The Aventine Hill

by Alexandra


Although I live approximately five minutes away from the Aventine Hill, I don’t go there that often. I suppose I never have a reason to. I might go to other parts of Rome to go shopping, or to see a friend, or to go to a bar or restaurant. I don’t know anyone who lives on the Aventine, and there are are no shops, bars or restaurants on the hill (apart from the monastery shops, and possibly restaurants in the hotels). Going to the Aventine never serves a practical purpose, which is part of its charm.

The Aventine is quiet. There are churches, embassies, villas, gardens, and not much else. It generally feels half asleep, even more so on a summer’s day. It’s a good place to escape from the heat, as there’s a lot of shade, fountains, and places to sit. Sometimes I find a bench in the Giardino degli Aranci and try to imagine what the Aventine would have been like in Roman times.

A bit of history:

The Aventine is named after King Aventinus, the mythical king of the pre-Roman city of Alba Longa. Like the Palatine, it plays an important part in the founding myth of Rome. Legend has it that Romulus and Remus had an augury contest and used the two hills to look for auspicious birds. Remus, who was on the Aventine, lost the contest and his life, while Romulus went on to become the founder of Rome.

Ever since Romulus’s victory, the Palatine has been one of the most prestigious places in Rome, the home of aristocratic families and Roman emperors. The Aventine was comparatively marginal, and associated with outsiders – not only the unsuccessful Remus but also plebeians, foreigners and cults. As well as a Temple to Diana, the hill was also home to the gods known as the Aventine Triad – the Roman deities Ceres, Liber and Libera, who were mainly worshipped by the plebeians.

According to Livy, wild bacchanals took place in the sacred grove of the Aventine, involving people from all levels of Roman society. The senate quickly suppressed the cult and executed many of those involved. More temples to foreign deities were built on the hill over the following centuries, but after the bloody climax of the bacchanal scandal, the Aventine became comparatively peaceful.

(from The Secrets of the Aventine, an article I wrote for L’Italo-Americano)

Although the Giardino degli Aranci has – unfortunately – been well and truly discovered by tourists (and segway tour groups), it’s still one of my favourite places in Rome. It’s also, in my opinion, perhaps the most romantic. Come here at sunset and you’ll find the terrace lined with amorous couples. The views are some of the best in the city. Straight ahead, there’s the river, Trastevere, and the distant dome of St Peter’s. Look to your right for umbrella pines and a panorama of Roman rooftops, from wedding cake of the Vittoriano to the Synagogue.

Santa Sabina is one of my favourite churches. Built in the 5th century, it makes a refreshing change from some of the OTT Baroque churches (as much as I love a bit of Baroque). It’s beautifully understated, and always feels airy and uncluttered. I have a vivid memory of my first visit to Santa Sabina, gazing up at the stars on the wooden ceiling. Compared to other churches, I suppose the ceiling of Santa Sabina is nothing special, but I love it for its simplicity.

Look out for some interesting details, such as the 5th century wooden door (which has one of the earliest depictions of the crucifixion), and the polished black stone at the back of the church. This stone was supposedly thrown at St Dominic by the devil. Apparently there’s also an orange tree in the convent garden (generally closed to the public), which was planted by St Dominic.

I like to pretend that the Aventine keyhole is a secret. It isn’t really, not any more. There’s often a long queue of people waiting for a glimpse through the keyhole. I once saw a young girl hold up her dog to the keyhole, to give him a look. But if you get your timing right, it can be a magical experience. When I have visitors in Rome, I like to take them to the Aventine and tell them to look through the keyhole, without telling them what’s on the other side, as it’s better with an element of surprise.

I refuse to queue for the keyhole, just as I refuse to queue for La Bocca della Verita’ (the view through the keyhole is much more special though). Try visiting early in the morning, late at night or off season. My best visit was on a memorable second date, on a cold night in November.

When I first moved to Rome, one of my weekly rituals was a Sunday visit to Sant’Anselmo. I’ve been agnostic all my life, and this was the first I came close to being a regular church-goer. Not for religious reasons, but for the music. I’d read this entry in a book called Rome: The Essential Insider’s Guide:

“At the recommendation of someone who knows Rome well, I went with a few friends on a Sunday evening (at 7:15 p.m.) to Sant’Anselmo. The church is quite new (late nineteenth century) but in the Romanesque-Lombard style. Reached by a short walkway from the piazza, it is fronted by a beautiful courtyard, gently illuminated in the dark of a winter evening. A central fountain sparkled and babbled as we made our way into the church. as the evening bells began to ring, the monks – about sixty-five in all, and of all ages (arranged, it seemed, by seniority) filed in.

For the next hour we listened to the liturgical singing of a community that places itself within a larger and much older community of Benedictine monks by singing the Vespers each evening at the same time. The voices were beautiful and tranquil. At the end of, the monks filed back out, donning cowls at the sanctuary door. As they exited, someone began to extinguish the candles and other lights in the church, which had, as we made or way out, turned quite dark, mimicking the dimming of nature’s light and the beginning of a time of rest, more prayer, and quiet. We walked, silently, out into the courtyard, which had, by now, darkened. We hardly spoke. It wasn’t “entertainment”, but it was, as my friend had assured us, very special.”

It’s a lovely way to end the week – sitting in a church in the Aventine Hill and listening to the monks singing. The Aventine in general is a very Sunday place. Somewhere to go to walk, to rest, to gaze and daydream for an hour or two. If I ever get rich, I’d like to buy an elegantly decaying villa with an overgrown garden, and spend my days reading books on the terrace and walking my dog in the Giardino degli Aranci…