Discover Rome's alternative history in the Centro Storico

From the Trevi Fountain to the Spanish Steps, the capital’s historic centre is a pantheon of celebrated sights. Those looking for something different, however, needn’t veer too far off the tourist trail — intriguing tales reveal themselves at every turn.

Works by Caravaggio adorn the walls of the San Luigi dei Francesi church, close to Piazza Navona.

Photograph by Francesco Lastrucci
By Julia Buckley
Published 2 Nov 2021, 15:00 GMT, Updated 4 Mar 2022, 09:52 GMT

In the middle of Via del Babuino, surrounded by designer shops, Giuseppe Albano stops at a cafe. From the outside, Canova Tadolini looks like any other. But Giuseppe gestures inside to a giant, white man sitting on a giant, white horse. They’re barrelling towards the door, with more spectral, white statues behind them, gathered like an army of wraiths. 

“This was the studio of Canova and his star pupil, Tadolini,” says Giuseppe. The man on horseback is a plaster cast, and so too are the figures behind him, including athletes and a nun. The workshop belonged to Tadolini’s family until 1967, when it became a cafe. Tourists walk past, oblivious to the significance of what’s inside, often more interested in Babuino, a nearby fountain of a reclining Roman named Silenus. In centuries past, Romans would fix anonymous notes scandalising each other onto Babuino. “The Twitter of its day,” laughs Giuseppe. 

That’s the thing about Rome. The city is so multi-levelled that to get off the beaten track you don’t even need to leave the main streets, you just need to look a little deeper. 

It’s a lesson I’m learning from Giuseppe as we saunter along the Via del Babuino. What I’d dismissed as a stroll along a high-end shopping street is in fact an amble through history. This is the route British travellers used to take on the Grand Tour: they’d arrive at the swaggering Piazza del Popolo, then trot down Via del Babuino to their lodgings around the Piazza di Spagna. 

Fittingly, I’m with the right person to follow in English footsteps around the Italian capital: Giuseppe is the director of the Keats-Shelley House, a museum devoted to the Romantic poets. It’s housed at the foot of the Spanish Steps, in the building where Keats died aged 25 in 1821. But today, Giuseppe is out and about, showing me his take on the Via del Babuino, which consists mainly of looking up. “People don’t notice the architecture,” he explains. Sure enough, above the shopfronts is a series of palazzi, each grander than the last. “If these were by themselves, they’d be marvelled at,” says Giuseppe. “But because they’re all together, you don’t notice them.”

Having passed the lavish Hotel de Russie, we stop at Palazzo Boncompagni Sterbini. Just like the Spanish Steps and Trevi Fountain, this is a grand show of 18th-century rococo style; unlike them, however, few people stop to take in the grandeur. The scallop shells over the windows are a subtle boast that someone in the family has completed the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage, Giuseppe tells me. Imposing busts of emperors are tucked away in niches.

The Spanish Steps, connecting Piazza di Spagna and Piazza Trinità dei Monti.

The Spanish Steps, connecting Piazza di Spagna and Piazza Trinità dei Monti.

Photograph by Francesco Lastrucci

Look closely at the other buildings, instructs Giuseppe, and you’ll see Rome differently. Carved, florid dolphins and waves dance around the doorway of number 51, the scene resembling something from the Trevi Fountain. Opposite stands a brick Anglican church, its incongruous place on this palazzo-lined street testament to the fact that non-Catholic churches were banned in Rome until the city joined a newly unified Italy in 1870. 

I leave Giuseppe at the Spanish Steps and delve deeper into the well-trodden Centro Storico, the city’s historic centre, by myself. Here, too, there are surprises at every turn. I already knew Piazza Navona’s distinctive lozenge shape was thanks to the site’s origins as a stadium, but this time, I take the steps down from the ticket office to walk beneath the mammoth travertine arches that flank its edge. Afterwards, fuelled by an organic coffee at Sant’Eustachio Il Caffé, I step inside the San Luigi dei Francesi church and gaze at three paintings by Caravaggio: dark, swirling spotlit takes on the life of Saint Matthew.

There’s more Caravaggio — along with Titian, Bernini and Tintoretto — at the Doria Pamphilj Gallery. It’s a highly intimate place, not least because it’s still owned by the family who first began assembling the collection 500 years ago. The voice of its current guardian, Prince Jonathan Doria Pamphilj, accompanies me through the audio guide, telling me how his family built this scarlet-walled, gold-stuccoed palace when his ancestor became Pope Innocent X in 1644.

The showpiece here is the Versailles-like hall of mirrors. But most extraordinary of all is the portrait of Pope Innocent X by Velázquez. “It’s too real!” the subject was said to have yelled when he saw his mottled skin and jutting chin. Even now, centuries later, he seems so lifelike that I feel his beady eyes following me around the gallery. Vast and varied as it is, Rome truly does intimacy like nowhere else. 

How to do it:

Private tour guide Valentina Bonaccorsi offers three-hour, tailor-made tours of the Centro Storico from £206, excluding entry fees. 

Published in the November 2021 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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