Our place is on Via della Mercede, two blocks from the Spanish Steps. It’s an unassuming, typical side street that only runs about two blocks. However, it’s a typical street in Rome, a city that is completely saturated in history.
Up the street is the church of Sant’Andrea delle Fratte, which means (loosely) St. Andrew of the Woods, reflecting that after the fall of the Roman Empire this area, thriving during the empire, had reverted to wilderness. It’s not much to look at, but step back and admire the spire by the great architect Borromini. Inside this church are two amazing angels by Borromini’s arch rival, the master sculptor and architect Bernini. The angels were originally destined for the bridge in front of Castel Sant’Angelo, but were deemed too beautiful to be subjected to the elements and ended up in this little church. Duck in for a peek of the lovely cloisters with orange trees.
Bernini was a regular on Via della Mercede — he owned two big buildings on this street, and his home and studio were in the palazzo across from us. Borromini and Bernini got into some public bickering when Borromini built the Baroque facade of the Palazzo di Propaganda Fide across from Bernini’s building on Via della Mercede. Legend has it Borromini carved two donkey’s ears into a corbel, perhaps mocking Bernini’s highly criticized addition of two towers to the front of the Pantheon, known as “Bernini’s ass’s ears.” Bernini then carved a replica of a male body part on his building, pointed towards Borromini’s carving across the way. (Don’t look for the “carving” today, it was supposedly chiseled off later in the name of public decency, and the towers on the Pantheon — which actually were probably by a different architect — were torn down).
Going down Via della Mercede, there’s a little church that people walk by without notice, San Silvestro in Capite. The term “capite,” meaning head, comes from the fact that the church houses a relic of the head of John the Baptist. The church’s beautiful courtyard is filled with ancient Roman relics, many of which are stuck into the walls (a Roman tradition). Next door is the local post office; once again, it doesn’t look like much, but it has a pedigreed past. Originally, it was a convent: the noblewoman Vittoria Colonna, a good friend of Michelangelo, stayed there for many years. Step inside for a peek at the lovely ceiling.
Via della Mercede is just an average little Roman street. Yet, it has many stories to tell. As I walk down the street, I like to think that Bernini and Borromini walked these same steps, and perhaps Michelangelo, coming to visit his friend. If they came back today, they’d probably recognize it. Life goes on in Rome, but the past is always present. That’s the magic of Rome.