The historic center of Rome...
...and the Holy See (including the Vatican and the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls) make up one of the 51 Italian sites inserted in UNESCO’s World Heritage List.
The historic center, hemmed in by the Aurelian walls (to the left of the River Tiber) and the Janiculum walls (to the right of the Tiber), contains 25,000 environmental and archaeological points of interest.
Legend holds that Romulus and Remus founded Rome in 753 B.C. – the mythical image of the two brothers suckled by the she-wolf, other than the Colosseum, has become the iconographic symbol for the Capital. Yet what has truly made Rome the legendary city that it is is its history: the epicenter of the Roman Republic, then the Roman Empire’s hub for political and cultural life, and finally, in the 4th Century, the realm of Christianity.
The areas making up the World Heritage Site (extended, 1990, to include those walls erected by Pope Urban VIII) comprise some of the most important monuments in antiquity, among which the Imperial Forum certainly stands out. Not far, close to the Aventine Hill, we find two master works (that were also regular pasttimes for the gens romana): the Terme di Caracalla (212-217), exemplary of some of the most grandiose public baths; and the Circus Maximus, the ancient stadium used for horse and chariot races.
Moving north along the winding and curling River Tiber, one eventually comes across the Mausoleum of Augustus, the imposing funerary monument that Augustus requested upon his return from Alexandria in 29 B.C. (it resembles the tomb of Alexander the Great). Nearby, another famous mausoleum is that of Emperor Hadrian, on top of which was built the Castel Sant'Angelo. Radically modified during the Medieval and Renaissance epochs, it is linked to the Vatican City by way of a fortified corridor.
Also in Rome’s historic center rises the Pantheon; wanted by Hadrian (c. 118-128), it was intended as a temple for the divinities of Olympus. The Romans called it “La Rotonda.”
Undoubtedly of interest are the magnificent columns that dot the city: Trajan’s Column, erected to celebrate Trajan’s conquest of Dacia, and the Column of Marcus Aurelius, raised between 176 and 192 to memorialize Rome’s victories over the Germanic populations. It stands in front of Palazzo Chigi (currently the seat of government) in Piazza Colonna.
Numerous as well are Rome’s unforgettable piazzas: Campo de' Fiori, with the statue of Giordano Bruno at its center, Piazza Navona, with Bernini’s splendid Four Rivers Fountain; the Spanish Steps (Piazza di Spagna) over which hovers the celebrated stairway; Piazza del Popolo and its characteristic “twin” churches; Piazza Venezia, almost imposed upon by the Vittorio Emmanuele Monument (the Altare della Patria, behind which lies the Campidoglio); the piazza Largo di Torre in Argentina that holds the remains of ancient pagan temples; Piazza Trilussa and Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere, both in the historic quarter of Trastevere.
Other than the historic center of Rome, several religious and public buildings belonging to Papal Rome – and thus sitting on the extraterritorial properties of the Holy See – comprise part of this UNESCO site. Among these are some of the most beautiful churches in the city, of course considered to be artistic and architectural masterpieces: Santa Maria Maggiore, San Giovanni in Laterano (St. John Lateran) and St. Paul’s Outside the Walls. These monuments have exerted great influence over the development of architecture and monumental artworks for much of the Christian world over the centuries.
The Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore (St. Mary Major) is one of the official “major basilicas” in Rome, and is of enormous religious and artistic importance. For Papal Rome it represented one of the linchpins of the urban plan realized by Pope Sixtus V. Even today its typical bell tower and domes are characteristic features of the Roman skyline. One of the Basilica’s particularities is the quality and abundance of its mosaics: those in the nave (36 panels’ worth!), those over the arcade (dating back to the 5th Century), and those of the apse (not completed until 1295). Santa Maria Maggiore’s magnificent posterior facade (by Carlo Rainaldi, 1673), is one of the most majestic in Baroque architecture.
San Giovanni in Laterano was actually Rome’s first cathedral, where the Emperor Constantine allowed the establishment of the first Episcopal seat. With five naves, a simple exterior and a richly-decorated interior, the Basilica was restored by Borromini during the Holy Year of 1650. It was during this restoration that the church assumed its Baroque aspect.
The Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, constructed upon the command of Constantine in 314, was successively enlarged and, after a fire in 1823, was re-built by the architect Luigi Poletti. Also divided into 5 naves, it is supported by 80 columns made of the fine, white Montorfano granite. Thirty-six frescoes decorate the upper sections of the church’s interior with scenes from the life of Saint Paul, in addition to bands of Egyptian alabaster that alternate with windows.
Besides Rome’s historic center and its three colossal churches, several other palazzi of note – all Vatican properties – have been added to the World Heritage List. They are: the Cancelleria (1483-1517), Palazzo dei Propilei, Palazzo Maffei, Palazzo San Callisto and Palazzo di Propaganda Fide.
A Few Curiosities
The Rome inside the perimeter of the Aurelian Walls is divided into 22 districts or quarters: Monti, Trevi, Colonna, Campo Marzio, Ponte, Parione, Regola, Sant'Eustachio, Pigna, Campitelli, Sant'Angelo, Ripa, Trastevere, Borgo, Esquilino, Ludovisi, Sallustiano, Castro Pretorio, Celio, Testaccio, San Saba and Prati.
It was the Lateran Pacts, drawn between Italy and the Vatican State in 1929, to establish the exact number of Vatican properties located within Italian borders that could be defined as ‘extra-territorial’ and thus remain the exclusive property of the Holy See.