Question: In which city can you find a palace covered in monster faces, a 120-foot-tall pyramid at the edge of a busy traffic intersection, and a church with a “dome” that’s all in your mind’s eye?
Answer: Rome, Italy
Rome is jam-packed with a magnificent history and an abundance of must-see sights, but what happens when you dig a little deeper? The city is actually home to a number of hidden attractions, and some are quite unusual.
- Zuccari Palace was built in 1590 by the famous Baroque artist, Federico Zuccari—but it is more commonly referred to as The Monster House., thanks to the large faces that adorn the façade. The monsters appear to be swallowing the doors and windows, so that you walk straight into a “mouth” when you enter. The queen of Poland lived in the palace in 1702, and now the building is home to an art history research institute. While it’s open only to academics, visitors are welcome to come and admire the unique architecture.
- Wedged between a busy intersection and a train stop is probably the last place you would expect to find an ancient pyramid, but such is the case in Rome. Built between the years 12 and 18 BCE, The Pyramid of Cestius stands roughly 120 feet tall and is far steeper than the pyramids found in Egypt—though it certainly was inspired by its more famous counterparts, which had fascinated Rome since the conquest of Egypt more than a decade earlier. The tomb was built for a wealthy Roman magistrate caught up in the craze, though grave robbers have ensured that we’ll never know much more about him. The pyramid has survived intact because it was built into the ancient city walls—another anachronism that you’ll see upon exiting the Piramide Metro station.
- Despite plans to build a magnificent dome atop the Jesuit church of Saint Ignazio, the church unfortunately ran out of funds in 1642. But if it was a dome they wanted, a “dome” they would get! Artist Andrea Pozzo painted the flat ceiling into an optical illusion so that visitors would perceive an enormous dome from inside the church—it took from 1685-1694 to complete. To ensure you experience the full effect of the trompe de l’oeil, keep your eyes low as you enter the church and only look up once you reach the marble marker that indicates the ideal vantage point.
- Liars beware the Mouth of Truth! A stone disk with a face carved into one side doesn’t sound so scary, but legend has it that if you tell a lie while sticking your hand in the mouth, it will bite the whole thing off. The original purpose of the carving is up for debate, but supposedly in the Middle Ages, the stone was used for trials—the guilty would have their hands chopped off by hidden men with axes on the other side if they were caught telling a lie. This mythical lie detector can be found at the Cosmedin Church, and is also prominently featured throughout the 1953 film, Roman Holiday.
- Largo di Torre Argentina is a square that is home to four Roman temples and the Theater of Pompey. In 44 BCE, Julius Caesar was killed on the steps of the theater and today, the site is home to over 250 cats. Over time, stray cats made their way onto the ruins and decided to stay, finding many places to sunbathe. A small community cares for the cats, and many who visit Rome gather to spot them throughout the site.
- Quartiere Coppedé is an area in the northern part of Rome that features a wide variety of art styles and architecture, including Roman Baroque, Ancient Greek, Medieval, and Art Nouveau. The quarter is named after the architect, Gino Coppedè, who worked on the area for many years until his death in 1927. The space is 31,000 square meters and includes roughly 40 different structures displaying all sorts of styles.
Join Grand Circle Travel on Impressions of Italy: The Amalfi Coast & Tuscany to discover your own out-of-the-ordinary sights, and see even more of Rome in this short film:
Produced by Fritzie Andrade, Max Cantor, Chris Carmichael, Clarissa Crippa, Will Lloyd, Sarah Brady Voll ©2010 The New York Times