Trastevere is, hands down, the most happening neighborhood in Central Rome. Just on the other side of the Tiber (i.e., trans-tiberim, or “across the Tiber”) from the historic center of the city, for many years it preserved a unique and dare-we-say “bohemian” character. Although rent prices and the number of expats searching for “authentic” Rome has gone up in recent years, it’s still a fiercely local area, and the humming cafes are always full of neighbors chatting about the day’s events. The soul of the neighborhood is the Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere, the oldest extant church in Rome dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Not far away, the church of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere boasts an extraordinary marble effigy of St. Cecilia that is widely considered the finest work of the sculptor and architect, Stefano Maderno. For more art, you can check out the Palazzo Corsini for a great collection of 17th and 18th century works from masters in the Roman, Neopolitan and Bolognese schools of painting. Another must-see is the Villa Farnesina featuring exquisite frescoes by Raphael. And if you’re tired of being on your feet, just sit down at one of Trastevere’s many cafes or trattorie and enjoy an espresso or one of many Roman specialty dishes.
Visiting Trastevere: What to See
The Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere
This 12th-century church is fronted by a beloved fountain that is apparently ancient; but like many landmarks in Rome, it’s origin is a little obscure. One of the most popular fountains among locals, it has been consistently refurbished over hundreds of years by the best artists in the city, including Bramante, Bernini, and Carlo Fontana.
The Church itself is immensely important to the cult of the Virgin Mary, as it was probably Rome’s first church dedicated to her. The facade features a much-discussed mosaic that is unusual for representing Jesus surrounded by 10 women, as opposed to the more popular 12 apostles. Who these women are remains a matter of debate.
Among the many treasures inside, the mosaics of Pietro Cavallini are the stars of the show. Much of the work of this somewhat mysterious medieval artist is unattributed or lost, so the works in Santa Maria in Trastevere are among his most famous. For good reason: they are some of the finest mosaics in Europe. They depict scenes from the life of Mary, as well as a powerful Last Judgement.
The Church of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere
Although Santa Cecilia in Trastevere is packed with treasures like a 9th-century apse mosaic, a beautiful gothic baldachin by Arnolfo di Cambio, and a few works by Guido Reni, they all tend to be overshadowed by Stefano Maderno’s haunting effigy of the body of St. Cecilia.
Even among the lofty standards of Roman martyrs, Cecilia had a notably gruesome death. After converting her husband to Christianity, this Trastevere local was first boiled alive in her own bath-house before being decapitated by the authorities. Unfortunately, three chops to the neck didn’t quite do the job and she lingered on for three days before dying. So the story goes, anyway. Her body was dug up in 1599 in order to be reinterred in the church. According to tradition, when the lid of her coffin was popped her body had miraculously not decomposed at all.
Stefano Maderno was on hand for the disinterring and supposedly created his sculpture from what he saw. What strikes the viewer today is not the artistic license he took with the body, but the apparently visceral reality he portrayed. It is less a sculpture, and more of a study in death – albeit the most beautiful and touching study you are likely to come across this side of Michelangelo’s Pietá in St. Peter’s. It’s a work that lingers in the mind long after you have seen it, and its definitely worth a look if you are in the neighborhood.
The Villa Farnesina
The Villa Farnesina is one of Rome’s most impressive Renaissance houses. Once home to the notably extravagant banker Agostino Chigi (Yes, bankers even made ridiculous money 500 years ago), he commissioned some of the best artists of the day to cover his interiors with Frescoes. Unsurprisingly, it was the works of Raphael that took pride of place in the Villa and remain its top draw.
Raphael’s frescoes are all located on the ground floor, specifically in the Loggia of Galatea and the Loggia of Psyche. The story of how the frescoes were painted is almost as entertaining as seeing them: when Raphael was commissioned to create these works Chigi insisted that he move into the Villa so as to avoid other distractions. The only problem was that Raphael thrived on distractions, specifically those from his legendary lover, Margarita Luti, aka, La Fornarina. Things went so badly for Raphael without his muse that he eventually refused to do any more work unless she was brought to live with him in the villa for the rest of the project. Chigi acquiesced and Raphael delivered those sublime frescoes.
Trastevere has long overflowed with restaurants specializing in typical Roman food. Keep an eye our for spaghetti alla carbonara (with egg, parmesan, and pepper) and bucatini all’amatriciana (with pigs cheek, tomatoes, chilli pepper and onions). Other favorites include thin-crust pizzas, veal in the form of saltimbocca alla romana, tripe of all descriptions (especially fried), and of course, artichokes or carciofe. Though in Trastevere we recommend getting your artichokes all romana (stewed) instead of alla giudea (fried) which are best saved for a meal in the Jewish ghetto.
Tips for Visiting Trastevere
As one of the city’s most buzzing neighborhoods, Trastevere has a penchant for staying open late. This doesn’t mean you can’t find nice cafes to sip a coffee in during the mornings, but the place doesn’t really come to life until the afternoon.
the Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere is open every day from 7:30am to 9:00pm. In August its open from 8:00am to 12:00pm and from 4:00pm to 9:00pm
The Villa Farnesina is open Monday through Saturday 9:00am to 2:00pm and closed on Sundays.
The Curch of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere is open ever day from 9:45am to 12:45pm and from 4:00pm to 6:00pm
Tickets are only required for the Villa Farnesina and cost €5.00 a piece.
The Churches are holy places and so require anyone inside to dress appropriately. In practice, this means that both men and women need to cover their shoulders and the tops of their legs.
The Best Time to Visit
Trastevere is a delightful neighborhood at any time of the day but it really comes alive in the evenings. The high season (roughly May through October) sees it fairly packed most nights of the week though this doesn’t necessarily detract from its charm. It’s a neighborhood with just about every type of person in Rome – from locals and expats to tourists fresh off the plane. It’s this egalitarian atmosphere that keeps attracting people even though it is no longer the “authentic” Roman neighborhood that it used to be.
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