Italy Travel Tips: 5 Roman Sites Not To Miss

Transcript From a Lecture Series Produced in Partnership With Smithsonian

In The Guide to Essential Italy, The Great Courses and Smithsonian Journeys take you on a rich and diverse tour that explores the crown jewels of Italian civilization.

Professor Kenneth R. Bartlett of the University of Toronto, an esteemed historian and scholar who knows these remarkable places in intimate detail, offers a not-to-miss travel tip at the end of each lecture.  Here are 5 tips culled from his lectures on the Eternal City—Rome.


Italy Travel Tip 1— Roman Sewers

photo of Roman sewer Cloaca Maxima
This arch is evidence of an early Roman sewer and part of the Cloaca Maxima

From the Ponte Rotto, continue to the Ponte Palatino and see the outlet of the ancient Roman sewer system, the Cloaca Maxima. Walk a bit out onto the Ponte Palatino and look back toward the Forum Boarium to see the arches of the outlet in the Tiber embankment. Visit the Capitoline Museums to see the sculpture and painting collections and to gain access to the late-republican Tabularium. From the gallery, the Roman Forum opens up before you.

Italy Travel Tip 2 — More Dark Tunnels

Be sure to visit the Cryptoporticus of Nero, a long, dark, semi-subterranean tunnel softly illuminated by small upper windows. Walk into part of an underground passageway that connected the imperial palaces of the Palatine to Nero’s Domus Aurea.

Italy Travel Tip 3 — What’s Left of Ancient Aqueducts

photo of bust of Marcus Agrippa
Marcus Agrippa constructed the Aqua Virgo aquaduct

The Aqua Virgo is one of the 11 ancient aqueducts that served the city of Rome during the imperial period. It crossed the Via del Corso (then called the Via Lata) in front of the Palazzo Sciarra, just north of the Via Caravita intersection. Dating to the age of Augustus, the Aqua Virgo was constructed by Marcus Agrippa to provide water to the Campus Martius in general and to the public baths near the Pantheon in particular. It is possible to see several of the original 139 above ground travertine arches of the mostly subterranean aqueduct at the intersection of Via del Nazareno and Via del Tritone, just four blocks from the Via del Corso.

Italy Travel Tip 4 —From Aquaduct to Trevi or Vice Versa

photo of the Fountain of Trevi
The top left relief at the Fountain of Trevi shows Marcus Agrippa overseeing plans for his aquaduct.

The Piazza di Trevi has served as a principal source of water for the Roman community for more than 1,000 years, and the relief panels tell the story of its origins. On the right side, above the figure of Health, the relief illustrates the story of a maiden who showed the engineers a hidden source of fresh spring water, which led to the name of the Aqua Virgo aqueduct. On the left side, over the figure of Abundance, Marcus Agrippa oversees the construction of the aqueduct, looking at the plans while laborers build the structure in the background. In front of the fountain, water moves over and through figures and plants before the framework of the Palazzo Poli. This building has been given a false façade, as evidenced by the trompe l’oeil window on the right side of the structure, painted by Antonio Catalli in 1737.

Italy Travel Tip 5 — An Illuminated Chapel

photo of the interior of Bernini’s Cornaro Chapel for the Italy Travel Tips article
The interior of Bernini’s Cornaro Chapel

When viewing Bernini’s Cornaro Chapel, pay attention to the location of the stained-glass window high above the figures of St. Teresa and the angel. Note, too, the mysterious radiant light that illuminates the golden rods behind the figures. Then, when exiting the church of Santa Maria della Vittoria, walk around to the side of the building. From the other side of the street, on the Largo Santa Susanna, you can see two windows that correspond to the Cornaro Chapel. The uppermost window directly illuminates the chapel from outside, while the second window, somewhat extended into space, allows for the hidden, “divine” light that highlights the drama on the interior.

For more tips and travel guides, The Guide to Essential Italy.
Taught by Professor Kenneth R. Bartlett.
© vwalakte/iStock/Thinkstock; © Daniel_Keuck/iStock/Thinkstock; Marie-Lan Nguyen/CC BY 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons; Nina Aldin Thune/CC BY 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons.