When in Rome, do as the Romans. And since the Aventine Keyhole is where the locals bring their friends to marvel over the splendor of Rome, you should not miss out. It’s just a little bit off the beaten tourist track although you might still find yourself having to wait patiently while others take their turn to look through the ornate keyhole at the splendid vista of St Peter’s Basilica floating at the end of an avenue of carefully trimmed trees. It might not sound that exciting but what is special about it is the sense of artistic vision which went into creating this perfect sightline, and which really is the drive behind the aesthetic splendor of the Rome we go to admire.
The keyhole is in the locked gates of the Church of Our Lady of the Priory (Santa Maria del Priorato), which is the church of the Knights of Malta on the Aventine Hill. The Knights of Malta – who actually have nothing to do with the country of Malta – is a Roman Catholic lay religious order; it’s the world’s oldest surviving order of chivalrous knights. In the 18th century, they employed the architect and artist Piranesi to renovate the buildings of the priory and also create the piazza in front. Piranesi is known for his etchings of Rome and he had a love of the city and an obsessive eye for architectural detail – hence his creation of this wonderful viewpoint from the Aventine Hill priory. He himself became a Knight of the Golden Spur for exceptional duties to the Catholic Church and is buried inside Santa Maria del Priorato.
To reach the piazza and the keyhole, head up Via di Santa Sabina from the Circus Maximus, passing lovely rose gardens, a walled orange grove, some pretty churches and some parks which also have nice views. It’s a lovely walk up Aventine Hill anyway, but peeping through the keyhole gives it that extra special touch.