Hidden away at the top of Rome's Aventine hill, the Santa Maria del Priorato holds one of the city's best kept secrets.

On the summit of one of the seven hills of Rome lies the Santa Maria del Priorato, within the picturesque Piazza dei Cavalieri di Malta. Far from the beaten track of tourist haunts, this precious gem is unknown even to many of the city's inhabitants.

What is striking about the priory is not merely that it's the only existing architectural example of the work of Giovanni Battista Piranesi, the revered 18th century engraver known for his remarkable landscapes and architectural sketches. The Santa Maria del Priorato also offers a secret, spectacular vista that rewards those who peak through the peephole of the priory's foreboding doors.

When the Knights of Malta, the Christian order, purchased the building in the early 18th century as a final resting place for its noblest brothers, Giovanni Battista Piranesi was entrusted with the task of redesigning the rundown 17th century building. The Venetian architect built the imposing wall that surrounds the piazza, as well as the priory's striking façade with its lofty, stern dark green doors that prohibit prying eyes.

However, according to Terry Kirk, Professor of Art History at the American University of Rome and author of 'Architecture of Modern Italy,' Piranesi cannot be credited with orchestrating the view of the famous dome of St. Peter's Basilica, either from within the priory grounds or via the spy hole. "The garden has a passageway defined by laurel trees, which point right to the cupola of St. Peter's," he says. "The gardens were laid out in the 17th century." In fact, he believes that Piranesi intended to restrict the spectacular sight, ensuring that it remained exclusive to the knights of the priory. "What Piranesi constructed was a wall, so you could not see unless the doors were open. But in order to provide a sneak view, the hole is there. However, I do not even think that the hole was big enough to look through in Piranesi's day."

Cardinal Benedetto Pamphili is believed to have designed the gardens in the late 17th century. The artful layout draws the eye to the famous Basilica, which dominates the Roman skyline, but the original horizon also included Rome's main shipping port, Ripa Grande, and the hospital of San Michele—now the Ministry of Culture—which served as significant reminders of the Knights' noble course in history.

Terry Kirk believes that the peephole, albeit a modest intrusion into the knights' secret sanctuary, came later, in the 19th century, to tantalize the many visitors who flocked to Italy's capital. But the origin of Rome's most diminutive of attractions still remains an enigma.

Santa Maria del Priorato, Piazza dei Cavalieri di Malta, Rome.
The priory is open by appointment only. Requests should be made by fax (+39 06 79 7202) to the Economato of the Ordine Sovrano Militare di Malta.

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