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All images © by Roberto Piperno, owner of the domain. Write to romapip@quipo.it. Text edited by Rosamie Moore.
Page revised in January 2010.


Porta Latina (Book 1) (Map A4) (Day 5) (View C10) (Rione Campitelli)

In this page:
 The plate by Giuseppe Vasi
 Today's view
 Porta Latina
 S. Giovanni in Oleo
 S. Giovanni a Porta Latina
 Along Via Latina
 Tombe della Via Latina
 The Walls between Porta Latina and Porta S. Sebastiano
 The Walls between Porta Latina and Porta Metronia

The Plate (No. 9)


Porta Latina was a minor gate at the time of ancient Rome and also in the XVIIIth century; Via Latina, the road going through the gate, branched off Via Appia at S. Cesareo in Palatio and eventually joined it again at Cassino, halfway between Rome and Naples. Because of the limited importance of the road, Porta Latina was closed for long periods. The etching shows very clearly that the tower to the right of the gate was built above an existing square construction, most likely a tomb. In the description below the plate Vasi wrote that Filide, the wet nurse of Emperor Domitian had a house along Via Latina, where she brought his dead body and performed the funerary ceremonies.
The view is taken from the green dot in the small 1748 map here below which shows: 1) Porta Latina; 2) S. Giovanni in Oleo; 3) S. Giovanni a Porta Latina. The larger 1924 map shows 1) Torre dell'Angelo; 2) Roman fountain unearthed in Via Cesare Baronio; 3) Mausoleo dei Cessati Spiriti; 4) Tombe della Via Latina.


Today

The view in December 2009

The area outside the gate was intensively developed after WWII but the traffic flows through modern openings at Porta Metronia, so Porta Latina retains the rather quiet appearance it has in the etching; the level of the ground has risen since the XVIIIth century: the height of the entrance is lower and the remains of the previous building below the tower are less evident.

Porta Latina

(left) Porta Latina; (centre) the view from the gate inside Rome; (right-above) Chi-Ro, one of the earliest forms of Christ's monogram on the keystone; (right-below) "apotropaic bumps" (see explanation in Porta S. Sebastiano)

The original entrance built by Emperor Aurelian was lowered at the time of Emperor Honorius when a sliding door was added to strengthen the gate: the door was operated from a specially built room above the gate. The towers were reinforced by Belisarius and Narses, the Byzantine generals who conquered Rome in the VIth century.

S. Giovanni in Oleo

(left) S. Giovanni in Oleo; (right-above) inscription, coat of arms and motto of Benedict Adam; (right-below) heraldic symbols of Pope Alexander VII and coat of arms of Cardinal Francesco Paolucci

According to tradition St. John the Evangelist spent his last years in Ephesus and Patmos, but according to an account by St. Jerome he was brought to Rome at the time of Emperor Domitian and he was thrown into a cauldron of boiling oil, by which he was not harmed; the episode is portrayed in a fresco in SS. Nereo ed Achilleo. A small chapel was built in medieval times on the assumed site of the event (in Oleo means in oil).
The current building was said to have been designed by Donato Bramante in 1509, but today it is thought to be a work by Antonio da Sangallo the Younger or Baldassarre Peruzzi; it was built at the expense of Benedict Adam, a French priest at the court of Pope Julius II.
In 1658 Francesco Paolucci, titular cardinal of nearby S. Giovanni a Porta Latina, commissioned Francesco Borromini a restoration of the roof.


Frieze

The decoration of the new roof was based on the five petal rose which was part of the cardinal's coat of arms; Borromini wrapped with roses also the very unusual central cap of the roof (which you can see in the image used as background for this page).

S. Giovanni a Porta Latina

(left) S. Giovanni a Porta Latina; (right) well between two ancient columns; the frieze and the inscription are a very rare IXth century work

Today the church has a XIIth century appearance, but its history dates back to the Vth century and goes forward to the XVIIIth century. It was probably built before the Byzantine conquest of Rome when this part of the city was still supplied with water by many aqueducts; after these were broken the area fell into abandonment and the church was taken care of by hermits; in the XIIth century it was restored and decorated with paintings and a bell tower was added, but in the following centuries the lack of maintenance had a negative impact on the condition of the building. In 1517 S. Giovanni a Porta Latina became the titular see of a cardinal and this ensured its survival (you may wish to see it in a 1588 Guide to Rome).

The portico with ancient columns of different size, material and shape

In the early XXth century the medieval paintings were discovered behind later additions: it was the starting point of a long restoration process which ended in the 1940s and which returned the church to its XIIth century appearance.

(left) The monastery along Via di Porta Latina; (right) an ancient column at the corner of the short street leading to the church

The small monastery adjoining the church was rebuilt in the XVIIIth century and enlarged in the following one; S. Giovanni a Porta Latina lies behind it in a very picturesque small square.
Along Via Latina

(two left images) Torre dell'Angelo and a detail of its brick decoration; (three right images) fountain in Via Cesare Baronio and details of its pipes

Via Latina had limited importance, but nevertheless it was chosen as a site for erecting funerary monuments or building villas. Today its initial stretch runs through a highly populated borough; some of the modern blocks hide in their cellars parts of tombs which were uncovered when their foundations were excavated. Yet a walk along modern Via Latina (which broadly follows the route of the ancient one) leads to seeing some interesting memories of the past.
Torre dell'Angelo is a IIIrd century three-storey brick tomb and it was used as a tower during the Middle Ages; the wall near the lower entrance retains niches where the urns with the ashes of the dead were kept.
In 1980 excavations made for the opening of a new street uncovered the pool of a IInd century Roman villa; it had at its centre a circular fountain with holes to be used by fish during spawning.

(above) View of Valle della Caffarella from Via Latina; (below) Mausoleo dei Cessati Spiriti

Modern Via Latina borders the eastern side of Valle della Caffarella where it flanks the ruins of a large Republican tomb, with traces of travertine decoration; its name (Cessati Spiriti means "gone away ghosts") is not referred to a story of ghosts living in the tomb, but to a nearby inn where XIXth century travellers were often robbed of their horses or carriages while they were having some food and drink: the thieves were called spiriti because they disappeared into the reed bed of Valle della Caffarella. The papal government placed a police station near the inn and the spiriti left the area.

Tombe della Via Latina

(left) Parco delle Tombe della Via Latina; (right) Tomba Barberini

A section of Via Latina at its fourth mile was excavated in the XIXth century and several hypogea (underground chambers) were identified. They were near a hay-loft which turned out to be a three-storey Roman tomb. It is called Tomba Barberini because in the XVIIIth century the area belonged to this family. It is very similar to Sepolcro di Annia Regillia.

Parco delle Tombe della Via Latina: (left) a section of ancient Via Latina; (centre) upper chamber of a tomb; (right) remaining brick wall of a large tomb

In the text accompanying the etching Vasi quotes an interesting epitaph written by Decimius Magnus Ausonius, a Latin poet of the IVth century:
38. Ex sepulcro Latinae viae.
Non nomen, non quo genitus, non unde, quid egi,
Mutus in aeternum sum, cinis, ossa, nihil.
Non sum ; nec fueram: genitus tamen e nihilo sum.
Mitte, nec exprobres singula : talis eris.
38. On a tomb along Via Latina
Not a name, nor a reference to my father, nor to my country, what am I?
I am dumb forever, ashes, bones, nothing.
I am not; nor was I: I was born out of nothing.
Pay your respects and do not blame me; you will have the same fate.

These words were echoed in several funerary inscriptions of the XVIIth century when such approach to earthly life became fashionable (see a page on Memento Mori - remember that you will die).

The Walls between Porta Latina and Porta S. Sebastiano

XIIth century tower and a section of the walls which was restored in the XVth century


In the etching Vasi shows a third circular tower in addition to the two protecting the gate; it is different from the others, although it has approximately the same size because it was built in the XIIth century with flints rather than with bricks; the ancient Romans had advanced brick making knowledge which fell into disuse during the Middle Ages.


This section of the walls is very picturesque for the presence of trees (which did not exist at Vasi's time). Several towers were strengthened by the popes.

(left) Coat of arms of Pope Urban VIII; (centre) coat of arms of Pope Pius II; (right) coat of arms of Pope Alexander VIII; the small and long image shows an ancient relief (probably the lid of a sarcophagus) placed above an arrow slit of the walls

The Walls between Porta Latina and Porta Metronia

(left) Towers to the right of Porta Latina; (right) bell tower of S. Giovanni a Porta Latina

By distancing oneself from the walls to the right of Porta Latina it it possible to catch a view of the bell tower of S. Giovanni a Porta Latina.

Walls in Viale Metronio

This section of the walls was recently turned (in part) into a small park by reducing the width of the modern street which runs along it.
Excerpts from Giuseppe Vasi 1761 Itinerary related to this page:


Porta Latina, e chiesa di s. Giovanni Evangelista
Prese un tal nome questa porta dalla Via, che porta al Lazio celebre provincia de' Romani, ed č antica, ne' mai ha mutato sito o nome, sebbene in oggi il Lazio dicesi Campania. Appresso a questa si vede la chiesa di s. Giovanni, che dagli Scrittori Ecclesiastici si dice ante portam latinam, la quale bisogna dire, che sia molto antica, mentre fu ristaurata da Adriano I. che fu del 772. Da prima fu collegiata, e perņ nel 1044. essendovi Arciprete un tale Giovanni, secondo altri, di Graziano, fu eletto Papa: indi vi stettero le monache Benedettine, e poi i frati Trinitarj scalzi; oggi perņ vi abitano i frati Minimi di s. Francesco di Paola.
A sinistra della divisata porta si vede una cappella rotonda dedicata al medesimo santo Evangelista, la quale si dice in oleo, perchč ivi fu posto nella caldaia di olio bollente, dalla quale egli uscģ senza ricevere lesione alcuna. Fu rinnovata l'anno 1658. col disegno del Borromini, e si dice essere in essa li strumenti del martirio del Santo, e de' capelli e sangue sparso nella rasura del capo.

Next plate in Book 1: Porta S. Sebastiano 
Next plate in Day 5 itinerary: Porta S. Sebastiano
Next step in your tour of Rione Campitelli: Porta S. Sebastiano