A Taste of Trastevere

Trastevere~Village Rome

I had just arrived in Trastevere from the ancient forum across the Tiber River in Rome. Dodging traffic and keeping my sense of direction paid off. Trastevere, with a past reputation of that ‘seedy, wrong-side-of-the-river’ village Rome. But I found it anything but seedy. With my back to the river, I began my journey into the depths of this ancient and colorful neighborhood.

Trastevere is still a busy place, but it has hummed with human activity since 750 BC. Beginning with the Etruscans, it eventually developed a large Jewish population and grew into a multi-cultural community. The inhabitants were called “Trasteverini.” Trastevere is Latin for Trans Tiberim, meaning ‘beyond the Tiber River.’

After stopping by a cafe for a cappuccino and cornetto, I passed ivy-colored trattorias and weathering apartments. Umbrella-shaded outdoor cafes lined the alleyways filled with tatoo shops and alimentari (a small market selling fresh produce, cold cuts and dry goods.) It was in an alimentari that I had my first experience on local manners.

Alimentari, produce shop in Trastevere
Alimentari, produce shop

“Non toccare, mi metterò che,” “Don’t touch, I will get it.” the young man chided as I picked up a banana. Taking it out of my hands he took it to the front counter. I paid my due and left, a little wiser on local protocol.

I set off to find the famous old church of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere. Following a few twists and turns, I was standing in the small grassed courtyard before the church.

St. Cecilia Church
St. Cecilia Church, Trastevere
Mosaic inside St. Cecilia Church
Mosaic of Christ and Mary above the nave dated around 1140 inside Santa Cecilia Church

St. Cecilia was a young woman who lived here during the 2nd century when Christianity was sporadically persecuted. As the legend goes, she was martyred by beheading (three attempts) for her faith. A white life-size marble replica of her lies under the altar in the main church.

An archaeological dig below the church is believed to be the remains Cecilia’s home. I was eager to go exploring. After entering the church, I found a small office to the left where a friendly Italian speaking nun with a huge smile let me descend the stairs to the house ruins for a small fee.

St. Cecilia's first century home underneath the church
St. Cecilia’s 2nd century home underneath the church

The air grew damp and earthy as I stepped onto the ancient turf. I was experiencing an Indiana Jones moment. It was more spacious than I thought it would be, leading me to believe that Cecilia belonged to a wealthy family. A main hallway ran straight back with rooms on each side. Some original marble pieces, floor tiles and columns were left to be viewed.

House ruins of St. Cecilia
House ruins of St. Cecilia

After I left the church of St. Cecilia, I discovered the oldest fountain in Rome. It was located in the center of the nearby piazza of Santa Maria in Trastevere. Traced back to the 8th century, it was restored during the late Renaissance by the architect Donato Bramante. This piazza is the neighborhoods most important one with the steps of the fountain designed to be the so-called ‘sofa’ of the neighborhood. During important soccer games, a huge screen is set up in the piazza for everyone to watch and share in the excitement.

Fountain in piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere
Fountain in piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere

This fountain is not without a legend. As it goes, on the night of the birth of Christ a stream of oil burst forth miraculously on this same spot in front of the church. Who can say for sure, but it certainly put this piazza on the map.

As I sat on the steps of the fountain and watched the hustle of people crossing the piazza against a backdrop of cramped and peeling buildings, I wondered if anything had really changed all that much over the centuries.

I crossed the piazza and onto the portico of the landmark church of Santa Maria in Trastevere.

Church of Santa Maria piazza and the old fountain

The church of Santa Maria was founded in the 4th century, making it one of the oldest churches in Rome. Inside are exquisite Cavallini mosaics dating from the 13th century. The portico (covered area just outside the door) is covered with bits of old stone with Christian symbols. Many are believed to be parts of lids to early catacomb burial niches. The entire front of the columns are lit up at night, casting a golden glow onto the piazza.

Evening was quickly descending. The narrow cobbled alleyways lined with medieval houses gave way to a throbbing Roman nightlife as twilight slid into darkness. Pubs, cafes and restaurants faced the crowded streets, beckoning to me as I passed. Waiters stood advertising their menus to the din of a nearby guitar.



Outdoor restaurant in Trastevere
Outdoor restaurant “Grazia & Graziella,” where I enjoyed dinner

“Madame abbiamo un tavolo per uno!” “Madam, I have a table for one.” A handsome waiter had just tapped my elbow and motioned toward a seat. His smile and touch convinced me. “Perché sì, grazie,” I buckled.

Evening in Trastevere
Evening in Trastevere

As the evening wore on, I made my way slowly back toward my room. Bands of musicians played along the streets while diners enjoyed good food and friends with indiscreet enthusiasm. Scruffy poets stood in corners quoting in reckless abandon. Trastevere hasn’t changed much over the centuries in appearance. The streets still attract crowds of locals and tourists alike. But today, it is becoming an upscale neighborhood, far removed from the pain and poverty of the distant past.

The Painter and the Peasant Girl: Raphael’s Mysterious Love

Margherita Luti
La Fornarina, the baker’s daughter

Her dark-eyed beauty and peachy hued porcelain skin could turn the head of any man. Margherita Lute, the daughter of a Roman baker, appears to have stolen the heart of Raphael himself. She is depicted in several of his paintings, including the Madonna cycles. But his one masterpiece, La Fornarina, leaves several clues as to his relationship with her. There is no doubt that she was his mistress, but recent discoveries question whether they were betrothed or even secretly married.

La Donna Velata
La Velata–same lady?

The story of Raphael and Margherita is one of the most intriguing and romantic love affairs of all time. It all began one day when Raphael happened to catch sight of her at the outdoor fountain by her house in Trastevere, west of the Tiber River, washing her feet. He was smitten by her dark beauty and graceful ways, and wasted no time in pursuing her. As with Romeo and Juliet, these two lovers each came from an entirely different social status. She, a peasant girl, could not engage in a public display of affection with the unrivaled prestige of Raphael. Yet even under intense and consequential circumstances, they continued to nurture their romance secretly.

Raphael Santi
Raphael Santi

Raphael Santi, born in 1483 in Urbino, was known as the “Prince of Painters.” As a young man of great artistic abilities, his expertise took him straight to the top. He became a master painter at the age of 17. Leonardo da Vinci became a mentor and father figure to him while Raphael was painting in Florence. He was soon commissioned to paint fresco cycles for the Vatican, eventually becoming Pope Julius II’s chief architect in 1514. Some of his well-known fresco’s include The School of Athens, The Triumph of Religion, and The Liberation of St. Peter.

Giorgio Vasari, art historian and author of “The Lives of the Artists,” writes that Raphael could not focus on his painting at the Villa Farnesina when he was separated from her, so it was arranged that she be reunited with him and available to him at all times. The paintings were about love and marriage, and it has been speculated that the friend who commissioned Raphael to paint, Agostino Chigi, may have arranged a secret marriage for them.

The Villa Farnesina is a Renaissance suburban villa in the Via della Lungara, in the district of Trastevere in Rome, central Italy. The villa was built for Agostino Chigi, a rich Sienese banker and the treasurer of Pope Julius II.

Raphael and Margherita by Ingress
Raphael and Margherita 1814 by Ingress

Art restorers have recently discovered a ruby ring on the third finger of her left hand that had been painted over in an attempt to blot it out. Raphael was engaged to another woman of high standing, Maria Bibbiena, but against his will. Consequently, if the truth of the ring became public knowledge, there would have been a scandal. The consequences could easily have bankrupted Raphael and his school of painting as well as losing his commission at the Vatican. Most likely one of his students realized the risk after Raphael’s death and took action by painting over it.

According to the experts, such a ring would be highly improbable on a woman under usual circumstance, even for a courtesan who was heavily bejeweled. Margherita wears a blue ribbon around her arm that has Raphael’s name etched in gold. In the background of the 1520’s portrait are myrtle and quince, symbols of love and marriage. A costly pearl broach hangs from her headpiece that a woman would usually wear only on her wedding day.

Margherita Lute, The Bakers Daughter
La Fornarina, the bakers daughter 1518-20

Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica in Palazzo Barberini, Rome.

In early 16th century Renaissance Italy a nude model would have been rare to come by, so it’s likely that the couple shared a very close intimacy. In the painting, Margherita is gazing coyly yet affectionately at someone, her mouth forming a soft and knowing smile. She places her hands suggestively over her body, the fingers of one hand pointing toward the blue ribbon on her arm. Sensuality, tenderness and eroticism emanate profusely from her being.

Giorgio Vasari described Margherita as “the woman whom Raphael loved to his death.” When Raphael passed away, his body was placed to rest in the Pantheon in Rome. Sadly, it is Maria Bibbiena, to whom he was publicly engaged, who is buried next to him. Raphael provided enough money for Margherita to live a good life. Yet she chose to join a monastery in Trastevere just a few months after his passing. Like Romeo and Juliet, the untimely death of one cast the other into an eternal retreat.

Raphael immortalized his beloved in dozens of his major works. La Fornarina, the baker’s daughter, lives on as the great love of his life.