Between the elegant Pincio, and the banks of the Tevere, Piazza del Popolo yawns into an enormous ellipse. Churches, fountains, monuments, and marble memoirs of historic events in Rome both ancient and modern tastefully embellish the square.
Since antiquity, the city's Northern entrance formed a vestibule into the city through the gate in the Aurelian Walls. Though now known as Porta del Popolo, it has had various names over the centuries.
Originally called Porta Flaminia by the Emperor Aurelianus who commissioned its construction, during the Early Medieval period, it was called Porta San Valentino, after the nearest Catacomb. Finally the name Porta del Popolo was agreed on, as the church adjoining the gate is Santa Maria del Popolo.
Piazza del Popolo itself was known as Piazza del Trullo in the Middle Ages, after the conical fountain which once stood in the centre of the square, reminiscent of a characteristic South-Italian dwelling. Its present name may be due to the poplar tree, known in Latin as "populus" which also meant people, an apt association, as various public events such as fairs, games and dramatic executions were held there.
For centuries Piazza del Popolo had a public fountain, a horse trough and a cistern for washerwomen. It was Sixtus V, in 1589, who turned his attention to the square. The Trullo fountain, under the supervision and workmanship of Domenico Fontana, was to be replaced with the Egyptian obelisk of Ramesses II, second in age and height only to the one in San Giovanni, originally brought to the city by the Emperor Augustus, and put in Circus Maximus.
Its transportation and installation in Piazza del Popolo gave the square a more regal, less domestic air. Four lions water basin, were added to the obelisk in 1823, during the reign of Pope Leo XII.
The next event to prompt work on Piazza del Popolo was the arrival of the Swedish Queen Christina. Desiring to convert to Roman Catholicism, she arrived to Rome in 1655, to a splendid Roman welcome: coming from the North, her first vision was through Porta del Popolo.
Bernini had been commissioned to restore the inner façade of the ancient gate in preparation for her arrival. A plaque was placed above the arch, reading: "FELICI FAUSTOQUE INGRESSUI MDCLV" (For a Happy and Propitious Entrance) which remains to this day. Her entrance was so "felicitous" that she never left Rome again.
Towards the end of the Seventeen Hundreds, amid the Napoleonic invasion, the ever increasing flood of visitors and pilgrims, descending on Rome through Porta del Popolo, prompted the decision to modernize the square.
Till the Eighteen Hundreds, the square had a trapezoidal form which converged on the gate. During the Napoleonic epoch, the French Prefect, Tournon, was head of the "Commission of Embellishments" in Rome.
He commissioned Valadier, a Roman architect, to redesign Piazza del Popolo, which he did to stunning effect. Works began in 1816, lasting till 1824 and marked the first time, since the French occupation, that prisoners were not used for works.
The project was to take into account the important existing buildings: three churches, Santa Maria Del Popolo, Santa Maria di Montesanto (Saint Mary of Montesanto), Santa Maria dei Miracoli (Saint Mary of Miracles), the obelisk, Porta Del Popolo and Via del Corso, which were to remain untouched.
The lateral structures were swept away redefining the square as an ellipse and were replaced by spacious exedras. These supported the fountains of Neptune between two tritons, and of the Goddess Roma on either side, added in 1823 during the reign of Pope Leo XII. The square became then accessible from side to side, as well as each end.
With a touch of genius, the square was connected to the park on the hill above with a flight of curving steps and ramps, causing the Pincio hill to seem to cascade into the square below. Piazza del Popolo was the last papal contribution to Rome's legendary architecture, and in many ways reflects its splendor, inspiring a sense of awe in the visitor.
Emphasizing this supremacy, the three churches dedicated to the Virgin, surrounded the obelisk which, in ancient times had been dedicated to the pagan Sun god.
The twin churches at the far end of Piazza del Popolo, which Valadier had incorporated into his plans, had been constructed well over a century earlier. Though initiated by Carlo Rainaldi, they were completed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini with the collaboration of Carlo Fontana. Rainaldi invested the best of his abilities into the design and construction of Santa Maria dei Miracoli. His task was to both inspire and impress travelers entering the city, drawing them across the square to the beauty of the churches beyond.
His skill as urban planner was evident. As well as being elevated from the level of the square, the two churches emphasized the elegant lines of the Trident, Via del Babbuino, Via del Corso and Via di Ripetta, radiating out beyond, adding depth and perspective to the overall picture. The observer's attention however, is drawn to the square on the splendid façades and apparent striking symmetry of Santa Maria dei Miracoli and Santa Maria di Montesanto.
He also used an element of illusion, as the churches, which appear so similar from a distance, are in fact charmingly individual.
Constructing the churches' two façades was no mean feat, as their areas, differed in size, hindered the all important element of symmetry. The problem was overcome using differing dome dimensions. Santa Maria di Montesanto (having a smaller area) has an oval dome, whilst the larger Santa Maria dei Miracoli is circular. The impression from the square however, is of two identical domes.
On July 15 1662, the first stone of Santa Maria di Montesanto was laid. After a brief interruption in 1673, construction was continued and completed under the guidance of Bernini and then Carlo Fontana. As both churches were designed with welcoming visitors in mind, their external qualities were prioritized.
As well as being monumental scenery, the porticoes of the twin churches, touched with classicism, extended onto the square, breaking with the tradition of the Baroque style, heralding a new architectural age. Fusing the churches with the surrounding square, monuments and streets, creates an harmonious effect, in which one aspect of this body of space, cannot be separated from another.
The Church of Santa Maria del Popolo (one of the three churches on the square), was built on the site where, according to tradition, the Emperor Nero was buried. The church was constructed on request of and paid for by the Roman people (hence the name Saint Mary of the People).
Legend tells how Nero's damned spirit was imprisoned in a walnut tree, which had grown above the spot where his body laid. The affrighted neighborhood requested that the tree be burnt down, and a church built there. Dedicated to the Virgin in 1099, it was perceived to have effectively exorcised the area of the ancient and untoward "presences" of demons, witches and uncanny nocturnal sightings of Nero's ghost.
The clean simple lines of the Augustinian order in the church's façade was the work of Bernini. Inside are precious paintings by Pinturicchio, Annibale Carracci as well as Caravaggio's moving "Conversion of St Paul" and "Crucifixion of St Peter".
Santa Maria del Popolo was the first church in Rome to have a dome with an octagonal tambour. Its brick bell tower in late-Gothic style, is unique too, with a clock, four small pinnacles and characteristic tiling.
The Giacomo Acqua barracks, opposite Santa Maria del Popolo were added in the 1823; the small dome was designed to reflect the one of the ancient church, to maintain the square's symmetry.
The bars and restaurants on the square are not as historic, as other places of the city, but they are an integral part of Piazza del Popolo, haunted throughout the years by figures dear to Rome, such as Trilussa, Guttuso and Pasolini.