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  • Writer's pictureWill von Behr, MA

A Brief History of Piazza del Popolo in Rome

What is Piazza del Popolo?

Piazza del Popolo is a large elliptical public square redesigned over the centuries, that once marked the entrance to the ancient city.

Piazza del Popolo and flaminio obelisk

Piazza del Popolo History

Piazza del Popolo, or ‘the Peoples’ Square’, is certainly one of Rome’s most interesting piazzas, and one that neatly reflects the constantly changing tastes and styles throughout the Eternal City’s history. In ancient Rome, this area marked the endpoint of the Via Flaminia, a Roman road connecting the city to the Adriatic coast. Where the road met the piazza there was a gate, known as the Porta Flaminia, through which people would officially enter the city itself. In the 15th century, the ancient structure was replaced by the monumental Porta del Popolo, which you can see at the north of the square.

At the centre of the piazza, you’ll see an eye-catching Egyptian obelisk, brought to Rome by its first emperor, Augustus, in 10 BC and set up in the Circus Maximus, the city’s largest chariot racing stadium. This Egyptian monolith, the second oldest in the city, was constructed in the 13th century BC and erected here by Pope Sixtus V in 1589. He made sure the monument reflected the importance of the Roman Catholic church, adding a large Christian cross at its peak.

The 17th century witnessed yet another overhaul of the square’s features. The pope, Alexander VII, a man of great wit, vanity and fiscal laxity, had an ambitious new vision for the piazza. Alexander dreamt of restoring Rome to its classical splendour, and was even rumoured to own a wooden model of the whole city that he kept in secret, moving its pieces around as if playing a game of chess. He commissioned the preeminent artists and architects of his time – Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Carlo Rainaldi and Pietro da Cortona – to carry out his redesign, and the square was remade with three roads leading out, all of which could be seen at once, emphasising Rome’s grandeur.

The inner face of the northern entrance was designed by Bernini as a stage set for the arrival of Queen Christina in 1655, Sweden’s esteemed Catholic convert with such a taste for art that she was even given the nickname ‘The Minerva of the North’, the Roman goddess of wisdom and sponsor of the arts. Alexander wanted the queen to appreciate the grandeur of the city, so reworked the piazza’s layout to resemble a funnel leading from Bernini’s entrance to the three avenues at the opposite end.

The square was reinvented again in the early 19th century by Giuseppe Valadier, an Italian architect who had carried out a number of important papal projects. He made the piazza larger, oval-shaped and more accessible, and added trees, shrubbery, ornate fountains and sculptures. One of the improvements made by Valadier was to link the piazza to the Pincian Hill by a public promenade. Today, the best views of the square are from the Pincio Terrace, which you can reach by climbing the stairs at the east end of the piazza.

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