Prayers and promenades: from St. Peter's Romans and friends will flock to piazzas

April 11, 1993|By Bo Fowlkes | Bo Fowlkes,Contributing Writer

Rome -- The streets are still empty as the sun shines its first rays over Rome's skyline of domes and ancient ruins. It is Easter Sunday in the Eternal City, the birthplace of the Roman Catholic church. At this hour, there is little activity except for the faithful taking their places in the pews of the countless churches and basilicas that call this city home.

Within the hour, the narrow cobblestone streets of the historic center will be full. The peal of thousands of bells will resound from every corner of the Italian capital as the crowd crosses the ancient Ponte Sant'Angelo -- Holy Angel Bridge -- which spans the Tiber River to Vatican City.

Nuns and priests from local convents and monasteries will join the crowd -- tourist and Roman alike -- as they make their way to hear the pope's Easter message, just as the faithful have done since St. Peter founded the first church on Vatican Hill nearly 2,000 years ago.

Along the way, the route will lead through the picturesque Piazza Navona and down the ancient Via dei Coronari, so named for the coronari -- rosaries -- that for centuries were sold on the street to passing pilgrims.

Later in the day, when the crowds start to trickle back into the center of the city, Piazza Navona will come to life, as it does almost every Sunday. This is the place where Romans come to see and be seen. Men from the surrounding neighborhoods congregate to discuss and gesticulate. Young mothers with children make their way around and around the elliptical piazza, and tourists arrive to drink and dine at the outdoor cafes and take in the marvelous baroque architecture.

You could compare the concept of an Italian piazza to that of an American town square, but that would oversimplify a tradition that has been a part of Italian culture since Romulus is said to have founded Rome in 753 B.C.

In a sense, the Roman Forum was the first piazza. Ancient Romans went to the Forum to shop, socialize and be seen. The Forum was the heart of the community. As Rome expanded and spread its culture over most of Western Europe, Roman settlements almost always had a Forum. Even today, Rome is still a collection of small communities centered around particular piazzas.

Piazza Navona is the heart and soul of Rome's historic center. It was originally a stadium built by the Emperor Domitian in A.D. 86. In those days, it was the site of chariot races and gladiator battles.

During the 16th century, Piazza Navona became a prime example of the harmony of Roman Baroque architecture and sculpture. Gian Lorenzo Bernini, the master of Roman Baroque, designed and constructed the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi with its four figures representing the four major rivers of the world: the Nile, the Ganges, the Danube and the Plata. This and two other fountains dominate Piazza Navona.

The fountain's backdrop is the church of Sant'Agnese in Agone, designed and constructed by Francesco Borromini, a student of Bernini. Legend has it that Bernini deliberately made the figures of the Four River Fountain covering their heads and shielding their eyes in horror at such an ugly, poorly constructed church. It is said Bernini was annoyed and jealous that he hadn't been awarded the contract to build the church as well as the fountains. The truth, however, is that the fountain was completed more than a year before the planning of the church had even begun.

Today, Piazza Navona could be considered the archetype of the Italian piazza: On most Sundays, it is filled with priests and young seminarians, clusters of nuns of every nationality, street artists, musicians, fortune tellers, politicians, diplomats, art and antique dealers, local and international celebrities, panhandlers and even a few pickpockets.

There are many places in Piazza Navona where one can go to enjoy a pizza, an ice cream or a cocktail. In the dark, winding streets surrounding the piazza are plenty of pizzerias and restaurants, as well as night spots known mostly to Romans. Hidden among these crowded and bustling businesses is La Bevitoria enoteca.

One goes there to socialize and taste the hundreds of different Italian wines an enoteca typically stocks. In ancient Rome, wine was sold on street corners. That practice continued until 1823 when Pope Leo XII, who disapproved of drinking, banned the wine merchants from the streets. The open enoteche simply moved indoors, thus creating today's wine-drinking establishments.

In the middle of the day, when the rest of Piazza Navona's restaurants and cafes are serving lunch, La Bevitoria enoteca is closed. The proprietor, his family and employees are hiding from NTC the sun, enjoying their lunches and taking their siestas, as are many other Romans.

At 7 p.m., when it begins to cool, the proprietor prepares for the evening. Tables and chairs are carried out a door which an hour before would have gone unnoticed, transforming another piece of sidewalk into a place for night life.

Then the Roman regulars begin to arrive. Young people from the neighborhood, others just leaving their offices, artists and street musicians all congregate here. In the enoteca's cellar are mountains of wine bottles from every vintage and region of Italy interspersed among tables and benches surrounded by walls built between and around the ancient foundations of Domitian's Stadium.

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