The Heat Openis On Secrets
Rome is one of the world’s most exhilarating and romantic destinations and it’s not for nothing that the Eternal City has been attracting visitors for over two millennia. But before you plan a trip to Italy’s capital, you should know that, away from the popular attractions, a trail of unexpected treasures await.
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 ( Villa del Priorato di Malta). There is an elaborate keyhole, surrounded by an escutcheon, which has been rubbed bare by many hands. If you peer through, you will find Piranesi’s surprise – the dome of St Peter’s, almost two miles 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 unexpected 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 whose rooms 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. And it should definitely take in that restaurant with the wonderful
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 high-ceilinged room, tall shuttered windows, a door with a pediment that I’m 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 some 2,000 years ago. Every morning, I sallied forth on a battered scooter someone had lent me, careening between ancient ruins, baroque sculpture and delicious meals, between Roman triumphal arches, the soft thighs of Bernini’s Proserpina in the Galleria Borghese and the divine croissants in a bar in the Via di Ripetta. I discovered – in those days everything was a discovery – Santa Maria in Trastevere, barnacled with age, its goldhued interior freighted with incense and prayer. I made a pilgrimage to Velásquez’ 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.