Thursday, July 10, 2008

Michelangelo & the Capitoline Hill

Cindy Chou
Honors Program in Rome - Summer 2008

The Capitoline Hill, located in the center of Rome, was and is still one of the most important sites of political activities in the city. With Michelangelo’s redesign of the hill top, the area became an everlasting footprint in its important contribution to early urban city planning. This paper introduces the audience to the early history of the hill, the goals of the renovation, the forms and functions it serves both at the time of renovation and in modern days, and finally concludes with the importance of this historical site.

Early History:
The Capitoline Hill was so named because a human skull was discovered while workers were digging the foundation trenches for the Temple of Jupiter, completed during the reign of King Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, Rome’s last king before the establishment of the Republic. The Latin word for head is caput, from which the name capitol, home of the US Senate and House of Representatives, is derived. The word capitolino later became campidoglio in the Roman dialect, and the area on the hill became the Piazza del Campidoglio.

Even though Romulus founded his city of Roma on the Palatine hill, Capitoline hill is the highest and rockiest of the seven hills of ancient Rome. These physical attributes helped Capitoline hill become an important religious and defensive center early on in Rome’s history despite its small size. Criminals convicted of treachery were thrown off the jagged Tarpeian rocks behind the piazza. Furthermore, the slope facing the Roman Forum housed the Tabularium, the ancient Roman archive that stored the tabulae, the Roman laws and official deeds.

In addition to the civic functions of the Campidoglio, early Romans used the location heavily for religious purposes. The temple Iovis Optimi Maximi Capitolini, Temple of the Best, Greatest Jupiter, was built before the establishment of the Republic, and was founded on an earlier Etruscan temple of Veiovis, the youthful god of the underworld and the precursor to Jupiter. The Jupiter temple was dedicated to the Capitoline Triad, three gods derived from Etruscan mythology, including Jupiter, the king of gods; Juno, Jupiter’s wife and sister; and Minerva, the goddess of wisdom and the daughter of the former two deities. The Capitolino Temple, along with the Temple of Veiovis and the Tabularium, would later become the foundation of the Palazzo Senatorio.

During the Middle Ages, the Campidoglio was essentially left to ruins. In fact, the area became known as Monte Caprino, or Goat Hill, because of the goat grazing upon this once significant location. Some prominent noble families, such as the Corsi family, also took advantage of the hill’s height and used it as a fortress during feuds. The fortress built by the Corsi family over the remains of the Tabularium was later modified into the Roman government building in the early 12th century, housing over fifty senators and the municipal board, as well as some guilds and state cults. It is important to note that from then on the Capitoline would steer away from religious usage and towards civic importance. During the mid-14th century, the Rome administration underwent a drastic change, reducing the number of senators to one and giving three magistrates the power to administrate justice. A new building was recruited to accommodate this new government – the original incarnation of the Palazzo dei Conservatori.

When Alessandro Farnese became Pope Paul III, one of his first initiatives was to renovate and rejuvenate the decrepit city of Rome after the Sack of Rome in 1527. In 1535, he commissioned Florentine artist Michelangelo Buonarroti, already renowned then for his work in Florence, to renovate the Piazza del Campidoglio.

In redesigning the Capitoline Hill, Pope Paul III not only wanted Romans to look back to the old glory of ancient Rome and the Empire, but also wanted to emphasize the Church’s role in Roman civic participation. Besides Papal motivations, the Pope wanted a better view for his summer house, which was located near the current-day Victor Emmanuel Monument and faced the Capitoline Hill. Last but not least, the Pope was expecting the arrival of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V in the year 1538. Anticipating his arrival, Pope Paul III wanted to impress the emperor with a glorious space. Unfortunately for the Pope, the project was incomplete when the emperor arrived, and the emperor and his party had to scramble up the hill in order to see the work in progress.

For Michelangelo himself, he was excited to receive a civic commission. He had then became a Roman citizen, and was disappointed about the fall of the Florentine Republic. He wanted to use this space to convey the greatness of government and its integral role in the survival of the city. With this in mind, one could better understand the purpose behind his designs and symbols.

Description & Function:
Based on an etching by engraver Etienne Duperac depicting a bird’s-eye-view of Michelangelo’s systematization of the Campidoglio, one could see the faithful reproduction of the artist’s original plan in the modern day design.

At the foot of the hill, the cordonata welcomes the visitor to the Capitoline. This gentle flight of stairs with very shallow steps slopes slowly to the top of the piazza. The shallow sloping has both symbolic and practical purposes. Symbolically, its smoothness is placed in sharp contrast with the steep steps to the adjacent church, the Santa Maria in Aracoeli, conveying the ease of ascension to earthly power and wealth versus the struggle of spiritual attainment. Pragmatically, the gentle cordonata allows the ease of travel. Michelangelo designed this path with the visit of Emperor Charles V in mind, creating a slope where carriages can ascend with ease, and where riders would not have to dismount in order to reach the top. The bottom of the cordonata is flanked on both sides by black Egyptian lions, a sign of the extent of ancient Rome’s greatness. The lions, originally intended as sculptural decorations, were later transformed into fountains paired with urns by the architect Giacomo della Porta, the main architect who helped complete the renovation project after Michelangelo’s death.

At the top of the cordonata stand two prominent statues, the Dioscuris Castor and Pollux. The two are children of Zeus according to ancient Roman mythology, and became the Gemini twins in astrology. Zeus allegedly disguised himself as a swan one day and seduced the beautiful Leda, who later hatched two eggs, giving birth to the two gods – the remnants of the egg shells explain the odd-looking hats worn by the two. One being mortal and the other immortal, the two gods are associated with Rome due to stories that depict them as aiding Rome during times of warfare. They are suitable for the entrance to the piazza as they are not only protectors of Rome but of liberty as well. Accompanying them are the horses they ride, as they are reputedly great horsemen. The two statues were not originally intended by Michelangelo, but were later additions. Michelangelo himself created statues of the pair as well, yet his work is now placed at the entrance of the Piazza del Quirinale. Other works seen in the piazza include the marble relief of Trophies of Marius, which depicts spolia from battles, and statues of Constantine and Constantine II, the earliest Christian emperors of the Holy Roman Empire. It is important to know that Michelangelo himself did not include these works in his original design, as he was a purist in terms of architecture, and preferred to convey ideas using purely architectural devices. The art works were later additions that were donated as part of the Capitoline Museum collection.

Entering the piazza from the stairs, the Palazzo dei Conservatori, or Palace of the Conservators (Magistrates), is situated to the right of the square. Michelangelo decided to give the building a new façade instead of renovating the entire building when he received the commission, creating a distinctively unique style previously unseen in Roman architecture. The upper level windows are bounded by orthodox Corinthian columns, alluding to the ancient Roman public architectures such as those seen in the Roman Forum, as well as government, order, and reason. The lower level entrances, on the other hand, house the guild porticos, and use columns with capitals that seem ionic at first glance. Closer observations, however, reveal that these are somewhat deviant in nature from typical ionic capitals. The curves of the capitals slightly recede into the columns as they move toward the center, and the capitals are decorated with Renaissance style ornamentations known as strapwork, where stonework is carved to imitate leather or other cloth materials. The two levels are thus divided into two horizontal sections, the top level implying prestigious power and the lower level referencing a more common, plebian nature. The two floors are united by giant pilasters – shallow, surface columns that serve solely decorative purposes – that span the entire height of the building. The building is crowned with balustrades and statues that lead the eyes upward from the pilasters. These characteristics give the building a flat roof and entablatures with no arches, something very innovative, unique and characteristic of Michelangelo’s building designs.

Across from the Palazzo dei Conservatori is the Palazzo Nuovo, the New Palace. The building was constructed according to Michelangelo’s design, a mirror image of the Palazzo dei Conservatori, but not built until the mid-17th century due to a lack of funding. Part of the reason for why funds were unavailable was due to its lack of purpose. Michelangelo’s sole intention for the building was to hide the view of the adjacent church’s (Aracoeli) tower and secure the symmetrical trapezoidal design of the piazza by framing the third side of the square with the Palazzo. After its completion in 1654, however, the building was soon turned into one of the earliest museums in Rome, and stored many historically important works, including donations of bronze and marble statues such as the She-Wolf, a symbol of Rome, to the Roman public by Pope Sixtus IV in 1471.

Directly facing the center of the piazza is the building Palazzo Senatorio, the Senator’s Palace. Today, the building still functions as the Rome City Hall. The center bathtub is accompanied by Minerva, the ancient goddess of wisdom that later transformed into the patron of Rome and then the incarnation of Rome, Dea Roma. On either side of the bathtub are the personifications of the Nile and the Tiber. Sitting above the building in the center is a bell tower topped with the statue of Minerva. The bell was erected for the purpose of summoning official and public meetings and special events, and today it still rings for the election of the Roman mayor. The entrance of the building was turned completely around to face the city of Rome and St. Peter’s instead of the Roman Forum, and Michelangelo’s design of the giant double-flighted staircase, the pilasters that stretch the height of the building, as well as the large windows and tympanums on the front wall of the building, all serve to divide the façade of the Palazzo up into distinct sections, with a similar rooftop as the other two buildings in the piazza, featuring statues and balustrades. These innovations allowed the artist to introduce an alternative structural style other than the typical arches seen during the time.

In the very heart of Piazza del Campidoglio stands a statue that breaks the smooth expanse of the square. This equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius has long been regarded with significant importance, since it is the only bronze equestrian statue that was preserved from the classical era. A reason why the statue was so well-preserved through the years was due to its mistaken identity as the Emperor Constantine, the first Christian Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. This mistake prevented the statue from being melted for other usages like so many other bronze statues in the past. Pope Paul III specifically requested that the statue be placed in the center of the square, so that Michelangelo had to design the entire space around the statue. Marcus Aurelius was depicted in the statue without weapons and armor, with his arm gesturing far out, signifying his leadership during a time of peace and prosperity. The Pope might have wanted to link the statue’s symbol of power and greatness to his imperial role, as he made sure to leave his name on the statue’s pedestal. He also might have wanted to associate the statue with Emperor Charles V and praised him as a philosophical emperor. The statue suffered from water damage in recent years, and is now placed inside the Capitoline Museum for care, with a replica substituting its place in the center of the piazza.

Last but not least, the starburst pattern that is inlaid on the ground at the piazza was not completed until 1940, when Mussolini realized that the original design by Michelangelo had been incomplete all these years. Since the buildings were placed at angles against each other and created a trapezoidal rather than rectangular space, the design had to be oval instead of circular. Michelangelo’s clever plan was never executed by the Pope, however, because he suspected it involved non-Christian elements, which he correctly assumed. The interlacing twelve-point star was modeled after the iconic scheme by Isodoro de Seville, who used the pattern to depict movements of planets around the Earth as well as the lunar cycle. Michelangelo thus indirectly associated the piazza with the heavens by alluding to the planets, signifying Rome as the center of the world. The choice of using an oval shape not only has pragmatic reasons for fitting the space, but also symbolic reasons, since oval stones, or umbilicus caput mundi, were used by Etruscans to represent the navel of the world. This is why Michelangelo was originally reluctant to place the equestrian statue in the center of the piazza – It did not fit with his theme due to its religious connotations, which the artist did not want present in this civic space.

Why is Michelangelo’s redesign of the Piazza del Campidoglio such an important event in the history of western art? First and foremost, it is due to the ingenuity showcased by Michelangelo and his exceptional example of urban design. Secondly, it clearly demonstrates the Renaissance ideal of symmetry, of which Michelangelo was heavily under the influence. It also showed the artist’s clever solution to the problem of space, and his use of the caput mundi to symbolically capture the sense of Rome as the center of the world. Last but not least, Michelangelo’s use of the space helped direct the flow of people that visit the site. With the statue erected directly in the center of the piazza, and the huge double-flighted stair case that leads to the top of the Piazza Senatorio, one is simply unable to make a straight path directly from the top of the cordonata towards the entrance of the city hall. The design leads visitors, instead, on a round-about path that circles the piazza, directing the flow of traffic and giving the people a good view of the entire space.

In terms of politics and propaganda, Piazza del Campidoglio served for both political and religious purposes. The grandeur of the buildings helped glorify the city government, and the placement of the government office in a central location within the city connected Romans to the idea that the city was the center of the world. The equestrian statue that might have been identified as Constantine connected Pope Paul III with the Christian Emperor and the association of divine rights.

When I first received this project, I had no knowledge about the site at all. All I knew about Rome were things I have learned through fictional accounts and survey courses, such as the gladiators and the great extent of the empire. This project not only helped me expand my perception of what Rome entailed, but also helped me gain a new appreciation for the incredible expanse of history that this land was built upon. The fact that the current Rome City Hall is built upon a Middle Age fortress, upon an ancient Roman temple for the Capitoline Triads, and finally upon the ruins of an Etruscan temple for Veiovis, going back in time for thousands of years, is simply incredible.

Another thing I learned while researching this topic, which I did not mention in the project because of its slight irrelevance, has to do with the grotesque Vittorio Emanuel Monument situated next to the piazza. This new monument completely redesigned the space surrounding the Capitoline hill, and substantially diminished its physical significance in relationship to the rest of the city plan. This really taught me the importance of architectural planning in not only the building itself, but recognizing the impact of a project’s surrounding area and its interaction with other objects around it. Overall, however, I am still overwhelmed by the ingenuity in Michelangelo’s design. He truly is a great Renaissance artist.

During my presentation a fellow classmate pointed out that there are prominent sculptures of scallop shells that decorated all the second-floor windows of the Palazzo dei Conservatori and the Palazzo Nuovo, and asked what it symbolized. At the time I did not find any information that mentioned the shells during my research, and so did not understand its symbolism. However, after doing some brief research after the presentation, it seems that the scallop shells, when accompanied with water droplets, often symbolize the baptism of Christ. On its own, the shell symbolizes pilgrimage or travel. Ever since the question was posed to me, I have found many other sites decorated with the scallop symbol, most of them being religious sites. Why Piazza del Campidoglio buildings contained this religious element still puzzles me, but one might infer that Michelangelo wished to associate the location again with the navel of the world, where Romans travel from afar to visit. Perhaps he wanted Romans to refer to the Campidoglio as a destination and shelter for the citizens. On the other hand, from a layman’s perspective, maybe the shells were suggested by the Pope, since Michelangelo’s design was not entirely religious, and the Pope might have added shell decorations as a reminder of the religious elements present in Rome.


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Brodsky, Joseph, and Alexander Liberman. Campidoglio: Michelangelo's Roman Capitol. 1st ed. New York: Random House, 1994.

Baccolini, Graziano. "From Monotovolo to the Campidoglio: the Symbolic meaning of Michelangelo's Oval Design." Montovolo Retreats. Jan. 2003. 14 Aug. 2007.

Burroughs, Charles. "Michelangelo at the Campidoglio: Artistic Identity, Patronage, and Manufacture." Artibus et Historiae 14.28(1993): 85-111.

Wallace, William E. Michelangelo: The Complete Sculpture, Painting, Architecture. New York: Hugh Lauter Levine Associates, 1998.