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A Brief History of the Piazza del Campidoglio in Rome

Updated: 2 days ago

What is the Piazza del Campidoglio?


The Piazza del Campidoglio is a harmonious piazza designed by Michelangelo in the 16th century that’s located on the Capitoline Hill in Rome.


Piazza del Campidoglio

Piazza del Campidoglio History


This famously well-proportioned piazza was designed by revered artist and architect Michelangelo. When the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V signalled his intention to visit Rome in the 16th century, Pope Paul III was dismayed by the condition into which the Capitoline Hill, once the epicentre of Rome’s power, had descended. In 1538, he asked Michelangelo, the great master, to design him a new square and to overhaul the surrounding buildings.


In addition to the renovations of the Palazzo del Senatore (the 12th-century municipal building opposite the graded ramp) and the Palazzo dei Conservatori (to the right of the ramp), Michelangelo designed the Palazzo Nuovo, or ‘New Palace’. This third structure, which was not actually started until the early 17th century, 40 years after Michelangelo’s death, was positioned at an 80-degree angle, just like the Palazzo dei Conservatori. By exploiting this accidental orientation, Michelangelo was able to create a trapeze shaped piazza with an inlaid pavement forming a raised oval in the centre (however, his star-shaped pavement was only completed in 1940).


When the Pope decided it was time to elevate the appearance of the Capitoline Hill, he ordered that the famous gilded bronze equestrian statue of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius be brought here, and asked Michelangelo to design its elegant pedestal. This particular statue is a copy that was erected when the 2nd-century AD original, widely regarded as the greatest equestrian statue of antiquity, was taken down for restoration. Like most other ancient works, the original now is sheltered from the elements, and can be found within the Capitoline Museums. It is one of the rare surviving equestrian statues from classical Rome, possibly because for centuries it was believed to be a statue of Constantine, the emperor who converted to Christianity. Scholars have suggested there once lay a barbarian enemy beneath the foot of the emperor’s horse, and that therefore the gesture his hand is making is one of mercy. As well as a successful military commander, Marcus Aurelius was a celebrated philosopher; his Stoical Meditations remain in print today. His intellect, after a fashion established by the Emperor Hadrian, is indicated by the fullness of his beard.


Michelangelo also designed the double ramp of stairs at the front of the Palazzo del Senatore, which is embellished by a fountain adorned with two enormous ancient statues depicting reclining river-gods, the Nile on the left and the Tiber on the right (the latter formerly represented the Tigris in southwestern Asia, however it was given the attributes of the Tiber in the 16th century). In the niche between them is an ancient porphyry statue of Minerva, the goddess of wisdom and war, which was transformed into the goddess Roma.


In addition, Michelangelo designed the elegant and regal Cordonata, the graded ramp on the open side of the piazza. Its position meant it faced St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, as opposed to the ancient centre of the Roman Forum. The ramp is flanked at the bottom by two black, basalt Egyptian lions, while at the top stand giant, ancient marble statues of Castor and Pollux, Greek mythological figures who were twin brothers of Helen of Troy.


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