Starting point: Ponte S. Angelo, north side
In sinistra: Sancti Apollinaris In dextra: Circus Flamineus, ibi sancta Agnes
We are now standing with the imposing Castel S. Angelo just behind us. It was built as a mausoleum for emperor Hadrian (76–138 AD), and was in the Middle Ages turned into a fortress. If glancing to the right, we can see straight towards the dome of St. Peters, thanks to the broad via della Conciliazione, built in the 1930s. The bridge, built in the 2nd century CE as Pons Aelius, and in the Middle Ages called Pons sancti Petri, lies straight ahead of us, and we are ready to enter Rome. Yes, in the Middle Ages we are now outside the city walls – the city gate, porta sancti Petri (originally porta Cornelia) was situated at the south end of the bridge. And that gate forms the place of departure for our itinerary. Today, a bright January afternoon, there are no street vendors on the bridge, which is a little disappointing from the pedagogical point of view, since I always imagine that the scene for the medieval pilgrim would be just about the same as it is today – trying to avoid semi-aggressive sellers or buying some overpriced souvenir or straw hat.
Three of the Einsiedeln itineraries – I, II, and VIII – depart from pons sancti Petri. This is not surprising when considering that a majority of the pilgrims probably found hosting in the Borgo/Vatican area, where several nationally oriented religious institutes were established already in the early Middle Ages. Thus, this was the natural place to start for the sightseeing through Rome as well as for the indispensable excursions to martyr tombs and pilgrim churches outside the city walls.
When we have crossed the bridge, we catch sight of a miniature piazza in front of us. Let’s just stop before we cross the traffic-loaded Lungotevere and behold it. In the Nolli map above it is called Piazza di Ponte, existing in this form from about the mid 15th century, and quite in the middle of the piazza stood once porta sancti Petri, the city gate. But if we take a look in our itinerary, the first monument that we are instructed to pass – and actually pass right through, since it is written in the midst between the two text columns – is ARCUS, an arch. We would know little of this arch, had not the same Einsiedeln manuscript kept a transcription of its Latin inscription (CIL VI, I, 1184), which tells us that the arch was erected by emperors Gratianus, Valentinianus and Theodosius in the late 4th century AD. The last remnant of the then collapsed arch was removed when piazza di Ponte was constructed, but as the itinerary shows, it was still standing in the late 8th century. Fragments of the inscription still existed for some time in the church of SS. Celso e Giuliano a bit further down the way, but are now (as far as I know) lost. The church itself is originally of medieval date, although probably somewhat later than our manuscript. The medieval church faced the piazza di Ponte, while it today is orientated towards via Banco di S. Spirito.
Now, when we move forward over the pedestrian crossing, have in mind that this was for a long time one of the most important entrances into Rome, a bit like the piazza del Popolo of the Middle Ages; a place where the newcomers took their first steps into the magical circle that is Rome. And along our way, we will continuously find signifiers of the medieval importance of these places and routes.
Look at the first building to the right: it is the 15th century Casa Bonadies, which in its ground floor incorporates a medieval portico with reused antique columns and frieze, but medieval ionic capitals. The structure is typical for the period around the 12th century, and indeed, most medieval signifiers we will find along our way are of a later date than our 8th-century itinerary; yet the medieval and Renaissance framing of our route points towards the importance of these urban areas over time, with our itinerary as the first testimonial.
We move a bit further down via Banco di S. Spirito, unsure about how to continue our way. But as we are looking around, we stumble across a charming little vaulted alleyway to our right, via Arco dei Banchi. And hidden in the vault another medieval signifier awaits us. It is the oldest extant inscription marking the water level of the flooded Tiber – several examples are found from later centuries, but this inscription is the first of it’s kind. Originally placed in the portico of SS. Celso e Giuliano, it was later mounted on the wall here. The Latin text says: Huc Tiber accessit set turbidus hinc cito cessit. Anno Domini MCCLXXVII indictione VI mense Novenbris die VII ecclesia vacante.
(The Tiber arrived up until this height, but, unruly, it quickly flowed away again, in the year of the Lord 1277, in the sixth year of the indiction, on the 7th day of November when the apostolic see was vacant.)
But, unruly as the Tiber itself, we now must be going. But in which direction should we head? Looking in our itinerary, the first monument to our right should be the church S. Apollinare, and the first on our right Circus Flamineus, ’and there is sancta Agnes’. If we remind ourselves that the saint Agnes has one church inside the walls in Rome (and one outside, at via Nomentana), we must wonder if the manuscript may instead mean the stadium of Domitian, the piazza Navona of today, where the church of S. Agnes stands – and just north of piazza Navona is the location of S. Apollinare. We must then try to find the quickest, straightest way there! And opposite our vault, a long, straight, narrow street is aiming far away in the distant. If we would look upon an archaeological map of Rome, for example Rodolfo Lanciani’s Forma Urbis from the early 20th century, we would find that along the stretch that follows via dei Coronari of today, ancient street paving has been found as far as to via del Corso! If we then consider that this is the nearest way to the north end of piazza Navona, and also remember that medieval routes often substituted the antique Roman ones, we can be rather sure that this is the way that the itinerary wants to take us. And, when starting off along the way, there are more medieval markers coming up, if we look closely.
At number 122–123 on our right hand side, for example, is a rather narrow building: it has only two windows on each floor, and the ground floor consists of one door and one side-space. This was the standard plan for a medieval dwelling-house: originally often only a couple of floors high, but rebuilt and heightened by several floors in later periods. Typically, with time, a Renaissance portico here or some ornamentation there has been sprinkled over this rather plain architecture, but the rather charming simplicity of the basic plan makes it easy to recognize this type of houses, and suddenly you start to see them everywhere.
When we have walked along for a bit, the street widens: this is the end of via dei Coronari, and a modern thoroughfare, via Zanardelli (from 1906), is sweeping past a rounded façade to our right – the exterior of what was once the stadium of Domitian. If we doubted that we are still on the right path, we would only need to look straight ahead: yes, another splendid medieval marker right there, and not a humble one this time, but a whole tower, the Tor Sanguigna.
The Sanguigna family is known from the 14th century, but the tower may well be even older. As we can see, it once stood right at the continuation of our route, and just behind it, as we soon shall see, is our landmark to the left, the church of S. Apollinare.
At this point, we are facing a problem. The itinerary tells us, as we saw earlier, that the church of S. Agnese is situated in the ’Circus Flaminius’. Does this mean that we have to leave our route and take a look at the church, or should we hurry towards our faraway goal, porta Salaria, and only see the monuments as landmarks for our navigation? My theory is that, just as in a modern guidebook, everything important along the way is mentioned, so that the traveller will have the possibility to pay a visit to it, but it is neither possible nor meant that every single post should be included in the actual experience. But in the case of S. Agnese, our curiosity draws us towards it, and so we meet yet another problem. S. Agnese of today is facing the piazza, but in the period of our itinerary, the church was much smaller, and built into one of the huge vaults of the antique stadium, its entrance faced the opposite direction, into the street that is now via di S. Maria dell’Anima.
On the Nolli map here to the right, the church has the number 608, in the west part of the piazza.
There is also other things to be understood from the original orientation of the church. In the 8th century, the ruins of the stadium of Domitian probably formed a rather huge heap of stones and building fragments, and it was perhaps neither possible nor a very nice experience to cross the inside of it. So, though the natural way to take today is across the piazza, we, as good followers of our itinerary, must now follow the outline of the stadium down the slightly curved street of via di Tor Sanguigna – that the tower we just saw has given name to the street is also reassuring. Here, it has also recently been possible to enter the subterranean rooms of the antique stadium in a small museum: let’s do it, and think about the little church that once was built into vaults like these.
When we have emerged again from the underworld, the entrance to the medieval church of S. Agnese was once a bit further down to the left. But since the original church is long gone, we’d better head back to our itinerary route, to cast a quick glance towards the church of S. Apollinare. Nothing remains of the medieval church, and the 18th-century façade is silent about the fact that this church existed already in the 8th century.
We have now concluded the first part of itinerary II, and if we for a brief moment would like to return to present time, the perfect rest for tired feet is to have a coffee in the beautiful, and in our eyes incredibly modern, 19th century rooms of Caffè della Pace and prepare for the next part of our time travel.
To read more about the area: Since we have moved through the rione Ponte, the fifth of the medieval regions of Rome, lots of topographical and historical information can be found in the Guide Rionali di Roma, Rione Ponte parte I–III by Carlo Pietrangeli. More reading tips will be added to the blog under way.