A stroll through medieval Rome

Maria Harvey (Rome fellow, September 2020-June 2021) writes about her experience during a walking tour of Rome as part of the BSR’s Welcome Week activities.

As part of our Welcome Week events, we went on the traditional walk around Rome in late April (to allow for quarantines). It was a beautiful day, and with Rome still orange (no bars, no restaurants, no museums, no travel for leisure), the city was empty. After a tour of Renaissance and Baroque sites with Harriet O’Neill (Assistant Director for Fine Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences), BSR Director Chris Wickham took us on a stroll though medieval Rome – the catch being that however central the BSR may be now, it was not in the Middle Ages, when the city centre was in the area of the Ghetto, Trastevere and Campo de’ Fiori. To get there, we imagined to be on a pilgrimage route from the north: walking down the Borghese Gardens, through Piazza del Popolo (‘the city wall was here, the square was not’), the Pantheon (‘this existed’) and Piazza Navona (‘This has been an open space since the 1st century AD; in the Middle Ages, it was used for jousting’).

Pilgrims about to enter the city of Rome. Photo by the author.
Piazza del Popolo, which did not exist in the Middle Ages. Photo by the author.
The Pantheon. Photo by the author.
Piazza Navona, used for jousting in the Middle Ages. Photo by the author.

From Piazza Navona, Chris took us through what were the main, processional roads of medieval Rome – roads like Via del Governo Vecchio – that seems tiny now, especially when compared to both the seventeenth-century and the fascist urban renovation. Like Chris, I am a medievalist, but an art historian, and I tend to focus (incorrectly, probably) on single monuments. Chris instead wanted us to experience where people lived and walked and experienced the city on a much more popular, quotidian level. To do this, he showed us some thirteenth-century houses, with their cortili and stairs made of reused classical marble. Houses where real people actually lived (and live). He pointed out the fragmentary remains of medieval towers, and of the very, very little that survives of the Palazzo Orsini, in Campo de’ Fiori. Later, in front of Sant’Angelo in Pescaria, he told us that the area had been a fish market before – archaeologists found 8th century fish bones – and may have always been one. We crossed only on bridges that existed at the time (like the Ponte Sisto – built in the late fifteenth century on Roman foundations), to go visit Santa Maria in Trastevere, before returning to this side of the Tiber to see the Casa de’ Crescenzi.

View of Rome. Photo by the author.
All that remains of Palazzo Orsini is the few visible bricks right at the top. Photo by the author.
View of Rome. Photo by the author.

The Casa de’ Crescenzi, now caught in the middle of a traffic crossing with its neighbours, the Temple of Vesta and Santa Maria in Cosmedin, was once a tower house, in what used to be the city’s urban centre. Although we were not allowed in, the house’ facade is a stunning example of the Middle Ages’ engagement with the Roman past and another demonstration that the Classical past was not discovered in the Renaissance. The spolia has clearly been chosen and arranged to create decorative patterns and borders, not to mention that it is responding specifically to the Roman temple next door. Although most towers were defensive, the Casa de’ Crescenzi was for show, the door is simply too large for it to provide any sort of protection. In fact, Nicola de’ Cencio, the patron, not only clearly memorialised himself through the inscription, but also placed a bust of himself in the window. The grandiosity of the construction becomes even clearer if we consider it in its original 12th century urban context, characterised by the presence of the tower houses of two Roman aristocratic families, the Corsi and the Normanni. But Nicola, of the Baronci, was not noble: the Casa de’ Crescenzi becomes in this way a ‘serious micropolitical intervention’.

From there, we ambled back to the BSR, through the Ghetto; Roscioli pizza in one hand, ice cream in the other.