Palazzo Farnese

Palazzo Farnese: More than an Embassy

The Palazzo Farnese is the seat of the French embassy in Italy, but it is so much more than that. It is a paradigm of High Renaissance art and architecture!

When planning a trip somewhere, I can’t imagine that ‘embassy’ would figure as a top destination on one’s itinerary. But do read on, and you might just add this special site to your list of things to see when in Rome!

The Farnese Palace (Palazzo Farnese) is the seat of the French embassy in Italy, but it is so much more than just that. It is an enriching cultural center. Each year, more than 50,000 visitors visit the palace. The embassy hosts a number of events including seminars and debates, and music, theater and cinema festivals.

The palace is a majestic paradigm of High Renaissance architecture. Located in the eponymous piazza, on the east side of the River Tiber (where such landmarks as Piazza Navona and the Pantheon can also be found), the palace is a sixteenth century marvel, boasting an impressive collection of books as part of the École Française de Rome and an array of dazzling artwork lining its walls and adorning its ceilings. 

No monumental palazzo would be properly Roman without intriguing history, and this one boasts a fascinating background involving the union between the papacy and a royal family, and a myriad of notable residents that passed through its rooms, including a rather unconventional Swedish queen and a monarch seeking refuge during one of Italy’s most crucial moments in history! 

A little history

Construction of the Palazzo Farnese began in 1513 at the behest of cardinal Alessandro Farnese, who was elected pope in October of 1534 under the name Paul III. It took seventy-six years to complete the palace, and four famous architects were involved, including Antonio da Sangallo the Younger and the inimitable Michelangelo. At the death of Paul III, the palace came under the auspices of his descendants, all three of whom were cardinals: his nephew Ranuccio, also known as the Cardinal of Sant’Angelo, Alessandro Farnese il Giovane, and his great great grandnephew Odoardo. The three would see to the completion of both the construction and decoration of the palace. With Elisabetta Farnese, his last direct descendent and wife of Philip V of Spain, the palace would come to fall under the ownership of the Bourbon dynasty in Naples.

Shortly after the unification of Italy and the proclamation of Rome as its capital, the Ambassador of France, the Marquis of Noailles, would gain permission from Francesco II, last king of the Kingdom of Two Sicilies, to host the embassy within the palace. In 1875, the palace would also become home to the aforementioned research institute and library, the École Française de Rome, located on the second floor of the palazzo. After France acquired the palace in 1911, Italy would buy it back in 1936. That same year, the two countries would sign a reciprocal agreement involving both the Italian embassy in Paris and the French embassy in Rome that would last 99 years with the palace becoming a place for cooperation and exchange between the two neighboring European countries. 

The architecture

The façade exemplifies the harmony, balance, and proportion that characterizes the High Renaissance period. Twenty-nine meters in height and fifty-seven in length, it is made of bricks and travertine, a form of limestone especially popular in Roman architecture. Its creation was entrusted to Antonio da Sangallo the Younger, the first architect. Michelangelo, who would continue Sangallo’s work in 1546, had already designed the large cornice, or ornamental molding, in the shape of a lily flower—symbol of the French royalty—which graces the façade and serves to cover the roof. Michelangelo would go on to introduce other modifications, including a central opening framed by four columns on the first floor. He would also incorporate the pope’s coat of arms, with the symbol of the keys and a crown on top. The façade was restored in the year 2000, on the occasion of the Jubilee, in line with its original appearance in the sixteenth century. 

The vestibule, designed by Antonio da Sangallo, was inspired by antiquity. It is fourteen meters long and adopts the basilica plan with a large central nave and columns in ancient granite from the Baths of Caracalla

Halfway up the length of the staircase leading to the upper floor is an atrium, which was originally open-air, but which was closed at the end of the nineteenth century. The atrium hosts three sarcophagi, decorated with ornate mythological scenes. One sarcophagus depicts the story of Diana and Endymion, in which Diana alights from her chariot to take him with her to the heavens. Another sarcophagus depicts the nine muses. Stuccos from 1580 show two dragons, symbol of Pope Gregory XIII, protecting a lily flower.

The first floor 

The first floor of the Palazzo Farnese is where you will find the many rooms and corridors that are the palace’s claims to fame. 

The Salone d’Ercole, or Hercules Room, derives its name from the giant statue of the deity displayed within the room. The room itself is monumentally large, measuring eighteen meters in height. The walls, which were supposed to be decorated with frescoes from the Carracci brothers, are bare. Only a series of imperial busts framed by medallions line the walls. 

Palazzo Farnese, Salone d'Ercole
Salone d’Ercole

Three tapestries from the seventeenth century made by the historic Gobelins tapestry factory in Paris, famous for producing tapestries for French monarchs, illustrate scenes from the frescoes of the Raphael room in the Vatican: The Fire in the Borgo, the Meeting of Leo the Great and Attila, and the Mass at Bolsena.

Two statues representing allegorical virtues, sculpted by Guglielmo della Porta, belonged to the funeral monument for Paul III at St Peter’s Basilica. They frame the polychrome marble fireplace made by Giacomo Barozzi da Vignola in the seventeenth century.   

The different halls

Sala dei Fasti Farnesiani—“Hall of the Farnesian Wonders”

The office of the ambassador today, this salon once was a reception room for the Farnese family. Its ceiling is the oldest in the palace. The frescoes, commissioned by Cardinal Ranuccio to the Florentine artist Salviati, were painted between 1552 and 1558. Upon his death, Taddeo and Federico Zuccari completed the work. These large central paintings, framed by allegorical figures, depict the Farnese family glories. Salviati makes use of trompe-oeil effects, mimicking architecture and three-dimensional sculptures that are in reality only painted onto the walls. (This effect, evident in other parts of the Palazzo Farnese, I can say with confidence was one of the most striking in the entire palace!) Among the figures depicted in these epic scenes are Ranuccio il Vecchio leading his troops and claiming his ancestral land and other highlights involving the Farnese family.

Sala dei possedimenti—The Farnese family “possessions room”

In 1860, Francis II of the Two Sicilies and Maria Sophie of Bavaria, descendants of the Farnese family, sought refuge in the palace after they were forced to leave Naples. The room, likely painted by Antonio Cipolla as accommodations were being prepared for the king, is uniquely decorated with romantic flourishes and framed by medallions illustrating the villas, castles, and landscapes belonging to the Farnese family, including Caprarola, Piacenza, and the duchy of Parma. 

White room

The white room is also known as Christina, Queen of Sweden’s room. The monarch is remembered for being remarkably sharp, an avid learner whose many interests attracted scientists to the Swedish capital, but also for her scandalous decision not to marry! She stayed at the Palazzo Farnese from December 1655 to July 1656 after her abdication from the throne. Once in Rome, she invited much festivity, became friends with none other than famed sculptor and architect Bernini, and hosted poets and intellectuals within the palace. This particular room was also office to Camille Barrère, one of the most important ambassadors of the nineteenth century.

Galleria dei Carracci

Famous for its frescoes, the gallery derives its name from brothers Annibale and Agostino Carracci, originally from Bologna. They completed work on the hall between the years 1597 and 1608. 

The work was commissioned on the occasion of Ranuccio Farnese’s marriage to Margherita Aldobrandini, niece of Pope Clement VIII. The central fresco celebrates their union in mythological symbolism. 

The trompe-oeil effect is also put to dazzling use here in the gallery, combining elements of sculpture, painting and architecture. The atlases seem to be made from marble, and the medallions mimic the effects of bronze. The brothers were inspired by Renaissance artists like Raphael and Michelangelo and works like the Sistine Chapel in their use of elements like the ignudi. The gallery is considered a masterpiece by experts.

The second floor

The École Française de Rome, a public research institute, is located on the second floor. With its 230,000 volumes, it is the largest French library located outside of France. Each year, the library welcomes around 24,000 visitors.

Looking out from the second-floor window, you can spot the corkscrew lantern of S. Ivo alla Sapienza, built by Francesco Borromini


From the carved wood window shutters to the doorknobs bearing the French fleur de lis, the details that adorn the palace are an art and architecture lover’s dream. Pay attention to these, as well as the breathtaking coffered ceilings of the different halls. My personal favorite was that of the Salone Rosso

How to get there

Arriving to the Palazzo Farnese is fairly straightforward. From Termini, Rome’s centrally located train, metro and bus station, you can take bus number 64 to the Corso Vittorio Emanuele stop. From there, it is about a five-minute walk to the palazzo. 

The Palazzo Farnese is definitely worth seeing, especially for those with an interest in art. Rome has an inexhaustible wealth of sights to tempt art lovers, so if you find yourself with time to spare after a walk through the halls of the Palazzo Farnese, why not explore another must-see, the Borghese Gallery? Click the link to learn how you can book a private tour with an art expert and see masterpieces from Caravaggio, Bernini, and more! 

Celebrating Carnival in Italy

Have you ever been in Italy in late January to the end of February?  Have you ever noticed confetti sprinkled everywhere on the streets?  Children wearing what seem to be Halloween costumes for days on end and thinking “what is going on”?  

Welcome to the season of Carnevale!  

Italians have a way of making sure that there is an event, “something special”, to celebrate in every season, if not every week.  This coming from an Italian American who left NYC to move to Rome and I swear there are “festivals” all the time.  I guess it is the concept of “la dolce vita”, but what exactly makes Carnevale special and why should you visit Italy during this period of time.

First some history.  Some say Carnevale was first celebrated in 1094 in Venice.  Others say that the Carnival of Venice was started from a victory of the Venice Republic against the Patriarch of Aquileia, Ulrico di Treven in the year 1162. In celebration of his victory, Venetians started to dance and party in San Marco Square. Presumably, it wasn’t until 1296 that the City of Venice actually recognized it as an annual event, but as they would say in Italian basta (enough) with the history, let’s talk about the fun of it!

It is a celebration directly tied to the tradition of Lent and Easter.  I think more people are familiar with Fat Tuesday (Mardi Gras) than Carnevale, except for knowing people wear masks in Venice during this period.  Yet it is the whole country and every age group which dresses up, wearing colorful, sometimes extravagant, costumes and not for just one day but for about two weeks, which means two weeks of parties, merry and fun!  I have seen children actually going to school in costumes and throwing confetti everywhere day after day during the period of Carnevale.  It creates a magical, fun, whimsical time in the whole country, from Venice to Sicily and everywhere in between.  

Rome is not as well-known as Venice but it is really worth visiting Rome during this period as the city hosts its own type of Parade.  It was not until the 17th Century that Romans started to embrace the tradition of Carnevale. At that time, Via del Corso which was one of the most important streets in Rome and is still the starting point for the Carnevale parade today.  People stroll down the street in extravagant costumes to Piazza del Popolo.  Carnevale itself lasts for about 10 days and the city is filled with musical and theatrical performances in addition to the wearing of costumes and throwing of confetti (did I say everywhere and at everyone?).  I tend to keep a mask in my pocket, you never know when you might fall into a party!

An interesting fact about Carnevale in Italy was traditionally it was a period where roles were reversed between men and women, the rich and the poor.  Today, I would say it is a time where people put their daily routine on hold to enjoy the humor in life, to be free to laugh together and enjoy life.

Oh, and of course, no festival would be complete without some super delicious Italian food specifically cooked for this period.  Frappe and Frittelle are the specialities of Carnevale.  They are delicious fried dough covered in powdered sugar, try not to wear black in this period or everyone will know how much you love these desserts.  They are sort of impossible to stop eating!  

There is a lot of debate as to the origin of the name Carnevale but the one that seems to be the most popular states that the word comes from the Latin expression, carnem levare, which means “taking away meat,” and somehow over time became “carne vale” which literally means “goodbye meat” which was associated with Ash Wednesday, the first day Lent.  From what I understand, in ancient times people gave up meat for Lent, I gave up chocolate as an American, waiting for the Easter Bunny to help me out, but that is another story.  

If you are in Rome for the Carnevale, which this year starts on February 20, make sure you don’t miss some of the parades. The rest of the time, you can sober up with a tour of ancient Rome!

The town of Civita di Bagnoregio as taken from a distance with bridge and tufa cliffs

5 Best Day Trips from Rome by Train

One of the best parts of visiting Italy is that you can get nearly anywhere by train. With this affordable travel option, you don’t have to worry about renting a vehicle and navigating a foreign country or waiting around in airports. Rome is the ideal home base for visiting Italy. Here are five of the best day trips you can take from Rome by train.



You can’t go to Italy without visiting the cradle of the Renaissance. The ancient city of Florence, also known as Firenze, is the reigning city of the Tuscan region and home to incredible architecture, wondrous art, and unbelievable dining. While you can see plenty in one day, it’s worth renting one of the romantic Florence homes and taking your time. Whether with a tour guide or not, you won’t want to miss Galleria dell’Accademia, where you can see Michaelangelo’s David on display. Visit Piazza del Duomo, the iconic red-domed cathedral that makes Florence so recognizable in pictures. Explore the markets, enjoy the atmosphere, and take the two-hour train ride back to Rome when you’re done.

Palazzo Vecchio in Florence


Orvieto is just a quick train ride from Rome, making it an ideal destination for a day trip out of the city. This small town is just a taste of the beauty Umbria has to offer, with sweeping rooftop views of the hills below. Orvieto is home to many small restaurants with authentic regional cuisine. There’s also an elaborate cave system to explore underground if you’re looking for a break from the usual tourist sites. As this town doesn’t have as many of the world-famous wonders Italy is known for, it’s a great escape from the tourist-heavy hustle and bustle.

Exterior of the Duomo of Orvieto
The jaw-dropping Cathedral of Orvieto


Tivoli is a hidden gem that’s less than an hour away from Rome by train. Visit the stunning villas in the area with ancient architecture and incredible gardens that make you feel as though you’ve traveled through time. Villa d’Este is a World Heritage Site and boasts impressive fountains and water installations that set it apart from the other elegant villas throughout Italy. Hadrian’s Villa boasts breathtaking ruins of the Roman empire. With towering columns and ornate stonework, you’ll love walking through the abandoned archways of this once-majestic estate. While not so far from Rome, however, the best way to visit Tivoli is still by car, because Hadrian’s villa is not so close to Tivoli City Center. You might want to consider booking a private Tivoli tour from Rome by car, with a driver and a tour guide at your disposal.


One of Villa d’Este fountains in Tivoli


Head to Naples for a longer, more involved day trip from Rome. Pair some of the world’s most splendid art with some of Italy’s best pizza. Neapolitan pizza is made with tomatoes and fresh mozzarella, similar to its sister-pizza, the Margherita. While in Naples, venture over to the ruins of Pompeii and learn about the rise and fall of this ancient city. Then, head down to Sorrento to tour a small, ancient town with incredible marketplaces and views. Sip a refreshing limoncello cocktail and purchase a lemon-branded souvenir to remember your trip. While the train ride to Naples is only about an hour and a half from Rome, there’s so much to see and do that you can expect to be gone for twelve hours. If you need a tour guide in Naples, consider booking an expert one.

Tour of Mount Vesuvius with the Bay and sea in foreground
View of the Vesuvius from Naples


You can’t leave Italy without taking in the splendor of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Named for the town in which it stands, the tower is a spectacle to behold, especially when lit up in the evenings. Pisa is a quaint city where no more than a day of touring is required, which is great since it’s a two-hour train ride. Don’t just get caught up in the tower though; Pisa has lovely shops and restaurants worth exploring. Additionally, as Pisa is one of the oldest cities in Italy, there are Medieval churches and plenty of museums worth experiencing. Planning a trip to Italy can feel overwhelming. There’s so much to see and never enough time to do it all in one trip. However, the country is set up for easy traveling. Set a home base, hop a train, and traverse this incredible part of the world.

The so-called Square of Miracles in Pisa


La Befana

Italian Traditions and Holidays: La Befana

What is your favorite part of Christmas?  Getting gifts, giving gifts, decorating the street, Christmas songs, Christmas sweaters (no you did not say you enjoy them, haha), or hanging your stocking near the fireplace.  I grew up on the North East Coast and it was tradition to light a fire and after the tree was all decorated, we kids each picked a spot on the fireplace where we were sure Santa could fill our stocking to the max.  Now I live in Italy and there is something very different about Christmas Stocking and it includes a Witch!

If you know anything about Italy, one thing you know for sure is there are lots of Holidays, most related to something holy and so is Befana… somehow.  January 6th is in the Catholic Religion called the Epiphany.  Epiphany commemorates the first two occasions of Jesus’s divinity which according to Christian belief, was for Western Christianity when the three kings (also known as wise men or Magi or three wise men) visited infant Jesus in Bethlehem with gifts.  The second, according to Eastern Christianity is when Jesus baptized John the Baptist baptized in the River Jordan.  The day is also known as the Three Kings Day.

Here in Italy, it also represents the day of Befana, who is an old woman who delivers gifts (mainly chocolate) to children throughout Italy on Epiphany Eve if they were good, if not they get a lump of coal, just as Santa does on Christmas Eve.  Some claim she sweeps the floor before she leaves as a symbol to sweep away the previous year’s problems.  My mom used to have a kitchen witch which looked identical to Befana. 

A recent movie was produced about la Befana to watch with your kids!

As we in America leave milk and cookies for Santa, Italian tradition is to leave some wine.  I think there was a time my dad left Whiskey for Santa, only as older children, we realized find my father adored whiskey.  There are many stories around La Befana.  Have you ever seen the “little drummer boy”? Maybe with that one, I am dating myself, but the Romans kill the lamb of a peasant boy and he follows “the star” to Bethlehem to ask for a miracle.  He was without a gift and so played a song for baby Jesus and the lamb is resurrected.  Such a great Christmas story, I do not know if it even exists anymore, but there is a story about La Befana that is similar. 

Another Christian legend takes a slightly darker tone as La Befana was an ordinary woman with a child whom she greatly loved. However, her child died, and her resulting grief maddened her. Upon hearing news of Jesus being born, she set out to see him, delusional that he was her son. She eventually met Jesus and presented him with gifts to make him happy. The infant Jesus was delighted, and he gave La Befana a gift in return; she would be the mother of every child in Italy.

I guess I was a good “boy” this year as I did get a stocking full of Italian Chocolate and it made me smile.  I have the pleasure of living in Italy, but I would recommend that whoever is reading this, don’t just think of Italy as a summer destination, there are so many traditions throughout the year which make the country amazing which leaves you with an authentic experience. Did you get anything from Befana? A recent movie was produced about la Befana to watch with your kids!

There are many interesting songs and filastrocche about Befana. One of the most famous is “La Befana Vien di Notte” (The Befana Comes at Night).

Think of Italy as an all-year destination, see it in all its different personalities.  Let Italy surprise you and if you are a good boy or girl, maybe Befana will bring you chocolate next year. 

Eating Panettone is an amazing food experience

Panettone and the Italian Christmas Tradition

Panettone. The “big bread.” (Because this is what panettone just means, and yet and indeed it is The Big Thing when it comes to celebrating Christmas in Italy.) The most popular outcome of Italian pasticceria since its invention. Despite the challenging competition of other various sweets, panettone has become essentially a synonym of Christmas, and for me, as an expat who has been living in this amazing country for eight years, synonym of all things Italian.

Eating Panettone is an amazing food experience

After all, I am of Italian origins and there is no other bodily sense more than taste and smell that is so close to the heart and soul, and make us remember who we are, where we come from, what our roots are. My ancestors were from Sicily and Abruzzo, and although I have been born and raised in the States, I will always remember Christmas as the great moment when you gather around the table with your family and prepare, taste, smell, eat the best food. No matter what the tradition is.

Eating Panettone is an amazing food experience

What are the traditional foods for you at Christmas time? Me, I could still remember so vividly my mom baking star cookies with a redhot in the middle, the traditional baked ham with cloves, creamed spinach. Wow, waiting this I just realize how much I miss creamed spinach now! And, on the table, there was always a fruit cake. Can’t say I was a big fan of fruit cake, but it was tradition.

Eating Panettone is an amazing food experience

Now I live in Italy and they have panettone. The whole family, often extended to orbiting significant ones, aunts and uncles, second, third and fourth degree cousins, selected friends, gather around hungry and thirsty. Then, at the end of a Pantagruelian lunch or dinner, grandma solemnly places in the middle of the table this sort of giant muffin, made of the puffiest, most tender dough ever, filled with a constellation of raisins and candied fruit. It’s panettone. It might or might not be your fruitcake, but this is the king of all Christmas sweets.

Eating Panettone is an amazing food experience

There are many legends how panettone was invented, going back to the 1600’s in Milan. It is said that a baker in Milan wanted to make something special while making his traditional break but given the vast poverty at the time had only a few simple ingredients and to his traditional recipe added some candied fruit and raisins and panettone was born. The suffix “one” at the end of an Italian word tends to signify “big”. So pane, which means bread became ” big bread” or panettone in Milanese dialect, and now it is tradition. And there will not be a Christmas table in Italy without a panettone.

Eating Panettone is an amazing food experience

One of the most recent competitors of panettone is another Italian delicacy: pandoro. Pandoro literally means Golden Bread. A sort of panettone, but even softer and possibly more buttery. Pandoro contains no raisins or candied fruit, but it is traditionally covered with an abundant snowfall of icing sugar, which reminds kids and adults of the typical Italian paesaggio outside. It is a pleasure eating a slice of your preferred Christmas pastry in front of a crackling fireplace, while outside snows like there is no office to go back to.

Eating Panettone is an amazing food experience

Sometimes in life you are given two options, a clear cut choice: Messi or Ronaldo? Beach or Mountain? Wine or beer? Liberal or conservative? Evolution or creation? Plato or Aristotle? Vatican or Colosseum? For Italians the choice at the dinner table on Christmas day is: panettone or pandoro? But there is no doubt panettone represents tradition, and pandoro is just a sweet attempt to overthrow the rule and authority of panettone.

Eating Panettone is an amazing food experience

Have you ever been to Italy and eaten panettone? If you are traveling to Italy during this coming festivities don’t forget to have a taste of one and the other, and make up your mind… pardon, your belly! Let us know what you find out. But if you want to make sure not to miss anything, consider a food tour with a professional gastronomist and food expert, Adriano Vecchiarelli, who is leading Roma Experience’s best food experiences. Whether or not you choose a guided food itinerary make sure you try panettone and pandoro. What’s your favorite?

Eating Panettone is an amazing food experience

Me, I choose panettone. But between us, I have a special sacrilegious way to approach it. Don’t tell anyone. I personally like to toast it and spread nutella or vanilla ice cream on its top. I try not to be spotted by Italians when I do. They can be touchy when it comes to food heresy. But being an American, I think vanilla ice cream is a must on top of – well – anything, really. Be it a mum’s fruit cake or Italian panettone.

Celebrating Christmas, Food Tours

One thing, at last. I would love to learn how to make the perfect one. Has anyone ever made panettone? Can you tell us you favorite recipe? But whether you buy it, steal it or bake it, it doesn’t matter. Just make sure you eat it! And if you really want to try an amazing one, check out the Igino Massari‘s panettone.

Happy holidays and panettone for all!

Robert Pardi


Keats Shelley Memorial House, Keats, Shelley, Piazza di Spagna, English Quarter, ghetto degli inglesi

The Keats Shelley Memorial House and the English Quarter

The English Quarter–stretching roughly from Piazza di Spagna to Piazza del Popolo–is home to the Keats Shelley Memorial House and more.

You’ve probably heard of the famous Roman Ghetto, the ghetto ebraico or Jewish neighbourhood, close to the River Tiber and the Teatro Marcello. Less known (and bearing a history significantly less steeped in tragedy), however, is the English quarter. The ghetto inglese or Ghetto degli Inglesi, as locals fondly dubbed the area surrounding Piazza di Spagna, is something I only just learned about, despite having lived in Italy for over a decade. That’s how it is with Rome–there is always something new to uncover in the timeless, Eternal City.

Stretching approximately from the Spanish Steps to Villa Doria Pamphili on Via del Corso and to the Flaminian Gate (or Porta del Popolo) at Piazza del Popolo, the English quarter owes its name to the community of British expats that established itself in that location over many years, beginning in the early nineteenth century. Florence Nightingale, Lord Byron, and Charles Dickens are only a few famous residents. From artists and writers to tourists who simply fell in love with Bernini’s peculiar Baroque-style Barcaccia fountain at the centre of Piazza di Spagna and the sloping steps leading down to it from the Trinità dei Monti church, what became known as the English quarter inspired a host of foreigners who eventually came to call the area their home.

The Keats Shelley Memorial House recently hosted an exhibition by Korean artist T-yong Chung, on the occasion of the two hundred year anniversary of Keats’ most creatively fruitful year, 1819. It was in that year that he produced some of his most well-known poems, including The Eve of St. Agnes, La Belle Dame sans Merci, and The Fall of Hyperion: A Dream. The exhibition, entitled “Odes to the Present”, is composed of a series of white sculptures, which line the bookcases and walls of the different rooms within the house–a bust of Keats and several, delicate nightingales in honour of the bird to which he dedicated his famous Ode: “Thou wast not born of death, immortal Bird!/No hungry generations tread thee down;/The voice I hear this passing night was heard/In ancient days by emperor and clown.”

The house, located at 26 Piazza di Spagna at the base of the Spanish Steps, was where the ailing John Keats spent his final days at the behest of friends and doctors who thought Rome’s warmer air would improve his condition. “At any rate,” Keats wrote in a letter to his sister Francis May “Fanny” Keats, “it will be a relief to quit this cold, wet, uncertain climate.” Artist Joseph Severn looked after him, and his letters from that time provide an account of those final months as Keats succumbed to tuberculosis, a disease that would take the lives of many famous artists of the time. He died on 23 February 1821, at the tragically young age of twenty-five. Both Romantic poets, Keats and Shelley, are buried in the Cimitero Acattolico or Non-Catholic Cemetery, also known as the English Cemetery or Protestant Cemetery. The Severn letters are now used as a historical resource for the poet’s biographers. In keeping with the custom of the time, all Keats’ belongings were burned to stay contamination and contain the spread of the disease. Only the ceiling and the pavement are what remain of the original dwelling. The house was later converted into a museum, which now houses one of the world’s largest collections of books and manuscripts related to Keats and Shelley, among other Romantic poets and writers. According to the official website, the collection stands at 8,000 volumes, curated by associates of the house and built over time through the donation of benefactors.

To preface the experience, visitors are invited into an antechamber, where they can watch brief films that provide important contextual information on the lives of the figures associated with the house, as well as on the history of the house itself. The adjacent gift shop offers a delightful assortment of charming keepsakes: poetry books, canvas shoppers, postcards, prints, notebooks, and bookmarks–all things reader-writer related!

All I could think of, upon leaving the house, was the incredible history it has witnessed, from the time of the Romantic poets to the Second World War. After 1943, when Italy signed the armistice effectively making it an enemy of Germany, the museum relocated many of its artefacts so that they would not fall into German hands or be destroyed. Imagine the trepidation of the British expat community during those years! Their anxious position was the subject of the famous 1999 Franco Zeffirelli film Tea with Mussolini, starring Cher, Maggie Smith, Dame Judi Dench, and Lily Tomlin. While the film has the city of Florence as its backdrop, rather than Rome, it faithfully portrays what the experience of being caught up in the international events of the Second World War must have been like for British citizens who had come to see Italy as their home away from home.

The heart of the English quarter, Piazza di Spagna itself, was used as a setting for many other classic films, including the 1953 Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck masterpiece Roman Holiday and the 1999 psychological thriller The Talented Mr. Ripley. Anglophone culture has undeniably left its imprint on the area. A few steps away from the luxury fashion shops of Via del Corso and Via dei Condotti stands the beautiful, Gothic revival-style All Saints’ Church. Built in the late nineteenth century and located on 153 Via del Babuino, the church is home to an Anglican, English-speaking congregation.

Another uniquely English icon of the area is the lovely Babington’s Tea Room, which was founded at the end of the nineteenth century by two Englishwomen who wished to cater to the English-speaking community of Rome. The tea room is located just opposite the Keats Shelley house, on the left side of the Spanish Steps. After weathering the tempests of both the First World War and the Wall Street Crisis, it went on to also be the only English business to not be closed down during the Second World War. The tea room bustled with antifascist activists during those tumultuous years, entering and existing in secret by way of the kitchen.

“Happy is England! I could be content/To see no other verdure than its own,” wrote Keats, “Yet do I sometimes feel a languishment/for skies Italian, and an inward groan/To sit upon an Alp as on a throne/And half forget what world or worldling meant.” That so flourishing a community of British artists should establish itself in this central part of the city is a testament to Rome’s power to inspire and its magical lure. From Chaucer to Shakespeare, British culture has undoubtedly been shaped by Italian influence. 

You can easily reach Piazza di Spagna, located in the heart of Rome’s historic center, by taking the Metro A from the Termini railway station. Travel in the Battistini direction and exit at Spagna. The piazza is fairly easy to reach by foot also, going in the direction of Piazza della Repubblica and turning onto Via delle Quattro Fontane, up to Piazza Barberini and all the way on to Via Sistina, which takes you to the top of the Scalinata and the Trinità dei Monti church. If you wish to supplement this brief exposition on the area surrounding the Spanish Steps with a more in-depth tour, be sure to check out the Heart of Rome private walking tour, which will guide you through the city’s most famous stops, including the Trevi Fountain, Campo de Fiori, Piazza Navona, and the Pantheon. 

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Visit Rome’s Catacombs for Free(!) on October 12th

October 12th, 2019 marks Rome’s second annual Catacombs Day. This year’s Catacombs Day is the second ever – and what a treat it is for any visitor to Rome! Nearly all of Rome’s Catacombs will be free to enter.

Not only that, but some areas of the Catacombs which are normally closed will be open for one day only, like the Basilica of St. Tecla and the Museum of the Tower, with statuary from the San Callisto Catacomb.

So, grab a comfortable pair of closed-toe shoes and a sweater (trust us, it gets cold down there!) because we’re going to tell you about all the Catacombs which are open, on Rome’s second annual Catacombs Day.

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Life After Death

Each year Rome’s Catacombs Day has a special theme. Last year it was an exhibition of St. Paul, and this year, the theme is ‘Life After Death’. The idea of resurrection in heaven and other visions of the afterlife will be explored through the story of Jonah.

Infamously, Jonah was swallowed into the belly of the whale. His tale is one of forgiveness – life after death can also mean life renewed by repenting sin. Jonah’s story is one that most fascinated Early Christian Rome. Depictions of his trials and tribulations are all over the Catacombs; which is why he inspired 2019’s theme.

If you’re an Italian speaker who wants to know about Jonah and the Catacombs, look into the brochure and specially selected readings.

Free Entry to Rome’s Catacombs

On every other day of the year, expect to spend when you visit these Catacombs – but not on Rome’s Catacombs Day! Enjoy free access to all the below sites and discover Rome’s underworld.

San Callisto

You can visit Rome’s most famous Catacomb for free on October 12th, 2019. These Catacombs were named after San Callisto, a Pope of the 2nd century. Nearly all 3rd century Popes can be found inside these Catacombs alongside some of the earliest examples of Christian art.

San Sebastian

The Catacomb of San Sebastian was the first to be known as a catacomb, or catacumbas in Latin, which literally means ‘place of the hollow’, because of its proximity to a tuff mine. As well as being, quite literally, the original catacomb, San Sebastian is also famous for its 2nd-century tombs, Chapels, frescoes, wall-carvings, and mosaics. Any art lover would enjoy a visit to San Sebastian.  


Rome’s Catacombs of Domitilla was the largest underground Christian century in the world for much of late antiquity. Today, it’s the only Catacomb in Rome that still contains bones!

What makes the Catacombs of Domitilla so fascinating is how it also accommodates pagan bodies. Expect to see early images of Christ crucified alongside a casually louche Bacchus. If you choose to visit for free, keep your eyes peeled for the earliest depiction of the Last Supper – otherwise, join us for a tour!


If you’re looking for a series of crypts with a distinctly maternal vibe, Rome’s Catacombs of Priscilla is for you. Priscilla was known as ‘the mother of Catacombs’ in the 3rd century because it was founded by a woman, run by nuns and is home to the earliest representation of the Virgin Mary.

Sant’ Agnese

In these Catacombs, you’ll find the burial place of St. Agnes, a young saint who was martyred at the age of 12. Tortured to death in various horrible ways – accounts differ, but some feature vein piercing, throat-slitting, beheading, and other terrors – his cult spurned fascinated devotion in the Early Christian world. Constantine was said to be a fan.

Saints Marcellinus and Peter

The Catacombs of Saints Marcellinus and Peter are quite small by Rome’s standard; they only accommodate 15,000 bodies. Marcellinus and Peter were martyred here during Diocletian’s persecution of Christians. Legend states that these Catacombs marked the place Marcellinus and Peter were forced to dig their graves with their own hands.

Saint Pancreas

The Catacombs of Saint Pancreas aren’t too flashy, but never mind – it’s the perfect Catacomb experience for a minimalist. Admire the carefully crafted architecture of the underground cemetery and walk around the lovely Villa Doria Pamphili park afterward.

St. Lawrence

Admire the Catacombs of St. Lawrence, resplendent in beautifully rich artwork and labyrinthian rooms, stretching for miles. Constantine loved this saint and there are the ruins of a 3rd-century basilica dedicated to him on this site. A perfect choice for a visitor staying in Southern Rome.

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Free Tours Of Exclusive-Access Regions of the Catacombs

You can normally visit these areas of the Catacombs on appointment only – and hope you’ll get in! But on October 12th, 2019, you’ll be able to visit these areas in small tour groups. Just make sure you email [email protected] in advance.

Museum of the Tower and Crypts of Lucina

Learn about the Christianization of Rome and admire marble monuments taken from the San Callisto Catacombs in the Museum of the Tower and Crypts of Lucina. Admire pagan sarcophagi alongside Early Christian marblework.

Museum and Catacomb of Praetextatus

See some of the best examples of Christian sarcophagi in the Museum and Catacomb of Praetextatus. Enjoy some great classical marblework too – including a fascinating arch depicting the myth of Achilles and the Hunt.

Catacomb of St. Tecla

The Catacombs of St. Tecla keep it simple. Admire a small, early 4th century Christian Basilica, and the burial place of St. Tecla – who we know absolutely nothing about! Admire the 22 chambers of the Basilica, adorned in beautiful red Roman frescoes.

Museum of Domitilla and the Fornai Region

Hold onto your hat – the Museum of Domitilla promises some fantastic Early Christian artwork and history of Rome’s Christianization. The perfect way to complement a visit to the Catacombs of Domitila.

Hypogeum of the Aureli

The Hypogeum of the Aureli promises a fascinating experience of Late-Roman history. Visit the tomb of the Aureli, a wealthy family of freedman – former slaves. Admire the lower floor’s beautiful frescoes with scenes from Greek mythology.

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Rome’s Catacombs Day

There you have it! If you have a passion for Early Christian history, then you’ll know where you’ll be on October 12th. Discover the secret Rome, lying below the city streets, rich in history, eerie tales, and remarkable Early Christian artwork.

by Annie Beverley



Breast Cancer Awareness Month October 2019

Roma Experience Support Breast Cancer Awareness Month

This October marks Breast Cancer Awareness Month. The aim is to spread awareness about breast cancer, encourage self-examination among women, to raise money to beat breast cancer and support those who are suffering.

For all of October, Roma Experience will donate a portion of our sales on the website to the Susan G Komen Foundation, a charity which researches breast cancer cures and cares for those suffering.

Breast cancer awareness is a cause particularly close to the Roma Experience’s team’s heart, because of the personal experience of our business development partner, Robert Pardi. Rob’s wife suffered from breast cancer and, sadly, lost the battle 10 years ago. Rob wants to support people undergoing breast cancer treatment and research which is seeking to cure this disease.

“When my wife was first diagnosed back in the late 1990’s, it was very rare for a 30-year-old woman to have stage 3 breast cancer”, says Rob.  “I was told her outlook was bleak, but thanks to continued research and discoveries funded in part by organizations like the Susan G Komen Foundation, my wife lived a high quality of life for 11 years after her diagnosis.  I am so thankful that my company is taking a stand against this disease with me.”

This October, Roma Experience will do our bit to fight breast cancer.

Who We’ll Give To

Breast Cancer Awareness Ribbon

We’ll give to the Susan G Komen Foundation, a cause close to the Roma Experience Team’s Heart because of how they supported the wife of our business development partner, Robert Pardi.

The Susan G Komen Foundation fund screenings throughout America (212,324 women were screened last year, thanks to their initiatives), provide care for those suffering and conduct innovative breast cancer research. Rob is so grateful for how they helped him, and now he wants to give something back – with your help.

Every tour you purchase on our site in October will help support the Susan G Komen Foundation in their awesome work.

Breast Cancer Globally

Each year, 1.38 million women worldwide are diagnosed with breast cancer and 458,000 people die. Women are more likely to suffer from breast cancer than any other form of cancer. The majority of breast cancers (an astonishing 80%) occur in women over 50.

Unfortunately, there is still no definitive answer as to what causes breast cancer. That’s why early detection is so crucial to treat the disease. When breast cancer is detected in good time, in a country where diagnosis and treatment are readily available, there’s a strong chance a sufferer will experience a full recovery. In the cases where breast cancer is detected too late, palliative care is often the only option.

Over half of breast cancer deaths (269,000) each year occur in countries in the developing world. Often, this is because women do not know how to self-examine and health care is inaccessible to them.

How to Self-Examine

Woman Holding a Huge Pink Bra with Bras in the Background
Make sure you check your breasts!

Most breast cancer awareness campaigns in the developed world focus on self-examination, because in countries where health care is accessible, early diagnosis is what makes the biggest difference in beating the illness.

Britain’s CoppaFeel! Campaign has been one of the most effective at drawing attention to the need for self-examination.

They advise women to look and feel to get the best assessment of their breasts:

  • Look for any changes in the texture of the skin, be it rippling or dimpling.
  • Feel for unusual lumps, bumps, or any thickening.
  • Look to see if there’s any discharge from the nipple or crust around it.
  • Look and see if nipples have changed direction or position.
  • Feel for persistent pain localized in armpit or breast.
  • Look for swelling in your armpit or near your collarbone.
  • Look to see if size or shape have changed.
  • Look for rashes on the breast or nipple.

 It’s advised that women perform a thorough examination every month, looking and feeling for the symptoms above.

To perform a thorough breast exam:

  1. Stand in the mirror and visually assess breasts
  2. Raise your arms and see if breasts have changed
  3. Feel your breasts while lying down, using the opposite arm to feel each breast
  4. Feel your breasts while standing or sitting straight up.

If you look or feel for the above symptoms, and follow this step-by-step guide to breast examination, you have a good chance of catching the cancer before it advances.

Give Something Back

Roma Experience put passion and creativity into the business of tours, which is why we want to give something back. Cancer can inflict terrible pain on bright and brilliant people, and we want to help lessen the burden. For every tour that’s bought in October, we’ll donate a portion of the profits to charities which help fight breast cancer.

by Annie Beverley