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Neighborhoods of Rome


A striking 2000-year-old temple, now a church, the Pantheon is the best preserved of Rome’s ancient monuments and one of the most influential buildings in the Western world. Built by Hadrian over Marcus Agrippa’s earlier 27 BC temple, it has stood since around AD 125, and while its greying, pockmarked exterior might look its age, it’s still a unique and exhilarating experience to pass through its vast bronze doors and gaze up at the largest unreinforced concrete dome ever built.

Hadrian’s temple was dedicated to the classical gods – hence the name Pantheon, a derivation of the Greek words pan (all) and theos (god) – but in AD 608 it was consecrated as a Christian church and it’s now officially known as the Basilica di Santa Maria ad Martyres.

Thanks to this consecration, it was spared the worst of the medieval plundering that reduced many of Rome’s ancient buildings to near dereliction. But it didn’t escape entirely unscathed – its gilded-bronze roof tiles were removed and bronze from the portico was used by Bernini for his baldachin at St Peter’s Basilica. Its exterior is a massively imposing sight with 16 Corinthian columns, each 11.8m high and each made from a single block of Egyptian granite, supporting a triangular pediment . Rivets and holes in the brickwork indicate where the original marble-veneer panels were removed.

During the Renaissance, the building was much studied – Brunelleschi used it as inspiration for his cupola in Florence – and it became an important burial chamber. In the cavernous marble-clad interior you’ll find the tomb of the artist Raphael, alongside those of kings Vittorio Emanuele II and Umberto I.

The real fascination of the Pantheon, however, lies in its massive dimensions and awe-inspiring dome . Considered the ancient Romans’ greatest architectural achievement, it was the largest cupola in the world until the 15th century and is still the largest unreinforced concrete dome in existence. Its harmonious appearance is due to a precisely calibrated symmetry – its diameter is exactly equal to the Pantheon’s interior height of 43.4m. At its centre, the 8.7m-diameter oculus , which symbolically connected the temple with the gods, plays a vital structural role by absorbing and redistributing the dome’s huge tensile forces. Rainwater enters but drains away through 22 almost-invisible holes in the sloping marble floor.

Note that tourist visits are not allowed during mass (from 5pm Saturday, from 10.30am Sunday).

An audioguide costs €6.50. There is talk of an admission charge being levied in the future.

Piazza Navona

With its showy fountains, baroque palazzi and colourful cast of street artists, hawkers and tourists, Piazza Navona is central Rome’s elegant showcase square. Built over the 1st-century Stadio di Domiziano, it was paved over in the 15th century and for almost 300 years hosted the city’s main market. Its grand centrepiece is Bernini’s Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi, a flamboyant fountain featuring an Egyptian obelisk and muscular personifications of the rivers Nile, Ganges, Danube and Plate.

Legend has it that the Nile figure is shielding his eyes to avoid looking at the nearby Chiesa di Sant’Agnese in Agone designed by Bernini’s hated rival Borromini. In truth, Bernini had completed his fountain two years before Borromini started work on the church’s facade and the gesture simply indicated that the source of the Nile was unknown at the time.

The Fontana del Moro at the southern end of the square was designed by Giacomo della Porta in 1576. Bernini added the Moor holding a dolphin in the mid-17th century, but the surrounding Tritons are 19th-century copies. At the northern end of the piazza, the 19th-century Fontana del Nettuno depicts Neptune fighting with a sea monster, surrounded by sea nymphs.

The piazza’s largest building is Palazzo Pamphilj, built for Pope Innocent X between 1644 and 1650, and now home to the Brazilian embassy.

Galleria Doria Pamphilj

Hidden behind the grimy grey exterior of Palazzo Doria Pamphilj, this wonderful gallery boasts one of Rome’s richest private art collections, with works by Raphael, Tintoretto, Titian, Caravaggio, Bernini and Velázquez, as well as several Flemish masters. Masterpieces abound, but the undisputed star is Velázquez’ portrait of an implacable Pope Innocent X, who grumbled that the depiction was ‘too real’. For a comparison, check out Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s sculptural interpretation of the same subject.

The opulent picture galleries are hung with floor-to-ceiling paintings, all ordered chronologically. In the Sala Aldobrandini look out for Titian’s Salomè con la testa del Battista (Salome with the Head of John the Baptist) – the severed head is possibly Titian’s self-portrait and Salome a lover who spurned the artist – and two early Caravaggios: Riposo durante la fuga in Egitto (Rest During the Flight into Egypt) and Maddalene penitente (Penitent Magdalen). Further highlights include Alessandro Algardi’s bust of Donna Olimpia, the formidable woman who supposedly called the shots during Innocent X’s papacy, and the Battaglia nel porto di Napoli (Battle in the Bay of Naples), one of the few paintings in Rome by Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

Palazzo Doria Pamphilj dates from the mid-15th century, but its current look was largely the work of the current owners, the Doria Pamphilj family, who acquired it in the 18th century. The Pamphilj’s golden age, during which the family collection was started, came during the papacy of one of their own, Innocent X (r 1644–55).

The excellent free audio guide, narrated by Jonathan Pamphilj, brings the place alive with family anecdotes and background information.

Chiesa di San Luigi dei Francesi

Church to Rome’s French community since 1589, this opulent baroque chiesa is home to a celebrated trio of Caravaggio paintings: the Vocazione di San Matteo (The Calling of Saint Matthew), the Martirio di San Matteo (The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew) and San Matteo e l’angelo (Saint Matthew and the Angel), known collectively as the St Matthew cycle. Find them in the Cappella Contarelli to the left of the main altar.

These three canvases are among the earliest of Caravaggio’s religious works, painted between 1600 and 1602, but they are inescapably his, featuring a down-to-earth realism and the stunning use of chiaroscuro (the bold contrast of light and dark).

Before you leave the church, take a moment to enjoy Domenichino’s faded 17th-century frescoes of St Cecilia in the second chapel on the right. St Cecilia is also depicted in the altarpiece by Guido Reni, a copy of a work by Raphael