Rione Esquilino

The building in which our structure is situated was built at the beginning of the last century. It has a view on the biggest square in town, Piazza Vittorio, heart of the district that was rebuilt anew when Rome became capital of Italy.  In 1873 the first town Plan subverted the city’s look to suit its new role: the Pope’s Rome was gone, along with the ring of villas that surrounded it, and its place taken by the so-called Roma Umbertina (as in king Umberto I, ruler from 1878 to 1900). It was a city made of large representative buildings and residential districts, home of the state’s bureaucracy managers.

The district was built on Esquilino Hill, chosen for its proximity to the new Central Station and for the lack of urbanization. While laying the foundations, archeological findings were systematically destroyed (only a few statues, pots, bas-reliefs and jewels were saved), architectural structures burned to the ground, to make place for a new checkered urban structure. A homage to Torino, city of the Savoia family, which also explains the great colonnade, typical of northern cities.

Piazza Vittorio lies on what was once the garden of Villa Palombara, one of the fifteen great villas that rose on the hill. Here roman aristocracy placed their mansions with monumental gardens, following the classical tradition (here rose, one thousand years before, the horti maecenatis, the horti liciniani, the horti lamiani). To build the square a II b.C. sepulcher was also destroyed, it was called la “casa tonda” (the round house) and had been a characteristic sight on the hill for several centuries. A monumental fountain was saved from demolition, called Trofei di Mario (Mario’s trophies), and placed on the north side of the Piazza. You’ll find it across the road from Domus Victoria, entering the gardens.

The fountain, built in 226 by order of emperor Alessandro Severo, was known in roman times as Nymphaeum Divi Alexandri. Ancient sources let us know 15 monumental lily ponds existed in this area, and this is the only survivor. To be precise, the ponds were part of the “mostra dell’acqua Claudia”, a great scenic design built to embellish the public water main (Acquedotto Claudio).

What we see today is nothing but the brick frame of the fountain, which must have been magnificent (25 meters long and 20 meters in height). It was richly decorated, completely covered in marble plates and adorned with several statues. What did it look like? The lily pond is represented on a golden coin (aureo) from Alessandro Severo’s reign. There is a beautiful reconstruction by Antoine-Martin Garnaud, a student at Villa Medici, that was made in 1821.

The façade must have been impressive. The highest part was characterized by a large central alcove (6,5 meters wide) which hosted two statues, probably of Alessandro Severo and his mother, Giulia Mamea.  At the alcove’s sides were two open arches, decorated until 1590 by statues of the trophies, from which the monument takes its name. Above all this was an attic, on which other statues and a set of four marble horses  stood, and at the bottom a huge pensile basin with a reclined Ocean in the middle.

From this basin water flowed, we don’t know how, to the lower part of the façade. Here were a series of semicircular and rectangular niches (perhaps decorated with statues), from which more water poured into a pool. The latter, a vast semicircular basin, was set on ground level so that water could be easily reached.

For centuries the great ruins of the “Trofei di Mario” faced the entrance to Villa Palombara, a large baroque mansion that was destroyed at the end of the 19th century, during the construction of Piazza Vittorio.

From the area on which the villa stood, where the ancient horti lamiani were once situated, came a great deal of statues today held by roman museums (Capitolini, Palazzo Massimo, Vatican Museum). The most important of them is the “Discobolo” (the discus thrower), marble copy of the original bronze by greek sculptor Mirone. In 1804 the villa became property of prince Carlo Massimo. It was expropriated and destroyed in 1873.

Villa Palombara was built from marquise Oddo, starting in 1620. His successor, Massimiliano, was a very well-learned man and made a goal of turning the mansion into a meeting place for the aficionados of esoteric studies. In this building’s rooms (on the left an 1859 wall painting) people like Domenico Cassini, father Kircher and queen Cristina of Sweden met each other.

Testimony to these esoteric meetings is the so-called Magic Door, or Door of Gold, which back then was one of the secondary entrances to the villa’s garden. Nowadays it can be found at the back of Mario’s fountain, where it was rebuilt.

The door is decorated with inscriptions in Hebrew and Latin, along with alchemy symbols connected to the hermetic culture. It is the only element of the 80.000 square-meters park that survived to our days. Piazza Vittorio is just a small portion of the villa’s original area.

The marquise of Plaombara, as well as Maria Cristina of Sweden, took alchemy as his hobby and spent his spare time in a lab, trying to find the formula to transform metals and other base materials in pure gold.

According to legend, a foreigner showed up one day at the marquise’s door, claiming to bare the formula to turn herbs into gold. He asked to be let in the garden to look for the right ingredients. When he obtained permission, he started gathering weeds, rocks, sticks and bird droppings, then he burned everything in a pot and added a mysterious yellow liquid. Results would be visible on the next day, he said, then he closed himself in the lab and spent the night on his own. The following morning the man had disappeared, leaving the lab in total mayhem. There was a golden brick though, in the middle of the room, along with a paper on which the formula was written. The marquise was never able to replicate the experiment on his own, he therefore decided to inscribe the formula on the secondary entrance to his garden, the Magic Door, in the hope that it could one day be interpreted.

Another interesting though little known monument near Domus Victoria is Gallieno’s Arch. Turn left when leaving the building and then left again, on via Carlo Alberto. The arch is a few meters ahead, on the left side of the road.

It was renewed and monumentalized with a marble armor by wish of emperor Augusto. Today the arch is tightly set between two buildings in Via S. Vito, but its original door is from an even more ancient time, between centuries VIII and VII b.C., when Latin people started moving from Palatino Hill towards Quirinale, Viminale, Esquilino and Celio, bonding with other, previously established people: the Sabini.

The door was therefore part of the first city walls, mura Serviane, which were built during Servio Tullio’s enlargement of the city. Of these walls, some parts are still visible in the nearby church, dedicated to the saints Vito and Modesto.

In this church is also kept the “evil stone” (pietra scellerata), whose name comes from it being the place of many murders.  A number of martyrs from the very beginning of Christianity were in fact killed on this stone, even though we have no sources to tell who they were. The stone, walled-in next to the left altar of the church in via Carlo Alberto, was originally a bas-relief with an inscription carved on it. This inscription was completely erased by devotees, who dug the stone’s surface flat because it was believed that eating the dust scratched from it would cure any illness!