Rome Day 3: Trastevere and the Vatican

26 Jul

Note: Flickr is not cooperating today. I hope to have sets for both Days 3 & 4 up by the time I post day 4 tomorrow. I’ll include links for both then. You’ll definitely want to view the full set for today!

By our third day in Rome, we were energized and up for a long day of walking. And what a day it was! We set out from our hotel and walked to Isola Tiberina, a small island in the middle of the Tiber River. To get here we crossed the oldest bridge in Rome, the Ponte Fabricio, built in 62 BC. A church on this island, San Bartolomeo, was originally built in the 900s, but has been renovated so much that none of the original structure remains. After walking the span of the island and arriving on the other side, we found ourselves in the Trastevere (translates to “across the river”) neighborhood of Rome.

Inhabitants of this neighborhood consider themselves separate from those Romans who live across the Tiber. For decades they spoke their own dialect, and even still the food is different here than on the other side of the river. This area felt different as well. The buildings were smaller, though not more spaced out, and the atmosphere felt a little less hurried than in the other areas of Rome we had traversed thus far. See, while Trastevere is becoming more and more a tourist attraction in its own right, it is not yet a bursting urban scene like the heart of Rome.

The first piazza we came to was Piazza Piscinula, so named for the Roman baths (piscina) that once stood here. A tiny church, the Church of San Benedetto, is found here; it was supposedly constructed on the site where St. Benedict, founder of the Benedictine order of monks, grew up as a child.


The first main stop on our path was the Santa Cecilia in Trastevere. This is a still functioning convent, built upon what is believed to be the site of St. Cecilia’s palace. Sections of the church date from the 12th to the 19th centuries, demonstrating how this church, like so many others, stands the test of time by being revamped with each new era. St. Cecilia herself was a patron of the arts, a Roman aristocrat condemned for her faith around 300 AD.

Continuing our stroll, we came the the unique Santa Maria in Trastevere. This is the most famous building in the Trastevere district. It was originally built around 350 AD, although the central core of the church was rebuilt in the 1100s and the entrance and portico were added in the 1840s. You may be able to make out the mosaics around the facade here (there will be a larger picture of these on Flickr) – these were added around 1200. When we first arrived and went inside, a small wedding was taking place. We left so as not to intrude, but came back later, as GP left his water bottle sitting on the steps of the fountain in the middle of the piazza. This time, the church was empty, so we entered and took a few pictures of the ornate interior, lined with numerous mosaics.


Just down the street from this beautiful structure, we came upon what appeared to be a very old piazza, surrounded by ancient looking buildings and with a street in a certain state of disrepair. Located here is the Chiesa di San Egidio, dating to the 16th century. I don’t know anything about this church’s history, but we both loved how old and weathered it appeared. I think there must have been mosaics or frescoes once located in the set-in parts of the facade, probably long stripped from the church either by the elements or by thieves.

We next visited the Santa Maria della Scala. This 17th century baroque piece of architecture belongs to the Discalced Carmelite order of nuns, and houses works by Caravaggio and his pupils. Pictures will be included with the Flickr set, sorry.

About 5 blocks down one of the winding, brick roads stands the Porta Settimiana. During the 3rd century, this structure was an important part of the Roman defences of the city. However, ruined masonry lends it today to little more than a magnificent view. Much of its visage dates to the Renaissance popes, who retained the structure as a site marking the edge of the Aurelian wall.

Traipsing through the Trastevere was merely a lead up to the real fun of the day: St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican museums. When we first arrived in Piazza San Pietro, we were completely shocked by both the surrounding architecture and the sheer size of it all. Of course, we had heard the dimensions of the square and the basilica before, but size is really one of those things that can’t be appreciated until experienced for yourself. We spent a good long while marvelling at the surrounding columns, topped by statues of over 140 saints. We oohed and ahhed over the two massive fountains and the enormous obelisk. But mostly, we stared and stared at the basilica itself.

I could write an entire chapter on the history of this particular building. Instead, I’ll leave you with a few of the more interesting tidbits. The basilica is built on the ancient site of Nero’s circus, where captured Christians of the day were crucified, burned at the stake, and subjected to numerous other horrors. It is here that St. Peter, the rock upon which the Christian church was built and who is considered the first pope, was buried in 64 AD. His tomb lies deep in the catacombs beneath the basilica, and can actually be visited. Emperor Constantine, the first Christian Emperor of Rome, commissioned a church to be built at this site in 324 AD – the structure stood for more than 1000 years. The current basilica was built during the 1500 and 1600s, taking over 100 years to complete.


Once entered, the enormity of the basilica becomes even more overwhelming. The picture on the right (because Blogger refused to put it on the left) is looking up into the dome, designed by Michelangelo. From the floor to the top of the dome is something like 136 meters. The Statue of Liberty, including the massive pedestal she stands on, is less than 100 meters. The middle picture is a view of the interior from just inside the doors at the back of the church. There is a tiny speck of gold in the middle of the window, you might be able to make it out in a bigger picture. Inside that speck is a dove, over 9 feet in wingspan, that looks absolutely minuscule from the back of the basilica.

Naturally, the basilica that heads Catholicism is covered in some of the finest pieces of art done by some of the most important Renaissance artists. There are works by Raphael, Michelangelo, Bramante, and Maderno. The picture above on the left is of one of Michelangelo’s most famous works, the Pieta. I cannot express the beauty of this work, or how moving it was for me to see. It has long been one of those works that I have wished to see, but resigned myself to only seeing in pictures. This was one of the highlights of the trip.

After spending a very long time marveling at the size and beauty of St. Peter’s, we made our way across Vatican City to tour the incredibly famous and incredibly well-stocked Vatican Museum. Here we saw works by Raphael, ancient Greek sculptures that influenced Renaissance sculpters, Caravaggio, Giotto, and more. By the time we got to the museum, however, it was late, and they were trying to push people through. We scampered along to make sure we saw the Sistine Chapel, with the intention of going back to look at the Raphael Rooms later. Of course, once we left the Chapel, we were forced to exit the museum. We found out later we were mere feet from the School of Athens, one of Raphael’s most famous works. I’m still kicking myself over not knowing we were a room away!

On we ran to the Sistine Chapel! It was absolutely crammed with people. There are no artificial lights in the structure, probably in part to help protect the paintings on every wall. Still, so much light came through the windows that the room was perfectly well lit, and the colors of the paintings could be seen in all their vibrant glory. I had always heard that the Chapel was a tiny little room. To be fair, it is small, but not so small as I had always envisioned! Pictures are forbidden here, but about every third person had there camera out, taking pictures or video with full flash enabled, in plain sight of the dozen or so security guards who were doing nothing to stop them. I still feel a bit guilty for taking our few pictures, but at least we didn’t use the flash. (Sorry for the fuzziness, but you can get a good feel of the beautiful colors!)

The Sistine Chapel is another one of those things that is so much more impressive than you can possibly imagine. I may have been moved to teary-ness at several points during this trip, and standing in the middle of the chapel, looking up at the paintings that took Michelangelo all those years and were nearly lost to us forever was definately a moving experience.
I could go on about the Chapel and its history, but I am tired, and you probably are too, if you have made it this far! Tune in tomorrow for a tour of Florence!
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One Response to “Rome Day 3: Trastevere and the Vatican”

  1. Elke July 27, 2007 at 8:55 pm #

    I was looking at this at work today and some of the guys were peeking over my shoulder. They were impressed with the photos and may ask for stories of Italy sometime. 🙂

    I adore Michelangelo’s Pieta` – it must have been awe-inspiring in person.

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