From the very beginnings of the city, the Capitoline, one of Rome’s seven hills, was the seat of divinity and of power and, notwithstanding its being the lowest and smallest of the hills, it grew in importance to become not only one of Rome’s most important piazzas but one of the most famous places in the whole world.
Thanks to its dominating position over the plain where Rome would eventually be born, the Capitoline hill has been inhabited since the Bronze Age. Its name more than likely derives from the temple of Capitoline Jove, the most important temple of ancient Rome dedicated to the trinity of Jove, Juno and Minerva.
In the beginning, this temple was nothing more than a simple altar; the true temple was probably begun by the last two kings of Rome and completed around the beginning of the Republic. When triumphant generals returned from victorious battles, it was here that the final sacrifice of the majestic celebratory ceremonies took place.
The temple of Capitoline Jove wasn’t the only temple on the hill: where today sits the ancient church of Santa Maria in Aracoeli, there was originally the Temple of Juno Moneta (“Moneta”, which is Italian for “money”, originally signified warning or admonishing) and comes from the Latin word “moneo”, to advise) and it’s inside this temple that Rome’s first mint was created: so it’s all thanks to the goddess Juno that today the primary means of exchange is called “moneta” or - money!
During the Middle Ages, the top of the hill was abandoned and became a weed covered field where goats would pasture, so much so that the Romans came to call it “Goat Hill”. Later, it would become the site of a market and the ancient Roman ruins were reused for sales purposes: for example, an ancient column was hollowed out to measure wine, while to measure grain, nothing less than the original burial urn that once had once held the ashes of Empress Agrippina was utilized.
Around the year 1000, the Capitoline became the seat of the city administration, the place where the people would meet to make important decisions. On the sides of the hill, the Tabularium, the ancient Roman archives that had already been transformed into a fortified castle, became the Roman Senate building and the piazza directly in front of it was destined to accomodate public gatherings. Even today, the hill is the center of Roman public life, seat of the mayor’s office and of the town administration.
The name Capitoline and its function became famous the world over: so much so that from Capitoline Hill comes the term “capitol”, indicating one of the most important buildings of the city where the government is based: in fact, in Washington DC, the seat of the Congress of the United States is on—Capitol Hill!
Visually speaking, today, the Capitoline has taken a back seat with respect to the gigantic Altar of the Fatherland; up until the Altar’s construction, the Capitoline had been the highest point of the area, dominating the forum on one side and the Medieval quarter on the other where Piazza Venezia is now.
The perfectly harmonious appearance that has come down to us is a masterpiece of Michelangelo’s brilliance when he created the first monumental piazza of modern Rome. In 1500, in fact, the top of the hill had fallen on hard times and was difficult to reach, so Pope Paul III assigned the artist the job of restoring it, giving Michelangelo’s genius free rein.
At that time, there were only two buildings on the Hill: the Senate Building and the Palace of the Conservators.
Michelangelo redesigned the facades of the first two buildings and added a third one, where the Capitoline Musems are now. He changed the orientation of the piazza to make it seem less long and narrow. Then he placed the third building at an angle, turning the prospective around and opening it up like a scissors. To complete the work, Michelangelo added a monumental access ramp that gently rises to the piazza.
As Saint Peter’s was the religious center, thanks to Michelangelo, the Capitoline became the political center of the city. It was one of his last great accomplishments, a perfect piazza, to be admired and to admire from above the greatness of Rome over the centuries.