piazza del popolo

Piazza del Popolo means ‘the People’s Square’ or the ‘Poplar Square’ in Italian. The current look of this square dates from the 1820s, but this location, like most in Rome, goes back to Roman times.

piazza del popolo Originally this area was far removed from the city, which was where the Roman Forum is now, and was developed from 220 BC when a man called Caius Flaminius built a city gate here.

This gate was the main approach point from the North; the road still bares his name; the Via Flaminia as does its Metro stop Flaminio.

piazza popolo

piazza popolo Nero’s Burial Site

One of the most famous people associated with this site was Rome’s crazy Emperor Nero (54 – 68 AD).

Nero was the last Emperor from Julius Caesar’s family, the Julio-Claudians, he was also descended from Marc Anthony, which may explain some of his behavior.

Nero was quite demented, he killed his own mother and kicked his pregnant wife to death. Nice guy.

He also was quite negligent as a ruler, offending the Senate and blaming the Christians for starting the Great fire of AD 64 which burned one third of the city while he was on holiday.

In 68 AD he was declared an enemy of the people by the Senate and he committed suicide.

The government or his family eventually buried him here, in land his Domitia family owed, so those few who liked him could see his grave.

His full name was Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus Tiberius Claudius Nero (try saying that ten times fast).

Eventually a very dark tree grew from this spot, where the church of Santa Maria del Popolo is today.

piazza de popolo

piazza popolo This tree was dark and deformed. Crows sat on it, making it look haunted, like a scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds.

The people who lived in the vicinity were convinced that Nero’s ghost stalked the area and his negative energy was here.

They raised the money for the Catholic Church to cut down the tree and build a chapel or small church over the site in 1099.

It was called Santa Maria del Popolo, or Saint Mary of the People, as the people paid for it.

There may have also been poplar trees in the area. The Pope himself came out to bless the ground and get rid of Nero’s evil energy.

piazzas in rome

piazza in rome That church was in disrepair and demolished and the current church was built in 1478.

The architects were Andrea Bregno and Baccio Pontelli (he would next build the Sistine Chapel) and it was given to the Augustinian Monks of the Lombard Congregation to run.

There is very little in fact in this square which does not something to do with the Catholic Church in one way of another as they governed Rome for most of the middle ages; the Papal States.

Protestant Rome

protestant rome Martin Luther in Rome

There are, however, two things in this square to do with Lutheranism.

The first thing, is the building to the left of the main gate. This used to be the headquarters, right up until recently of the Augustinian Order, a Catholic order or group of monks.

In 1510, one such monk from the monastery of Erfurt in Germany, made a 650 mile trip, on foot and wagon, to Rome. It was a pilgrimage he had been looked forward to for years.

Like most Catholics of the time, he idolized Rome believing it to be a city of God, as he had been told in the monastery.

When he and his companion arrived right here, he fell to the ground and kissed it, shouting ‘Blessed art thou Holy Rome’.

His enthusiasm would be short lived. That man was Martin Luther. He stayed in the city for 4 weeks.

Luther slept in this building although this area would be unrecognisable to him today.

He visited everything, the catacombs, St. Peter’s, even climbing up the Holy Stairs at St. John the Lateran on his knees, as is the custom.

What Luther saw in Rome, disgusted him. Clergy and cardinals lived almost in palaces, while he obeyed the vow of poverty.

Many clergy had mistresses and had contracted sexually transmitted diseases, breaking their vow of chastity, which they died from in public knowledge of how one would contract such an ailment.

Some people starved and others urinated publicly in the streets as he notes in his diary. Very few were devout as he had imagined.

Rome convinced Luther that the Catholic Church needed a radical shake up. years later he would do that; starting the Protestant Reformation which would separate Northern Europe from Rome.

define obelisk

define obelisk Eighty years later in 1589 Pope Sixtus V had the central obelisk brought here from the Circus Maximus, the ancient chariot-racing track in the centre of Rome.

This is one of the obelisks of Heliopolis. These were monoliths (single stones) which sat outside the Temple of Heliopolis, or sun city, in Egypt.

It is over 3,200 years old, its hieroglyphs date from Seti I and Ramesses II reigns, and it was brought to Rome by Augustus.

Augustus was the first Roman Emperor and Julius Caesar’s adopted son.

When he defeated Marc Antony and Cleopatra in the civil wars he brought 31 of these back from Egypt to symbolise its capture and assimilation as a province of the Empire, less than half remain.

He placed them in public locations in Rome as propaganda pieces. Coins were also struck to reflect this saying AEGYPTA CAPTA, or Egypt taken.

Egypt was an older society than Rome it was considered to be a huge addition to the Empire and it was.

piazzas of rome

piazzas of rome

Queen Christina of Sweden

The second thing to do with Lutheranism is the Flaminian gate.

This is called Porta del Popolo, or the gate of the people, and was designed by Gianlorenzo Bernini in 1655 to celebrate the defection of Queen Christina of Sweden to Catholicism (the north side in earlier and was done by Nanni di Baccio Bigio).

Before she was born her parents really, really wanted a boy; a future king. When she was born as a woman, her father refused to believe it.

He styled her as a boy, cut her hair short and encouraged her to go hunting; male pursuits.

Accordingly she grew up to be slightly abnormal; she really looked like a man.

Regardless, she moved to Rome in 1655, giving up the throne of Sweden, a Lutheran state, and converted to Catholicism. She admired the Catholic Church’s devotion to the Virgin Mary, which as someone who had been told femininity was negative all her life, is understandable.

Her joining Catholicism was a huge propaganda piece for the church so the Pope gave her an apartment in Rome and anything else she wanted.


She eventually became embroiled in love affairs which turned violent and scandal gripped Rome, embarrassing the church.

This gate or archway was designed for her to enter Rome, like a triumphal arch of ancient times; she actually travelled through this gate and the welcoming ceremony was here in this square.

The Papal Crest on the top of gate is the Chigi family crest of Alexander the VII, who was Pope at the time.

He died in 1667, just as all the work in St Peter’s Square, which he had commissioned, was finished. Queen Christina is buried in the papal tombs of St. Peter’s Basilica.

The Churches of Saint Mary

define obelisk

Also of note are the two twin churches which were designed by Carlo Rainaldi in the seventeenth century and are both named after St Mary: Santa Maria dei Miracoli (1675-1679) and Santa Maria in Montesanto (1662-1675).

When they were built, the Pope Alexander VII wanted them to look symmetrical.

As the church on the left is smaller, Carlo Fontana, who succeeded Rainaldi, solved the problem by making the dome of one circular and the dome of the other oval shaped.

Giuseppe Valadier

piazza in rome The architect Domenico Fontana, who carried out the dome of St Peter’s, was responsible for erecting the obelisk here.

The four fountains, the lions were designed by later architect Giuseppe Valadier in 1823.

The lions are copies of Michelangelo’s lions which sit at the base of the steps of the Cordonata staircase of the Capitol Hill.

The current layout of the Piazza did not happen until 1816-24 when Giuseppe Valadier designed it along Neoclassical lines.

Neoclassical means where artists look back to the past of Greece and Rome for inspiration.

We have this semi-circular arm effect on both sides of the piazza.

On one (western) half there is Neptune, the Roman god of the sea (and counter part to Poseidon), with his servants the tritons blowing conch shells.

On the other side we have the Goddess Minerva flanked by river gods representing the Tiber.

You can see the twins suckling on a wolf, which represent Romulus and Remus the two mythical siblings who founded Rome.

Along both walls on each side we have sphinxes from Egypt which provided Ancient Rome with most of its food. On each of the corners there is a statue represent

squares of rome tour

On each of the corners there is a statue representing the seasons: Spring holds the bouquet of flowers, Autumn or Fall holds a bunch of grapes, Summer holds shafts of wheat, and Winter is and old man wrapped up from the cold. That shows you the sexism; the man gets the worst season.

During the later middle-ages this square was used by Popes as places of public executions, before that honour passed to Campo di Fiori. Nowadays Piazza del Popolo is used for public receptions such as when the Italian soccer team won the world cup in 2006.

Piazza del Popolo is a great place to start a walking tour of Rome, as it has its own Metro Stop Flaminio and is in Walking distance of the Spanish Steps and many other of the squares of Rome. If you would like to book a walking tour of the city of Rome including Piazza del Popolo you can do so in the side menu.

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