Honors in Rome - Summer 2006
In 1536, Pope Paul III commissioned one of Italy’s most famous artists, Michelangelo, to design the Campidoglio, the piazza on top of the Capitoline Hill, and the artist’s insight and genius produced a space meant to impress and attract the viewer at first sight. Capitoline Hill was not always the majestic site seen today, but it has always been an important part of Rome’s history. According to Roman tradition, the story of Rome’s beginning centers on Romulus and Remus, twins abandoned at birth and raised by a wolf. It was these two who wished to start a new city on the banks of the Tiber. Each had their own ideas about where to put the city, but it has its present name because Romulus emerged victorious in their dispute. He built his new city and allowed anyone entrance who desired it, knowing that growth was important to creating a larger, more powerful city. He opened the Asylum, an area for people from the countryside to live and have the city’s protection, as a means of enlarging the city’s population. The Asylum was located between two crests of a hill. That hill is now known as the Capitoline Hill.
Although the early history of the hill is based on a myth, there is scientific evidence that settlement occurred in the area of the Asylum as early as 1200 B.C.. The recent discoveries of children’s graves and the remains of early metalworkings lend some truth to the early stories. The Tarquins led development of larger, public buildings on the hill when they erected the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus, dedicated to the Capitoline Triad, Jupiter, Juno and Minerva. The hill get its name from the word “caput”, meaning skull, which is historically said to have been discovered when the foundations for the temple were being built. This temple was one of many erected on the hill in subsequent years, each by a different family trying to exhibit their wealth and influence. The Caffarelli family is one such group. During the Renaissance they actually used the remains of the Temple of Jupiter to erect a palace that still stands today.
The Romans took the Temple as a symbol of their civilization; it helped to establish Roman strength and reach. Throughout the empire, victorious generals would march to the temple in celebration of victory. This symbol was especially important in Rome, where the Capitoline Hill is directly at the end of the Via Sacra in the Roman Forum, a center for Roman civic life. In 78 B.C. the Romans built the Tabularium on the slope of the Capitoline Hill at the end of the Forum. This building housed the Tabulae, which were the archives and texts of law for the Roman state. It was to become important later, both as a stronghold for the Corsi family in the Middle Ages and later as the foundation for the Palazzo Senatorio, which still stands today.
In an anti-papal revolution of 1143, the Palazzo Senatorio became the site of Rome’s civic government, housing 50 senators with authority over public and judicial functions of the newly made “self-governing Commune”. During this time an entrance was built on the opposite side of the building, changing the perspective of the hill. The focus no longer fell on the Roman Forum, but on the city. This change of orientation was especially important to the later design because it established the direction of the piazza. The composition of the civic administration changed in 1363, with only one senator and three elected magistrates administering justice. This led to the transformation of an existing building into the Palazzo dei Conservatori. Situated 80 degrees to the Palazzo Senatorio, the Palazzo dei Conservatori completed another side for the space. For many years, the third side of the piazza was the retaining wall for Santa Maria in Aracoeli. The later Campidoglio was to come from this highly informal arrangement of the wall and two buildings encompassing a muddy field.
Early efforts to improve the hill were started by Pope Sixtus IV. In 1471, he gave the Roman people several famous bronze statues, including the head and hand of Constantine and the She-Wolf, which was modified to include figures of Romulus and Remus. Papal relations with the city were tenuous at the time, and Sixtus’ initial intention was to reassert papal predominance over the municipal autonomy. Instead, this action was seen as a measure of goodwill, and the She-Wolf was placed on the facade of the Palazzo dei Conservatori, symbolizing the city’s inception while simultaneously creating what is now the oldest outdoor museum. The statue now stands in the modern Musei Capitolini. Other statues were donated and collected at the hill in later years, creating a disorderly bunch of art in the middle of a muddy field. This was the scene when Alessandro I of the Farnese family took the papal throne.
Alessandro was known as Pope Paul III, a Renaissance pope and pope of many contradictions. Paul III played a balancing act with France and the Holy Roman Empire, claiming neutrality in the conflict between the two, but always trying to use one or the other to his advantage. Not unlike many other popes, he tried to create an estate for his family; his goal was to control Parma and Piacenza, two cities under the rule of Charles V. In order to acquire these territories, he tried to appease Charles V in any way possible, including convening the Council of Trent, perhaps one of his most notable acts as pope. While simultaneously trying to create power for his family, Paul III focused on improving Rome, and spent papal funds to improve the Vatican library and commission painters. He employed some of the most notable artists of the time, including Raphael and Michelangelo, and oversaw the building of the new St. Peter’s as well as the completion of the Sistine Chapel. It is not surprising Paul III utilized Michelangelo’s talent to redesign the Capitoline Hill.
The Capitoline Hill, as it stands now, was not completed until 1940. Michelangelo actually only lived to see one portion of his design completed, the rest spanning over 400 years. Each subsequent artist to supervise and contribute to the project stayed fairly true to the design believed to have been provided by Michelangelo, although in typical style, the artist was always altering his ideas and never truly completed a final plan. The entire design centers on the bronze statue of Marcus Aurelius in the center of the square. It was moved in 1537 from San Giovanni in Laterno at the request of Paul III, who was motivated in part by his belief that the statue depicted Emperor Constantine, the first Christian emperor. Although he opposed its move from the start, Michelangelo used the piece to design the piazza as seen today.
To ascend the hill into the piazza, visitors go up the Cordonata, a wide ramp with steps large enough for horses, and installed around 1560. From the bottom of the ramp, only the tops of the buildings in the piazza are visible, with Marcus Aurelius completely obscured from view. Statues of the Dioscuri, Castor and Pollux, stand guard at the entrance to the piazza, and can be seen well before reaching the ramp. These were actually not part of the original design, however, their later addition contributes to the overall message of the Campidoglio as a symbol of Rome’s early beginnings.
Arriving past the Dioscuri, Marcus Aurelius stands high on a pedestal in the center of the piazza. Radiating out from his central position is a stellate pattern in the stone of the ground. This feature was actually not added until 1940, finally completing the entire space. The pattern on the ground fills an ellipse, with the major axis, or long side, extending down the Cordonata in the direction Marcus Aurelius faces, and directly behind him, toward the Palazzo Senatorio. These two features of the design were extremely innovative for the time, each complementing the other. Until 1537, the placement of a statue in the center of a piazza was unheard of, and has been imitated countless times in the following centuries. The central placement of the statue gives a focus to the piazza, and its orientation corresponds to the major axis of the ellipse.
Palazzo Senatorio stands at one end of the major axis, directly behind Marcus Aurelius. It is characterized best by its incredible symmetry. A seated statue of Roma lies directly in the center at ground level, with the main entrance into the “piano nobile”, noble floor, above it, and a central clock tower above that on top of the building. Access to the entrance is achieved by a double-ramped stairway placed flush against the facade to either side of the door. This feature was actually added beginning in 1544, and was the only aspect of the project that Michelangelo saw completed before his death. The obvious triangular shape of the staircases inspired the use of the reclining statues seen on either side of Roma. These River God statues were already on top of the hill when renovation began, the left statue representing the Nile and the right representing the Tigris. The right statue was modified to include the figures of Romulus and Remus under the right elbow, in order to represent the Tiber River, which runs through Rome.
Two additional buildings sit along the minor axis of the ellipse, that is, perpendicular to the line of the Cordonata and the Palazzo Senatorio. Upon ascending the hill, the building on the right is the Palazzo dei Conservatori. The facade on the building was started in 1563, and was another innovative part of the piazza. Michelangelo designed the outside with a frame-like structure, moving away from the typical arch of Roman history. This design meant that each of the loggias could be made wider without requiring an arch that interfered with the appearance of the second floor. Further, each of the pillars actually supports the weight that they appear to, unlike many of the false pillars of earlier time periods. Using this technique to circumvent the arch, Michelangelo advanced architectural knowledge for the time period. The style of the Palazzo dei Conservatori was mirrored in the Palazzo Nuovo, located on the left side of the piazza, directly on the opposite side of Marcus Aurelius.
The Palazzo Nuovo was built much later than most of the Campidoglio’s other elements, save the stellate pattern of the 1940s. It is erected at an 80 degree angle to the Palazzo Senatorio, exactly the same angle as the Palazzo dei Conservatori is to the central building. This creates perfect symmetry in the piazza and guides a visitor into the center of the piazza. Initially, the Palazzo Nuovo was only erected for the sake of this symmetry; it had no other function, public or private. Only later was it incorporated into the present-day Musei Capitolini.
Although it may appear wasteful to build an empty palace, the addition was absolutely necessary, both in adhering to Michelangelo’s original design and fulfilling the intended function of the space. The artist’s initial idea was to create an outdoor room where the people of the Republic could gather. Approaching the hill, the people would have been comforted by the Dioscuri, symbolically the protectors of business, travel, and hospitality, but known best as protectors of Romans. After achieving the crest, the orientation of the buildings, naturally spreading toward the rear of the piazza at the Palazzo Senatorio, would draw a viewer in toward the more open area. As they were drawn into the space along the major axis, Marcus Aurelius would force them to go around one side or the other and then refocus on the vertical arrangement of the clock tower, entrance, and statue of Roma. Both the statue of Roma, symbol of the strength of the city, and the power of Marcus Aurelius gesturing out from the piazza would emphasize the power and endurance of the city.
Pope Paul III also had personal and political intentions that guided the design of the hill. In 1535, the pope had a summer home built in the location of the present-day Vittorio Emmanuele monument, the closest point on the hill to Trajan’s Column. The improvement of the surrounding hill would, therefore, have improved the appearance of his getaway. This idea was really secondary to his political motives, however. Initially, Paul III was expecting a visit from Charles V, who was returning from his victory in Tunisia. The Pope planned for a procession honoring Charles V to ascend the newly designed hill. The procession did not climb the hill, however, as the preparations were never completed. Paul III still carried on with the restoration, however, wanting to enrich Rome, the center for ecclesiastical dealings. As a Renaissance pope, he understood the importance of the arts and their ability to communicate, power. This display of grandeur would also have reflected well on papal power. With these goals in mind, renovation of the piazza, an already famous public place ensured acknowledgement and appreciation of Paul III’s influence.
At the time of the renovation, Renaissance ideals about symmetry had a strong influence on artists’ work. This influence can be used to explain the balanced composition of Michelangelo’s design, both for the entire Campidoglio and for its individual palaces. The artist took this one step further, however, by capitalizing on the preexisting structures. His placement of the Palazzo Nuovo at the same angle as the Palazzo dei Conservatori points the piazza toward the city, the focus of the statue Roma’s gaze. The narrowing accomplishes Paul III’s goal of emphasizing the city. Many of the statues on the hill accomplish the same goal. Most obviously, the statue of Roma, symbol of the city’s strength is centrally located on the Palazzo Senatorio. The statue of the River God representing the Tiber alludes to the city’s beginnings, relying heavily on the addition of Romulus and Remus. Although most of the statues and buildings of the Campidoglio are secular symbols, the Pope still accomplished his goal of demonstrating papal power through the statue of Marcus Aurelius. Since the statue was believed to be that of Constantine, people of the time would have connected this first Christian Emperor with the grandeur of the city, as well as with the project’s patron, Paul III. The current knowledge that the statue is, in fact, Marcus Aurelius, does not diminish its effectiveness. It actually strengthens the idea that Rome has a glorious past. Civic pride is just as important to modern Romans as it was to those of Pope Paul III’s time.
The Capitoline Hill continues to influence numerous visitors, tourists and Romans alike. The hill was developed over the course of Rome’s entire history; it is a living history of the entire city. So many parts of the Campidoglio are still used by Romans that the hill can be viewed less as a tourist attraction, as sites like the Roman Forum have become, and more as an integral part of the city. The Palazzo Senatorio, for example, is still used as Rome’s city hall. The symbol of the She-Wolf, housed in the Musei Capitolini, is located on numerous government installations, like fountains, and is even the mascot for the city’s soccer team, A.S. Roma. The most provocative aspect of the Campidoglio is its sheer size and majesty. Michelangelo’s use of Renaissance style creates a beautiful space; it is pleasing to the eye both for the impressive layout and the design of each individual part. Rather than being overwhelmed upon reaching the top of the hill, a visitor is guided, without knowing it, around the piazza and comprehends Pope Paul III’s message about the glory of Rome without needing any previous knowledge. This uniqueness draws visitors from around the world and is a testament to the genius of Michelangelo and the insight of Pope Paul III.
When I started researching this site, I was amazed to discover the amount of time required to final complete Michelangelo’s design. It showed me that change is a very slow and gradual process. This is for several reasons. The most obvious is that monumental buildings take a lot of money and manpower to erect. The other is that development only occurs if someone thinks it is in his or her best interest. Over the course of the Campidoglio’s restoration, there were a few popes who completely stopped the construction because they had other projects they felt were more important. After the entire piazza was finished, except for the stellate pattern in the center, the Campidoglio sat for 200 years before an excavation project happened to take place that made it convenient to repave the piazza. It also amazes me that each stage of the Campidoglio saw so many different rulers and popes rise and fall. Throughout this course it has been difficult for me to comprehend the amount of time that elapses between some of the periods. I feel like this site has given me a little bit of a better perspective.
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