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Empty public spaces

July 21, 2011

Two weeks ago I was sitting in a small square that overlooks the ruins of the Imperial Fora, a shady spot with a prime view of Augustus’ Temple of Mars Ultor and Trajan’s Column in the distance. It fascinated me that, even on this scorching afternoon hordes of tourists were baking for hours in the Foro Romano, yet this cool spot surrounded by equally impressive sights was empty. The reason for my unexpected solitude in a place I expected to be a popular destination was simple: the site is simply not on the map for most tourists’ itineraries.

Small square overlooking the Imperial Fora

Since I’m in Rome for two months this summer, I’ve started to leave my own map at home. It’s not that I know the city so well that I always know where I am and how to get from place to place– far from it. I simply don’t feel hurried along on those fastest routes that take tourists on a beeline from the Colosseum to the Capitoline, but blindly past places like the Imperial Fora. I can leisurely wander the streets instead of experiencing Rome, as most Americans do, like a series of empty tunnels that connect major tourist sites.

What strikes me most about these tourist tunnels is how easy it is to escape them. Make one turn off a major thoroughfare and you can be entirely alone on an empty street. The pathways seem to be as deeply rooted as the monuments themselves, carved into the city by road signs and tour groups. If you ever see a tourist alone in Rome, he is sure to have his map out, trying frantically to find his way back to the crowds.

Indeed, it is entirely unnecessary to leave the historic center and venture outside the Aurelian Walls to escape those crowds. The following are my observations of five more public spaces in Rome that, like the Imperial Fora, are completely accessible from major thoroughfares, completely worth visiting, and completely empty. I spent a considerable time sitting in each of these spaces–sketching, reading, or merely enjoying my surroundings– and in each place I was never joined by more than a handful of other visitors, tourist or local, most of whom merely passed through without stopping to appreciate, or even notice, the place they were in. My goal in observing each of these places was to discover the reason why they are empty, and in doing so reflect on how to turn these spaces into stops on the map instead of places to walk past without seeing.



In many ways, the Piazza della Repubblica should be the modern equivalent of Piazza del Popolo. Piazza del Popolo was designed as a place of welcome and impressive grandeur, as travelers from the north during the Renaissance invariably traveled down the Via Flaminia and entered the city at this northern gate. Hence the illusionistic symmetry of the two churches that both frame the central obelisk and divide the main pathways southward into the center of the city– the Via del Babuino, the Via del Corso, and the Via di Ripetta.

Today, most visitors arrive in Rome at the Termini train station. The view when one steps out the front doors (and past the endless rows of buses and street merchants selling bubble machines and counterfeit watches) is of the grand Fountain of the Naiads at the center of Piazza Repubblica, which takes its circular shape from the footprint of the ancient Baths of Diocletian.

The view would indeed be impressive to arriving travelers were it not blocked entirely by cars and buses on the major road between the piazza and the station.

Technically the piazza is not empty—it a busy hub with an important church (Santa Maria degli Angeli, restored from the ancient Baths into a church by Michelangelo), some luxury hotels and bars, and one of Rome’s many McDonald’s. Yet all of the pedestrian activity in this piazza takes place on the periphery, under the arcades of the curving buildings that define the space. Hardly anyone aside from a few brave photo-seeking tourist ventures across the endless ring of speeding cars that create an imposing barrier between the pedestrian areas on the edge of the circle and the inviting fountain at the center.
There is only one crosswalk in the whole piazza, and even that one is only marginally respected by motorists. Once you’ve managed to cross, the fountain is a nice place to sit (if you can tune out the roar of the passing cars), with a wide rim to sit on and an occassional mist blowing from the many spraying jets making it pleasantly cool.
The view’s not bad either—depending on the side you choose you can have a wide vista down Via Nazionale toward the Victor Emmanuel monument, or a prime view of the fragmented brick facade of Santa Maria degli Angeli.



This small gem of a piazza that sits directly on the main path between the Corso and the Pantheon is especially dear to my heart, as I spent my last semester at school researching its construction and history. Designed in the 18th century by Filippo Raguzzini, one of the few Rococco architects in Rome, the piazza has long been tied to the traffic that travels on the intertwining streets that meet there. The 17th century Jesuit church that dominates the square necessitated a larger square for viewing the facade than existed at the time, and Raguzzini’s ingenious solution to the difficult problem presented by the small space created a scenographic setting that creates a semi-enclosed from which to contemplate the the delicately curving apartment houses and  massive travertine church facade. It’s nothing like any other space in Rome, and is both architecturally interesting and simply a pleasant spot to take a break from the crowded and noisy Campo Marzio area.

Despite Raguzzini’s intervention, though, the space has continued to be a traffic nightmare given that it connects major roads from three different directions. For many years the piazza was a parking lot, and even its current designation as a pedestrian area is threatened by parked cars and zooming traffic in the parts of the square still open to cars. Hundreds of people pass through the piazza on their way to the Pantheon, but only a few linger (and even then only to visit the church of Sant’Ignazio, which has a pretty incredible illusionistic painted ceiling by Andrea Pozzo).



To be fair, the banks of the Tiber are rarely frequented by day because, in most places within the historic center, they aren’t particularly worth visiting. The graffiti, piles of trash, and ill-kept pathways that characterize the Tiber are indeed unappealing, and it is quite understandable that the long staircases leading down the embankment walls are usually empty.

But in some places the muddy water, which is an unnatural color somewhere between gray-green and dirt brown, gives way into patches of a cleaner, pleasanter river. One particularly appealing spot is underneath the Ponte Vittore Emmanuele II, just south of the banks beneath the Ponte Sant’Angelo where private venues (like a 10 Euro/day swimming pool) have taken over.

On the Tiber, under the Ponte Vittore Emmanuele.

Unlike the crowded pool (understandably popular on a day with temperatues in the high 90s), my spot under the bridge had no people at all. Its only visitors were dozens of ducks and seagulls, doubtless attracted by the relatively lush vegetation that creates something of an oasis on the otherwise barren and dirty Tiber.






This tiny public “park” (though it’s really nothing more than a few trees and seating areas) is on the Janiculum hill, just south of the Vatican. Though small it is a pleasant spot, with plenty of shade and the kind of views of the city that you can only get from the Gianicolo. Looking up the hill from the banks of the Tiber, the park looks like an invitingly verdant spot perched above the chaos of the city.

After you’ve climbed up the hill, you find rounded seating areas with cool benches shaded by a canopy of trees, laid out in an interesting terrace of brick circles. Though it sits right above a tangle of roads, the park’s height makes it quiet and serene. As I sat there the only people nearby were a group of locals waiting for a bus and a few passing tourists.



The Circus Maximus is a bit different from the other places on this list in that it is not bypassed by tourists—it is in fact sought out by many as one of Rome’s most famous ancient sites. I’ve included it here, however, because when those tourists arrive they are often confused and disappointed by what they find. The site resembles the ancient Circus only in shape, maintaining the oblong footprint but today containing nothing but patches of dusty grass, construction work, and endless piles of trash. Without much shade aside from a few trees along the edges, the expansive space is not a pleasant place to linger. Yet the site’s history and the fabulous view the raised southern edge offers of the Palatine hill make it worth attention.






All of these places have some common problems that make their seemingly obvious value as destinations somehow unappealing to potential visitors.

Rome’s notorious traffic ruins a lot about the experience of the city, and it plays a large role in the abandonment of each of the empty spaces on my list. The ruins of the Imperial Fora are not a fun place to linger because the Via dei Fori Imperiali runs right past it, loudly interrupting any opportunity for quiet contemplation of the monuments; the same is true of the Circus Maximus, which is surrounded on all sides by major highways. In the cases of Piazza della Repubblica and the Tiber, traffic acts as a barrier—the endless ring of cars around the Fountain of the Naiads and the Lungotevere along the Tiber make it a daunting prospect to get to those spaces at all. The Parco Cardinale on the Gianicolo, though not especially difficult to reach, is surrounded by intersecting tuennels and highways that, from the bottom of the hill, make the inviting park seem unreachable. Finally, in Piazza Sant’Ignazio, cars have invaded the public space itslef—though officially the piazza is a pedestrian zone, it is filled by cars parked wherevery they aren’t blocked by the large potted plants that define the pedestrian area—and even these have been shifted back by frustrated motorists trying to pass through on the narrow street connecting to the Corso.
The tourist pathways from which few travelers typically deviate are aided by the many signs that helpfully point in the direction of sites like the Trevi Fountain and Piazza Navona. Yet not one such sign exists to point tourists toward the Imperial Fora. Though sites like Trajan’s Column are grand enough to serve as their own advertisements, Augustus’ Temple is tucked behind the main road and completely unmarked. There aren’t even explanatory signs in front of the ruins themselves, leaving tourists to wonder to themselves and inevitably pass by without fully appreciating what they’re seeing.


One of the surest ways to make people want to spend time in a place in Rome is to provide well-shaded seating. The heat in the city is not unbearable as long as you have a tree or fountain to block the direct sun. A place like the Circus Maximus seems appealing as a wide open green space (if you can ignore the trash and dusty rocks that are more plentiful than grass) but is difficult to enjoy with the only relief from the sun being a few shady umbrella pines around the edges.


Though many people claim a desire to escape crowds and find places of solitude off the beaten tourist path, in reality the biggest draw to a place is the presence of other people. I have no doubt that tourists often pass by the staircases leading down to the Tiber banks thinking they would walk down to the river if only they saw anyone else doing the same.

Sarah Kinter is a summer intern with Studio Rome. She studies Art History at Princeton University.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. anne permalink
    July 21, 2011 21:45

    fabulous insight and lovely illustrations


  2. Tom Rankin permalink*
    July 27, 2011 17:51

    Sarah, I was happy to read your observations, with which you know I agree fully. Interestingly, while I was away in Holland last week I found the same phenomena there, although the setting is entirely different. Sometimes great spaces are empty, at least at the time we visit them. While it’s great to be in the middle of a vibrant space surrounded by activity, it’s also pretty cool to be in a space with great potential, knowing that at another time of day or year it might be the center of the city. This happens to Circus Maximus, of course, but also to certain streets which are deserted in the morning and bustling in the evening. More on what I learned in Holland will follow in an upcoming entry.
    Nice sketches too by the way!


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