Rome and a stairway to heaven

In the historic center of Rome there is a cafe called Peru that has nothing Peruvian about it. For decades its owners were a true Roman family until in 2012 they sold the activity to a group of eight friends. A few years later the premises passed into the hands of a Chinese company. Such a traditional bar sold to the Chinese? “Inconceivable, it’s the end of an era,” some media outlets and numerous residents of the neighborhood commented indignantly: a legitimate reaction, although not everything is as apocalyptic as it seems.

Square. Caffè Perú is located a few meters from some of the most beautiful squares in Rome: the touristy Navona, and very close, the exclusive Farnese, right next to Campo de’ Fiori, of the three the one that has changed the most over time. time. It had an authentically Roman fruit-vegetable market with characters and traditions worthy of the best De Sica neorealism. It is still there, but for a few years it seems to have been devoured by tourism. The bancarelle or stalls that sell oranges or tomatoes are fewer and fewer and have been replaced by others full of trout football shirts or horrible plastic aprons accompanied by little signs that promise, for example, “tutto per 1 euro”. Beyond this, the Campo de’ Fiori mercatino remains fascinating as well as the square, which has an interesting peculiarity: it is the only one in the entire city center in which there is not even a church.

Opened in the distant 1933, Caffè Peru is one of the most traditional bars in the historic center of Rome. You eat well and simple and need to survive the intergalactic gourmet and foodie wave, or whatever it is called, and you can breathe that mix between international and neighborhood roots shared by many of the bars and restaurants scattered throughout the Italian capital. .

With a counter full of cornetti (croissants) and tramezzini (crumb sandwich) of all kinds, the bar has never gone out of style: it attracts foreign actors or writers and students of the Roman aristo-freak scene (brilliant definition from Theroman post website ). The obvious and occasional tourists are not lacking either, to which must be added a pinch of the Vatican: from time to time one sees one or another priest in passing. It is not strange, the Holy See is very close. And without a doubt, in 2025 there will be more and more priests hanging around the neighborhood as a result of the Holy Year on the agenda for that year, which is why an army of faithful and tourists is expected to arrive. There is talk of a huge figure, 45 million people.

Not far from there, the owner of a well-known wine bar describes with skeptical wisdom the attitude with which the Romans face tourism and the whirlwind of languages: “A few years ago my children explained to me that if we wanted to keep the place always full I had to Learn English. OK, I tried to, but then Japanese came into fashion, then the Chinese came along, and then the Russians, many of whom were millionaires, who quickly vanished in the aftermath of the war. Now, with the dollar on the rise, there are many Yankees, that is, English is back: the truth is, I ended up perfecting my Italian. In life everything changes and nothing changes. Il Gattopardo is Sicilian, but sometimes he moves to Rome.

Saints, courtesans, heroines. Having a cappuccino or a beer and then leaving Peru for a walk means entering a network of streets, alleys and small squares. The bar overlooks a square, Santa Caterina della Rota, where an old and characteristic bicycle shop stands out. In the historic center there are not many, if any. “My father opened in 1945 after the war. Time passes, here we are and we will continue to be in our bike laboratory”, comments the last descendant of the “Bicicletteria Di Bartolomei” with a strong Romanesque accent.

And who was that woman known in Rome as Santa Caterina della Rota who gives the square its name? In the fourth century, after converting to Christianity, the beautiful and erudite young woman –whose real name was Caterina d’Alessandria– was sentenced to death by the Emperor Maximian: she had to be crushed by a “dentata” wheel, hence the origin “della List”. But a problem arose: fate wanted the deadly wheel to get stuck when it touched her body. It didn’t matter, the emperor quickly changed the capital punishment: on November 25 Caterina was beheaded. Legend or reality, the truth is that in In the Rome of the past, martyrdom was linked to that date, the day on which it was customary to make the traditional change of clothes in view of the arrival of the first cold weather.This is a city in which events or historical dates are quickly deconsecrated and down to earth, to the concrete of everyday life.

The surprises offered by the square do not end here, since the church of San Girolamodella Carita also overlooks it, on whose façade the episcopal shields of two Argentines stand out: that of the Pope and that of the cardinal deacon of the temple, Jorge María Mejía, who disappeared in 2014.

Via Monserrato. However, the real show begins when you leave the Caffè and walk along the winding Via Monserrato, one of the most elegant streets in this ancient papal area of ​​Rome, parallel to the even more prominent Via Giulia. What spoils the panorama is the serpentine of parked cars. There are vehicles, motorcycles, motorcycles here and there, the result of both the self-confidence of the Romans and the suffocating lack of space in the streets. And speaking of Vespas, what remains of the non-existent traffic in which the elegant couple Audrey Hepburn-Gregory Peck glided in Roman Holidays, from 1952? Just that, a movie.

The aristocratic Monserrato is populated with palaces and churches inhabited over the centuries by the nobility – counts and marquises abound – without forgetting bankers, as well as monsignors and cardinals.

As in a city with the history of Rome the sides of the coin are always two, that of religion and the Church is not the only past that endures. There are several, for example, the courtesans who have left their traces. The most famous were called Tina and Imperia: of the two, the latter is the most famous.

Imperia “la Divina” – the name says it all – was a star of the Roman Renaissance both for its beauty and for its power, which it managed to increase thanks to the contacts it frequently had with very influential men (intellectuals, aristocrats, prelates): for example , Agostino Chigi, potato banker, as well as a patron of artists and writers.

In 2015 a film was shot (Imperia, la grande cortigiana) inspired by the life of “la Divina” and played by the actress Manuela Arcuri, erotic dream –at least– of a generation of Italians.

The life of many of the buildings of Monserrato semi in hundreds of years. In one of them at the end of 1400 there was a prison where a court also functioned: both terrifying places were known as Corte Savella. Beyond the claims of religion that demanded respect for the rights of prisoners, the reality is that the most unfortunate convicts were often hung from the bars of their dungeons.

Via Monserrato and the Corte Savella were the backdrop for another grisly execution. It was September 11, 1599 when Beatrice Cenci was released from that prison and dragged to a scaffold set up very close, in front of the Sant’Angelo bridge, to be beheaded. What was her fault? Having defended himself from the outrages of a father belonging to the nobility and rejecting a destiny marked by violence. Idealized as a result of her courage and youth, she is called the “Roman virgin” at the age of 22 she was accused of parricide along with her two brothers and beheaded. She is sentenced to attend a crowd, including, reportedly, Caravaggio. Symbol of violence against women, over time Beatrice became a literary character: Shelley, Stendhal, Artaud, Dumas, Moravia wrote about her and her face lights up a famous portrait by Guido Reni. In 1999 the municipality of Rome placed a plaque in front of the place where the prison was found, where Beatrice is remembered as follows: “Exemplary victim of unfair justice.” She today she remains the most famous ghost in Rome: they say that the nights between September 10 and 11 she appears on the Sant’Angelo bridge.

“A sea of ​​vegetables”. At number 20 Via Monserrato, the same place where Ignatius Loyola had lived a few centuries before, the Andalusian poet Rafael Alberti, as anti-Franco as he was universal, had his Roman house, who thus described the center of Rome: “cats, cracks, rubbish , hanging cloths, artisans of the most varied professions, the wonderful noise of Campo de’Fiori with its Giordano Bruno like a funereal umbrella over a sea of ​​vegetables, fish and shoes”. During his long stay in Rome, Alberti later moved to Via Garibaldi 88, in the heart of Trastevere, the most emblematic neighborhood of the city, of which the poet gave an irreverent but brilliant definition: “it is the true capital of Italy”. Maybe it still is.

If traffic allowed, the author of “Rome, danger for walkers” received in his homes personalities such as the poets Ungaretti and Quasimodo, as well as Pasolini, Fellini, Gassman, the painter Renato Guttuso and Umberto Mastroianni, sculptor and uncle of the enormous Marcello .

Alberti had arrived in Italy after having spent 24 years in exile in Argentina, an eternity. After the Roman stage of his exile, in 1977 he returned to his native Andalusia, where he died in 1999.

Borromini perspective. As you walk along the street, there is something in the air – and everything in the architecture – that goes back to Renaissance times: for example, the last shoe store in the neighborhood, a craftsman (“Mr. Fabrizio”) who makes frames , a store that sells movie posters and rents old dvd’s. Monserrato is history and tradition, but also shopping, atelier, modern and non-modern art.

At the end of the walk, you return to Peru, take a seat at a small table and look through the window of the premises in the direction of Via Giulia, the following happens: at the end of that look, the palazzo Falconieri, named after a family of Florentine bankers, who in the mid-1600s commissioned Francesco Borromini, a baroque genius of the time along with Gian Lorenzo Bernini, his archrival, to remodel a palace façade. On one of the sides of the building – today the headquarters of the Hungarian Academy – two large sculptures stand out with busts that have the attitude of a lookout, the head of a falcon and female breasts, in what is perhaps an original tribute by Borromini to the beautiful Falconieri descendants.

But the obsession of this powerful family was another: the palace had to be higher than the nearby Palazzo Farnese. Thus they wanted to impose their status and social class through that symbolic height against the old nobility of the city.

The solution was left to Borromini, who perfected raising a spiral staircase to a dazzling rooftop from which, even today, all of Rome can be admired: a 360 degree panorama over the eternity of this city. In how many places in the world is it possible to have a coffee sitting in a bar looking at a stairway to heaven, the result of a duel between two architects and sculptors like Borromini and Bernini? One way or another, Rome is still wonderful. And, as Alberti said, a wonderful mess.


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