Itinerary VII, Porta S. Pancrazio to Porta Maggiore, seventh part

Starting point: via della Madonna dei Monti, 68



Einsiedeln instructions:

In sinistra:                                                  In dextra:

SUBURA

Monasterium sanctae Agathae               Sancta Lucia in Ortheo

Sancti Laurentii in Formonso            Sancti Silvestri et sancti Martini


Dear friends, fellow itinerarists,

it is time to take up our trail again through the almost painfully picturesque Monti region, where, as we soon shall see, the modern streets are laid out exactly in accordance with the pattern of the ancient and the medieval ones (for the most part). And, as my private theory goes concerning of the Einsiedeln itineraries, this somehow seems to have produced some of the most pleasant areas in Rome (apart from the fact that they also are the most interesting, intriguing and exciting…). Maybe there really lurks a certain Stimmung from the past here, as well as along the other itineraries, which colours the atmosphere with sepia and makes the evening shadows soft as velvet, and the morning air fresh with dreams and promises. And maybe you will agree with me after having tried the itinerary concept out once again here today, be it in imagination or on the very street stones of Rome.

Traces of a medieval portico in via della Madonna dei Monti.

Traces of a medieval portico in via della Madonna dei Monti.

So this is where we start: at one of our usual medieval ’signifiers’, as you can see above; a column from some medieval portico, which at a later point was turned into a Renaissance portal, and later still the suggestive wooden door, timeless and age-old at the same time, was added. Add some green leaves, and it does not get more picturesque than this…

Moving along up via della Madonna dei Monti, which we learned last time is the Roman street Argiletum, we soon get to another, more unusual signifier. It has been suggested that the small, free-standing house to the right just after no. 68 could be one of the oldest still inhabited houses in Rome, and dating at least to the 11th century. We have spotted the typical, narrow medieval houses during previous itineraries, with a door and a shop on street level and two windows on each floor; but this is different. Here, we could, with a little extra fantasy, see a remnant of a typical Roman domus, with a series of square shops facing the street, and living quarters on the floor above. Since we know that Julius Caesar grew up in this neighborhood, we can now let our imagination swirl a little around the fact that his house could have looked something quite like this. And since there is, at present, a small café in the very building, you could even experience the building from the inside. And, as an almost inevitable bonus-information to the modern pilgrim: hidden behind the house is the small courtyard where you can admire the 21st century fresco depicting a second Julius Caesar of a sort: Francesco Totti, star of AS Roma football team, born and raised in Rome, although in a district further to the south (which we will have the pleasure to encounter in a later itinerary…).

The ’oldest house in Rome’ on via della Madonna dei Monti.

The ’oldest house in Rome’ on via della Madonna dei Monti.

But let’s now take a look at what our itinerary tells us. We know already, as investigated during our last promenade, that we find ourselves in the rather vast Roman Subura region. But as our itinerary presents it, we should now have something called SUBURA right in the middle of our way, as some kind of separate monument or spot rather than a whole region. Moving along, I find it possible that, at some point of time during the Middle Ages, the name Subura started to signify a place rather than a district, and this place could very well be the piazza della Suburra of today. And we will reach this piazza if we continue up via Leonina and end up at the entrance to the metro station Cavour, named after the modern street that at this point cuts our itinerary. As if it were an echo of this possible reinterpretation of the toponym, the house to the right of the piazza actually has a small sign on its corner, saying SUBURA.

On our left hand side, the itinerary now instructs us that we should have the monastery of S. Agata and the church of S. Lorenzo in Formoso. Both of them are there, but we could not have seen them from our itinerary – and we should imagine that this area was as densely built in the period of the Einsiedeln manuscript as it is today, and was during Antiquity. So, if we would like to see the monastery and the church, we would have to make a short deviation from our route. As for today, that won’t be necessary – we have much too interesting monuments ahead; but standing here in piazza della Suburra I will just tell you briefly about them. The church of S. Agata, in some medieval sources actually called S. Agata in Subura, was founded in the fifth century, and its monastery was created in the time of pope Gregory II (715‑731): thus, it must have been a rather recent construction when the Einsiedeln pilgrim passed by, and that fact furthermore signifies that this area was considered important in this period. It is located on via di sant’Agata, which turns left from via della Madonna dei Monti rather early on. The next church, S.Lorenzo, is today called in Panisperna: the exact date for its foundation is unknown, but we know from the Liber Pontificalis that it was restored by pope Hadrian I (772‑795) and that it was enriched with gifts from pope Leo II (795‑816); also this gives us a hint about the activities of the neighborhood precisely in ’our’ period. It is located in the homonymous via Panisperna, which runs parallell to the route we have been walking, a couple of blocks to the north.

Let’s now have a look at what we will find on our right. The church of S. Lucia with the strange addition ’in Ortheo’ is announced as our next landmark. And this will lead us into one of – in my Einsiedeln-biased opinion – the absolutely most interesting and beautiful streets of Rome. We will just have to cross via Cavour, and then enter via in Selci. Now, what is it about it that makes it so special? We have now left the Argiletum, but we are continuing on another Roman street, the clivus Suburanus, translated as ’the slope of Subura’. But – we are also entering a map; a very old map in marble, from the very heart of Roman Antiquity, the so-called Forma Urbis. This large marble plan of Rome, also called the Severan Marble Plan from its creation under emperor Septimius Severus in the beginning of the third century CE, was fixed to a wall on the Forum of Vespasian, and found in myriads of fragments when the Forum was excavated. This magnificent map, measuring 18 x 13 metres, sketches out in detail every street, every building, but more than that: almost every room and staircase, in a system of lines and dots in combination with inscriptions that give us the names of temples and monuments. In short, the map is indispensable for the understanding of the late antique city of Rome, and the only bad thing about it is that it by no means is preserved in its entirety. The holes and gaps are many, and so we are left to guesses in many cases. But not here! We now enter a part of the city where several fragments can be combined into a detailed view of parts of the Clivus Suburanus.

Forma Urbis fragmentIn the image to the left, which is taken from the excellent website of the Stanford Forma Urbis project, you can see our street, via in Selci, crossing the fragment diagonally from the left upper corner to the lower right corner. And on each side of the street, there are rows of small, rectangular spaces, with openings onto the street. These are ancient Roman tabernae, shops and workshops, where freedmen often had their small businesses, bought and sold, manufactured and mixed. In the lower right corner, you see part of the large complex Porticus Liviae, but today we want to stay on a smaller scale: it is, really, the tabernae that are the more interesting in this particular case. And why? Because they are still visible. Many of the small square shops on each side of the street are modelled on the Roman remains, and when you get to the top of the slope, the ancient walls are discernible to the right: Roman shops, turned into medieval shops, and then built into a high wall which belongs to our landmark, the church of S. Lucia.

Ancient and medieval wall structures in via in Selci.

Ancient and medieval wall structures in via in Selci.

In the image above, you can see the ancient travertine pillars, the vaults that have later been filled in with large tufa blocks, and the ancient and medieval brick-work towering above, while a group of rather young itinerarists passes by, rather unaware of the historical significance of the wall behind them. The wall belongs to the monastery of S. Lucia; the church was founded in the seventh century by pope Honorius I (625‑628), and restored in the end of the eighth century as well as in the beginning of the ninth. Below, you can see the façade towards the street in an 18th century engraving by Giuseppe Vasi.

S. Lucia in an engraving by Giuseppe Vasi (18th century).

S. Lucia in an engraving by Giuseppe Vasi (18th century).

The strange name of the church, in Ortheo, is a medieval misinterpretation of in Orpheo – marked out on the marble plan in another fragment is the monumental fountain of Orpheus, known from ancient sources and located just a bit ahead, in piazza di S. Martino ai Monti – and yes, it is in this piazza that we’ll find our next and last landmark of today, the church of S. Silvestro and S. Martino. The church, which turns its apse towards the piazza, was founded already in late Antiquity, but restored in the period of the Einsiedeln itinerary by our familiar, diligent pope Hadrian I. And, we are now flanked by the most magnificent medieval ’signifiers’: two wonderful medieval towers: torre dei Capocci to the right, and torre dei Graziani to the left. Built in the 12th century, they guard this route, which was of continuous importance from Antiquity and during the Middle Ages.

The church of SS. Silvestro e Martino and torre dei Capocci.

The church of SS. Silvestro e Martino and torre dei Capocci.

We have been heading uphill all the way, and if you want to, rest your feet a little in the shadow of the medieval towers. I will pop down to via in Selci and meet a friend who has her ceramics workshop in one of the ancient Roman tabernae. Ciao!

2015-01-24 19.23.14


If you want to know more about the ancient roads in the Subura, I highly recommend this article by prof. Simon Malmberg, member of the Topos and Topography project!

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