Thursday, May 26, 2016

5 Folklore Landmarks in Rome - Little known and worth visiting!

I am a storyteller. I travel with stories, and for stories - therefore my itineraries rarely ever follow the usual tourist routes. And there are not many places in the world as completely saturated with story as Rome is. This time around, after 7 years, I returned with a whole list of tales I wanted to encounter in their physical traces. I got most of them from Rachel Harriette Busk's Roman legends, as well as three volumes of the Newton Compton series of Roman legends and traditions (in Italian). Here are some of the folkloric highlights of the recent trip, in no particular order:

The Sword of Roland
Close to the extremely crowded Pantheon there is an alley that almost no one wanders into. It is called Vicolo della Spada d'Orlando, the Alley of Roland's Sword. It sports the meager remains of the temple of Matidia, Hadrian's mother-in-law. One of these rocks, jutting out of the wall of a building, has a deep gash in it - local legend says it was cut by the sword of Roland, Charlemagne's famous knight, as he was attacked by bandits on his visit to Rome. Another story claims that this is the rock he tried to break his legendary sword Durendal on as he lay dying, and it has been magically transported to Rome from the battlefield of Roncesvalles.

The prisons of the Castel Sant'Angelo
The Angel Fortress is worth visiting for multiple reasons - the tomb of Hadrian, the fortress of the Popes, the site of the magical appearance of the Archangel Michael ending a plague, and magnificent views to the Vatican and the Tiber. For me personally, however, it was the site of one of my favorite Roman legends: the imprisonment of Pietro Bailliardo, a medieval magician known for his affinity for fire. According to legend, he was locked in the Castel's prison with other never-do-wells for starting a fight. Once he got bored of sitting around, he drew a ship on the wall with chalk, and used some magic to blast it into existence. The prisoners merrily sailed away from the Castel on the ship, and dispersed into the city, only leaving an old man behind who had been asleep the whole time.
(The cells themselves are not open to visitors, but I took a photo at the entrance of the prison)

Visiting Padre Filippo
As a child who grew up watching State buoni se potete every Christmas (an Italian classic), I always liked Saint Philip Neri a lot. There are countless stories about him in the Roman tradition, as people liked him a lot, and he spent most of his life among the poor in the area of the Campo dei Fiori. Busk lists multiple Padre Filippo (as he is lovingly called) tales from the folklore of the city, and they are both amusing and endearing. In one of them, Padre Filippo offers to take on the labor pains of a young first-time mother, and soon regrets it (duh). I visited San Filippo at his lavish grave in the Chiesa Nuova (there is a whole legend about how they saved his body from being chopped up for relics). It is all gold and incense and marble, and I think he would chuckle and shake his head if he saw it.
(There is an entire walking route for Saint Philip, that leads you to all the important sites of his life)

St. Sylvester and the Dragon
There is a lot to see on the Forum Romanum. Like, a lot. While some part or another is always being excavated, there are also constantly new sites opened - this time around, for example, I could finally walk into the house of the Vestal Virgins. According to legend, it was somewhere around that corner of the Forum that once a great venomous dragon lived in an underground cave. The Romans had to call on Pope Sylvester to exorcise it, and get rid of the terrible stink that permeated the Forum and killed people by the hundreds. Sylvester accomplished the deed, and managed to convert many people to Christianity.
(I'm just gonna note that the Cloaca Maxima, the Roman sewer system, had an entrance in this part of the Forum that is still visible...)

Originally one of Rome's "talking statues," Pasquino is so well known that it got a place in one of the walking routes for Rome's Jubilee Year of Mercy. It is a broken statue, probably from Domitian's stadium, portraying Menelaos - but in the imagination of the people of Rome, the figure was known as Pasquino, a local tailor. They have been using the statue since the middle ages to post scathing critiques of the Pope, the government, and whatever else they are angry at; these witty notes are known as pasquinades. Busk lists several stories about people tricking the guards who tried to keep them from posting things on the statue. One Pope even proposed to throw it into the Tiber. The papers are now posted on a plastic slab instead of the statue itself - but there is still a steady flow of them!


  1. I wish I could afford to travel....

  2. I enjoyed traveling through Rome with you in such a personal and storied way!
    Barbara, blogging at Life & Faith in Caneyhead

  3. Some great stories, and timely too as we've been making plans to visit Rome soon (ish). I'll have to try and visit some of these. :D

    1. Let me know if you need any more tips! I love Rome, and have been there quite a few times :)

  4. I'd love to someday visit Rome, and all of Italy, though my favorite city is Firenze (Florence). I'm so glad Rome was spared the devastation a lot of other Italian cities faced during WWII, on account of all the historic and cultural treasures there.

    1. I have never been to Northern Italy... I have taken a train ride across the peninsula though (Rome-Chieti) and that was amazing!