part I - the northern side

~ page 3 ~

From piazza Fiume, a couple of short diversions can be made, to reach two sites of historical interest. Thos who wish to carry straight on with the tour of the walls can skip these paragraphs.

From piazza Fiume follow via Calabria; at the first crossing turn left, and walk along via Collina, leading to piazza Sallustio. Here, several metres below the present ground level, you can see a Roman hall with a very high vault. These remains [map ref. g] belonged to the Gardens of Sallust, a public amenity which included pavillions, temples, statues and even a small hippodrome. They were named after the tribune and historian (1st century BC) who sponsored their development. In those times, this spot was located outside the city, off the Servian walls (Aurelian's set of walls had not yet been built). The Roman obelisk that today stands at the top of the famous Spanish Steps was originally found here, as well as some important statues now kept in the National Roman Museum and Capitoline Museums.
Unfortunately, the hall is not open to the public, and only its outer wall can be viewed from the square.

the remains of the Gardens of Sallust →

Back in piazza Fiume, the second diversion is along via Salaria: about 350 metres off the square, on the left (western) side, now surrounded by buildings, stands a tomb in the shape of a large cylindre [map ref. h], completely covered with a cone of turf, where trees and other vegetation likely grew, according to the typical fashion of mausoleums (i.e. monumental tombs) that housed the ashes of high personalities. It was found here in 1887, during local works. Its low position clearly shows how the ground level in ancient times was quite lower than the present one.
An inscription on the large marble plaque hanging on the side of the monument that looks towards via Salaria bears the name of its owners, Marcus Lucilius Paetus, a military officer with the dual rank of tribunus militum (tribune of the soldiers) and praefectus, and his sister Lucilia Polla. It dates back to the late 1st century BC.

← the tomb of Lucilius Paetus and the inscription with his name ↑

Back on the walls route, from piazza Fiume keep following the outer side, and very soon you will come to a memorial with a tall column in front of it [map ref. i], in memory of the historical event that affected Rome's modern history in a most crucial way.
On September 20th, 1870, the Italian troops that besieged the only city still left under the rule of the pope, on this very spot succeeded in opening a passage through the wall, what is known as the breach of Porta Pia. As the Bersaglieri corps entered the city, hailed by a large majority of the people, the centuries-old Papal State came to an end, and Rome finally turned under the jurisdiction of the unified kingdom of Italy, eventually becoming its capital city soon after.

the site of the breach of Porta Pia: the present monument ↑
← and the wall still broken, in an old picture taken shortly after the event

The event is remarked by an inscription on the column, which ends with the touching words: "...through this breach Italy once again entered Rome".

Not much further we reach a fourth gate, Porta Pia [map ref. 4], whose look is that of a Renaissance-aged graft in the old Roman wall. Its scenographic look is reminiscent of Porta del Popolo: it was in fact built under the same pope Pius IV, and its project was drawn by Michelangelo, who started working on it in 1561; but since three years later he died, the work could not be finished.

the present shape of Porta Pia on the inside (16th century)...
This only happened in 1869, when Virginio Vespignani, partly following the original design, gave it a front on the outer side, to which the statues of St.Agnes and St.Alexander were added, on request by Pius IX, respectively bearing the mottoes [this saint] DECORATES AND FOSTERS and [this saint] DECORATES AND PROTECTS.

...and on the outside (19th century)

The same architect had already worked on the gate in 1853, two years after having been damaged by lightning; on the occasion of these previous works, the unfinished tower had been replaced with a tall front, decorated with a fresco featuring the Virgin and Child. The painting suffered damages in the siege of 1870; about half a century later, it was replaced with a similar mosaic.

On the inside, above the archway hangs an inscription that remembers Pius IV for having built this gate after closing the nearby Porta Nomentana and for having stretched up to this spot the street called strada Pia (presently via Venti Settembre), whose direction matches the ancient Roman street called Alta Semita. Further above is a beautiful coat of arms of the Medici family, referring to the same pope and held by a couple of sword-wielding angels (which are reminiscent of his name, Angelo Medici). In the uppermost part of the front, instead, hangs the coat of arms of Pius IX, who sponsored the refurbishment of the gate in the mid 1800s and then had the outside front completed.

← the inscription above the archway on the inside

The twin decoration on the sides of the coat of arms, in the shape of a hollow disc wrapped in the upper half by a band, is said to be a trick by Michelangelo to remark that the pope was not a member of the main (Florentine) branch of the Medici, but of the lesser branch from Milan, and belonged to a family of barbers. The two symbols may therefore represent the basin and the towel, two implements related to this activity.
The fancy crenellation above, instead, was probably more decorative than of practical use.
Porta Pia is no longer in connection with Aurelian's wall, as in the early 20th century wide passages were opened to the left and right of the gate, to let the traffic flow more easily.

Porta Pia prior to Vespignani's alterations; the wall was connected
to the outer side of the gate and the unfinished tower was still in place

The inner and outer side of the gate are connected by a building whose halls, once a customs office, have been turned into a museum dedicated to the aforesaid taking of Rome in 1870. Also a monument in the middle of the square in front of the gate remembers the Bersaglieri corps that took part to the siege.
Today this spot is still a busy approach from the north-east to the city's central districts.

From Porta Pia springs the ancient Roman road called Nomentana (from the Latin name of the small town it reached, Nomentum, presently Mentana, see the map of Rome's ancient surroundings. Before this gate was built, the same road crossed the smaller Porta Nomentana [map ref. 5] (see the aerial view on the left). The opening of Porta Pia likely improved the traffic of goods coming from the north-east, which had increased following Rome's rapid development over the second half of the 1500s.

By the inner side of the gate, an interesting modern building (1971) by architect Basil Spencer houses the British Embassy.

the Bersaglieri corps monument

Shortly further, following the wall, we come to the aforementioned Porta Nomentana [map ref. 5], a small secondary gate that crossed the old direction of via Nomentana, whose original starting point was Porta Collina, a no longer extant gate belonging to the older set of Servian walls. In the Middle Ages, Porta Nomentana was also known as St.Agnes' Gate, due to the fact that the tomb of St.Agnes is located about 2.5 km / 1.5 mi off the city walls, along via Nomentana.

Porta Nomentana (left), now barely visible, and its tower
When Porta Pia was opened, and the course of the road was straightened, this passage became completely obsolete; no longer being an approach to the city, it was walled up for security reasons. Its simple archway, flanked by one surviving semicircular tower, is barely identifiable by the different brick texture of the wall. The other tower, that stood on the opposite side of the gate, was taken down in the early 19th century, in order to excavate a Roman tomb that had been found by its base.
Note how, unlike Porta Pinciana (described in page 2) and other major gates, Porta Nomentana had no white stone protection added.
Behind the closed gate now stretch the grounds of the British Embassy.

As we carry on along the wide street, which from this spot changes name into viale del Policlinico, a tower with windows marks the site where Aurelian's wall joined the Castrum Praetorium, dealt with in part II.
Unless you wish to keep walking along the wall, at the first crossing turn to the right towards viale di Castro Pretorio: here the first part of the tour comes to an end. Further down on the left stands a large modern complex, the National Library; in front of the library's entrance you'll find subway station Castro Pretorio (line B).