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The Little Saint Peters of Rome

As firmly rooted in Roman ground as they are in the city’s extensive and enchanting history, these little stones of wonder are immersed in stories that hover between both fact and legend. 

To live your life following in the footsteps of Saint Peter would sound to most of us a more than challenging task to take on. Gone with the little white lies and days lounging in bed, a lot less booze and bars or time spent on social media; to be replaced with humble doings and pious deeds. But what if I were to tell you that in the Eternal City of Rome, capital to La Bella Italia, it is a lot more straightforward and a whole lot less virtuous than all that. In fact, it is as simple as exiting your front door, putting one foot out, the other in front and continuing so forth. The cobblestones that carpet the City’s labyrinth of craggy alleyways and glorious piazzas are dubbed by its residents ‘Sampietrini’, translating in English to ‘Little Saint Peters’. Therefore, you may or may not talk his talk but for better or worse in the name of this saintly man, wherever you go in Rome, you will walk his walk. 

Square when meets the eye, Sampietrini are in reality small cone-shaped blocks of igneous rock, sourced from the city’s surrounding volcanic regions. Each one is traditionally cut and sized by hand, then hammered into a bed of sand and dirt. As firmly rooted in Roman ground as they are in the city’s extensive and enchanting history, these little stones of wonder are immersed in stories that hover between both fact and legend. 

They first appeared on the scene in the late 16th century, under the notorious city planner Pope Sixtus V, who was known to have conducted many impressive alterations to Rome’s urban layout in a remarkably short five-year reign. If tale be true, it was late one night, on route back to his Vatican residence when his imaginably large and lavish carriage received a near catastrophic blow due to a sizeable rut in the street. Infuriated, his hot temper being another of his famed albeit less favoured traits, he ordered the resurfacing of the roads and piazzas that bordered his residence and that of the neighbouring Saint Peter’s Basilica. In nod to His Holiness, the original ‘Sampietrini’ got to work. You see, the earliest use of the term was in truth designated to the Vatican artisans and workers; the first men who set out to organize this new style of pavement. Little by little as time went by, the name shifted from allocating that of flesh and blood and stuck instead to the stones.

Some hundred years later Pope Clement VIII gave command for a mass scattering of the stones. The Roman Cooperative of Stonecutters was called into action; their miners, rippers, porters and pavers put to the jumbo job and by 1870, as the country of Italy united, the vast majority of streets in the Capital had received the Sampietrini makeover. The brutal years of WWII left Rome’s historical centre almost untouched from its bombs and destruction, but many civilians were killed. In 1992, the German artist Gunter Demnig, paved a way to memorialize the Roman lives lost in the holocaust into the streets themselves. Patches of bronze Sampietrini, the ‘Stumbling Stones’, can be found across the City, placed outside the last residences of the victims. Each stone, a tragic reminder to those steps that were stopped too soon, is engraved with a name, date of birth and date of death in a Nazi extermination camp.  

The cobbled roads remain to this day an integral part of the City, just as the looming domes, the baroque facades and the white marble fountains. Gleaming in the sun and glistening in the rain, the Sampietrini form a fabulous assortment of patterns. Fans, rainbows or geometric motifs may seem to be a purely visual aesthetic, but rather cleverly, they are as pretty to the eye as they are practical. Vertical or diagonal positioning veers walkers in the right direction, whilst the arched designs allow the carriage or car to hit the keystone first, helping to distribute the weight. 

It is not all beds of roses (sorry, cobbles!) when it comes to this 16th century invention. Although the volcanic rock was originally chosen for its strength and longevity, neither Sixtus nor Clement could have ever predicted the size, speed and sheer craziness of modern-day inventions. Today’s cars, trucks and 30-ton lorries have tested the little stones to their limits and as such, both stone and vehicle have had to bear the brunt. Loose or missing Sampietrini are pothole-prone accidents just waiting to happen and even if avoided, the mere experience of travelling along them on wheels is one hell of a bumpy ride. Bikers and scooterists take to the road in a jitter and judder, tourists with trolleys create quite the to-do and bobbing babies don’t seem too chuffed as their cheeks wobble away in their prams. Fashionistas who seek to strut the streets in their stilettos, are yet another to complain. The heals continuously get caught up in the gaps and their prance proves a near impossible affair. 

It is a rather cobbly conundrum when it comes to the matter of Rome’s Sampietrini. Some may roar for their removal but most, who bask in the beauty and tradition of the old Roman roads and the history they tell, pray that they stay. Today, the Mayor of the City has set in stone, or lack thereof, a plan to extract the stones from major, traffic-heavy areas and place them instead in quieter, pedestrian lanes. Let’s hope that this current compromise will allow us all to enjoy the walk of the Little Saint Peters in peace once more.