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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 S. Spirito (Book 1) (Map C2) (Day 6) (View D3) (Rione Trastevere and Rione Borgo)

In this page:
 The plate by Giuseppe Vasi
 Today's view
 Porta S. Spirito
 Via dei Penitenzieri
 Villa Barberini
 Cimitero di S. Spirito
 The walls between Porta S. Spirito and Porta Cavalleggeri

The Plate (No. 15)

After the 1527 Sack of Rome by the mercenary troops of Emperor Charles V, Pope Paul III decided to strengthen the fortifications of the city; Antonio da Sangallo the Younger developed a comprehensive project which included the construction of eighteen bastions and two citadels; after the first bastion (Bastione del Sangallo) was completed in the southern part of the walls, the pope realized that the total cost of the project was excessive and he therefore decided to limit the effort to the old walls surrounding the Vatican which were built by Pope Leo IV.
Strangely enough Porta S. Spirito, a very large gate which replaced a small opening known as Posterula dei Sassoni, was built before the ramparts at its sides; the gate was named after the nearby Spedale di S. Spirito in Sassia, of which the etching shows the church bell tower. At Giuseppe Vasi's time the gate had lost its defensive purpose because of the construction of new walls on the Janiculum and it was kept open at all times.
The view is taken from the green dot in the small 1748 map here below. In the description below the plate Vasi made reference to: 1) Bell tower of S. Spirito in Sassia; 2) Casino della Villa Barberini; 3) Street leading to S. Onofrio. The small map shows also: 4) Porta S. Spirito; 5) Cimitero di S. Spirito. The dotted line in the small map delineates the border between Rione Borgo (upper part) and Rione Trastevere (lower part).


The view in January 2010

The pillar which marked the beginning of the steep street leading to S. Onofrio was removed to open a new street which links Porta S. Spirito with Porta Cavalleggeri via a tunnel under the Janiculum; the small houses to the right of the gate were part of Spedale de' Pazzi, an asylum for lunatics: they were in part pulled down to make room for the new street and in part they were replaced by an enlargement of Spedale di S. Spirito. Above the gate there is a passage built in 1869 to allow direct communication between Spedale de' Pazzi and Villa Barberini where the wealthiest lunatics were treated.

Porta S. Spirito

(left) Porta S. Spirito; (right) details showing how it was protected

Sangallo had in mind to build new walls around the whole of the Vatican hill, but this view was challenged by members of the papal court including Michelangelo who believed it was unnecessary to protect the area behind S. Pietro which was void of buildings; the perception of the need for strengthening the defence of Rome depended very much on the threat posed by the Ottomans; it increased after the 1534 Ottoman raid of the coasts of Latium and it decreased after 1541 when a peace was signed between Venice and the Sultan. In 1545 the construction of Porta S. Spirito was halted; in the following year Sangallo died leaving unfinished the gate which should have resembled a Roman triumphal arch with space for long inscriptions on both sides. The design of the gate is neat and it conveys a feeling of strength; Porta S. Spirito could be easily taken for an ancient building, a gigantic nymphaeum rather than a gate.

Via dei Penitenzieri

Spedale di S. Spirito: (left) a portal with inscription celebrating an enlargement by Pope Alexander VII; (centre) etching by Giovan Battista Falda; (right) inner gate showing the symbol of the institution

Via dei Penitenzieri, the street linking Porta di S. Spirito to Palazzo dei Penitenzieri retains several memories of the past; Spedale di S. Spirito in Sassia is on its right side and a portal indicates that the premises of the institution were enlarged by Pope Alexander VII.

Via dei Penitenzieri: (left) a 1665 "madonnella"; (centre) bust celebrating Bernardino Passeri (copy of the original in S. Eligio degli Orefici); (right) bell tower of S. Spirito in Sassia

Bernardino Passeri was a goldsmith who worked for several popes; an inscription placed by his relatives says that in 1527 he took part to the fight near Porta S. Spirito and he managed to capture one of the enemy's flags before being killed; a copy of his bust was placed above the inscription in 1885.

Via dei Penitenzieri: (left) Coat of arms of Pope Sixtus IV at the base of the bell tower; (right) inscription celebrating the construction by Pope Sixtus V of a wall to prevent the falling of stones and earth from the hill above the street

Villa Barberini

(left-above) View from Castel Sant'Angelo; (left-below) detail showing a bee, the heraldic symbol of Pope Urban VIII Barberini; (right) section retaining the original decoration

Taddeo Barberini was a nephew of Pope Urban VIII; in 1641 he bought a small building with some land around on the hill to the left of Porta S. Spirito; at the death of his uncle in 1644 he had to flee to France because he was charged with misappropriation of state funds. In 1671 his son Carlo commissioned Giovan Battista Contini the construction of a small but luxury casino; the garden was embellished with statues and fountains, but the heirs of Carlo Barberini were not interested in this residence, which in 1863 became an annex to Spedale de' Pazzi. This led to many changes including the construction of a high wall to prevent the patients from escaping. Eventually the property was acquired by the Jesuits who added several buildings to the original casino.

Cimitero di S. Spirito

(left) Curved wall which surrounded the cemetery; (right) detail of the section of 1781 Map of Rome by Giuseppe Vasi showing the location of the cemetery

In 1744 Pope Benedict XIV commissioned the architect Ferdinando Fuga the design of a cemetery outside the gate for the dead of Spedale di S. Spirito. The cemetery was closed in 1891 and in 1928-31 its area was used for the construction of a complex of modern buildings housing a section of Collegio di Propaganda Fide, the institution founded by Pope Urban VIII to coordinate missionary activities. Today only the shape of the external walls and the cypresses hint at the former use of the area.

Pontificio Collegio Urbano "De Propaganda Fide"

The Walls between Porta S. Spirito and Porta Cavalleggeri

(left) View of Rome from the former cemetery: to the left a section of the walls and Villa Barberini; to the right S. Giovanni dei Fiorentini; the inset shows snow on the mountains east of Rome (January 2010) and the tip of S. Agnese in Agone; (right) coats of arms of Pope Pius IV (above) and Pope Urban VIII (below)

The construction of the new walls around the Vatican started again in 1562 during the pontificate of Pope Pius IV who endorsed the initial project by Sangallo and surrounded the whole Vatican hill with a series of bastions. The section of the walls between Porta S. Spirito and Porta Cavalleggeri became useless when in the following century Pope Urban VIII built new walls between the latter gate and Porta S. Pancrazio. Today one can walk along them only for a short stretch, because the street stops at Collegio Urbano.

Excerpts from Giuseppe Vasi 1761 Itinerary related to this page:

Porta s. Spirito
E' questa una delle porte della città Leonina, la quale fu rinnovata da Giulio II. quando drizzò la bella strada della Lungara, e prese il nome dal mentovato spedale, che le sta accanto. Fu principiata con disegno del Sangallo, e poi proseguita dal Bonarroti; ma nata fra essi competenza, rimase imperfetta, come si ravvisa. Sopra i baluardi, che quì si vedono fatti da Urbano VIII. per difesa della porta, e città Leonina, evvi il
Casino e Giardino Barberini
Molto delizioso è questo casino per le rarità, che lo adornano, ed ancora per l’altezza del colle, su cui risiede insieme con un amenissimo giardino.
Perchè questo piccolo colle dagli antichi si disse Palatiolum; ciò ha fatto credere, che quì sia stato il palazzo di Nerone, da cui godeva le uccisioni, che si facevano nel Circo di Cajo, detto ancora di Nerone, il quale era, come diremo, dove è la basilica Vaticana.

Next plate in Book 1: Porta Cavalleggeri 
Next step in Day 6 itinerary: Convento di S. Onofrio