No matter where you are in Rome, there's almost always a place you can go to calm your frazzled nerves. Cleverly concealed behind convent walls, the city's many cloisters are a welcome respite where the only sound is the song of a bird and the only person you're likely to see is a monk pruning roses or picking oranges. Here are some church cloisters we recommend you visit:
S. Sabina all'Aventino, Piazza Pietro d'Illiria. This one belongs to a cloistered Dominican monastery. Ask a monk to let you in, and be very quiet inside. There are no decorations here, just bare brick walls and simple square marble capitals above the slender ancient columns. The only sound is of leaves skittering across the brick pavement and of the wind fizzing through four majestic cypress trees which surround the wroughtiron wellhead. All is sober and silent, like the unseen monks who live upstairs.
S. Giovanni in Laterano, Piazza di S. Giovanni. The Pope's
parish church, this is one of the most frequented by tourists.
The church looks huge, bare and foreboding, so the gaily flowering
cloister is a welcome relief. You could sit here all day and no
one would ever bother you, and you would never hear the insane
traffic just behind the belltower looming above your head. Open
9 a.m.-6 p.m., entrance fee charged.
S. Paolo Fuori Le Mura, Piazzale di San Paolo. This is Rome's most famous cloister. Gypsies sit on the steps outside, proving it is also a favorite tourist haunt. Go through the church and out the door to the right of the altar. Despite the fire that almost leveled this church in the 19th century, the cloister remains a supreme example of the school of Roman mosaic artists known as the Cosmati.
S. Pietro in Vincoli, Via Endossiana (enter the
cloister through the University of Rome's Facoltà di Ingegneria).
This is a great example of how to ruin a cloister: what started
out as four handsome Renaissance arcades have since been taken
over by the Engineering School; two sides have even been glassed
in for office space. You won't find peace and quiet here, but
it will give you an interesting glimpse into Italian university
S. Giovanni Battista dei Genovesi, Via dei Genovesi.
Roses bloom until December, when the orange trees take over. The monks who live
here perform works of charity, but only for Genoese residents of Rome. Open Tuesday
and Thursday, 2-4 p.m.
SS. Apostoli, Piazza SS. Apostoli, 51. If you stop in here after you've visited the incredibly ornate baroque church, you may be surprised by the cloister's austere Renaissance courtyard.
S. Maria della Pace, Via Arco della Pace 15. Walk under the Arco della Pace (on the lefthand side of church) and enter the door at number 5. This is another Renaissance cloister, more suitable for admiration than repose. Notice the wonderful slender columns of the loggia above; it bears the coat of arms of Cardinal Carafa, who commissioned it in 1504. This was the great Bramante's first Roman work. If you're lucky enough to come on a morning when the door to the adjacent church is open, go in and see Raphael's Sybil frescoes, painted in 1514. The figures are almost identical to Michelangelo's Sybils in the Sistine Chapel.
S. Maria sopra Minerva, Piazza Santa Maria sopra Minerva (enter the door to the left of the church). Designed by Guido Guidetti, this 16th-century cloister looks strikingly different from all the others, because it is entirely covered with very colorful 17th-century frescoes.
Other churches with cloisters worth visiting are Santa Cecilia
(open Tuesday and Thursday, 1011:30 a.m.), S. Lorenzo Fuori
Le Mura, the convent in Via della Tribuna di Tor de' Specchi,
and Borromini's S. Carlo (or Carlino) alle Quattro Fontane.