Rome, Piazza del Popolo. From Nero’s demons to baroque masterpieces
Rome . The city of squares
If there is a city that can be called the city of squares, this is Rome. Squares are so integral to its image that without them the former capital of the ancient world would not be what we know.
And not by accident. After the fall of the Roman Empire, Rome, from the largest city in the world with huge monumental complexes all over its surface, was transformed into a medieval city that looked more like a large cluster of villages, since within the ancient walls where once 1,5 million people lived, there were no more than ten thousand in the worst times. Among its poor and poorly built districts, there were vast uninhabited areas where the brilliant works of the emperors rose once.
Rome resumes its imperial aspect
In the Renaissance, however, Rome became once again a major cultural centre, thanks to Pope Julius II, who called here the artists who remained unsupported after Florence ’s capture by the French in 1494 and the fall of the Medici.
From then on, especially in the 16th and 17th centuries, Rome has begun to take rapidly the form we know today. The main ingredient being the squares.
In order to connect the scattered districts between them and fill again the empty space among them, these urban ensembles were built, with monumental palaces and magnificent churches around them.
And in the middle, they put the columns of ancient Rome that were still standing, between heaps of soil. Columns made by emperors or brought from Egypt. Only now, instead of emperors, statues of saints were placed on their top.
Below or around the columns, the greatest sculptors of the time made the famous fontane, the countless fountains that remind of ancient Rome of the many aqueducts, which was also full of them.
And as the terrain is uneven (let’s not forget that Rome is built on seven hills), these ensembles are often placed on different levels, connected to each other by monumental stairs.
Thus, the so picturesque and so characteristic image of today’s Rome emerged: an endless series of outdoor theatre scenes where the daily life of the Italian capital unfolds like a theatrical performance in a set of unique richness of forms and colours.
So let’s wander in this wonderful outdoor scenery. We start with the traditional entrance of Rome, in Piazza del Popolo.
Piazza del Popolo, the square of the people or the square with the poplars
The square’s name in modern Italian means “square of the people”. Historically, however, it comes from the poplars (populus in Latin), after which the church of Santa Maria del Popolo in the northeastern corner of the square was named.
The square is located inside the northern gate of the walls of Emperor Aurelian, then called Porta Flaminia and now called Porta del Popolo. This was the starting point of Via Flaminia, which was the road to Ariminum (modern Rimini ) and the most important route to the north.
At the same time, before the time of the railways, it was the first thing the traveller saw from Rome upon arrival. For centuries, Piazza del Popolo was a place for public executions, the last of which took place in 1826.
An ambitious urban project
The present layout of the square was designed in neoclassical style between 1811 and 1822 by the architect Giuseppe Valadier.
An Egyptian obelisk from Heliopolis stands in the centre of the square. The obelisk, known as the Flaminio Obelisk or the Popolo Obelisk, was transported to Rome in 10 BC. by order of Augustus and originally placed in the Circus Maximus (hippodrome). It was erected here by architect-engineer Domenico Fontana in 1589 as part of the urban project of Pope Sixtus V.
Valadier’s masterstroke was the connection of the square to the hill of Pincio, one of the hills of ancient Rome, which overlooked the space from the east. He created a carriage drive and steps leading alongside a cascade in Pincio Park. The planted Pincio hill offers a connection to the gardens of the famous Villa Borghese.
Porta del Popolo, the Egyptian obelisk and on the right Santa Maria del Popolo
Santa Maria del Popolo. Legend and reality
The legend of the foundation of Santa Maria del Popolo revolves around the evil memory of Emperor Nero. According to it, the emperor was buried at the foot of the Pincian Hill in his family’s mausoleum.
The grave was later buried under a landslide, and a huge walnut tree grew on the ruins. It was “so tall and sublime that no other plant surpassed it in any way”. The tall walnut tree was soon haunted by a crowd of evil demons who harassed the locals, as well as travellers arriving in the city from the north through Porta Flaminia:
“Some were being frightened, possessed, cruelly beaten and injured, others almost strangled, or miserably killed.” The actions of the demonic crowd threatened a significant access to the city, but also upset the entire population, causing serious concern to the newly elected pontiff, Paschal II.
The Pope fasted and prayed for three days, and in the end, he saw in his dream the Virgin Mary who instructed him to release the city from the scourge. On the Thursday after the third Sunday of Lent in 1099, the Pope called the entire clergy and all the inhabitants of Rome and set up an impressive procession that went along the urban section of Via Flaminia until it arrived at the infested site.
There, the pope performed an exorcism, and then struck a determined blow at the root of the walnut tree, and the demons came out screaming horribly. When the tree was removed, the emperor’s remains were discovered among the ruins and the pope ordered to throw them in the Tiber.
The transformation of the space
Eventually, freed from the malicious presence, this corner of Rome could be devoted to Christian worship, and the pontiff placed the first stone of an altar on the site of the tree. This was incorporated into a simple chapel.
Nero was indeed buried in his family’s mausoleum, but the location of the mausoleum was somewhere on the higher northwest slopes of the Pincian Hill, and certainly not at the foot of it where the church stands.
The foundation of the chapel by Pope Paschal II was perhaps part of an effort to restore the security of the area around Porta Flaminia, which was outside the inhabited nucleus of medieval Rome and certainly infested with bandits.
In 1227 the chapel was enlarged. In the middle of the 13th century, the church was given to the order of Saint Augustine (Augustinians) that maintains it until today.
An innovative architectural project
Santa Maria del Popolo was rebuilt between 1472 and 1477 on the orders of Pope Sixtus IV. The medieval church was demolished and a new basilica was built. The result of this reconstruction was an excellent example of early Renaissance architecture.
Despite the many changes that have taken place over the centuries, the basilica actually retained the form of that era until today. The architect or architects of this innovative work remain unknown due to the lack of contemporary sources.
Santa Maria del Popolo
Top works of art
Among the numerous works of art in this church, the Cerasi chapel stands out. It was designed by Carlo Maderno between 1601 and 1606 and decorated with two great paintings by Caravaggio, the Conversion of Saint Paul, and the Crucifixion of Saint Peter, unrivalled works of Western art.
Caravaggio, the Conversion of Saint Paul (1601)
Caravaggio, the Crucifixion of Saint Peter (1601)
The twin churches
The twin churches of Santa Maria dei Miracoli (1681) and Santa Maria in Montesanto (1679), began by Carlo Rainaldi and completed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini and Carlo Fontana, define the junctions of the roads.
Close scrutiny of the churches reveals that they are not exactly the same as they would be in a neoclassical project. On the contrary, they vary in their details, offering variety within their symmetrical balance, thus becoming typical examples of Baroque art.
Santa Maria di Montesanto & Santa Maria dei Miracoli
From Piazza del Popolo, following via del Babuino, we reach the famous Piazza di Spagna. Stay tuned…
About the author
Hello! I am Denis, an architect based in Athens, Greece. I teach history of art and architecture in higher education. That’s one passion of mine. The other one is hiking, in and out of town. If you follow me, I’ll share my discoveries with you.
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