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When visiting Rome, especially if it’s your first time, you might be surprised at how common it is to be suggested to go visit churches. This is something that has very little to do with a religious sentiment: oversimplifying quite a bit, it can be said that churches were the museums of their time, which also means that many brilliant artists are featured prominently throughout the city center and its chapels. From Bernini to Michelangelo, from Raphael to Borromini… even though none attracts more visitors than Caravaggio.
Despite being born in the Lombardy region, the famous painter spent many years in Rome, with 26 works scattered in several buildings throughout the city, and just a handful of them part of private collections: this means you can get to see them the most of those, and this itinerary is tailored for you to discover them as well as some important landmarks in the Capitale.
Of course some of Caravaggio’s works are in some of Rome’s best known museums: Galleria Borghese, the National Gallery of Ancient Art at Palazzo Barberini, Palazzo Corsini, the Capitoline Museums, the Galleria Doria Pamphilj and, finally, at the Vatican Museums. Choosing one over the other is an impossible feat, however be aware that Galleria Borghese is especially recommended, as it holds the large majority of them – your visit must be booked in advance, though, as the museum has a a strict visitor quota in effect.
While you decide which museum you should be visiting (or, visiting first!), our itinerary begins in the church of San Luigi dei Francesi, by the Senate building at Palazzo Madama (where, incidentally, Caravaggio lived between 1597 and 1601). You’ll find both a few steps from Piazza Navona and within walking distance from many of our managed accommodations.
Inside the church was Matteo Contarelli (his name was actually “Matthieu Conterel”)’s own chapel. A rich French Cardinal, upon dying he left instructions for a statue and two paintings to be put in the shrine: the year was 1585. Two artists were commissioned, but one worked extremely slowly while the other produced nothing. In 1599, as the preparations for the Jubilee of 1600 were ongoing, fellow Cardinal Francesco Maria Del Monte suggested that the work on the chapel was completed by his own personal painter: Caravaggio.
His involvement wasn’t exactly smooth: among other issues, the first version of one of the paintings was refused, on account of his portrayal of Saint Matthew as an old man with dirty legs – unheard of, at the time. The painter was obliged to completely redo his work. It wouldn’t be the first time, nor his first scandal.
From San Luigi dei Francesi, walk a short distance to the Basilica of Sant’Agostino, in the small piazza by the same name, wedged between Piazza delle Cinque Lune and Via della Scrofa. The Madonna di Loreto, hanging inside, depicted a barefoot, ordinary Virgin Mary and was almost deemed blasphemous.
From this church, built by re-using stones from the Colosseum, take a left to Via della Scrofa, a straight alley connecting you directly with the Ara Pacis area. Before you head there, look for a Via dei Prefetti and, off it, Vicolo del Divino Amore: this is one of the known addresses for Caravaggio while he stayed in the city. The house is long gone, but stand by the plaque marked with a number 19: he lived there. Legend has it that the artist enraged his landlady, a Prudenzia Bruni, by routinely dismantling part of the roof so that plenty of natural light could come in so he could paint. It’s the same violent light which features prominently in his work.
Return to Via dei Prefetti, reach the tiny Piazza Firenze (around the corner from Campo Marzio Bellavista!) and look for a Via della Pallacorda: its name refers to royal tennis/court tennis, as it used to be played here. It was a popular sports in the late 1500s/early 1600s, and it usually included placing bets on the match. It was here, in 1606, that Caravaggio himself won a match against a Ranuccio Tomassoni who, enraged by the outcome, started a fight with the painter. Caravaggio stabbed Tomassoni to death and fled through these very alleys to the French-owned Palazzo Farnese, by Campo de’ Fiori, looking for shelter. That murder caused him to flee Rome once and for all.
From the Pallacorda, walk back to Via della Scrofa, walk north on it and reach the Ara Pacis Museum with the Mausoleum of Augustus: keep walking in a straight line and on Via di Ripetta, until you reach Piazza del Popolo: the Chiesa di Santa Maria del Popolo, a five minutes walk from Paradiso Penthouse, is the home to two more of Caravaggio’s masterpieces: The Conversion of Saint Paul and The Crucifixion of Saint Peter. Today we can admire two later versions of these paintings, completed in 1601, as once again they were at first rejected by his client, the powerful Tiberio Cerasi, treasurer for Pope Clement VIII.
This is the end of our Caravaggio-themed walking tour. From here, Rome is yours to explore. A few examples: just outside the gates known as Porta del Popolo you can get on a subway train at Flaminio, take a bus, or walk to the Villa Borghese park (and Galleria Borghese, too!).
Just a few notes for you to consider if you’re interested in this itinerary: