Rome > Courtyards


Most of the buildings built in Rome starting in the Renaissance were characterised by a courtyard. Often of a remarkable architectural level, they had an important role since they were the first place where guests were received as they entered the dwellings: their decoration thus had to be up to the magnificence of the interiors and reflect the taste and use of the building, which was entered after wards.

They were used as settings of plays or refined concerts, and sometimes held actual open-air museums.

Today, still, the courtyards, atmospheric places to be discovered, as oases of tranquility amidst the city's chaos.

In the itinerary only a few are mentioned, where access is generally allowed, but as you walk through the centre it is easy to find buildings with courtyards adorned with ancient statues or lovely fountains. If you have the courage to ask permission from the doormen to have a peek at some of these courtyards, which are often inaccessible from the street, you can feel the unusual pleasure of entering a new dimension, in which you can immerse yourself completely.

Every year at the end of May, the Associazione Dimore Storiche Italiane organises the event "Cortili aperti” (Open Courtyards), during which several courtyards of buildings in the centre, which are normally closed to the public, can exceptionally be visited.

One of the loveliest Roman courtyards is certainly that of the Palazzo Spada. Entering from Piazza Capodiferro or Vicolo del Polverone, we are struck by the richness of the 16th-century stuccowork covering the walls completely with friezes and sculptures. But the greatest surprise lies on the left side of the courtyard, where, behind a pane of glass, it is possible to admire the famous "Galleria Prospettica” (Perspective Colonnade) by Francesco Borromini. The architect, aided by the mathematical calculations of Father Giovanni Maria da Bitonto, managed, using perspective devices, to make an 8-metre-long space appear at least triple that length. By paying the admission to the Galleria Spada, a fine 17th-century collection of paintings which has remained intact with the passing of time, you also have the possibility of entering the small court in front of the corridor, where it is possible to see the optical illusion and understand the real dimensions of Borromini's colonnade.

Not very far from Palazzo Spada, on the square of the same name, stands the majestic Palazzo Farnese, called "il dado” (the die) due to the compactness of its architectural form (see itinerary 10).
The courtyard is one of the most successful Renaissance specimens, perfectly harmonious even with its enormous dimensions. The end of the restoration work on the building, still in progress, will also give the courtyard, once enriched with numerous ancient statues (today in the Museo Nazionale Archeologico in Naples), the possibility to let itself be seen in a new light. A vestibule inside the palace leads into a second courtyard, with a garden, which can be seen through a door on Via Giulia. According to a plan by Michelangelo, never carried out, this area was supposed to be connected, by means of a bridge over the Tiber, with the Villa Farnesina alla Lungara, which was also owned by the Farnese family in the 16th century.

Across from Palazzo Farnese is Palazzo Pighini Roccagiovine, an 18th-century work by Alessandro Specchi, whose courtyard is one of the most original in Rome. In fact, an entire side of the courtyard is occupied by the theatrical open staircase which clearly recalls the architecture of the entrance halls in Neapolitan buildings.

After passing the lively Piazza Campo de' Fiori, we arrive at the square dominated by the Palazzo della Cancelleria.

The palace, built in the late 1400s for Cardinal Raffaele Riario, was the most magnificent in Rome, with its façade entirely faced with travertine which came, it was said, from the Colosseum. In 1517 it became the seat of the Chancellery, for the purpose of drawing up the papal documents. Following the Lateran Treaty of 1929, which acknowledged the right of extraterritoriality for numerous places in Rome belonging to the Papal State, the Palazzo della Cancelleria also enjoyed this privilege. Today it holds several important offices, including the Tribunal of the Sacra Rota.

The palace, which in the early 19th century also held the tribunal of the Napoleonic empire ~ as can still be read on the portal architrave - was the site in 1848 of the killing of Pellegrino Rossi, a minister of Pope Pius IX, by Angelo Brunetti, known as Ciceruacchio. In 1849 it became the seat of the Constituent Assembly and was host to Saffi, Armellini and Mazzini. On the piano nobile it is possible to visit, by asking specific permission (ask at the porter's lodge), the Sala dei Cento Giorni, so called because it was frescoed in just slightly more than three months. The author of the decoration was Vasari who, boasting with Michelangelo of his feat, received the answer, “you can tell!”

The marvellous courtyard, whose architect is not known but which reveals a strong Bramantesque influence, is striking for the balance of its forms and the elegance of the simple decorative details. In the past it was the site of shows and plays during which complex backdrops painted on panels were set up. In the centre of the courtyard can be seen an elegant rose-shaped drain cover which uses an element of the coat of arms of the Riario family, also reproduced on the arches. The architect was evidently inspired by the drain covers of ancient Rome which, in the Renaissance, were still kept in various places of Rome (such as the famous Bocca della Verità [Mouth of Truth] in Santa Maria in Cosmedin; see Itinerary 4).

After crossing Corso Vittorio and going beyond Piazza Navona, in Piazza Sant'Apollinare We find the entrance to Palazzo Altemps. After years of abandon, the palace was purchased by the Italian Government in order to make it one of the seats of the Museo Nazionale Romano. The complex restoration work brought to light the original structures of the building, which provide a worthy setting for the splendid sculptures of the Ludovisi collection. The Courtyard, a true gem of the 1500s, is the work of Martino Longhi the Elder, who used extremely harmonious proportional models. On the fountain, constructed of pumice stones, shells, and polychrome vitreous paste tesserae, the Altemps coat of arms stands out: an ibex rampant, in remembrance of the Alpine valleys of the family's Origins. The animal is characterised by genitals which are totally out of proportion, symbolising a good omen and alludìng to fertility.
The palace chapel has the privilege of holding, in a yellow marble urn used as an altar, the remains of St. Anicetus, pope in the 2nd century. He is the only pope to be buried in a private residence.

The itinerary continues with a visit to Palazzo Baldassini, at Via delle Coppelle 35. The building, the first important work assigned to Antonio da Sangallo the Younger, is considered the prototype of the 16th- century nobles' palace, taken up again countless times later. The Courtyard, small but harmonious, is decorated above the arches by a frieze in which, amidst the usual liturgical motifs and weapons, there is the image of an elephant. lt is the famous elephant “Annone” donated by the king of Portugal in 1513 to Pope Leo X, soon becoming a true celebrity, loved and pampered by all the Romans.

We can wind up the itinerary with Piazza Firenze, where at no. 27 stands Palazzo Firenze, the seat of the Dante Alighieri Society. The lovely Courtyard is by Bartolomeo Ammannatí, who created an internal view so sumptuous that it seems like a façade. In the garden behind, there is a magnolia plant that seems to be one of the oldest in Rome.