Stan­ley Ste­wart’s pri­vate Rome

Look be­yond the ob­vi­ous at­trac­tions in the Ital­ian cap­i­tal

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There is a pi­azza in Rome with no traf­fic, few peo­ple and a sin­gle mys­te­ri­ous door. The Pi­azza dei Cava­lieri di Malta sits on the crown of the Aven­tine, the qui­etest and most beau­ti­ful of Rome’s seven hills. The square was de­signed by Pi­ranesi, a man who loved a sur­prise.

That sin­gle door is green and sits to one side of the square. It leads into the Priory of the Knights of Malta. There is an elab­o­rate key­hole, sur­rounded by an es­cutcheon that has been rubbed bare by many hands. If you peer through, you will find Pi­ranesi’s sur­prise — the dome of St Peter’s, about 3km away, per­fectly framed by the key­hole. The square, the door, the key­hole, even the gar­den within have been ori­en­tated to of­fer this pri­vate glimpse of one of Rome’s most fa­mous mon­u­ments.

Given that Rome’s pub­lic face is so spec­tac­u­lar and well known, it is easy to forget that many of its best mo­ments, many of its loveli­est trea­sures, are be­hind closed doors.

Be­yond the great sights of the Colos­seum, the Fo­rum and the Vat­i­can is an­other more pri­vate Rome, a city of sur­prises and un­pre­dictable se­crets. Be­yond the grand ho­tels with their bustling lob­bies is a more el­e­gant and so­phis­ti­cated Rome of pri­vate vil­las and lux­ury apart­ments from where you can em­bark on the ad­ven­ture of making Rome your own.

Rome is the kind of city in which tourist maps soon fade, and a dif­fer­ent, more per­sonal kind of nav­i­ga­tion takes over — one’s own ad­ven­ture within the city. This may be­gin with the dis­cov­ery of an old-fash­ioned work­shop in a back­street. It might in­clude a ro­man­tic pause on a bridge be­neath the sil­hou­ette of Cas­tel Sant’An­gelo. It should definitely take in that restau­rant with the won­der­ful strac­cetti con ru­cola.

Pi­azza del Popolo is cen­tral to my own pri­vate map of Rome. When I first came to the city 30 years ago, I stayed in a pen­sione just off this square. There was a high­ceilinged room, tall shut­tered win­dows, a door with a ped­i­ment that I am sure in­cluded cupids, a beau­ti­ful re­cep­tion­ist, and the sound of a sax­o­phone drift­ing up from Via An­gelo Brunetti in the evenings.

At night, when the sax­o­phon­ist had gone home and the traf­fic ceased, I could hear the splash of the foun­tains in the pi­azza be­neath the obelisk that Au­gus­tus had brought home from Egypt 2000 years ago.

Ev­ery morn­ing I sal­lied forth on a bat­tered scooter some­one had lent me. I ca­reened be­tween an­cient ru­ins and baroque sculp­ture and de­li­cious meals, be­tween Ro­man tri­umphal arches, the soft thighs of Bernini’s Proser­pina in the Gal­le­ria Borgh­ese and the divine crois­sants at a bar in the Via Ripetta.

I dis­cov­ered — in those days ev­ery­thing was a dis­cov­ery — Santa Maria in Traste­vere, bar­na­cled with age, its gold-hued in­te­rior freighted with in­cense and prayer. I made a pil­grim­age to Ve­lasquez’s por­trait of In­no­cent X in Palazzo Do­ria Pam­philj and an­other to Sant’Anselmo on the Aven­tine where Bene­dic­tine monks filled the Ro­man dusk with Gre­go­rian chant.

I climbed the steps of the Capi­to­line at night to Michelan­gelo’s ex­quis­ite pi­azza where the eques­trian statue of Mar­cus Aure­lius stood bathed in moon­light. I came home late to Pi­azza del Popolo, hop­ing the beau­ti­ful re­cep­tion­ist might still be on duty. I only ever man­aged to ex­change five words with her: “La mia chi­ave, per fa­vore!” Trag­i­cally, “My key, please!” was not a gam­bit to arouse her in­ter­est.

More than 20 years later, I have come to live in Rome, grad­u­at­ing from vis­i­tor to res­i­dent. My Vespa habits have not changed — though per­haps the cur­rent model is less bat­tered than that first one — but my per­sonal geography of Rome has ex­panded to in­clude its more pri­vate spa­ces. The fa­mous sights will al­ways be fas­ci­nat­ing, and still come, at the right mo­ment, with a sense of dis­cov­ery, but the Rome I ex­plore now is a place of lo­cal streets and neigh­bour­hoods, of pri­vate palaces and lesser-known sights, a Rome whose glo­ries are of­ten found be­hind closed doors.

There is no typ­i­cal day in Rome — there are too many in­ci­dents to dis­tract me — but here is a Ro­man day, en­joyed re­cently in the warm sun of Septem­ber.

In the early mar­ket of Tes­tac­cio, where women feign in­dif­fer­ence to men feign­ing pas­sion, I buy glossy aubergines and long plum toma­toes and hunks of flinty parme­san for an evening meal.

Tes­tac­cio re­mains a fiercely Ro­man quar­ter, more lo­cal than Traste­vere, its touristy neigh­bour across the river. And nowhere is more Ro­man than gro­cer Volpetti, a shrine both to the city’s food and ex­cess. It over­flows with prosci­utti and salami, ravi­oli and bis­cotti, cros­tini and torte. White-jack­eted at­ten­dants fetch plaits of moz­zarella from milky bowls and slice ri­cotta like cake. Ev­ery Ro­man day should start and end with food.

From the won­ders of Volpetti, I climb the streets of the Aven­tine to Pi­ranesi’s square, and its mirac­u­lous key­hole. In Rome it is al­ways a mat­ter of know­ing which doors to push, which bells to ring, which key­holes to peer through — as demon­strated by the char­ac­ter Jep in the 2013 award-win­ning film La Grande Bellezza.

Fur­ther along a leafy av­enue, I push open the colos­sal doors of Santa Sabina. Vir­tu­ally empty most days, it is one of my favourite spa­ces in Rome; few places give such a pow­er­ful sense of the city’s an­tiq­uity. Built in the fifth cen­tury, the basil­ica’s bare, at­mo­spheric in­te­rior feels more like a Ro­man tem­ple than a Chris­tian church. Col­umns of light slant down across the great void from the clerestory. I feel alone with the ghosts of the early mar­tyrs lurk­ing in the shad­ows.

But I don’t linger. I have an ap­point­ment in the cen­tro storico at Rome’s finest Re­nais­sance build­ing.

Palazzo Far­nese, now the French em­bassy, is usu­ally

closed to the pub­lic, but with the right num­ber to call and a lit­tle ad­vance book­ing, the doors swing open for a pri­vate tour. Up­stairs is one of the great­est mas­ter­pieces in Rome, the Car­racci Gallery, eas­ily the peer of Michelan­gelo’s Sis­tine Chapel. Yet while the lat­ter tells a bi­b­li­cal story, Car­racci has opted for in­dul­gence. He has gone back to the pre-Chris­tian gods, scant­ily dressed mytho­log­i­cal fig­ures who ca­vort across the ceil­ing and walls in what looks like a de­lighted orgy.

I have lunch in the Chiostro del Bra­mante, close to Pi­azza Navona — not pri­vate, but it feels se­cret. You en­ter the church through a nar­row door, climb steep, un­marked stairs and emerge in a first-floor log­gia where you find an el­e­gant cafe.

From the ta­bles in the arches you gaze down on the per­fect sym­me­tries of Bra­mante’s clois­ters among the tum­ble and chaos of Ro­man rooftops. Should you come for af­ter­noon tea, I can rec­om­mend the car­rot cake. Back on my trusty scooter, I sail the length of the Lun­gote­vere to the Cir­cus Max­imus, the venue for the an­cient char­i­o­teers, whose driv­ing habits still man­i­fest them­selves in mod­ern Ro­man traf­fic.

Be­neath the oval race­track where Ben-Hur once thun­dered up and down is the Mithraeum of Cir­cus Max­imus, an un­der­ground shrine, dis­cov­ered in the 1930s. I have ar­ranged a pri­vate visit. De­scend­ing a stair­well in a non­de­script mod­ern build­ing brings me to an­other door. I step across its thresh­old into the third cen­tury as sud­denly as Alice slipped into Won­der­land. Be­neath an­cient arches, the bare rooms are in a state of al­most per­fect preser­va­tion down to the in­laid mar­ble pat­terns of the floor. They were once ded­i­cated to the mys­te­ri­ous cult of Mithras. A splen­did frieze de­picts the rit­ual that took place here: the sac­ri­fice of a bull. A chill em­anates from the walls. Many me­tres be­low the Ro­man streets, I have en­tered an­other world.

An­other world? That is why I came to Rome, to the pen­sione off the Pi­azza del Popolo, all those years ago.

Tourists en­ter the Priory of the Knights of Malta, top; pri­vate view of St Peter’s from the priory, above; Cir­cus Max­imus, be­low

Car­racci Gallery in Palazzo Far­nese, above left; Basil­ica di Santa Sabina, above; un­der­ground al­tar in Mithraeum of Cir­cus Max­imus, left

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