Itinerary VII, Porta S. Pancrazio to porta Maggiore, third part

Starting point: Ponte Palatino, Trastevere side


Einsiedeln instructions:

Per pontem maiorem

In sinistra:                                      In dextra:

Sancti Georgii                                 Palatinus


We are standing at the roaring Lungotevere, just where the cars and scooters turn to cross the river on the modern (late 19th century) iron bridge Ponte Palatino. As our instructions are to cross a bridge – ’the greater bridge’ – this seems to be the choice we are looking for. But which was the medieval ’greater bridge’ of the itinerary, and are there any traces of it?

Medieval Rome had only three places to cross the river in the city center. In the north, pons sancti Petri, ponte S. Angelo of today, connected the city with the Vatican area, and we have already walked it, if you remember, in the very first promenade of this blog (Itinerary II, first part). The next opportunity came at the Tiber island, on pons Cestius from the Trastevere side and pons Fabricius (the oldest still functioning bridge in Rome) from the other. These bridges, however, are not mentioned in the Einsiedeln itineraries, apart from a late-antique inscription from 370 CE that is transcribed in the manuscript, recording the reparation of the bridge by emperors Valentinianus, Valens and Gratianus (CIL VI, 1175). As none of the itineraries cross the Tiber Island (which, besides, is not mentioned at all in the manuscript), our previous itinerary, along via della Lungaretta, might have been the route from which one could deviate to take a quick look at the inscription. But why is the island left out of the itineraries? Early on in the Middle Ages, influential aristocratic families started to form fortified areas of their own as increasingly inaccessible islands in the cityscape – some of the preserved medieval towers are remnants of these, as well as the several Roman monuments that came to serve as strongholds: the mausolea of Augustus and Hadrian, the theatre of Marcellus, and even the Colosseum. Also the Tiber island belonged to one of these fortified areas, owned in the later Middle Ages by the Pierleoni family. One could imagine, then, that this was not an ideal place to cross the river, unless you were on friendly or neutral terms with the Pierleoni.

So: to cross the river in the south part of the city, the bridge which once were where we now stand was the best option – and also, it formed part of the most important thoroughfare of Rome ever since pre-Roman times, as we discussed in our last walk. If we now proceed a bit on the modern bridge, we will soon lay our eyes on the utterly romantic piece that is left of the old bridge.

Ponte Rotto seen from Ponte Palatino.

Ponte Rotto seen from Ponte Palatino.

In the middle of the river, at the southern tip of the Tiber island which is on our left, stands a single arch of the first stone bridge of Rome: pons Aemilius, built in the mid-second century BCE. During the Middle Ages, it was called pons S. Mariae, pons Senatorum, and pons Maior. Already in the 13th century, the critical position of the bridge in the streamy bend of the river led to severe damages on the structure at the frequent floodings of the Tiber; after two heavy inundations in the 16th century, the whole eastern part broke down, and only three arches was left, connected with the west bank. At this point, the bridge got its accurate nickname, Ponte Rotto, the broken bridge. Two more arches were removed when the new bridge was built, and only one arch was left as a ruin-romantic triumphal arch, with grass growing on the stone paving where no more pilgrims will ever walk, and has of course been a favorite motif for artists, as below in a drawing by Jan Asselijn (18th century). The church in the picture is S. Salvatore al Ponte Rotto, destroyed when the quays of the river were constructed in the late 19th century.

Ponte Rotto by Jan Asselijn, first half of the 17th century (Wikimedia Commons).

Ponte Rotto by Jan Asselijn, first half of the 17th century (Wikimedia Commons).

As you can see, the old bridge was also perfectly aligned to the spot where via della Lungaretta connected from Trastevere, and as we pass on over the modern bridge, we will see that it is still possible to continue along the same direction, on – via di Ponte Rotto.

We are now very close to the place which is the true heart of Rome, older than the Capitolium hill and the Forum Romanum: Forum Boarium, the archaic cattle-market by the river. But there are other itineraries to come which will cross it, so we forget about it for now and head for our next landmarks: the church of S. Giorgio in Velabro to the left and Palatine hill to the right. Even if a lot of the medieval quarters in the area were destroyed when via del Mare (via Petroselli of today) was constructed in the 1930s, we can still rather precisely reconstruct the route of the itinerary. And as always, it won’t take long until we are notified that we are on the right way: in the corner of via di Ponte Rotto and Via Petroselli, we stumble upon one of the best preserved — and most suggestive — medieval houses in Rome, the so-called Casa dei Crescenzi.

’Casa dei Crescenzi’

’Casa dei Crescenzi’

Even though of a later date than our itinerary, we cannot resist to stop for a while to admire this patch-work structure of Roman marbles and medieval bricks, built in the 11th century in the strategic position near the bridge. By whom? we may ask. And behold, an inscription on the wall immediately hurries to our assistance:

Vos qui transitis hec optima tecta Quirites, hac temptate domo quis Nicolaus homo.

A classical function of epigraphy, that is addressing the passers-by and urging them to read the inscription, is here in full medieval bloom: ’You, Roman citizens, who pass this magnificent building, judge from this house, what a man Nicolaus is.’

Flattered to be called Roman citizens, we still wonder exactly who Nicolaus is, but just around the corner, over the entrance, there is a longer inscription, which informs that he was of the Crescenzi family, that his parents were called Crescentius and Theodora, and his son David. Nicolaus tells us that he wants to restore the old glory of Rome, ROME VETEREM RENOVARE DECOREM, and then turns to the old vanitas-theme declaring that death nevertheless comes soon: ’If you should escape the wind, if you should close your doors a hundredfold, if you command a thousand guards, you will not retire to rest without death; if you should dwell in a fortress all but as high as the stars, the more swiftly is death accustomed to snatch away whomsoever it will.’ (Translation from Tyler Lansford’s The Latin Inscriptions of Rome, 2009) Thus, Nicolaus succeeds in boasting and being decently humble at the same time.

’Casa dei Crescenzi’, inscription above the entrance.

’Casa dei Crescenzi’, inscription above the entrance.

(The inscriptions are edited in Vincenzo Forcella, Iscrizioni delle chiese e degli altri edifici a Roma, volume XIII, 1339–1341. Forcella’s work, from the 19th century, is to this date the most complete collection of medieval and later Latin inscriptions of Rome; however, the initiative of Inscriptiones Medii Aevi Italiae, a huge editorial project led from Spoleto, is soon going to change that; some volumes are already out, and several are in preparation.)

After having said good-bye to Nicolaus and his house, we now can continue straight towards S. Giorgio in Velabro through the low arch on Passetto di S. Giovanni Decollato and via del Velabro. This church is mentioned for the first time in the fifth century CE, and located in the ancient Velabrum, a low and marshy valley that connected the Forum Romanum with the Forum Boarium; here, also, according to myth, stood the fig tree where Romulus and Remus first stranded in Rome. Thus, we can trace the same continuity as usual from the important routes and areas of ancient Rome to these of medieval Rome. The present church was built in the 7th century (though the portico is of a later medieval date), and so is of more or less the same basic structure as the one that the medieval wanderer passed by. Several decorative fragments from various medieval periods can be seen inside the church, which always seems to be shady, silent and rather cold, so if the sun is blazing and you need some rest before we continue – as Romulus and Remus in their time – towards the Palatine hill, this is the place to do it.

The interior of S. Giorgio al Velabro (Wikimedia Commons)

The interior of S. Giorgio al Velabro (Wikimedia Commons)

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