On Location: Roman Holiday (1953)

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Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck

I always make a point of visiting the filming locations of my famous movies whenever I travel. In the Summer of 2012, I had the opportunity to do so with one of my all-time favorites: Roman Holiday.

Roman Holiday made Audrey Hepburn a star and won her a Best Actress Oscar. She plays a princess who is fed up with monotonous royal duties on a diplomatic visit to Rome and is anxious to have some fun. After Princess Ann escapes from the palace unseen, she meets American news reporter Joe Bradley (Gregory Peck), who believes he can get an exclusive story on her without her knowing that he’s a reporter or that he knows her true identity. As Joe gives Ann a guided tour of Rome, his photographer friend Irving (Eddie Albert) tags along to secretly take photos of her incognito day of freedom. In true rom-com fashion, a romance blossoms between Joe and Ann as the day progresses.

Roman Holiday is the first American film to be shot entirely on-location in Italy. Director William Wyler decided to film it in black and white instead of color so as not to distract from the story; he wasn’t making a travel reel, after all. Nevertheless, the city is just as important a character as the lead actors, and it looks absolutely stunning in black and white.

I watched Roman Holiday for the first time in 2012 in a college colloquium as we were preparing for a two-week field study to Rome and Florence. We spent the course learning and discussing the history, art, and architecture of these two cities before jetting off to Italy at the end of the semester. While the purpose of the trip was academic, some of the items on my personal itinerary were selected purely because of the film.

Rome isn’t called the Eternal City for nothing; other than the obvious developments like cell phones, clothing, and automobiles, many of the locations we visited looked as they did when Roman Holiday was filmed and were even more beautiful in person. Here are the main locations featured in the film with some of the photos I took on my own “Roman Holiday.” Click an image for the full-size version.

The Forum

The Forum was the center of public life in ancient Rome, which makes it an appropriate place for Joe and Ann to meet for the first time. As Ann falls asleep from the effects of a sedative her doctor gave her, she rests on a brick bench near the Temple of Saturn (top) and the Arch of Septimus Severus (bottom) at the northwest end of the Forum. Though Joe and Ann do not take the time to visit this site, it’s one not to be missed.

Via Margutta 51

Via Margutta 51 is the address of Joe’s apartment and is perhaps the most sacred site for Roman Holiday pilgrims. A short walk from the Spanish Steps, the street today is quieter than in the film and is now lined with upscale boutiques. A piece of an earlier era can be found at La Bottega del Marmoraro, a tiny shop where friendly stonecutter Sandro Fiorentini will carve any words you want into a piece of marble using techniques that date back to ancient Rome. I got one that honors my family’s Italian heritage, and it still sits prominently in my childhood home. You can find several of these marble engravings hanging along the street, including one marking the apartment where iconic filmmaker Federico Fellini resided for decades. Other famous figures that lived on the Via Margutta include Pablo Picasso and Truman Capote.

Trevi Fountain/Barber Shop

Ann wanders near the famous Trevi Fountain, where she spots a young woman with a short, trendy haircut leaving a barber shop and decides to get one herself. The barbershop is no longer there, but you can still make a wish and toss a coin over your left shoulder into the Trevi Fountain, which will guarantee your return to Rome.

The Spanish Steps

Meanwhile, Joe has been following her the whole time and meets Ann again while she is sitting on the Spanish Steps, one of the most popular sites in Rome. The Steps are usually full of people, but you can climb to the exact spot where Audrey Hepburn sat and enjoy the view of the city. Literature buffs will note that Joe and Ann’s Keats-Shelley argument earlier in the film subtly comes full circle here, as both poets lived in Rome and Keats’ house is at the foot of the Spanish Steps. Today the building is a museum dedicated to the two poets.

The most important aspect of this scene, however, is the snack of gelato Ann enjoys, which is a must-do in Rome. Gelato shops are on practically every corner, and it’s completely acceptable to eat it four (or more) times a day.

Piazza della Rotunda/the Pantheon

Rocca’s, the bar where Ann and Joe drink champagne and cold coffee and meet up with Joe’s photographer friend Irving is in the Piazza della Rotunda, to the right of the Pantheon. Though Rocca’s is no longer there, there are plenty of cafés in the piazza where you can people watch and shoot the breeze. Or better yet, take in the magnificence of the 2,000-year-old Pantheon, which is much larger and even more grand on the inside.

The Vespa Ride

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One of the most awe-inspiring aspects of Rome is the juxtaposition of ancient buildings with aspects of modern life, and Roman Holiday captures it well in Ann and Joe’s vespa ride. This phenomenon is perhaps even more commonplace today, where you can see ruins of an ancient temple on one side of the street and a billboard for Versace on the other. Two of the famous structures Ann and Joe ride past are the Teatro Marcello (top) and the neoclassical Victor Emmanuel II memorial (below).

The Colosseum

The gang then makes a pit stop at the Colosseum. Like many of the structures in Rome the pictures you see do not do it justice, but Roman Holiday comes close to capturing its sheer immensity. I was struck by how much it resembles a modern sports stadium; it could accommodate 50,000 spectators who would enter through numbered gates, special sections were designated for the wealthy and powerful, and the arena floor could be transformed to fit each event.

Piazza del Campidoglio/Palazzo Senatorio

When Ann takes the wheel of the Vespa, her reckless driving results in a police chase. One of the places they zip by is the Capitoline Hill. At the top is the Piazza del Campidoglio and its surrounding palaces (the Palazzo Senatorio is pictured here), which were designed by Michelangelo. The statue in the center is Emperor Marcus Aurelius. The palaces are home to the Capitoline Museums, where you can see the famous Capitoline Wolf sculpture and take in an amazing view of the Roman Forum.

Bocca della Verità (Mouth of Truth)

After the cops let them go, the trio heads over to the Bocca della Verità (Mouth of Truth). The legend of the sculpture says that if you’ve told a lie and put your hand inside the mouth, it will be bitten off. Since neither Joe nor Ann are being honest with each other about their identities, Ann’s hesitance to put her hand in and Joe pretending his hand is cut off is hilarious. The prank was planned unbeknownst to Audrey Hepburn, so her endearing reaction is genuine. Only one take of this scene was necessary. Watch it here.

Visiting the Mouth of Truth was one of my favorite parts of our trip. After a moment of hesitation, I bravely shoved my hand inside the mouth nearly up to my elbow (If Gregory Peck did it, I could do it, right?). And yes, my hand came out intact.

Castel Sant’Angelo

The party where Joe, Ann, and Irving meet Mario the barber (who cut Ann’s hair) near the end of the film takes place on a barge on the Tiber River with the Castel Sant’Angelo looming overhead. The building was commissioned by Roman Emperor Hadrian as a mausoleum for himself and his family. In the 14th century it was converted into a fortress and castle for the popes; today it’s a museum. The dock from the movie no longer exists, but you can still descend the stairs to the riverside when the tide is low, or better yet, walk the bridge and visit the castle and take in a nice view of Rome from the roof.

Here is a map that pinpoints each location:

 

With a timeless story, a wonderful cast, and beautiful photography, Roman Holiday is a movie I can watch again and again. The film is available on DVD and occasionally screens on TCM.

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7 thoughts on “On Location: Roman Holiday (1953)

      • Hi Julia, I am no more young at 64, but a truly Audrey Hepburn fan. Her last movie I saw was “Wait Until Dark”. Education and job assignment kept me away from movies. It was a couple of months earlier while combing through the old classics I came across this wonderful romantic comedy Roman Holiday. And what fascination I have had watching the most elegant and charming princess in her award winning role. I am planning a trip to Rome next year and I wanted to sure I have enough knowledge of all the locations as shown in the movie. It would be wonderful to visit the memory lanes. Can I remain in touch with you on this particular subject and also if I I could request for further story and pictures. I have read with lots of interest your above story. You have captured the lost magic of roman holiday in most captivating manner.

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  1. Hi Julia,
    Lovely photos and content, I am just back from Rome and found your article so very interesting, I hope you make it back to Rome one day as you wish!
    Thanks,
    Paul

    Liked by 1 person

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