Touring Rome’s Secret Locations with Imago Artis Travel

Off the path.

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Rooftops of Rome seen from a private terrace.

 

Fulvio De Bonis is not your typical Roman. Standing about six feet tall with a mop of red hair and a slightly British accent, he bucks the stereotype of the tall, dark, and handsome local. But, over the course of three years, I’ve realized he’s one of the most Roman people I know. Having co-founded Imago Artis Travel with his wife Alessia Tortora and their friend Chiara Di Muoio—all three having studied art history at La Sapienza University of Rome—he has an absolutely infectious passion for his hometown and its many hidden treasures.

“I grew up in Rome, in Francesco Totti’s neighbourhood, and always enjoyed the caciara (‘being rowdy’ in Roman dialect),” De Bonis says. He relates a story from his teenage years: “Driven by my dad’s passion, once in front of an artistic masterpiece, I felt the excitement of its warmth and strong power. I seized eternity and immortality from works of art.”

When it came time to find an outlet for his passion, he knew a career in tourism was the way to go. Taking people to see masterpieces by Caravaggio, Renaissance murals, and architectural gems was so much more satisfying than being locked up in an ivory tower or confined to the quarters of a museum. In fact, the first time I met De Bonis, he was leading a tour of Rome’s secrets that didn’t include a single museum. Instead, a trio of vintage Fiat 500s picked up some other journalists and me at the Hotel Eden and brought us to a private home on the Aventine Hill that had archeological ruins in the basement. We then visited a discreet chapel covered by Renaissance murals in the centro storico and had a picnic in Villa Pamphili. I was blown away. Having once lived in Rome for two years and returning often to visit, I thought I had seen just about everything. De Bonis showed me how wrong I was.

 

Gardens of the Knights of Malta.

 

A few months later, I returned to Rome and begged him to bring me to the one place I’d dreamed about but could never access on my own: the Villa of the Knights of Malta. Perched on the Aventine Hill, the villa and its gardens designed by Piranesi are closed to the public. Locals and tourists line up outside its walls to gaze into a keyhole, through which a perfect framing of the cupola of St. Peter’s Basilica comes into view. Finally, on a warm autumn day, I got my chance. De Bonis picked me up at my hotel—the H’All Tailor Suite this time—and brought me and a friend to see the villa, with its perfectly manicured gardens and 17th-century church. I felt like I was living out a scene from La Dolce Vita.

And that is hardly the only off-limits place that De Bonis and his guides have access to. Thanks to Imago Artis, I’ve sipped espresso on the rooftop terrace of an aristocratic palazzo where Paolo Sorrentino filmed scenes in La Grande Bellezza, had lunch in the private home of a chef in Trastevere, visited a church overlooking the Roman Forum that’s only open by appointment, and discovered a hidden cabinet of curiosities full of ancient treasures in Monti. Many of these places don’t appear in any guidebooks.

“The key is knowing the right people, creating good connections, and preserving them at all times with an open and kind attitude,” De Bonis says when I ask him how he gains access to these exclusive places.

 

Church of the Knights of Malta and view from the church overlooking the Roman Forum.

 

Born 12 years ago in Rome, the company has grown into a luxury DMC (destination management company), with 25 employees in its Rome office and around 150 guides across Italy. De Bonis and his team are about to set up an office in northern Italy and are preparing to launch a YouTube series highlighting the incredible experiences they offer their guests. Imago Artis is the go-to tour company for many five-star hotels, and De Bonis has personally guided A-list movie stars, world-famous athletes, and other VIPs. He and his team tailor the tours to the guest’s interests, whether that means visiting artisan workshops in Florence, going on a truffle hunt in the hills of Piedmont, doing a pasta-making class in Lecce, or exploring the ancient sassi of Matera. There is always an element of surprise and delight.

“We have now become an important luxury DMC and this leads to very high pressure, but also so many outstanding successes. It is very challenging to keep up with the various requests from clients, always tailoring every single detail to their needs,” De Bonis says. “But at the end of the day, when you manage to help guests enjoy the vacation of their dreams, that is the most incredible emotion you can feel. A satisfied client just makes my day a better one.”

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November 18, 2019