Italy Daily
12 April 2002
guidebook reprint 2003


Rome's Papal Highway
The best laid plans of mice and men often go astray. And for the Via Giulia, the result couldn’t be more charming. (This article is pending reprint in Italy Daily's forthcoming Guide to Rome in 2003.)
The road replaced a
rabbit-warren of alleys,
where gangs of brigands
and pickpockets would
prey upon pilgrims.


The Via Giulia slices through Rome’s historic district in a strictly no-nonsense manner. It is a wide, straight practical avenue, leading the faithful to St. Peters. In fact, the road replaced a rabbit-warren of alleys, where gangs of brigands and pickpockets would prey upon pilgrims. This 16th-century urban renewal produced a curious neighbourhood. Via Giulia remains one of the city’s poshest addresses, crowded with palazzi and exclusive stores. Church and charity also shaped the area, where social reformers built safer, kinder prisons.

The Renaissance street is named for Pope Julius II della Rovere (1503-13), who urbanised the rat’s nest of Medieval Rome. The kilometre-long stretch flanks the Tiber from the pedestrian Ponte Sisto to the Ponte Vittorio Emanuele, where the river and San Pietro align with postcard precision. In an effort towards French elegance – and architectural unity – Bramante was supposed to design all the buildings. This plan failed and a hodgepodge of palaces line the street, now home to antique shops and restaurants.

At Via Giulia’s debut, real estate prices were low – low enough even for artists. Cheeky goldsmith Benvenuto Cellini lived here, as did Sangallo the Younger, whose house at number 79 served as the Tuscan Embassy before the unification of Italy. Poor Raphael died before his rustic design at Via Giulia 86 was completed.

Duck down the Via dell’Arco del Monte di Pietà, which runs into a tiny piazza containing the Santissima Trinità dei Pelligrini by Paolo Maggi (1603-16). The dingy ochre facade was added in 1723 by Francesco De Sanctis, and the interior houses pieces by Guido Reni, Borgogone and Cavalier d’Arpino.

The neighbouring hospice, founded during the Holy Year 1575, was especially popular with English and Scottish pilgrims. Roman grandees would gather there to humbly wash the pilgrims’ grubby feet – a ceremony that flourished until the 19th century. After the ‘hero’s defence’ of the city, Garibaldi’s men recovered in the hospice, where the gallant poet and war hero Mameli died at the tender age of 22.

The Palazzo Spada anchors one end of the elegant corridor. During the 16th century, cardinals went to great lengths to "keep up with the neighbours". Gerolamo Capo DI Ferro built this lavish white-stucco edifice, which was later acquired by Cardinal Bernardino Spada and finally by the Council of State.

The ornate facade is guarded by statues of Roman patrons – such as Romulus, Numa and Augustus – and faithful dogs. One inscription reads: The dictator Julius Caesar: He filled the whole world with his enemy’s gore, and at the end he drenched the senate with his own blood."

The Caesar motif is echoed within the Galleria Spada. The collection includes a statue of Pompey, which may have witnessed the dictator’s assassination in 44BC. Experts disagree, but for some 20 years, until the last war, an elderly Frenchwoman appeared faithfully on the Ides of March and deposited a bouquet of scarlet carnations at the statue’s feet.

The Palazzo’s best attraction remains free to the bold. Stride past the porter with an air of great resolve and efficiency, then pivot left to catch a glimpse of Borromini’s perspective trick. The long colonnade stretches majestically into the distance – or at least appears to, thanks to clever a trompe l’oeil effect. In fact, the tunnel is a mere 30 feet long with a dinky two-foot statue. For a modest tip, the guard will sometimes escort sceptics behind the glass partition.

The Fontana del Mascherone – or fountain of the giant mask – dominates the southern end of the Via Giulia proper. Before Carlo Rainaldi’s fountain was built, this site was the ferry landing. He combined two ancient sculptures: a vast marble basin and a grotesque face with a vacuous expression. The mask dribbles water from the Acqua Paola, though for festivals it would pipe red wine. Sadly, this tradition has fallen by the wayside.

Another victim to changing times and conservatism was the Arch of the Palazzo Farnese. Alessandro Farnese, one of the most blatantly rapacious rulers in papal Rome, disliked crossing the Tiber on public bridges, rubbing shoulders with the riff-raff. He envisioned a private walkway connecting the Palazzo with the Villa Farnesina: a mighty status symbol, the 16th-century equivalent of, say, an executive heliopad. Michelangelo designed the graceful archway, now trailing with ivy, but the monument to Alessandro’s ego stopped well short of the river.

The Farnese vanity contrasts badly with the humble hospices and confraternities in the area, such as Santissima Trinità dei Pelligrini and Santa Maria dell’Orazione e della Morte. The latter was the headquarters of the Compagnia della Buona Morte, dedicated to burial of the poor, Inside, there used to be a spacious storage hall for corpses and easy access to the river, so floating bodies could be netted and hauled inside each morning.

The 1737 facade by Fernando Fuga reflects the morbid mission: gaping skulls with vegetal wings and spines flank the door. And the two plaques which invite alms are positively sinister. One image, black etched in ghostly white marble, shows a winged skeleton with a banner reading "hodie mihi, cras tibi" (essentially "your turn next"). The other begs specifically for plague victims from the countryside, depicting a skeleton gloating over a human body.

After such brutal reminders of mortality, the neighbouring Palazzo Falconieri seems cheerful, despite its austerity. Borromini was asked to unite two buildings in 1638. The result is an eye-strainingly massive building, now used as the Hungarian Academy. The narrow street hides the graceful marble top story – though if you back down the side-street, stand on tip-toe and crane your neck backward, a glimpse is possible. It’s easier, and far less athletic, to simply admire the falcon heads on elongated female busts, which peer from each side of the edifice.

Two churches nearby are worth a visit: Chiesa di Sant’ Eligio degli Orefici and San Girolamo della Carità. Raphael began the former, the church of the Gold- and Silversmiths, which is often considered one of the purest expressions of the Renaissance (1516). A cupola crowns this small beautiful church, laid out in an austere Greek cross plan. The chiesa is damp, somewhat gloomy, heavily restored and rarely open but nonetheless, one of the area’s gems.

A cluster of churches grace the Piazza di S. Caterina della Rota, including San Girolamo della Carità (usually closed, but try the bell and some charm at 63 Via San Girolamo). The architect transformed an awkward space into the lovely Capella Spada with polychrome marble and a unique angel balustrade. Many consider this another local example of Borromini’s brilliance, but others favour Cosimo Fanzago. The late Baroque Capella Antamoro is also noteworthy for its subtle coloured light, intimate scale and unity – the fruit of a collaboration between Juvarra and the sculptor Pierre Legros the Younger.

The Via Giulia wasn’t always the unobstructed avenue of today. When the Carceri Nuove – new prisons – were in use, this part of the street was cut off by two heavy chains and wrought-iron palings guarded by sentries. Pope Innocent X built the model prison "for a safer and more humane imprisonment of the guilty", as the inscription explains. At the end of the 19th century, it was replaced by the hideous blot of the Regina Coeli Jail across the river. Now Valadier’s structure houses, fittingly, the Museum of Criminology (entrance on Via del Gonfalone 29), full of antique papal torture instruments.

Detour down the whimsical Vicolo della Scimmia (Monkey Lane) to visit the Oratorio di Santa Lucia del Gonfalone, a guild hall for Medieval flag bearers. As Roman blood-sports diminished in popularity, religious processions came in vogue. These lavish parades included floats and flags by competing confraternities.

The guild’s charitable work helped pay for medicine, burial costs and dowries for poor spinsters. When Italy was united in 1870, the state confiscated many Church-owned buildings. The Capitolo di San Pietro, the priests who oversee the Vatican’s earthly holdings, sued and won the property back. Concerts are still held in the main oratory hall, which has a cycle of 12 beautiful frescos of the Passion of Christ by Federico Zuccari (including Judas gripping a purse).

Foot-sore tourists can relax on the flippantly nicknamed "Sofas of Via Giulia". These huge unfinished travertine blocks are the ground-floor remains of the unfinished court Bramante designed for Pope Julius II.

The northern tip of Via Giulia is Piazza D’Oro, a quiet cobbled wedge just off the wild traffic of the Lungotevere. Here stands the Basilica di San Giovanni dei Fiorentini, an architectural misadventure. Pope Leo X Medici rejected plans by Michelangelo and Raphael, then hired and fired Sansovino. Two centuries after its inception, Corsini tacked on an uninspired 18th-century facade, now sprouted with weeds.

Ironically, the great aesthete Borromini is buried in this patchwork construction. His tomb is in the floor near the main altar: its simplicity reflects the shame of suicide. (The great architect had a messy, lingering death, which gave him time to repent, pass away in the "grace of God" and receive a Christian burial.) Yet the Basilica’s modern notoriety comes from its pet masses, where Fido and Fluffy can receive blessings. It’s an apt conclusion to the Via Giulia, which is full of august intentions tinted by quirky humanity.

The best laid plans of mice and men often go astray. And for the Via Giulia, the result couldn’t be more charming.

The mask dribbles
water from the Acqua
Paola, though for festival
it would pipe red wine.
Sadly, this tradition has
fallen by the wayside.

Sidebars
Santa Barbara
dei Librari
Our picks:

Where to shop,
eat and rest

The Basilica’s modern
notoriety comes from
its pet masses, where
Fido and Fluffy can
receive blessings.


Back to the portfolio