This sector of Rome stretches down from the 19th-century district built up around the Piazza della Repubblica—originally laid out to serve as a monumental foyer between the Termini train station and the rest of the city—and over the rest of the Quirinale. The highest of ancient Rome’s famed seven hills, it’s crowned by the massive Palazzo Quirinale, home to the popes until 1870 and now Italy’s presidential palace. Along the way, you can see ancient Roman sculptures, Early Christian churches, and highlights from the 16th and 17th centuries, when Rome was conquered by the Baroque—and by Bernini.
Although Bernini’s work feels omnipresent in much of the city center, the Renaissance-man range of his work is particularly notable here. The artist as architect considered the church of Sant’Andrea al Quirinale one of his best; Bernini the urban designer and water worker is responsible for the muscle-bound sea god who blows his conch so provocatively in the fountain at the center of whirling Piazza Barberini. And Bernini the master gives religious passion a joltingly corporeal treatment in what is perhaps his greatest work, the Ecstasy of St. Teresa, in the church of Santa Maria della Vittoria.
Getting Here and Around
Bus No. 40 will get you from Termini station to Via Nazionale, an artery of the Quirinale, in one stop; from the Vatican, take Bus No. 64 or Line A to the very busy and convenient Repubblica Metro stop on the piazza of the same name. Bus No. 62 and the Metro also run from the Vatican to Piazza Barberini.
Not for the easily spooked, the crypt under the Church of Santa Maria della Concezione holds the bones of some 4,000 dead Capuchin monks. Arranged in odd decorative designs around the shriveled and decayed skeletons of their kinsmen, a macabre reminder of the impermanence of earthly life, the crypt is strangely touching and beautiful. As one sign proclaims, “What you are, we once were. What we are, you someday will be.”
Upstairs in the church, the first chapel on the right contains Guido Reni’s mid-17th-century St. Michael Trampling the Devil. The painting caused great scandal after an astute contemporary observer remarked that the face of the devil bore a surprising resemblance to the Pamphili Pope Innocent X, arch-enemy of Reni’s Barberini patrons. Compare the devil with the bust of the pope that you saw in the Palazzo Doria Pamphilj and judge for yourself.
One of Rome’s most splendid 17th-century palaces, the recently renovated Palazzo Barberini is a landmark of the Roman Baroque style. Pope Urban VIII had acquired the property and given it to a nephew, who was determined to build an edifice worthy of his generous uncle and the ever-more-powerful Barberini clan. The result was, architecturally, a precedent-shattering affair: a “villa suburbana” set right in the heart of the urban city and designed to be strikingly open to the outdoors. Note how Carlo Maderno’s grand facade seems almost entirely composed of window tiers rising up in proto-20th-century fashion. Ascend Bernini’s staircase to the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, hung with famed paintings including Raphael’s La Fornarina. But the showstopper here is the palace’s Gran Salone, a vast ballroom with a ceiling painted in 1630 by the third (and too-often neglected) master of the Roman Baroque, Pietro da Cortona.
Palazzo Massimo alle Terme
Come here to get a real feel for ancient Roman art—the collection rivals even the Vatican’s. The Roman National Museum, with a collection ranging from striking classical Roman paintings to marble bric-a-brac, has been organized in four locations: here, Palazzo Altemps, Crypta Balbi, and the Museo delle Terme di Diocleziano. The vast structure of the Palazzo Massimo holds the great ancient treasures of the archaeological collection and also the coin collection. Highlights include the Niobid, the famous bronze Boxer, and the Discobolus Lancelloti.
Pride of place goes, however, to the great ancient frescoes on view, stunningly set up to “re-create” the look of the homes they once decorated. These include stuccos and wall paintings found in the area of the Villa della Farnesina (in Trastevere) and the legendary frescoes from Empress Livia’s villa at Prima Porta, delightful depictions of a garden in bloom and an orchard alive with birds. Their colors are remarkably well preserved. These delicate decorations covered the walls of cool, sunken rooms in Livia’s summer house outside the city.
TIP Admission includes entrance to all four national museums, good for three days.
Piazza del Quirinale
This strategic location atop the Quirinal Hill has long been of great importance. It served as home of the Sabines in the 7th century BC, then deadly enemies of the Romans, who lived on the Capitoline and Palatine Hills (all of 1 km [½ mile] away). Today it’s the foreground for the presidential residence, Palazzo del Quirinale, and home to the Palazzo della Consulta, where Italy’s Constitutional Court sits. The open side of the piazza has an impressive vista of the rooftops and domes of central Rome and St. Peter’s.
The Fontana di Montecavallo, or Fontana dei Dioscuri, is composed of a huge Roman statuary group and an obelisk from the tomb of the emperor Augustus. The group of the Dioscuri trying to tame two massive marble steeds was found in the Baths of Constantine, which occupied part of the summit of the Quirinal Hill. Unlike just about every other ancient statue in Rome, this group survived the Dark Ages intact and accordingly became one of the city’s great sights, especially during the Middle Ages. Next to the figures, the ancient obelisk from the Mausoleo di Augusto (Tomb of Augustus) was put here by Pope Pius VI at the end of the 18th century.
One of the most impressive archaeological sites in Rome, San Clemente is a historical triple-decker. A 12th-century church was built on top of a 4th-century church, which in turn was built over a 2nd-century pagan temple to the god Mithras and 1st-century Roman apartments. The layers were rediscovered in 1857, when a curious prior, Friar Joseph Mullooly, started excavations beneath the present basilica. Today, you can descend to explore all three.
The upper church (at street level) is a gem even on its own. In the apse, a glittering 12th-century mosaic shows Jesus on a cross that turns into a living tree. In the left nave, the Castiglioni chapel holds frescoes painted around 1400 by the Florentine artist Masolino da Panicale (1383–1440), a key figure in the introduction of realism and one-point perspective into Renaissance painting.
To the right of the sacristy (and bookshop), descend the stairs to the 4th-century church, used until 1084, when it was damaged beyond repair during a siege of the area by the Norman prince Robert Guiscard. Still intact are some vibrant 11th-century frescoes depicting stories from the life of St. Clement. Descend an additional set of stairs to the mithraeum, a shrine dedicated to the god Mithras. Most such pagan shrines in Rome were destroyed by Christians, who often built churches over their remains, as happened here.
Santa Maria della Vittoria.
Like the church of Santa Susanna across Piazza San Bernardo, this church was designed by Carlo Maderno, but this one is best known for Bernini’s sumptuous Baroque decoration of the Cappella Cornaro (Cornaro Chapel), on the left as you face the altar, where you’ll find his interpretation of heavenly ecstasy in his statue of the Ecstasy of St. Theresa.
Your eye is drawn effortlessly from the frescoes on the ceiling down to the marble figures of the angel and the swooning saint, to the earthly figures of the Cornaro family (who commissioned the chapel), to the two inlays of marble skeletons in the pavement, representing the hope and despair of souls in purgatory.
Fontana delle Api (Fountain of the Bees)
Decorated with the famous heraldic bees of the Barberini family, the upper shell and the inscription are from a fountain that Bernini designed for Pope Urban VIII.
Museo delle Terme di Diocleziano (Baths of Diocletian)
Though part of the ancient structure is now the church of Santa Maria degli Angeli, and other parts were transformed into a Carthusian monastery or razed to make room for later urban development, a visit gives you an idea of the scale and grandeur of this ancient bathing establishment. Upon entering the church you see the major structures of the baths, partly covered by 16th- and 17th-century overlay, some of which is by Michelangelo. The monastery cloister is filled with the lapidary collection of the Museo Nazionale Romano while other rooms have archaeological works, along with a virtual representation of Livia’s villa, which you can tour with the help of a joystick
Piazza della Repubblica
Often the first view that spells “Rome” to weary travelers walking from the Stazione Termini, this broad square was laid out in the late 1800s and includes the exuberant Fontana delle Naiadi (Fountain of the Naiads). This pièce de résistance is draped with voluptuous bronze ladies wrestling happily with marine monsters.
Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri
The curving brick facade on the northeast side of Piazza della Repubblica is one small remaining part of the colossal Terme di Diocleziano, the largest and most impressive of the baths of ancient Rome. In 1561 Michelangelo was commissioned to convert the vast tepidarium, the central hall of the baths, into a church. His work was altered by Vanvitelli in the 18th century, but the huge transept, which formed the nave in Michelangelo’s plan, has remained as he adapted it. The eight enormous monolithic columns of red granite that support the great beams are the original columns of the tepidarium, 45 feet high and more than 5 feet in diameter. The great hall is 92 feet high.
San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane
Sometimes identified by the diminutive San Carlino because of its tiny size, this is one of Borromini’s masterpieces. In a space no larger than the base of one of the piers of St. Peter’s Basilica, he created a church that is an intricate exercise in geometric perfection, with a coffered dome that seems to float above the curves of the walls. Borromini’s work is often bizarre, definitely intellectual, and intensely concerned with pure form.
In San Carlo, he invented an original treatment of space that creates an effect of rippling movement, especially evident in the double-S curves of the facade. Characteristically, the interior decoration is subdued, in white stucco with no more than a few touches of gilding, so as not to distract from the form. Don’t miss the cloister, a tiny, understated baroque jewel, with a graceful portico and loggia above, echoing the lines of the church.
Sant’Andrea al Quirinale
Designed by Bernini, this is an architectural gem of the Baroque. His son wrote that Bernini considered it one of his best works and that he used to come here occasionally just to sit and enjoy it. Bernini’s simple oval plan, a classic of Baroque architecture, is given drama and movement by the church’s decoration, which carries the story of St. Andrew’s martyrdom and ascension into heaven, starting with the painting over the high altar, up past the figure of the saint over the chancel door, to the angels at the base of the lantern and the dove of the Holy Spirit that awaits on high.