Starting point: Piazza S. Maria in Trastevere
Sancti Chrisogoni. Et sanctae Cecilie
Per pontem maiorem
On the first page of Filippo Coarelli’s Roma, an archaeological guidebook to Rome (Editori Laterza, first ed. 1980), in the very introduction, on line 6, via della Lungaretta is mentioned. What is it about this narrow alleyway, which cuts straight through Trastevere from piazza di S. Maria in Trastevere down to the Tiber and Ponte Palatino, that makes it so vigorously important for understanding the history of Rome?
As I mentioned in our recent itinerary on the Gianicolo hill, the Roman road via Aurelia, which enters Rome at porta S. Pancrazio of today, connected the cities of Etruria in the north with Rome and the market place by the river, Forum Boarium. There, I use to argue, at the cattle market down by the shallow waters of the Tiber, Rome was born; not in the huts of the Palatine, but at the crossroads between the roads from the north and the south, where people met, interacted, fought and bought. And as via della Lungaretta is the urban continuation of via Aurelia, there is actually hardly any route you can walk that is as archaic as this cute and picturesque Trastevere street. So, when Coarelli calls it la ragione prima dell’esistenza, ’the foremost cause of existence’, of Rome, I am inclined to agree.
And do you know what? Here, in piazza S. Maria in Trastevere, we stand right at the beginning of this street, which will take us down to the river: the Etruscan route, the Roman route, and the medieval route to the center of Rome.
But before we reach the river, our itinerary tells us that we should have three monuments on our right hand side: S. Maria in Trastevere, S. Crisogono, and S. Cecilia in Trastevere – then and now the largest and most splendid of the churches in Trastevere. And since we now know the historical importance of our route, it is not surprising that these three churches line up just along our way. They have been located near the ancient thoroughfare, and they have in turn contributed to its conservation through the Middle ages. The first of them, S. Maria in Trastevere, is right here at the piazza.
The basilica we see today, with its portico and bell-tower, is a product of the 12th century, but with origins already in the second century CE, and restored in the fifth and eighth centuries, it must have been rather grand already in the period of the Einsiedeln itinerary. But since almost no remains of the pre-12th-century church is to be seen in the church of today, we’d better move on along via della Lungaretta. With all its tourists and souvenir sellers, day and night, it evokes the atmosphere it most surely has had all through its existence: bear this in mind, and you will see yet another ambulating street vendor with quite new eyes…
The busiest part of the street soon leads us to viale Trastevere. This is a modern road, and should thus be avoided by us; yet we must stop for a while just here, as we reach our second monument: the church of S. Crisogono on our right hand side.
The church is mentioned in the sources in the fifth century, but is believed to have been built already in the fourth century. What we see above ground today is, just as in the case of S. Maria in Trastevere, a construction mainly from the 12th century, but in S. Crisogono, we have the possibility to actually experience some of the views that the Einsiedeln traveller saw. We have to descend into the underworld – as always, the best Roman adventure! – and there, in excavations under the church, the walls and apse of the oldest church can still be seen. But there is more than stones and dust: preserved frescoes from the eighth century will gleam at us with the same colourfulness that once thrilled the medieval visitor.
Before we leave S. Crisogono, we should once more remind ourselves about the many medieval signifiers along our way. As we are about to see along the next stretch of via della Lungaretta, there are medieval markers all along the way. We are guarded on every side by medieval towers, loggias and porticoes, a selection of which you can see in the images below.
As we get closer to the Tiber, a quite intact, though restored, medieval house is strategically placed at the point where the street widens into a little piazza in front of the river.
But wait! We were supposed to have yet another monument on our right before crossing the river: the church of S. Cecilia. And if we continue a bit further along the Lungotevere, via dei Vascellari to the right leads directly to the basilica of S. Cecilia. Here, the itinerary poses the usual problem concerning if the traveller was expected to visit all the monuments mentioned in the manuscript, or if, as here, a monument can serve as a landmark only – or a historical reference rather than a mandatory visit. My theory so far is that the itinerary merely offers the reader a possibility, a recommendation – so, if you want, you could now stroll down the quiet little street to find yourself in front of one of the oldest churches in Rome: the church of S. Cecilia was, according to tradition, founded in the third century CE at the very same house where the saint lived, and subsequently turned into an early-Christian basilica. Another 12th-century bell-tower greets us, together with a Baroque façade and adjoining monastery, but here, too, we can visit the crypt of the church to get a little closer to its early-medieval origins.
In the crypt, pope Paschal I buried the remains of the saint, collected from the catacombs of S. Callisto south of Rome in the first decades of the ninth century. Depending on the date of our itinerary, around 800 CE, the relics of Cecilia may or may not have arrived to the church at the time of our visit. The golden mosaic in the apse of the church depicts the pope with Cecilia and other saints, together with a honorary inscription. Since the Einsiedeln manuscript does not report this inscription, while it transcribes mosaic apse inscriptions from St. Peter’s and S. Pancrazio, we could, perhaps, speculate that the manuscript derives from the period immediately before the building interventions of pope Paschal I.
Time to return to the river, then – and do not miss trattoria Da Enzo in via dei Vascellari: the perfect place to have lunch before we continue towards the oldest stone bridge in Rome on the next part of the itinerary. Buon pranzo!