ROMAN ITINERARIES – CAMPO MARZIO DISTRICT – ITINERARY 15
CAMPO MARZIO DISTRICT – ITINERARY 15
The Campo Marzio District Itinerary 15 will start from the Spanish Steps, arriving in one of the most monumental squares of Rome, dominated by three churches related to the Virgin Mary.
Via dei Condotti – Largo Goldoni – Via del Corso – Piazza del Popolo
VIA DEI CONDOTTI
Although it changed its name four times, the ancient Via Trinitatis (today called Via dei Condotti) starts from the bottom of the Spanish Steps to reach Nicosia Square: these nine hundred meters directly connect the Pincio Hill with the place where the Posterula harbour used to be.
The name “Trinitatis” (Trinity) is found in the ancient Plan of Rome drawn up by Bufalini in 1551, before the King of France and the Minims of St. Francis of Paola built the present Church of the Trinity of the Mountains and the other one, called “del Campo” (“of the field”), in the immediate proximity of Largo Goldoni. When these churches were erected, making the presence of the Holy Trinity triumph, paradoxically and ironically the profane side took over, changing the name of the road that began to refer to the pipelines of the Virgin Aqueduct. You can easily understand the enthusiasm of the people of the District, who hoped to definitively emancipate themselves from the water of the Tiber which, at the time, although perhaps drinkable, was certainly not of excellent quality.
Via dei Condotti is in line with the traditional perspective rules of Roman town planning: from any point of the street, in fact, you can see the Church of the Trinity of the Mountains, the Sallustian Obelisk and the Staircase, perfectly aligned and framed by the corners of the houses overlooking the square. The street, slightly downhill from the square because of the slope of the pipes, appears as a sort of natural funnel; compared to it, the parallel streets appear to be much less frequented. Via dei Condotti, for its luxury stores, for its greater spaciousness compared to the parallel streets and for its wonderful perspective, is always very crowded and animated, especially on holidays. The street was particularly frequented also in the past centuries, thanks to the conspicuous presence of taverns and inns that, being frequented more by foreigners than by Romans, contributed to give the street a strong international connotation.
At number 11, for example, there was once the “Osteria della Lepre” (“Tavern of the Hare”), very popular among the English men of the Academy founded by Lawrence in 1821, the same year in which John Keats died in his small room above the Spanish Steps. To a certain surprise, the name of this famous tavern did not depend on the wild animals cooked inside, but only on its location in the Palace of the Marquis Lepri, whose coat of arms still appears today in the background of the entrance hall on a wall of the courtyard.
THE ANCIENT GREEK CAFÈ
The weight of the oldest tradition is represented, at number 81, by a real must-see coffee-break: the Ancient Greek Cafè, which from Goëthe to Guttuso has been a reference point for intellectuals, artists and upper middle class.
Come in and admire it, maybe enjoying a good coffee: the first room, where the bench is located, does not differ much (paintings apart) from many other places in the neighborhood, but penetrating into the heart of the Cafè and arriving at the Red Room you will have the feeling to go back in time and relive some moments of the past, between cultured conversations and brilliant chats.
The palace at number 68 is home to the Knights of Malta, with the classic red banner with an eight-pointed white cross. The Knights of the Sacred Order of Malta boast embassies in many states, and have laid down arms and armor to devote themselves to administering their considerable patrimony, while at the same time providing consistent collaboration in national health care. As evidenced by an inscription, which recalls the presence in the place of the ancient Hierosolimitans, the Order’s presence dates back to 1631.
THE CHURCH OF THE HOLY TRINITY OF THE SPANISH
At number 47, there is the house that was inhabited by the Italian playwright and librettist Carlo Goldoni between 1758 and 1759, and from this derives the name of the widening in which this first part of our itinerary converges. Before the small square, you can see the church that the Spanish wanted to consecrate to the Trinity, involving the architect Emanuele Rodriguez de Santos.
The Church of the Holy Trinity of the Spanish, consecrated in 1750, has a baroque façade harmoniously animated with columns and recesses on two orders, all crowned by a double tympanum. The elliptical interior has its own harmony, with the plaster simulating a yellow marble: on the high altar you can admire the beautiful painting by Corrado Giaquinto, depicting the “Holy Trinity“.
This part of Via del Corso is probably less interesting than the first half, that is, the one that starts from Venice Square and arrives at the Church of St. Lawrence in Lucina.
THE CHURCH OF JESUS AND MARY
However, take a look at the small Church of Jesus and Mary, linked to the Discalced Carmelites, which has a severe baroque façade made by Carlo Rainaldi and an interior project designed by the architect Carlo Maderno.
The building has very interesting decorations, such as the African black marble pillars on the sides of the high altar, the painting on the vault depicting “Glorification of the Virgin with the Four Evangelists” by Giacinto Brandi, the paganizing “Winged Chronos” on the tomb on the left as soon as you enter and above all the lively sketch on the right side of the first chapel where, above a confessional, the two gentlemen Pietro and Francesco Bolognetti converse in a polite and lively manner, dressed in splendid period costumes.
THE RONDININI SANSEVERINO PALACE
At number 518 Via del Corso, where a plaque recalls the level reached by the Tiber in the flood of December 28th 1870, there is the Rondinini Sanseverino Palace, which once belonged to the architect Flaminio Ponzio and especially to the famous painter Cavalier D’Arpino, one of the first teachers of Caravaggio.
The entrance of the palace represents a tiny museum of ancient sculpture, given the great quantity and quality of archaeological fragments that are preserved mostly attached to the walls; inside the collection there was also the splendid Medusa Rondanini, a head of Medusa today preserved in the Glyptoteca of Munich.
The main floor of the Palace, which boasts richly frescoed rooms and a ballroom, also had in its collection the famous Rondanini Pietà by Michelangelo Buonarroti, now preserved at the Sforzesco Castle in Milan.
THE TWIN CHURCHES
Arriving at the end of Via del Corso, the sides of the churches of St. Mary in Montesanto and St. Mary of Miracles announce People’s Square, one of the focal points of the Campus Martius District.
Turn to look at the two churches: they seem very similar to a first fleeting glance, but in reality they present several differences. Both have a classical appearance, with propylaea that seem to meet the wayfarers who have recovered from the wonder of People’s Square: the two churches, nicknamed “twins” in an inappropriate way, represent the starting point of the so-called “Trident” consisting of the straight, central axis of the Corso and the two diverging streets of Via di Ripetta and Via del Babuino.
The task of building both churches was initially assigned in 1661 by Pope Alexander VII to the Roman architect Carlo Rainaldi; however, it was not concluded before 1679, thanks also to the interest of the great baroque artist Gian Lorenzo Bernini. It seems in fact that Rainaldi, once he received the prestigious task, wanted to build the two churches inspired by St. Agnese in Agone, hoping to implement what he had already once been prevented by the initial entrusting of the work to Francesco Borromini. Evidently, however, Rainaldi was born under a bad star, because even this time the work was “stolen” from him by the elderly Gian Lorenzo Bernini, with the collaboration of his assistant Carlo Fontana: all that remained of the initial project was the pronaos, which was saved by Bernini himself. At the end of the 17th Century, then, under the pontificates of Clement X and Innocent XI, the factory of the two churches was completed.
St. Mary in Montesanto, between via del Corso and via del Babuino, was inaugurated in 1675, while St. Mary of Miracles in 1678: to build the first one, some old houses bought by the Company of the Holy Annunciation were demolished, while to build the second one it was necessary to destroy a small church consecrated to Saints Ursula and Catherine, as well as the remains of the so-called Sepulchre of Agrippa.
Now, looking carefully, you will realize that the two churches are not twins at all. The domes are different, dodecagonal the first and octagonal the second. The bell towers are different, with the one on the right (by architect Girolamo Theodoli) inspired by the shapes of Borromini. The interior is different, elliptical that of the Virgin in Montesanto, circular that of St. Mary of Miracles.
It is now time to tell the story of the foundation of the two churches.
ST. MARY IN MONTESANTO
St. Mary in Montesanto takes its name from a 16th Century icon, by an unknown author, placed on the high altar. The whole church is rich and at the same time harmonious, with the vault decorated with splendid stuccoes by Filippo Carcani, directed by a follower of Bernini, Mattia de Rossi. The artists have elected thi one as their official church, and Roman citizens go there on the occasion of the funerals of famous people who have made their fortune in the world of cinema, television or entertainment.
ST. MARY OF MIRACLES
The miraculous rescue of a seven years old boy, overwhelmed by the Tiber water near the present day Margherita Bridge, in 1325, gave its name to the Church of St. Mary of Miracles. The portentous image was taken to a small chapel and entrusted by Pope Clement VII to the care of the religious in charge of the Hospital of St. James who, being the last hope for many sick people, obtained the nickname of “hospital of the incurables“. However, the area was flooded again in 1530 by a flood, and it was necessary to transfer the holy image to a safer place, leaving a simple copy of it on site. The final arrangement took place, as mentioned above, with the new church consecrated on August 5th 1678.
The interior of this church has a central plan, with four arches in correspondence of as many rooms (choir, side chapels and high altar). Beautiful the stuccoes by Antonio Raggi, who also realized the symbolic figures of “Faith” and “Hope” that adorn the tomb of Marquis Benedetto Gastaldi, brother of Cardinal Girolamo Gastaldi, who promoted the construction of this lovely church.
Before entering the square and admiring it in all its splendor, you can decide to have a drink in one of the two historical places at the beginning of the “trident”, which are perfectly set in the urban fabric: on the side of the Church of St. Mary in Montesanto, in memory of the most famous sculptor who lived nearby, there is the Canova Café; on the side of St. Mary of Miracles, the Rosati Café.
Let’s talk for a moment about the latter. In 1922, when he returned from Switzerland where he had emigrated, Carlo Rosati bought an old dairy and over the years transformed it into one of the most historical places in Rome. Among the many people who crowded his tables, we can mention the painter Renato Guttuso, the writer and director Pierpaolo Pasolini and the famous dialectal poet Trilussa, who wrote “The soap bubble” right here. In this tradition of happy events and entertainers, however, there have been very dark moments, as in February 1980, when a bomb exploded thunderously in the toilet taking away most of the place, which was considered at the time the meeting place of Roman neo-fascists.
THE FLAMINIAN OBELISK
With the construction of the two new churches, three churches dedicated to the Virgin Mary surrounded “the pagan spire of the Sun“, how the Popes defined the majestic Flaminian Obelisk in granite, which still stands in the center of the square, third in height in Rome with its 24 meters (36.50 with the base).
It was brought to Rome by Heliopolis, where it had been erected by Ramesses II in the 13th Century B.C., and used by Emperor Augustus to adorn the central thorn of the Circus Maximus. From there Pope Sixtus V, in 1585, had it transported and erected where you can see it now by his architect Domenico Fontana.
At its feet was once the fountain that today is located in Nicosia Square. Later Pope Leo XII (1823-1829) got rid of the fountain and had it built by the architect Valadier the four basins on which still today they throw water as many lionesses, thus emphasizing the egyptian taste of the time.
THE PEOPLE’S GATE
Now try to enjoy the view of the square by entering through the People’s Gate, the ancient Flaminian Gate (which in the Middle Ages was renamed the Gate of St. Valentine, from the tradition of calling the gates of Rome with the name of the catacombs closest to them).
The People’s Gate must be split between external and internal façade: the external façade is the oldest, and was erected between the years 1562 and 1565 by the architect Nanni di Baccio Bigio at the behest of Pope Pius IV. The façade had four columns coming from the ancient St. Peter’s Basilica, which framed the large and unique fornix.
Only in 1638, between the two pairs of columns, the two statues of Peter and Paul, sculpted by Francesco Mochi, were inserted, which had been rejected by St. Paul’s Basilica, while the two side arches were opened in 1887 by the architect Mercandetti, for traffic needs, demolishing the two towers that flanked the door at the time.
The inner part was instead renovated by Gian Lorenzo Bernini on the occasion of the entry into Rome in 1655 of the decayed Queen Christine of Sweden, one of the most important women in Europe in the 17th Century. The propaganda impulse that Catholicism gained, with the conversion from Lutheranism of the daughter of a great protagonist of the Thirty Years’ War, was enormous, and Rome decided to renew itself in the expectation of the event.
To this event dates back the inscription “FELICI FAUSTOQ(UE) INGRESSUI ANNO DOM MDCLV“, translatable as “for a happy and auspicious entrance in the year 1655”, carved on the top of the Gate at the will of Pope Alexander VII, who also wanted to include his majestic family crest, a six-peaked mountain accompanied by an eight-beam star.
Where, however, does the name Square “of the People” come from?
We cannot give an answer with absolute certainty. Some scholars claim that it comes from the Latin name of poplar, while according to others the toponym was born from the adjacent Church of St. Mary of the People, so called because it was built in 1099 by Pope Pasquale II, at the expense of the Roman people. In fact, the citizens of Rome had very good reasons to build this church with a spontaneous subscription: it was to free the area from an authentic crowd of witches, demons and evil spirits that, according to the pilgrims, made life very hard for those who had to pass the Flaminian Door. This aura of wickedness was dictated by the fact that, in this place, there was the Tomb of Nero, to whose vileness not even the soul of St. Valentine could oppose, so much so that the intervention of the Madonna was indispensable.
THE FOUNTAINS OF PEOPLE’S SQUARE
The square took on its present appearance at the beginning of the 19th Century, when the architect Giuseppe Valadier was commissioned to design the overall layout, which had to be such as to highlight the lost Romanity and the idea of the ancient empire, reviving its forms. The task, however, was not at all easy, both because the project was very ambitious and because of the characteristics of the area in which it was to be implemented: the Pincio Hill was in fact a steep fraction of the Roman countryside, and beyond the ancient Aurelian Walls, although there was no longer the Sepulchre of Nero, the atmosphere remained sinister because here stood the cemetery of whores, heretics and criminals (detail reported by the Guidebooks of Rome in the 18th Century).
The architect Valadier, strong of its neoclassical experience, was however able to leave its mark. The exedra on the side of the Pincio, the most significant and important, was a symbolic apotheosis of the city of Rome, flanked by the rivers Tiber and Aniene, with the she-wolf at a short distance. Just above, the rostrate columns of Caius Duilius, a sign of victory and supremacy even on the sea; even higher up, the prisoners, symbol of the subjugated peoples, and the high relief of Victory that distributes crowns and awards to the heroes. From the top you can see an extraordinary panorama, which sweeps up to the Dome of St. Peter.
In the exedra on the opposite side, Valadier inserted Neptune between two tritons, the work of Giovanni Ceccarini.
THE CHURCH OF ST. MARY OF THE PEOPLE
The Church of St. Mary of the People, as rebuilt under Pope Sixtus IV, represents one of the obligatory steps to understand the Renaissance in Rome. Like other churches of the same period, such as St. Augustine or St. Peter in Montorio, has a simple and austere façade, divided into two orders and surmounted by the tympanum and preceded by a short staircase, which gives the access an undoubted majesty.
Except for a small and very modest coat of arms on the architrave of the central door, this church does not have the usual truncated decoration of coats of arms and triregni, entrusting its memory to two inscriptions, written in a very dense way, of 28 lines per plaque.
THE DECORATIONS OF THE CHURCH
The interior is a real masterpiece, from an artistic and theological point of view.
The icon of the Virgin Mary adorning the high altar, probably a Byzantine work of the 12th Century, would even be considered a work made by the evangelist St. Luke, transferred to this church from the Basilica of St. John Lateran by the will of Pope Gregory IX in 1235. Such a sacred memory was in a small part resized from the tomb, placed in one of the chapels on the right, of Vannozza Cattanei, lover of Pope Alexander VI Borgia and mother of four of his children. The embarrassing memory of this character was dispersed, only to be found with his tombstone under the portico of St. Mark’s Basilica.
Today, the right-hand chapels have no residual memory of this character. The first is the splendid Della Rovere Chapel, the creation of Pinturicchio and his students. The next chapel, dedicated to the Cybo, built between 1682 and 1687 and decorated with a beautiful painting by Carlo Maratta, is like a church within a church, for its baroque influence and the abuse of marble that detaches it from the austere and sober atmosphere of the church.
The original high altar of the church, made by sculptor Andrea Bregno, is now in the sacristy. In its place, in 1627, a new high altar, redundant with polychrome marbles and decorations, was built at the will of Cardinal Antonio Sauli, behind which is one of the most prestigious architectural elements of the church: the choir made by Donato Bramante during the pontificate of Pope Julius II. The vault of the choir is frescoed by Pinturicchio, with the “Coronation of the Madonna” in the center, and on the sides four medallions with portraits of the Evangelists.
THE CERASI CHAPEL
Observing the high altar, to the left of it, you can admire the Cerasi Chapel. In 1600 the Treasurer of Pope Clement VII, Monsignor Tiberio Cerasi, bought the chapel to use it as a family burial and, to embellish it, he contacted three great artists: Carlo Maderno for the architectural part, Annibale Carracci and Caravaggio for the pictorial decoration.
Annibale Carracci, several years older than his rival, executed the altarpiece, the “Assumption of the Virgin“, while Caravaggio was commissioned the two side paintings: the “Crucifixion of St. Peter” and the “Conversion of St. Paul“. These last two paintings, which are a second version caused by the rejection of the first proposal, still represent two masterpieces in the production of the “damned” artist.
To discover other masterworks painted by Caravaggio, join the Caravaggio Tour organized by Rome Guides.
THE CHIGI CHAPEL
The most artistically important chapel of the church is located on the left side: it is the Chigi Chapel, the only existing architectural work designed by the painter Raffaello Sanzio for the banker Agostino Chigi.
The chapel consists of a cubic space surmounted by a dome decorated with mosaics designed by Raffaello himself and executed by the Venetian Luigi de Pace: in the center is “God the Father creator of the firmament“, and all around the “Allegories of the Sun and other planets“.
On the altar you can see the beautiful “Nativity” by Sebastiano del Piombo, executed in oil directly on a wall of stone blocks (specifically, peperino). In the corners, admire four sculptures: two were carved in the 16th Century by Lorenzetto (Jonah and Elijah) and two in the 17th Century by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (Daniel with the lion and Abacuc and the angel), who added decorations to the chapel at the behest of Pope Alexander VII, who also belonged to the Chigi family.
If you would like to see other incredible works sculpted by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, think about booking the Borghese Gallery Tour.
OUTSIDE OF THE CHURCH
Exit now from the church, to close the Campo Marzio District Itinerary 15.
Right in front of it stands the Giacomo Acqua Barracks, which recalls its distant nature as a guardhouse. Today the building actually houses a Carabinieri Barracks, but the small dome built by Giuseppe Valadier suggests that the small chapel of the papal gendarmerie has survived many vicissitudes, in a desire for symmetry with St. Mary of the People.
On the façade a plaque of 1907 recalls the sacrifice of the Carbonari Angelo Targhini and Leonida Montanari, guillotined here in 1825.