The next time you want to see an authentic neighbourhood in the shadow of Capitoline Hill, take a walk in the area bordering on the central Piazza Venezia but far from its traffic, fumes and fury.
Here the visitor can walk the same cobblestones that Dickens trod during his 1845 visit and can peek into the courtyards of Renaissance palaces. The backdrop will remind many of the Hepburn/ Peck classic film Roman Holiday but the actors are today’s Romans with a few walk-on parts reserved for passersby.
Before plunging into the past, stand for a moment at the busy intersection of Via del Plebiscito and Piazza del Gesù and be surrounded by Italy’s center of power: the Gesù, main church of the Jesuits, is on your left while straight on is the ex-Christian Democrat headquarters.
The main Masonic lodge is here too as well as the bankers’ central “lodge” , the headquarters of ABI, in the delightful Palazzo Altemps. In this same piazza there is also the rarely visited rooms of St. Ignatius of Loyola where the warrior-saint and Jesuit founded lived between 1544 and 1556. Enter the doorway next to the church (no. 45) to leave the chaos of modern Rome behind. Inside the rooms are furnished with original artifacts and the corridors are frescoed by friar-painters.
From there you can take Via di Aracoeli and Vicolo Margana to enter one of the city’s most expensive real estate areas where apartments are valued at astronomical rates. Piazza Margana and its surrounding lanes are a microcosm of Roman life; modest doorways may open into a butcher shop, an artisan’s workshop or a bar sporting banners of Stalin and photos of Gorbachov. An elaborate portone leads to FAO’s representative office while a Roman princess has a boutique of Turkish carpets within another doorway.
Further along is Piazza Mattei where antiques shops vie with the famous tortoise fountain for attention. Across the piazza is a series of noble buildings which belonged to the powerful Mattei family. A first courtyard has an airy staircase and loggia but as the family grew in wealth and power other palaces and courtyards were added.
Peek in at no. 17 and then into the splendid double courtyard of the palazzo built for Alessandro Mattei in the 1560’s with its busts of Caesars inserted into the walls. Climb to the first floor where the American center has its classrooms and library to note the herring-bone pattern of the brick pavements and the stone benches on the landings, carved to resemble cushions and complete with sculpted tassels.
Exiting on Via Caetani there are two reminders that Rome is truly a layer-cake of history. The facing wall carries a commemorative plaque where bouquets are often left, for on this spot the body of the Christian Democrat leader, Aldo Moro was found. A few steps away is the Crypta Balbi, a relatively new museum resulting from the years of excavations done on site by the University of Siena. The via dei Polacchi and the Polish church are still the hub for Rome’s Polish community.
Numerous tiny bars and trattorie flourish in the area but just across Largo Argentina and its numerous cats you will find Corsi‘s trattoria and wine shop, a legend among office workers and politicians from the nearby government buildings. Exiting from Corsi’s peek into the opposite courtyard to discover a unique water-powered clock dated 1860 which still ticks away the hours in an ivy-covered fountain.
Another special area for an afternoon stroll is the ghetto area of Portico d’Ottavia where bakeries and kosher restaurants have been serving out artichokes, carciofi alla Giudea, for centuries. This flourishing shopping area is still a discount heaven. Next to the portico named after Ottavia, modern brides choose crystal and silver under frescoed ceilings of a 16th century fishmonger’s guild hall. From among the collection of armorial plates on the showroom walls, a sharp eye can pick out those ordered by kings, popes and presidents. There is even a pattern ordered by Mussolini with its gold “M” strangely similar to the logo of a hamburg empire.