It doesn’t matter how many times you travel to Rome, you will never run out of new things to do and new places to visit. We have already offered you a few tips on what to do in the Eternal City if you are on a budget and we assume you don’t need us to tell you that the Colosseum, Piazza Navona, St Peter’s and the Roman Forum are all worth visiting. Therefore, in this post, we will be focusing on unusual sights that most tourists never get to see. Some of these are not so much hidden gems as remarkable and unique landmarks that would probably draw a lot more attention, were they not located in a City that holds such a large portion of the world’s most famous artworks. If you are on your umpteenth business trip to Rome and do not warm to the prospect of visiting the same landmarks you are already familiar with, we suggest you ditch your company tour guide and set out to discover Rome’s hidden treasures.
1. The water-clock of Pincian Hill
The gardens on the Pincian Hill – or Pincio – are one of the places you have probably already visited, but you might have been too busy photographing the statue of Giuseppe Garibaldi to notice this wonderful machine. Designed by Father Giovanni Battista Embriaco and architect Gioacchino Ersoch, this clock graces a pond-like fountain with its characteristic steeple shape. It looks roughly like a tiny Big Ben, but if you come close enough you’ll realise that the cast-iron pillars are actually wrought to resemble tree-trunks. The water from the spring underneath (the famous Aqua Marcia), powers the mechanism by making its pendulum swing and thus moving the arms on the clock’s four quadrants. The same mechanism also charges and powers an alarm.
2. The alchemic door of Piazza Vittorio
Many people live in Rome for years without knowing about this mysterious doorway, as Piazza Vittorio is currently better known for being one of Rome’s many multicultural melting pots. Before the current urban development, the ancient Villa Palombara stood on what nowadays is the actual square. Of all the doors that led into the villa, only this one still stands. This fragment of ancient architecture, however, looks rather cryptic and tells us very little about its origin, other than that the designers had rather peculiar taste in decoration. On each side of the doorway stands a statue of the Egyptian god Baes and the door itself bears a coded message that has never been decrypted. It is said to be the alchemical formula to turn base metals into gold. The villa, which no longer exists, was built in the XVII Century and belonged to Marquis Palombara, who was known to be a practicing alchemist. The local legend has it that a pilgrim once begged to take shelter in the Marquis’ garden, and that the mysterious stranger started mixing herbs from the garden and then disappeared through the doorway, leaving behind nothing but a trail of fine gold dust and a parchment with obscure instructions that the Marquis could not decode. Hoping that someone else might understand the cryptic scribblings of the nameless pilgrim, the Marquis had the instructions on the parchments engraved on the doors of his villa, but to this day nobody has been able to break the ancient code
3. The crypt of the Capuchin Monks – the scariest building in Rome
The history of Christianity is not exactly lacking in gruesome souvenirs and landmarks, but the crypt of the Capuchin Monks in Rome is probably among the most unsettling. Just picture it nowadays: a convent of bustling monks busy making liquors with herbs from their garden, praying, collecting for the poor and generally engaged in the kind of activities that monks usually undertake. Amid this merry, pious congregation, someone – an Abbot, perhaps – comes up with a clever idea to get more tourists to visit the premises: “I know!” he exclaims “From now on, every time a brother dies, we will strip the flesh off his bones and hang his skeleton in artistic display in the crypt!”. How do you think that idea would go down? And yet it must be pretty much what has happened, since – believe it or not – the 4000 skeletons creatively arranged through the crypt – some in pieces and some whole and in full monastic garments – are actually meant to be a cheerful way of exorcising death. Because nothing makes you fear death less than standing among the remains of 4000 dead human beings. The idea is that the visitor should be reminded that the body is no more than an unimportant vessel for the soul, which is eternal and incorruptible. A sign hangs on the entrance of the crypt, driving the positive message home: “what you are, we used to be. What we are, you will become”. Feel comforted yet?
4. The monsters of Palazzetto Zuccari
If you have visited Rome, you have probably been a few feet away from this building without noticing. This historic residence is located on piazza Trinità dei Monti, which you have probably reached after climbing up the Spanish Steps. Architect Federico Zuccari was originally from Urbino, but he gained a distinguished fame for himself in Rome during the Renaissance, painting a series of greatly appreciated frescoes. Palazzetto Zuccari was his own roman home, which he built from scratch on a piece of land he had bought for this purpose: his own mansion was to reflect his unique artistic personality and he nearly went bankrupt building and decorating it. The palace’s most notable feature are the grotesque external ornaments, particularly those framing the doors and windows: they look like huge, monstrous gaping mouths and they were inspired by the famous Bomarzo Garden. Zuccari had used a similar theme years before, to illustrate the entrance to Dante’s inferno. His idea was to scare the visitors, in order to surprise them all the more with the beautiful garden that lay beyond the door on via Gregoriana.