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Rione XIII - TRASTEVERE

NAME
Borgo is the only district whose name has a foreign root, as it comes from the Saxon word Burg, meaning "citadel": a small village enclosed within a set of walls.
Actually, for several centuries a galaxy of small foreign communities made of pilgrims, students, and tradesmen lived in in this area, the largest of which was the one from Wessex (presently south-western England), which developed by the Saxon School (see further in MAIN FEATURES).

stemma del rione Borgo COAT OF ARMS
A crouching lion, facing three small hills topped by an eight-pointed star. The lion is the family device of pope Sixtus V, under whose reign (1585-90) Borgo became one of Rome's districts. In some versions, the lion raises its paw.
lungotevere Castello - Castel Sant'Angelo
ancient chests of Sant'Angelo Castle,
in the Treasury Hall
In other versions, instead, the three hills rest on a chest, towards which the lion stretches its paw: in the late 1500s, Sixtus V moved the Vatican treasury and archives to Sant'Angelo Castle, where the gold was in fact kept in large iron chests (picture above), which in the coat of arms of the district are symbolically guarded by the lion.

lungotevere Castello - Sant'Angelo Castle
view of Borgo district from the top of Sant'Angelo Castle

BOUNDARIES
Piazza Pio XII; largo del Colonnato, piazza della Cittą Leonina, via di Porta Angelica, piazza del Risorgimento, via Stefano Porcari, via Alberico II, piazza Adriana, lungotevere Castello, lungotevere Vaticano, lungotevere in Sassia, piazza della Rovere, galleria Principe Amedeo di Savoia, piazza del Sant'Uffizio, via Paolo VI, largo degli Alicorni.

NOTE: up to 1929, also the land belonging to the now independent Vatican State, highlighted in blue in the map on the right, was included in Borgo.
locator map of Borgo district


MAIN FEATURES
(the black numbers in brackets refer to the map on the right)
Despite the district may be considered as Roman 'only' since the 16th century, the historical records about Borgo are particularly rich, and date back to the early empire age.
On the western bank of the Tiber, just outside the city, in the grounds between the Janiculum Hill and the smaller Vatican Hill, emperor Caligula had started building a stadium for chariot races, finished by the two following emperors, Claudius and Nero, who had also improved it. The centre of the arena was adorned with an Egyptian obelisk, the same one now standing in St.Peter's Square (see Obelisks part I for details). Nearby, midway between the stadium and the river, stood a pyramid, similar in shape and size to the one built for Gaius Cestius in the southern part of the city (see Aurelian's Walls); also this one likely was the tomb of some important personage, whose name though went lost, together with the monument (for further details, see There Once Was In Rome...).
vicolo del Campanile
the lanes in borgo, by the Passetto wall

During the persecutions by Claudius and Nero, many Christians were killed in the stadium, and then buried in a nearby necropolis; among them was also apostle Peter (d.AD 64 or 67), the first pope of the Church of Rome, whose very simple tomb was marked after about one century and a half with a small shrine.
When in 313 emperor Constantine I lifted the ban on the Christian religion, being his own mother (St.Helen) a follower of this religion, he took the decision of having a large basilica dedicated to St.Peter [1] built on the very spot where the apostle had been buried, enclosing his tomb. Therefore, this place soon became a place of worship that pilgrims from many lands came to visit, and during their stay they camped in the grounds that surrounded the church. Hostels for pilgrims and for the sick started to appear, as well as inns and taverns, until resident foreign communities were founded, forming the early nucleus of the district.

borgo Angelico
the wall of Leo IV, known as the Passetto
Being located outside the set of city walls, the basilica was unprotected; so when in 846 the Saracen pirates attacked Rome, they sacked St.Peter's treasury (already rather rich) and damaged the church. For this reason, a few years later pope Leo IV (847-55) had the place of worship protected from further risks by building a wall all around the area where the basilica stood (see The Walls of the Popes, which was turned into a suburban citadel, called Civitas Nova ("New City"), later renamed Civitas Leonina ("Leo's City"). During the late Middle Ages, Nel tardo medioevo, a long walkable passage known as the Passetto [2] was built on top of this wall, linking the Vatican to Sant'Angelo Castle; later in time, the passage was covered and turned into a gallery for most of its length.
Since the district kept expanding, by the mid 16th century pope Pius IV had a new wall built outside the old one, so to enclose the part of Borgo that had been more recently populated.
Only a few years later, in 1586, the citadel was officially included in Rome's urban territory, and Borgo became the fourteenth historical district of the city.
The wall of Pius IV ran almost perfectly straight from the castle to the Vatican. It was taken down by the late 19th century, when Rome became the capital of the newborn Kingdom of Italy; as a consequence, the city faced a massive immigration, calling for a considerable enlargement of the the built-up urban areas. The wll, that no longer was a defensive structure, but hindered the making of new buildings, was taken down for most of its length, including its two gates (see There Once Was in Rome...). Still nowadays the district boundary of Borgo between Sant'Angelo Castle and the Vatican runs along the same direction.

Between 1936 and 1937 also the whole central part of Borgo, known as 'the spine', was abruptly pulled down for the making of the broad via della Conciliazione [3] (compare the old view with the present one in The Walls of the Popes).
Such decision was taken as a token of friendship paid by the ruling fascist government to pope Pius XI; the latter, by signing a concordat with Italy in 1929, sixty years after the fall of the Papal State, granted to the Church of Rome once again its own independent country, now called Vatican State.
The project completely disregarded the fact that Gianlorenzo Bernini had planned piazza San Pietro according to Borgo's spine, as the visitor who came out of the lanes would find himself suddenly overwhelmed by the view of the vast colonnade. With the making of via della Conciliazione such scenographic effect went obviously lost.
via della Conciliazione via della Conciliazione
As Borgo's spine vanished, so did also some historical buildings, among which the church of San Giacomo Scossacavalli, that stood in the square named after it; a fountain by Carlo Maderno, just in front of the church, was disassembled and, after some twenty years, rebuilt in Sant'Eustachio district.
Other interesting buildings, instead, were spared from the destructive fury of the pickaxe, and still today line both sides of the modern avenue.
vicolo del Campanile Among them is the Renaissance church of Santa Maria in Traspontina [4]. Originally, this very ancient church stood much closer to the castle. Its belltower, though, obstructed the field of fire of the cannons that defended the district from the top of the fortress. So around 1565 the church was taken down and rebuilt into its present shape, about 100 m (or yards) farther from the castle, on the spot where the remains of Borgo's pyramid, previously mentioned; on this occasion, every trace of the ancient monument definitively vanished. The church was then provided with a lower dome, which does not rest on a drum (this is the only specimen in Rome with such a feature).
On one side of the church, an interesting house dating from the same century overlooks the narrow lane called vicolo del Campanile; here, in the 1800s, lived Mastro Titta (cfr. Curious and Unusual), the famous executioner of the Papal State.

← the 1500s house of Mastro Titta, in vicolo del Campanile

On the same side of the street stands another large building of the late 15th century, Palazzo Torlonia [5], built in white travertine by architect Andrea Bregno. Its design recalls the huge Chancellery Palace in Parione district, which inspired its making. Its first owner was cardinal Castellesi, a secretary to pope Alexander VI and cardinal protector of England, who in 1504 presented his palace to king Henry VII, as the official seat of the British ambassador in Rome. Shortly later, having been involved in a plot against pope Leo X (1513), the cardinal was forced to flee, and the ruling king of England of the time, Henry VIII, gave the building to the new cardinal protector of England, Campeggio. But in 1531-32, as a consequence of the Anglican schism, Henry VIII was in turn stripped from the embassy building, which remained a property of the Campeggio family up to the early 1600s. After having been handed down to the Borghese and then to the Giraud families, in 1820 it was finally acquired by the rich Torlonia family, the owners of several mansions in Rome; their coat of arms now hangs over the main doorway. via della Conciliazione
Santa Maria in Traspontina

The next building on the same side of the avenue has maintained the front that once belonged to Palazzo dei Convertendi [6], once standing in the no longer extant piazza Scossacavalli, yet oriented at right angles with its present position. It had been built as a mansion for the Spinola family from Genua, around the late 1400s (the architect has remained obscure); about two centuries later it was turned into a home where those who wanted to convert to the Catholic religion were lodged and instructed, being thus given its present name. It was taken down in 1937, during the demolition campaign, but its front and some halls were spared; its courtyard and the rest of the building, instead, are modern.

Opposite Palazzo Torlonia stands Palazzo dei Penitenzieri [7] (formerly Della Rovere), likely a project by Baccio Pontelli, built as of 1482 at the expenses of cardinal Domenico Della Rovere; its shape, with a stout tower in the corner, is reminiscent of the even more massive Palazzo Venezia (see Pigna district), which was almost certainly used as a model. It originally had paintings by Pinturicchio on its front, but all of them have vanished; others by the same painter are still extant inside the building, a part of which has been turned into a luxury hotel, while another part is the seat of the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem (an order founded in 1099 by Godfrey de Bouillon, a leader of the first crusade, to defend the holy city).
On the same side of the street, just before St.Peter's Square, another historical building was recently turned into a hotel: Palazzo Cesi [8] (1580), built for cardinal Armellini in the early 1500s, then purchased by cardinale Cesi, who had it refurbished into its present shape.
via della Conciliazione
Palazzo Torlonia

Besides these large buildings, what has been left standing of the historical Borgo district is a texture of old and new. In its lanes several houses are original, and also the street plan has not changed, still based on few long and straight streets called Borghi, that cut through the whole length of district, crossed at right angles by shorter and narrower alleys. But especially in Borgo Nuovo, i.e. the northern half of Borgo, the vicinity of the Vatican, therefore tourism business, has inevitably affected the spirit of the district, which is now (over)crowded with establishments such as restaurants, bars and hotels.
Nevertheless, by raising one's eyes above the modern souvenir shops, the old windows framed with marble cornices and the ceilings crossed by wooden beams still provide a typical look of the past centuries.

via delle Palline
the house where Domenico Fontana lived (plaque),
turned into ...the Bramante Hotel!

In Borgo's lanes lived some of the personages whose name is bound to Rome's history. Besides Mastro Titta, previously mentioned, also Domenico Fontana, the main architect and fountain-maker of pope Sixtus V, who was able to move for him all the large ancient obelisks, in the late 1500s dwelt in a house in vicolo delle Palline, just a few metres off the Passetto wall, which has been now turned into a hotel (picture above), yet paradoxically named after another famous Renaissance architect, Donato Bramante!
piazza del Catalone
piazza del Catalone, with its small fountain of
the 1800s, is a charming corner along Borgo Pio

An important complex with a long story to it, located in the southern part of Borgo, is Santo Spirito in Sassia [9].

borgo Santo Spirito
the ancient Archhospital of Santo Spirito in Sassia
In year 726, after having abdicated, king Ine of Wessex left his own country and travelled to Rome as a pilgrim; about forty years earlier, also his predecessor Caedwalla had done the same. Having met with pope Gregory II, Ine agreed the making of a school for the community of fellow countrymen who lived near the tomb of St.Peter. The complex, which also included a hostel and a church, was locally known as Schola Saxonum ("School of the Saxons"), and stood by the western bank of the Tiber. The community used to call this citadel Burg, whence the Latin name burgus Saxonum given to the whole neighborhood, whence the name Borgo sprang. Several other national communities had settled in the same district, such as the Franks, the Frisians, the Germans, the Armenians and the Hungarians, and several others, each of which managed their own establishments, such as schools, churches, hospices, and sometimes burial grounds.

Over the following centuries, the Schola Saxonum was damaged by fire a number of times; therefore, its original shape considerably changed in time. Then, around 1200, pope Innocent III gave it to the newborn Order of the Hospitallers of the Holy Spirit, who turned it into a hospital (Archhospital of Santo Spirito in Sassia), also setting here the seat of the congregation, which had branches in many other European lands.
borgo Santo Spirito Having been damaged again by a fire in 1471, during the following years it was rebuilt in its present shape by pope Sixtus IV, whose coat of arms, bearing the oak tree of the Della Rovere family, can be seen hanging from windows, doorways, pillars, etc. (left). Also the seal of the Order of the Hospitallers who ran the hospital, the Lorraine cross with a double crossbar, is commonly found anywhere around the complex.
Santo Spirito in Sassia complex, vaguely triangular in shape, occupies the whole large block forming the south-eastern part of the district, which in place names is still referred to as Saxia (now often spelt Sassia) after the early Wessex (i.e. West Saxon) community who once lived there. The side that stretches along Borgo Santo Spirito includes the old Archhospital of Santo Spirito [8a] (c.1475), the building where its chief administrator lived (Palazzo del Commendatore [8b], c.1570, with a lavish courtyard, presently acting as a library), and the church of Santo Spirito in Sassia [8c] (founded in c.700, rebuilt in the mid 16th century, but with a tall Romanesque belltower, earlier by at least one hundred years).
borgo Santo Spirito
the Sistine Ward; beyond the window is the
lantern that divides it into two twin rooms

Along the side of the complex that follows the river bank, instead, stands the modern wing of the same hospital [9d], still active, whose back is connected to the unfinished Santo Spirito Gate and its mighty bastion [10], both Renaissance works by Antonio da Sangallo il Giovane (see The Walls of the Popes).

Although in the 1600s the hospital was enlarged, its oldest part consisted of a single ward, originally known as the Sistine Ward, after pope Sixtus IV, 120 m or yards long, broken into two wings, later renamed the Baglivi Room and the Lancisi Room after two distinguished physicians and anatomists of the late 17th-early 18th centuries.
borgo Santo Spirito
the ceiling of the octagonal lantern
The ward is divided by a small hall enclosed by a tall octagonal tower-shaped lantern, easily recognizable from the outside, which originally acted as the hospital's main entrance; it still maintains its original marble doorway, a fine late 1400s work attributed to Andrea Bregno, subsequently covered by a further doorway in Baroque style.
The walls of the ward are decorated with late 15th century fresco paintings, alternating with ogival windows that bear the coat of arms of the pope, while the ceiling is covered with small painted wooden panels; it is even difficult to think of this place as an actual hospital, with patient beds lined up! borgo Santo Spirito
the courtyard of Palazzo del Commendatore
The ancient ward is now only used for holding meetings and conferences.
A curious feature found along the outer wall of the hospital, by the lantern, is an old 'wheel', a device by which unwanted newborn babies could be anonymously left to the Order of the Hospitallers, instead of being abandoned in the streets or even drowned: actually, it is said that pope Innocent III had the first wheel built by the time the hospital was founded, after some fishermen reported that dead babies had been caught in their nets, along the river. In time, similar wheels appeared by many other religious institutions, such as hospices, convents and nunneries, and their use became a common practice.
The device consists of a revolving hollow cylinder made of wood, open on one side, sometimes protected by an iron grill with an opening large enough to let a baby through it.
borgo Santo Spirito
the wheel, behind the iron grill
with a round opening for the baby
Usually at night-time, the child was placed through the opening into the cylinder, which was then turned towards the inside, where the hospital staff collected the baby and took care of him. An alms-box on one side of the wheel collected offerings for the abandoned children. Besides being the first of its kind, Santo Spirito's wheel seems to be one of the very few surviving ones. Obviously, this practice is no longer in use today, but it still was no more than one century ago.
On the same wall, slightly further, a plaque dated 1598 remembers one of Rome's worst floods, occurred on Christmas eve of that year (see Curious and Unusual for pictures and details).
lungotevere in Sassia
curious statue of a beggar by the entrance
of the new wing of Santo Spirito Hospital

The most important feature in Borgo, both from a historical and a scenographic point of view, is undoubtly Sant'Angelo Castle [11]. It is called simply 'Castle' by the people of Rome, and it is located in the westernmost corner of the district, at the northern end of the beautiful Sant'Angelo Bridge [12], after which the adjoining Ponte district was named.
The castle has a square floor plan, with towers in the corners, and a mighty round keep rising from its centre; it is surrounded by a set of walls shaped as a pentagon (four sides are left, because the one by the Tiber was taken down in the late 1800s, on the occasion of the works along the river bank), with mighty bastions. This is the result of enlargements and alterations carried out to the original structure over almost 1500 years.

a brief description of the castle in verse,
from "Il maggio romanesco" (Rome's Greasy Pole),
a heroicomical poem by Giovanni Camillo Peresio (1685)
(hover above the image for a translation)

lungotevere Vaticano
Sant'Angelo Castle and Sant'Angelo Bridge
In Roman times this was the Hadrianeum, i.e. the monumental tomb of emperor Hadrian who had it built between AD 130 and 139 for himself (while still alive!) and for his successors; the ashes of the following emperors up to Caracalla (d.217) were kept there, as well. It stands on the very bank of the Tiber, just outside the ancient city boundary. Although its descriptions in literature fail in giving us a detailed idea of what the original momument looked like, there is little doubt that it consisted of a three-storey structure, with a large square base, a cylinder on top, crowned by a further cylinder, on whose top was a towering bronze statue of the emperor riding a chariot, which could be seen from afar. The second level was surrounded by a large number of trees that grew over a huge pile of turf, resting above the free part of the square base.
The monument was white, built with stone blocks and lined with marble. It could be reached from the city by means of a bridge called Pons Aelius [12], after the second name of the emperor, whose full name was Publius Aelius Traianus Hadrianus.

When the city walls were built under Aurelian (c.275), the huge tomb already started having strategic impact on the defensive system, due to its crucial location, at one end of a bridge that gave access to the northen part of the city. In those days, also an older bridge was standing 200 m (or yards) further south: Triumphal Bridge [☆ in the district locator map], also known as Nero's Bridge, or Vatican Bridge, which led to the aforesaid stadium of emperors Gaius (Caligula) and Nero by the Vatican Hill.

emperor Hadrian →
lungotevere Castello - Sant'Angelo Castle

Around year 400, emperor Honorius, foreseeing the sieges that a few years later the Visigoths and then the Vandals imposed on Rome, had the whole set of walls and its gates strengthened; by that time, the tomb of Hadrian began to be explicitly referred to as castellum, i.e. "fortress, stronghold".
When one century later also the Ostrogoths attacked the city (537), Triumphal Bridge was taken down for tactical reasons (traces of its pillars can still be seen when the water level of the Tiber is low), so that Aelius Bridge remained the only approach to the northern part of city. From the top of the new fortress, the Byzantine soldiers who had barricated themselves in it, even hurled against the attackers the statues that decorated the monument; some of their fragments were found, many centuries later, while digging the moat below the castle.
lungotevere Castello - Sant'Angelo Castle
reconstructions of Hadrian's tomb
lungotevere Castello - Sant'Angelo Castle
The name Sant'Angelo (i.e. "Saint Angel") sprung more or less in the same age, following a legendary anecdote, said to have taken place in year 590, while Rome was being stricken by a terrible plague. Pope Gregory the Great was leading a religious procession to plea for God's protection against the calamity, when an angel (archangel Michael) was seen flying above the monument, in the attitude of sheathing back his sword: this vision marked the end of the plague.

During the Middle Ages, the tomb itself was altered in order to use it for defensive purposes: in c.1040, the height of its central element (now the keep of the fortress) was increased, and its top part was made square in shape; its base was dug, so to create a circular corridor around the keep, while the original square base was turned into a set of walls. In the mid 1400s a tower was built on three out of its four corners. Around 1500 the fourth tower was added, and all of them were strengthened. Also a moat was dug all around the castle; it drew water from the nearby river.

Finally, in the mid 1500s a further set of walls was built around the moat, shaped as a pentagon, with a mighty arrow-shaped bastion on each of the five corners; its purpose was to keep the shooting between the attackers and the guards as far as possible from the papal apartments. Interestingly, the pentagonal wall has the same structure as the ones built to defend the city, i.e. made of bricks, with a sloping outer surface and a white kerbstone running horizontally along its full length (further details can be found in The City Walls).

Despite the many changes, the ancient Roman tomb always remained the core of the building; its rough texture made of large stone blocks (having lost its marble surface), is clearly recognizable in the lower half of the keep. Instead the present height of the ground level, raised in modern times, makes the wall on the front side of the castle appear considerably lower than its real height: this can be told by comparing its other three sides.

The castle is dedicated to archangel Michael, so since the late 11th century an angel has always been standing on its top; in time, six different statues have been used.
lungotevere Castello - Castel Sant'Angelo
il penultimo (quinto) angelo,
di Raffaello da Montelupo (1544)
lungotevere Castello - Castel Sant'Angelo
l'attuale (sesto) angelo,
di Peter van Verschaffelt (1753)
The first one, in wood, was completely worn out due to the permanent exposure to the sun, wind and rain; the second one, in marble with bronze wings, was damaged during a siege; the third one, made in the same way, was destroyed by a thunderbolt; the fourth one, made of gilded bronze, had to be replaced when its metal was recycled for moulding cannons, during the sack of Rome in 1527; the fifth one, once again in marble and bronze, lasted some 200 years before being replaced in 1753 by the present one, in bronze. The penultimate statue is still kept on display in the Courtyard of the Angel.

Sant'Angelo Castle belonged to the popes for a very long time; its location, so close to St.Peter's basilica, and the walkable passage above the wall, which since the late 1200s links the fortress to the Vatican, almost turned the fortress into an outbuilding of the papal apartments. In 1367, its keys were offered to the French pope Urban V, in those years residing in Avignon (France), in order to convince him to come back to Rome, yet without success. Since c.1500, besides its defensive purposes, the castle started acting also as a papal residence, and in the late 1500s also the Vatican treasury and archives were moved into it. But most of all, the castle also acted as a place of detention. Although such use had already started under emperor Honorius, it was particularly from the 16th through the 18th centuries that the cells of Sant'Angelo Castle were frequently occupied by political prisoners, whereas common delinquents were more often held in other ill-famed jails, such as Corte Savella (in Regola district), Tor di Nona prison (in Ponte district) and the New Prisons (opened in 1650 in Ponte district, as well).
In the castle's basement, the cells for the convicts were so small that it was impossible either to stand straight or to lay on the floor, and some of them had no door, so that the convict had to be lowered from above. Important prisoners, instead, were kept in much larger rooms at a higher level, below the pope's apartments.
lungotevere Castello - Sant'Angelo Castle
Sant'Angelo Bridge from the balcony of Julius II

lungotevere Castello - Castel Sant'Angelo One curious detail that very few notice while visiting the castle, is that most papal coats of arms hanging from the outer walls, including the large one on the front of the keep that once featured the family insignia of Alexander VI (Borgia), a smaller one just above the lodge of Julius II, that bore the oak tree of the Della Rovere family, and two more hanging from the uppermost terrace where the bronze angel stands, are blank: a closer inspection clearly reveals that they were deliberately chiselled off. Who did this were the French Napoleonic soldiers, during Rome's occupation from 1808 to 1814, in the attempt of cancelling all signs of the pope's authority from the building. Similar blank papal coat of arms are found in other districts, as well.

← the large coat of arms of Alexander VI, chiselled off

In 1870 the castle became a property of the Italian government, and in 1906 it was turned into a museum, while in its deep moat is now a public garden.

lungotevere Castello - Castel Sant'Angelo
veduta da una finestra del castello
Sant'Angelo Castle and the basilica of St.Peter (the latter now belonging to the independent Vatican State, but once a part of this district, as well) have always symbolized the two sides of papal power, i.e. temporal and spiritual. For this reason, when in 1928 the small district fountains were set in different parts of the city, with shapes that recalled the district's own features (see the Fountains monograph), Borgo was given two different ones, namely the Fountain of the Tiaras [13], shaped as the traditional headgear once worn by the popes, bearing the triple crown, and decorated with the papal insignia, i.e. the crossed keys of St.Peter, and the Fountain of the Cannon-balls [14] (shown in the opening page of this section), inspired by the castle. largo del Colonnato
the Fountain of the Tiaras (1928)




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