Rome, Piazza Minerva, Pantheon. From the Inquisition to the ancient miracle
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. From Piazza Sant’Ignazio (http://culturehikes.com/en/rome-squares-piazza-di-trevi/), following Via del Seminario and turning left in Via dei Cestari, we arrive at Piazza Minerva.
Piazza Minerva. From the temple of Athena to the seat of the Inquisition
Piazza Minerva was named after the Dominican monastery of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, which means “Our Lady above Athena”. And this, because it was built near the site of an ancient temple of Athena.
In front of the church is one of Rome’s most peculiar monuments, the so-called Pulcino della Minerva. It’s a statue designed by the famous Baroque sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini and executed by his student Ercole Ferrata in 1667. It depicts an elephant carrying the Egyptian obelisk found in the Dominican monastery’s garden.
It’s the smallest of the eleven Egyptian obelisks in Rome and it is said to be one of the two obelisks that were transported from Sais, where they were built in the 6th century BC. The two obelisks were transported to Rome by Emperor Diocletian (284-305), to be placed in the neighbouring temple of Isis.
The Latin inscription on the base, chosen by the pope who commissioned the sculpture supporting the obelisk, Alexander VII ‘, is said to represent “a strong mind is needed to support a solid knowledge.”
Piazza Miverva with the famous elephant carrying an obelisk. In the background, the Pantheon
The only Gothic church in Rome
The Dominicans began to build the church we see today in 1280, having as a model the Dominican church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence.
The monastery of Santa Maria sopra Minerva played an important role in history because it was for a long time the headquarters of the Dominican Order (today the headquarters have returned to the monastery of Santa Sabina, one of the most important early Christian monuments in Rome, which we will see later). And, as the Inquisition was in the hands of the Dominicans, the monastery of Santa Maria sopra Minerva was also the headquarters of the notorious tribunal.
Don’t be fooled by the simple Renaissance (1600) façade of the church. Behind it is hiding a stunning Gothic interior with very important works of art. In fact, it’s the only Gothic church in Rome that retains its interior unchanged from later additions, especially from the Baroque era. The painted decoration, however, dates from the 19th century (neogothic) and was made when the baroque additions were removed.
Santa Maria sopra Minerva. The simple Renaissance façade hides an amazing Gothic interior
Santa Maria sopra Minerva. The only Gothic church in Rome. Source: I, Jean-Christophe BENOIST [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.5 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons
The top artwork inside the church is, of course, the statue of Christ (Cristo della Minerva), by Michelangelo. Also here are frescoes by Filippino Lippi (1488-1493), in the Carafa chapel (of the Roman family of the same name), and countless other works of art.
Finally, here are the tombs of two great figures of the Dominican Order: Saint Catherine of Siena and the great Renaissance painter Fra Angelico, who died in this monastery.
Michelangelo, Cristo della Minerva (1521). By Wknight94 talk (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Piazza della Rotonda. The largest dome in the world for 18 centuries
Piazza della Rotonda. The Pantheon and the Renaissance fountain with the Egyptian obelisk
Right next to Piazza Minerva is Piazza della Rotonda. It was named after the church of Santa Maria della Rotonda, which is none other than the famous Pantheon, perhaps the most impressive creation of ancient Rome. Suffice it to say that its dome, of a diameter of 43 metres, made of a kind of concrete, was the largest dome ever built until the 20th-century reinforced concrete vaults!
The height of the Pantheon is exactly the same as its diameter, that is, 43 meters. This means that a sphere with a diameter of 43 meters fits exactly inside it.
The Pantheon was completed by Emperor Hadrian, possibly in 126 AD. It was built on the site of an older temple, which was part of the complex built by Agrippa in 29-19 BC. Its name means it was a temple of all gods, although today this is disputed.
At the beginning of the 7th century, it was converted into a church of the Virgin Mary and all martyrs, which saved it from the destruction which was the fate of other Roman monuments. It is said that 28 carts brought the relics of the martyrs that were transported here from the catacombs.
The most impressive is its interior, illuminated only by the open door and by the huge circular oculus (eye). Inside the Pantheon great personalities of Italy are buried, most notably Rafael. From this came the habit of calling Pantheon any building containing tombs of prominent personalities.
The unique in the world interior of the Pantheon, with its circular skylight
(oculus). By Староста (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons
Despite the looting it has undergone over the centuries, the Pantheon remains one of the greatest architectural achievements of all time and one of the monuments that the visitor must not miss.
Yet another obelisk
In the centre of the square, there is a fountain that supports an Egyptian obelisk. The fountain was constructed by Giacomo Della Porta under Pope Gregory XIII’ in 1575 and the obelisk was added in 1711 under Pope Clement XI. The obelisk, originally built by Pharaoh Ramses II for the temple of Ra in Heliopolis, had come in ancient times to Rome, where it was re-used in the aforementioned temple of Isis.
During the 19th century, the square was particularly well-known for the market of bird vendors who brought their cages with live parrots, nightingales, owls and other birds, giving the square a very special colour, as reported by that time’s travellers (not always favourably , as the noise and dirt were terrifying, if we believe them).
Today, it’s one of the most lively squares in Rome, for obvious reasons
Next stop: Piazza Navona. 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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