The Squares of Rome

The Squares of Rome


Like the whole area, It owes its name to bishop J. Burckhardt (who came from Argentoratum, the old name for Strasbourg and was therefore called argentino by the Romans) who was Master of Ceremonies of Pope Alexander VI Borgia until the death of the latter and, therefore, eye-witness of the atrocities of the Spanish Pope’s family. The Tower and the house Burckhardt self let build around (in Via del Sudario) are called Burcardo today and are the seat of the museum of one of the largest collections in the world fro theatre works, original promt-copies and theatre costumes, photographs, play-bills, posters, etc. In the same area a little further away, duke Giuseppe Cesarini Sforza let build the large and famous theatre Argentina, today’s Thatre of Rome, in 1732. In the Sacred Area, on the east corner, there is a small tower of the antipope Anacleto II, that is too often (still nowadays) identified with the one after which the square is named.


It is dominated by the imposing flight of steps leading to S. Maria in Aracoeli, the origin of which, according to medieval legend, dates even back to Augustus. In that place the first Roman Emperor is said to have had the vision of the Virgin with the Child (whom, of course, he could not identify) showing him the place and saying “Ecce ara primogeniti Dei”, and he immediately let build an altar dedicated to the Son of God. The flight steps was also the only work that was carried out during the Pope’s stay in Avignon and was even inaugurated by the tribune Cola di Rienzo in 1348.


It has this name because it contains the Mausoleum of Octavian Augustus who wanted it in 29 AD: it is 44 meters high and has a diameter of 87 meters. It suffered due to the decay at the end of the Empire and in the Middle Ages (in the twelfth century it had been transformed into a fortress by the Colonnas and then dismantle by Pope Gregory IX) and was was transformed, like many others, into a marble, travertine, and bricks quarry to build other buildings. In the XVI century was transformed into an arena for tournaments and later into the “Teatro del Correa” (named after the Correa family that had taken the place of the Soderini family in the management). It was then covered with a skylight in metal sections and glass and transformed into the “Anfiteatro Umberto” during the new Italian Kingdom and then rent to the sculptor Chiaradia (the same who, among  others, is the author of the huge statue of Vittorio Emanuele II in Piazza Venezia). At the beginning of the nineteenth century it became the famous “Auditorio Augusteo”, a concert hall. Between 1934 and 1940 the restructuring of the place led to the building of the square: restoration works were limited to the Mausoleum only. Between the square and Lungotevere stands the Ara Pacis Augustae, that was built to bear witness of the peace established all over the world by Augustus’s army.


It remained long an inaccessible subsidence in the suburbs of ancient Rome (the city extended on the other side), crossed by a brook, only at the end of the sixteenth century it began to have an urban look. Along the centuries the area had had different owners: one of the eldes ones was Martial who lived there in one of his villas, the last was the Barberini family. Around the end of the sixteenth century it was crossed by Strada Felice (today’s Via Sistina) and Pope Urban VII Barberini transformed the old villa Sforza into an imposing palace. The most important artists of the time worked at the building, form Carlo Maderno to Francesco Borromini, from Pietro da Cortona to Gian Lorenzo Bernini. The latter was also requested to build two fountains, the Triton one, still standing in the middle of the square today, and the “Fountain of the Barberini Bees” standing today at the beginning of Via Veneto.


In the sixteenth century the whole area belonged to the suburbs with specific rural-country features. In ancient times it was at the boundary of Forum Boarium and was directly linked to the river trade. The Portunus (a river god) Temple as well as the round Hercules Temple stood there (they are still there), that were later on transformed into Christian chrches. Respectively dedicated to Santa Maria Egiziaca and to Santa Maria del Sole. Like the restored Circus Maximus, in the sixteenth century it looked out to the square, that at the time was much larger and included also the Arch of Janus. After the end of the Western Roman Empire the area decayed but flourished again in the seventeenth century. In the meanwhile, ever since the sixteenth century, the area around the Circus maximus was used for public executions (the last one took place under Pius IX papacy). Thoroughly transformed in 1936/37, the square changed its look: all the buildings in the area were demolished, including the Santa Galla cloister (XVII cent.) with its home for old people. In the meanwhile the Mulini Pantanella building had been built, today it has a new destination as municipal office. We should not forget that the square name is due to a circular marble mask, maybe a drain cover, maybe a simple covering, portraing a laughing satyr: today it is placed under the church porch and it was used as divine justice for liars. The alleged liars had to introduce theur hand into the satyr’s mouth who, to confirm their untruth, cut it off: there is no need saying that an armed man, equipped with a cutting weapon on the back of the mask, took the place of the divine justice.


Its name is due to the fact that at the end of the fifteenth century its area appeared like a big lawn rich with wild flowers. Until Pope Eugenio IV paved it and transformed it into one of the liveliest places in Rome: it got its looks, more or less as present one, a little time later with Pope Sixtus IV. Under John XIII pontificate a fountain was placed in the middle of Campo, a work by G. Della Porta, it was called “La Terrina” and was moved to Piazza della Chiesa Nuova at the end of the nineteenth century. On the same site an emblematic brass statue of Giordano Bruno was built, as unforgettable memory of the Dominican priest who was sent to stake for “heresy” just here on February 17, 1600.


The column in the middle of the square was built by the Roman Senate in 118 AD to honour Marcus Aurelius victories. It is 31 mt. high and has an average diameter of 3.80 mt. It was long attributed to Antoninus Pius (Marcus Aurelius statue on the top was replaced by St. Pauls’s one in 1587). It began to look like a real square around the first half of the sixteenth century and structurally it has kept its old look: the buildings delimiting the square as a matter of fact, although they were restored and modified many times, still have their original area and volume. Presently, looking from Via del Corso, we can see on the right Palazzo Chigi, that today is the seat of the Prime Minister’s office, in the front is the old Ludovisis residence, it was modified several times (last time Valadier added the colonnade with 12 original Doric columns) it looks out to Piazza Montecitorio too and today is the seat of the daily “Il Tempo”, on the left is the sixteenth century Del Bufalo Palace, it was also transformed several times and even a floor was added.


While it was initially occupied by temples and sacella, the Capitoline hill had a  premonition of what it would become later on when in 78 AD the Tabularium (the archive of the documents of the Roman State) was built. In the fifth century it went to rack and ruin and was replaced by a fortress  of the Corsi family, in the IX century it was transformed into the seat of the new Roman Senate. Later on the Conservatori palace was built (on the right facing the Senate). In 1536 Paul III Farnese entrusted Michael Angelo with the building project of the so called Platea Capitolina: the first part of the works included moving  Marcus Aurelius equestrian statue to the middle of the square (it had escaped destruction because it was wrongly believed to be Constantine’s statue, the first Christian Emperor). Immediately afterwards the imposing double staircase leading to the entrance of the Senator’s Palace (it still had medieval forms) was built,  at its base the fountain was placed that was flanked b the statues of the Tiber and the Nile rivers that were previously in the by now disappeared Constantine’s  thermae on the Quirinal hill. After Michael Angelo’s death the works were completed by Giacomo Della Porta: even if as a matter of fact all was realized by the end of the eighteenth century, one should note that the floor of the square (sampietrini, typical Rome cobbles, and travertine stripes designed by Michael Angelo) was realized in 1940!


After 1870 when Rome became the capital of Italy and the Montecitorio Palace was chosen to become the Parliament seat, it appeared necessary to make it suitable for its new task. Discussions went on for more than thirty years until, in 1902, architect Ernesto Basile wascharged with the restructuring. He left the Bernini part on Piazza Montecitorio unaltered and built on the opposite side an originally Art Nouveau building witha monumental staircase giving access to the palace. Opposite to the building a large open space took the name of Piazza del Parlamento. To realize the square it was necessary to demolish several buildings, including the “Impresa del Lotto” managed by the Apostolic Chamber and the sixteenth century Palazzo Conti: in their place a car parking for Members of the Parliament was built (sic!). The only execption of the demolition was the “Casa degli Agostiniani di S. Maria del Popolo” that was rebuilt in 1749: it was during these works that the Psmmeticus II Egyptian obelisk was found; it was moved to Piazza Mntecitorio by Pope Pius VII Braschi. Augustus had had it transported from Eliopolis to Rome to use it as a gnomon for Campus Martius sundial.


This space was not built at the time of the Roman Empire. It was delimited by the Aurelian Wall and the Pincio hill and included some sepulchres. Two of them, having a pyramid form, were designed to mark the beginning of the urban stretch of the Via Flaminia, the one leading to the Capitolium. At the end of the year 1000 a chapel dedicated to the Virgin was built there, to thank for re-conquered Jerusalem (I Crusade). It was called S. Maria del Popolo because it was built also thanks to people contribution. In the thirteenth century it was rebuilt  a fundamentis and transformed into a real church, and in the following century the building began: a small number of little houses were going to become the first core of the “Oca” District. In the middle of the sixteenth century the Forum Populi (this was its name) became Platea Populi and a beautiful fountain by Giacomo Della Porta was placed in the middle and in 1589 Ramses II Obelisk was added. The obelisk came from Heliopolis and had been previously arranged by Augustus in Circus Maximus. In the second half of the seventeenth century Alexander VII Chigi let restore the S. Maria Church, assigning the task to Gian Lorenzo Bernini. He did not only partly redesign (for the nth time) the Porta Flaminia but also actively worked on the twin churches, which had been planned by Carlo Rainaldi (S. Maria di Montesanto and S. Maria dei Miracoli), and also together with Carlo Fontana, on the other project by Rainaldi, concerning the transformation of the square in a sort of funnel widening just opposite the churches. To tell the truth the square, although arranged in this way, was thoroughly desolated until 1824. It did not even have a paving: in that year the roma architect Giuseppe Valadier provided for its rearrangement and started building two hemicycles delimited by four heads on the larger sides of the funnel. The hemicycles included the S. Maria del Popolo Church with opposite the barracks, which were intended for the Carabinieris later on in 1870; on the other side were two oppositem very similar buildings, at the beginning of Via del Babuino and Via di Ripetta. Giacomo della Porta’s fountain was removed (it stands in Piazza Nicosia today) and replaced with four circular basins fed by as many lions in red porphyry in Egyptian style.


It lies on a small hill formed during Roman Imperial Age thanks to the filling originating from two honorary columns (for Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius) that were built near the palace. In the Middle Ages the place was called Mons Acceptorius and in the sixteenth century Mons Citatorius, with reference to the near lying Antoninus Pius column, that was believed to have been used to post services. In 1526 the building of a residence house was started that had many owners until it became a property of the Ludovisi princes who entrusted Gian Lorenzo Bernini with its total reconstruction. This works were suspended two years later because the Prince died and the building was purchased, still unfinished, by Pope innocenzo XII Pignatelli who designed it as the seat of papal tribunals (“Curia Innocenziana”) and assigned its realization to Carlo Fontana. He finished it, while almost thoroughly respecting Bernini’s plan, with the co-operation of his son Francesco and built a slightly curved brik facade, with three floors and 25 windows each. All elements in the front were demolished, including a wonderful sixteenth century fountain by Francesco da Volterra; at different stages two L-plan buildings were built on both sides of the square; the base of Antoninus column was moved to the Vatican; its place was taken by the Psammeticus II obelisk that was the gnomon of Augustus sun dial (placed on the other side  of the Curia). Today the palace is mostly used as a seat of the Italian Government and, a few years ago, Rome Town Council paved the square again, reserved it for pedestrians and partly gave back the obelisk its gnomon function.


At the beginning of the sixteenth century future Piazza di Spagna was already a fundamental reference point for visitors: starting from here as a matter of fact, you could almost directly reach Ponte S. Angelo, the entrance of the Vatican citadel and, therefore, St. Peter’s Basilica. Already in the seventeenth century it was possible to see urban buildings, in particular on the left of the Pincio hill, Vicolo del Bottino could already be noticed, where presently is the entrance to the underground. At the same time Urban VII Barberini requested Pietro Bernini (Gian Lorenzo’s father) to build the “Barcaccia” fountain, it is decorated with the bees of the Pope family and with French lilies. All this hoped for a renewed friendship between the Pope and France itself, a quite unhappy  relationship at the time. The area on which the Trinita Church stood, as a matter of fact, had been bought by French Charles VIII in the previous century, who had given it for present to the Minims of Calabria whose founder, S.Francesco da Paola, had been the spiritual support of his father, Louis XI. For a long time of his life. In any case the Platea della Trinita was divided in two at the beginning of the seventeenth century: in the north the so-called Platea di Francia and south the Platea di Spagna. The latter took its name from the fact that the Monaldeschi family had granted the use of its Palace, facing the Gabrielli-Mignanelli Palace, to the Spanish Ambassador at the Pontifical State (it still has the same destination today). With regard to Platea di Francia, at the time of Louis XIV, the Sun King, Cardinal Mazzarino commisioned a series of projects for the arrangement but none of them was successful. Alexander VII Chigi opposed them fiercely probably because, at the center of the terrace on the stairs, according to all projects, should have stood a large statue of Le Roi Soleil. When the latter died, finally, the project was assigned to arch. Francesco De Santis and the work was completed in 1726. In 1854, subsequent to the proclamation of the Immaculate Conception dogma, a column of Roman Age in cipolin was built, which had been found in 1777 underneath Campus Martius. The column stood in front of the Spanish Embassy, in the square that was now thoroughly called “di Spagna” and a brass statue of the Virgin was placed on the top. It should be noted that Italian and foreign artists and writers lived in the little houses on the right of the starcase at different times. At no. 26 we should recall Keats (today the house is the seat of the Keats Shelley Memorial) while at no. 31 is the Giorgio De Chirico Foundation (he lived there until his death in 1978)


The homonymous palace was commissioned to Antonio di Sangallo the Younger, by Alexander Farnese, Cardinal of St. Eustachio, before he became Pope Paul III. It was designed to stand on a ground of his property near Campo De’ Fiori. When Sangallo died, the building was enlarged and modified by Michael Angelo, followed first by Vignola and then by Giacomo Della Porta. The arrangement of the opposite space was started immediately by Latino Giovanni Manetti, who was Streets Master at the time. He made it symmetric and homogeneous, demolishing some little houses on the site, paved it with bricks and placed a large granite basin in the middle. This basin originated from Piazza Venezia and previously from the Baths of Caracalla, later on a twin basin having the same origin was added, so that the location of the first basin had to be changed (it was moved to the side of the square – now called Farnese Square – to take a parallel position to the new one). Later on both basins were transformed into fountains by Rainaldi who, moreover, added the Farnese heraldic lily. After the advent of the Italian State, the palace became State property and was given to France, to become the seat for its Ambassador for a symbolic rent until 2035.


The beautiful palace at the foot of the Pincio hill was commissioned by the Gabriellis from Gubbio at the beginning of the seventeenth century and started the arrangement of the surrounding ground, lying on the right of the small paths that, at the time, led to Trinità dei Monti. The name of this square was Mignanelli due to a marriage in the Gabrielli family. A short time later the square was linked to Trinità dei Monti by an extremely original flight of small steps and finally surrounded by seventeenth century buildings as beautiful as the palace itself. On Piazza di Spagna side the square was closed by a chain that was opened to allow the entrance of family and friends coaches. In 1887 the palace was restored by architect Andrea Busiri Vici, who changed the facade and added a third floor. In the twentieth century the seventeenth century palace on the right (facing Trinità dei Monti) was for a long time the seat of the Inspectorate of Rates and Taxes, managed by the Monte dei Paschi di Siena, as well as of Rome Municipal Office of Rates and Taxes.


Roman athletic games took place in that area still in Republican times. Emperor Nero built an amphitheater that Domitian transformed into “Circus Agonis” for 30.000 spectators, all in bricks and travertine. At the end of the Empire, the Circus decay had already begun: in the Middle Ages, though, games and performances still took place there and in the shadow of half destroyed arcades stood a shantytown (we would define it like that today) and Christian aedicule, among which one dedicated to the martyr St. Agnes. In the Middle Ages still, the first palaces were built that belonged to powerful Roman families. They formed the Platea Agona that later on became Piazza Navona. In the second half of the fifteenth century, Sixtus IV levelled the plane and paved the ground with bricks. In the following century Gregory XIII Boncompagni built two fountains: the one in the south was called the “Triton” fountain, later on it took the name of “Moor” Fountain when it was modified by G.L. Bernini. In the middle of the XVII century the Pamphili family (Pope Innocenzo X family) built a large palace, following Maderno’s plan, in the place of two existing buildings. F. Borromini was then charged with the construction of the Collegio Innocenziano and of St. Agnese in Agone Church that was then completed by Bernini who also built the large Fountain of the Four Rivers. For centuries the square was the seat of fairs, tournaments, performances…On every August weekend all drains were closed, the square was flooded and practically transformed into a huge basin.


Alread at the beginning of the Roman Empire, the area lying at the foot of the Celian hill was characterized by the presence of some patrician houses of the Laterani family and the house of Marcus Aurelius mother, Domitia Lucilla. In the second century AD, Emperor Septimius Severus built there the “Equites Singulares” barracks. The “Equites” were the imperial guards that Constantine dissolved because they were still faithful to his adversary, Maxentius, designing the occupied space for the construction of a large basilica dedicated to SS Sacramento and then, underthe pontificate of Gregory the Great, to Saints John Baptist and John Evangelist. The basilica was rebuiltand modified several times along the centuries, starting from the X century AD (it had collapsed due to an earthquake in 896). The Patriarchium, the residence of Rome Popes, was built on the left. One could enter the palace through wide marble stairs that, the legend has it, originated from the Pretorian Palace in Jerusalem. Jesus Christ was said to have climbed these stairs when going to Pontius Pilate to face judgment. It was destroyed by fire in the XII century and the rebuilding was begun, with a succession of positive and negative events, until Pope Sixtus V did not start the restructuring of the square that was carried out by Domenico Fontana. He built a new building where the “Scala Santa” was placed, isolated the Baptistery and built the new  papal residence (today it is the seat of the Vicariate), placed the Egyptian Obelisk (from Thebes) in the middle of Circus Maximus. In 1735 the basilica final facade was built (by Alessandro Galilei), it is a typical example of Roman scenographic Baroque with a good 15 statues.