‘Rome is the city of echoes, the city of illusions, and the city of desire’ , said Giotto, and indeed, the Eternal City surprises us with fascinating and out-of-the-ordinary nooks and crannies.
Not far from the splendid Villa Doria Pamphilj, we discover Via Niccolò Piccolomini, an enchanting residential street, about 300 metres long, that offers the observer a not-to-be-missed experience and an evocative visual effect.
From here, you can admire the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica, an extraordinary design by Michelangelo, in a magical play of perspectives: walk down the street, and as you get closer, the ‘Dome’ will seem to recede; conversely, as you move back, the dome will appear larger and closer.
It is a curious optical illusion, due to the layout of the buildings and the vantage point, which makes Via Piccolomini a special place for a romantic evening and one of the city’s many ‘magnificent deceptions’.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Italy experienced its miracle, the economic boom was at its peak. Radio and television entered the homes of Italians, while cars, Vespas and Lambrettas changed their rhythms and habits. The Fiat 500, Fiat 600 and Giulietta cars became status symbols of an era.
Luxury and glamour are the hallmark of this golden age: dresses from the greatest fashion houses, together with priceless jewellery, embellish the outfits of the ladies of the international jet set.
Rome explodes with zest for life, beauty and entertainment, becoming the ‘Hollywood on the Tiber’: in the Cinecittà studios, in addition to Italian films, colossals from overseas are filmed, because the costs are cheaper than in America, while the spacious Via Vittorio Veneto, with its cafés and luxury hotels, becomes the ‘living room’ of the world where celebrities meet.
A new lifestyle was born: that of the new rich, artists, directors, actors and, above all, of the scandalous photographers, the undisputed icons of that Rome that, after the release of Federico Fellini’s film ‘La Dolce Vita’, would be called paparazzi, a word that entered the collective imagination and is now commonly used.
Rino Barillari, Tazio Secchiaroli, Marcello Geppetti and their colleagues were real storm photographers in search of the cover scoop: they are the ones who revealed to the public the overwhelming passion between Liz Taylor and Richard Burton, both married, or the turbulent one between the Italian actor Walter Chiari and the beautiful American star Ava Gardner, or trying to capture a shot of the well-known playboys of the time, Gigi Rizzi and Pier Luigi Torri, accompanying the most charming and courted divas.
Significant are the stolen photos, which aroused a huge scandal and even had a judicial aftermath, of the famous improvised striptease by the Turkish-Armenian dancer Aïché Nana, a symbol of those years and the inspiration for a famous scene in Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita.
A film that marked an era, La Dolce Vita (1960) is a bittersweet portrait of those years and a fresco of the various socio-economic realities that coexisted in the capital. The protagonist, Marcello, an aspiring writer, played by the handsome Marcello Mastroianni, works for a tabloid newspaper and every evening stands in front of the clubs on Via Veneto in search of gossip or stolen photos of celebrities. The unforgettable bathing scene in the Trevi Fountain of the buxom Anita Ekberg, who plays Sylvia, an American diva who has come to Rome to shoot a film, is an indelible testimony to feeling life in all its disruptive force.
Rome’s lively intellectual milieu also does not disdain the worldly side: festivals, exhibitions, salons, terraces and clubs in the city centre, such as those in Piazza del Popolo, were the favourite haunts of artists, philosophers and writers including Alberto Moravia, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Alberto Arbasino, Goffredo Parise, the Poeti Novissimi who presented artists with their poems, the ‘neo-avant-garde’ writers of the Gruppo 63 such as Nanni Balestrini and Umberto Eco, journalists and writers such as Ennio Flaiano, Vittorio Veltroni and Lello Bersani, while artists such as Renato Guttuso, Mario Schifano, Tano Festa, Franco Angeli and Giosetta Fioroni exhibited in the nearby art galleries.
The expression ‘Dolce Vita’ then went on to evoke a carefree lifestyle devoted to worldly pleasures and entered the vocabulary all over the world.
Lady Gaga, the famous and eclectic Italian-American singer-songwriter, dedicated a famous song entitled Paparazzi to the photographers of the time.
The enchantment of the past, the wonder of the present
Wealth, opulence and magnificence: in the grammar of luxury, however, elegance and style also count, all the more so when combined with the charm of an unfading past. In short, what is luxurious is above all that which smells of dreams or which immerses us in the magic of History – the one with a capital H – and its evocative atmospheres. In our eternal city, it happens that even hotels have illustrious pasts to recount, which is hardly surprising. From the first Renaissance inns to the Parisian-style hotels of the late 19th and early 20th century, history has passed through their rooms, where writers, artists, scientists, kings, princes and ambassadors have stayed. To preserve this heritage of history and to give the right value to classy hospitality, Federalberghi Roma has brought together some of the establishments born at least before 1950 in the Comitato Alberghi Storici, with more than 40 member hotels, about half of which are four- or five-star hotels.
Ancient origins and exceptional guests in the heart of the city
The prize of the city’s oldest hotel goes to the Albergo del Sole, once the Locanda del Montone: an intimate and exclusive place – with an indoor garden full of flowers and palm trees and a hall with 18th-century frescoes – in a unique location, with its back to the Pantheon. Two plaques recall that Ludovico Ariosto stayed here in 1513 and the composer Pietro Mascagni, who celebrated the premiere of the Cavalleria Rusticana here, but its earliest historical record dates back to 1467, when it welcomed the troops of Emperor Frederick III of Habsburg. Its history has been passed down by exceptional guests, including the magician and alchemist Count Cagliostro and, in more recent years, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. Not far away, in the square adorned by Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s “Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s“pulcin della Minerva”a palace built in 1620 as the home of the aristocratic Portuguese Fonseca family houses Italy’s first grand hotel, the Grand Hotel de la Minerveconverted into a luxury hotel in the 19th century 1835 by the French Sauve family, who came to the city in Napoleon’s retinue. Its suites are named after some of the many notable people who chose it as their residence, and they are breathtaking names: Stendhal, Herman Melville, George Sand, Vittorio Alfieri. Enhancing the noble and elegant lines of the palace is the refined decoration created for its salons by the sculptor Rinaldo Rinaldi, Antonio Canova’s first pupil.
The elegance of the Roman Trident, from Piazza del Popolo to Via del Corso
A monumental architectural appearance, Art Nouveau furnishings and panoramic terraces surrounded by greenery: in the Trident area, on Via del Corso, the Grand Hotel Plaza was founded as an inn in the last decade of papal Rome but quickly became a meeting point for nobles, artists, politicians and royalty visiting Rome. It is said that Princes Umberto and Margherita of Savoy watched the Roman carnival from its windows, but the list of its illustrious guests is long: Pietro Mascagni, Empress Carlotta of Mexico, but also Luchino Visconti and Federico Fellini. Entering Rome from Porta del Popolo, however, the first hotel one encountered was the Hotel de Russie, ‘a paradise on earth‘ for the French poet Jean Cocteau, who was a guest at the hotel in 1917 together with Pablo Picasso for the staging of the world’s first Cubist ballet. Used as a hotel in the last quarter of the 19th century, it was frequented by so many crowned heads (the Romanovs, Prince Jerome Napoleon, King Gustav of Sweden, Ferdinand and Boris of Bulgaria…) that it earned the nickname ‘Hotel of Kings’. The work of architect Giuseppe Valadier is the splendid secret garden, visible only from the back of the hotel and divided into several terraces that climb up towards the Pincio. On the opposite side of Piazza del Popolo, in Via della Penna, the Hotel Locarno is a refined Art Nouveau jewel, guardian of an era with an indissoluble link to the world of art and culture. Born in 1925 to a Swiss family who gave it the name of their hometown, from the 1960s onwards it became the meeting place for a lively community of artists, actors and intellectuals, with memorable guests such as Jean-Michel Basquiat and Jorge Luis Borges.
The unmissable luxury of a breathtaking view
At the top of the Scalinata di Trinità de’ Monti (Spanish Steps), in a spectacular location in the heart of Rome, the Hotel Hassler Villa Medici recalls in its name its promoter, the Swiss Albert Hassler who founded it in 1893, but since the 1920s it has belonged to the Wirth family. A natural meeting point for the Italian and foreign political, economic and cultural elite, the hotel has been frequented by hundreds of excellent visitors: the Kennedy family, Prince Rainier of Monaco and Grace Kelly, Charlie Chaplin and Gabriel Garcia Marquez are just some of the names that appear in its Golden Book. Equally enviable is the view from the terrace of the Sina Bernini Bristol hotel, chosen by Paolo Sorrentino for the film ‘La grande bellezza‘. Inaugurated in 1874 under the name Hotel Bristol in honour of the fourth Earl of Bristol – whose many travels around Europe and luxurious lifestyle were recounted – the hotel was rebuilt from the foundations in the early 1940s, and the name of Bernini, author of the Triton Fountain overlooking Piazza Barberini. In its long history, the hotel has been a landmark for illustrious personalities such as the Emperor of Brazil, the Princes of Wales, the Rockefellers and the Vanderbildts who used to spend the cold winter months in the city.
From the Belle Époque to La Dolce Vita along Via Veneto
From Piazza Barberini to Via Veneto, the street of the Belle Époque – with luxury hotels and Parisian-style cafés – which became the destination of film stars and artists in the 1950s and 1960s, and was finally made immortal by Federico Fellini’s film La Dolce Vita. The first hotel to be opened on the street, in 1889, was the Majestic, designed by Gaetano Koch – author among others of the nearby American Embassy building and the Bank of Italy building – who gave the building its unmistakable ‘piano’ line. Its modernity, architectural design, tapestries, precious furniture and Domenico Bruschi’s frescoes in the ballroom have made it famous since the 1920s: kings and queens, princes and princesses, but also stars of the show business made it the favourite address for their stay in Rome. A few years later is the nearby Palace Hotel, designed in neo-Renaissance style by architect Carlo Busiri Vici. Having become the library of the American Embassy after World War II, it was reopened in the 1990s under the name Ambasciatori Palace, retaining the beauty of the original rooms and decorations, such as the wrought-iron balustrade of the Liberty staircase. In 1927, the Albergo degli Ambasciatori, now the Grand Hotel Palace, was finally triumphantly inaugurated on Via Veneto. An example of Roman modernism, it was designed by architect Marcello Piacentini and marks the transition from Art Nouveau to Art Deco. Stepping through its wrought iron and bronze gate, one is plunged into anatmosphere of bygone timesamong stuccoes, crystal chandeliers, marble floors and wonderful frescoes painted by the Venetian Guido Cadorin: among the characters portrayed are the owners of the hotel, Marcello Piacentini with his family and an unexpected Gio Ponti leaning out of a column with a wry smile.
The Nasoni: the drinking fountains of Rome
When the heat becomes oppressive in the city, nothing is more welcome than a sip of cool water.
In Rome, you can quench your thirst with the water flowing from fountains with the characteristic cylindrical shape, which the Romans affectionately call ‘nasoni’, installed in many squares and streets of the city.
Born in 1874 from an idea of the then Mayor Luigi Pianciani and Councillor Rinazzi to provide free drinking water in the centre and in the hamlets, and to feed the water supply, the drinking fountains were made of cast iron, were about 120 cm high, weighed about 100 kg and had three dragon-shaped nozzles. The water ended its fall in the sewer pipe, through a grate at street level.
In the following years, the design of the fountains was changed: the three decorated spouts gave way to a single smooth spout whose shape is the origin of the nickname ‘nasone’ (big nose). A few dragon-shaped nozzles can still be found in Piazza della Rotonda, in Via di San Teodoro, behind the Roman Forum, and in Via delle Tre Cannelle.
In addition to the cast-iron drinking fountains, you can also find around the city some built of travertine; they are called ‘of the imperial she-wolf’, as the water pours out of a brass she-wolf head. This type of fountain was installed in the 1920s and 1930s; around seventy remain in operation, located in Roman parks and the Olympic Village.
The nozzle of all drinking fountains has a small hole at the top. By plugging the main outlet of the nozzle with a finger, water gushes upwards; a little trick, and drinking is easier and more hygienic.
Today, Rome’s ‘nasoni’ number almost 2,500; the water they deliver is very fresh due to the continuous flow, and is the same water that Acea has been distributing in the homes of Romans for over 100 years.
In the capital’s historic centre, more than 200 nasoni and about 90 between artistic fountains and drinking fountains are installed, from which drinking water always flows. Among the best known are the Barcaccia, by Pietro and Gian Lorenzo Bernini, in Piazza di Spagna and the fountain embedded in the wall in Via della Fontanella di Borghese.
Santa Maria del Priorato Church
The church, belonging to the Sovereign Order of Malta, was completely renovated and decorated by Gian Battista Piranesi.
In 1761, Piranesi dedicated his treatise ‘Della Magnificenza ed Architettura dei Romani’ to the noble Rezzonico family, who, in the person of Cardinal Giovanni Battista Rezzonico, already Grand Prior of the Order, commissioned him in 1764 to renovate not only the church, but also the gardens of the villa and the square in front of it. In 1765, Piranesi made Santa Maria del Priorato one of the earliest and most beautiful creations in the neoclassical style, highly original in its overall design and decorative details.
The Venetian artist completely redesigned the church, creating a veritable burial chamber in honour of the Grand Priors and Grand Masters of the Order of Malta, skilfully mixing the iconography of the Egyptian, Etruscan and Roman worlds.
Symbols such as the mortuary sarcophagus, the serpent, the skull, the upside-down torches, accompanied by the crowned two-headed eagle, the Rezzonico family’s coat of arms, testify to Piranesi’s desire to turn this place of worship into his architectural and spiritual testament.
The façade has a single order of four fluted pilasters with rich capitals and a portal surmounted by an oculus and a triangular tympanum. The striking interior, in the shape of a Latin cross with side niches and an apse, is covered by a rich vault decorated with stuccoes.
In 2017, valuable restoration work was carried out that brought to light the original colour scheme: the snow-white of the stuccoes, the delicate ochre and the effect of depth given by the colours themselves, all enhanced by the removal of dust, deposits and candle smoke black that had accumulated over time.
Fun fact: the keyhole of the gate of the Priory of the Knights of Malta offers the most famous and impressive view of St. Peter’s. In fact, looking through this renowned fissure one can enjoy a fantastic view of St. Peter’s Dome framed by the hedges of the Priory gardens.