THE WALLS OF THE POPES
part II

all the way around the Vatican


~ page 2 ~




Between the sharp western bastion and the following one, the road grows wider: here stands another old gate, known as Porta Pertusa, which roughly translates as "Hole Gate" [map ref. 6], almost suggesting a narrow entrance on the side of the wall facing the wilderness, which was least likely to be used by the popes. This gate in fact remained closed for most of the time. The interesting feature of this spot, though, is the tall round St.John's Tower that overlooks the gate from inside the Vatican grounds: it is one of the towers built in the mid 15th century under pope Nicholas V as an extra protection for the early set of walls (by that time, they were already 500 years old).
In the 1950s, the tower was turned into a habitable outbuilding for important guests of the Vatican State.

the small Porta Pertusa below the mighty St.John's Tower


the railway gate, now closed
Keep following the road downhill, where it becomes narrow again, and rather steep. Very soon, the famous dome of St.Peter's comes into sight through the pine trees above the wall, a very charming view.

By a triple crossing, it becomes impossible to walk along the wall, because here the railway joins the Vatican boundary.

the dome peeps from beyond the wall


Follow the flight of steps on the right, then walk below the tall archways of the railway viaduct, called Viadotto del Gelsomino ("Jasmine Viaduct"), and take the first narrow road on the left: you will come to a second stairway, leading back to the wall. At the top of the latter flight of steps, a small entrance on the left leads to the gate through which the trains once entered the Vatican. The railway line is no longer active; it was used up to the 1960s, when the popes still used to travel by train. The gate is now permanently closed (except on special occasions), and the whole place is surrounded by a large railing.
Before turning back towards the wall, you may wish to walk for about 50 metres or yards along the footway that follows the viaduct, parallel to the old railway. Up to a few years ago, a second railway line was here, then replaced by the footway.

St.Peter's dome, as seen from the railway viaduct →


one of the dome's windows
Half way along the viaduct, turn round towards St.Peter's and enjoy the breathtaking view of the huge dome standing out against the sky above the surrounding buildings (right).
Those lucky enough to carry a pair of binoculars with them will be indeed surprised in discovering that the middle row of windows along the curved surface of the dome, which are definitely not as tiny as they appear to be to the naked eye, are also beautifully shaded by grotesque faces with different shapes, such as the one on the left, a typical Renaissance style of decoration.

As you get back to the wall, keep following it downhill, along via della Stazione Vaticana. Very soon you'll come to a modern approach to the Vatican, called Porta del Perugino ("Perugino's Gate"). This spot is no more than 100 metres away from the basilica, perfectly in line with the famous dome: also this is an excellent viewpoint for taking a good look at the enormous white mass drawn by Michelangelo.

About 50 metres further downhill, you'll notice another closed gate, with a small coat of arms of Clement XI (1700-21) hanging from its low archway, partly interred due to the rising of the ground level over the past few centuries. This used to be Porta Fabrica, more or less "Building Gate" [map ref. 7], also known as Porta delle Fornaci ("Furnaces Gate"), through which all building materials needed for the making of St.Peter's basilica were carried inside the Vatican. The many furnaces that stood in the neighbourhood opposite the wall, where millions of bricks were manufactured (not only for the basilica) used clay drawn from local quarries, which remained active up to the 1800s; this area is in fact known as Monti della Creta ("Clay Hills"), and the old activity still lingers in some local street names, such as via della Cava Aurelia ("Aurelian Quarry street") and via dell'Argilla ("Clay Street").
Porta Fabrica, or delle Fornaci, barely visible

Soon after the basilica was finished, Porta delle Fornaci was walled up, and remained closed ever since. This small gate, though, has left a curious memory in the spoken language: in those times, all goods entering the city gates were taxed, but materials used for the making of the basilica were exempted from any payment; to obtain such a privilege, they carried the mark "A U F" (which stood for the Latin expression Ad Usum Fabricae, "to be used for the building"). Roman dialect corrupted the three letters into the word auffa, which means "free of charge, for nothing", while in official Italian the similar expression a ufo has the same meaning, with a somewhat negative sense (i.e. "avoiding the payment of a due sum", such as a ticket, a charge, a fee, etc.).

← the site in the 1600s: furnaces and piles of bricks are in front of Porta delle Fornaci (centre);
slightly further stand Porta Cavalleggeri and a round tower, with the Inquisition tribunal at the back

As soon as you leave Porta Fabrica, the wall forms a corner on the left; here the type of material used for its making quite abruptly changes from bricks to tuff, which can be told by the thicker blocks, their pale tan colour and their slightly irregular size.
The reason for this is that the last stretch of the ancient wall built under Leo IV was restored (or maybe entirely rebuilt?) by Alexander VI in the 1490s; when some 70 years later Pius IV had his own set of walls built, this part was still steady enough to be used, despite its somewhat coarser structure. Being also slightly lower than the mid 1500s wall, a strip built in traditional bricks was added along its top part, to level its height.

As the northern end of the Janiculum Hill comes into sight at the bottom of the street, above the tunnel, you'll pass by a small public fountain hanging from the wall, whose basin is made out of a Roman sarcophagus (also the lion's head that once acted as a central nozzle, but now is dry, is rather beautiful); two plaques inscribed in Latin remeber pope Pius IV for having set the fountain in the mid 1500s, and pope Clement XI for having reactivated it in 1713, after some time it had stopped working.

Next to the fountain is a blind archway [map ref. 8] whose lintel is dressed with ashlar blocks; a coat of arms of Alexander VI (from the Borgia family) hangs from its archway, and a similar one can be seen just above, on the wall. This was another old gate, originally called Porta Turrionis ("Tower gate") because it stood close to the last round tower built by Nicholas V, on the opposite side of the road, now by a busy crossing (picture below). Later in time, it was renamed Porta Cavalleggeri ("Cavalrymen Gate"), when the barracks of this corps of guards was built nearby.
In the early 1900s the traffic grew heavier, so the wall was cut up to the tower, in order to provide a wider passage for vehicles. The old gate, which stood right in the middle of the present crossing, was then slightly shifted from its original site, in order to preserve it.

Porta Cavalleggeri, in its present position;
the small fountain hangs from the wall nearby

Only the outer half of the round tower is still standing; from piazza del Sant'Uffizio you can take a look at the side of the missing half (which now belongs to the grounds of a religious establishment and is therefore not directly accessible): the old wall made of tuff block is still visible, and on this side six small brackets in white travertine, with small gutters above, protrude from its surface near the top: they may have supported a wooden footway for sentries, before the making of the tower.


the tower built by Nicholas V; note the modern cut in the wall (far left)

the wall along the missing half of the tower, with brackets near the top

At the back of the tower once stood the most feared among the Vatican establishments: the Inquisition Tribunal (its location is clearly visible in the old map previously shown).


the sloping bastion by Sangallo and the unfinished Porta Santo Spirito
If you feel like walking for another 200 metres (or yards), the tour has one last feature to offer, on the opposite side of the Janiculum Hill.

Follow the tunnel in front of you, recently widened.
Once you reach its end, on the left side of the road you will notice the sharp corner of another mighty bastion, which runs over the hill and on this spot forms a deep recess, ending with a tall archway: this is Porta Santo Spirito [map ref. 9]. Around 1545, pope Paul III had both the bastion and the gate drawn by Antonio da Sangallo the Young, a distinguished architect specialized in military architecture. Michelangelo came into bitter conflict with him, strongly criticizing his project. Probably this is the reason why the work remained unfinished: the top part of the archway was never built, and the gate was roughly covered sometime later.

The amazing thickness of the wall can be told from the small windows located on both sides of the gate, closed by a thick iron grill: this was undoubtly an invulnerable approach to the Vatican citadel.


If you wish to end the tour here, you can follow the road that runs below Porta Santo Spirito, and reach St.Peter's Square along via della Conciliazione.