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Episode #201: Beyond the Colosseum – Hidden Secrets of Rome

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Rome is a city that never ceases to amaze with its rich history and cultural heritage. While there are plenty of well-known historical sites to explore, there are also hidden gems waiting to be discovered. From archaeological sites and underground excavations to a historic vineyard, a heinous Emperor’s stolen villa and Roman ruins to rival Pompeii, there is no shortage of fascinating places to visit in Rome and its surrounds.

Show notes
Delving into the hidden secrets of Rome, we talk to archeologist, tour guide and Rome resident Dr. Margherita Capponi of Aurea Roma. Margherita’s family goes back 7 generations in Rome. Despite living there her whole life her passion for Rome still burns strong and she loves to share her knowledge and enthusiasm for the city with her clients. While we all know the famous sites in Rome, like the Colosseum and Vatican Museums, some of its lesser-known sites are truly awe-inspiring. With her insider knowledge, from having both studied Rome and being a life long resident, Margherita shares some of her favorites and we explore the stories behind them.

What you’ll learn in this episode

  1. Margherita has lived in the same area for her whole life – within half a mile of the Colosseum. In this area you are surrounded by ruins and antiquity. As a curious person, growing up around ruins, she always wanted to know more but asking around nobody could give her answers because most Romans don’t know so much of the history of their city – though there is so much to know!
  2. Margherita went on to study the classics, archeology and art history. She stayed in Rome to study and then live as it is so big and ancient, the discoveries never stop
  3. After all these years she is still crazy about Rome. The word Rome in Italian is Roma, the Palindrome of which is (right to left), Amor, which means love. Rome is her true love
  4. For a couple of decades, she spent her time digging and studying. She had not ever considered tourism as a path for her – it was not her business or something that she encountered on her path. Then one day when she and a friend were working on an important excavation in the Imperial Forums, this fellow archeologist suggested, with her enthusiasm for the subject, why doesn’t she become a guide to explain the city she loves to tourists. She took this on, took the exams – which are usually very intense for people, but as it was on a topic she had studied all her life, came fairly easily to her. She quickly discovered that she loves it because she loves Rome so much
  5. Archeology and excavations are her first love but now that she is getting older, digging and the temperatues can get a little hard, so guiding is the perfect complimentary career
  6. When people say they’ve been to Rome before and that they’ve seen everything – it can never be true. Margherita has spent her whole life living in Rome, she has studied it her whole life, does it for a job (she likes to say her experience of Rome means she’s lived 3,000 years old in Rome terms), but she knows she hasn’t seen everything. You can never see everything in Rome!

Palatine Hill

  • Very close to the Colosseum and included in the same ticket, is what Margherita considers the most important place in Rome (if not the world!) – the Palatine Hill. This is the place where Rome first started 3,000 years ago, established by a community of shepherds. The hill became the aristocrat’s residence, then the imperial residence. It is very close to the Colosseum, but people visiting of course want to see everything in one day, and often ignore the Palatine or they quickly walk on the top, take some pictures of the surroundings, and go on their way. This is Margherita’s favorite place in Rome – where everything started, the evidence goes back to the pre-history, to the beginning of the history of Rome – which you can see in the area and in the museums there
  • It’s up a very steep hill that is well located in the middle of Italy, dominating the Tiber river
  • It’s a beautiful place, quiet because no big groups go there and you have an amazing view of Rome
  • There are always excavations going on there. There are often new discoveries and excavations on the Palatine Hill, though due to Italian bureaucracy and organization, you often have to wait years for them to open to the public. For example, the excavation of a section called the Temple of El Elagabalus de Vigna Barberini –  the excavations lasted 30 years and it took 20 more years to open to the public
  • It is a huge site and you can’t really take in all in in one or even a few visits. You have all the remains of the temples and also the palaces on the Palatine Hill. It is all pretty awe-inspiring
  • One of the areas Margherita particularly likes there is the area where the archeologists found the original post holes of the original shepherd huts, in the southwest corner of the Hill
  • Another favorite is a garden recreated by an archeologist called Giacomo Boni, who is also buried up on Palatine Hill. In this same place, you can see the remnants of prehistoric huts, Iron Age huts, and Renaissance Garden in just a few meters
  • To visit Palatine, you have to walk up the steep hill which is tough going in the summertime when it’s very hot. You need time to do it in-depth – you need a minimum of three hours
  • Part of the Domus Tiberiana is now open (at times) on the Hill. This area was originally an aristocrat’s residence and then the Imperial residence. That has been excavated and restored in part. They opened a section which is called the Domus Tiberiana, but despite alluding to Emporere Tiberius – it was probably built by Nero and then after by Hadrian. It has been reopened after more than 30 years of its restoration. You can usually find an open section but sometimes they don’t have enough staff, so sometimes not everything is accesible
  • The amazing things about the Palatine Hill is the stories and the history of what happened there – is it had a huge influence over the world. This was the center of one of the greatest empires of the world has ever seen. You’re treading in the footsteps of emperors and senators. From Palatine Hill, the Emperors were managing what was considered at the time to be the entire world – the three continents: Africa, Asia, and Europe
  • Unfortunately, in Italy, there’s not a lot of information that’s provided at the site. If you go there on your own, you’re looking at a load of old rock without understanding it. You cannot really explore on your own unless you are super motivated and have studied what is there, where it is and all the different periods. On a simply practical level, there are long paths and you need to know the right direction to go. If you go on your own, you absolutely enjoy the views and the atmosphere, but probably you don’t understand a lot so going with a guide is the best option if you want to understand the site

Celio Underground (Le Case Romane del Celio – Roman houses of the Caelian Hill.)

  • Close to the Palatine and to the Colosseum, is the area where Margherita lives – the slopes of the Caelian Hill – one of the seven hills of Rome
  • There are 2 hidden gems here – two underground levels discovered quite probably casually by some priests. 

Le Case Romane del Celio – Roman houses of the Caelian Hill

  • The complex of the Houses of Caelian is a house that is under a Church
  • This is believed to be the house of two saints who were brothers or friends – John and Paul (Giovanni e Paolo). These two Roman saints were killed by Julian the Apostate who was a Christian, but then returned to being a pagan and persecuted and killed Christians in Rome in 364 AD. John and Paul had become Christians and were killed and buried in their own house. Two weeks later, 3 more Christian friends went into the house to look for them but were found by the soldiers and also killed
  • That house was then later covered by a Church and was forgotten until it was rediscovered in the 1800s
  • When you walk along the street you cannot imagine that you have this subterranean world
  • This Roman house dates in three phases: the fourth century, the third century, and the first century, AD.
  • It has been perfectly preserved because it was buried and never explored
  • The occupants were probably fairly wealthy as the house was on split levels – with a shop underneath and they have some interesting frescos there. Not super wealthy but Roman middle-class
  • You can get here by bus and it’s also a short walk from the Colosseo subway station. It’s a hidden gem, but easily reached
  • The property belongs to the Ministry of Interior Affairs, but it’s managed by the Ministry of Culture, so you need to pay for a ticket which you can buy on arrival but it’s better to book in advance. Click here for ticket info
  • Another key factor in the story is that the church which sits atop these Roman houses, is where Margherita’s parents were married! So Margherita’s own story started right there

Cantina Pallavicini

  • Cantina Pallavicini is family land which includes a winery 25 kilometers south-east of Rome’s center, in the heart of the Castelli Romani area in the countryside just outside of Rome
  • Rome was surrounded by amazing countryside, beautiful and green. Unfortunately, much of this has been damaged post World War II, when there was a big immigration wave from all over Italy to Rome. Before World War II, probably Rome had less than a million inhabitants, which went up to over 1 million and now is 3 and a half, with most people living in the suburbs. The beautiful countryside has been destroyed by the new buildings that very often, unfortunately, were built without any rules. There are still some examples of original, old buildings and their surroundings, one of which is the Cantina Pallavicini vineyard
  • The property has been in the hands of the same family for more than 300 years – the family of a one-time Pope, Pallavicini. They also had an amazing palace in the city center of Rome, the Quirinal Palace, which is now the presidential palace
  • This vineyard is incredible and the wine cellar is in the channel of an ancient, now unused aqueduct – one of the eleven aqueducts that were bringing the water into Rome
  • That channel dates back to probably the first century AD. It’s a very charming place. You have the remnants of the medieval structures, and they have another newer (for Italy) building from around the 1500s that was a restaurant and hotel for travelers
  • It sits along an ancient Roman road called the Casilina that was used by travelers to reach Naples from Rome when the Appian Way, the main road for a long time, was interrupted or destroyed for certain periods. One of the travelers who stopped in the restaurant was the painter Caravaggio on his way to Naples
  • The vineyard is producing an excellent local wine. The wine of the countryside around Rome is not famous like Tuscany wine, but you can find some great wine. There is the light white Frascati, and they are also producing a new red light
  • The land is volcanic land, sitting on the slopes of a big, non-active volcano – Volcano Lacciale. There is a series of villages called Castelli Romani or The Alban Hills. It’s an oasis that has not been attacked by newer buildings built without any order or style, like much of the area. It’s almost still like it was in the 1500s
  • You can visit and do wine tasting here when based in Rome as it’s very close to the city
  • You can reach by train – the nearest train station is Colonna Galeria and there is a bus that is virtually direct, or you can rent a car or do a tour 
  • You have to book to get lunch in advance because the restaurant is not open anymore. You have to book with a group and they serve local food, – porchetta (the roasted, stuffed pork), salami, ham, vegetables, the typical pasta of Rome, and the local cookies, the Ciambelline

Villa dei Quintili

  • The Villa de Quintili is named after the family Quintili. This is an amazing property that was built in the middle of the second century AD by two brothers who were probably Roman councils and incredibly wealthy. This is a huge, ancient property that spread from the Appian Way to the Tuscolana Way
  • The two brothers were killed by Emperor Commodus who claimed they did something wrong and sentenced them to death, but really he just did it because he wanted their property
  • Commodus is the nasty Emperor you see in the Gladiator movie. There is now only part of the vast property left, which was taken over by the government and is now a national monument where you have an amazing example of a vill of the very wealthy
  • You have the remnants of a small private amphitheater and the private refined and luxurious baths
  • The baths are probably where Commodus was killed. In the movie Gladiator, you see him killed in the Colosseum by the gladiator, but this is not the reality – he was killed in the bath by his former mistress, Marcia, a former slave
  • It is a huge place, almost like a city because it was an enormous, aristocrat’s villa. They knew the importance of the propaganda and they knew that they had to show that they had big properties or big houses to show how important they were
  • You have incredible reception rooms where Commodus held decadent parties. You have a monumental fountain on the complex next to the villa, which is probably the area where the slaves lived
  • Only a small part has been excavated and there are ongoing excavations
  • It is not well-known/busy and is perfectly preserved, and it’s another place that they really suggest visiting
  • It’s just outside of Rome, and you can go by bus – the bus stops right out the front. You can access it either from the Appian Way or the new Appia Nuova – the new Appia which was built after World War II as a highway to Naples

Ostia Antica

  • This is an entire city, the city of Ostia, west of Rome. This is the first colony established by Rome
  • It used to be at the mouth of the Tiber, though the coastal line has since moved and the Tiger begins to the north since 1557 due to flooding
  • All the visitors to Italy want to go to Pompeii, which is famous and is of course, very interesting, but many (including us) recommend Ostia as a more interesting site to visit as well as a great choice if you are based in Rome
  • It is just 22 kilometers from Rome and can be reached comfortably and quickly by train with a pretty cheap ticket
  • It is a very well-preserved and interesting ancient city. You tend to get lovely weather because it’s close to the sea so doesn’t get too cold. Sometimes it rains but it is rarely cold, so you can visit all year
  • The city was built around the same time as Pompeii. They both were established around the sixth century. Pompeii was of course suddenly destroyed by the eruption in 79 AD, and stayed as it was, while Ostia continued to live
  • In Ostia, you see also the phases of the late Empire, and early Middle Ages – up until it was destroyed by an earthquake and buried by the earth. It was then rediscovered and was eventually excavated
  • You have a lot of public as well as private buildings  – grand villas, businesses, houses, shops and eateries
  • Ostia was a cosmopolitan city as it had a lot of travelers, merchants and sailors
  • You find temples of all religions. There is a synagogue (one of the oldest synagogues of Western Europe), there are old Pagan temples and Christian churches. People were living here all together in peace, speaking in different languages and having different customs
  • Ostia is where all the food that came from around the Empire into Rome which they then put on barges to send down the Tiber to the Testaccio neighborhood of Rome. It was then put into warehouses and distributed
  • One of Kay’s favorite stories was about the latrines, where people would go all together to socialize and make new friends. They were everywhere in Roman cities, but they are very well-preserved
  • You can walk right into a shop or the equivalent of a Roman fast-food joint – which is not generally possible in Pompeii – because there are so many people there
  • This is another place that we don’t recommend visiting on your own. It’s a big city, so if you don’t know the paths, you don’t know the direction you should or should not go in and with minimal information it is worth it to get all the stories and context.  It’s better to go with a guide, especially if you don’t want to waste time. With a guide, you can reach easily the most important and interesting parts
  • Katy visited Ostia with Margherita and found it to be an incredible site. The added bonus was that there was barely anyone there and it was so easy to get to Rome
  • The area surrounding Ostia is a nice, modern place – it’s on the coast and there are some nice restaurants, so after you’ve done your walking around, you could go and enjoy a lovely meal before heading back into Rome
  • It is also really close to the airport so is worth considering visiting if you are staying in an airport hotel 

Aurea Roma Guides

Margherita is part of a group of tour guides who are archeologists, art historians and architects. Their website is www.guideaurearoma.com where you can find contact details and if you decide you want to go it alone, they have around 40 itinerary suggestions with archeological sites, museums and small cities around Rome.

About our guests – Dr. Margherita Capponi

Margherita Capponi is an archeologist, living in Rome. Margherita’s family goes back 7 generations in Rome and she loves to share her city with her clients and has been a tour guide since 2000.

Dr. Margherita Capponi has a degree in Classical Archeology and she speaks Italian, English and French.

Margherita has taken part in many archaeological excavations in Italy, from the prehistoric period to the modern period, and has organized trips throughout Italy and in North Africa and the Middle East. 

Margherita is a guide with Aurea Roma. Aurea Roma’s name is inspired by a precious relic of Ancient Rome, the Aureo Romano (or Roman Aureus). This gold coin was issued during the reign of the emperor Alessandro Severo in the 3rd century AD, with an image of the Colosseum, the symbol of Rome.

You can find Margherita on these channels:

Places mentioned in the show
  • Vespasian Forum – known as the Temple of Peace, was built in Rome in 71 AD under Emperor Vespasian in honor to Pax, the Roman goddess of peace
  • Palatine Hill – the most ancient of the seven hills of Rome, now an open-air museum
  • Temple of Elagabalus – temple built by the Roman emperor Elagabalus, located on the north-east corner of the Palatine Hill between 218 until 222
  • Palatine rose garden  – re-created at the beginning of the last century by archeologist Giacomo Boni
  • Domus Tiberiana – an Imperial Roman palace in ancient Rome on the Palatine Hill
  • Caelian Hill – one of the 7 hills of Rome, includes the Villa Celimontana
  • Celio Underground – an underground site comprising of 20 rooms dating from between the 2nd and 4th centuries AD
  • Sotterranei di San Clemente –  basilica dedicated to Pope Clement I 
  • Villa dei Quintili – ancient Roman villa found along the Via Appia Antica just outside the traditional boundaries of Rome
  • Cantina Pallavicini – family land and winery 25 kilometers south-east of Rome’s center, in the heart of the Castelli Romani 
  • Quirinal Palace – a building that has served as the residence for 30 popes, 4 kings of Italy and 12 presidents of the Italian Republic
  • Via Casilina – a medieval road that led from Rome to Casilinum (now Capua) in Campania
  • Volcano Laziale – non-active volcano in Lazio
  • Castelli Romani – towns and villages in the Alban Hills, Lazio known as Old Latium
  • Colonna Galleria – train station nearest to Cantina Pallavicini
  • Ostia Antica – well-preserved ancient Roman city at what was a port at the mouth of the Tiber River, but is now inland, with magnificent frescoes and impressive mosaics

Food & Drink

  • Ciambelline – donut-shaped Italian cookies also known as ‘Ciambelline della Nonna’ 
  • Frascati – dry, still and sparkling white wines produced just south of Rome

Resources

  • Romulus and Remus – the twins whose story tells of the events that led to the founding of Rome. The sculpture is the image of a she-wolf suckling the twins in their infancy
  • Giacomo Boni –  Italian archaeologist from the early 1900s most famous for his work in the Roman Forum. He is buried on the Palatine Hill
  • Caravaggio – painter of the late 16th/early 17th centuries, famous for his large religious works
  • Gladiator – movie with Russel Crowe about a former Roman General sets out to exact vengeance against the corrupt emperor who murdered his family and sent him into slavery
  • Emperor Commodus – considered as being the worst Roman Emperor (and that is saying something!)

Resources from Untold Italy

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