Itinerary II, Ponte S. Angelo to porta Salaria, second part

Starting point: piazza Navona, north end


Einsiedeln instructions:

In sinistra:                                                      In dextra:

Sancti Apollinaris               Thermae Alexandrinianae & sancti Eustachii

                               Rotunda et thermae Commodianae


We now find ourselves north of piazza Navona, in piazza di Tor Sanguigna, facing east where the ancient Roman road continues through a vault onto the via di Sant’Ambrogio of today.

The vault leading to via di Sant’Agostino.

The vault leading to via di Sant’Agostino.

As we head for the vault, we pass by our first landmark to the left, the church of S. Apollinare. It is first mentioned in the Liber Pontificalis in the biography of pope Hadrian I (772–795), and in several other sources from the 9th–11th centuries, which fits perfectly with its appearance as a landmark in the Einsiedeln manuscript. As we learned in the first part of the itinerary, there are no visible remains of the medieval church, since it was rebuilt in the 18th century. Still, the location of the church serves to show that the medieval monuments in the Campus Martius gather close to the routes of the itineraries. This leads us to an important question: we have seen that not many landmarks are registered in the manuscript as we cross the Campus Martius. Traditionally, it has been believed that with the beginning of the Middle Ages, the population rather quickly left the hills of Rome and moved down into the Campus Martius to get closer to the river as a means of water supply when the ancient aqueducts one by one fell out of use. The hills and outer parts of the city were left empty, the disabitato, and were used mainly for cultivation, as was argued in for example the influential Rome – Profile of a City by art historian Richard Krautheimer (1980). More recent studies have however shown that this may have happened later than what has been thought: as Robert Coates-Stephens has pointed out, both literary sources and archaeological excavations indicates that the Campus Martius in fact shows little signs of early medieval habitation, which instead is located around the Forum and on several of the hills. The Roman Forum was actively used and reused up until the mid-9th century, something that we will return to with special interest as we get to the itineraries of that area.

This means that, perhaps, a lot of the urban space in between the routes on the Campus Martius was, at the time of the Einsiedeln itineraries, not yet much used for habitation or other structures, which leaves us to imagine the great ruins of the area still standing to an impressive height – for example our next landmark to the right: the Thermae Alexandrinianae. If we look to the right just after we have passed piazza Navona, all we see is ’modern’ (in our eyes) quarters – for example palazzo Madama a bit further down south (the seat of the Italian Senate). In the early Middle Ages, what we would see here would instead be the huge structure of the baths of Nero (first century AD), subsequently restored by emperor Alexander Severus in the third century (hence their medieval name). Think of some of the better preserved Roman baths – of Caracalla’s or Diocletian’s – and you will get an idea of how grand these ruins must have been when they still were standing. Several churches were built into the baths in the Middle Ages – for example S. Benedictus and S. Salvator de Thermis, both attested in the tenth century, thus somewhat later than our period.

If we return to our itinerary, we can see that there are even more monuments referred to on our right hand side: the church of S. Eustachio, the Thermae Commodianae and a monument called Rotunda. But let’s first proceed a little longer along our route. As we can see when we start to walk, the straight west-east direction of the ancient road is still preserved as we cross via della Scrofa and enter via delle Coppelle. Immediately after piazza delle Coppelle, the church S. Salvatore alle Coppelle is on our left, close by the street. We know from an inscription (just to the right when entering, if the church happens to be open) that it was consecrated in the late 12th century by pope Celestine III, but even if it probably did not exist in the period of the Einsiedeln itineraries, it still, as other monuments already have shown on the way, confirms the importance over time of this narrow thoroughfare. But what about ’our’ monuments? In fact, the baths of Nero stretched all the way from piazza Navona and until via di S. Maddalena, which we soon will reach. But there are more important things nearby when we get this far. The Rotunda of the manuscript is easy reachable if you now turn right towards Piazza della Rotonda: this name keeps the medieval toponym of a monument none other than the Pantheon. We do not know how visible it actually were at the time from our route – but a bit further on our itinerary, we will be able to catch a glimpse of it, as you can see below.

Pantheon just seen from piazza Capranica.

Pantheon just seen from piazza Capranica.

The baths of Agrippa.

The baths of Agrippa.

Just behind the Pantheon, we would, if we deviated from our route, find what the itinerary labels the Thermae Commodianae, which are in fact the baths of Agrippa. They were built, as was Pantheon, around 25 BC, and both the baths and the temple were then thoroughly restructured by emperor Hadrian in the second century AD (at which time the dome of Pantheon was constructed, which created its medieval name, Rotunda). On the back side of Pantheon, columns and friezes of the baths can still be seen, and wall structures can also be found further south, on via dell’Arco della Ciambella: here, an impression of the height of the ruins in the time of our itinerary can still be traced. We could linger around here forever, contemplating the vanity of all worldly things and the grandeur of the Roman ruins, but we must now hurry on along our route. Where we stood last, at the corner of via di S. Maddalena and via delle Coppelle, we can continue straight ahead along our west-east direction and enter via del Collegio Capranica. This is all very well, but suddenly, we are facing a wall and can get no further.

The west wall of palazzo Capranica.

The west wall of palazzo Capranica.

It is the palazzo Capranica that has ruined everything for us. Constructed in the 15th century, it lies precisely in our way, and must thus be walked around where the street turns right; to the left we then find piazza Capranica, which is a good place to stop for a prosecco, rest our feet and behold the façade of the palazzo. From the maps from the 16th century, we can discern that the palazzo originally consisted of two buildings on each side of our itinerary route, which then were joined around a central garden or courtyard, and at that point, the thoroughfare that had been in continuous use from Antiquity and up to the Renaissance was broken. And – don’t forget to catch that glimpse of the Rotunda from the south-west corner of the piazza!


Read more about the medieval churches of Rome: Christian Hülsens invaluable Le Chiese di Roma nel Medioevo (1927) is found online here. Richard Krautheimer’s Corpus Basilicarum Urbis Romae (1937–1977) is indispensable for the late Antique and medieval building phases of the Roman churches, as is the Die Kirchen der Stadt Rom im Mittelalter, 1050–1300, edited since 2002 by Peter Cornelius Claussen with some volumes still to be published.

About the medieval urbanization of the Campus Martius and other parts of Rome, see Robert Coates-Stephens, ’Housing in early Medieval Rome, 500–1000 AD’, Papers of the British School at Rome 64, 1996, 239–259.

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