Honors in Rome - Summer 2005
By the time Pope Paul III commissioned Michelangelo to renovate the Capitoline Hill into a cohesive architectural square in 1536, this area had already achieved its reputation as a unique symbolic site in Roman history. It was atop the Capitoline Hill that Romulus, the founder of Rome, established the first sanctuary for new Roman citizens. In the 6th century BCE, the Temple of Jupiter was built on this site, where legend ascribes the name Capitoline to the excavation for this Temple. Because of Jupiter’s symbolic role as the special guardian god of Rome, most triumphal marches ended on top of the Capitoline with victorious generals making sacrifices at the Temple to thank the gods for their good fortunes. A matching temple to Juno was also built at this time.
In 78 BCE, the Tabularium or state archive, was built on Capitoline Hill. This marked the beginning of government offices on the Capitoline that have functioned continuously to modern day. During the following centuries, fires and restorations reshaped the nature of the Hill’s structure. In the Middle Ages, a towering fort that later became the Palazzo Senatorio was built on the site of the Tabularium, and this enormous fort eventually became the site of Senate meetings in 1143. A second building that is still standing today, called the Palazzo dei Conservatori, was completed in 1447-1455 as a seat for magistrates to whom the city administrators were responsible. Unfortunately, in ensuing decades, the Capitoline fell into disrepair. By the time Michelangelo received his commission in 1536 to redesign the Capitoline, the area had become a dirty, haphazard space where Senators conducted business amidst grazing livestock. It would require another 109 years of construction, including building the Palazzo Nuovo from 1603 to 1660, to create Michelangelo's cohesive Campidoglio Piazza that is visible today.
The Campidoglio is widely considered an superior example of urban design. To reach the square, one must first ascend the gently sloping, ramped staircase lined by unique pieces of sculpture. At the base of the staircase, or cordonata, lie two black Egyptian lions from 2nd century ACE. Originally installed as sculptures, they were later transformed into fountains with urns collecting streaming water by the architect Giacomo della Porta.
As one continues to ascend the staircase, two giant statues of the Dioscuri stand on the ballistrade. Hatched from an egg, these devoted brothers were the mythical twin sons of Zeus and Leda; since according to legend, Zeus had impregnated Leda in the guise of a swan.
These two statues have two oddly shaped caps, representing the remnants of eggshell from which the twins were hatched. Since they are believed to be the special protectors of Rome, their special placement on the ballistrade is well warranted.
Beside the Dioscuri are two coats of arms representing the spoils of war that were returned to Rome from military victories. Because of the Capitoline Hill’s special significance as the final site for triumphal marches, these serve as reminders of ancient Rome’s military power. Finally, also on the ballistrade farthest from the stairs, are two statues representing Constantine and his son, Constantine II. Recognition of Emperor Constantine as the first Christian emperor accounts for the prominent placement of these statues on the ballistrade.
As one reaches the top of the cordonata, the square emerges slowly and magnificently. The three buildings facing the viewer create a sense of enclosure. Directly in front of the viewer lies the Palazzo Senatorio, with its enormous triangular staircase leading up towards the entrance. Framed within the staircase foundation is an ornamental fountain. Like the Egyptian lions at the base of the cordonata, this fountain is a deviation from Michelangelo’s original design. In a central curved niche stands a statue of a blended Minerva and Roma. She holds in her hand a globe symbolizing Rome’s hold on the world, a theme that is often repeated throughout the square. On either side, she is flanked by two river gods representing the Nile and Tiber Rivers, thus symbolizing the geographical expansiveness of the Roman Empire.
On the right and left sides of the square lie the Palazzo dei Conservatori and Palazzo Nuovo respectively. These two buildings currently house the Capitoline Museums. Although it is not obvious to the viewer, the two palaces form an unusual 80 degree angle with the Palazzo Senatorio. As a result, the square is really a trapezoid, with the equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelius located at its center. When Pope Paul III had originally ordered the placement of this statue, he had mistakenly believed that it was a depiction of Constantine, the first Christian emperor. Although the current statue is a replica, the original may be found in the Capitoline Museums.
This equestrian statue is highlighted by its oval pedestal and the unique star- shaped design of the surrounding pavement. The pedestal itself was Michelangelo’s first task for the square when Pope Paul III contacted him to redesign Capitoline Hill, and it still bears the Papal Seal of Paul III. However, Michelangelo’s original design of the stellate pattern was only recreated recently in 1940 by Mussolini, who ordered that the radiating pattern of Giacomo della Porta (the architect who carried out most of the building of the Campidoglio after Michelangelo’s death) be replaced.
Overall, the square is defined by a strong sense of traditional symmetry. Michelangelo firmly believed in Vetruvian dynamics through architecture, and designed the Palazzo Nuovo specifically to fulfill a symmetric, not functional, requirement. In an undated letter, Michelangelo wrote that “the central elements are always free”, but that “corresponding parts of a plan must be identical, just as one hand is obliged to be like the other in the human body”. This sentiment is clearly followed in the Campidoglio. Despite its unique trapezoidal character, each element of the square firmly adheres to symmetry along a strong central axis that leads to the Palazzo Senatorio.
However, not all of Michalengelo’s design was based in tradition. Importantly, his design of the Palazzo dei Conservatori and the corresponding Palazzo Nuovo incorporate the first examples of a “giant column”, defined as a column that extends higher than one story. These façade elements, along with smaller, one story ionic columns, disguise the actual structural building support and imbibe a commanding presence to these buildings.
The design of the Campidoglio masterfully manipulates the flow of people from the lower level of busy streets, up the cordonata and through the square, leading up to the Palazzo Senatorio. The piazza is meant to be enjoyed by all Romans, and thus, is easily accessible from the streets below. The heavy axis deliniated by the Campidoglio’s symmetry runs from the center of the cordonata straight through the square, and directs viewers towards the Palazzo Senatorio. However, movement is impeded by the Statue of Marcus Aurelius, delaying progression from the top of the cordonata towards the Palazzo Senatorio. The stellate design encourages revolution around the statue. In addition, the entryways to the Palazzo Senatorio staircase force a diversion from the central axis because of their position away from the central axis of the square. Michelangelo’s purposeful direction of the viewer through the space emphasizes the importance of Palazzo Senatorio as the focal building of the Campidoglio, but also encourages the viewer to pause and focus his/her attention towards the statue of Marcus Aurelius.
When commissioning Michelangelo to redesign the Campidoglio, Pope Paul III had two specific goals in mind. First, he wanted the space to serve as an appropriately grand representation of Rome’s symbolic importance as the caput mundi or center of the world. Second, he wanted to clearly delineate the role of the Church in this long-standing seat of secular government.
Several architectural elements carryout Pope Paul III’s first goal of emphasizing the role of Rome as the center of the world. All of the previously described statues lining the ballistades and in the Palazzo Senatorio’s fountain represent historical symbolism that recalls the power of ancient Rome. As mentioned earlier, the river gods and Egyptian lions represent the geographical extent of Rome’s historical influence, and the coats of armor on the Cordanata ballistrade represent the spoils of Roman conquest. Additionally, the Statue of Minerva/Roma grasping the world in her hands symbolizes Rome’s hold on the world. More subtle is the gentle curve of the stellate paving pattern surrounding the Statue of Marcus Aurelius. This curve is designed to represent the shape of Earth exposed, and thus, Rome’s role as the center of global power. Finally, the strength of the vertical and horizontal lines in the building facades imparts a commanding presence to all three Palazzos.
There are three other main elements that focus on Pope Paul III’s desire to emphasize the power of the Church in secular governance. First, the placement of Marcus Aurelius in the center of the square was meant to imply the importance of Christianity in the Roman Empire. As stated earlier, this equestrian statue was long thought to be that of Constantine, the first Christian emperor, and thus, had special significance for the Paul III. Its identification as Marcus Aurelius occurred only several decades after Paul III’s death; therefore, its mistaken symbolism was probably shared by visitors to the Campidoglo for a corresponding period of time. Second, the base for the equestrian statue has a clear representation of Paul III’s crest, thus symbolizing the role of the Church on Capitoline Hill, the ancient and modern seat of secular government. Third, the entryway to Palazzo Senatorio was redesigned to directly face St. Peter’s Basilica. Originally, the entry to the Palazzo Senatorio was through the Forum. However, in Michelangelo’s redesign, he reversed the direction of main entry and exit, so that all senators moving into the Palazzo Senatorio would clearly see St. Peter’s in the Roman skyline. Paul III clearly sought to emphasize the connection between the secular and religious capitals of Rome.
Pope Paul III’s motivation for commissioning Michaelangelo’s redesign of Capitoline Hill was in expectation of Emperor Charles V’s visit to Rome. Paul III’s predecessor, Pope Clemens VII, had aligned himself and Rome against Charles V in one of his many wars with the King of France. In retribution, Emperor Charles V attacked Rome and drove Clemens VII back into the Castel Sant’Angelo, where he was eventually killed.
Eager to avoid the fate of Pope Clemens VII, Paul III actively orchestrated Charles V’s visit to Rome. Returning from a campaign against the Turks in Tunesia, Charles V wished to demonstrate his domination and prevent future Roman rebellions by staging a triumphal entry in the traditional manner of the ancients. Therefore, Charles V’s arrival simulated previous Roman conquerors, by marching through important historical sites such as the Arch of Constantine, Colosseum and the Campidoglio. During the organization of this march, Paul III commissioned Michelangelo to redesign the base of the equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelius, for its placement in the center of the Campidoglio. At the time of Charles V’s procession through the city, only the base had been completed; however, Paul III was so pleased with Michelangelo’s work, that he requested an entire redesign of the square.
As the Pope and leader of Rome, Paul III wished to impart both religious symbolism and the greatness of Rome in the square’s redesign. However, part of Michelangelo’s challenge was to work with the available elements to meet the Pope’s functional requests. By focusing on elements of symmetry and using the Statue of Marcus Aurelius as a center of the design, Michelangelo was able to reshape the square’s existing elements into a cohesive design.
Architecturally, the Campidoglio remains one of the best examples of the complete transformation of public space. From an original pair of oddly angled buildings, Michelangelo was able to reformat the area into a square with spatial symmetry and cohesion. In addition, the important introduction of giant order columns to convey a commanding and powerful presence is now a widespread architectural feature found in many other buildings. For example, both the White House and many different financial institutions use giant order columns in their facades. In recognition of its architectural merits, the Campidoglio served as the ceremonial site of the Pritzker Prize, a prestigious architectural award of modern day.
The symbolic and functional significance of the Campidoglio continues even today. The Palazzo Senatorio houses secular government offices and serves as the mayor’s office. The Palazzo dei Conservatori and Palazzo Nuovo house the Capitoline Museum collections, and additionally, the Palazzo dei Conservatori contains several Roman municipal offices. The square itself is the site of frequent wedding parties and political protests.
Currently, the Campidoglio remains symbolically important in world politics. In 2002, it served as the site of the Nobel Peace Laureate meetings to consider the challenges of ensuring peace, humanity and equality in the advent of the Iraqi War. In addition, the Campidoglio was selected as the location for signing the first European Union Constitution by twenty-five EU nations.
VI. Personal Observations
In reading about the Campidoglio, one constantly encounters praises about the harmony of this site. H.V. Morton wrote that “In all cities, there are certain places, a church or a garden, where one may go as a sanctuary in moments of happiness or sorrow; and in spite of grand and stormy memories, the piazza on the Capitol is such a place to me.” Repeatedly, similar sentiments emerge from numerous writers reflecting the peaceful atmosphere of the Campidoglio.
Upon my visits to the Campidoglio, I was struck both by its ambient harmony and sense of aesthetic balance. Of particular interest to me was the interplay between the stellate pavement pattern and the enclosed trapezoid resulting from how the Palazzos are positioned. These two design elements relate different, opposing forces. Radiating from Marcus Aurelius, the white stripes of the paving seem to push outwards in contrast to the bold lines in the Palazzo façade that enclose the space. The trapezoidal configuration of the buildings welcomes the viewer into the square, as if the Palazzo dei Conservatori and Palazzo Senatori are giant arms that embrace all who enter. As a result, the inward force of the Palazzos balance the outward force of the paving. It is fascinating to me that Michelangelo was able to so skillfully balance the illusions of these forces in his designs to give both movement and harmony to the space. As a result of its historical symbolism and architectural balance, the Campidoglio has retained its special beauty, harmony and function throughout the ages to modern times.
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