Rome wasn’t built in a day, but it was one particular day that brought about the rise of the sampietrini, Rome’s famous basalt cobblestones. It’s hard not to be inspired by the artisanal masonry of the iconic Italian city.
The role of the Pope in building Rome’s cobblestones
As with so much of Italian culture, the Vatican played a key role in the decorative masonry of Italy’s cobblestone streets, or so the story goes.
It was on one dark night in 1585 that the Felice Peretti di Montalto, Pope Sixtus V travelled in his carriage on his way home to the Vatican apartments. Peaceful and serene, the Pope travelled, until his holy thoughts were suddenly interrupted by a wheel of his carriage stuck a hole in the street. So violent was the interruption that it almost flung the Pope from the carriage.
While the details are fuzzy, what we do know is that shortly after, his Holiness commissioned the Vatican staff to fix the streets.
Sampietrini - The little Saint Peter's of Rome
It was from this papal decree that the sampietrini, the little Saint Peters, were borne. The Vatican's artisans and tradesmen got together and devised a plan. Taking inspiration from trends in Northern Europe, they decided to pave the entire San Pietro Piazza with cobblestones.To complete the masterwork, they employed the secchiaroli, an ancient guild of stonecutters. The works of these mastercraftsman continue to this day.
Centuries of stonework
By the end of the 18th Century, Rome was one of the most beautiful cities in the world, and the stonework of the streets played a significant part, as artisans and stonemasons experimented with the sampietrini design, creating a number of interesting stylistic touches including:
- Fan shapes
- Herringbone patterns
- Rainbow designs
- Geometric patterns
These designs, all created using the hand crafted methods of the sampietrini, led locals and visitors alike through the vast piazzas and down cobblestone laneways, exploring the city tourists know and love to this day.
Stones without mortar: How Italian cobblestones are created
The cobblestones of Rome create a beautiful, intricate footscape across the city, but the actual creation of the masonry is remarkably simple.
- Sampietrini are 12 centimetre cubes of black basalt rock.
- The stones are trimmed and set in either a sand or earth foundation.
- The same sand or earth is used to fill the space between each block
For many stonemasons, the real art to laying these unique cobblestones comes from making each stone even to its neighbour. The slow shaping of a stone into the already uneven earth can take years of practice. But as you travel through Rome’s cobblestoned streets, it’s safe to say the effort was worth it.
Ancient Roman influence in Rome’s cobblestone streets
When construction first started in the 16th century the original sampietrini were cut from larger blocks used to pave the roads of ancient Rome. These blocks proved to be both smoother and stronger than terracotta.
This nod to the ancient, pre-Italy history of the Roman empire is tangible as you walk the streets of Rome. Their uneven yet eternal feel makes sampietrini cobblestones the perfect surface to join centuries old cathedrals with bustling piazzas, quiet alleys to world renowned fountains. As you beat a path, cobblestones underfoot, you walk as millions have throughout the ages, through one of the oldest, still thriving cities in the world.
A tradition of artisanal craftsmanship
The centuries old traditions of the stonemasons that first laid cobblestones in Rome continue to this day. Among them, Roberto Giacobbi is typical. At age 50, he has spent an entire life laying stonework through the streets of Rome, as his father and grandfather have before him. And while there might not be a particular secret to getting the tiles right, it does take a good eye to make sure each sampietrini cobblestone is the same height as its neighbours.
Advantages of sampietrini
Sampietrini might be charming, character filled cobblestones that make any road surface ooze old world charm, but there’s also some practical reasons why they work in Rome.
- The lack of mortar between the stones means sampietrini can shift with the earth below
- Excellent at absorbing excess water, which is great for cities like Rome that have overtaxed sewage and water systems
- Capable of handling most heavy urban traffic
A slice of history remains
Still, the quiet alleys, the hidden piazzas, those areas best travelled on foot, still retain the history of the sampietrini. Treacherous as they may be, there’s nothing so Italian as a cobblestone laneway bordered by cafes, churches and bars in an ancient European city.
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