Saturday, January 25, 2014

The Pincio Hill

Today's photos:

A view of Piazza del Popolo from the terrace of the Pincio.

The dome and façade of St. Peter's Basilica seen from the Pincio.

This big guy greets visitors as they walk up to the Pincio from Piazza del Popolo.

The obelisk was set up by Pius VII in 1822.

The coat of arms of Pius VII is displayed on the base of the obelisk.

Leonardo Da Vinci.

Napoleon Bonaparte.

Lorenzo De' Medici.

Vittoria Colonna.

Giuseppe Verdi.


Rome is a city of hills, many of which offer spectacular views of the city, such as the Janiculum, the Aventine, the Capitoline and the one which is the subject of today's post: the Pincio.


A curiosity


Whenever I accompany visitors up to one of the hills of the city, I'm always asked if this is one of the famous "Seven Hills of Rome". So I should say right away that the Pincio is NOT one of the seven. For future reference, here is a list of the original Seven Hills which are all on the left (east) bank of the Tiber river: Quirinal, Viminal, Esquiline, Caelian, Capitoline, Palatine and Aventine.


History of the Pincio


The Pincio takes its name from the Pincio family, one of the many wealthy families who in the fourth century built their villas here. But the history of the hill goes back to Ancient Roma when it was called Collis Hortulorum (the hill of the little gardens) because of the presence of many vineyards. Even Julius Caesar is said to have had a villa here, as did Lucullus, a former Roman general and consul best known for his extravagant lifestyle and the luxurious banquets which he hosted in his mansion on the Pincio. His name survives in English in the word "Lucullan" or "Lucullian", meaning "lavish" or "extravagant", as in "a Lucullian feast".


During the Middle Ages and for several centuries after that the hill was abandoned and left in a state of decay. Then in the late 1400's the Pincio was purchased on behalf of Charles VIII, King of France, by the French cardinal Jean de Billhères, the French ambassador to Rome. Shortly afterwards the church and convent of Trinità dei Monti would be built by the French at the top of the nearby Spanish Steps.


A curiosity


We should be very grateful to this cardinal, Jean de Bellhères, for another reason in addition to the purchase of the Pincio. It was he who, in 1499, commissioned from Michelangelo the famous Pietà sculpture which we admire today in St. Peter's Basilica.


Napoleon and the Pincio


A real turning point took place on the hill in 1811 when Napoleon hired Giuseppe Valadier to restyle the entire area, including Piazza del Popolo at the foot of the hill. The finished product was to be named, somewhat pompously, Jardin du gran César, in honor of you-know-who. Fortunately, the name never was officially applied to the park, however the Napoleonic legacy remains today in the name of the terrace from where one enjoys today one of the most spectacular views of the city: Piazzale Napoleone I. After the demise of Napoleon, Valadier continued the work for Pope Pius VII Chiaramonti (1800-1823).


A curiosity


Pius VII, like his predecessor, Pius VI, had a stormy relationship with the French emperor. Initially he signed an agreement with Napoleon and for a short time the two were actually on friendly terms. Napoleon however, in 1808, proceeded to occupy the papal territories. The Pope promptly excommunicated him. Napoleon, just as promptly, declared the end of the temporal power of the Pope and had Pius arrested and brought to France as a prisoner. Defeated in 1812, Napoleon went into exile the following year and Pius returned to Rome. Despite the harsh treatment which the Pope had suffered at the hands of Napoleon, he continued the work on the Pincio which his enemy had ordered . . . and financed. One final note about this curiosity: the Napoleonic troops occupied the city of Rome for several years, but Napoleon himself never set foot in the city.


The Busts of the Pincio


Beginning with the ill-fated Roman Republic of 1849, 52 marble busts of illustrious Italians were made and set up along the tree-lined paths of the park. The task of producing these busts was given to painters and sculptors who at the time were unemployed. The painters sketched the portraits and the sculptors reproduced them in marble.  More have been added over the years, and now there are 228 of them, only three of which represent women: Vittoria Colonna, Grazia Deledda and St. Catherine of Siena


A curiosity


It occurred to me that two of these names, Vittoria Colonna and Grazia Deledda, may be unfamiliar to some of you. Grazia Deledda (1871-1936) was a writer who won the Nobel prize for Literature in 1926. Vittoria Colonna (1492-1547) is probably best known for the platonic love affair which she had with Michelangelo who immortalized her in his fresco of The Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel. Look carefully at the painting and you will see her at the feet of Mary, partially hidden  behind St. Lawrence and his gridiron.


Most of the original 52 busts represented heroes of the Roman Republic which, for two months in 1849, replaced the Papal States. When papal power was reinstated, many of the busts were removed and placed in storage. It was Pius IX, in 1851, who ordered that they be returned to their original locations on the Pincio. However, he had the facial features of several of them altered, and their names changed to represent heroes in the good graces of the papacy. Just to mention one famous name who was "deposed" (but later reinstated): Savonarola became Guido d'Arezzo, a famous medieval musician and teacher of music!


Most people who walk through the park pay little attention to the busts, but if you have the time, it's very worthwhile to read the names. It's like a who's who in the long history of Italy. Just to give you a small sample, in addition to the busts included in the photos above, you can find the likes of: Galileo Galilei, Giordano Bruno, Raffaello Sanzio, Petrarca, Giotto, Giacomo Puccini, St. Thomas Acquinas, Michelangelo, Pompey, Cola di Rienzo, Alessandro Manzoni, Cavour and Christopher Columbus. It's a real "biographical" walk through Italian history.


The Obelisk of the Pincio


Believe it or not, Rome is home to more obelisks than any other city in the world: 18 at the latest count. One of these stands on the Pincio hill. This one is not of Egyptian origin, but made by the Romans. It was set up by the emperor Hadrian (117-138) in honor of his young lover, Antinous, who had tragically drowned in the Nile river in 130. Lost for many centuries, the obelisk was re-discovered near the Basilica of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme in 1570. In 1632 Urban VIII Barberini had it moved in front of Palazzo Barberini, the family palace. But in 1773 the Barberini family members had it removed because it was blocking the passage of the carriages of visitors to the palace. They didn't know what to do with the thing so they donated it to the Pope, Clement XIV. He didn't know what to do with it either, so he put it in the Vatican Museums in the Courtyard of the Pine Cone. It remained there until 1822 when our friend Pius VII had it set up on the Pincio where it still stands today.


The Pincio is connected to the Villa Borghese, Rome's largest urban park. It has always been, and remains today, a very pleasant place for a walk (passeggiata), particularly in the summer months thanks to the shade provided by its many trees.  Admire the busts, the obelisk, several fountains, and of course the view from the terrace which still bears the name of Napoleon. Buona passeggiata a tutti!


For an interesting anecdote about Napoleon and his mother, Letizia, who lived (and died) in Rome, see The Sights of Rome, Chapter 14, A Mysterious Visitor. Also, because of its close connection with the Pincio hill, you might enjoy re-reading the post of August 11, 2012: Piazza del Popolo.


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