Via Giulia, An Ageless Beauty
Via Giulia is a quiet Roman street close to the Tiber.
Located on the southwestern edge of the Campo dei Fiori, it runs today as it did over five hundred years ago—a proud, straight anomaly set cheek by jowl among the narrow gritty warrens of medieval Rome—masking the noise and snarl of modern traffic on the Tiber’s quays.
The street is the result of radical urban planning joined to architectural genius. It owes its existence in large part to Pope Julius II.
I confess to having an image of Julius as the character played by Rex Harrison in The Agony and The Ecstasy, tall, forbidding and a bit too British. But he was both more than and less than the Hollywood version. Franciscan priest, businessman, ruthless warrior, father to three illegitimate daughters, he was also a visionary and unrivaled patron of the arts.
His father was the only brother of Pope Sixtus IV. As a result of this close tie to the papacy as well as a few well-placed bribes, Giuliano della Rovere was elected pope in 1503. He died a scant ten years later in 1513 and is buried, not in St. Peter’s, but in one of Rome’s oldest parish churches, St Peter in Chains.
During his papal tenure, Julius backed Michelangelo, Raphael and Bramante. Under his patronage, Michelangelo created the Sistine Chapel frescos, Raphael painted his breathtaking Stanze—once Julius’s private apartment, but today three rooms in the Vatican Museum—and Bramante architected Rome into the High Renaissance.
Donato Bramante designed churches and palaces in perfect classic proportion, began St. Peter’s and as part of Julius’s plan for Rome’s urban renewal, oversaw the construction of three straight-running avenues intended not so much to bring the faithful to St. Peter’s as to link the Vatican to the engines of commerce. One of these is Via Giulia.
Step into Via Giulia from the Lungotevere dei Tebaldi on the river’s edge near Ponte Sisto and walk northeast to have the best view and light. Or find a bench, relax, munch on a peach or crust of bread, sip some wine and give yourself time to experience this daughter of the Renaissance, bejeweled in long strands of ivy, her walls stained in rich ochre colors. Some of the finest examples of sixteenth-century architectural detail grace doorways and windows of her palaces.
Today this is a first-class Roman neighborhood, so you will see the cultured citizens of Rome enjoying their city. If you are looking for antiques, Via Giulia has some shops worth your time. Either way, walking, sitting, or shopping, at once you are in a time warp.
In the distance Michelangelo’s bridge arches overhead. Meant to link the Palazzo Farnese with Villa Farnesina across the Tiber, the project remains unfinished; but along with church domes in the distance, it lends interesting curves to an otherwise linear view.
Down the street water spews from the mouth of an ugly mask. Whether copy or Roman, it is unsightly. The water, however, is delicious and is from Acqua Paola which siphons a much earlier Roman aqueduct that has been bringing water to Rome for almost 2,000 years.
Palaces and churches on Via Giulia
no. 1 - Palazzo Falconieri designed by Borromini. Don’t miss the falcons on the rooftop.
no. 18 - San Eligio. Raphael designed the interior of this church.
no. 52 - the Carceri Nuove, Rome’s prison for two centuries once stood here. It was an early attempt at prison reform.
no. 66 - Palazzo Sacchetti designed by Vasari, painter, architect, historian, writer, who famously defined painting as “line and color.” The palace was built for the Sacchetti family, Florentine bankers, Medici contemporaries who rivaled their wealth and power.
no. 79 - home of Sangallo, the architect.
no. 86 - a house on land once owned by Raphael.
Author’s Note: I have been traveling to Rome since the early 1970s and each time I go, I pay a visit to Via Giulia. She has become a friend, this ageless beauty who never disappoints.