One of the most visited attractions of Rome is the Basilica of San Pietro in Vincoli (Saint Peter in Chains). The Basilica is known for two reasons. First, the Church contains Michelangelo’s tomb for Pope Julius II (della Rovere), known to most as his famous statue of Moses. The second attraction are the chains of Saint Peter given to Pope Leo I in the late 5th century by the Empress Eudoxia, the wife of the Byzantine Emperor Valentinian II of Constantinople. According to the legend, when Eudoxia gave Pope Leo the chains Saint Peter wore in Jerusalem, Leo compared to them to the ones Peter wore in the Mamertine Prison in Rome. The chains apparently recognized each other and fused together as one. The two, or should I say, one chain is featured in a glass box under the main altar.
The Basilica of San Pietro in Vincoli sits above one of the most beautiful and atmospheric staircases in all of Rome.
For most of the tourists and pilgrims who come to the Basilica of San Pietro in Vincoli they are known as the Steps of San Francesco di Paola, the 15th century Friar who started the Order of Minims, Franciscan Friars sworn to poverty, abstinence and dark brown wool robes.
The Church of San Francesco di Paola is half way down the stairs and to the left. The church is rarely used these days except for proving shelter for Rome’s homeless.
However, historically, these steps are far more relevant as a place of nefarious deeds.
In 509 BC, before steps were added to the steep incline, it was known as the ‘Vicus Sceleratus’, the nefarious street of scoundrels. It was here where Tullia, the last Queen of Rome, ran her chariot over the dead body of her father, King Servius Tillius. Tullia along with her husband, Tarquinius Superbus, conspired to overthrow her father and claim the throne. After Tarquinius and his assassins did the dirty deed, Tullia jumped into her chariot and made haste for home. Through the crowded confusion she ran over the corpse of her father. Tarquinius Superbus was the last King of Rome. He and Tullia ruled for 26 years before they were overthrown by the Roman Republic.
On June 14, 1497, the nefarious street of scoundrels came alive again when Juan Borgia, the 2nd Duke of Gandia and eldest son of Pope Alexander VI (Rodrigo Borgia) left his family Palazetto built over the ancient Vicus Sceleratus. He exited through heavily reinforced door and disappeared. Most still believe he was killed by his brother, Cesare Borgia. Juan Borgia’s body was thrown into the Tiber River and discovered three days later.
Not much is left of the Palazetto di Borgia. The remains are a brooding fortress covered with ivy that span across the steps. Most of it was converted into the Minim Convent of San Francesco di Paola, next to the Church.
These days the steps are one of the most photographed covered staircase of Rome. During the day, an accordion player echoes Italian standards just outside the door where Juan Borgia met his death. Close to the Church of San Francesco di Paola, an artist sells his paintings of Rome. For now all is well and beautiful.