the 17th century or in later years.
Church of Saint Bibiana
Following the pink line of our trail around Esqulino, we headed towards the railway tracks leading to the church of Saint Bibiana. It is in a very unfashionable spot and appears highly neglected in an area of Rome not renowned for its regular urban upkeep. This is a shame as it has a back story of some significance and charm. Like the previous church on our schedule this morning, it is named after a fourth century female martyr who rejected the advances of a powerful man and was strapped to a pillar and flogged to death. She should become the patron saint of the ‘Me Too!’ movement but for some, she is the Patron Saint for assistance with hangovers. Her Feast Day is December 2nd, ‘Holy Hangover Day’ where the website ‘Drinking with Saints’ suggests the following toast…“Through the intercession of St. Bibiana, may we never need the intercession of St. Bibiana.”
Despite the qualities of the Church’s namesake, Chiesa de S.Bibiana is more famous for its status as the first Church in Rome whose façade was renovated by the great Bernini. Bernini also produced a statue for this church of Saint Bibiana which should be added to the Art Lover’s Bernini tour of Rome. His commission was in 1624 from Pope Urban VIII, one year before the Jubilee Year of pilgrimage to Rome of 1625 was set to occur when there would be a a huge influx of pilgrims coming to Rome to journey the route of the Seven Pilgrim Churches. St Bibiana’s was on the pilgrim route between the churches of Santa Maria Maggiore and Saint Lawrences Extra Murales. No doubt the Pontiff believed a renovated Church with a Saint whose restorative powers were in demand by weary pilgrims, was a great idea.
(Interested in the Jubilee Pilgrimage Trail, check out the blog on this site! Touring Rome via the Seven Pilgrim Churches…Part 1)
Tempio de Minerva Medica
As we walked down to Porta Maggiore we passed the sad faded beauty of this curious ancient building that nobody seems to know exactly what its function was when it was wrapped in its original marble-faced beauty. It is called the Tempio de Minerva Medica but it was probably never a temple nor dedicated to the goddess of medicine. It apparently was originally built in palatial grounds by a third century Emperor, but is now condemned to spend eternity lost beside one of the busiest railway lines in Europe. Its dome fell in 1826 and since then has mainly been of interest to passing artists who attempt to capture its atmosphere of lost lonely beauty.
Piazza de Porta Maggiore
This old piazza is a busy traffic centre in modern Rome but also has an almost 2000 year old aqueduct and wall running through it. The so-called Porta Maggiore (Great Gate) was built early in the first century, not only as a dramatic gateway for two major Roman roads, but as part of the support for two aqueducts, one on top of the other. They were part of the Emperor Claudius’s grand plan to supply water to his grateful citizens. The gateway was incorporated into the Aurelian wall built in the late third century. If aqueducts are your thing, this is a must see part of the tour of the Esquiline district.
After leaving the Piazza de Porta Maggiore, our steps took us back towards Piazza Victor Emanuel II and towards one of the major churches of Rome, Santa Maria Maggiore. On our way down Via di S.Vito, we pass the curious fountain, the Fontana dei Monti, built in 1927 with its three starred mountains, beside the church of SS.Vito and Modesto. Its water still provides great relief to the tiring traveler.
Arch of Gallienus
Further along Via di S.Vito from the Fontana dei Monti is the Arch of Gallienus. The ancient gateway, that appears now to be only an ornate connection between two buildings, was the original space for the gate through the Servian Wall, Porta Esquilina, built in the time of Augustus Caesar (30 BCE – 14 CE). The original gate was replaced by the Archway we see in the photo below and was dedicated to the Emperor Gallienus in 262CE. The dedication runs as follows…
To Gallienus, the most clement princeps, whose unconquered virtus is only outdone by his pietas, and to Salonina, most holy Augusta. Aurelius Victor, the excellent man, [dedicated this] in complete devotion to their numines and majesty
Despite the quality of the praises for Gallienus, he was murdered 15 years later, apparently putting him amongst the 20% of all Roman Emperors who were murdered on the job.
We encountered remnants of the Servian Wall that encircled early Rome at the start of our walk in Piazza Manfredo Fanti. Now, towards the end of our trail, we find more evidence of this ancient wall. On the map below, the brown trail snaking across the Esquiline district is the route of the Servian Wall. In the centre of the map is where the Arch of Gallienus still stands and further on we see where it passes through Piazza Manfredo Fanti.
As we walk down Via di S.Vito, it becomes Lago Sant’Alfonso and we reach one of the boundaries of the Esquiline district. On the corner on the left as we come out on to Via Merulana, we see the attractive 19th century church, Sant’Alfonso di Liguori.
We now head down Via Merulana towards the major site of our tour, the Basilica Santa Maria Maggiore, one of the seven pilgrim churches of Rome. As with so many of the major churches of Rome, this one was built on the site of an earlier church that was built around the middle of the fourth century. The current structure was built in the middle of the fifth century.
Details of this Basilica can be found in another blog on this site via the following link.
However it would be a shame to finish this blog of touring the Esquilino district without giving the reader a sense of what to look forward to if you are able to visit the magnificent Basilica of Santa Maia Maggiore.
The Entrance to Basilica Santa Maria Maggiore.
The back of Basilica Santa Maria Maggiore looking uphill from the Piazza dell’Esquilino.
On the left is the Baldacchino over the altar and to the right is the centrepiece of the nave mosaics of Christ anointing the Virgin Mary. These mosaic images set the tone for the way Mary would be depicted in Churches throughout the world from the fifth century onwards.
The gorgeous ceiling of Basilica Santa Maria Maggiore