If you’ve been to the Eternal City, no doubt you’ve already seen Piazza Navona, and maybe even had an expensive coffee enjoying the view of Bernini’s fountain or had your portrait done by the street artists. Likewise, if you are still planning a trip to Rome, this gorgeous square will certainly be on your sightseeing list. However, what you have probably missed is what lies beneath the piazza, beneath the stunning Bernini’s fountain, beneath the street artists and painters, the Renaissance palaces and Sant’Agnese basilica, and also beneath the expensive coffee shops.
The very shape of Piazza Navona never quite concealed its previous raison d’être, and thinking that, after all, we are in Rome, we shouldn’t be surprised to actually be able to go down some steps and find the ruins of a huge race track, Domitian Stadium.
Built by emperor Domitian around 86AD and aimed at Greek-style athletics contests and performances, the racetrack, right underneath the piazza, measured 240 meters by 65, and its grandstands had a capacity of 30,000 spectators. While today it may sound huge, if we think that the Colosseum could seat from 80,000 to 100,000 people, we understand that Domitian knew full well his townspeople, and this is why he decided that the stadium located in Campo Marzio area and devoted to way less bloody games than the ones taking place at the Colosseum was better off smaller and cozier than its more popular counterpart.
Poor Domitian did try to elevate his fellow citizens into more sophisticated leisure activities, organizing also mind games during the breaks, but when gladiators combats were on schedule, no Plato-inspired sports event was hardly going to arouse any interest among the population.
The segment open to the public lies in Via di Tor Sanguigna, on the northern side of Piazza Navona, and what we can visit is a small part mainly of the grandstands and the entrance, with the chance to see statues, decorations, stone stairs, bleachers and the original floor. If you thought you could actually go beneath Piazza Navona, sorry to disappoint you. However, what you can see is already outstanding, if you think that the huge masonry Stadium dating back some 2000 years ago was the first of its kind and is still there despite the debris and later building spree.
I admit I’ve been growing pretty fixated with what lies underground Rome, and I feel this is only the beginning of what can be discovered. Luckily for you, whatever I find will be duly reported here, to make it easier to explore yourself lesser known sites of one of the world’s most popular holiday destinations.
I’ve visited the Stadium of Domitian as part of a lovely tour with Scopri Roma, including also other attractions and buildings in the area, but if you wish to visit only the stadium you can access the archaeological site at 3 Via di Tor Sanguigna, near Piazza Navona, Monday to Sunday from 10 am to 7 pm and Saturday until 8 pm. Entrance fee is 5 euro.