Way back when I moved to Rome I wrote a little post about my favorite things about Rome and I mentioned briefly the slightly famous “buco di Roma” or the keyhole of Rome. I say slightly famous because while it is mentioned in a few popular guidebooks, a lot of people still don’t know about it. In fact, whenever we take visiting friends out to dinner we always pass by il buco and it’s always a hit.
For those of you that don’t know what the heck I’m talking about: the keyhole of Rome is a tiny little hole way up in the Aventine hill, past the Giardini degli Aranci, that allows you to look through it and see the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica framed by a path of trees from the gardens of the Villa del Priorato di Malta. It’s a little hard to explain so maybe it’s best if I just showed you…
About three weeks ago, we had the opportunity to explore what’s behind this door and take a tour of the little known headquarters of the Knights of Malta.
First things first: what is the Order (or the Knights) of Malta?
Not to be confused with the Republic of Malta, a nation state, their full title is the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta, better known as the Sovereign Military Order of Malta (SMOM), the Order or Malta, or the Knights of Malta. It is the world’s oldest order of chivalry, also traditionally a Roman Catholic religious and military order.
The SMOM is the modern entity of original medieval order of St. John of Jerusalem, a group founded in Jerusalem in 1050 to provide care to sick and poor pilgrims to the Holy Land. After the first crusade, it became a military order.
After the Christians lost their territories to the Muslims, the order operated from Rhodes and then Malta until they were basically kicked out by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1798. From there, they eventually ended up in Rome, using this villa as one of their two headquarters (the other being located on Via dei Condotti, also in Rome) through modern times.
Today, the order has 13,000 members, 80,000 permanent volunteers, and 20,000 medical personnel in 120 countries (statistics provided by Wikipedia). Their main function is to provide medical and humanitarian aid wherever they are needed. Under international law, the Order of Malta is a sovereign entity, similar to the Vatican, and it issues things like stamps, passports, and gets its own license plates (recognizable by the SMOM prefix in red).
The villa, which serves as their headquarters and also as the Embassy to Italy, is located on the Aventine Hill, which was a very plebeian neighborhood during ancient Roman times (I know this from watching the HBO series Rome). During the tenth century it was the site of a Benedictine monastery, then it was used by another famous order, the Knights Templar, before coming into the hands of the SMOM in the 1800s.
Behind the famous doors, there are beautiful gardens as well as a church loaded with symbolism related to the calling of the SMOM. During our tour, we learned about the the different types of membership in the order as well as how one becomes a member of the Order of Malta. Basically, there are three types of membership. The first and highest are reserved for full knights with religious vows to chastity, obedience, and poverty. They are the only ones who can become Grand Masters of the Order. The second class of membership are for knights and dames who make a promise of just obedience. The third class of membership takes no vows and is subdivided into different categories. The only way to become a Knight of Malta is to be invited.
The Church of St. Mary of the Priory was designed by Giovanni Battista Piranese, and like I mentioned earlier, was full of symbolism. According to our guide, some believed that Piranese was a Mason (very Da Vinci Code).
I’m not going to lie, I do not remember what every single symbol means and it’s important to note that different people give the symbols different meanings. Our tour guide, in particular explained some of symbols in the picture on the right below. For example, the acronym FERT refers to the latin proverb Fortitudo Eius Rodum Tenuit, translated to “he held his strength in Rhodes”. The angel means fortitude or justice, while above that you see the Greek monogram for the name of Christos, or Christ. The two half moons in chains refer to Islam, according to our guide, but I have found differing opinions on that online. Directly above the half moons is the tower, the family symbol of Cardinal Carlo Rezzonico, who commissioned Piranese to design the church. The cross is self-explanatory, although you should note the difference between the regular cross and the Knights of Malta cross, seen in the picture on the left.
The church inside is also very beautiful, filled with the gorgeous stucco reliefs with the repeating symbology, as well as a lot of references to Ancient Rome. The flags represent each of the languages the Order originated from: Provence, Auvergne, France, Italy, Aragon, England, Germany, and Castille.
After, we were taken for a walk around the gardens, which offer a stunning panorama of the city, including St. Peter’s Basilica, and we were also able to photograph the view of the keyhole from the inside (which I thought was beyond cool). So while it is extremely difficult to get a good photo of what you’re seeing with your eyes from the keyhole, from the inside you get a much better idea…
Of course, as you walk down this path, the dome of St. Peter’s gets smaller and smaller because it’s all about perspective. But it is also interesting to note that through the keyhole you are looking at three sovereign entities: Rome (Italy), the extraterritorial Villa of the Order of Malta, and St. Peter’s Basilica (Vatican City).
At the end of the tour, we were allowed to walk through the gardens and snap a few more pictures:
And at the end, we were returned to the piazza, where, if you go, you will usually find a line similar to this one for a glimpse through il buco di Roma.
There are various tour groups that offer guided tours of SMOM, but we booked ours through one called “Romolo e Remo“. While our tour was in Italian, they also offer tours in English.