When it comes to views in Rome, the one that you can find by looking through a certain keyhole on Aventine Hill is probably one of the coolest. You could even say it was a hidden view, although it’s not much of a secret these days…
Also known as the Knights of Malta Keyhole, the Aventine Keyhole is one of the most peculiar attractions in Rome – a place worth visiting whether you are a photography geek or are simply looking for a unique (and free) experience. Since I have been there a few times, I thought I’d share with you what you need to know about this intriguing place – including some photography tips!
What Is The Aventine Keyhole?
The Aventine Keyhole itself is probably the smallest attraction in Rome – it’s tiny, after all! But it’s what you can see through this centuries-old keyhole that draws people from far and wide to catch a glimpse.
Situated as part of the Church of Santa Maria del Priorato, which is owned by the religious military order, the Knights of Malta (hence why it’s also called Knights of Malta Keyhole), the keyhole itself is in a door that leads to the private gardens of the church.
You may not be able to explore the wonderful gardens themselves, but what you can do is take a peek through the keyhole. It’s not the usual thing to do – going around looking through keyholes – but trust me: it’s totally fine to do here. One glimpse through the Aventine Keyhole and you’ll see what all the fuss (and quite possibly the line) is about.
The keyhole perfectly lines up a view through a tree-lined promenade, which perfectly frames an unobstructed view of the dome of St Peter’s Basilica. Nobody is quite sure if this was an intentional secret or a completely unintended, but fortuitous, mistake of design.
This formerly hidden attraction has been steadily gaining popularity over the years. After all, this amazing view allows the viewer to peer across three sovereign realms: the territory of the Knights of Malta, Italy, and the Vatican City, of course.
The property has been in the hands of the Knights of Malta for many centuries, with the lands passing to them from the Knights Templar in the 15th century. At its core is the elegant Santa Maria del Priorato church itself, with much of the 18th-century architecture designed by architect and engraver Giovanni Battista Piranesi.
The church is decorated with several interesting motifs relating to the symbolism of the church as a ship (the shape of Aventine Hill has often been compared to that of a ship); many other esoteric symbols and Masonic iconography also adorn the old church.
First things first, unfortunately your phone will not likely be able to capture the view that well. You may get lucky (especially with good light), but it’s still fun to try it out. If you are here to get an incredible photo of the view through the Aventine Keyhole, then you’ll need a decent camera with a good camera lens. Most likely your settings will need to be adjusted manually. I am not a very good photographer – the photo above is the best I could take with my DLSR camera…
In terms of settings on your camera, make sure your shutter speed is at the highest possible number; your aperture should also be at the highest setting.
If you only have a smartphone to use, you should use the door to balance your phone on to stabilize the camera. Controlling the brightness on your screen by tapping to focus is a big help to getting a decent picture.
Another tip for taking an awesome photo through this keyhole is to plan your visit carefully. Photographs can change dramatically depending on the position of the sun, the time of day, and the weather.
It’s most difficult to take a shot when the sun is behind the basilica, which is almost three kilometers away from the keyhole.
You may want to take a tripod to stabilize your camera, since it will be zoomed in pretty far and any light judder will probably blur your results. However, you should also note that there’s often a line of people waiting for their chance to peer through the hole, and a tripod could take too much time to set up. If you do want to use a tripod, go early in the morning (most people arrive around lunchtime).
Finally, don’t forget about the power of editing. Just using some simple editing software and spending a little time playing around with the sharpness, contrast, highlights and other settings can really add to the depth and overall quality of your picture.
Where is the Knights of Malta Keyhole?
You’ll find the Aventine Keyhole on Aventine Hill (hence the name), next to the Church of Santa Maria del Priorato, which is at the intersection of via di S. Sabina and via di Porta Lavernale. The address is Piazza dei Cavalieri di Malta, 00153.
How to get to the Aventine Keyhole
The closest metro to the Aventine Keyhole is Circo Massimo, which is at the bottom of the Aventine Hill. You can also reach Circo Massimo via tram (tram 3).
From there, it’s just a 10-minute walk uphill to the church, passing by the Rose Garden and the Giardino degli Aranci. You’ll be able to spot the keyhole usually by the gathering of people waiting to take a look through it.
Since you won’t be spending too long at the keyhole itself, it’s good to know a few other things to see in the area to make your visit to Aventine Hill worth it.
Santa Sabina Church
The elegant Santa Sabina Church is the oldest basilica of its kind in Rome. Construction started in 422 AD and took eleven years; almost everything, from the colonnades to the brick exterior, is original (e.g. the bell tower is a 17th-century reconstruction).
Incredibly, its cypress wood doors were created in 430-432 AD and still survive to this day, complete with their beautiful carvings of biblical scenes. The church is also well known for being the first public place to depict the crucifixion of Christ and the two thieves.
It’s open to visitors daily (8:15 am to 12:30 pm, 3:30 pm to 6:00 pm), and is free to enter.
Check out my post The Prettiest Churches In Rome.
Also situated on the Aventine Hill alongside the Santa Sabina church is the Orange Garden, or in Italian, the Giardino degli Aranci. Another name for the garden is Savello Park (Parco Savello). The unofficial name derives from the numerous bitter orange trees that grow in abundance around the area.
Spanning 7,800 square meters, the park provides sweeping views of the city below. Originally, the garden was part of a medieval fortress, linked to the noble Savelli family.
The garden as it is seen today dates to 1932, when it was redesigned by Raffaele de Vico. The symmetrical parkland, complete with a square and a fountain, is built around a central avenue which aligns to a viewpoint.
It’s the perfect accompaniment for a visit to the Aventine Keyhole; it’s also a good spot for photography. Otherwise, it’s a nice place to relax and enjoy the natural surroundings and the romantic scenery.
The gardens are open daily from 7:00 am to 9:00 pm (free admission).
Make sure to read my post A Guide To Rome’s Orange Garden.
Founded in 1931 on the site of a former Jewish graveyard, Rome’s Rose Garden is home to over a thousand varieties of roses from all over the world. The garden covers 10,000 square meters and showcases all sorts of different roses, many of which are gifts from different countries.
You’ll find modern roses, hybrid roses, all sorts of varieties of roses grown in different scenarios; sometimes they’re climbing, sometimes they’re hedges, other times they’re simply left to wander in a natural manner. It’s beautifully maintained, however, and perfect for visiting in early summer, when the vibrant colors and alluring fragrances are at their best.
Check out my post The Most Beautiful Gardens In Rome.