Peel back the layers to discover four extraordinary streets in Rome, each with a very different tale to tell.

Peel back the layers to discover four extraordinary streets in Rome, each with a very different tale to tell.

Via Margutta: The artists’ street
Via Margutta feels like it’s in a quiet village, yet this ivy-draped, cobbled street lies in one of Rome’s busiest districts. The men have well-coiffed silver hair and the women dress immaculately in clothes that whisper old money. They saunter along, stopping to greet each other, popping in and out of the gracious terracotta buildings backed on one side by the tangled gardens of Villa Borghese park.

It might look like a village, but the shops here are definitely not small town: fine-art restorers work outside in the sunlight alongside shops selling Pratesi’s ultraluxurious linens and Bulgari jewellery. And then there’s the Bottega del Marmoraro.

At this workshop, every inch of the walls is covered in ancient stonemasons’ tools and words of wisdom – aphorisms – carved in marble. Master stonecarver Sandro Fiorentini is dressed in brown overalls, working with a technique that dates back to the days of the Romans. He will carve you any phrase you like on a marble plaque for 15 euros, but he is only interested in words: ‘I don’t do numbers,’ he says firmly, but with a twinkle in his eye.

These marble engravings can be seen up and down the street. Iconic film director Federico Fellini lived at number 110 and a Fiorentini carving of him and his wife is still on display, with a poem: ‘Via Margutta, now it’s clear/ It strikes everyone just the same/Because it’s unique and special/ In the world there is no equal!’

A few doors along from the Bottega, at number 54, Valentina Moncada cuts an elegant figure in her influential contemporary art gallery. Her ancestor helped build Via Margutta in the 17th century, working to construct artists’ studios on this very spot. By 1610 many artists, coming to Rome to study antiquities, had begun to settle in Via Margutta because not only was it a quiet tree-lined street, but also Pope Paul III gave artists living here a tax break. ‘If you were an artist and a resident, you paid no taxes, so artists came from all over Europe,’ Valentina says.

Via Margutta became the artists’ street, a legacy that’s reflected in the pretty Fontana delle Arti (Artists’ Fountain) that bubbles just nearby, decorated with carved easels and palettes, and topped by a bucket of stone paintbrushes.

Valentina is currently hard at work writing a history of Via Margutta, and has discovered that the first meeting of the revolutionary Italian art movement, the Futurists, took place here in 1906. She says: ‘Then, when the Russian Revolution began in 1917, artists all fled to Paris from Russia. When war broke out they came to Rome, and to the Via Margutta.’

The street’s creative life extended beyond the visual arts. As Rome became an essential stop on every 19th-century Grand Tour, thanks to its wealth of ancient wonders, musicians and composers came too. Debussy, Liszt and Wagner all worked in studios in the Via Margutta.

Stravinsky came with Picasso, as they were both working with the Russian Ballet. Valentina indicates the courtyard outside her gallery. ‘Right here, Picasso met the only woman he ever actually married: Olga Khokhlova, a ballerina.’

As Rome’s creative scene became dominated by film, Via Margutta became the focus of the 1950s zeitgeist. Not only was it the home of film master Fellini, but the street was also the location of the apartment where Joe Bradley (Gregory Peck) took Audrey Hepburn’s Princess Ann at the start of their whirlwind Roman Holiday. Valentina recalls: ‘My father was a fashion photographer, and my mother was a model – Givenchy used her to try out all the Roman Holiday costumes that Audrey Hepburn wore.’

The literary arts were not left behind: best known for his 1966 opus In Cold Blood, maverick writer Truman Capote lived at number 33. He immortalised the Via Margutta in a 1963 short story, Lola, about living on the street with his pet raven – the eponymous Lola.

Picasso and la dolce vita might be fading memories, but there’s still something special in the air, as would-be Fellinis wander along in Panama hats, antique shops display polished antler horns, and the stonecarver passes the time of day. As Valentina concludes, gesturing in the direction of the hubbub in the surrounding streets: ‘Just one block away from Via Margutta, it’s a completely different world.’

Via Appia antica: Gateway to an empire
Via Appia Antica stretches out south of Rome, as straight as a die, its steppingstone cobblestones disappearing into the distance. Monumental Roman structures line the road, but the rest is hidden-away country mansions, rolling fields and distant hills. The first section of the road, as far as the tomb of Cecilia Metella, is still in use by vehicles hurtling southwards out of Rome (though it’s closed to traffic on Sunday), while the 10-mile section enclosed by the Parco dell’Appia Antica is mostly free of cars.

Francesca Mazzà from the Appia Antica Park shows the way. ‘The main purpose of the Appia Antica was military,’ she says, ‘as it was for the majority of Roman roads.’ Work on the street began in 312 BC, when it was the first proper road leading out of Rome. Today it’s still worthy of the ‘Queen of Roads’ nickname it has borne for millennia. By 191 BC, the Via Appia was complete, reaching as far as Brindisi in present-day Puglia.

It’s uncannily straight. How did they build a road so straight? ‘There were massive road engineering works, altering the topography, overcoming obstacles such as the Pontine Marshes.’ The Romans conquered nature before conquering anything else, reclaiming land and using terraces and viaducts to build across different altitudes.

Besides having enormous military and political importance, the Via Appia Antica was also the road of tombs. It’s lined on both sides by monuments to death.

Francesca explains: ‘Roman law forbade that burials should occur within the confines of the city.’ This was for practical reasons, to try to limit disease. ‘There are aristocratic tombs, such as that of Cecilia Metella (daughter of a Roman consul), but also the more simple collective tombs, with open niches for urns.’ Some of the memorials have portraits carved into them, with ordinary, almost recognisable faces that somehow bring the past closer.

Like the billboard-lined highways of today, Via Appia was a place to advertise: here, the aristocracy showed their wealth via their tombs,and the Roman Empire showed their might through engineering and punishment. In the seventh century BC, when the slave revolt led by Spartacus was defeated, 6,000 slaves were crucified and left dangling on crosses that lined the road from here to Capua, 132 miles away.

Christians were buried by the Via Appia too, in the catacombs that run for miles underground. St Peter and St Paul were buried here briefly in the third century during a time of persecution.

Even without considering the millennialong march of footsteps along here, it’s one of Rome’s most singular experiences to cycle down the Appia Antica on a Sunday. People are walking dogs, cyclists whizz past and tourists examine maps, their footsteps following where Roman soldiers forged and Christians scrawled still-visible commemorative graffiti in the catacombs.

Francesca adds: ‘I’d recommend a guide, a good book and copies of famous paintings such as those of Gianbattista Piranesi. You’ll feel part of the history of Appia.’

Via del Pigneto: The heart of bohemia

This isn’t the Rome that most visitors usually see. It’s la dolce vita, 2011-style, where sharp suits have been replaced by trilbies and beatnik leather jackets. Here, in Pigneto, traditionally a poor workingclass neighbourhood full of higgledypiggeldy, 19th-century low-rise buildings, the alternative has become the mainstream and graffiti-covered shops are fast turning into off-beat boutiques.

Its artery is Via del Pigneto, a partially pedestrianised street bisected by the gritty cityscape of the railway tracks. It’s packed out in the day by a local food and clothes market, and by an eclectic collection of Rome’s bohemians in the evenings.

It’s in the last few years that Pigneto has become the Roman answer to London’s Shoreditch, with arty bookshop-cafés and nightlife that sees the whole street turn into a nightly drinks party. In a neighbourhood pizzeria, hard-as-nails pizza makers banter with the late-night crowd. Students talk earnestly at spindly tables, groups of friends share beers on doorsteps. Everyone’s wearing black. They’re artists, intellectuals, communists and poseurs, and sometimes all the above.

Until recently, most of these people would not have dreamed of coming to this part of town. However, Pigneto was already famous for its cinematic past. It was the neighbourhood muse and preferred location of poet and film director Pier Paolo Pasolini. Other directors also saw the area’s potential, and its shabby, sunbleached streets appeared in Rossellini’s 1945 war drama Roma Città Aperta and Visconti’s 1951 film Bellissima, a satirical take on the movie industry.

Pasolini’s favourite hangout, Necci, is still hugely popular – a breezy caférestaurant that opened in 1924, with tree-shaded outside tables. He filmed parts of his film Accattone here, a neorealist take on street life featuring locals from the area instead of professional actors. He called the suburbs ‘the crown of thorns that encircles the city of God’.

Contemporary Pigneto’s edge is underpinned by a suspicion that today’s urban characters, strumming guitars outside the vino e olio (wine and oil) shops, are bourgeoisie in borrowed clothes. That’s the opinion of artist Alberto di Fabio, surrounded by his incandescent canvasses in his warehouse studio. He’s intense and funnily dismissive: ‘Until two years ago, no one came. Across from here,’ he gestures at the overhang of the neighbouring building, ‘there used to be around 20 men who would come out and wash in the rain.’ He grins conspiratorially. ‘All the local women used to watch… secretly. But now Pigneto’s changed. It’s become busier, more expensive. People are moving elsewhere.’

 His assistant, Fabrizio Cicero, is a younger artist, less successful, and less cynical: ‘People moved here from San Lorenzo (the student district),’ he says, ‘and then life here began to be attractive. The scene is quieter, less aggressive, and more cultured and constructive. Everything is slow and calm. Especially in the late afternoon. It’s still, compared with the rhythms elsewhere. Here life is like going back in time, but with an eye to the future.’

Via Di San Giovanni in Laterano: The Street of secrets
Via di San Giovanni in Laterano is a narrow street that harbours extraordinary underground treasure.

At one end lies the cathedral of Rome, San Giovanni, and, at the other, the Colosseum. The former is a vision of 18th-century Catholic might, topped by wildly gesturing stone apostles. It’s impossible not to feel small here, with the church towering over its gaping piazza. Opposite, almost hidden in a small building, is one of Rome’s most mystical Catholic sites, the Scala Santa (sacred staircase), which Christ is thought to have climbed before meeting Pontius Pilate.

Walking downhill to the Colosseum, it’s easy to miss a church that few Romans even know of: San Clemente. The church is 12th century, with an altar surmounted by exquisite mosaics. But another basilica lies beneath this one. Downstairs there are fourth-century vaulted rooms that would resemble storage cellars, were it not for their faded frescoes.

More steps lead still further underground. Deep down in the earth is another layer of history: complete rooms that date to thetime of the Flavian Imperial dynasty. These 2,000-year-old chambers are thought to have been part of the Ancient Rome Mint. In the dimly lit rooms, a rushing underground stream is audible – and visible, through a hole in the wall. And yet there’s more. A few steps away is one of Rome’s most enthralling sights, a pre-Christian temple, with an altar that depicts the god Mithras killing a bull.

Back above ground, Via di San Giovanni in Laterano continues, innocuous, an attractive but unprepossessing street sloping down towards the Colosseum. It’s quietly busy with its restaurants, clothes shops, a vinyl record store. There’s no inkling of the street’s secret underground life until the end of the road, where some excavated ruins are visible in a large dip. This is what’s left of Ludus Magnus, the gladiator school that fed the great arena.

 Barbara Nazzaro is the architect overseeing the Colosseum’s newly opened underground and uppermost sections. Walking down to the lower levels, Barbara describes the scene: ‘The underground was a sort of backstage, the place where all the preparations were made for the show.’ There was a varied programme at the arena: the first show was hunting, with real wild gladiators at lunchtime. The underground passages were frantically busy, as everyone worked to bring the scenery (real bushes and trees) and the animals onto the stage via a complicated pulley system.

Before the arena was built, Emperor Nero had used the water in this area to create a lake in the grounds of his hugely ostentatious palace, the Domus Aurea (House of Gold). Nero’s monuments were destroyed in order to build the Flavian Amphitheatre, as the Colosseum was then known. The new Flavian emperors wiped out the memory of the old and replaced it with the new in a symbolic, people-pleasing gesture. The water sources that fed Nero’s lake still flow away beneath here.

Layer upon layer upon layer: Via di San Giovanni in Laterano allows a rare glimpse of the many strata of history that lie beneath the surface of the contemporary city. And this is not only the story of a street, but of Rome.

The article 'All roads lead to Rome' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Magazine.