Thursday, May 12, 2011

9. The Quirinal Palace

Today's Photos:


1. The Quirinal Palace, residence of the President of Italy.

2. View of the dome of St. Peter's Basilica from Piazza del Quirinale.

3. The fountain and obelisk in Piazza del Quirinale.

4. A close-up of the fountain with the statues of Castor and Pollux.

5. Via del Quirinale (La Manica, the sleeve) along the side of the palace.

6. One of the four fountains – the Tiber – at the end of Via del Quirinale.




The Quirinal Hill is the tallest of the famous Seven Hills of Rome.  It gets its name from a temple of Quirinus which stood on this spot in ancient times.  Quirinus is the name which was given to Romulus, the founder of Rome, when he was deified after his death.  Most of the hill is occupied by the enormous Palazzo del Quirinale (Quirinal Palace), which was begun by Flaminio Ponzio for Gregory XIII Boncompagni (1572-1585).  However, the palace was not completely finished until the time of Clement XII (1730-1740). Seeing the size of it you can understand why it took so long to build.  During the various phases of its construction, the building was touched by the talented hands of many architects, including Domenico Fontana, Carlo Maderno and Gian Lorenzo Bernini.


Over the centuries the palace has served as a residence for three institutions.  It was first used as the summer residence of the popes.  With the fall of Papal Rome in 1870 it became the residence of the kings of Italy.  Finally, after the monarchy was voted out in favor of a republic in 1946, the palace became, and remains today, the official residence of the president of the Republic.  So this building, during its over four centuries of existence has been home to popes, kings and presidents.  You can't get much more prestigious than that!


A curiosity


Throughout the time when the palace served as a papal residence, it was enriched by the popes with dozens, perhaps hundreds, of priceless works of art.  Disaster struck, however, in 1798, when the troops of Napoleon occupied Rome.  The Quirinal Palace was sacked and most of the works or art were either destroyed or carried off to France.  The pope himself, Pius VI, who had taken refuge in the palace, was captured and taken prisoner to France.  The fragile health of the eighty-one year old pontiff was further weakened by the strenuous journey and he died in the town of Valence in southern France on August 29, 1799.


The official entrance into the palace is from Piazza del Quirinale which is bordered on three sides by buildings, while along the fourth side is a balustrade which offers an interesting view over the rooftops of Rome, looking toward the dome of St. Peter's Basilica in the distance.  The piazza lies partially in Rione I, Monti and Rione II, Trevi.  (For a discussion of the Rioni, the neighborhoods of Rome, see Rome: Sights and Insights, Chapter 17, Rioni e Fontanelle).


The center of the piazza is dominated by a colossal statue-group consisting of an Egyptian obelisk, two ancient statues and a basin from the Roman Forum converted into a fountain.  The statues depict Castor and Pollux, the Dioscuri, twin semi-gods, standing next to their horses.  They were part of the decoration of the Baths of Constantine which existed in this area in ancient times.  At one time it was erroneously believed that the statues were carved by two Greek sculptors, Phidias and Prassitele.  The error was immortalized when the following Latin inscriptions were put on the base of the statues: Opus Phidiae (a work of Phidias) and Opus Praxitelis (a work of Prassitele).  The statues were placed side by side in the center of the piazza by Domenico Fontana, the architect of Sixtus V Peretti (1585-1590).  Then in 1783 Pius VI decided to set up an obelisk between the two statues.  The obelisk was one of two which decorated the entrance to the Mausoleum of Augustus. (The other one is on the Esquiline Hill behind the basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore).  The monumental task of moving the obelisk was entrusted to the architect Giovanni Antinori.


A curiosity


The first attempt of Antinori to move the obelisk in 1783 was a failure, resulting in two clever pasquinate ridiculing the architect and the pope.  Attached to the base of the obelisk, the first one read:  Antinori, non tirai! (Antinori, I didn't move!).  It is really very witty because the words non tirai are an anagram of the architect's name, Antinori. The second pasquinata ridicules  the pope; it is a clever play on words with the erroneous inscription Opus Phidiae (a work of Phidias) which was modified in the pasquinata: Opus perFidiae Pii Sexti (a work of treachery of Pius the Sixth).  The obelisk was successfully moved in a second attempt three years later in 1786.  (For an explanation of the term pasquinata, see Rome: Sights and Insights, Chapter 26, The Talking Statues of Rome).


On the foundation of the obelisk there is a long Latin inscription which tells its history in the first person as if the obelisk itself were speaking.  The interesting thing is that the last line of the original inscription was altered.  Here are the final two lines of the original inscription:





I who, between the mighty statues of Alexander, will testify how much inferior he is to Pius


So what is Alexander the Great doing in this inscription?  The statues of Castor and Pollux with their horses have traditionally represented Alexander who as a young boy tamed the wild horse Bucephalus which thereafter faithfully carried the great general for many years in his military exploits.  So the "he" in the translation above refers to Alexander who in turn is traditionally identified as Napoleon.  Now when the Napoleonic troops occupied Rome in 1798, they were offended by that part of the inscription which exclaimed: I will testify how much Alexander (Napoleon) is inferior to Pius.  So they changed the offending Latin words to read: SEXTI GRANDIA FACTA PII (I will testify to the great deeds of Pius the Sixth), thus eliminating what they considered to be an affront to Napoleon.


A curiosity


If you look carefully at the inscription today you will see that the inscriber of the change made a careless error.  He inadvertently failed to remove the tail of the Q of QUANTO.  It is visible on the stone beneath the S of SEXTI.


As you stand in Piazza del Quirinale facing the palazzo, you will see on your right a long, straight street called Via del Quirinale.  That side of the palazzo, called la Manica (the sleeve) extends the length of the street, intersecting at the end with Via delle Quattro Fontane (Street of the Four Fountains), so called because there is a small fountain couched in a niche at each of the four corners of the intersection.  They date from 1593 and are personifications of Fidelity, Strength, the Arno River and the Tiber River.  Unfortunately this intersection is very heavily traveled by automobiles and motor scooters, and the space for pedestrians is very limited.  But it is worth your while not only for the fountains, but for the following curiosity.


A curiosity


The interesting thing about this intersection is that from here you can see in three directions the obelisks of the Quirinale, the Pincio and the Esquiline, while in the fourth direction you can glimpse Porta Pia, the ancient gate leading into Rome from the east.  This did not happen by chance; it was part of the very careful urban planning carried out by Sixtus V.


There are two small, but extraordinary churches in this area, one by Bernini and one by Borromini, which should be seen, but they deserve a "Sights" all to themselves some other day.


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