Rome in the middle ages had no centre. The old Forum Romanum and the Capitoline were mostly hidden under sand.
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.
Maarten van Heemskerck ‘The Capitoline Hill’ view of the old Palazzo dei Conservatori c. 135-1536
Sketchbook, fol. 71v. Kupferstichkabinett Berlin
Lievin Cruyl ‘Eighteen Views of Rome: The Campidoglio’ 1664
The Cleveland Museum of Art
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.
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).
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).
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.
- it had to be a nice entrance to the city.
- the plateau had to be evened out.
- the declined palazzi had to be restored.
- 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.
Palazzo dei Senatori (East)
Palazzo dei Conservatori (South)
Palazzo Nuovo (North built in the 17th century)
The current Piazza del Campidoglio
Palazzo Senatori about 1300
Before Michelangelo interventions
Situation before the 16th century
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
We again descend down the cordonata and now move up a medieval staircase with some 124 steps.