All images © by Roberto Piperno, owner of the domain. Write to email@example.com. Text edited by Rosamie Moore.
Page revised in January 2010.
Porta Latina (Book 1) (Map A4) (Day 5) (View C10) (Rione Campitelli)
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In the text accompanying the etching Vasi quotes an interesting epitaph written by Decimius Magnus Ausonius, a Latin poet of the IVth century:
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).
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.
The Walls between Porta Latina and Porta Metronia
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.
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:
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