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

Starting point: corner of via del Tritone and via del Nazareno


Einsiedeln instructions:

In sinistra:                                                      In dextra:

      Sancti Felicis in Pincis                                  Sancta Susanna et aqua de forma Lateranense

Thermae Sallustianae et piramidem


It was a while since we had that coffee at the Bar Accademia on via del Nazareno, and we are now very eager to move on along the last stretch of our itinerary. In front of us, the busy via del Tritone passes by, one of these rare modern thoroughfares of the city from the early 20th century. However reluctant, we must now still turn left and walk along it for a bit, but we will soon reach our peaceful medieval surroundings again. In fact, turning left on via Francesco Crispi, we immediately feel the more smallish scale that we have grown used to during our journey. We head uphill, towards the blue sky and the pine trees in the far distance, and feel all that adventurous joy of a Roman promenade. Soon, we cross via Sistina, and here I want you to take a look to the left on this narrow Renaissance street, and remember the obelisk you see there, right at the top of the Spanish Steps. We will soon return to the obelisk topic. After we have left via Sistina behind and continue up the street, we recognize the familiar medieval houses turned Renaissance – such as the charming façade at no. 87Via Francesco Crispi – and we understand that we are now on a genuinely medieval route.

But let’s stop for a while and consider our itinerary. Our monuments to the right are supposed to be the church of S. Susanna and water of the forma Lateranense, the Lateran aqueduct. Well, if these quarters would not be so densely urbanized as they are now, it might have been possible to see all the way to S. Susanna, at Largo di S. Susanna some 400 metres to the east. But the notice of the church could just as well be an indication that from here, a possible deviation could be made to visit this extraordinarily old church. Originally a title church in a private house, it is mentioned already in the fifth century, and we know that it was restored by pope Hadrian in the end of the eighth century, that is, around the time of our itinerary. But what about the Lateran aqueduct? Scholars have been confused by this indication, since this aqueduct (the aqua Claudia of Antiquity) enters the city at the other end of town, at Porta Maggiore, and then turns south very far from where we are. I would, however, suggest that there may be another aqueduct, more close by, which is intended, perhaps aqua Marcia, that supplied the Baths of Diocletian with water (functioning as late as in the time of pope Hadrian I, who restored several aqueducts), or also the aqua Alexandrina, which watered the baths of Nero, which we passed by earlier on this itinerary. Further, the text actually says water from the aqueduct, which may point to some sort of fountain or basin. Funny enough, there is an aqueduct fountain, or a mostra, as they are called, right by Santa Susanna, but of the late 16th century acqua Felice of a much later date (using aqua Alexandrina as its sources). And so, thanks to its creator pope Sixtus, we can enjoy aqueduct water next to S. Susanna, so that our itinerary makes sense!

But what about our left side? There, we are informed, is the church S. Felix in Pincis. The only problem with that is that the church disappeared very long ago, and its location is not entirely certain. Again, the active pope Hadrian I restored it in the late eighth century, and that is the first notice of its existence. Sometimes early in the 16th century, it was abandoned, and the only map indicating it is the Bufalini map from 1551 – the church must subsequently soon have been rebuilt or replaced with other buildings. The area in which Bufalini places it belongs to the Horti Luculliani of Antiquity, on the Pincio hill, and these green and pleasant surroundings were probably rather deserted in the Middle Ages. Let’s see: it should be on our left hand side, and as we proceed up via Francesco Crispi, the street changes name to via di Porta Pinciana, right where a high wall cuts us off from any glimpse of the gardens, now merged with the equally green and pleasant grounds of Villa Medici. This wall also serves to give us an idea about what it was like to move around in medieval and Renaissance Rome: to judge from the oldest maps, almost every street was lined by walls, behind which were either cultivation land or clusters of habitation. But wait! There is a monumental gate in the wall.

Villa medici gate

villa Medici fenceIf we sneak inside and look through the fence, we see the long path that leads towards villa Medici – their little side door, once built as a guest entrance to the Medici gardens. If we compare the location of this path with the somewhat vague map of Bufalini, we can be fairly sure that this is the spot where a medieval street led to S. Felix in Pincis some hundred metres away. And actually – as I recently found out – excavations made by the École Française in the Gardens of Lucullus have found parts of a building with an apse, and among other theories, this may be our lost church. Since we can’t get inside (if we do not happen to have French friends, all we can do is hang dreamingly at the gate and imagine the small church on the green hill, before we continue.

Next, and indeed the last monuments of the itinerary, we should have the baths of Sallustius and a pyramid on our right hand side. And as we walk along, and after a while reach porta Pinciana, from where the modern construction of via Veneto curves down to the right, we are close to the location of more gardens: this time, those of Roman historian Sallust. His villa covered a large area between the city walls and via Sallustiana of today; it may not have contained baths (the Middle Ages were quick to call any grand ruin a bath) but a lot of other buildings, the most notable remains of which is a circular hall at piazza Sallustio. In the 17th century, the area was transformed into the Villa Ludovisi, whose gardens were considered one of the most beautiful in Rome – thus, the area kept its green veil on up until the early 20th century, when the property was sold and the modern quarters were built along via Veneto. We will just have to imagine the peacefulness of the area – perhaps best reconstructed by a walk in the nearby Villa Borghese just outside porta Pinciana. But as far as our itinerary is concerned, we could not slip outside the walls at this point – porta Pinciana was closed during the Middle Ages. We have to continue along via Campania, just inside the late antique city walls, and soon, we come across a magical remnant of the Villa Ludovisi: a gigantic bust of Alexander the Great, still in its original location in a niche in the wall. You can behold it here, and also enjoy some lovely images from the Villa Ludovisi here.

What about the pyramid, then, our last monument along the way? Some scholars believe that this indicates a funerary monument, now lost, in the shape of a pyramid – we know that there were several in ancient times, but now only the magnificent Cestius pyramid remains, in the other end of the city. But in fact, as seen from other medieval texts, also obelisks could be called pyramids – and now, it is time to remember the obelisk we caught a glimpse of earlier, at the Spanish Steps. It originates from the Gardens of Sallust, and we know that it at least in the 15th century lay broken on the ground somewhere in the gardens. In the 18th century, it was moved to its actual position. Now, if we move along just inside the city walls all the way to the end of our itinerary, porta Salaria, we would have this obelisk on our right hand side – and, just as the other obelisk we encountered in an earlier chapter, we cannot know for sure if it was still standing in the time of our itinerary, or lay spectacularly broken. Other scholars have believed that the itinerary here moved further to the south, on the Alta Semita road, and thus have had problems with the indication of the obelisk to the right, but I find it very tempting to trace the itinerary just inside of the walls. Because, as we see when we move on, from porta Pinciana until porta Salaria, lots of traces of medieval habitation and other structures are found inside the wall, which again tells us something about a medieval route. How about this little gem, for example?

Medeltidshus i mur

Inskrift medeltidshusAnd with Latin inscriptions as doorposts! The sign on the wall says that this is the Associazione culturale arte educatrice, and if you knock on the door – I didn’t – or visit their homepage, there may be a possibility to experience this, as I imagine, spectacular building right inside the late antique wall…

Compared with this find, the end of our itinerary is rather sad: porta Salaria does not exist anymore: it was damaged by Italian troops in the 1870s, and finally torn down in the 1920s. Below, you can see it in an etching by Giuseppe Vasi from the 18th century.

We are there! We have reached our goal, and the itinerary is complete! And as dusk falls, the lights of the Rinascente shopping mall at nearby piazza Fiume will twinkle and glitter at you as rewarding stars for the modern pilgrim. Buona serata, and see you on our next itinerary!

Etching by Giuseppe Vasi, 18th century (Wikimedia Commons)

Etching by Giuseppe Vasi, 18th century (Wikimedia Commons)

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