2nd October 2014
Day 3 of my trip is dedicated to the Ghetto and the Campo de’ Fiori, once the southern half of the Campus Martius (Field of Mars.
After crossing the river along the Ponte Vittorio Emanuele II I head straight down the Via Giulia. The street was laid out by Pope Julius II and is a full kilometre long. It makes for a gorgeously quiet walk away from the traffic that follows the river that it parallels.
The Palazzo Farnese backs onto the Via Giulia. I had intended to put the gorgeous Palace tour on my itinerary, however entry is by mandatory tour and all the tours in English had sold out weeks before my trip. My only Italian comes from my musical knowledge or my love of food, so the Palazzo Farnese will have to wait for my third trip to Rome, whenever that may be. My itinerary is too crammed for me to have regrets though, so I press on. At the end of the Via Giulia I wander through the streets using a deliberately lackadaisical yet vaguely north east route until I reach Largo Di Torre Argentina. This particularly square is described in my guidebook as ‘a place to wait for a bus and not much else.’ The author of the guide is evidently not as excited as I am about FOUR FREAKIN’ REPUBLICAN ERA TEMPLES. The archaeological site does, however, stink of cat pee as it acts as a homeless cat shelter.
It’s worth mentioning that the Curia of Pompey lies somewhere roughly under those buildings in the background. Julius Caesar was assassinated on the steps of that Curia on the Ides of March, 44BC. He didn’t say “Et tu, Brute?” (Shakespeare did,) but Caesar did suffer 23 stab wounds.
Time to wander to the next set of ruins, passing the delightful Fontana delle Tartarughe on the way.
I wandered down to the Portico of Octavia (built by Augustus and named for his sister) but it was so completely covered in scaffolding I couldn’t see any of it. I’m always glad to see ancient buildings getting a bit of TLC so I tried not be too disappointed. The Theatre of Marcellus next door was a huge consolation.
The theatre could hold up to about 20,000 people who would gather here to watch theatrical performances and sacrifices. In the medieval period it was converted into a fortress. The three columns are an Augustan period restoration to a Republican temple dedicated to Apollo Sosianus.
Near to the Theatre is the Church of San Nicola in Carcere (prison) which can boast not one ancient temple under the church but three.
The church stands on the edge of what had been the Forum Holitorium (vegetable and herb market) in ancient times. Four temples had stood in a row and their foundations are preserved at ancient street level underneath the current building.
Before I paid my 2 euros to get into the basement (bargain!) I amused to see a clumsy 9thC AD inscription on a column in the church. The Latin is terrible (yet still better than mine!) and talks of an offering of copper and livestock to the church. Not this church as the column was nicked from somewhere else and brought here in the 12thC AD
The temples under this church are a bit of a hidden gem and well worth a visit. For an extra euro you’ll get a short guided tour which I highly recommend to help bring the site to life.
I’m getting closer to the little island in the middle of the Tiber River which is reached from the Campus Martius bank by the Pons Fabricius, the oldest bridge in Rome. In fact the bridge has been is continuous use since 62BC. It’s not too hard to imagine Cicero admiring the new bridge.
In antiquity Tiber Island was used to keep people with contagious diseases away from the populace, along with the occasional despicable criminal. Apparently on the advice of the Sibyl a temple to Aesculapius , the God of healing, was built on the island in the 3rd century BC. There is (as with so many pagan temples in Rome) now a Christian church on the site dedicated to Saint Bartholomew (aptly patron saint of nervous and neurological diseases.)
The other half of the tiny island has been home to the Brothers Hospitallers of St John since 1584. Their hospital is still in operation.
After a quick snack that consisted entirely of cake (I’m on holiday…) I headed over to the Crypta Balbi, another branch of the National Roman Museum, which promised much and delivered little. The presentation is a tad clinical for my taste and there wasn’t as much as interpretation as I’d have liked.
Never mind, it was time to head to the Campo dei Fiori. Depending on who you talk to the ‘field of flowers’ is named either for a mistress of Pompey Magnus called Flora (his theatre was next door) or because in the medieval period this area was a meadow. The area was paved in the 1400s and became a place for socialising, a thriving market that still exists and for public executions.
Giordano Bruno, a mathematician, philosopher and astronomer, was burned at the stake here after being found guilty of heresy. He’d held beliefs that were ahead of his time and in total conflict with Catholic teachings. He was handed over the the Inquisition in 1593 and burned in 1600. At his execution his tongue was tied down to prevent him delivering any last words to the assembled crowds.
The picture above shows how the current buildings have foundations running along the ancient remnants of the Theatre of Pompey. From what I can tell that particular, smaller curve must follow the Temple of Venus Victrix. There was an ancient taboo about permanent theatres in the city. Pompey simply built a temple with a lot of steps that formed a semicircle – suspiciously theatre like. The nearby piazzas also show the shape of the theatre.
The theatre compound was finished in 55BC after Pompey was inspired by a Greek theatre in Mytilene.
On my way back to my hotel in the Prati neighbourhood I am incredibly excited to retrace my steps along the Via Giulia for a visit to the Museum of Criminology. As I revel in the dark side of history I knew I would love this small but wonderful museum. It is housed int a 19thC prison and is filled to the brim with torture devices and evidence relating to famous cases.
I’ve got a late night planned so I head back towards the Vatican for a short siesta and camera battery charge in my hotel.
My route takes me back over Ponte Vittorio Emanuele II which has some gorgeous allegorical statues (as you’d expect from a bridge named after the first king of a unified Italy) and some fantastic views of the Castel Sant Angelo.