Starting point: Porta S. Pancrazio
In sinistra: In dextra:
Fons sancti Petri, ubi est carcer eius Molinae. Mica aurea.
Sancti Iohannis et Pauli
Well, hello there! Here we are again, just outside porta S. Pancrazio on the Gianicolo hill in the western outskirts of Rome, on the ’other’ side of the Tiber. It is a splendid day, and we wish nothing else than to start off on a new itinerary. This time, it will take us right through Rome, and we cannot even imagine what wonders we will behold on our way.
But here, outside the city gate, there is not much to see yet. Porta Aurelia, the starting point for our itinerary, was lost already in the 17th century, when replaced by the structure in the image above. And in the 19th century, the gate was damaged in the battle between the Garibaldi troops and their French counterparts; in 1854, the present gate was constructed. However, the collection of inscriptions in the Einsiedeln manuscript points to the fact that we may already have visited a site outside the gate: some hundred metres behind us, in the church of S. Pancrazio, the manuscript reports a now lost inscription. The church was founded around the year 500, and in the 7th century, pope Honorius restored it, as the inscription in the apse once testified (probably mosaic, and gleaming in gold and bright colours). The church has lent its name to the city gate of today; in Antiquity, and during the Middle Ages, as confirmed by our text, the gate was called Porta Aurelia, after the Roman road with the same name. This road, via Aurelia, was constructed in the third century BCE, and connected the cities of Etruria in the north with Rome and the age-old market place in its heart, down by the river. It is exactly this route we now will follow. So, courage! Perhaps a coffee at the little bar just outside the gate before we go, and we are on our way.
We start heading downhill along via Garibaldi, wondering where our first landmark on the way is to be found. The itinerary tells us that to our right, we should now have Molinae, mills, and something strange named Mica Aurea. We cannot see any of it from where we are, but just to the right, in via Angelo Masina, remains of these ancient mills have been uncovered in the area of the American Academy in Rome, as well as in other parts of the hill, as you can read here. They were water mills, fed by the water of the aqueduct Aqua Traiana, which flowed down the hill, and of late Antique date: constructed under emperor Aurelian in the late third century, they are believed to have been in use as late as in the ninth century – which means that they were operating right in the moment the medieval traveller passed by.
But what about the Mica Aurea? Let’s continue a bit further first, to where the road turns at the fountain of Acqua Paola, so that we can sit down for a minute at one of the most splendid views of Rome, while I tell you more. Look at this! Nowadays famous also from the opening scenes of the film La Grande Bellezza by Paolo Sorrentino, exactly this view must have met the eyes of the medieval traveller also. All Rome at our feet, and the Sabine hills far away in the distance…
In fact, the denomination Mica Aurea has caused quite some confusion among scholars. The Einsiedeln manuscript is the oldest source for this toponym, literally meaning ’golden granule’ or ’golden grain’. A church in Trastevere, SS. Cosma e Damiano in Mica Aurea, at piazza S. Cosimato of today (about 500 metres east from where we stand), is our next testimony. It is mentioned in documents from the 10th century. But what ’golden grain’ was this area then named after? Recently, in an article which you can read here, a possible reference to Mica Aurea has been found in an early Christian inscription from a burial place near piazza S. Cosimato, and the theory is that the reddish-golden appearance of the volcanic earth in this area, on the slopes of Gianicolo, may have given the name first to the cemetery, and then to the whole area. Particularly along via Goffredo Mameli nearby, you can see the brownish earth of the hillside and decide for yourself whether this is the ’golden grain’ of our itinerary or not.
Reluctantly, we must now leave this beautiful place, and the quest for the golden sand, and start looking after our next landmark to the left. We are told that it should be a fons sancti Petri, ubi est carcer eius – ’the well of St. Peter, where his prison is’. Initially, it seems that the itinerary got something wrong here: the prison of St. Peter is supposed to be the Mamertine prison next to the Roman Forum, and not on the Gianicolo. Yet, the church that we now find on our left hand side, S. Pietro in Montorio, stands on the spot where St. Peter according to tradition was crucified. The church is a mere youth, not founded until the 14th century, but some sort of shrine, and possibly a monastery, existed here before that, and given the richness of water all around us – from the water mills to the fountain of Acqua Paola (although from an aqueduct of a much later date), it is not difficult to imagine that water here sprung up from the earth, and was associated with St. Peter. So if we move on according to these instructions – the greenery of the golden slopes of Gianicolo on our right, and S. Pietro in Montorio to the left, we should be on the correct route. And in fact, from the oldest maps of Rome, it seems as though we can reconstruct the way rather exactly, moving along the side of the church complex, and reaching another magnificent view from the little piazza in front of the church. There, we leave the modern road and turn left, just to find some steps going downhill behind an iron gate.
When we meet via Garibaldi again, we cross it, and just to the left we find another narrow flight of steps which will take us down into the alleyways of Trastevere.
This part of the itinerary may be a little tricky, so a good old 18th century map would help you with the orientation! Below, you can see the route marked out in the 1748 map of Giambattista Nolli, from the marvellous Nolli Map Engine.
The feeling you get from these humble passages! Knowing that possibly since Antiquity, and most certainly from the Middle Ages, these are the winding ways that so many have walked before us. At this point, we may get a little touched, and almost forgetting that we have to look for yet another landmark, and this time one of the most enigmatic of the whole Einsiedeln manuscript: the church of Iohannis et Pauli in Ianiculo. As we rather start to get used to, the Einsiedeln manuscript is almost the only source for this church, and not a trace of it remains today, as far as anyone knows. But there is more: the church appears not only in this itinerary, but also in the Einsiedeln collection of inscriptions. An inscription from the late fifth century, the manuscript tells us, was placed ’in front of the church of Iohannes and Paulus on the Gianicolo’ (CIL VI, 1711). The content of the inscription is even more exciting: it mentions the very same water mills, that we searched for earlier, and forms a long edict of the city prefect Claudius Iulius Ecclesius Dynamius about the proper use of the mills. The inscription too, of course, is lost today, but yet it knits together this problematic puzzle of an itinerary, and makes it probable that the church was not very far away from either the water mills or the route of our itinerary as we have traced it. We know that this probably tiny church belonged to S. Maria in Trastevere, towards which we are heading, and since we know that it should be to our left, I, in the rôle of your omniscient guide, would believe that it was located somewhere in the quarter between vicolo del Cedro and vicolo della Frusta just below the steps – so if we take vicolo della Frusta immediately to the right, we are on our right route. And who knows about the church? Just imagine that it is there, right around the corner – or be my guest and help me trace it! You would forever be the Einsiedeln hero. But for the moment, it is quite enough just to behold the high old walls following us on our way, feeling the medieval cityscape surrounding us while we move towards the central parts of Trastevere. When we turn left on via della Paglia, we can cast a quick glance behind us, uphill, and say goodbye to S. Pietro in Montorio high above us – when we move forward, we are on a straight route towards the Tiber and the oldest bridge in Rome. But that will have to wait until next time! And if you would like to join me for a Negroni or a little something, Ombre Rosse at piazza di Sant’Egidio would be just the place.