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A Walking Tour of Papal Rome

Everything about St. Peter's is epic, from its construction--lasting 200 years and outlasting 27 popes--to its land mass of more than five acres. These same popes helped create the city itself.

By R.A. Scotti, Monday, May 28, 2007, 5:08 PM

Excerpted from Basilica: The Splendor and the Scandal: Building St. Peter's by R.A. Scotti:

The modern city of Rome is the patrimony of the popes who built St. Peter's. They commissioned the fountains, gardens, palaces, churches, piazzas, and avenues that make the Eternal City a place like no other. While it would be daunting to include every commission, these walks suggest how profoundly the popes and architects of St. Peter's shaped the city. Be warned, though, these are substantial tours, and what elevates the soul can exhaust the soles.

Walk I: Starting Point: The Janiculum

1. Begin at Donato Bramante's Tempietto, the "little temple" that inspired the monumental Basilica of St. Peter. Located on the Janiculum hill in the shadow of the Church of San Pietro in Montorio, the Tempietto is a flawless miniature--the Renaissance ideal in microcosm--and its perfection moved Pope Julius II to bring the architect to the Vatican. In October 1505, Julius chose Bramante to build a new Basilica.

2. From The Tempietto, follow Via Garibaldi to Villa Farnesia once the riverside estate of Agostino "il Magnifico" Chigi, Julius II's favorite banker and confidant. Baldassare Peruzzi was the architect. Raphael frescoed the interior and designed the elegant stables where Chigi entertained Julius's successor, the Medici Pope Leo X. The celebrated stable dinner party was an ostentatious display that ended with the Chigi ordering his servants to toss his solid gold dinner plates into the Tiber.

3. Crossing the river at Ponte Sisto, picture the tumult of gold dishes cascading into the water. The bridge is named for Julius II's wily papal uncle Sixtus IV, who also built the Sistine Chapel. Turn left to Palazzo Farnese, the immodest house that Cardinal Alessandro Farnese was building when he was elected Pope Paul III. It is now the French Embassy. Three successive architects of St. Peter's also followed each other as architects of the Farnese palace.

4. At the northern end of Piazza Farnese, follow Via Vivolo del Gallo past Campo de' Fiori, Rome's boisterous open-air market, to Palazzo della Cancelleria. This massive palace was built by Julius II's cousin, Cardinal Raffaele Riario, the Vatican's chief financial officer, with money he won from another cardinal in an evening of gambling. After Julius died, the fortunes of his cardinal cousin turned. Leo X arrested Riario, charged him with conspiring in a papal assassination attempt, and confiscated his palace. The oak tree of the della Rovere-Riario coat of arms that once adorned the front of the Cancellaria was replaced with the three balls of the Medici.

5. In Piazza della Cancellaria, stop for a lunch at Ditirambo--the pasta and salads are excellent--or try Caffe Farnese in Piazza Farnese, good for either a full meal or a light pick-me-up.

6. Return to Palazzo Farnese, noting the single arch in front of the palace. This is one span of an unfinished bridge that Michaelangelo began for Paul III to link to Palazzo Farnese with Villa Farnesina across the river. By the time of Paul's papacy, the Farneses had bought Chigi's estate and renamed it.

7. From Palazzo Farnese, walk up Via Giulia, which runs parallel to the river. Bramante laid out the street for Pope Julius to create a direct route from the heart of Rome to the new St. Peter's. Although Via Giulia was never completed, it became the best address in town in the sixteenth century. Both Raphael and Antonio de Sangallo, who became wealthy men as chief architects of St. Peter's, bought land there. Raphael's House (so named even though it was built after his death) is No. 85. Sangallo's now called Palazzo Sacchetti, is No. 66. Almost five centuries later, Via Giulia remains one of the choice neighborhoods in Rome.

8. As you stroll along the avenue, note on the right the Church of Santa Caterina di Siena built by Baldassare Peruzzi, and across the street, the Church of Sant' Eligio by Raphael. Also on the left are the Sofas of Via Giulia, the beginnings of a never-completed courtyard designed by Bramante for Pope Julius.

9. Via Giulia ends with the Basilica of San Giovanni dei Fiorentini, built by Leo X for his fellow Florentines. Leo rejected the plans of both Raphael and Michaelangelo. Instead, the architects Jacopo Sansovino, Antonio da Sangallo and Carlo Maderno all worked on the church. If you require sustenance again, there is an attractive terrace restaurant called Coccodrillo at 14 Via Giulia.

Reprinted with the permission of Plume Books. For more information, visit author R.A. Scotti's official website, rascotti.com.

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