Travel: Rome Matthew Bell
Matthew Bell takes the ultimate insider’s tour of the Eternal City with a British guide and writer who’s lived there for more than 40 years
Pitched on top of the Doria Pamphilj palace in Rome are two pavilions. One of them is derelict, and in the other lives John Fort, aged 69. He’s one of five Fort siblings; they include Matthew, the food writer, and Tom, who writes books about England and nature. John, or Johnny as he is known, has lived in Rome for 40 years, much of it in this extraordinary garret in the heart of the city.
To reach his apartment, you have to barge past the tourists gawping at the Caravaggios in the public gallery, and take a stone staircase right to the top. The palazzo, which stands on the Via del Corso, the main road that bisects Rome, is the biggest in private ownership, and is still home to the English-born Jonathan Pamphilj (joint heir with his sister to the palazzo, the biggest privately owned palace in Rome, in the family since the 17th century). The gallery is worth visiting just to hear Jonathan’s languid voice narrate the audio guide.
Once upon a time, this 1,000-room building was divided into some 300 apartments, all crammed with British writers and bohemians paying peppercorn rents. Today, Johnny and his wife, Emma, are the only ones left, much of the palazzo now let at more sensible rates to a smarter class of clientele.
As you step out on to their terrace, you understand why Johnny has never been able to leave the Eternal City. Scanning the rooftops, you can see countless churches, the Palatine and Capitol hills in
the distance and, just across the Piazza Venezia, the great wedding cake of the Vittorio Emanuele monument. It’s as if the whole of Rome’s history is spread out before you, there for you to touch.
Johnny is a self-taught historian who has become Rome’s go-to guide. His preferred mode of transport is by foot and, having spent years pounding these streets, he has amassed an impressive arsenal of knowledge. He shared much of it in The Companion Guide to Rome, a book written in 1965 by Georgina Masson, which he updated in 2003 and 2009. For that project, he retraced all Masson’s steps and checked all her facts and observations, and added lots more.
If you don’t want to see Rome with your head in a book, you can hire the man himself. Or failing that, he has created Walks in Rome, an app which you download on to your phone – and his voice will talk you through every step of your walk, which you can take at your own pace. It’s a brilliant way to get the most out of somewhere as layered and complex as Rome.
I plump for the real-life option, and we set off at a bracing pace.
‘Now, what would you like to see?’ he asks.
‘I was thinking perhaps the Forum,’ I venture. Mistake!
‘I’m sorry – there are two things I don’t do any more, and that’s the Forum or the Vatican.’
Right ho! As he explains, to see those sites with Johnny is a bit of a waste of time. The Vatican has its own guides, which make it difficult for individuals to operate there. You can, however, book a private viewing of St Peter’s through Bellini Travel, a bespoke, high-end agency with whom he works. As for the Forum, he can’t abide the crowds. Much better, as I discover, to ask Johnny to show you ‘undiscovered Rome’.
Even if you think you know the city, Johnny will show you sites you never knew were there. Our route takes us from Piazza Navona (shaped like a stadium because it was one in the 1st century) to the Campo de’ Fiori and over the river to Trastevere. Along the way, we stop to look inside courtyards and up staircases, all free to enter. He points out the church of Sant’ivo alla Sapienza – designed by Borromini, unique in baroque architecture for its concave façade and spiral-shaped lantern. We pass a palace with doors so enormous there’s a smaller door within one of them and an even smaller one within that.
We enter a courtyard where there’s a low building with an outside staircase: ‘Quite a rare survivor this – you can tell
it’s earlier, probably 15th century and much lower class because, in a modest house, you wouldn’t use precious covered space for a staircase. You put it outside and brave the elements.’ How did he discover these treasures? ‘By spending years poking my nose in wherever I thought there might be something interesting.’
Johnny was born in 1949 and came to Rome in his twenties, after Oxford. ‘I got a degree in oriental languages – Turkish, Arabic – and I thought I wanted to work in the City,’ he explains. ‘My first job was for a merchant bank but I hated it. I stuck it out for three years, then resigned and came to Europe by car for a sort of prolonged holiday, to try to make up my mind what I wanted to do.’
He ended up buying a piece of land outside Rome with a ruined olive mill, which he restored and turned into a smokery. ‘There was no decent smoked fish in Italy at that time,’ he says. ‘There was no farmed salmon; only wild, which I would import from Vancouver.’
The business gradually expanded, and he did a good trade supplying hotels, restaurants and caterers. He even opened a shop on the ground floor of the Palazzo Doria Pamphilj.
By 2000, he had got bored with the operation and sold up.
It was around then that he had the idea to update The Companion Guide. It
is a walking guidebook, which starts on the Capitoline Hill and takes the reader backwards in time.
Johnny raised two sons in Rome with his first wife, but found himself a widower late in life. Emma was divorced and living in Balham when she went on one of his tours. They have been happily married ever since.
For a rest, he takes us into a medieval Benedictine cloister (pictured), part of a working hospital, the Nuova Regina Margherita. We sit on a bench, drinking cappuccinos from the hospital bar amid patients on drips. Where else would a hospital have a bar, or exposed timbers? We exit via the main entrance, a huge modern building slapped on to the old, one layer of history piled on to another.
On our way back to the Doria Pamphilj, we pass Berlusconi’s private mansion – fit for a king! – and nip into the church of San Francesco a Ripa to see Bernini’s sculpture of the Blessed Ludovica Albertoni.
‘This is one place where it’s worth spending some money,’ he says, slotting a euro into a box, instantly illuminating a woman clutching her breast in a state of ecstasy. ‘Rather erotic, don’t you think?’
Back at the garret, Emma serves delicious penne with pesto, and a crisp Vernaccia. We drink our coffee on the terrace and I try to retrace the route of our walk over the jumble of domes and roofs. I have spent many happy days in Rome, but none as perfect as this.
‘If you don’t want to see Rome with your head in a book, you can hire Johnny Fort’
The Palazzo Doria Pamphilj, crammed with Caravaggios, is home to Johnny Fort, co-author of The Companion Guide to Rome
13th-century cloisters tucked inside Nuova Regina Margherita Hospital, Trastevere