Architect Thomas A. Kligerman on "Unknown Rome"
Editor’s Note: “Unknown Rome” reflects on several often-overlooked architectural sites in and near the Eternal City. Written by architect Thomas A. Kligerman, who was a Visiting Scholar at the American Academy in Rome earlier this year, this essay is the first in a three-part series that will also explore the Academy itself among other destinations in Italy, further afield.
Rome is the most mysterious city I have ever lived in. Massive, sooty stone and stucco walls belie the rich interiors hidden within. Almost like an unassuming geode filled with crystals, the riches of Rome in many ways are locked away in elegant rooms, spaces, and courtyards.
The Tempietto by Donato Bramante is one example, situated on the Janiculum, one of the seven hills of Rome, in the courtyard of the church of San Pietro in Montorio. This perfect Renaissance cylindrical chapel is barely visible from the street outside—only if you are lucky enough to be looking in that direction. Once inside the courtyard its small, perfectly proportioned, and detailed presence is breathtaking. And the inside of the chapel, vertical, and richly embellished, doubles down on that delight.
Across the River Tiber from the Janiculum, Francesco Borromini’s elliptical stair at the Palazzo Barberini is a curvilinear delight tucked into the massive bulk of Rome’s national art museum. Off-limits but visible if you step in the side door, this unpretentious helix with its paired Doric columns marching up to a skylight appears to be at once in motion and solidly locked in place.
And perhaps my favorite church anywhere, also by Borromini, is San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, named for the four fountains that mark the corners of the intersection where the church sits. The swooping, graceful forms of the Baroque interior are surmounted by perhaps the most beautiful dome in the Eternal City. An interlocking geometric pattern that almost looks carved into the dome’s surface is a constant source of design inspiration for me.
Another Borromini favorite is the Galleria prospettica di Palazzo Spada. What struck me immediately is how diminutive the scale is, at almost 6’7”, I am smaller than the columns in the back.
I was lucky to be the guest of historian and stone savant, Dario del Bufalo. I spent the day with Dario starting at his castle on the southern outskirts of Rome, which is filled with collections of precious and semi-precious stones, books, jewelry, paintings, and furniture. All assembled with the richness and sophistication of a Renzo Mongiardino interior.
Dario took me to see a castle built by his ancestors (note the buffalo head above the arch), a spectacular Bernini bust of Christ in Basilica di San Sebastiano Fuori le Mura, and the Porta San Sebastiano (Rome’s best preserved gate passing through the Aurelian Wall), something I had studied during my first year of architectural history as an undergraduate. He also took me to see his son’s taxidermy store that fronts the backside of the Roman Forum. A turquoise and red surprise behind rusty security gates, all of the animals in his shop are verified as having come from collections that are at least 80 years old. It is quintessentially Roman.
The Pyramid of Cestius, near the Porta San Paolo, greets me every time I arrive in Rome and says goodbye when I am leaving. I love its geometric perfection and how vertical it is, a small, crisp homage to its much larger, more recumbent brethren at Cheops.
Another hidden gem is the Santuario di Santa Maria della Rotonda, the circular interior hidden behind this unassuming space in a leafy courtyard is unexpected and a wonderful surprise.