The Streets of Rome: Vicolo della Spada d'Orlando

When I first found this tiny street, it got me so excited that I had to admit once and for all what a huge dork I am.

Vicolo della Spada d’Orlando: Orlando’s Sword Alley. Now, if there isn’t a good story behind this street, then I don’t know my Rome!

Orlando, or Roland in English, is both an historical figure and later legendary character. A Frankish military leader and trusted side-kick of Charlemagne, he was later immortalized in medieval and Renaissance literature, perhaps most famously in the 11th-century French epic poem, Chanson de Roland and later in Orlando Innamorato and Orlando Furioso by Matteo Maria Boiardo and Ludovico Ariosto respectively. He even makes an appearance in Dante’s Divine Comedy.

Detail of train station in Metz, France.

Detail of train station in Metz, France.

According to these poetic sources, Orlando possessed a mystical sword called Darundel, a horn called Oliphaunt and a horse called Veillantif. The tiny alleyway that bears his name can be found between Piazza Capranica and Via dei Pastini in Rione Colonna, just around the corner from Piazza della Pietra. The unusual name comes from the base of an ancient column that sits along the tiny street, pierced by a deep gash. But what does this have to do with Orlando? We’ve got two possible explanations:

First, during Orlando’s many travels, he found himself at Rome at some point, and upon being set upon by Roman soldiers (not very likely in the 8th century, but let’s suspend our disbelief for the moment), he defended himself with his trusty sword which fell upon this truncated column, leaving the mark that can still be seen. Even less believable is the more commonly accepted story that tells us how, moments before his defeat, to avoid allowing the sword to fall into the hands of the Moors, brave Orlando attempted to destroy it by smashing it into a column. Never mind that this last event took place during the Battle of Roncesvalles in the Pyrenees Mountains. The column, it can be explained, was transported to Rome at a later date. Never mind that the base of said column is a fragment of the Temple of Matidia, built on this spot in 119 AD by Emperor Hadrian in honor of his deified mother-in-law. Let’s not let history and archeology get in the way of a good story!

Which street names have we discussed so far?

Via del Mascherone

Via del Piè di Marmo

Via del Babuino

Vicolo dell'Atleta

Piazza della Pigna

Via dell'Arco della Ciambella

Photo sources: 12