Places of Interest
In classical times the Campus Martius (Campo Marzio / Field of Mars), which covered a huge area around piazza Navona and the Pantheon, was given over to physical jerks, competitive sports and track events, including that forerunner of Formula One, chariot racing.
To keep them fighting fit, the troops of the vast Roman army had the run of acres of verdant parkland stretching down to the Tiber, with luxurious marbled bathhouses to wash off the sweat, theatres for entertainment, and grand monuments and temples to inspire notions of Empire.
You can glimpse something of its grandeur in the racetrack-shaped piazza Navona - built on the ruins of Domitian's stadium - which seated 30,000 spectators. In the fifth century barbarians cut Rome's aqueducts, driving the city's Dark Age population down towards its alternative water supply: the Tiber.
The Campo Marzio area started to be built over. For grander dwellings, dressed stone was filched from the disused military facilities; humbler souls too constructed their own little houses blithely among the ruins. In this area of haphazard development, every medieval wall tells a tale of primitive recycling.
Even today the area retains this admixture. Mink-coated contessas mingle with elderly pensioners, craftsmen and tradesmen; indeed, there's a good chance that they all live - or make a living - in various parts of the same palazzo.
After dark this is a chic area with glitzy restaurants and sophisticated enoteche (wine bars). But in the daytime it's back to business: buying and selling, making and breaking against a stunning backdrop and with cacophonous sound effects.
When Vatican walls had ears and you could lose your head for an offhand irreverent remark, Romans let off steam through 'talking' statues. There were six of them around the city where the populace would pin scurrilous verse, epigrams or ribald lampoons against the city's ecclesiastic or aristocratic establishment.
The often sophisticated poems came to be called pasquinate (pasquinades) after Pasquino, the best known of the talking statues, whose armless classical form (pictured) - probably from the third century BC - still sprawls under the walls of Palazzo Braschi (see above Museo di Roma) where it was placed in 1501. Pasquino may, or may not, have been a tailor to the Vatican who had a shop nearby from where much of papal Rome's insider gossip emanated.
Legend says that after this tailor died, the gossip that would have been exchanged in his shop was pinned to the statue instead - sometimes in Latin, sometimes in Roman dialect. The tradition continued pretty much until the advent of television, with a real flurry during the 20 heavily censored years of Fascism. Even today Roman wits will pin satirical offerings to the much-eroded bit of marble. Pasquino's foremost interlocutor, Marforio, became a political liability and was removed from his post in the Forum in 1587; he still languishes on the Campidoglio, where he was taken so that an eye could be kept on him.
This repression led to a rash of 'talking' statues appearing: the hideous Babuino in via del Babuino; Abate Luigi in piazza Vidoni beside Sant'Andrea delta Valle; the facchino on the corner of via Lata; and the busty Madama Lucrezia, next to the basilica di San Marco in piazza Venezia.
SANT'IVO ALLA SAPIENZA
Irascible, ascetic architect Francesco Borromini (1599-1667) did not achieve the same level of recognition in 17th-century Rome as his exuberant arch-rival Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Today, however, it's Borromini who is almost universally recognised as the true genius of Roman baroque architecture.
A good starting point for a tour of his most important buildings is the exquisite San Carlino alie Quattro Fontane, a church so small it occupies the same surface area as one of the columns supporting the dome of St Peter's. A few minutes' walk from San Carlino, beyond what would be a majestic front yard if it wasn't used as a car park, is Palazzo Barberini.
Although considered one of Bernini's masterpieces, many believe that much of the credit for the Palazzo's beautiful proportions should go to Borromini, the assistant architect and a disciple of the building's original designer Carlo Maderno. Don't miss Borromini's oval staircase in the right wing.
In via di Propaganda is another Borromini masterpiece: the chapel of the Palazzo de Propaganda Fide. To build this chapel Borromini ordered - probably with glee - the demolition of an existing one, erected only a few years earlier by Bernini.
The chapel's fagade dominates the building's elevation on the narrow street with great theatrical effect. Next stop in the tour is Sant'Ivo alia Sapienza. This small but grand church - built as the chapel of Rome University - stands at the end of a beautiful porticoed courtyard. This is perhaps the most imaginative geometrical design by tortured genius Francesco Borromini, with a concave fagade countered by the convex bulk of the dome, which terminates in a bizarre corkscrew spire. The interior is based on a six-pointed star, but the opposition of convex and concave surfaces conŹtinues in the floor plan, on the walls and up into the dome in a dizzying whirl.