As a young Augustinian monk on his first trip abroad, Martin Luther was clearly disappointed by Rome, remarking that “if there is a hell then Rome is built on it”. He was never going to be a travel PR for the city. In the 18th century, Goethe was rather more enthusiastic: “Yes, I have finally arrived at the Capital of the World! I now see all the dreams of my youth coming to life,” he wrote. While Luther’s hatred of Rome was intellectual and theological – he described the Church as “the most lawless den of thieves, the most shameless of all brothels” – the feelings of the two Germans in some ways will resonate with most who visit Rome, an exemplary tourist trap perfected over centuries of being one of the world’s paramount destinations. Medieval and Renaissance Holy Years made Rome the birthplace of mass tourism.
Pope Boniface VIII, politically ambitious and much disliked by Dante because of it, proclaimed the first Holy Year in 1300 with a papal bull announcing that a requisite number of visits to Rome’s basilicas would help clear sinners’ balance sheets. While Boniface intended Holy Years to be a once in a century event, his successor Clement VI decided they should happen every 50 years beginning in 1350. Such was their popularity with pilgrims and usefulness to Rome that by the mid-15th century they were scheduled for every 20-years. Hundreds of thousands came to Rome for the experience and the Holy Year of 1450 changed the face of Rome forever when the ancient Ponte Sant’Angelo collapsed under the weight of pilgrims and around 200 were drowned in the Tiber. Following the tragedy, greater care was taken to make Rome a city for masses of visitors. New bridges were built and roads were straightened.
Sixtus V, brutal and brutally efficient, decided to re-erect ancient obelisks in front of the main pilgrimage churches to help the visitors easily find their route around town. The Holy Years were very good news indeed for those who owned or worked in inns and shops and taverns and for the sellers of religious artefacts, the hirers of horses, the barbers and beauticians, tailors and physicians, booksellers and prostitutes of the Eternal City. By 1600, half a million pilgrims would descend on Rome for Holy Year and taking good and profitable care of them was a major task for the Church and state.
Come to Rome, Holy Year or not, and you are part of this great tradition of pilgrims to be pampered and fleeced. Rome richly repays serendipity: one of its great pleasures is the chance discovery of something marvellous like the big ancient marble foot on the unassuming corner of Via di Santo Stefano del Cacco and Via del Pie di Marmo, which even non-Italian speakers will know means “marble foot street”.
Part of Rome’s inexhaustible fascination is the impossibility of ever getting to know all or even most of it. For first-time visitors especially, though, the most useful advice is research, research, research. It is far too easy to find terrible food, overpriced tat and heaving crowds. The Roman climate can be brutal, from the furnace-like heat of high summer to surprisingly torrential downpours. The little sampietrini stones which elegantly pave Rome’s historic streets are treacherous when wet and an obstacle course for the less mobile.
In spite of this, Rome is one of the world’s great walking cities. One of my favourite walks is to tour the city’s 13 obelisks with ample stops for coffee, spritzes and a leisurely lunch; you can do the course in a day.
Modern-day pilgrims of religious inclination or not could do worse than amble from basilica to basilica. If you don’t want to do the seven churches traditional since the 16th century – Saint Peter’s, Saint John Lateran, San Paolo fuori le Mura, Santa Maria Maggiore, San Lorenzo fuori le Mura, Santa Croce in Gerusalemme and San Sebastiano fuori le Mura – you could restrict yourself to the top of the pops: Saint Peters, Saint John Lateran and Santa Maria Maggiore. That will also leave you time to bask in the rich rewards of Rome’s lesser churches. You will experience Caravaggio in a revelatory way when you see his work in Santa Maria del Popolo or San Luigi dei Francesi. As a fan of early Christian art, I find plenty to enthrall me. Although Rome’s mosaics aren’t really of the order of Ravenna or Palermo, Santa Prassede and San Clemente are unmissable.
Hardcore museum-goers will be overwhelmed with the joy of seeing some of the masterpieces of western art in the context for which they were intended rather than in the often sterile surroundings of the art museum. Indeed, Rome has few museums worth visiting as it is a museum in itself, but museums that you may wish to make time for are Villa Giulia with its Etruscan treasures, Palazzo Massimo for Ancient Rome, and Villa Borghese with its mass of treasures collected and commissioned by the pleasure-loving 17th-century Cardinal Scipione Borghese.
For me, the most important thing not just to see but to experience is the Pantheon, the most complete surviving Ancient Roman building which owes its magnificent state of preservation to its conversion to a Christian church in 609, Santa Maria ad Martyres, thanks to Pope Boniface IV. Go early in the morning or late in the day to avoid the oppressive crowds and never have coffee, a drink or – God forbid – lunch in one of the cynical cafes which line the square.
Which brings us to the complexities of eating in Rome. Three of the most famous and beautiful squares, Piazza della Rotonda, Piazza Navona and the Campo Fiori, are chocka withworld-class tourist traps, as are the narrow streets around the Trevi Fountain. You can eat very well in Rome, but it requires some effort. Katie Parla is an American who lives in Rome and knows what she’s talking about: I always check her recommendations on her website. Slow Food Italy is worth consulting too, as is the Gambero Rosso guide website. My own favourite restaurants in Rome will remain shrouded in impenetrable secrecy.
Loyd Grossman is the author of An Elephant in Rome: Bernini, The Pope and The Making of the Eternal City, published by Pallas Athene
This article first appeared in the June issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe now.