Walk through history on the Aventine, one of Rome's seven hills.
The Aventine, one of the seven hills of Rome, was once a suburb of the ancient Roman city before becoming an important centre of Christian worship. Today it is still a place for a pleasant walk away from the noise of the modern city below.
Choose a nice sunny day (a rainy day will also do) to set aside an hour for a walk on the Aventino, veering off Via Circo Massimo to Piazzale Ugo La Malfa and then turn into Via di Valle Murcia.
Have a peek at Rome’s municipal rose garden on each side of this street. The upper garden houses the collection, whereas the lower garden is where the international rose trials take place every year in May, and where you can see the roses of the future.
Via di Valle Murcia joins Via di S. Sabina leading up the hill. To the right is the Savello park, known as the Giardino degli Aranci, or the orange garden, taking its name from its mature orange trees. These are bitter oranges, Citrus aurantium bigardia (or Seville oranges) that are not good to eat but make the best marmalade.
In the west of the garden is a walled terrace overlooking the Tiber far below with a splendid view of the eternal city spreading out in every direction. Birds love this garden and, as in Villa Borghese, the green parakeets, escapees or abandoned many years ago, have multiplied into small flocks and have made the Aventine their home.
The church of S. Sabina, south of the orange garden, merits a visit. It was founded by Peter of Illyria between 425 and 432 on the site of a Roman temple and was the expansion of a church-house owned by a Christian woman called Sabina. It was given to the Dominican order about 1219 and is still in its care. The church has undergone restoration and changes over the centuries but the inside is still essentially a fifth-century church with ninth-century renovations.
The central wooden door with 18 sculptured panels of biblical scenes was made in the fifth century. There is also a lovely cloister and St Dominic’s cell in the adjoining monastery, which is possible to see on request. The church has three naves with Corinthian columns that may have been taken from a temple nearby. In the central nave is the only mosaic floor tomb in Rome, where the Dominican master general, Munoz da Zamora, was laid to rest in 1300.
On the same side of Via S. Sabina, is another church, dedicated to S. Alessio*, parts of which date back to the eighth century, and beyond that is Piazza dei Cavalieri di Malta, easy to spot as there is always a military vehicle and guards on patrol.
The square was designed by Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Italy’s famous etcher, architect and archaeologist (1720-1778). He made some 1,300 large etchings of Roman buildings and in his day was the leading authority on Roman archaeology. The square is surrounded by Piranesi’s small obelisks and ornamental stone plaques, making the space look almost like an outdoor room. He also designed the external decorations of the church of S. Maria del Priorata, the church of the Knights of Malta.
The square was named after the order and their church, house and garden are all hidden behind a high wall. On the west of the square is a Knights of Malta building with tall central doors where visitors from all over the world come to peek through the famous keyhole. This reveals a secret view of a long walk of bay trees which leads the eye to the dome of St Peter’s basilica, perfectly framed in the far distance.
Before leaving the square it pays to have a quick look into the lovely garden of the church of S. Anselmo. Designed by Francesco Vespignani and built at the end of the 19th century, it dominates the view of the Aventine from the Tiber. It is the seat of the Benedictine Confederation whose college was founded by Pope Leo XIII in 1887 and is now home to some 130 international students.
In 1914 Pope Pius X granted the college the right to confer doctorate degrees in subjects such as philosophy, theology and canon law, and in 1961 the Pontifical Liturgical Institute was established. Named after St Anselm of Canterbury (1033 - 1109) the monastery contains important artefacts including a Roman mosaic of the mythological Greek figure Orpheus, found during construction. Time permitting, the church of S. Prisca, east of the rose garden, merits a visit too.
Returning down Via S. Sabina, just after the orange garden is a path paved with the typical basalt stones of old Rome. This is Clivo di Rocca Savella, a very steep road cut right into the hillside, where people have walked for millennia from the Tiber to the top of the Aventine. Here the noise of the city is muffled and far away. There are no cars and no sign of our 21st-century world.
There are two sharp turns before the path reaches the busy Lungotevere Aventino where cars and buses swish by and the city noises make an abrupt change from the quiet Aventine above. A return to modern-day reality following an interesting tour of one of the most-loved of Rome's seven hills.
Helene Pizzi How to get to the Aventine. The 81, 175, 628, 715, 810 buses or the Circo Massimo stop on Metro B. The municipal rose garden is generally open from 21 April until mid-June. Via Murcia, tel. 065746810.
*According to Georgina Masson’s book, The Companion Guide to Rome, revised by John Fort, S. Alessio was "Born into a wealthy Roman family in the fifth century, he abandoned his wife on their wedding night, having decided to maintain his chastity, ranged round Asia Minor begging for eighteen years, returned to Rome incognito, and spent the last seventeen years of his life living on charity under his very parents' staircase, unrecognised by all until after his death, a story recounted in the celebrated frescoes in the lower part of S. Clemente."
AddressAventine Hill, 00153 Rome, Metropolitan City of Rome, Italy
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Exploring Rome's Aventine Hill
Aventine Hill, 00153 Rome, Metropolitan City of Rome, Italy