The Monti District in Rome

Hello all,

This is my first ever blog. I’m not too sure how I’ll master the technical side of it, but I decided to give it a go and try to reach out to you all, past and future guests of my Leone apartments in Rome.

I missed you all these “pandemic months”. Welcoming you all in Rome, giving tips on where to go and truly enjoy this amazing town is extremely gratifying; getting to know you, travellers from all over the world, is so interesting. You keep me young and I miss you very much!

In my everyday walks around Rome I collect so many interesting facts and wonderful sights that I’d like to share with you, and I would have if only you were here.

That’s how this idea came about: let me tell you my Roman stories. Tell me if you like them and hopefully they’ll inspire you during your next Roman visit, whenever that may be.

Last week I went for a long walk with my sister around the Quartiere Monti, the first ever district in Ancient Rome, encased by the hills of Esquilino, Viminale, part of the Quirinale and Celio. In practical terms: if you are in Piazza Venezia, looking towards the Colosseum, you’ll find it on the left hand side, spreading all the way to the Basilica di San Giovanni.

At the time of the Roman Empire the Monti district was a very noteworthy area called the Roman Subura (today Suburra): the most authentic and low-class neighbourhood in ancient Rome, a kind of casbah where only the one who was born there felt at ease and where all the contradictions of social and human life of the vast Empire were revealed.

In the Subura countless plebeian families lived noisily in big “insulae”, buildings with multiple apartments for rent, alongside the most infamous brothels, the most insecure taverns and inns… I guess you got the picture!

The story goes that Emperor Nero used to come here in disguise to hear what people thought of him, and his wife Messalina too used to seek here hours of orgiastic pleasure. Romans were famous for their totally lascivious “parties” and the Subura was definitely the place to go to find entertainment. Julius Caesar was born in the Subura and perhaps for this reason he sided with the democrats and the plebs.

Monti is still characterised by many narrow street and ‘vicoli’, making very pleasant to walk on a sunny day as you find shelter in the shades created by the tall buildings of different historical periods and styles, whilst window shopping from one workshop to the other of skilled craftsmen and artisans.

In almost all the workshops reigns an apparent disorder, but each craftsman is zealously working with his precious tools, most of which by now are pieces of antique and of quite high value. Bags, shoes, belts, clothes have a unique character. I have even noticed on a door here and there the typical note “Torno subito” (“I’ll be right back”)… Where did he go? Home for a pasta? At the bar round the corner for a coffee? Who knows! It always makes me smile.

Another typical feature of everyday life in Monti is the various taverns that populate these narrow roads, which at lunch time fill up with students and professionals as close by there’s plenty of Vatican study buildings and the Central Bank of Italy, with all that comes with it.

Taverns are all quite the same: marble tables and views of Rome naively painted on the walls; the smell of roasted peppers, “abbacchio”, roasted lamb and fried artichokes invite the passers-by to stop by and have lunch, often quick, in a lively and energising atmosphere.

Monti has so much history that you walk around and, with time in your hand, you can visit amazing and important archaeological sites. Some of them are outdoors and mostly visible as you walk by, such as the the Serviane and Aureliane walls with the Asinara Door, and the Trajan markets.

There’s the Ludus Magnum, the gladiator gymnasium near the Flavian amphitheater; and then the Domus Aurea, the grandiose and sumptuous residence of Nero (my daughter’s favourite monument!); the Baths of Trajan, one of the most important thermal plants of antiquity; the Terme di Tito and the remains of the Claudio aquedotto and the Lateran Palaces.

All this is mixed and interlinked with churches and palaces from the Middle Ages: the Triclinio Leoniano, the Battistero Lateranense, S. Stefano Rotondo, the Conti tower, the House of Rodi Cavaliers, Santa Prassede, the Capocci Tower and magnificent masterpieces such as the S. Clemente and S. Martino ai Monti church and the stunning Palazzo del Grillo.

Sadly during the Middle Ages the district was almost abandoned due to water shortage caused by the rupture of the aqueducts at the hands of the enemies. Residents moved to the Campo Marzio district and learned to quench their thirst at the Tiber, which at that time was clean.

But the main blow to the Monti district was the transfer of the papal throne to Viterbo in 1257 (definitely worth a visit, and it’s barely one hour from Rome – I’ll write about it one day!), and then Anagni and Avignon, taking away from the district its main cultural, religious and social fulcrum: the Lateran, the major Papal residence at that time.

It was only after the first Holy Year in 1300 that the flow of pilgrims resumed to the churches of S. Croce in Gerusalemme, S. Giovanni in Laterano and Santa Maria Maggiore. So many wonderful churches, so much art! Once in a while, depending on the mood and time available, I peak in one of them and fill my heart with beauty.

I also cannot avoid mentioning S Carlino alle Quattro Fontane and S Andrea al Quirinale, two wonderful churches of the Baroque period at the edges of the Monti District.

Sadly, the building speculations (do you say that?) of the late ninetieth century and later the demolitions and reconstructions of the Fascist years marked the district deeply and I had to turn my eyes here and there to such ugly inconsistencies. Don’t worry, not too often, Rome is the most beautiful city in the world!

See you next time…