Little-known stories of the eternal city, of its artists and popes, families and colorfully clad armies. Through centuries of anecdotes, our short trip into the more curious and mysterious side of Roman history and art is about to end with a bow to the more dreamlike nature of the city. Picture an unusually silent evening, where little to no people are around, and enter corners of Rome where this and the otherworld may well be sitting one next to the other.
There will be ghosts, but not your usual ghosts. There will be houses that look like a dreamlike vision of an Alice-in-Wonderland-esque world, all closed into the smallest district of the capital.
Rome knows how to keep her secrets well-guarded, yet loves to disclose them to the right people every now and then; because - you see - Rome, sometimes, likes her quiet and only opens her doors to those she truly fancies: what you’ll see may not be what you expect, but it certainly won’t be any less mesmerizing, beautiful and charming.
Chandelier in the arch in Quartiere Coppede fabulous unusual quarter of Italy capital Rome. Photo by Flydragonfly
Let’s start with a trip to the early decades of the 20th century. The Great War had just ended, leaving Europe in a state of disbelief and horror. There was a need for beauty, after all the death. There was a need for novelty to cleanse the eye from the obscenities of violence. Rome: what a place in the 1920s to do just that. Pindaric flights of the mind aside, truth was Coppedé had been asked to project a whole new residential area for the city within the quartiere Trieste, an area north of the city. Coppedé, a Florentine whose most flamboyant work up to then was Castle McKenzie in Genoa, a gothic revival building commissioned by a rich British man, took up the assignment with eagerness and with all the creative influence of an Art Nouveau artist.
A mix of liberty, medieval and gothic, quartiere Coppedé is a dreamlike haven in the chaotic life of Italy’s capital: entirely built around a small square with a fountain in the centre, decorated by more than 20 stone frogs, the sound of water is the first audible cue hitting visitors. But who cares about sounds here: Coppedé wanted his creation to be a feast for the eyes: it is a call to raise them to the skies, seeking the end of whimsically decorated buildings, hinting here and there to the majesty of ancient Rome. Yes, because the eccentric architect was asked to make the new area “very Roman,” and what’s more Roman than the Empire and its symbols?
You see, if its very nature and architecture wasn’t enough to make of Quartiere Coppedé a bit of a magical place, there are also some interesting stories about it: for instance, there seems to be some confusion about the date Coppedé began its project. Some date it as far back as1913, others set it, more likely, in 1915, with building work starting in 1917. And as you would expect, the place immediately attracted its fair share of artists: Beniamino Gigli, famous Italian tenor, made Coppedé his own home. The otherworldy, fable-like allure of the area also made a well-loved spot for film makers to set their own works: famously, Dario Argento set Inferno here, as well as his “opera prima,” 1970’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. You may be more familiar with another movie where the Quartiere Coppedé appears, 1976’s The Omen.
From the fairytale-like to the slightly eerie, Rome keeps on being full of surprises. Villa Borghese and Piazza del Popolo separate the Quartiere Coppedé from Lungotevere Prati, where the Chiesa del Sacro Cuore del Suffragio, a rather quirky neo-gothic building overlooking the Tiber, is located. The church is pretty, again made in a rather fable-like manner: more than in Rome, you would expect it to stand somewhere in a foggy and dimly lit street of Victorian England, or maybe somewhere in mysterious, ghostly Turin. Its Gothic novel appeal is nothing when compared to what the building is home to, the world’s only “Museum of the Souls of Purgatory.” To Catholics, Purgatory is the place where people’s souls are cleansed through prayer and repentance before accessing Paradise; you may be familiar with it thanks to Dante, who made of it one of the three parts of his Divina Commedia.
It all started with a mysterious fire and a French priest, in charge of a small chapel that once stood where the Chiesa del Sacro Cuore del Suffragio is today. On a fateful night in 1897, flames engulfed the chapel without destroying it, but threw poor Father Jouët into a panic, especially when he noticed an image, the frightful depiction of a pained soul, etched in soot on one of its walls. Jouët, who strongly believed in the doctrinal importance of Purgatory and prayed for the sake of its souls, saw that as a sign: a larger church needed to be built and it had to be dedicated to them.
Father Jouët was a man of a million talents and managed not only to get funding from Pope Leo XIII and his own fairly wealthy family back in Marseilles, but also superintended the church’s project and construction, as he had trained as an architect before becoming a priest.
While the building was still under construction, Jouët went on a quest of his own; not happy with the sole proof of that eerie face staring back in pain at him from the old chapel’s wall, he began canvassing Europe in search of other mementos of the existence of Purgatory. And alas, he found them. When he came back to Rome, his coffers were filled with what today can be seen in his church’s sacristy: Bibles marked by fiery hands, shirts burnt by the grasp of air-like fingers, and more examples of the many attempts these souls, Jouët was convinced, had been making to communicate with the living, in search of the prayers necessary to reach Heaven swiftly.
The Roman souls of Purgatory are silently awaiting visits, then, in their pretty church by the Tiber.
Rome, an eternal city indeed. Where eternity lies everywhere in her beauty, in her history and even in the eerie presence of the unexplained. There wouldn’t be space to write about them all, the precious, lesser-known stories, people and corners that make Rome unique. Yet, let’s hope to have brought you at least a bit of inspiration. Inspiration to look more into the city’s history. Inspiration to love Rome a little more every day.