Our Rome expert reveals some of her favorite lesser-known attractions in the Eternal City.
What an architectural marvel San Carlo is! Enter this ingenious little church, by Baroque maverick Francesco Borromini, and you’d hardly guess that the whole footprint was the size of one of the pilasters of St Peter’s (this is why locals refer to it affectionately as San Carlino – ‘Little Saint Charles’). The tortured, bipolar architect twisted lines and space to such an extent that volumes seem to appear out of nowhere in this oval creation, lit beautifully by high windows. There’s a tiny courtyard with perfectly proportioned Corinthian columns. And when the monks are in the mood, they’ll show you their extraordinary library too. For another miniature Borromini masterpiece, visit the vertiginous church of Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza, at Corso Rinascimento 40.
Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza, at Corso Rinascimento 40.
That Keats and Shelley should be buried in this lovely place beneath the shadow of Rome’s only pyramid is particularly fitting: the cemetery is hopelessly romantic. It was my green refuge of choice when I lived just down the road in the Testaccio district. The cemetery grew up here because it lies ‘beyond the pale’, just outside the town walls. Non-Catholics struggled to be allowed a burial in papal Rome, and even after this patch of land was granted to them in the early 18th century, funerals tended to take place quietly, often at night.
Since 1953, this graveyard has officially been known not as the ‘Protestant’ but as the ‘Acatholic cemetery’: Muslims, Buddhists, Zoroastrians… and Antonio Gramsci, founder of the Italian Communist Party, are buried here. But for most Romans, it’s the old name that sticks. Across Via Zabaglia at the south western end of the cemetery is the equally poignant British military cemetery, where a piece of Hadrian’s wall has been brought back to the ancient metropolis.
One of Rome’s most worthwhile but least publicised sightseeing treats, this historically-layered cake descends from a street-level medieval and early-Renaissance church, with frescoes by Masolino, via a fourth-century early Christian church to the basement remains of a second-century insula (apartment block), complete with shrine to Mithras. When down here, listen for the sound of running water: an ancient sewer passes close by before dumping its contents in the Tiber. The main church is free, but the two lower levels carry an entrance charge. (Via Labicana 95, 00184)
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