Trastevere: Rome's Medieval Village
Piazza Trilussa – Introduction
Welcome to one of Rome’s most colorful and picturesque neighborhoods, Trastevere. You should be standing on Piazza Trilussa, and as you can plainly see from where you’re sitting, Trastevere is located across the river from the main part of the city. In fact, the name Trastevere means just that: tras-tevere, literally, “beyond the Tiber.”
My name is Tiffany Parks and I’ll be taking you on a passeggiata, or stroll, through Trastevere. I have lived in this neighbourhood since I moved to Rome over ten years ago, and I hope you will find it as beautiful and fascinating as I do. Have a seat on the steps of the fountain while I give you some background.
2500 years ago, the Tiber River marked the border between Roman and Etruscan territory, and this land was controlled by the Etruscans. The Romans eventually appropriated this land, to gain complete control over Rome and its surrounding areas. But Trastevere didn’t become an official part of the city until Emperor Augustus included it in his newly laid out 14 rioni, or city districts, in the 1st century BC. With the exception of a few palaces along the riverfront, Trastevere remained a mainly working class neighbourhood throughout the imperial period and the Middle Ages. It attracted sailors and fishermen, as well as settlers from east of the empire, particularly Syrians and Jews. But two of the city’s earliest Christian churches were founded here, both of which we’ll see on our walk.
Much of Trastevere’s architecture dates from the Middle Ages. It’s a style that can be easily identified by the squat, non-uniform buildings with overhanging wood-beamed roofs and small, often rounded, windows. In truth, much of Rome must have once looked like this, but the other side of the river - the wealthier side - was almost entirely revamped during the baroque period when the city was flush with money. Besides a few churches, no one bothered to modernize humble Trastevere. I for one am glad they didn't, because its medieval urban fabric gives visitors the feeling of stepping back in time.
Trastevere remained a working-class neighbourhood for almost its entire existence. Eventually, in the 1960s and ‘70s, local and foreign artists were attracted by its charm and character and many opened studios here. It was finally discovered by tourists in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and almost overnight Trastevere became desirable—and expensive. Today, thanks in part to several foreign universities, Trastevere is a magnet for expats, and I often feel like I hear more English than Italian spoken on the streets these days. But the older generations are still hanging on, passing down their (now-valuable) homes to their children and grandchildren. Today, the neighbourhood is a cheerful mix of young foreigners, art-loving professionals, and working-class elderly.
In recent years, Trastevere has been the victim of constant acts of vandalism, to the point where it’s difficult to find a single door in the entire area that hasn’t been covered with graffiti. Some say this is part of Trastevere’s charm. Others, particularly those involved in the “Re-Take Rome” initiative, volunteer countless hours to cleaning up the neighborhood.
To start our walk, head down Via di Ponte Sisto, the street to the right of the steps if you are facing them.
Via di Ponte Sisto
It doesn’t take long to notice the differences between Trastevere and the rest of the city. Here the streets are narrower, and almost always crooked. The buildings are smaller, and often little changed since the Middle Ages. To me, the neighborhood feels more like a small medieval village than a capital city.
For hundreds of years, Trastevere has been known for its typical osterie, serving traditional Roman cuisine. Many of the ones you see lining the streets today have been around, in one form or another, for centuries. Originally, they were humble inns that served local wine and not much else. Rome’s working class would bring their own food from home, and enjoy it with neighbors over a carafe of house wine. Today these places are some of the most authentic restaurants in town. To avoid touristy imitations, look for short, simple menus, often hand-written and with no English translation. The more authentic places generally offer little beyond the staples of basic Roman cuisine: cacio e pepe, carbonara, amatriciana, and gricia for pasta, and tripe, ossobuco, oxtails, and lamb chops for second courses.
Directions onto Via Di Porta Settimiana
You should be coming up to an intersection, where a wide tree-lined street leads uphill straight ahead of you. Turn right here, and walk towards the large stone archway.
Porta Settimiana and House of the Fornarina
Stop here, just a few meters from the archway. When Emperor Aurelian built Rome’s most imposing set of defensive walls in 271 AD, Trastevere was partially included within them. Ahead of you stands Porta Settimiana, one of the Aurelian Walls’ city gates, although what you see today was heavily restored in the late 1400s. The street leading out of the gate, Via della Lungara, was laid in the early 1500s, and was exceptionally wide and straight for its time. It was built specifically to provide an alternative route to the Vatican for the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims who flooded into the city, particularly during holy years.
It is still the most convenient route from Trastevere to the Vatican, and my husband tells me that the night Pope Francis was elected, he was one of thousands of Trastevere residents literally running down this street, hoping to get to St. Peter’s Square in time to hear those famous words: “Habemus Papam!” I missed this exciting mass exodus, because I was already in the square, having arrived in time to witness the fateful white smoke.
Directly to your right, you’ll see a humble medieval building, now housing an osteria called Da Romolo. In the early 1500s, a girl named Margherita Luti lived here with her family. She was the daughter of a baker, and would have silently melted into obscurity, had she not been the beloved mistress of the painter Raphael, and the model of one of his most famous—and most beautiful—portraits. The painting is called La Fornarina, or “The Baker Girl,”, and it’s on display at Palazzo Barberini, if you’d like to see her for yourself.
Now turn around to face away from the arch, and walk down Via della Scala.
Santa Maria della Scala and Farmacia della Scala
Coming up on your right is the small white church, Santa Maria della Scala. Caravaggio lovers, like myself, may be interested to learn that his masterpiece "The Death of the Virgin" was commissioned for the high altar of this unassuming little church. Unfortunately for Caravaggio, and for Trastevere, the church’s friars rejected the painting for depicting what they considered an irreverent version of the Madonna, and the painting eventually ended up in the Louvre, where it still hangs today.
Directly to the right of the church is one of the oldest pharmacies in the city. It was founded in the mid-1500s by the Barefoot Carmelite Friars – the same friars, incidentally, who rejected Caravaggio’s painting. Here, they prepared herbal remedies from the plants in the convent’s garden. The pharmacy was so well respected that in the 1700s it became the official papal apothecary. It was in uninterrupted use until 1954, and after a period of restoration, it was reopened as a modern pharmacy. All of the furnishings and decorations are original to the 18th century. Even if you don’t need an Aspirin or a Band-Aid, it’s worth a peek inside to see a place where time seems to have stopped in its tracks.
After visiting the pharmacy, if you decide to do so, continue down Via della Scala in the same direction.
Via della Pelliccia
Turn left here onto Via della Pelliccia and then an immediate right into Piazza Sant’Egidio.
This is the unofficial epicenter of Trastevere nightlife. The countless bars and restaurants make Trastevere no less popular for dining and drinking out than it was centuries ago. On Saturday nights during the warmer months, it can be difficult even to walk up and down these streets due to the sheer number of people out for a passeggiata. One of my first Trastevere apartments looked out onto this nameless little square, and on weekends, I could rarely get to sleep before 3am due to the noise.
Walk straight through this long narrow square that contains yet another small picturesque church. There really does seem to be one on every corner. This square is also home to the Museum of Rome in Trastevere on your right. In addition to hosting fantastic temporary photography exhibitions, the museum also possesses a wonderful collection of watercolors depicting Rome as it once was.
Directions onto Via Della Paglia
At the end of the square, when you can no longer go straight, turn left onto Via della Paglia, and go straight until you reach Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere.
Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere
This is Trastevere’s main square, and a meeting place for the many young people who flock to the buzzing district after the sun goes down. Take a seat on the steps of the fountain in the center of the square, and rest your feet while I tell you about it.
This large fountain with steps on all four sides provides a convenient spot for people-watching, reading a book, listening to one of the many buskers that are constantly performing here, or simply waiting for your date. The fountain itself is, according to some, the oldest in the city. Although the present construction is no more than 500 years old, there has been a fountain on this spot since at least the 8th century, and some sources say even earlier.
In ancient times, this square was the site of a hospice for wounded soldiers and veterans. According to a legend, on the night of Christ’s birth, a font of pure oil miraculously bubbled up from the ground, flowing for an entire day and night and eventually reaching the river. The first version of this church was built on the exact spot where the miracle took place, albeit a few centuries later. A marker near the high altar indicates the spot at which the oil supposedly appeared.
You might notice that the church has a very different appearance to many of the others in the city, whose facades were rebuilt in baroque style during the 1600s. Santa Maria in Trastevere, by most accounts the first church ever dedicated to the Virgin, maintains its medieval appearance, complete with external mosaics and frescoes, a columned portico, and a Romanesque bell tower. The present structure dates mostly to the 12th century, although the floor plan and some of the walls are original to the 3rd-century titular church.
I’d recommend taking a look inside the church. It’s one of the most beautiful and historically interesting in the city, and is definitely worth a visit. Don’t miss the 22 ancient granite columns that separate the naves and the spectacular 13th-century apse mosaics by Pietro Cavallini.
When you’re ready to move on, you’ll need to cross the square towards the café directly opposite the church, and take your first right.
Directions onto Piazza di San Calisto
As soon as you walk out of Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere, turn to your right to walk down the slightly less picturesque Piazza San Callisto.
Piazza di San Calisto
Straight ahead of you, two streets form a Y; take the one on the left, Via di San Francesco a Ripa, and continue straight.
Fontana della Botte
Stop here for a moment, and look down Via della Cisterna, the little street to your left. On the right hand side of the street, you’ll see the distinctive Fontana della Botte, the Fountain of the Barrel.
In 1927, sculptor Pietro Lombardi was commissioned to create a set of nine fountains to represent Rome’s rioni, or districts. Each of Lombardi’s fountains captures a specific characteristic of its particular neighborhood. In this case, the fountain’s wine barrels and carafes give homage to the osterie and taverns Trastevere was, and still is, so famous for.
Continue in the same direction along Via San Francesco a Ripa.
Via San Francesco a Ripa
Trastevere is divided from the rest of the city by the river, and so the residents, or Trasteverini as they call themselves, developed their own distinct identity over the centuries. In fact, they say that some of the oldest Trasteverini like to boast that they’ve never stepped foot on the other side of the river. Living here for over a decade, and having come to love this neighborhood as if it were my own hometown, I can sometimes understand this sentiment. This street in particular, which happens to be the street I live on, offers enough shops for nearly anything you could want to buy, gastronomically speaking, that is. From a first-rate butcher to a fruit seller, an organic market, a wine shop, a tobacco shop, a delicatessen, and a bakery, there’s really no need to shop anywhere else. One of my favorite shops, Antica Caciara, is coming up on your right – keep walking straight.
You’ll probably be able to smell this shop even before you can see it.
This salumeria, a shop selling cured meats, cheeses, and wine, has been in business since 1900. The shop’s owner, Signor Roberto, is famous not only in Trastevere, but in all of Rome, for being the sweetest and kindest shopkeeper in the city. He’ll happily help you select the perfect cheese to accompany any meal, and tell you the best way to store it and serve it. Their particular specialty is fresh sheep’s milk ricotta, and their homemade pesto is heavenly.
Continue along Via San Francesco a Ripa, crossing busy Viale di Trastevere (a relatively modern, although convenient, intrusion into Trastevere’s medieval vibe). You are walking along the route that the annual procession of the Festa de Noantri takes every July. It’s one of the oldest and most beloved festivals in the city. It takes its name from the term noantri, a word in Roman dialect meaning “us others,” more proof that the Trasteverini set themselves apart from the rest of the Rome’s residents. If you happen to be here during the second half of July, be sure to look out for one of several religious processions that take place here, when residents carry a wooden statue of the Virgin, which was discovered in the Tiber in 1534, to visit all the major churches of the area. There are also live folk music performances, booths selling traditional sweets, and general reveling all over the neighborhood.
Keep going straight until you come to the piazza at the very end of the street.
Directions to Piazza San Francesco d'Assisi
Since I moved to Rome in 2004, I have always lived here in Trastevere, although in several different apartments over the years. Currently, I live right on this block, on the left-hand side of the street. Every July, along with many of my neighbors, I watch the Festa de Noantri procession from by living room window. When you get to the square, walk straight across it towards the church in the far corner.
Piazza San Francesco d'Assisi
Head for the church ahead, and stop when you reach it. It’s dedicated to St. Francis of Assisi, and might not seem particularly noteworthy from the outside, but it contains two priceless treasures, one artistic, and one historic.
One of the final works of the genius baroque sculptor, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, the glorious white marble Blessed Ludovica Albertoni is inside. It depicts the dying woman’s last moments, as she experiences intense religious ecstasy before her soul ascends to heaven. The work is a wonder of detail and expressiveness, and it's surprisingly sensual. You can find it in the last chapel on the left side nave.
Medieval history lovers will be even more thrilled to learn that the monastery attached to the church, which pre-dates the current structure by more than six centuries, hosted St. Francis of Assisi himself. The friar came to Rome in 1209 to seek recognition of his brand-new order. He slept here in a tiny cell, using nothing more than a rock for a pillow, according to legend. Although the church itself was rebuilt, the monastery and St. Francis’s cell have been thoroughly preserved. If you’d like to visit, ask the church custodian and he will accompany you. The cell is considered a particularly sacred place, so be sure you are dressed appropriately, with shoulders and knees covered. When you are finished, walk back outside and head in the direction you came from.
Onto Via della Luce
Keep walking back in the direction you came, and take your first right onto Via delle Luce
Via della Luce
Ever since Viale di Trastevere was built in the late 1800s, Trastevere has been virtually divided in two, with two distinct sections. The west side, where we started our walk, is where you’ll find the greatest concentration of restaurants, pubs, shops, and cafés. It is the busy side of Trastevere, where most of the action happens.
Over here on the quieter side, it can sometimes seem like a different neighborhood entirely. A handful of restaurants and boutiques liven up a mainly residential area. For the most part, the architecture is even more unmistakably medieval than on the other side. But it is marred here and there by large, unimaginative public buildings that began to pop up in the late 1800s. The contrast of the quaint, crumbling medieval homes standing cheek-by-jowl with dreary high schools, ministry buildings, and modern apartment blocks can be quite jarring.
The stones beneath your feet are the same that can be found all over Rome, and are not distinctive to Trastevere. Most people would call them cobblestones, but Romans have a different name for them: sanpietrini. This term is a play on words, originating from the Italian name for St. Peter, San Pietro. Pietra also means “stone,” and -ini is a diminutive suffix, so sanpietrini could be translated as “little saint stones,” or “little St. Peters.”
Via dei Genovesi
Turn right here and walk along Via dei Genovesi. One of the things about Trastevere, and indeed Rome in general, that fascinates me the most are the often-unusual street names. I hope I won’t sound like a huge nerd if I tell you that one of my hobbies is researching and discovering the reasons behind Rome’s street names. Sometimes the names are straightforward enough, and other times they are so strange as to be practically undecipherable, which makes it all the more rewarding when I manage to riddle out the meaning behind the name. The street we are walking down now, Via dei Genovesi, literally “the street of the Genovese people,” is so called thanks to a colony of sailors from Genoa, a city famous for its maritime activity, who settled here in the Middle Ages.
Directions to Piazza St Cecilia
You’re heading now towards Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, the second most important church in Trastevere. Just take your next right onto Via di Santa Cecilia. Although the present church dates back to the 9th century, it was built on the site of much earlier titular church, that is, a secret place of worship that was built into an ancient domus.
In this case, the domus belonged to Cecilia, a patrician woman who had secretly converted to Christianity in the 2nd or 3rd century. According to legend, Cecilia was persecuted for her faith, and it took several attempts on the part of Roman soldiers to end her life, including decapitation. Legend has it that she sang for three days after her head had been almost completely severed. That's doubtless the reason she is now the patron saint of music. Once you’ve turned onto Via di Santa Cecilia, continue straight until the street opens up into a large piazza. This is Piazza di Santa Cecilia, and the spectacular neoclassical façade of the church will be on your right.
Piazza di Santa Cecilia
Legend has it that during renovations of this church in 1599, the body of St. Cecilia was found intact in the foundations of the church. The sculptor Stefano Maderno was called in to sketch the miraculous sight and create a marble sculpture of the saint’s body. This sublime work can be seen in a glass case under the high altar, along with the artist’s sworn statement in stone that he produced her body exactly as he saw it with his own eyes. The church’s other inestimable treasures include the 9th-century mosaics in the apse, the 13th-century Gothic ciborium by Arnolfo di Cambio over the high altar, and the 13th-century frescoes depicting the Last Judgment by Pietro Cavallini in the choir. It is also possible to visit the excavations of the ancient Roman domus under the church.
You can visit the church if you’d like to. Afterwards, exit the same way you came in, and retrace your steps, turning left onto Via di Santa Cecilia, and then left again, back onto Via dei Genovesi.
Vicolo dell'Atleta and the Medieval Synagogue
Take a right here onto Vicolo dell’Atleta. Just a few steps after you’ve turned the corner onto this narrow, secluded alleyway, stop walking and look to your left.
Here you’ll find all that remains of Rome’s oldest synagogue. Before Rome’s Jewish population moved to the other side of the river in the late Middle Ages, they lived and worshiped here in Trastevere. This synagogue, with its graceful columned loggia, dates to the 11th century. If you look very closely, at the base of the central column you can just make out a few Hebrew letters.
Unfortunately, the interior of the synagogue has been completely lost, and what you see is just a shell. Inside, however, is a fantastic restaurant, if a bit of a splurge. If you do end up dining here one night, ask one of the staff to show you into the wine cellar. The ancient underground space, today packed to the brim with hundreds of dusty bottles, far predates the synagogue above. It dates to the 1st century BC, and it was here that an ancient marble sculpture, the Apoxyomenos, was discovered in 1849. The work is now housed in the Vatican Museums. The statue depicts an athlete having just finished a race, and he eventually gave his name to the street: Vicolo dell’Atleta, or Athlete’s Alley.
Continue to the end of Vicolo dell’Atleta.
Via dei Salumi
Turn left here, onto Via dei Salumi. Via dei Salumi is another example of a street with a meaning behind its name. Salumi is the Italian word for any kind of cured meat, from prosciutto to salami to bresaola, and this street is where the preparers of those much-loved meats had their shops.
Keep walking down Via dei Salumi until you reach a medieval archway on your right-hand side.
Arco dei Tolomei
Turn right and pass under the archway of the Tolomei family, one of Rome’s powerful noble medieval clans. This arch was part of their fortress.
As you go, glance up at the arch, and you may be able to get an idea of the tower that once stood here.
In the Middle Ages, it was commonplace for each baronial family to have their own fortified tower to ensure their protection in what was a highly dangerous time. Rome was once full of square brick towers. There were roughly 350 in total, much like the ones that can still be seen in Bologna or San Gimignano. Unfortunately, in 1258, over 70% of these towers were torn down, and many more were drastically shortened, including this one.
Continue down Via dell’Arco dei Tolomei until you reach Via della Lungaretta.
Via della Lungaretta
Turn left onto Via della Lungaretta. As you walk along this narrow street, you’ll soon notice how surprisingly long and straight it is, crossing modern Viale di Trastevere, and stretching all the way to Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere.
In this neighborhood made up of twisting and turning medieval alleyways, it’s something of an anomaly. In actual fact, Via della Lungaretta is much older than the streets around it: not a medieval alley, but an ancient Roman road, dating to the 2nd century BC. It was originally called Via Aurelia Nova and it continued all the way across Trastevere and up the Gianicolo Hill on a viaduct. There, it met with Via Aurelia Antica, one of Rome’s consular roads.
By now you should be able to recognize medieval buildings when you see them. Some of the loveliest in the city are on this street. Keep an eye out on your right-hand side; you can recognize them by their short stature, overhanging wood-beamed roofs, exposed brickwork, and small, decorative windows.
Viale di Trastevere
We're at the end of our walk now. When you reach Viale di Trastevere, you can either cross it and continue along Via della Lungaretta back towards Santa Maria in Trastevere, where you’ll have no problem finding a great place to eat. Or you can turn right here and walk one block toward the river, where you’ll find the stop of the 8 tram and the 780 bus, both of which will take you to Piazza Venezia. There’s also the H bus, which will take you to Termini. If you head that way, keep your eyes peeled for the Torre Anguillara on your right, Trastevere’s only surviving medieval tower.
This is where I’ll leave you. I hope that during this passeggiata you have come to love this quirky and characteristic Roman neighborhood as much as I do. Visiting Trastevere is by far the best way to virtually step back in time and imagine what Rome was like during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Many locals call it “il cuore di Roma,” the heart of Rome, and I for one agree!