Hidden Rome: A New Way to Explore the City

Libor Pospisil
Sep 15 · 13 min read
My favorite Roman overlook: a panorama from the back side of the Capitoline Hill. © Libor Pospisil

How to slow down on your post-Pandemic trip to Rome. Do not rush to the famous sites, because the city has plenty of hidden, underrated monuments that give you an equal — and sometimes a better — taste of Roman art and history.

Story and photos by Libor Pospisil

n June 2021, Italy opened its borders to tourists from a range of countries, including the U.S., and allowed the vaccinated arrivals to skip quarantine. Soon afterward, I flew straight into Rome because after all, who knows how long the window of opportunity may last. After eighteen months without an international trip, I walked out of my guesthouse at Piazza di Spagna and began staggering around the hot streets of Rome, not knowing how to travel anymore. Should I immediately start taking photos as usual, or should I run to the Colosseum just to cross an item off a list? The confusion began to feel like a hangover after a long delirium. The kind of hangover that makes you want to start a new life. And with that, I made a decision — no return to the pre-Pandemic way of traveling; no hunt for pictures that are considered iconic; no visiting of the famous sites, or at least, not only the famous sites. I was in Rome, and I was craving to feel it, explore it, and learn from it. But how to turn the lofty sentiment into reality? Maybe by turning the trip into a search for hidden Rome, as I began to call the most underrated places in the city.

Just as it seems that luck begins to favor you as soon as you make the right decision, I quickly found out about another recent opening in Rome; one that received much less attention, but would let me step under the surface of the city — literally. On June 23, 2021, for the first time after many years, members of the public could enter Domus Aurea, the ancient palace of Emperor Nero. This could be my first foray into the realm of hidden Rome. For a reason unclear at first, however, the advertisement for the tour featured Raphael as well.

Traveling in the time of the pandemic

The walk to the palace leads around the Colosseum, where I reluctantly paused to take a picture after all. But while I was doing that, there was an unusual sound — the sound of the Italian language. Who would expect so much Italian at prominent tourist sites? Well, that was the Pandemic Rome. It is too soon to have meaningful figures, but my eyes estimated that the tourist numbers were at about a half of the pre-pandemic level, a rough figure in line with taxi drivers’ experiences, restaurant occupancy, and affordable hotel prices, even in the most central locations. Crucially, however, the new visitor demographics included much fewer inter-continental arrivals and somewhat more domestic ones, which created an atmosphere very different from from the 2010s, the decade of the world tourism explosion.

If you assume that having fewer visitors around means easier access into the Colosseum or the Vatican, you will be sorely mistaken. Yes, pandemic rules reduced the tourist figures, but they also limited the numbers of admissions into museums, galleries, St. Peter’s Basilica, and all the sites. Since the operation of some ticket offices was restricted as well, the most efficient way to see Rome in 2021 is to book all visits and tours online, at least several days in advance —as before the pandemic.

Spanish Steps — the tourist numbers were still down in June 2021. © Libor Pospisil

Narcissist’s house

At Domus Aurea, I joined a small group, and we were greeted by our guide Marcella because the only way to visit the palace is with a guided tour, provided in English as well as in Italian. Marcella is an archeologist, who worked directly on excavations of the elusive structure. She had a joy in her eyes, with the rest of her face behind a mask, when she saw us. She explained: “We have been restoring the palace for a long time — we have even excavated new rooms that no one had ever seen before. But then, there were no people to see it! So, it’s great to finally show our work to someone.” And with that, our group stepped into a large tunnel leading into the Esquiline Hill.

Since Domus Aurea lies underground now, the temperature hovers around 10ºC (50ºF). Soon, some fellow visitors began to put on sweaters. New lamps, installed during the period of closure, produced only a dim light for esthetic and conservation reasons. I had zero right to complain; this was my new way to see Rome, with the cold air of the city’s soil on my skin and limited opportunity to take well-exposed photos. The mysterious lighting made it indeed feel like we were discovering hidden Rome.

Nero built his palace on a plot in the heart of Rome, which was rather conveniently cleared up by the Great Fire. Given that previous emperors lived in what still resembled villas, Nero’s new residence caused outrage for its location and opulence. Many rooms had their walls covered with marble that sparkled in yellow color on contact with sunlight. Together with decorations of golden leaves, these effects gave the palace its name — the Golden House, as Domus Aurea translates.

So, why did we find ourselves underground? Marcella pointed to the bricked-up windows: “Trajan wanted to erase the memory of Nero, so he had the palace sealed off, covered with earth, and incorporated into the hill. That way, he created a platform on which he could build new baths — Trajan’s Baths, of course.” Unfortunately, the art and the marble were mostly ripped off from the palace and reused in the baths upstairs, which have eventually become ruins, too. But we do not need to feel bad because Nero did not get to enjoy his Domus Aurea either. During the construction, he toured Greece to participate in singing competitions — yes, he won all the first prizes — and after he returned to Rome, he was forced to commit suicide just six months after moving into the palace.

A hole in the ceiling

Precisely because we were underground, cut off from the honking and bustle of the streets, the immersion in the world of Ancient Rome was complete, or almost complete, because it still required a lot of imagination, aided by several new multimedia projections on the walls and by Marcella’s stories. We walked through tens of rooms. My neck began to hurt because I kept staring at the vaulted ceilings, some of which were 11 meters (36 feet) high. Those were made possible only because Romans, unlike Greeks, mastered the use of concrete. The remains of the artwork were sparse, but we did see ancient frescos of Trojan War scenes, painted columns showing off the art of perspective, and sketches of fantastical creatures. As history flows in waves, none of these paintings could have been made in the Middle Ages, by which time the required skills and creativity went into decline.

Ponte Fabricio, the oldest standing bridge in Rome. © Libor Pospisil

We ended the tour in the most famous of the rooms, the octagonal hall, and left the palace through another tunnel, which has a new ramp designed by the architect Stefano Boeri. The most intriguing spot of the tour was in one of the less important rooms, however. Neither a fresco nor a piece of marble. Marcella alerted us to a hole in the ceiling that someone dug out with simple tools, centuries after the palace was buried into the hill. That hole was an opening expanded by Renaissance artists who scaled down into what looked like a grotto with paintings. The grotto was discovered by accident when a 15th-century young Roman just fell into it while on a stroll.

These grotto visits left the artists in awe that turned into inspiration. One of the motifs they began to replicate was the painted frames around main frescos, full of small, fanciful creatures with animal bodies and human heads, or completely random shapes, made “without any rules,” as art books say. Such a style of art became known as the “grotesque.” The octagonal hall had a special exhibition on this connection between the Ancient and Renaissance eras. Given that Raphael was one of the painters who lowered himself into Domus Aurea, the theme of the whole tour became finally obvious.

A banker and his friend

Raphael created such an amount of art over his twelve years in Rome that even some of his more exquisite work is not well known. Visitors usually get to see the frescoed Raphael Rooms in the Vatican Museums, but then, in a book on Raphael, I read about Villa Farnesina, a suburban palace hidden in a park on the right side of the Tiber, which I identified as another potential hidden treasure. The walk to the villa turned out to be a pleasant, fresh air escape from the narrow streets of the city. You can cross the river on the Ponte Fabricio bridge built in 62 B.C., the oldest one standing in Rome, and take in the view of the surrounding greenery.

Villa Farnesina was built as the main Roman residence of one of the richest men of the Renaissance, Agostino Chigi, who was a banker from Siena and the papal treasurer. While architecturally the building met all the symmetry and elegance requirements of the era, its central room, the loggia, needed an eye-catching decoration. That was when Chigi reached out to Raphael, who was not only a fellow member of the Roman elite but also a close friend of the banker. Raphael got to work, which moved, however, at a suspiciously slow pace— at least according to Giorgio Vasari. The frustrated patron found out that the reason was Raphael’s frequent absence due to “the pursuit of carnal pleasures.” To ensure the painter would stay close to his work, Chigi allegedly asked Raphael’s mistress, with some reluctance, to move into the villa.

But after all, Vasari’s story might be just another example of Roman gossip blown out of proportion because Raphael’s workshop was so established that his assistants could paint by consulting the master’s drawings only, without requiring his presence. Even if Chigi had a lot of hassles with the artist, the result was more than worth it. The large ceiling fresco of Cupid and Psyche, with a blue background and a plethora of figures, many of them naked, of course, represents Raphael at the height of his career. Actually, he passed away only two years later. As I was admiring the work, with only one more visitor around, I also knew to look at the arches on the walls. There they were; the playful, abstract shapes of the grotesques — Raphael’s variation on what he had seen in Domus Aurea.

While I was on the right side of the river, I climbed up through a park to Gianicolo Hill, which stands above Villa Farnesina. The terrace at the top provides a panoramic view of the city, even though, unlike Paris, Rome does not have a single dominating structure. You can see the top of the Colosseum, the National Monument, Spanish Steps and domes of many churches, but none of them stand out, which makes the city appear uniform in the diversity of its architecture. The view is made scenic, nonetheless, thanks to the green skyline of the Sabine and the Alban Hills in the distance.

My view was suddenly interrupted by a guitarist on the terrace, who began playing romantic tunes for the Italian couples enjoying the panorama and gelatos. I got the memo — that spot is more for a Raphael and his mistress than for me and my geographic musings. The only problem was that all great terraces in Rome serve as rendezvous places, whether the Pincio Hill terrace or my favorite archeological viewpoint at the back of the Capitoline Hill.

The heart of Rome viewed from the Gianicolo Hilltop. © Libor Pospisil

La Papessa

A higher-than-usual number of people was storming through the streets on scooters and they were carrying Italian flags. The reason turned out to be simple — while I had already forgotten that the country won the Euro 2021 cup in soccer several days before, many Italians had not. Both the night of the final and the subsequent celebrations brought hundreds of people out, with pizzerias putting television sets on the streets and the city putting up a gigantic screen at the Colosseum. The ripples of cheers when Italy scored went through the narrow streets like a tsunami. There was a downside, however. Locals and visitors alike were religious about wearing masks indoors — in restaurants, museums, trains, shops — but then, some let their guards down at the crowded soccer-watching parties, which might have helped fuel an increase in the Covid-19 cases in Rome, leading to new rounds of restrictions.

Although it is romantically simplistic, I like to think that Romans took the pandemic on the chin because, in the end, their city is one big monument to a millennia-long history of fires, sackings, and much, much deadlier plagues. The Antonine plague of the 2nd century A.D. is thought to have contributed to the decline of the Empire. But there were many others. In 1657, a wave of plague claimed the life of the most formidable woman that Rome ever had — Olimpia Maidalchini Pamphilj, who was responsible for another hidden place in Rome that I was going to visit.

Under the right circumstances, Olimpia might have been a ruler in her own right, but in the Rome of her time, the only way to channel her ambition was through a man. Incredibly, that man was the brother of her deceased husband; she dragged the brother up through the hierarchy of the Church until he became Pope Innocent X. It would not have been a Roman story, however, if it did not include a spicy twist, which was easy to conjure up in their case. The city took it for granted that Olimpia was the pope’s lover. Even if that claim proved an exaggeration, no one can dispute that she became the power behind St. Peter’s throne. She made personnel appointments and decided on important issues — so much so that she got a derogatory nickname “La Papessa”, or the female pope.

The hidden worlds behind the doors of Rome

Olimpia knew how to leverage her position to amass a fantastic fortune for the Pamphilj dynasty. Fortunately for us, they invested a large chunk of it into something tangible — an urban palace stuffed with a world-class art collection, which survives to this day as Palazzo Doria Pamphilj, with its Galleria. In any other city, the gallery would be a top attraction. But in Rome, it must compete with other shrines of Baroque art, like Villa Borghese. If you plan properly and book a ticket in advance — the gallery is open only on limited days — you will be treated to a spectacle. The pale grey façade of the Palazzo hides behind scaffolding on the shopping avenue, Via del Corso. As with Domus Aurea, stepping inside means entering a completely different world. There is a quaint, green courtyard with a fountain in the middle and then a series of lavishly decorated rooms where the family lived. The highlight comes in the gilded Hall of Mirrors, with a grandeur that would make it shine even in Versailles.

The Hall of Mirrors in Palazzo Doria Pamphilj. © Libor Pospisil

The collections of the gallery, displayed throughout the Palazzo, include a Raphael, but the Pamphiljs represent a different era — theirs is the Rome of Bernini, Velázquez, and Caravaggio. The first two artists sculpted and painted Innocent X, and those works are exhibited in the Palazzo. Caravaggio was somewhat of a different story, given that he passed away thirty years before the ascent of the Pamphiljs. Even so, they spotted potential in the paintings of the forgotten artist and bought three pieces for their collection. The family was far-sighted in another aspect — they forbid their descendants to sell any works from the gallery, thus preserving this mini-Louvre behind an inconspicuous Roman door.

Once you start searching for hidden and underrated places in Rome, you will find them everywhere. One small door close to Piazza de Navona led me to the Chiostro del Bramante, a courtyard of a perfectly squared shape and with perfectly symmetrical columns. I chose that place to unwind after long walks because there was a café on the upper floor, with a view. While sipping my Americano, I watched people downstairs lining up for a Banksy exhibition inside the cloister. I was, however, more incited by the upper-floor door to the lounge of the coffee shop. I ended up walking in there, and once I got past the sofas occupied by youngsters with laptops, I reached a window that did not lead into a street but into a church. Inside, I could see a beautiful fresco on the wall. The fresco is called Sibyls. It was commissioned by Agostino Chigi, created by Raphael, and, apparently, evaluated by Michelangelo for the patron, so that the right amount could be paid to the painter. Is there any other city in the world where even an attempt to have a quiet coffee in a hidden spot turns into a preview of some of the most magnificent artists in history?

A version of this article originally appeared in Travel Examiner.

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