Saturday, August 11, 2012

Piazza del Popolo



1.     From the terrace of the Pincio hill you can enjoy this spectacular view of Piazza del Popolo. Notice also St. Peter's Basilica in the distance.

2.     The so-called twin churches at the end of il Tridente, the three streets leading into the piazza from the south.

3.     The church of Santa Maria del Popolo was built over what was thought to be the tomb of Nero.

4.     The fountain of Neptune.

5.     The fountain of the goddess Roma.

6.     The Egyptian obelisk stands in the center of the piazza.

7.     One of the four lion fountains which surround the obelisk.

8.     Porta del Popolo, the gate which leads into the piazza from the north.

9.     Caffé Rosati, once the hangout of famous Italian movie actors and directors.




I love living in a city filled with beautiful piazzas, many of which are home to  glorious fountains and churches. Some of them are small and quaint, tucked away among the neighborhoods, others are enormous, sprawling urban spaces. A good example of the latter is Piazza del Popolo (photo #1), one of the largest open areas in the historic center of Rome. It was created during the papacy of Paul III Farnese (1534-1549). Because of its great size it is often used for large outdoor events, such as political rallies and concerts. I like it best, however, when it is free of extraneous constructions, such as stages, as was intended by the architect, Giuseppe Valadier, who radically redesigned the space in the early 1800's.


The piazza is located at the end of il Tridente, the Trident, an area so-called because it is the ending point of three streets which lead into it from the south: Via del Corso in the middle, Via del Babuino on the left and Via di Ripetta. Separating the three streets at their "mouth" and facing the piazza are the "twin" churches (photo #2): Santa Maria dei Miracoli (on the right as you face the churches) and Santa Maria in Montesanto. Although they are commonly called "twin churches", a careful inspection will reveal that they are similar but not identical.


A curiosity


There are several theories proposed to explain the name of the piazza. One   says that it comes from the Latin word populus (poplar tree), because there was a grove of poplar trees in this area which belonged to the emperor Nero. But if you don't like the explanation of the poplar trees, try this one instead.  Pope Pascal II (1099-1118) had a church built here on the site of what was believed to be the tomb of Nero. The church had been requested by the people of Rome and paid for by them, so it was called Santa Maria del Popolo, of the people (photo #3).   In time the name of the church was also applied to the piazza. (For the full story of this church see Rome: Sights and Insights, Chapter 19, Santa Maria del Popolo).


The piazza, as redesigned by Valadier, has the shape of back-to-back semicircles.  In the center of each semicircle, at the sides of the piazza, is a fountain designed by Valadier, but built by Giovanni Ceccarini in 1823. The one on the left (with your back to the twin churches) is the Fountain of Neptune (photo #4), featuring a colossal statue of the Roman god of the sea holding his ever present trident in his hand. The god stands above two dolphins which are led by two tritons. On either side of the sculpture group are two other dolphins with their tails intertwined.  Opposite it, on the right, is the Fountain of the Goddess Roma (photo #5).  The goddess is armed with a lance and wears a military helmet.  She is flanked by prone statues representing the two rivers of her city: the Tiber and the Anio. Between the two can be seen the she-wolf nursing the twin boys Romulus and Remus.  (For the story of Romulus and Remus, see The Sights of Rome, Chapter 22, Romulus and Remus and the She-wolf).


In the very center of the piazza stands one of Rome's many obelisks (photo #6).  This particular one was made in Egypt about 1,200 years before the birth of Christ.  Augustus had it transferred to Rome in the first century B.C. where it was used to decorate the Circus Maximus.  Sixtus V Peretti (1585-1590) had it moved to Piazza del Popolo in 1589.  On the base of the obelisk are four Latin inscriptions, only two of which are still legible. The inscription facing in the direction of the church of Santa Maria del Popolo recalls the victory of Augustus over Egypt. The other legible inscription faces the river; it recalls the transfer of the obelisk to this spot in 1589 and its dedication to the Most Holy Cross.


A curiosity


If you ever find yourself on a television quiz show and are asked which city in the world is home to the most number of obelisks, the answer is: Rome!  The Eternal City boasts eighteen obelisks, although they are not all from ancient Egypt like this one.


In 1572, seventeen years before the obelisk was moved to the piazza, Gregory XIII Boncompagni (1572-1585) had a fountain built here by Giacomo Della Porta. Although beautiful and elegant, the fountain was really much too small compared to the enormous piazza.  Nevertheless it remained there until 1823 when Valadier had it moved to the nearby Piazza Nicosia where it remains to this day. The architect then constructed four fountains, one at each of the four corners of the obelisk. To ensure that the fountains not appear too small for their surroundings, Valadier constructed a base of five steps all the way around the obelisk. On top of this he placed at the four corners another base of seven steps in the shape of a pyramid. At the peak of this structure he placed his fountains which, in keeping with the Egyptian theme, feature a lion, in Egyptian style, made of white marble. Water pours out in the shape of a fan from the mouth of each lion (photo #7).


On the opposite side of the piazza from the twin churches is the Porta del Popolo (photo # 8), the seventeenth-century gate which replaced the old Porta Flaminia. This was the main gate leading into the city from the north on Via Flaminia.  The inside face of the gate was designed by Bernini in honor of the arrival in Rome of Queen Christina of Sweden. (For the story of this rather unusual queen and this gate, see Rome: Sights and Insights, Chapter 6, Christina of Sweden).


Where Via di Ripetta enters the piazza you will find the Caffé Rosati (photo #9), famous as the hangout of two Italian movie legends: director Federico Fellini and his favorite actor Marcello Mastroiani.  At the other end of the piazza, next to the gate and opposite the church of Santa Maria del Popolo is a barracks of the carabinieri, Italy's national military police force.


A curiosity


The barracks of the Italian carabinieri previously served as the barracks of the pontifical police.  That situation ended in 1870 when Rome, the last remaining vestige of the Papal States, fell to the Italian forces of unification. This building is just one of many properties throughout the city which were seized from the papacy by the newly established Kingdom of Italy.


One final interesting fact about Piazza del Popolo: it was sometimes used as a place where condemned prisoners were executed.  The last recorded execution here took place in 1826 when Giuseppe Franconi was bludgeoned to death after he was found guilty of robbing and murdering a priest.





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