Rome’s Aventine Hill Showcases Piranesi and the Glories of the Knights of Malta (2023)

Off-the-tourists’-beaten-track, the Aventine Hill is one of Rome’s most peaceful and least commercial residential neighborhoods, but with several sites worth a visit. Last year 15 members of the Foreign Press were invited to visit the most special one: the Knights of Malta’s Grand Priory.

The occasion was to celebrate Piranesi’s 300th birthday and visit his only architectural work, the neoclassical Church of St. Mary of the Priory. Because of Covid our visit was postponed until June 23, 2021, appropriately the feast day of St. John the Baptist, the Knights’ Patron saint.

Rome’s Aventine Hill Showcases Piranesi and the Glories of the Knights of Malta (1)

The Priory is at the Aventine Hill’s summit, on the ornately walled Square of the Knights of Malta (Piazza dei Cavalieri di Malta). In 1765 the Prior, Venetian Cardinal Giovanni Battista Rezzonico, the nephew of Pope Clement XIII (r. 1758-1769), commissioned his fellow Venetian, Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-1778) to spruce up the area.

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An architect, archeologist and engraver, Piranesi began by designing this picturesque square, decorating it with alternating obelisks and stelae. The stelae’s decorations feature shields and swords from the Rezzonico family’s coat-of-arms, and lyres, cameos, cornucopias, serpents, bird wings, and Pan pipes, all Piranesi’s favorite archeological symbols.

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On one side of the Square is Rome’s international Benedictine seminary and the Church of Sant’Anselmo, where the monks sing Mass in Gregorian Chant on Sundays starting at 9:30 AM.

Across is a massive mysterious wooden door set in a monumental entrance, also designed by Piranesi. Its large bronze keyhole is one of Rome’s intriguing and very popular tourist sights. Looking through it, you’ll see in the distance a unique miniature view of St. Peter’s dome framed by a cypress-lined avenue.

Behind the door, usually shut, in a magnificent manicured garden of clipped hedges and rose bushes, is the Knights’ Priory with a distinctive tower. The site, which overlooks the Tiber, was already a fortified Benedictine monastery in the 10th century.

Later it belonged to the Templars, descendants of the Crusaders, but after Pope Clement V disbanded their Order in 1312, its ownership passed to the Knights Hospitallers, the predecessors of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta (SMOM), its owners since the 14th century.

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The Knights of Malta is the oldest surviving order of crusader knights. Granted extraterritorial rights by Italy in 1869, the order is a sovereign entity and the Grand Priory is the embassy of the Sovereign Order of Malta to Italy.

The Order’s motto is Tuitio fidei et obseququium pauperum (‘defense of the faith and assistance to the poor’). Venerating the Virgin Mary as its patroness and St. John the Baptist as its patron, the Order’s role has always been to provide humanitarian assistance internationally. This is the reason it has had observer status at the United Nations General Assembly since 1994.

Founded in Jerusalem in 1113 by merchants from Amalfi to care for pilgrims of any religious faith or race, today the Order counts 13,500 Knights, Dames, and auxiliary members, all of whom must be Roman Catholic. A few dozen (c. 50) are professed religious. Membership is by invitation and some 30% are women. Led by a Prince and Grand Master elected for life (always a professed religious), the Order’s annual budget of some 1.5 billion euro is funded by European governments, the European Union, the UN, foundations, and private donations.

Rome’s Aventine Hill Showcases Piranesi and the Glories of the Knights of Malta (4)

It employs some 40,000 doctors, nurses, auxiliaries, and paramedics, who are assisted by 80,000 volunteers in some 1,500 hospitals in more than 120 countries, mostly in Europe and Africa. It intervenes in war zones and after natural disasters, distributes more than 5 million meals a year, accompanies the sick on pilgrimages especially to Lourdes (Covid permitting), cares for children, the homeless, the handicapped, the elderly and terminally ill, refugees, the socially discriminated, ethnic minorities, and lepers around the world.

As a sovereign entity of international law the Order has no territory but maintains diplomatic relations with many countries. It has its own national anthem (“Ave Crux Alba” or “Hail, Thou White Cross”) flag (red with an eight-pointed cross), coat-of-arms, currency called the scudo, and stamps, but only three male citizens: the Grand Master, the Lieutenant Grand Master, and the Chancellor.

In the USA with offices in New York (since 1927), San Francisco (since 1952), and Washington D.C. (since 1973), the Order counts some 3,000 members. They make home visits to the sick, and organize shelter for single mothers and women who’ve suffered domestic violence. They also run food banks and soup kitchens and run programs for street children and convicts.

To return to Rome, besides the Priory the garden also houses the Church of St. Mary of the Priory, the main reason for our visit. In the same year he designed the square outside, Rezzonico commissioned Piranesi to restore this small church.

Rome’s Aventine Hill Showcases Piranesi and the Glories of the Knights of Malta (5)

The first church, which gets its name from an icon of the Madonna found on the site, dates to 969 AD. Over the centuries the church had undergone very few renovations before Piranesi’s. Like his outer walls and entrance way, Piranesi’s renovations included representations of the glories of the Order as well as those of the Rezzonico family. Flanked by two sphinxes, his façade of glistening white marble with fluted pilasters evokes an ancient Greek temple façade.

Rome’s Aventine Hill Showcases Piranesi and the Glories of the Knights of Malta (6)

Piranesi’s interior, a single nave with four pairs of niches, is also totally white. Again his decoration for the ceiling vault is a wealth of ancient and Christian symbols. Its bas-relief depicts St. John the Baptist with the Agnus Dei: in its center is a Greek cross supported by putti; at its top the tunic of humility worn by the Knights of Malta, the papal tiara and St. Peter’s crossed keys. The altar depicts the Apotheosis of St. Basil with Seraphim and Cherubim raising him to heaven. In the foreground is the Virgin and in the lower part a burial niche connected to the crypt below, which contains the coffins of the 20th-century Grand Masters.

Piranesi’s tomb is in the second niche on the right of the nave. Angelini’s statue shows Piranesi wearing a toga. A roll under his arm bears the plan of the Temple of Poseidon in Paestum, Piranesi’s final archeological campaign because on his journey back from Paestum to Rome he died of malaria.

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For Piranesi’s complete story: J. Wilton-Ely’s detailed biography (1978): The Mind and Art of Giovanni Battista Piranesi, London, Thames & Hudson, is an unbeatable source. The Knights’ patronage not withstanding, he’s best known for using his architectural skills and his knowledge of archeology to create from 1748-1774, numerous engravings of Rome’s ancient monuments and views of the Eternal City with personal imaginative variations. In addition, his 16 prints called “Carceri d’invenzione” or “Imaginative Prisons” of enormous subterranean vaults with stairs and mighty machines (1745-61) are notable.

To visit the gardens and church, contact the Order’s Rome office at 011-39-06 675811 or or the guide Valérie Guillot at Guided tours usually take place on Friday mornings from 9:30 AM to 12:30 PM and twice a month on Saturday mornings from September 15th to June 15th. Lasting approximately one hour, each tour should have at least 10 participants and no more than 20. The entrance fee is 5 euros per person; children under 12 don’t pay and students over age 12 pay 3 euros. The guide is compulsory. An Italian-speaking guide costs 80 euros; instead English, German, French, and Spanish speaking guides cost 100 euros. The entrance and guide fees are paid in cash on the day of the visit.

Other Aventine sights are the two nearby 5th-century churches: Santa Sabina and Santi Bonifacio and Alessio, and the small “Orange Tree” park. A short walk downhill leads to the municipal Rose Garden with over 1,100 species from all over the world. Just beyond is the Circus Maximus, once Rome’s largest stadium for horse races.

Less than a block away from the keyhole are three small family-owned hotels, all with gardens: Aventino, San’Anselmo, and Villa San Pio. For a nearby memorable meal head to Apuleius.


Why is Aventine Hill important? ›

The Aventine was the hill where Remus attempted to found his city, and here was located the Remuria, a site traditionally considered Remus' tomb. The archaic king Ancus Marcius (640-616 B.C.) first settled the hill with refugees from towns he had conquered near Rome.

What is the story of the aventine keyhole? ›

The keyhole is part of the property owned by the Priory of the Knights of Malta, a Roman Catholic religious order of crusader knights that originated in Jerusalem in the 11th century. It is the oldest surviving chivalric order in the world and is a sovereign entity under international law.

Where was the headquarters of the Knights of Malta Rome? ›

The government seat of the Sovereign Order of Malta

The Magistral Palace was left to the Order of Malta in 1629 by its representative in Rome, Fra' Antonio Bosio, a scholar widely considered to be the founder of Christian archaeology.

What is the myth of the Aventine Hill? ›

The legend recounts that Romulus had the idea to build a city on the Palatine Hill and his brother Remus thought the Aventine Hill was the right place where to start a construction of a city. The myth says that for this discordance, Romulus killed Remus and started to build Rome on the Palatine hill.

What is the main reason that Rome was built on hills? ›

Many people have built their homes and villages on hills to avoid floods. The higher elevation also allows people to defend themselves. Ancient Rome, for example, was built on the city's seven hills so Romans could see their invaders coming from far away.

What is the famous keyhole view in Rome? ›

The Aventine Keyhole offers one of Rome's most picturesque and perfectly manicured views of St Peter's Basilica, but it remains shrouded in mystery. If you've ever looked through the unassuming brass keyhole that sits on a unmarked green door in a large piazza on the Aventine Hill, you'll understand the allure.

What caused the Aventine secession? ›

The Aventine Secession was the withdrawal of the parliament opposition, mainly comprising the Italian Socialist Party, Italian Liberal Party, Italian People's Party and Italian Communist Party, from the Chamber of Deputies in 1924–25, following the murder of the deputy Giacomo Matteotti by fascists on 10 June 1924.

Can you go inside Aventine Keyhole? ›

What to expect at the keyhole on the Aventine. Peeking through the Aventine Keyhole is free and it only takes a minute or so. The dome is right in front of you and the only thing that may keep you there longer is trying to get a good shot!

Do the Knights of Malta still exist? ›

The order settled in Rome in the mid-19th century, where it remains to this day. Despite its name, the Knights haven't had any military function since leaving Malta. Instead, the order has gone back to its charitable roots by sponsoring medical missions in more than 120 countries.

Are the Knights of Malta still active? ›

The Order of Malta is one of the few Orders created in the Middle Ages and still active today. It is also the only one that is at the same time religious and sovereign.

How many Knights of Malta are in the US? ›

The Western Association has over 850 Knights, Dames, Chaplains, and Provisional Members residing throughout the Western United States. Other Associations in the United States are: American Association (New York, N.Y.) Federal Association (Washington, D.C.)

Is the Knights of Malta keyhole free? ›

Also known as the Knights of Malta Keyhole, the Aventine Keyhole is one of the most peculiar attractions in Rome – a place worth visiting whether you are a photography geek or are simply looking for a unique (and free) experience.

Does Rome have 7 hills? ›

One of the best-known nicknames for Rome is “The City of Seven Hills.” This is, of course, because the ancient city was built on and between seven hills, all of which make up part of the core of the modern Italian capital. The seven hills of Rome mark the ancient boundaries of the city.

What is the meaning of Aventine? ›

Aventine. / (ˈævɪnˌtaɪn, -tɪn) / noun. one of the seven hills on which Rome was built.

Who saw six vultures from Aventine Hill? ›

Romulus wished to build it on the Palatine, Remus on the Aventine. They agreed to decide the question by augury; and each took his station on the top of his chosen hill. The night passed, and at dawn Remus saw six vultures; but at sunrise, when these tidings were brought to Romulus, twelve vultures flew by him.

What was the most important hill in Ancient Rome? ›

The Capitoline hill was the most important of the seven hills of Rome. In the early days it was a natural fortress with cliffs on all sides. Several temples were built on its summit and it became the religious focus of the city and state; the most important and largest was to Jupiter Optimus Maximus.

What is the most important hill in Rome? ›

The most famous hill, Palatine Hill, is the location where the city of Rome is thought to have been founded.

What were two main reasons why Rome fell? ›

Corruption, the division of the empire, and invasion by Germanic tribes were the three main causes of the fall of Rome. Some scholars believe that there were other contributing factors as well.

What is the triangle in Rome? ›

The pyramid of Cestius (in Italian, Piramide di Caio Cestio or Piramide Cestia) is a Roman Era pyramid in Rome, Italy, near the Porta San Paolo and the Protestant Cemetery.

What year was the Aventine secession? ›

Aventine Secession (494 BC)

Which house of monarchs was exiled for Italy to become a republic? ›

The June 2 referendum resulted in 52 percent of the country favoring a republic. Some days later the republic was declared, and Umberto's 34-day reign came to an end. As part of the referendum, all male members of the House of Savoy were exiled from Italy.

Did any of the Italian city states ever consolidate their power? ›

Many of these states consolidated into major political units that balanced the power on the Italian Peninsula: the Papal States, the Venetian Republic, the Republic of Florence, the Duchy of Milan, the Kingdom of Naples and the Kingdom of Sicily.

Can you go inside the Vatican Palace? ›

The official residence of the Pope is also home to the Vatican museums with their fabulous collection, the breathtaking Sistine Chapel, the magnificent Raphael rooms and the Vatican Library. Parts of the palace are open to the public. The many attractions make it a must visit attraction.

Can you go into catacombs of Vatican? ›

Book your tickets early as the Necropolis allows only a maximum of 250 visitors per day. Choose a guided tour so you can learn all about the Vatican Necropolis while you explore it. Access is granted only to those who are 15 years and above.

Where are the holy doors in Rome? ›

A Holy Door (Latin: Porta Sancta) is traditionally an entrance portal located within the Papal major basilicas in Rome. The doors are normally sealed by mortar and cement from the inside so that they cannot be opened.

Are Knights of Malta and knights Templar the same? ›

The Knights of Malta are not to be confused for the Knights Templar. The Knights of Malta were Hospitaller Knights in a Hospitaller Order that still works for the sick and needy, while the Knights Templar have ceased to exist.

What is the controversy with the Knights of Malta? ›

The decision follows a growing controversy facing the organisation over a former volunteer, who sexually abused two teenage boys. Scott Browne (32), from Co Kildare, was jailed for 9½ years after he pleaded guilty in 2020 to sexually abusing two 15-year-old boys in separate incidents in 2018.

Who is the current grand master of the Knights of Malta? ›

John T. Dunlap

Are there Templars today? ›

The Knights Templar Today

In the 18th century, some groups, most notably the Freemasons, revived several of the medieval knights' symbols, rituals and traditions. Currently, there are several international organizations styled after the Knights Templar that the public can join.

Did the pope dissolve the Order of Malta? ›

Pope Francis dissolved the leadership of the Knights of Malta, the global Catholic religious order, and installed a provisional government ahead of the election of a new Grand Master.

Are the Knights of Columbus the same as the Knights of Malta? ›

Is the Order of Malta similar to the Knights of Columbus? The Order of Malta is a lay religious order of men and women founded in the 11th century. The Knights of Columbus is an all-male fraternal service organization founded in 1882 by Fr. Michael McGivney in New Haven, Connecticut.

What degree is Knights of Malta? ›

The Degree of Knight of Malta (Order of Malta)

This degree is universally associated with the Masonic Knights Templar. In the York Rite system it is conferred before the Templar Degree; in the 'stand-alone' tradition it is conferred subsequently to the Templar Degree.

When did the Knights of Malta end? ›

Hospitaller Malta, officially the Monastic State of the Order of Malta, and known within Maltese history as the Knights' Period (Maltese: Żmien il-Kavallieri, "Time of the Knights"), was a polity which existed between 1530 and 1798 when the Mediterranean islands of Malta and Gozo were ruled by the Order of St.

What is another name for Knights of Malta? ›

In the 11th century the Knights of Malta, known then as 'Knights Hospitaller', established a hospital in Jerusalem to care for pilgrims of any religious faith or origin. The work of the hospitallers grew in fame and in 1113 Pope Paschal II officially recognised the monastic community as a lay religious order.

How do you get into the Order of Malta? ›

Members of the Order of Malta are admitted by invitation. They are made up of people with undoubted Catholic morality and practice, who have acquired merit over the years with regard to the Order of Malta, its institutions and its humanitarian works.

Are the Knights of Malta sovereign? ›

Though it possesses no territory, the order is often considered a sovereign entity of international law, and it maintains diplomatic relations with over 100 countries.

What is the story of the Aventine Keyhole? ›

The keyhole is part of the property owned by the Priory of the Knights of Malta, a Roman Catholic religious order of crusader knights that originated in Jerusalem in the 11th century. It is the oldest surviving chivalric order in the world and is a sovereign entity under international law.

Who was Rome's greatest enemy? ›

Hannibal (or Hannibal Barca) was the leader of the military forces of Carthage that fought against Rome in the Second Punic War. Hannibal, who almost overpowered Rome, was considered Rome's greatest enemy.

What is the oldest hill in Rome? ›

Tradition holds that Romulus and Remus founded the original city on the Palatine Hill on 21 April 753 BC, and that the seven hills were first occupied by small settlements that were not grouped.

Who was the last king of the Romans? ›

Tarquin, Latin in full Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, (flourished 6th century bc—died 495 bc, Cumae [near modern Naples, Italy]), traditionally the seventh and last king of Rome, accepted by some scholars as a historical figure. His reign is dated from 534 to 509 bc.

Why is the Capitoline Hill the most important? ›

Capitoline Hill is the smallest, but most significant of the seven hills of Rome. The hill is the political and religious heart of Rome and actually has two separate summits. Huge temples built by Rome's kings once stood on top of Capitoline Hill. They became symbolic of Rome's power and position in the world.

What is the most important piazza in Rome? ›

Piazza Navona – the most famous of all piazzas of Rome

Piazza Navona is the most famous square in Rome, the large piazza with fountains and obelisk that appears in so many movies set in Rome and in all Rome itineraries as one of the city's must see sites.

Why is the Capitoline she-wolf significant to the Romans even today? ›

The Capitoline Wolf represents the ancient legend of the founding of Rome. It is a bronze sculpture of the she-wolf suckling the twins, Romulus and Remus. The wolf is depicted in a watchful pose with alert ears and glaring eyes watching.

What symbol of Rome was built on a hill in Rome to honor the king of the gods? ›

The mystical name of the Pantheon derives from the Greek adjective that means “honor all gods.” In fact, the Pantheon was built as a temple dedicated to the worship of pagan Roman gods.

Why is the Capitoline Wolf significant to the city of Rome? ›

The Capitoline Wolf is a bronze statue depicting the mythical animal connected to the birth of Rome, breastfeeding the twins Romulus and Remus. According to ancient mythology, Rhea Silvia, a beautiful vestal, was fertilised by Mars, the god of war.

What are the 7 traditional hills of Rome? ›

The original city of Romulus was built upon Palatine Hill (Latin: Mons Palatinus). The other hills are the Capitoline, Quirinal, Viminal, Esquiline, Caelian, and Aventine (known respectively in Latin as the Mons Capitolinus, Mons Quirinalis, Mons Viminalis, Mons Esquilinus, Mons Caelius, and Mons Aventinus).

Why were the 7 hills of Rome important? ›

This is, of course, because the ancient city was built on and between seven hills, all of which make up part of the core of the modern Italian capital. The seven hills of Rome mark the ancient boundaries of the city. It was on these seven hills that the first settlements of Rome began.

On which hill of Rome can you find the home of the most important gods? ›

Capitoline Hill / Colle Campidoglio

In ancient times, the Capitoline Hill is where temples to the Capitoline Triad, the most important Roman Gods and Goddesses, stood.

Which ancient Roman landmark is the most significant Why? ›

The Colosseum or is the most famous and largest monument of the Roman Empire. Originally a place of entertainment, especially known for it's gladiator battles, it's Rome's most famous landmark and one of the seven world wonders.

What is the most famous landmark of Ancient Rome? ›

Packed with ancient history, the Colosseum is one of the most recognized landmarks and ruins in Rome. Dating back over 2,000 years it was once the ground for legendary gladiator contests that would entertain the masses.

What is the number one must see when in Rome? ›

1. Colosseum. The number 1 attraction of Rome is the Colosseum; the large amphitheatre that housed 65,000 spectators in Roman days. Gladiators battled each other as well as wild animals in the Colosseum's arena.

What is the holiest place in Rome? ›

The Basilica of San Giovanni in Laterano is the first of the four major papal basilicas and is considered the true cathedral of Rome. If you visit St Peter's, you have to see the majesty of the San Giovanni district too!

What is the holiest place in all of Rome? ›

Saint Peter's Basilica in Rome - a church of superlatives, the headquarters of the Catholic Church and a place of pilgrimage for Christians the world over. Saint Peter is the holiest site in the world for Roman Catholics.

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