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Bernini's Ecstasy of St. Teresa

Monday, June 20, 2011

Julius Caesar and the Subura

Since we've arrived in Rome, our Sundays have been quiet affairs, giving the hubby time to de-stress and relax. Don't really know how relaxing going to the grocery is....but if that's what he wants to do, a dutiful dependent spouse like myself just goes along.

This Sunday, however, taking him at his word that he would leave it up to me to decide, I suggested going down to Rome, attend church wherever, after which we would explore the area and finish it off with lunch (with emphasis on the lunch). Knowing that I would be given the task of finding a small but interesting area, I decided on the Monti neighborhood.

This neighborhood was nowhere in my top lists of places to explore until it came to my attention that this was an ancient residential neighborhood, once called the Subura and was renamed Rione Monti in the middle ages because it was located at the juncture of the Viminale, Qurinale and Esquiline Hills.

Subura! Finally finding the Subura was exciting for one like me who reads Saylor, Davis, Massie and Everett, authors who through their books evocatively recreate a city that no longer exists. Ancient Rome would not be complete without the Subura!  

Getting off the Metro Line B at Cavour, one exits right into the middle of Rione Monti, the Subura of ancient Rome!

The Subura or Suburra in Modern times

In ancient Rome, the Subura was a district in central Rome, east of the Forum, lying between the Virminale and Esquiline Hills. It was a busy, noisy area, home to traders and manufacturers as well as to thieves, prostitutes and the poor. The presence of "foreigners" was notable, and there was most certainly a Jewish place of worship somewhere in the Subura. 

The wealthy, aristocratic Romans stayed away from this area of narrow alleys, and most ordinary Romans would not venture into certain parts of the Subura especially at the onset of darkness. It was a tough neighborhood, the ancient city's red-light district and was mostly controlled by gangs.

It was also a place of commerce, teeming with merchants, barber shops, cobblers, coppersmiths, blacksmiths  and had a large market were vegetables, wine, meat and other provisions could be found. 

Customers were the residents of the Suburba, the poorer residents of other parts of Rome, and the slaves in charge of households who knew where the bargains could be had. Some may have been shopping there with the full knowledge of their masters, others may have been doing it on the sly, maybe keeping the balance of market money towards their "purchase my freedom" fund.

In 2 BC to act as a firewall and visual barrier between the "unsightly" Subura and the "glorious" Forum a massive grey wall was built, parts of which are still visible today.

Wall along today's Via Tor d'Conti

Although shunned by the aristocrats and the rich, there was one notable resident of the Subura. Julius Caesar grew up and stayed there until he became Pontifex Maximus.

Bust of Julius Caesar
Caesar's pedigree was impecable, and could rival anyone living on the Aventine, or the Palatine and maybe surpass a number of them. He was a member of the Julii clan who claimed descent from Iulus, son of the Trojan prince Aeneas (of Odyssey fame) and himself the son of Venus the goddess of love. How much more impecable can a pedigree be?

Depiction of Caesar from Asterix and Obelix

His cognomen, Caesar depending on which historical account you're reading could have come from either of these three reasons;  an ancestor was born by caesarian section, an ancestor had a rather full head of hair, or an ancestor had killed an elephant.

Despite their ancient pedigree, the Julii were not particulary politically powerful. Some authors like to point to Julius' or more specifically his mother, Aurelia's republican sentiments when mentioning that they lived in the Subura, but it is more than likely that, Julius' family home had been in the area of the Suburba before the Suburba began to expand around it. And admire him or not, Julius Caesar's ascent to power did sound the death knell of the Roman Republic.

A watering Hole in Rione Monti

 Today, the Monti district is a hip place, with it's charming cobble stoned tiny alleyways, boutiques and wine cellars. It is a rather small area as 30% of it was flattened by Mussolini to build the very wide Via dei Foro Imperiali.

But as you walk this small neighborhood, you encounter picture perfect sites like this:

The neighborhood's ambiguous character is seen in the mix of modern and expensive condominiums and stepped backstreets of cramped "palazzi" one of them, with a vivid red and yellow mural of footballer Totti right on the wall of the dead end street.

Bars advertising "Happy Hour" are a stone's throw away from the Church of Santa Maria dei Monti. Making clear that this neighborhood evolved, unplanned to what it is today, and still retaining some character of it's ancient past.

A market, the Mercato Rionale is still operating in Monti, harking back to the Subura of ancient times, thus upholding centuries of tradition.

Mercato Rionale closed on Sundays

We attended mass at The church of Santa Maria dei Monti or as it is also called, church of the Madonna dei Monti, right at the end of Via Serpenti. This church was designed by Giacomo della Porta, who also worked on the Jesuit church, The Church of the Gesu.

Main Altar of Santa Maria dei Monti

Right across the church on Via Serpenti, is a chinese restaurant, Pace. Strategically placed as we were starving by the time the mass ended. As luck would have it, the food was actually the best chinese food we've had so far here in Rome.

Interior of Pace
As we sat in this chinese restaurant eating our steamed spigoleto, a fine tenor's rendition of "O Solo Mio" drifted in from the piazza. "Appropriate", I thought to myself, "after all we are in the Subura!"

1 comment:

  1. Very nice po,and I like the Altar of Sta.Maria Dei monti....More Power po ....