A walk among the wonders of the Aventine
In Rome, almost out of sight, there is an aristocratic, quiet and genteel – almost brooding – hill. It is the Aventine, the most elegant of the seven Capitoline hills.
But it was not always so. There was a mythological time when a legendary fire-breathing monster, Cacus, hid in the wooded crevices of this highland overlooking the Tiber. Cacus had the audacity to steal oxen from Hercules, who retaliated crushing the formidable thief (and thus completing his tenth labor).
There was also a time, in the real history of Rome, when the Aventine turned into a sort of suburbs populated by refugees from the cities conquered by Roman kings. And a few centuries later, there was a time when it became the residence of the Capitoline plebeians.
It took on its current noble profile only during the Empire Age, when the Roman aristocracy started building their villas here – beautiful homes that disappeared in 410 AD, razed to the ground by Alaric’s Visigoths during their famous sack of the city.
No trace of those terrible happenings is visible today, as you walk down Via di Santa Sabina – once Vicus Armilustris, named after the “Armilustrium”, the ancient festival when weapons were purified in honor of Mars, on the Aventine. In fact, all you will notice are the wonders time has added to this beautiful hill over the centuries.
To discover them, let’s take a walk along the road that runs parallel to the Tiber.
As we head south, leaving the Circus Maximus behind us, we see the Orange Garden on our right: it is one of the most charming and romantic parts of the city, offering a view so breathtaking only the extraordinary vistas from the Janiculum and Pincian Hill might compete.
Created in the 1930s where the Dominican Fathers of the neighboring church of Saint Sabina used to have a garden, the Orange Garden – named after its many citrus trees – extends over almost one hectare and is also known as Savello Park, after the fortress that belonged to the noble Savello family in the 13th century.
The trees in the grove are there to remind us of the one that according to tradition was planted in 1220 by Saint Dominic Guzmán (1170-1221), in the cloister of Saint Sabina, which is still visible through a hole in the wall of the church’s portico (and is said to be the first orange tree ever imported in Italy). Don’t feel bad about peeping: this is not the only time on our itinerary that you will see something wonderful by doing so.
Via di Santa Sabina – piazza Pietro d’Illiria
As we mentioned, next to the Orange Garden there is the magnificent Paleochristian Basilica of Saint Sabina, whose original structure was built over the grave of the saint in the 5th century BC.
It is hard to express in few words how important and beautiful this church is.
Let us remind you of some of the most noteworthy facts about it: it is one of the best preserved Paleochristian buildings in the world; it is the general Curia of the Order of Preachers (more commonly known as Dominicans); it was the venue of the complex 1287-1288 conclave, which elected the first Franciscan pope, Nicholas IV; it features a 5th-century, wooden door at the entrance that is decorated with a bas-relief of the first representation of the Crucifixion (and in the panel dedicated to the crossing of the Red Sea you can see the face of Napoleon Bonaparte, sculpted in place of the pharaoh’s by a renovator in 1836).
Basilica of Saint Sabina
Piazza Pietro d’Illiria, 1
Opening hours: every day from 8.15am to 12.30am and from 3.30pm to 6pm
Tel.: +39 06 579401
As we continue to walk on Via di Santa Sabina we see another garden. It is smaller and not as famous as the one mentioned above, yet it offers a beautiful view of the city and of the old part of the Basilica of Saints Boniface and Alexius. It is the Garden of Saint Alexius and was created in the 19th century on an estate that had formerly belonged to a convent of the Somascan Fathers. You can enjoy an outstanding view of Rome from its panoramic terrace.
Garden of Saint Alexius
Opening hours: from 7am to sunset
The Basilica of Saints Boniface and Alexius, right next to the garden, is an extraordinary mix of building styles, bearing witness to the various ages this structure has survived, adding architectural elements as time went by: the bell tower (10th century) and crypt are Romanesque, the portico (12th century) is medieval, and the façade (16th century) is Renaissance.
Re-built in the 13th century on an original, 3rd-century structure, the church keeps some relics of Saint Thomas Becket, murdered in 1170 inside Canterbury Cathedral by assassins sent by Henry II. The English Catholic Archbishop’s story inspired American poet T.S. Eliot to compose the verse drama “Murder in the Cathedral”.
The church also keeps a fragment of a wooden staircase, under which tradition has it Alexius – one of the most popular saints in the Middle Ages – lived for seventeen years.
Basilica of Saints Boniface and Alexius
Piazza di Sant’Alessio, 23
Tel.: +39 06 5743446
Fax: +39 06 5745549
Our short tour along Via di Santa Sabina ends in front of the only building ever erected by great engraver Giovanni Battista Piranesi, who studied the theory of architecture more than he ever applied it. We are at the entrance façade of Villa del Priorato di Malta, and the small Neoclassic square in front of it, fenced in by a wall with aedicules, obelisks and stele decorated with religious and naval symbols.
The portal at the entrance leads to Villa del Priorato romano dei Cavalieri di Malta and to the Church of Saint Mary of the Priory, which was also designed by Piranesi and is where his mortal remains now rest. Before coming back out, try looking through the keyhole in the portal: it frames the cupola of Saint Peter’s to perfection.
Villa Magistrale del Sovrano Ordine di Malta (Villa del Priorato di Malta)
Piazza dei Cavalieri di Malta, 4
Photos via: ©Stefano Crialesi