If you know where to look, Rome is one of the most peaceful capital cities in the world. Get away from the traffic and the crowds queuing to get into the Vatican Museums, and you’ll discover quiet piazzas, tranquil parks, and museums where the statues outnumber the visitors.
I’ve spent the last three years living in Rome, exploring the city on my own or in the company of a tour guide from my company, Through Eternity. Nothing beats exploring Rome with a local – someone who knows the city’s secrets – showing you another side of the Eternal City. Even famous places such as the large archaeological parks of Ancient Rome have fascinating hidden sites, and the centro storico is full of forgotten treasures. With our private tours of Rome you can enjoy the privilege of experiencing them first, in peace and quiet, before they’re discovered by the tourist hordes.
From Renaissance luxury villas to cemeteries, here are some sites that don’t attract the visitors they deserve.
Despite its central location in the heart of Trastevere, Villa Farnesina remains something of a hidden gem. I visited early one morning and had most of the rooms – and the garden – to myself.
This early 16th century villa was the private home of the banker Agostino Chigi, who was one of the wealthiest men in Europe. If you’re fabulously wealthy and you need a painter to decorate your villa, who do you hire? None other than Raphael.
Indeed, Chigi had an eventful life, and was closely involved with some of the most famous men and women of the Renaissance – he was married to the celebrity courtesan, Imperia, and managed the finances of popes such as Julius II.
Private homes don’t get much more luxurious than this. Villa Farnesina is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful buildings in Rome, filled with frescoes by Raphael and other talented Renaissance painters. Most striking of all is the Loggia of Cupid and Psyche, decorated by Raphael and his workshop. Cupid and Psyche celebrate their wedding feast, surrounded by Olympian gods and festoons of fruit and flowers.
Upstairs, the Hall of Perspectives cleverly creates the illusion of being outside, gazing at distant landscapes. In another room, Chigi even hired an artist to paint his personal horoscope on the ceiling.
The Aventine always feels like it’s half-asleep. Wherever you are – visiting the ancient church of Santa Sabina, admiring the view from the Giardino degli Aranci, or simply resting on a bench beneath the shade of an umbrella pine – there’s a dreamy, tranquil atmosphere.
Although the Aventine is primarily a residential neighbourhood, with more churches than shops or restaurants, there’s still plenty to see. A walk through the shady streets is an ideal way to spend a hot afternoon, passing overgrown gardens and elegantly decaying villas. The Giardino degli Aranci (“orange garden”) offers some of the most spectacular views of Rome, while just down the street, those in the know queue up to look through a very special keyhole.
If you’re in the area on a Sunday evening, make sure you visit Sant’Anselmo, where you can listen to some Gregorian chanting, sung by the monks from the adjoining Benedictine monastery.
One of my most memorable mornings in Rome was spent enjoying a discovery of Palazzo Altemps with Through Eternity Rome Tours. The building is remarkable in itself – a 15th century palace built over the remains of a medieval tower and a Roman villa – and many of the rooms are beautifully decorated with frescoes. For most of the morning, it was just me and my guide.
Once a private home, Palazzo Altemps is now used to house part of the collection of the National Roman Museum. Highlights include the Ludovisi Battle Sarcophagus – a marble sarcophagus from the 3rd century that vividly depicts a dramatic battle between Romans and barbarians – and some striking statues of gods and mythological figures.
My personal favourite is the Ludovisi Gaul – a powerful statue of a defeated Gaul stabbing himself in the neck while supporting his dying wife. Over the top, yes, but undeniably moving, as the statue seems to recognise the bravery of the Gaul and his wife in their last moments.
The Roman Houses of Santi Giovanni e Paolo
High on the Caelian Hill (near the Colosseum) is the church of Santi Giovanni e Paolo. The church is lovely, but it’s what’s underneath that’s really special. Beneath the church are the extensive, well-preserved ruins of some Roman houses from the 1st century, including a luxurious villa and an apartment block. Two Roman soldiers, St John and St Paul, lived in one of the houses until their martyrdom in the 4th century.
It’s the details that make the Roman Houses so evocative – a colourful fresco of the goddess Proserpine; a faded vine leaf on the wall; an astrological symbol; a section of a subterranean street…Despite centuries of excavation, many of Rome’s treasures remain underground.
I chose my first flat in Rome because of its proximity to the Protestant Cemetery. Perhaps somewhat naively, I thought that I could put up with a bleak bedroom and a bathroom the size of a shoebox as long as I was within walking distance of my favourite place in Rome.
The Protestant Cemetery has long been the favoured burial place of non-Catholic foreigners who die in Rome. Among the cluster of tombs on the hill you’ll find inscriptions in Russian, Chinese and Arabic, as well as the graves of some of England’s best-loved poets. The Romantic poet Percy Shelley is buried here, as well as John Keats, whose tombstone reads “Here lies one whose name was writ in water”. The oldest tomb, however, is just beyond the cemetery walls – the enormous white pyramid dedicated to a Roman nobleman, which pre-dates the Colosseum.
Although the cemetery attracts a few visitors making poetic pilgrimages, it always retains the air of a quiet sanctuary, a haven for those seeking a bench in the shade of the cypresses. Perpetually serene and beautiful, it only takes a single visit to understand Shelley’s comment: “It might make one in love with death, to think that one should be buried in so sweet a place”.
Alexandra Turney works for Through Eternity Tours