Last Sunday some of the lovely Instagrammers in Rome put together an afternoon photowalk on the Caelian Hill. It’s always fun to meet other local photographers, and Instameets seem to draw out the friendliest people. This was the fourth I’ve attended, and I can’t recommend them enough. As you shoot your way through town in a flurry of shutter-clicks, you never know who you’ll meet along the way. A future best friend or two can easily be in your midst.
The highlights of our day on the Celio, as the Celian Hill is called in Italian, were, for me at least, the three churches on our itinerary. I savor exploring Rome’s churches because they’re literally glittering treasure chests of history. They are carefully preserved relics, each one a unique monument to the evolving ideas and personalities that have shaped Rome over the last few thousand years. The three we visited were among those that I hadn’t checked off my list yet, which is always a bonus. (There are around seven hundred churches in Rome, so it would take a lifetime to thoroughly explore them all, ha!)
We went first to the ancient Basilica of Santo Stafano Rotondo, which dates to the fifth century and is therefore among the very oldest churches in Rome. Its entrance is obscured by an ancient brick wall behind a construction site, so it was great to have someone to guide the way. The church is officially called Santo Stefano al Monte Celio, but it has been nicknamed “Rotondo” because of its round floor plan, which was designed to imitate the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. The church has an airy, light ambience and is sparsely decorated, save for an endless loop of seventeenth-century frescoes depicting violent scenes of martyrdom. I found them fascinating – I’m always curious about the more macabre aspects of antique Christianity.
The second church on our walk was Santi Giovanni e Paolo, which also dates to the fifth century, though its doesn’t have the ancient air of Santo Stefano because it was radically renovated in the 18th century. The church is a good example of the hodgepodge of styles that emerge over centuries in Rome: fifth-century columns, a twelfth-century Cosmatesque (stone mosaic) floor, a Baroque interior, and crystal chandeliers from the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York which were installed in the mid-twentieth century.
The final church and last stop before a well-earned apperitivo was San Gregorio Magno. Our little group had the whole place to ourselves, and the breezy courtyard in front of the church was so peaceful several of us felt compelled to lie down on our backs and soak in the beautiful contrast between the yellow walls and the bright blue sky. As we wandered the the corridor admiring the funerary monuments I tried to make out their inscriptions. My Latin isn’t great, but with a little research I learned that among the more notable tombs is that of Edward Carne, an emissary of Henry VIII who was sent to Rome with the doomed task of convincing the Pope to grant Henry’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon so that he could marry (also doomed) Anne Boleyn. Another tomb once belonged to a famous Renaissance courtesan named Imperia, though her remains have since been moved elsewhere. Inside the church we found another Cosmatesque floor, this one even more beautiful than the one in Santi Giovanni e Paolo. At nearly nine hundred years old, the bright stone tiles remain a sight to behold. (See top photo above.) After taking a gazillion photos of the floor we started to make our way back outside. Filtered light reflected off the powder-blue and gold details as the sun finally started to recede and the evening set in.
You can see more photos from Sunday’s photowalk on Instagram under the hashtag #celioinstameet. A special thanks to the wonderful organizers: @thebeehiverome, @lacasabloga, @lucreziaoddone, and my IG-friend-turned-real-life-friend the scooter maven extraordinaire @scooteromatours.