by Judith Anne Testa
The Trastevere neighborhood offers a rare glimpse into the medieval side of the Eternal City.
If you pick up just about any guidebook to Rome and turn to the section on Trastevere, you'll find something about the natives' claim to being the only real Romans, and their neighborhood the only authentic Rome. Why this rione, or region, of Rome should make such a claim can be difficult to understand. Originally an outlying area the ancient Romans called "Trans-Tiberim" (across the Tiber -- Trastevere in modern Italian), it was not even considered a part of the city in earliest times, and throughout its history the zone has been both insular and a preferred place of residence for foreigners. Until well into the 19th century, its natives spoke a distinct dialect almost incomprehensible to people in the rest of Rome, and many locals were proud to claim they'd never crossed the Tiber to that other -- imperial, papal, eternal, et cetera -- city of Rome.
Trastevere is a roughly triangular area on the southwestern side of modern Rome, at the foot of the Janiculum Hill and tucked into a bend of the Tiber River near the Tiber Island. As its name implies it's across the river from the city center. But if we go back to really ancient times, almost 3,000 years ago, when Rome was nothing more than a collection of sod huts scattered among seven wooded hills, the area across the Tiber belonged to the more sophisticated and civilized Etruscans, and only came under the control of the Romans around 500 B.C., shortly after the foundation of the Roman Republic. At that time the Romans' interest in the area was strategic -- they wanted access to the river from both sides, but they had no interest in building anything on the farther side, since Trans-Tiberim could only be reached with difficulty, via rickety little wooden bridges on either side of the Tiber Island. The engineering mastery that allowed the Romans to span the full width of the Tiber with stout stone bridges was still several centuries in the future.
Nonetheless, the area across the Tiber, now safely under Rome's jurisdiction, attracted residents, most of them fishermen, sailors, and merchants involved in sea trade, all of whom had good reasons to live near the river. Back before pollution ruined its water, the Tiber provided lots of fish -- an important source of protein for ordinary Romans, who ate very little meat -- and provided employment for a large number of fishermen. Sailors, some of them natives, but many others from distant lands, liked living close to where their ships docked at the Tiber port near the Forum Holitorium. Starting in the first century A.D., at least one group of sailors from the imperial navy was required to live there: near the river but close to the city center, since they were responsible for extending and retracting the huge, complicated awning that shaded spectators at the Colosseum. Thanks to the proximity of the port, Trastevere also acquired an international community of merchants, many of them Syrians and Jews, who lived where they could keep an eye on both their ships and their warehouses.
The area officially became a part of Rome during the reign of Rome's first emperor, Augustus, in the late first century B.C. Augustus divided the city into 14 regions, among them Trastevere, divisions still reflected in the districts of the present-day city. He also found a personal use for Trastevere -- he had a deep, gigantic hole scooped out (probably where Piazza San Cosimato is now located), filled it with water, and there he staged naumachia, or mock naval battles. By that time the mostly rural edges of the region beyond the Tiber had become a desirable spot for wealthy people to build their villas. Clodia, the hard-hearted lady-love of the poet Catullus, had a villa there, and Julius Caesar owned a huge swath of property in the southernmost end of the district, a fact still recalled in the name of a modern road near the Trastevere railroad station: Via degli Orti di Cesare -- the Street of Caesar's Gardens. It always amazes me how something as simple as a street name can evoke so vividly the Rome of 2,000 years ago.
Because the city's Jewish community, in existence since the second century B.C., and consisting largely of merchants and traders, had settled in Trastevere, the region also became the place where Rome's first Christians lived and worshiped. St. Peter -- who, unlike the slightly later St. Paul -- believed that Jesus' message was intended only for his co-religionists, made his first converts among the Jews of Trastevere. Although the present building is of a much later date, the church of Santa Maria in Trastevere has strong claims to being the first site of Christian worship in Rome, at a time when St. Peter was still alive. The church of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, built over the house of a pagan Roman convert, was founded not much later, probably at some point in the second century.
Along with the rest of Rome, Trastevere suffered greatly during the fifth through eighth centuries, the chaotic period after the collapse of Roman imperial authority, when Rome was repeatedly invaded and sacked. Although the popes took over many of the administrative powers of the emperors, the city shrank and became depopulated, with Trastevere left abandoned and in ruins. But like Rome itself, Trastevere survived, and by the 1200s it was thriving again, its residences and warehouses rebuilt, and its port functioning. The port long ago silted up and today it's only a memory preserved in names such as via Portuense and the Porta Portese, the latter one of the gates in the city's third-century Aurelian Walls, and now the site of a famous "flea market" that operates on Sunday mornings.
Because of its outlying location, Trastevere avoided most of the grandiose rebuilding programs that periodically swept over Rome. The narrow, winding, irregular streets are still the same ones people used in medieval times, and many of the buildings also survive from the 13th and 14th centuries. Now and then a wealthy family would buy up and tear down a pre-existing building and build a palazzo there, or sponsor the construction (or reconstruction) of a church, but most of the older buildings remained. Pope Sixtus IV had many of Trastevere's dirt streets paved in the early 1470s -- part of a frenzy of building activity leading up to the Jubilee year of 1475 -- and in the early 1500s Pope Julius II had the straight Via della Lungara built, linking Trastevere with the Vatican. During the last great campaign of building activity in Rome, shortly after the foundation of the united Italy in 1870, Trastevere was split in half by the construction of a wide boulevard called Viale di Trastevere. The apartment blocks and public buildings that line that street, including the grandiose Ministry of Education, are from the later 19th century, and bear no relationship to the much smaller and more modest structures of earlier centuries to be found on the streets behind them.
Perhaps the "true Rome" designation comes from the way Trastevere has retained the appearance and atmosphere of past centuries. That's what I like about it, and why I choose to live there whenever I'm in Rome. Far more than the city center, with its huge, magnificent remains of the Roman Empire, its imposing Renaissance and Baroque palaces, its modern banks and hotels, and its noisy, traffic-clogged streets, Trastevere preserves something of medieval Rome. Oh sure, it's becoming "gentrified," but it's still a sort of urban small town full of winding, narrow little lanes with lines of laundry flapping across them, intimate neighborhood piazzas dotted with groups of gossiping grandmothers, craftsmen's studios spilling out onto the streets, tiny shops specializing in some single product or group of products, and lots of dark, mysterious old buildings fitted at odd angles against one another like the pieces of a giant, geometric jigsaw puzzle.
During the evening, the area's numerous restaurants, bars, and clubs go into full swing, people pour in from all over Rome, and the noisy night life continues almost until dawn. But during the day in the winter, past the high tourist season, Trastevere belongs to its permanent residents, as a blessed quiet reigns and the past reclaims its picturesque little streets.