The Keyhole of the Priory of Malta, Rome

The Keyhole of the Priory of Malta, Rome

St.Peter's Basilica through Rome's keyhole
Looking through Rome’s Keyhole

A large ornate piazza covers the top of the Aventino (Aventine Hill), its surrounding walls richly decorated with military trophies and obelisks. On the western side, a large ornate wall of white stone, with faux windows carved into the sides hosts a very large, arched green door. In the center is an enormous keyhole (the Buco della Serratura). Normally, you wouldn’t even give the keyhole a second glance – except there are people bending over to stare through it.

The door leads into the property of the Priory of the Knights of Malta. Knights? In Rome? Are all these peepers trying to catch a glimpse of a knight?

Look through this mysterious keyhole, and in the distance, perfectly framed between rows of trees and hedges is the dome of St. Pete’s Basilica, known to Romans as the Cuppolone. It is unclear whether the keyhole was deliberately placed to frame St.Peter’s dome or whether it was a lucky accident.


The Villa del Priorato dei Cavalieri di Malta (Priory of the Knights of Malta) is the main residence of the order and has a rich history. Initially, the property housed the fortified palace of Alberico II, a nobleman who ruled Rome from 932 to 954; it then became a Benedictine Monastery in the 10th century before being occupied by the Knights Templar (the famous warrior monks) in the 1100s.

Priory of Knights of Malta, keyhole door
Door with Keyhole, Rome

Following the defeat of the Knights Templar who were wiped out by Pope Clement V, the property passed to the Knights of Malta (more formally known as the Knights of St. John Hospitaller) who took it over in 1400.

The Knights of Malta are a chivalric Roman Catholic order of crusader knights who originated in Jerusalem in the 11th century. They took care of the pilgrims traveling to Jerusalem (irrespective of religion or race). They are the oldest surviving chivalric order in the world and, under international law, are considered a sovereign entity. The Villa del Priorato dei Cavalieri di Malta is the home of the Order’s Ambassador to Italy and the Holy See. The church of Santa Maria del Priorato is also located inside the complex.

As you look through the keyhole, you are looking at one country and two nation-states – Italy, the Vatican and the Knights of Malta.


The Italian architect, Giovanni Battista Piranesi, designed the Piazza in 1765.

The Priory of Knights of Malta as seen from the Tiber River
Priory of Knights of Malta, Rome

He incorporated many elements from a Templar legend that imagined the Aventino as a sacred ship that would eventually sail to heaven. In addition to the nautical themes, (the obelisks on the square represented the masts), Piranesi included mysterious esoteric Masonic symbols.


The easiest way to reach Piazza dei Cavalieri di Malta is to start at the southwest corner of the Circo Massimo (Circus Maximus), cross the Via del Circo Massimo and climb the diagonal Clivio dei Publicii, which becomes the Via di Santa Sabina. Continue to the top of the hill. In the process, you will pass the Giardino degli Aranci (the Orange Garden) and the early Christian churches of Santa Sabina and Sant’ Alessio. (There will be a separate blog for them.)

The best times to visit the Keyhole are either in the early morning when the

Photographing through the Keyhole at the Priory of the Knights of Malta
Photographing St. Peter’s Basilica through the keyhole

sun rises over the city, illuminating St. Peter’s dome, or in the evening when, depending on the season, the sun will set behind St. Peter’s Basilica.

The Gardens of the Priory are usually open to the public on Friday but this is subject to change. For more information, contact the Order at


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