Known locally as Viminale, you’ll find the Viminal Hill – one of the Seven hills of Rome – situated between the Esquiline Hill, to the southeast, and the Quirinal Hill, which lies to the north. Although it’s commonly referred to as just one hill, the Viminale is actually made up of three separate peaks: the Cispius, the Fagutalis and the Oppius. This long hill is often said to be shaped like a finger (or a tongue) and is around 700 meters (2296 feet) long.
While the Viminal Hill is actually very central in the Italian capital, it’s actually lesser visited compared to the more popular attractions of the historic center. However, a trip here will provide some insights into Rome’s history, as well as its current social and political life.
Curious to find out more? Continue reading to discover the history of the Viminale and the best places to visit there.
You should also read my post Which Are The Seven Hills Of Rome?
The History Of The Viminal Hill
The Viminal Hill, or the Viminale in Italian, is one of Rome’s Seven Hills. It’s the smallest of them all, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t play a part in the history of the city. Standing at 57 meters (187 feet) tall, its name is said to come from the osiers (a variety of wicker or willow tree) — called vimina in Latin — which once grew across its slopes
According to Roman historian Livy, the Viminal Hill was made a part of the city of Rome in the 6th century BC, annexed by the sixth legendary king of Rome, Servius Tullius, who reigned for 43 years between 578 and 535 BC. The new Servian Wall, constructed later in the 4th century BC during the Roman Republic (but erroneously attributed to Servius Tullius, hence the name), extended beyond the boundary of the Viminal Hill, which gave its name to a gate into the city: Porta Viminalis.
This gateway was integral to passage through the Servian Wall for traffic into and out of Rome, and was particularly important as this part of the defensive walls was fairly exposed and therefore more open to attack. The Porta Viminalis sat in the middle of a portion of the wall and is today more or less situated to the right of Termini Station (as if you’re leaving the station); some of this portion of the Servian Wall is still visible.
Tradition has it that the Viminal Hill was the location of a shrine, or sanctuary, of Nenia. This very ancient deity was the goddess of mourning, as told in her expression which is that of sad lament (much like those at a funeral). She was believed to protect those who were dying and is mentioned by Roman poet Ovid’s Fasti (published 8 AD), which is also known in English as The Book of Days.
Though said to be located on Viminal Hill, no actual evidence of it has been uncovered, but sources point to a possible existence outside the Servian Walls’ Porta Viminalis. Due to Nenia’s connection to death and funerals, this makes sense as burials were forbidden within the sacred walls of the city.
During the reign of Emperor Augustus (27 BC – 14 AD), the Viminal Hill was labelled as one of the newly created rioni or regions of Rome. At this time, it was quite a residential district of the city and was considered to be relatively middle class, though it had no public buildings nor any monuments, or much of any traffic that passed through it. It was actually considered one of the least important of all of the hills.
There have been some excavations of wealthy houses that once stood on the hill, which date back to the 2nd and 1st centuries BC. Also located on the Viminal Hill, pointing to its civilian nature, is the existence of the Barracks of the III Cohort of the Vigiles. This building housed vigiles, who were essentially tasked with all manner of everyday workings of Rome, from fire-fighting and night-watch activities to bathhouse attendants and taking care of street lights at night.
Under the reign of Diocletian (284 – 305 AD), baths were constructed. This enormous complex was built between 298 and 305 AD — we know the dates thanks to stamps on the bricks used in its construction — and rivalled the Baths of Caracalla in size. In fact, it was one of the largest baths in the city, and were built to serve the population of not just the Viminale, but also the Quirinale and the Esquiline Hills. It was quite an upheaval for the area, which saw the demolition of residential housing, much of it in the form of insulae (like ancient apartment blocks).
Despite being badly ransacked by both the Goths and the Vandals, the Baths of Diocletian were used until 537, but eventually fell into disrepair; its materials were quarried for use in other construction projects around the city.
By the Middle Ages, the area had become home to a number of churches and chapels, with urbanization again beginning to occur. The Renaissance saw civic projects undertaken, particularly under Pope Pius IV (pontiff between 1559 and 1565), who commissioned Michelangelo to transform parts of the Baths of Diocletian into a church: the Basilica di Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri. This is located in what was once the frigidarium (“cold room”) of the baths.
The Viminal Hill continued to see large-scale development into the 19th and 20th centuries, namely with the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma in 1879 and the Palazzo del Viminale in 1923. But arguably the most recognisable new development is Rome Termini Railway Station, which opened in 1862.
Places To Visit On Viminal Hill
Remnants of Rome’s past can be found all over the Viminal Hill, despite its lesser importance compared to the Palatine or Capitoline Hills. These include:
Palazzo del Viminale
The Palazzo del Viminale, or Viminal Palace, is the seat of Italy’s prime minister and of the Ministry of the Interior. The building was constructed during one of Italian prime minister Giovanni Giolitti’s five times in office. The palace was eventually inaugurated in 1925.
Today, it remains the focal point of government in Italy. In fact, “Viminale” is used as a synecdoche for the Italian government, in the same way as “Downing Street” for the UK government or “The White House” for that of the US.
The palace is vast. With hundreds of rooms across five floors, its facade is marked by a sweeping dual stairway, while its interiors are decked out with wood, marble and stucco detailing. Due to it still being in use, visitors are not allowed inside; instead, you can admire the enormity of the neoclassical structure from outside.
Piazza della Repubblica (Piazza Esedra)
This large circle-shaped piazza, taking its outline from the Baths of Diocletian, sits at the summit of the Viminal Hill. Here is where you’ll find a number of important buildings and major roads running through it. Piazza della Repubblica was once called Piazza Esedra — a name still used by many Romans.
The piazza’s porticoes were constructed by Italian architect Gaetano Koch between 1887 and 1898 in the style of ancient Roman architecture — referencing the vast baths that used to stand here. In the center of the attractive piazza sits its most well-known landmark: the Fountain of the Naiads.
Built in 1888 by architect Alessandro Guerrieri, it was intended to create a monumental starting point for the newly inaugurated thoroughfare, the Via Nazionale. It was commissioned by Pope Pius IX, who had recently restored the ancient Aqua Marcia, an aqueduct built between 144 and 140 BC.
The beautiful Art Nouveau-style fountain was once decorated with four lions, but these were replaced with a set of bronze naiads, or water nymphs, in 1897. At nightfall, the fountain is illuminated, making the water jets sparkle and look particularly elegant.
Piazza della Repubblica is a nice place to hang out, lesser known compared to many other squares in the center of Rome. Under the porticos you will find nice, more local cafés.
You should also read my post The Most Beautiful Piazzas In Rome.
Baths of Diocletian
The enormous Baths of Diocletian reshaped vast swathes of the Viminale when they were built 1,300 years ago. The remains of these baths still remain intact and take up a large portion of the northeast peak of the hill.
Over the centuries the baths have served different purposes but were first rendered inoperable when the Ostrogothic king Vitiges severed the baths’ water supply from its aqueduct. Michelangelo also turned its frigidarium into a church (more on that next).
Thankfully, however, much of the archaeological sites of the baths themselves remain and they can be visited today. Making up part of the National Museum of Rome, which first opened here in 1899. You’ll be able to see the ancient remains of the baths, including their walls themselves, mosaic flooring, changing rooms, statuary and funerary art.
Basilica di Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri
This basilica was built inside the baths, specifically in the ruins of the frigidarium. Dating back to the 16th century, the basilica was originally dedicated to enslaved Christians who (according to tradition) died whilst building the baths.
Michelangelo was tasked with the design and construction of the new church. He made use of both the frigidarium and tepidarium (“warm bath”), building a cloister and employing ornate decorations throughout the interiors.
As for the exterior, uniquely the Basilica di Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri doesn’t have a newly constructed facade like traditional Roman Catholic churches. Instead, it marvelously makes full use of the ancient walls of the baths themselves. The concave structure, made with the original Roman bricks, has a simple cross above its two doors.
The interior is another story entirely. Here you’ll find an opulently polished sanctuary, complete with marble floors, gold inlaid ceilings and intricate stucco work. It’s still a place of worship to this day.
Head over to my post Where To See The Works Of Michelangelo In Rome.
Chiesa di San Lorenzo in Panisperna
This charming church was constructed on the site of a much older church, which was originally built under the reign of Emperor Constantine I (who reigned 306 – 337 AD). This place is said to be the location of the death of Saint Lawrence, which is believed to have occurred around 100 years previously during the persecution of Christians in Rome enacted under the rule of Emperor Valerian in 258 AD.
Later, in the 5th century to be exact, the church became a more important place of worship in the city of Rome; it was visited by the pope during the first week of Lent — an ancient tradition that was recently revitalized. Allegedly the first recorded church built here actually dates to the 9th century, under the papacy of Pope Formosus.
In 1300, Pope Boniface VIII had the church rebuilt and attached an abbey that would be home to the Benedictine order. A couple of hundred years later, between 1565 and 1574, the church was again rebuilt. The church was later restored in 1896 and today it hosts the Franciscans.
The elegant interiors of the church include a 16th-century fresco above the high altar, which depicts the martyrdom of Saint Lawrence, and was painted by a student of Michelangelo — the Roman painter Pasquale Cati; also above the high altar is a crucifix that dates to the 14th century. There’s also a whole host of other artwork and 18th-century paintings.
According to legend, the church’s porch hides a chapel that is home to an oven — the same one used in the martyrdom of Saint Lawrence (he was roasted alive).
Teatro dell’Opera di Roma
The Teatro dell’Opera is one of the most impressive landmarks to be found in the Viminale. Rome’s foremost opera house, it was originally known by the name Teatro Costanzi and opened its doors in 1880.
Over the years this storied entertainment venue has been the subject of numerous renovation projects, with much attention focused on improving the acoustics. Major performances have taken place in this hallowed hall, including productions of Mozart, Verdi and Carlo Maria Giulini.
If you want to see a show here, make sure to check the website to see what’s on and book a ticket in advance. Don’t worry about not being able to understand: multiple languages are displayed during certain performances (such as Tosca, for example).
If you’re lucky enough to be in Rome during the summer, you should take a look at their seasonal schedule, which during the summer months takes place outdoors in the ruins of the Baths of Caracalla.
Rome Termini Station
Most visitors in Rome will find themselves at Rome Termini Station at some point during their trip. The transport hub is integral to getting around the city, from its bus stations and metro stop to the trains that take visitors further afield.
The station first opened its doors in 1863, but the original structure was demolished in 1937 to make way for the building that remains to this day. The construction was delayed during the upheaval that was World War II, and so the present-day building wasn’t actually opened until 1950.
Its design is directly influenced by Italian modernism, and inside passengers can be wowed by a vaulted ceiling and sweeping atrium. There’s an actual mall located in its basement! Rome Termini station is the second-largest railway station in Europe, transporting more than 180 million passengers every year from its 33 platforms.
How To Get To The Viminale
Getting to the Viminal Hill is simple, thanks to its central location right by Rome’s main travel hub, Rome Termini station. It’s a five-minute walk from here to the Baths of Diocletian, for example.
However, if you’re staying in Trastevere or the Historic Center of Rome you might want to get some public transport. For instance, you can take the number 75 bus from Trastevere to Rome Termini, which takes around 25 minutes. From Roma Trastevere train station, you can also take the regional train bound for Termini, which takes 18 minutes.
From the area of Prati you can be at the Viminal Hill quite quickly; it’s just a simple matter of taking metro Line A from Lepanto Station to Termini (seven minutes) or from Ottaviano, which is nearer the Vatican (eight minutes).
Make sure to read these other posts if you plan to visit Rome’s other hills:
- A Guide To The Quirinal Hill, Rome
- A Guide To The Aventine Hill, Rome
- A Guide To The Capitoline Hill, Rome
- A Short Guide To The Palatine Hill, Rome
- A Guide To The Caelian Hill, Rome: 11 Best Places To Visit
- A Guide To The Esquilino, Rome’s Esquiline Hill