The road to paradise runs through Garbatella
Visiting the modern Roman suburb at the heart of Europe’s sacred geography
Starting in Canterbury, the Via Francigena crosses four countries ending at the southernmost tip of Puglia. Rome remains the highlight for most pilgrims along the route, and the city’s Garbatella district bears witness to its historical and spiritual importance.
The Via delle Sette Chiese, in the Garbatella district south of Rome’s historic center, runs between two of ancient Rome’s most important highways – the Via Ostiense, which connected the city to the port in Ostia, and the Via Appia, which linked the Eternal City to Southern Italy. As its name suggests, the road boasts seven important churches that were, and remain, among the highlights for pilgrims arriving in Rome.
Historical records and stories surrounding the Via delle Sette Chiese date back to the early Middle Ages. The faithful believed that visiting the seven churches along this 20km route would absolve them of their sins. The route played a significant role in the life of Saint Begga, a 7th-century Frankish noblewoman of whom Charlemagne was a direct descendant. After being widowed, she devoted herself to religious life and decided to make the arduous pilgrimage to Rome from her home in Metz. In Rome, she visited the sacred churches and basilicas of the city along the Via delle Sette Chiese. She was so struck that, upon returning from Rome, she commemorated them in the form of seven chapels she built at the convent where she would live out her days in prayer and contemplation.
By the late Middle Ages, the pilgrimage route had become an established tradition in the religious life of Rome. Records from 1550 indicate that Michelangelo and painter-historian Giorgio Vasari walked the pilgrimage route in each other’s company. The two men also walked the section of the route that led them through Garbatella.
Nearly 500 years on, you can retrace the path that these Renaissance masters once took. The itinerary begins in Ostiense at the monumental Basilica of San Paolo fuori Mura, one of Rome’s seven basilicas and one of the four papal basilicas of the city. It is noted for its large, open interior space and magnificent ceiling. Only a few fragments remain of the original 4th-century structure that Saint Begga, Michelangelo, and Vasari would have visited. The basilica was destroyed by a fire in 1823 and rebuilt.
Continuing along Via Ostiense for a few hundred meters, you will reach the start of Via delle Sette Chiese. Continuing along the road, at the intersection with Via di S. Adautto can be found a madonella, a statue of the Virgin Mary and child of the type seen all over Rome’s historic center.
Commodilla Park, with its catacombs that can be visited by appointment, is the next landmark along the route on the southern side of the road. Along the northern side of the road, you can catch glimpses of several of the neighborhood’s idyllic courtyards. The road then leads to a busy square, the Largo delle Sette Chiese, where the most recent addition to Garbatella’s artistic treasures can be viewed. It is the striking mural Amor et cura by Chilean street artist Carlos Atoche, unveiled in May 2021.
A little further on is the small church of Corpus Domini that belongs to the order of nuns, the Suore Discepole di Gesù Eucaristico. It is a modern church built in 1953. Going inside, you might see nuns sitting in silent prayer.
A few hundred meters on, you can strain your neck to catch a glimpse of Garbatella’s most centrally located church – the Church of San Francesco Saverio, built in 1933. The church is named after the Spanish Jesuit missionary, Francisco Xavier (1506-1552), who was active in India and Japan. He was canonized in 1622, and in 1747 became the patron saint of Indian Catholics.
Arriving in Piazza di S. Eurosia, two churches situated just a meter apart meet the eye. The first is the small church, Chiesoletta dei Santi Isidoro ed Eurosia. This place is the halfway point between the great basilica of San Paolo where you started your journey, and your final destination, another basilica, San Sebastiano. On the facade of the small church facing the piazza, you can see two bas-relief stones figuring San Filippo Neri (on the left) and San Carlo Borromeo (on the right). They are believed to have met here in 1575. On the same facade, you’ll also be able to spot the inscription Via Paradisi (Paradise Road), testifying to the faith of the countless pilgrims who have trudged this path in search of their own paradise.
Beyond the Chiesoletta dei Santi Isidoro ed Eurosia is yet another church – San Filippo Neri in Eurosia, built between 1952-1955 and dedicated to a Renaissance-era priest who became a saint and whose spiritual life was intimately connected with the Via delle Sette Chiese and the Basilica di San Sebastiano and its catacombs.
Walking on for a few minutes, you will arrive at the chaotic roundabout of Piazza Oderico da Pordenone. Gingerly crossing the piazza and keeping slightly left, you will rejoin the Via delle Sette Chiese. After a few minutes, you will reach a crossroads. Here turn left and head in the direction of the nearest pedestrian crossing to cross the wide six-lane Via Cristoforo Colombo. On the other side of this major road, you will arrive at Piazza dei Navigatori. Don’t miss the modern obelisk, La Meridian (The Clock), created by Luigi Gheno to mark the 1990 Fifa World Cup held in Italy.
Finding your way back to the Via delle Sette Chiese you will reach another roundabout called Largo Benedetto Bompiano where the road splits in two. Be sure to continue along the Via delle Sette Chiese. After about a quarter of an hour’s walk, the road splits in two again, and, if you went straight on, you would come to a modern pilgrimage site commemorating the victims of the infamous Ardeatine Caves massacre. Here, on 24 March 1944, 355 Roman civilians were herded into the caves and executed in cold blood by the SS in reprisal for a resistance attack in central Rome.
Taking the left-hand road instead to follow the cyprus-lined Via delle Sette Chiese, the back of the Basilica of San Sebastiano comes into view. The basilica remains an essential stop for Catholic pilgrims to Rome. The original structure was built in the first half of the 4th century, under Emperor Constantine, and is dedicated to St. Sebastian, a popular Roman martyr who lived in the 3rd century. The church that can be visited today dates to the 17th century and caps the catacombs below, whose passages extend for around 12 km underground.
San Sebastiano marks the end of your miniature pilgrimage – an insight into the historical and contemporary religious life of a city at the heart of the spiritual yearnings of the many generations of pilgrims who have plied the Via Francigena over the centuries.
Cover image: Basilica of San Paolo fuori le Mura
All Photography by Jesper Storgaard Jensen