Itinerary VIII, Ponte S. Angelo to Porta Asinaria, second part

Starting point: Piazza Pasquino


Einsiedeln instructions:

In sinistra                                                In dextra

Sancti Laurentii in Damaso

Thermae Alexandrinae                        Theatrum Pompei

Sancti Eustachii. Rotunda                   Cypressus

Thermae Commodianae


My dearest itinerarists!

Here we are, together again – as you remembered, we had fixed an appointment at piazza Pasquino, at the feet of the worn statue whose history I gave you in the end of our last promenade. This mutilated marble torso also, incidentally, marks a temporary mutilation of our route, as it once in a while happens – we stand close to the modern, late 19th century Corso Vittorio Emanuele, which has cut through the medieval quarters from east to west between piazza Venezia and ponte Vittorio Emanuele. If we proceed onward to piazza San Pantaleo, we have the roaringly fast traffic right before us, and this is one of the few spots in the historical center of Rome where it is not recommended to just step out majestically in the traffic and wait for the cars and motorinos to stop (or, as I once was advised by a more experienced person: If you want to cross a busy street, just wait for a nun to come along, and then follow her closely). So, if there’s temporarily no nun in sight here, we’d better wait in order at the pedestrian crossing where tourists stream from piazza Navona towards Campo de’ Fiori. We are, however, in search of something completely different than Bernini fountains and flower markets: obediently, we look at our itinerary, which now informs us that we should have the church of S. Lorenzo in Damaso on our right hand. And so we have! A few steps to the right along the Corso Vittorio Emanuele, we can see the white façade of the Cancelleria Palace, and built into the early 16th-century palace, seat of the Cancelleria Apostolica from 1517, we’ll find the small church of S. Lorenzo. I told you about the excavations of the oldest church, right under the Cancelleria palace, in the previous promenade, and how this location has enabled us to reconstruct the correct itinerary so far. But since you seem inquisitive, I’ll tell you some more about the church. It is mentioned for the first time in literary sources in the late fifth century, but tradition has it that the church was built by pope Damasus I in the late fourth century in his very own house. An inscription, now lost but recorded in an ancient manuscript, mentions Damasus as the constructor of the church: Haec Damasus tibi Christe Deus nova tecta dicavi Laurentii saeptus martyris auxilio (Damasus dedicated this new building to you, Christ, with the help of the martyr Laurentius). And pope Damasus was really a pope of public writing: the many poems he wrote about martyrs and the churches consecrated to them were exquisitely incised by a stone cutter we happen to know by name: Furius Dionysius Filocalus.

A portion of the Damasus inscription in S. Agnese fuori le Mura.

A portion of the Damasus inscription in S. Agnese fuori le Mura.

The letter style is far superior to any inscriptions of the era: with flowing serifs and dramatically contrasting line-width, they are worth every admiration – and just imagine that the inscriptions already were some centuries old when our pilgrim walked around Rome! In fact, we can be quite sure that also the Einsiedeln pilgrim truly admired the Damasus inscriptions: no less than four of them are transcribed in the collection of Latin inscriptions that is attached to the itineraries in our manuscript.

After having sent a thought to pope Damasus and his letter-cutter, it is time for us to move on, and to have a look at which our next landmarks can be. On our left hand side, we expect to have thermae Alexandrinae, the church of S. EustachioRotunda, and thermae Commodianae. The observant itinerarist now asks if we perchance haven’t met these monuments somewhere before? And surely we have, in itinerary number II, which you find here. Then, walking from ponte S. Angelo along via dei Coronari and further on along via delle Coppelle, we had the Alexandrian baths as well as the church of S. Eustachio, the Rotunda – the medieval name for Pantheon – and the baths of Commodus on our right hand side, passing rather far north of them. Thus, we never got to actually really know them; they were too far away, and we were unsure whether our itinerary allowed any deviations or not. And the irony is, that the case now is rather much the same – only that this time, they are rather far away on our left hand side, and so, we will leave them behind once again, so as not to come too late to our distant goal, the porta Asinaria on the other side of town. I will concede you a small favor, though: sneak away quickly to the church of S. Eustachio, because there, at piazza di S. Eustachio, lies the eponymous coffee bar which competes with Tazza d’Oro about Rome’s best coffee. (My first souvenir from Rome was actually an espresso cup from S. Eustachio, so I have had a soft spot for them ever since.) I’ll wait here till you return.

A S. Eustachio coffee cup.

A S. Eustachio coffee cup.

So, deprived of the monuments to our left, we will instead be soothed by the next monuments to our right: the theatre of Pompey and the mysterious cypressus. If we leave Corso Vittorio Emanuele and enter via del Paradiso down south, we actually come right across the ancient theatre, even if we have to adjust our eyes a little to really see it. The rounded outline of the houses in piazza Paradiso and via del Biscione in fact reveals to us that the buildings are nothing but a continuation of the ancient theatre as a substructure, with restaurants and garages looming in the old vaults (it seems, as any Roman itineraries would have observed, that garages proper are one of the most common finds in ancient Roman vaults…). And this is where we actually are very close to the medieval practice in the time of our medieval manuscript: exactly in this way, churches, dwellings and other structures found their way into the grand arches of Antiquity, just as we saw in itinerary II where the church of S. Agnese was founded in the vaults of the stadium of Domitian.

The theatre of Pompey was repaired as late as in the sixth century, but afterwards fell out of use and was stripped of its marble clothing. In the 13th century, it was turned into a fortress by the Orsini family, but that was centuries later than when our Einsiedeln pilgrim passed by the towering theatre ruins. Some of its columns can be seen today in the courtyard of the palazzo della Cancelleria that we just passed by – they are supposed to have been used in the oldest church of S. Lorenzo in Damaso, in the sustainable development so typical for the Middle Ages.

The restaurant Grotte del Teatro di Pompeo.

The restaurant Grotte del Teatro di Pompeo.

And as nostalgia for some reason seems to find its way into this particular promenade, I might as well tell you that the restaurant Grotte del Teatro di Pompeo was one of the restaurants I visited as a ten-year-old on my first visit to Rome and learned to eat fettuccine, which became my favourite pasta variety, with butter or with piselli and prosciutto. And by eating inside the depths of an ancient Roman theatre I guess I was tied eternally to the eternal city from that moment on…

Let’s now return to Corso Vittorio Emanuele – because old maps seem to confirm that the modern road here follows the medieval street rather accurately. And if we pay attention, we can see the odd medieval column greet us from the façades along the way – who would have thought that this busy vein of the city surfs on medieval ground?

A medieval portico in corso Vittorio Emanuele 99-101.

A medieval portico in corso Vittorio Emanuele 99-101.

Our last landmark on the right should now be – a tree. A cypress. How on earth are we going to be able to find a medieval cypress in the middle of modern Rome? Well, thanks to a little research, we will be able to find it. Only that it now has turned into a tower. I know, this sounds mad, but if we proceed further on to the square Largo Argentina – nowadays hosting four excavated republican temples and several cats, but in the Middle Ages densely used and reused quarters – we spot a medieval brick tower down in the south-east corner of the piazza. It is the torre del Papito, which stands more or less on the spot where our cypress, or perhaps a small collection of several cypresses, once gave its name to this part of Rome. And as we are supposed to have the cypress on our right side, it seems convenient to walk down the east side of the piazza, and find some shade from the sun in the medieval portico adjacent to the tower (although that is a much later construction, but it is the medieval atmosphere that we are after, don’t you agree?).

The medieval tower in Largo Argentina.

The medieval tower in Largo Argentina.

If you at this point feel that you haven’t had quite enough of medieval structures and ancient walls, I will let you into the Museo di Crypta Balbi nearby, so that you really can go in-depth regarding Largo Argentina and its history. I will wait for you at Caffè Camerino (the famous cafffè con tre effe) on the corner. Alla prossima!

 

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