The Portico of Ottavia is one of the most charming passageways in Rome. It was erected in 146 B.C. at the southernmost point of Campus Martius by Quintus Caecilius Metellus, who also built the Temple of Juno Regina in this area. The temple of Jupiter was later built here (the first temple in Rome to be built completely out of marble).
It was part of the triumphal procession route taken by the emperor in arms and the army to celebrate victories and the trophies of battle. It is no coincidence that various important temples lined this route, all built by victorious emperors in celebration of themselves.
Between 33 and 27 B.C., Emperor Augustus named the area Circus Flaminius. He restored the entire complex using victory spoils from Dalmatia, dedicating the portico to his sister Ottavia.
The portico was an impressive, monumental passageway. 119 meters wide and 132 meters long, it was larger than a football field! It was probably clad entirely in marble, and its interior undoubtedly housed many works of art. Only a few decorations remain visible on the walls of surrounding houses, including various parts of the monument, capitals, and an architrave.
According to an inscription, Septimius Severus and Caracalla were responsible for another important restoration at the complex in 204 A.D. And in the 5th century, the portico was reconfigured because of an earthquake. This time, the entrance columns were replaced with a large arch, and a church dedicated to St. Paul was built, which later became Sant'Angelo in Pescheria. The name comes from the fact that from the Middle Ages through the late 1800s, the area just below the arch was a fish market.
Curiously, the Medieval Latin inscription on the side of the arch advises that fish with heads and fins longer than the marble slab must be given to the Custodians.
In the Middle Ages, the Via del Portico d'Ottavia became part of the pilgrim route. Because of its proximity to Tiber bridges and possible enemy access points, many buildings in this area were fortified. One of these was the Theatre of Marcellus, across from the Portico.
In the 13th century, an important event changed the destiny of this area: the Roman Jewish Community began to move here from Trastevere. In 1555, following the example set by Venice, Pope Paul IV issued a Papal bull that established this area as the Jewish Ghetto, making it mandatory for Roman Jews to live here. The area was enclosed by walls and became so densely populated that the palazzos were tightly packed side by side. Built up to 6 or 7 stories high, they began to spill over into the streets. This overcrowding led to a grim decline.
In the late 1800s, the French tried to improve the area with massive demolitions, but it was the Fascist period that spelled the death blow for the Portico Ottavia, through the indiscriminate widening of many of the old streets.