Rome's Hidden Cloisters
Step Out of the Traffic and Into Another Century
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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:

SS. Quattro Coronati, Via dei SS. Quattro. Knock on the small door to the left inside the church, which is open 912:00 a.m. and 4-6 p.m. The 13th-century cloister, hidden off to the left of the nave, is lovingly tended by the sequestered nuns who will let you in when you ring the bell. This is one of Rome's most spiritual cloisters. It is tiny and simple except for its brickwork, for the church was dedicated to five sculptors who refused to create a statue of Esculapius, and thus it has always been particularly precious to Rome's stone masons and marbleworkers. Their work is evident, especially on the inner cornice above the columns, which are believed to be the earliest example of what later came to be called "Benedictine columns." The Dominican nuns still have a daily soup kitchen for the poor, and run a school for deaf mutes. Set into the wall near the cloister door is a large wood barrel which was used for centuries as a "drop" for unwanted babies. You rang the bell, the barrel swung around to reveal an open side, then swung back again and the child vanished forever. The many Italian families named "Esposito" owe their origins to this practice, as the surname was given to orphans who had been "exposed" in this manner as infants.

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.

. 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 life.

S. Cosimato, Via Roma Libera 76. Another "recycled" cloister, this one is now surrounded by a municipal hospital. Walk through the first courtyard to the romanesque cloister, where you'll see whiterobed doctors whispering with whitehabited nuns amid signs pointing to infectious diseases, senility or maternity. As removed from your preconceived notions of a cloister as it may be, this one actually gives a perfect idea of what many were originally like, when churches provided a city's only infirmaries for the very poor. If you keep going you'll come to the second cloister, a more traditional 15th-century haven.

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.

. 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.

. Salvatore in Lauro
, Piazza San Salvatore in Lauro. Do not be fooled by the monumental façade of the church. Enter the cloister through a door on the lefthand side of the grand portal, and be prepared for a surprise. This small cloister is one of Rome's most delightful. It has a sunken floor, and still today belongs to a charitable organization of people who come from Ascoli Piceno. Walk through the beautiful 15th-century door to the adjacent garden.

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.

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