The glories of the Colosseum, Piazza Navona, and Vatican City are worth a few selfie-stick puncture wounds, but wandering off the tourist trail can bring you to quiet, fascinating, historic places where you have room to experience them. Get a good map, a bus/tram/Metro pass at tourist kiosks or shops with a large black T, and discover the essence of the Eternal City in peace.
Millenniums of Music
St Cecilia’s Basilica in the Trastevere section is rooted in the Third Century and tourist-deprived today. The courtyard with its fountain topped by an ancient Roman urn is surrounded by fragrant roses and a few benches. This is a serene place to enjoy a gelato or a few slices of carry-out pizza. Once rested and refreshed, venture inside. The interior of the church is a yawn of baroque, but the 9th Century mosaic in the apse depicting the Second Coming gleams and glitters. The altar, with its Guido Reni 1630 paintings, Saints Valerian and Cecilia and Decapitation of Saint Cecilia, and its 1282 Baldacchino by Arnolfo di Cambio are among Rome’s finest treasures. Stefano Maderno’s hauntingly beautiful 17th-century marble statue of St. Cecilia tells the story of this Third Century martyr. She lies on her side with her hands making the early Christian sign of “one God, three persons” and a slit across her neck showing her fatal wound.
Cecilia was a Roman patrician who converted to the forbidden faith and encouraged others to convert. She was martyred in AD 230, but the executioners did not find it an easy task. First, they locked her in her steam room for three days. She came out alive and singing, which earned her the title of the Patron Saint of Music. Next, they tried to decapitate her. As she was a Roman citizen, only three strokes of the ax were allowed. She was mortally wounded, but it took her three days to bleed to death. When her body was exhumed in 1599, it was incorrupt under a gold funeral shroud. Maderno did a detailed sketch of her body before it was reburied and then created a statue that is faithful to his sketches.
The church is built on the remains of the saint’s house, and visitors can pay a small fee to take a wooden flight of stairs down to the original Roman roads where the walls of her house still stand. There is little signage, but many marble and concrete slabs have Latin inscriptions. When you come back upstairs ask the nun on duty to see the “affreschi di Cavallini,” If no nun is in sight, ring the bell beside the door on the left side of the church. Pay a few Euro to see the top half of Cavallini’s 1293 fresco Last Judgment now in a dusty upper room. The 18th-century renovators plastered the bottom half but had to leave room for a balcony used by cloistered nuns thus saving this portion of his work that shows Christ, the apostles, and angels. If you visit in time for Vespers, you can sit in the church and enjoy the nuns singing. The church is a popular venue for concerts of classical and ecclesiastical music.
Christianity’s Ground Zero
Plan ahead to see one of Rome’s most hidden and guarded sites. The Scavi beneath St. Peter’s Cathedral in the Vatican, offers guided 90-minute tours of excavations that are at Ground Zero of the Christian faith. The highlight of the tour is what are believed to be the bones of St. Peter, located right beneath the altar in the church above them.
Also known as the Vatican Necropolis, The Tomb of the Dead, the area was discovered in the 1940s when the Vatican commissioned excavations to prepare a burial place for the tomb of Pope Pius IX. Legend had it that St. Peter was buried beneath the altar, but few believed that to be true. The archaeologists found a burial ground (necropolis) dating back to the 4th century. They found the temple of Emperor Constantine who had ruled at that time and ancient graffiti that translates as Peter is here. The remains were forensically examined in the 1960s, and experts concluded the bones were from a man in his early sixties who lived in the first century AD. In 1968, Pope Paul VI declared them to be the bones of St. Peter. In 2013, Pope Francis exhibited the nine pieces of bone that are encased in a box inside a bronze display case for the first time to the public.
The tour includes the necropolis with its funeral monuments and Constantine’s temple as well as the boxed bones of St. Peter placed exactly where scripture reports Peter says they would be found: upon this rock, I will build my church.
This is one of Rome’s most exclusive tours. Only 250 people a day, in groups of 12, are permitted. Pre-booking a tour is the only way to see this historic site, so plan ahead, months ahead. Some visitors have had luck with just showing up and asking if there are any cancellations. Even if an available tour is in a foreign language, it will be worth it. Tickets in hand, you must pass the colorful, serious Swiss guards and will walk along part of the Vatican that is off-limits to unticketed visitors.
Travel through Time
Crypta Balbi is one of the most overlooked museums in Rome, right off Largo Argentina. This is a frantically busy transportation hub around an excavated square block of Roman ruins, one of the three sites proclaiming to be the place of Julius Caesar’s murder. The museum is rarely crowded, but it is one of the few places that display the layers of Rome in one location. It stands on the remains of the Theater of Balbus constructed in 13 B.C., which you can visit. Then, you advance in time as you move up through the exhibits. One section illustrates the transformations of the urban landscape from antiquity to the 20th Century and artifacts from homes and businesses between the 5th and 10th Centuries A.D. — the Dark Ages. The other section contains artifacts from other Roman museums along with those found on site. You can see what the historical center of Rome looked like in ancient times, in the Middle Ages, and through today.
While the Vatican Museum has priceless, famous works of art, they are difficult to fully appreciate because of the mobs of visitors. In Crypta Balbi, you have time and space to ponder such items as a 9th Century bishop’s chair made of bone and elaborately designed, lead and ceramic pilgrim flasks from the 6th Century, Medieval artifacts that furnish rooms authentically, a 3rd Century marble plan of Rome, and hundreds of other artifacts that bring to life Rome’s many eras.
In addition to the list of things, you want to do and see in Rome, leave time to simply wander. Who knows what wonders you may stumble upon.