Piazza del Popolo, Rome

The Piazza del Popolo is a large cobbled oval space. The piazza forms the apex of a triangle of long, straight streets known as the Trident. These three streets, the Via del Babuino, the Via di Ripetta and the Via del Corso, one of Rome’s main high streets, start/end at the piazza.

The square welcomes thousands of visitors every day. Many of the visitors come to visit Santa Maria del Popolo, a basilica that features two splendid canvases by Caravaggio and some amazing Renaissance decoration.

Porta del Popolo

On one side of the piazza, there are two Neo-Classical facades which stand either side of the Porta del Popolo. The Porta is a medieval gate which was rebuilt in 1561. The inner face of the Porta was redone 94 years later by Bernini. This was done to celebrate the grand entrance of Queen Christina of Sweden, who had abandoned her Protestant throne for the hospitality of Catholic Rome. The Porta is modelled on a Roman triumphal arch. The outer face has statues of St Peter and St Paul on either side of the arch and a Medici coat of arms above.

Flaminio Obelisk

Standing in the piazza’s centre is an Egyptian obelisk (the Flaminio Obelisk). This was erected in 1589 by Pope Sixtus V. The obelisk was originally brought from Heliopolis in Egypt by Emperor Augustus and first stood in the Circus Maximus.

The Two Santa Marias

At the other side of the piazza, the churches of Santa Maria dei Miracoli and Santa Maria di Montesanto sit either side of the Via del Corso. The two churches look completely identical. However, this is a very clever illusion as they are different in layout, one has a circular dome and the other an oval one. However, the view of the two churches from the piazza is perfectly symmetrical.

Pincio Terrace

Overlooking the Piazza del Popolo is the Pincio Terrace which has splendid views of much of Rome. The terrace is accessible via steps leading from the piazza. The views from the terrace are well worth the effort climbing the stairs. The panoramic views are best at sunset.

Visiting the Piazza del Popolo

The nearest Metro stop is on Line A Flaminio – Piazza Del Popolo. Several bus routes pass the piazza, 95, 117, 119, 490, 495 and 926. The Piazza is just a short walk from the Spanish Steps along the Via del Babuino, this makes for an excellent evening stroll.

History of the Piazza

The piazza has evolved over the centuries. The obelisk was erected in 1589. The twin Santa Marias were built about a hundred years later. In the 19th Century, the piazza was turned into an oval shape by Guiseppe Valadier who also built the Pincio Gardens. He also built a neo-classical shell around the Santa Maria del Popolo, so that its south facade more closely matched the rest of the square.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, public executions were held here. Condemned men were sometimes hammered to death by repeated blows to the temples. This method of execution was later replaced by the Guillotine. The last execution of a criminal took place in 1826.

Riderless horse racing from the piazza down the Via del Corso was also popular. This was a barbaric sport. The horse’s performance was enhanced by stimulants, wrapping them in nail-studded ropes and setting off fireworks at their feet.

Santa Maria del Popolo

This early Renaissance church was built in 1472-1477 and it is one of Rome’s greatest stores of artistic treasure. Several illustrious families have chapels inside the building, all splendidly decorated. The Della Rovere Chapel has frescoes by Pinturicchio. In the Cerasi Chapel are two Caravaggio paintings – The Conversion of Paul and The Crucifixion of St. Peter. The Chigi Chapel was designed by Raphael for his patron the banker Agostino Chigi.

Of course, in Rome it is possible to visit lots of churches, this is definitely worth visiting, just because of its superbly decorated chapels.

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