Walking Rome
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Excerpt
Neighborhood Walk: Piazza di Spagna to Villa Borghese
 
1. Ara Pacis: The Pax Romana is the theme of this ancient monument on the banks of the Tiber. Reconstructed in the 1930s from remnants scattered across scores of museums, the Ara Pacis (Altar of Peace) was commissioned by the Roman senate as a tribute to Emperor Augustus and the peace that followed his imperial expansion. The rectangular structure is now enclosed within a museum designed by American architect Richard Meier and opened in 2006. The monument is covered in intricate carvings, including renderings of Augustus and his family, a scene that may have represented the dedication of the Ara Pacis in 13 b.c. Across the street is the crumbling Mausoleum of Augustus, no longer open to visitors and badly in need of restoration.
 
2. Piazza di Spagna: Named after the Spanish Embassy that once overlooked the square, the Piazza di Spagna has been the coolest place to hang out in Rome for nearly 300 years. The neighborhood has long attracted foreigners—Lord Byron, Keats, Shelley, Goethe, Ibsen, Oscar Wilde, James Joyce, and Hans Christian Andersen are among the artistic hipsters who frequented the local inns and cafés. The Spanish Steps were added in the 1720s to connect the square with Santissima Trinità dei Monti, the Renaissance church on the hilltop above. La Barcaccia, the boat-shaped fountain at the base of the Spanish Steps, predates the stairway by a hundred years. The area’s chic boutiques are a recent addition.
 
3. Keats–Shelley House: Perched on the south side of the Spanish Steps, the building is a holy grail of the early 19th-century English Romantic movement. Poet John Keats moved here in 1820 and died, aged 25, from tuberculosis the following year. Percy Bysshe Shelley lived nearby. He perished in 1822 when he drowned off the Italian coast. Memories of them linger on, as do those of the other Romantics that round out the collection of this marvelous small museum. Exhibits include Keats’s death mask and an original manuscript by Mary Shelley, wife of the poet and author of Frankenstein.
 
4. Piazza del Popolo: Once the spot where religious heretics were executed, the Piazza del Popolo is now the "people’s square" and a venue for mass political gatherings. From here a Roman road called the Via Flaminia began its journey north up the Italian Peninsula. On the square’s southern side, baroque twin churches—Santa Maria dei Miracoli and Santa Maria in Montesanto—flank the Via del Corso. The whitewashed Porta del Popolo on the northern side was Rome’s primary gateway through much of the Middle Ages and beyond. Architect Giuseppe Valadier conceived the current square in the early 19th century, including ramps and steps that ascend the Pincio hill and an Egyptian obelisk that once graced the Circo Massimo.
 
5. Santa Maria del Popolo: Raphael, Caravaggio, and Bramante were among the Italian masters who contributed to this lavish church on the north side of the Piazza del Popolo. According to legend, the original church on the site was created to vanquish the ghost of the long-dead Roman emperor Nero, who was buried nearby. It was replaced by the current Renaissance structure, commissioned in 1472 by Pope Sixtus IV della Rovere. Among several frescoes by Pinturicchio, don’t miss a delightful "Adoration of the Christ Child" above the altar in the Della Rovere Chapel. Raphael designed the ornate Chigi Chapel for the wealthy banker Agostino Chigi. A pair of Caravaggio masterpieces—"The Conversion of St. Paul on the Road to Damascus" and "The Crucifixion of St. Peter"—hang in the Cerasi Chapel.
 
6. The Pincio: The lofty green space above the Piazza del Popolo is the Pincio garden, the western sector of the extensive Villa Borghese gardens, but in many respects its own little world replete with busts of notable Italians, an unusual water clock, and the San Carlino marionette theater. The symmetry between square and garden is not accidental: Giuseppe Valadier designed both during the French occupation of Rome under Napoleon. The Piazza Napoleone is an excellent perch to view the Popolo neighborhood directly below and St. Peter’s in the distance.
 
7. Villa Giulia: Built as a country palace for Pope Julius III in the 1550s, the ornate Renaissance villa now houses the Museo Nazionale Etrusco, Italy’s premier showcase of regional art and artifacts predating the Roman Empire. Among its many treasures are the Etruscan Sarcofago degli Sposi (Sarcophagus of the Spouses), an incredibly lifelike terra-cotta rendering of a married couple reclining on a banquet sofa, from the sixth century b.c. Set in the northwest corner of the Villa Borghese, the building reflects the extravagant lifestyle of Renaissance popes, in particular a two-story nymphaeum (water grotto) in the garden where Julius entertained guests in summer.
 
8. Villa Borghese: Cardinal Scipione Borghese, who created the villa and its surrounding gardens, amassed a substantial fortune in the early 17th century via family connections and a devious nature that would have put Machiavelli to shame. The villa now houses the Galleria Borghese, while the gardens have become Rome’s most popular park. Stroll along gravel pathways shaded by umbrella pines—perfect on a hot day—and admire statues and classical-style ornamental temples. At the center is the Giardino del Lago (Garden of the Lake), with its boating lake. Don’t miss the delightful art nouveau Fontana dei Fauni (Fountain of the Fauns). At the north end of the park, the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna has a good display of 19th- and 20th-century art.
 
9. Galleria Borghese: The Villa Borghese, housing the Galleria Borghese, originated as a temple to pleasure, a place to show off the art that belonged to Cardinal Scipione Borghese (1577–1633), a nephew of Pope Paul V. He would bring guests through the landscaped gardens and wow them with lavish banquets, entertainments, and his stunning collection. Although Napoleon later carried off many of the prized ancient sculptures to the Louvre in Paris, the core Renaissance collection and the baroque pieces that Scipione commissioned for the villa are still in place.
 
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