PHOTOGRAPHY BY FEDERICO CIAMEI
I will never forget my first visit to Rome, when I drove down from Vienna with my dad in the 1950s. I must have been about 7, and my dear father was determined to introduce his daughter to the splendors of the ancient world. For some crazy reason best known to him, we were wearing matching lederhosen that he’d acquired on one of our skiing trips in the Alps. Even at that tender age, I noticed the chic Roman ladies in their pretty pink dresses with huge, puffy skirts, and secretly wished I looked more like them and less like a mini Tyrolean farmer.
But no matter. After all, who could fail to be wowed by the Colosseum? The gigantic size, the grandeur, and, best of all, the terrifying stories of the blood-soaked gladiators, the wild beasts imported from Africa who fought their luckless opponents, the roaring crowd, and the Emperor under his scented awning, cooled by ostrich-plume fans. I was determined to come back.
I returned about 10 years later, as a student, after falling in love with a man who happened to be a devout Catholic—just quite how devout I was soon to discover. We skipped the pagan world of blood and gore (even though I did sneak out to revel in the magnificence of the Pantheon when he was napping) and embarked on what turned out to be a Christian pilgrimage. The impossibly crowded Vatican was the focal point of our devotions, naturally, and, as I recall, we spent a good three days in mystical adoration of the epicenter of the Catholic faith. There was also a visit to a Capuchin monastery, the highlight being a series of claustrophobic subterranean chapels decorated entirely with the beautifully arranged bones of long-dead monks, as well as a few mummified figures still dressed in the remnants of their tattered clothing. And then there were endless churches to fill in every spare moment. Even though we pushed our way through the crowds surrounding the Trevi fountain, there was no sign of Anita Ekberg or the elusive dolce vita—or even time to pause for a gelato. You won’t be surprised to learn that our love affair didn’t survive the vacation.
I’ve been to Rome since then, but after every visit—filled with trips to the Spanish Steps, the Forum, the Borghese Gallery, across the seven hills and beyond—I’ve felt as if I haven’t even begun to see the city, which, of course, has the chutzpah to call itself Eternal. An eternity: that’s exactly what I’d need to uncover and understand the endless beauty and meaning of Rome.
And so I decide to return and explore the city in a completely different way. I would skip the famous, and infamously overcrowded, landmarks, and instead concentrate on a handful of exquisite, lesser-known jewels, some of which are not usually open to the public. I knew it would be a bit more of a magical mystery tour than a sensible, coherent plan, but what’s the point of travel without a judicious sprinkling of mystery and magic?
My first step is to call Stefano Aluffi-Pentini of A Private View of Italy and Europe, who I met years ago on a visit to Rome, not long after he had started his company, which is in the business of opening doors to places—palazzos, gardens, villas—that are normally closed to the public. Who better to aid me in an exploration of the “other” Rome? Aluffi-Pentini, who exudes the easy, elegant charm of a true Roman gentleman, trained as an art historian and can trace his family back to the 14th century. “Luckily, because of my background, I have access to certain private collections that are off limits to most visitors,” he tells me as we sip cappuccinos in a café in Trevi. “Rome is all about continuity. The past and the present overlap in a way that is both intriguing and unique.” Today, with his magic keys, he’s going to take me to explore the Casa dei Cavalieri di Rodi. Built in the 13th century in the ruins of the Forum of Augustus, it’s used by the Order of the Knights of Malta, a chivalric lay order of the Catholic Church that was created around 1099 by the Blessed Gérard of Jerusalem and is still going strong.
If you happen to come, as I do, from a country that has yet to blow out the candles on its 250th birthday cake, there’s something truly head-spinning about stepping into a structure that stretches back to the Roman era—the chapel in the basement was constructed on the ruins of a Roman building that’s now 2,000 years old—and is still in daily use. My head keeps spinning as we climb the stairs and walk through the medieval hall, decorated with caryatids taken from the Temple of Jupiter, and then out onto the spacious loggia, with its Roman columns (also “borrowed” from nearby ruins) and staggering view over the Forum. Church bells drown out the sound of traffic, and I start frivolously and sacrilegiously fantasizing about what it might be like to give a party in this enchanting outdoor “room,” with its mesmerizing view of the glory that was—and still is—Rome. Apparently it’s not impossible, according to Stefano, who actually hosted one here only a few months earlier.
The day after my visit to the Knights of Malta, I meet up with a very old friend of my husband’s, a brilliant opera designer and director by the name of Giovanni Agostinucci. Being something of a magician in his professional life, Giovanni is also a master of surprises, so he refuses to tell me where we’re going: “Just follow me, and you will see.” And so we set off through the death-defying Roman traffic, finally arriving at … the Rinascente department store. Is this really the surprise he’s promised? Gilded displays of Armani, Dolce & Gabbana, and Versace? But then we descend some hidden stairs to find part of an aqueduct built by the Emperor Augustus 2,000 years ago. Mysteriously illuminated stone arches cover one wall, and there in a corner is a tiny bar, where you can almost reach out and touch these reminders of the engineering genius of the ancient Romans. And what, I wonder, do you drink inside a Roman aqueduct? Of course, Giovanni knows the answer: bellinis. I take a sip, close my eyes, and wonder (not for the first time) why I wasn’t born Italian.
Soon after, I reunite with Stefano, who has another surprise planned. “Do you have any interest in seeing the one and only ceiling that Caravaggio ever painted?” he asks. Is the Pope Catholic?
He arranges for me to visit a friend of his, the Principessa di Piombino, Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, who happens to live in the 16th-century Villa Aurora, the last remaining building from the Ludovisi Gardens. The Principessa—“Please call me Rita”—grew up in Texas, spent time in Washington, D.C., when she was married to a congressman, and later wed Nicoló Boncompagni Ludovisi, the Principe di Piombino (who passed away last year). She also happens to have an encyclopedic knowledge of the history, art, and architecture of the house, which, combined with her Texan warmth, makes her the ideal hostess and guide. In the entrance hall, on a round table, I notice a copy of The Princess Casamassima by Henry James; Rita tells me the story of how the author used to stay in the villa and actually wrote part of the book sitting in the garden beneath a vast Lebanon cedar. “Look, there it still is,” she says, pointing out the window. I ask what made her decide to open her house to visitors—albeit a very select few. “My husband was a very private person,” she says, “but I wanted more people to have the chance to see the treasures in the villa.”
We climb a swooping marble staircase, past a 2nd-century bust of Caesar Augustus, and enter a small room, where I gaze up in wonder at Jupiter, Neptune, and Pluto cavorting around a mysterious silvery moon. It may not be Caravaggio’s most famous—or accomplished—work, but it’s impossible not to be swept away by its special magic. Rita’s parting words, which I doubt I’ll ever hear again, are priceless: “Arrivederci, and on your way through the garden, promise me you won’t forget to look at the Michelangelo sculpture of Pan.”
Next on my list of hidden gems is Ditta Annibale Gammarelli, a tiny shop tucked away on a narrow street behind the Pantheon that has been outfitting the Pope and the Catholic clergy since 1798. Of course, His Holiness has never set foot in the shop (the tailors always come to him), but for us lesser mortals, even if you’re not actually in search of a mozzetta (an ermine-trimmed red velvet shoulder cape, as worn by Pope Benedict XVI), it’s not to be missed. As soon as I walk through the door I’m dazzled by a two-foot-high embroidered hat, known as a mitre, but I’m a little unsure of when I’d ever wear it. I settle instead for two pairs of unbelievably chic socks: one purple (for bishops) and one red (for cardinals). The always impeccably dressed Daniel Day-Lewis wore the purple ones in Phantom Thread.
Possibly inspired by this faux proximity to Catholic spirituality, I feel that my next stop has to be a church. But, overwhelmed by the surging crowds around the Pantheon, I flee as fast as I can to the other side of the river, beyond Trastevere, and a part of the city known as the Janiculum Hill. Here, I find the perfect antidote to the hungry, noisy hordes, in the form of an isolated, totally empty, miniature Renaissance temple called the Tempietto, designed by Bramante and built in 1502. I learned about it years ago from my cousin, who knows Rome far better than most Romans, but I’d never visited before now. Climbing a steep hill, and then some even steeper steps, I finally arrive at the church of San Pietro in Montorio. (The Tempietto is hidden away in its courtyard.) There’s no noise of people, only the birds chattering away in the umbrella pines as I enter the tiny, circular temple, which supposedly marks the spot where Saint Peter was martyred. I feel the calming perfection of Bramante’s architecture lifting up my soul, until a faint, embarrassing rumble comes from my tummy. It’s lunchtime, and since I’m clearly a long way from being an ascetic saint, my body, as well as my soul, is in need of some uplift.
Before I left New York, an old friend told me about a restaurant he used to go to years before, when he was at the American Academy in Rome. He wasn’t sure if it still existed, nor could he recall its name, but he knew it was on a cobbled medieval alley, only a few meters long, right behind the Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere. The only other clue to its whereabouts was that if I happened to be in Rome in the fall—bingo!—I’d be able to recognize the place by the huge basket of mushrooms sitting on a table just outside its entrance. In the age of Google Maps and iPhones, who could resist
directions like these? Certainly not me. Especially since, on the way there, I get to see the magnificent façade of the 12th-century basilica, with its Byzantine mosaic depicting Christ and the Virgin, who is dressed as I’ve never seen her before, in elaborate embroidered robes and covered in a mass of sparkling precious stones and gold jewelry.
Lovely as Mary is, I’m ashamed to say that I still have mushrooms on my mind. And here, just as my friend said, I find the snaky, winding alley behind the church, and halfway down on the right I spot a doorway boasting an enormous basket that overflows with porcini, chanterelle, and morel mushrooms. With its dark wood ceiling,
terra-cotta-tile floor, tables clustered together in a familial way, and everybody talking, eating, and drinking tumblers of vino rosso, Le Mani in Pasta is everything I’d ever imagined a neighborhood trattoria should be. There’s no question of looking at a menu (if there even is one); I follow the owner’s advice (or should I say instructions?) and order the tagliatelle with wild boar and mushroom ragu, which tastes of the forests whence the ingredients came, along with a glass of the no-name vino, which I raise in silent toast to my old, forgetful friend in New York and his magical mystery directions.
As I twirl my tagliatelle, I think back on my week and realize my crazy plan worked. It made me slow down and experience a Rome that I had never known before. It allowed me to find the kind of hidden surprises and delicious discoveries that many visitors to Rome don’t even know exist. I was never rushed or jostled, and I had all the time in the world to be guided by my favorite travel companion: serendipity. Of course, I can’t help but think about how many more hidden gems are out there, but I console myself with the thought that the city that calls itself eternal will always be there, just waiting for me to return.
WHERE TO STAY
The St. Regis Rome
Legendary hotelier César Ritz opened the Grand Hotel, which later became the St. Regis, in 1894—and that kind of says it all. Luxe features abound—Venetian glass chandeliers, a majestic staircase that rises to the top floor—and a recent renovation combined the traditional with contemporary furniture and design. The service is faultless, as is the menu at Lumen Cocktails and Cuisine.
From $498, stregisrome.com
Hotel de Russie
Hidden on a quiet street just off the Piazza del Popolo, the Hotel de Russie, a Rocco Forte Hotel, may look demure, but don’t be fooled. Just walk out onto the terrace to discover a private Renaissance garden complete with a waterfall, classical statues, rose bushes, and pine trees climbing the hillside. When Jean Cocteau stayed here in 1917, he described it as “paradise on earth.” From $603, roccofortehotels.com