Piazza del Campidoglio

Paul-Marie Letarouilly ‘Facade Palazzo dei Senatori’ 19th century

Rome in the middle ages had no centre. The old Forum Romanum and the Capitoline were mostly hidden under sand.

Facade Palazzo dei Senatori’ Rome

J. van Doetecum ‘Capitoline’ 1562

Piazza del Campidoglio John of Doetecum (Hieronymus Cock) after and before Michelangelo’s intervention in the mid-16th century. To the right Palazzo dei Conservatori (south), Palazzo dei Senatori (east) and the equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius.

Aerial Campidoglio and Roman Forum
Capitoline in ancient times scale model
Piazza del Campidoglio 1618     
Campidoglio 19th century
Map 19th century 

Piazza del Campidoglio
photo: Kameister

The city council wanted to erect a new centre in the 16th century. The choice was made for the Capitoline. In the glory days of Rome, the most important temples stood there including the temple of Jupiter (click here for Wikipedia). While the other Italian cities did have beautiful central squares, like Sienna, Rome didn’t manage until the 16th century. On December 10 1537, on the Capitoline, Michelangelo Buonarroti was named an honorary citizen of Rome at age 62.

Piazza del Campo and Siena

Siena Piazza del Campo
photos: Piazza del Campo and Siena: Bernd Thaller

In the early 16th century, two buildings arrived from the quattrocentro: the Palazzo dei Conservatori at the south side and the Palazzo dei Senatori at the eastside. Pavement was non-existent, it all looked rather neglected. In the same month that Buonarroti was made an honorary citizen, the cavalry statue that was first located at the Piazza San Giovanni in Laterano (Maarten van Heemskerck), was transferred to the Capitoline (December 10 1537).

Equestrian statue Marcus Aurelius replica 
photos: BeEXT and Istvan

Equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius replica 
Original     Side

Maarten van Heemskerck made a drawing of the Equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelius by the Lateran Palace in 1536.  Read more about the statue in the Magistri Gregorii narratio de mirabilibus urbis Romae (tales of the wonders of the city Rome) from the 12th or 13th century here at Leo Nellissen (dutch).

Daniele da Volterra ‘Michelangelo’

Not much is known about how the square came to be. We do know from literature that Michelangelo had to satisfy at least four demands for his design.

  1. it had to be a nice entrance to the city.
  2. the plateau had to be evened out.
  3. the declined palazzi had to be restored.
  4. it had to become a whole, a unity, and have five entrances.

Buonarroti saw the possibilities of a grand design, but he had to dose the plan carefully. The city’s budget was limited, and the governing bodies would protest if he would unveil his entire plan in one go. The campanile of the Palazzo dei Senatori had to be moved to the middle and for symmetric reasons, a third palace had to be included: the Palazzo Nuovo (Michelangelo’s design of the Piazza del Campidoglio). Michelangelo left the old palaces intact, but he did give them new facades. This was not only more aesthetically pleasing, but better in terms of budget, too. The problem of the square was that the two palaces were facing each other at an 80 degree angle. Buonarroti exploited this weird angle by giving the square the shape of a trapezoid.

Etienne Dupérac naar Michelangelo’s ontwerp
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
Daniele da Voltera Michelangelo MET museum

Daniele da Volterra ‘Michelangelo’
photo: MET and bronze Sailko

Étienne Dupérac ‘Perspective’ after a design by Michelangelo 1567

Étienne Dupérac ‘Perspective’ after  design Michelangelo 1567
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Something that would inspire Bernini for the square he designed for the St. Peter. The entire design met the demands that Michelangelo phrased as follows in a famous letter by him about architecture.

“If a plan has different components, all these components must be of the same quality and quantity, and be in unison in terms of style and proportions. […] just like the nose, at the centre of one’s face, and has no connection to the eye, but one hand must indeed be like the other, and the one eye must match the other. And indeed, the architectural elements must be derived from the human body. Whoever does not master the human figure and the most important aspects of man’s anatomy cannot understand architecture.”
Michelangelo in a letter to cardinal Rodolfo Pio (Sebastian del Piombo). Cited from: James S. Ackerman, ‘The architecture of Michelangelo’, Penguin Books, London, 1971 (reprinted 1995) p. 37

Palazzo dei Senatori (front) and the tabularium (back)     Facade detail
Aerial Piazza del Campidoglio and the Roman Forum

Palazzo dei Senatori facade Rome
photos: Diana Ringo and tabularium: Sebastià Giralt facade detail: Jose Javier Martin Espartosa


Piazza del Campidoglio and a part of the old Roman Forum

The eyes have to be symmetric (Palazzo dei Conservatori and the Palazzo Nuovo) but the nose of the Palazzo dei Senatori and the cavalry statue have to be unique. At the square in front of the Waag in Deventer, there doesn’t seem to be any unity, nor ‘eyes and a nose.’  You can see how Michelangelo in his design subtly guided his visitors along the square. Buonarroti didn’t just use smart paving to accomplish that. He designed an oval at the centre of the square. It was built from four interlinked triangles, forming a twelve-sided star with the statue in the middle. The oval is a bit recessed and is surrounded by three low steps. Within the framing of the three steps, the oval becomes more elevated towards the middle.

Piazza del Campidoglio Roman Forum aerial
Marcus Aurelius horse replica
photo: Dennis Jarvis

This allows Marcus Aurelius to have the highest vantage point from his horse. Furthermore, we’ll how nifty Buonarroti was in making use of the space between the three palazzi, in particular of the loggias. Michelangelo created a room reminiscent of a large room or saloon, but without a ceiling. The walls of both palazzi on the sides are identical and very interesting. When we arrive, I’ll explain the ingenuity behind how all three palaces were crafted into one architectonic unity and how he strived for a balance between the horizontal and vertical building elements. To achieve the latter, Buonarroti used the giant order for the first time in history.

Castor and Pollux by the stairs    Castor and Palazzo Nuovo

We will descend down the famous stairs, the cordonata, to then scale it again. Only then will you experience how the Piazza del Campidoglio is revealed to the visitor bit by bit. You then get to see the two famous classic statues of Castor and Pollux on both sides of the stairs.

Castor  Pollux Campidoglio
photos: Jebulon, Codex and Casto: Lawrence OP

On the way to the square

Cordonato Piazza del Campidoglio
photos: Francesco Gasparetti and on the way: Karelj

There is no time to visit the two museums that are now located in the Palazzo Nuovo and the Palazzo dei Conservatori. We will however have a chance to look at the remnants of the gigantic statue of Constantine.

Fragments of statue of Constantine    Head    Feet

Fragments  statue Constantine
photos: Brad Hostetler, Hugin, head: Carole Radatto and feet: José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro

Israël Silvestre ‘The Capitoline in Rome’ 1631-1691    Nowadays
Caspar van Wittel ‘Veduta Campidoglio e dell’Aracoelli’ c. 1682

Israël Silvestre ‘The Capitoline in Rome’ 1631-1691
photo: nowadays: David McKelvey and Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

We again descend down the cordonata and now move up a medieval staircase with some 124 steps.

Santa Maria in Aracoeli      The stairs

Santa Maria in Aracoeli  stairs
photos: Caribb and stairs: Dennis Jarvis

Continuation Rome day 3: Santa Maria in Aracoeli and an insula