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This is One of the Most Fascinating Ways to See Rome

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Following Rome’s example, obelisks became urban status symbols. When New York was about to acquire its own obelisk for Central Park in the late 19th century, the New York Herald declared that “it would be absurd for the people of any great city to hope to be happy without an Egyptian Obelisk. Rome has had them this great while and so has Constantinople. Paris has one. London has one. If New York was without one, all those great sites might point the finger of scorn at us and intimate that we could never rise to any real moral grandeur until we had our obelisk.”

There are 13 standing obelisks in Rome: more than any other city in the world, more than in Egypt itself. All 13 can be visited in a day’s walking tour. But as this itinerary will take you through some of the most interesting neighborhoods of Rome, it is perhaps better to break it up into a few parts and take it at a more leisurely pace with plenty of time for cups of coffee, aperitifs, lunch and of course the sort of discursive sightseeing which makes Rome so rewarding.

You will do a great deal of walking—the whole route is around 9 miles—and develop an increased appreciation of Rome’s hilly topography: the legendary “City of Seven Hills” nickname is a geographical understatement. The speed at which you travel from obelisk to obelisk is going to be very much affected by Rome’s often challenging weather, especially in the furnace-like conditions of peak summer days and the occasional monsoon-heavy rains. The city’s good but limited underground system won’t be much help, and I’m afraid that traveling by car is both infuriating and also rather misses the point. Rome is, alas, not a good city for those with limited mobility: all those hills and the beautiful but treacherous cobblestone paving present major challenges.

1. Piazza del Popolo is a good place to start. The square’s current layout was fixed in the 19th century, but for centuries before it was the gateway to Rome for visitors from the north of Italy and beyond the Alps. Among the most notable of these was Queen Christina of Sweden, whose conversion to Catholicism was a trophy for the Church of Rome and Pope Alexander VII in particular. In order to welcome her Alexander commissioned Bernini to redesign the square’s entrance, the Porta del Popolo, and adorn it with a Latin inscription which declares “May your entrance be a prosperous and happy one.”

Santa Maria del Popolo Capella Chigi Panorama

Santa Maria del Popolo itself has, even by the high standards of Rome, outstanding treasures for such a small church. Visitors mesmerized by the Caravaggios in the Cerisi chapel may be in danger of overlooking Pinturicchio’s murals in the Della Rovere Chapel. Before he became pope, Alexander VII commissioned Bernini to finish work on his family chapel, which had been begun to designs by Raphael. The chapel features two pyramidal tombs to Alexander’s Chigi forebears, one of them to the extremely rich papal banker Agostino Chigi, as well as two outstanding Biblical sculptures by Bernini— Habbakuk and Daniel in the Lion’s Den.

As a key entry point to Rome, Piazza del Popolo was an obvious place for Sixtus V to site one of his obelisks as a signpost for visiting pilgrims. This one, sometimes called the Flaminian, was carved in Egypt around 1,300 BCE and brought to Rome by Augustus, who used it to decorate the central reservation of the Circus Maximus racetrack. The usual story of collapse, loss and rediscovery culminated in re-erection in 1589 with a laudatory inscription proclaiming that “Sixtus V ordered this miserably broken and overturned obelisk to be excavated, transferred and restored and dedicated to the invincible cross.” Piazza del Popolo is home to two cafés with fine terraces: Rosati, the slightly smarter of the two, and Canova, which attracted celebrities and paparazzi in the Dolce Vita era. The famous trident of three streets, Corso, Babuino and Ripetta, fans out from the piazza, but we will turn our back on those to walk up Via Gabriele D’Annunzio to the edge of the Borghese gardens. Ten minutes later you will get to the top of the Salita del Pincio staircase where there is an excellent view across Rome to Saint Peter’s.

2. Another few minutes’ walk brings you to the small—a little over nine meters tall—obelisk of Monte Pincio, commissioned in the second century A.D. by the Emperor Hadrian as a monument to his recently deceased lover, the teenage Greek Antinous, whom Hadrian had deified. When Giuseppe Valadier, the architect responsible for the final design of the Piazza del Popolo, took charge of the layout of the Borghese Gardens, modern Rome’s first public park, the obelisk was re-erected not, as the obelisk historian Erik Iversen observed, to mark a significant urban space, but as a mere garden ornament. That was in 1822, during the reign of Pius VI. Today the obelisk stands as the centerpiece of a pantheon of somewhat decrepit statues commemorating largely obscure Italian worthies including a headless Carlo Botta, author of early 19th-century histories of Italy and the American Revolution, and a noseless G. B. Niccolini, poet, playwright and patriot. Nearby is........

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