The True Essence of Trastevere: The Hidden Story of Rome’s Most Beloved Borough
What is now one of the fanciest districts of Rome for many centuries was its poorest and most dangerous area, full of foreigners and minorities. Trastevere means beyond the river and this was the only inhabited part of ancent Rome on the other bank of the river. Strictly connected to the harbor of Ostia and the river port, it hosted traders and sailormen from all over Italy and the Mediterranean. The Jewish community lived here before it was relocated in the current Ghetto, on the other side of the Tevere.
This is the area of Rome were Christianity spread first (S. Maria in Trastevere is possibly the first Christian church in town) since its inhabitants were open to ideas coming from abroad, and where the local neighborhood identity was the strongest until the end of the 19th century – and that’s also why the borough’s feast is “Our own” Festival and not of the rest of the city!
Another key feature of Trastevere is Regina Coeli, Rome’s most ancient jail. Until a few years ago you could (see and) hear the screams of big men who were paid by prisoners’ relatives to communicate with their jailed loved ones from outside the prison, for instance, just to give you an idea of the atmosphere around this place.
Besides the lights of the bars, restaurants and shops open until very late lies a hidden story of real lives, intense spirituality and authentically Roman popular traditions that is worth telling.
For instance St. Francis loved to stay in Trastevere when he came to Rome and the church of S. Francesco a Ripa (whose main feature is a Bernini late work: the statue of Ludovica Albertoni) takes her name from him. While the church of S. Cecilia hosts one of the most touching sculptures of Rome, made by Maderno. And Cecilia is still the most beloved female Roman saint and one of the favorite names given to girls by Romans.
Another heroic female figure from Trastevere is Giuditta Tavani, mother of 4 (some say 9), who fiercely fought and lost her life to liberate Rome from the Papal rule during Risorgimento. A plaque in Via della Lungaretta 97 commemorates her sacrifice for Italian unity.
This is where the dialect was more pronounced and it is no coincidence that two of the most important squares of the borough are named after Rome’s best dialect poets: Trilussa and Belli.
But even in the 20th century Trastevere retained a specific and proud identity. It was only from the 1990s that it started to gentrify and become fashionable.
Another couple of places where you can still immerse yourself in 20th century’s Trastevere atmosphere are Biscottificio Innocenti and Pasticceria Valzani where you can also have some of the best cookies and cakes in town in a 1950s ambiance.