Piazza Navona and Campo de’ Fiori have always been the ideal location for those looking for the perfect blend of ancient, medieval, renaissance and baroque styles with everyday living and night life. This bend in the Tiber has always embraced and protected a privileged pocket of Rome. From the Pantheon we move deeper into medieval Rome – closer to that bend in the river which provides both water and a degree of security from attack.
This area of ancient Rome provided refuge to the dwindling post-Empire population. As a consequence it is the result of a continuous evolution from antiquity through to Medieval. The streets tend to be tight and narrow and the buildings are natural extensions of the pre-existing Roman foundations.
The most notable example of this is Piazza Navona which by many is deemed to be “the most beautiful square in the world”. Certainly it’s one of the most interesting to visit and read about: The square still retains the shape of the original Roman circus (Domitian’s circus) which once lay here.
Today’s buildings rise directly from the ancient Roman circus – giving this square its elongated shape. The buildings have grown from the foundations of the public stands which in their hay-day seated as many as 33,000 spectators. Another example of this may be found in the buildings around the Theatre of Marcellus (not far, towards the Tiber island): you will notice how they & the road essentially follow the ancient theatre’s curvature.
Back to the Piazza Navona, the ancient use as a Roman circus echoes on in several ways: often the public stands had shops and other facilities below them.
The Hairy Martyrdom of Saint Agnes
One of the more popular services was prostitution and it is said that the young Saint Agnes was murdered in such a facility located under what is now the church of Sant’Agnese in Agone. Given that it was unlawful to convict and kill a virgin the Romans thought well to have her sent to work in a brothel.
However the young saint developed a repulsive covering of hair all over her body. Her hirsute appearance was so unappealing that she remained untainted. She was murdered.
Bernini’s unique fountain
The fountain in front of the church acts as a focal point to the square, designed by the leading Baroque Architect Bernini. Many slated the design as being impossible and unstable: It still stands. The fountain depicts the four known continents of the time and their great rivers.
The Nile is blindfolded because its source was not known at the time although popular myth has it that it expresses Bernini’s disgust for the Sant’Agnese church which was designed by his student and rival Borromini. The other rivers are the Danube, the Rio de la Plata (holding his hand up against the falling church?) and the Ganges.
The whole square has a strong Baroque print to it and the top of the obelisk carries the dove with Olive sprig, symbol of the Pamphilij Papal family which was responsible for much of the transformation during the 17th Century. The obelisk was taken from another ancient Roman circus: the Circus of Maxentius, which is the most complete in Rome and may be seen along the old Appian way.
Piazza Navona was flooded in hot Roman summers
An added curiosity is that the square was regularly inundated during summer week-ends so that the local population might go and freshen up. This was achieved by stopping up the outlets of the fountains.
Piazza Navona is generally very lively at all seasons, especially so around summer and Christmas time, almost impossibly so for its few residents. If you want a quick portrait drawn, this is the place.
Around Piazza Navona, towards Campo de’ Fiori
Although Piazza Navona’s popularity tends to overshadow the immediate vicinity there is much to be seen and had.
“Counter Reformation” may sound boring, so how about “Holy Inquisition”?
The French church of San Luigi dei Francesi contains some wonderful paintings (incl. 3 by the famous Caravaggio), then there’s Sant’ Andrea della Valle. Two Popes are buried here.
The church features in the first scene of the Opera Tosca. The dome is the second largest in Rome after St. Peter’s. Santi’Ivo alla Sapienza is a must for its exuberant architecture.
Seems boring, but Chiesa Nuova is an important landmark of the Counter-Reformation (ie the Catholic reaction to the Protestant Reform). The church was frescoed by Pietro da Cortona over the course of some 20 years. There are 3 paintings by Rubens. The founder of the church, Saint Filippo Neri, is buried here. To some the words “Holy Inquisition” may sound more interesting than “Counter Reformation”.
The apparently insignificant statue of Pasquino just off the square’s south bend is remembered as one of Rome’s “talking statues“. During the years of iron-fisted Papal rule statues such as this one were used by the coal workers – “Carbonari” – as a place where you might (secretly) affix your less than complimentary poems against the Papal regime.
Not far from here we have Via del Governo Vecchio “Old Government Street”. This street had the Palazzo del Governo Vecchio from which the Papal regime once governed Rome.
On the subject of streets: Via dei Coronari “Crownmakers’ street” is interesting to walk down. Many of the buildings are worth having a quick look at, some even have some history attached to them.
The street follows an ancient Roman street, the Via Recta – the straight street – which ran from the column of Marcus Aurelius to the Tiber.
During the Medieval period the street was heavily used by pilgrims on their way to the Ponte Sant’ Angelo bridge to reach theVatican. Being so trafficked there was an intensive trade in religious artifacts and rosaries which have since transformed into antiques dealers. This ancient trade gave the street its name.
There are a number of ancient palazzi (palaces) to be seen around here:
Palazzo Madama has had a mixture of illustrious owners including the Medici, the Farnese not to mention their spouses/husbands from the ruling families of Spain and France. It was also residence of two Medici Cardinals both of whom became Popes. Since the unification of Italy the palace has been used as the Italian Senate (a sort of House of Lords).
Palazzo Massimo is built over the ancient Roman theatre of Emperor Domitian. The princely Massimo family which owns the building claims its origins in the Roman general Fabio Massimo who defeated Hannibal. The outside walls are frescoed in Renaissance style. Some ancient Roman columns are still standing about as testimony of what was there before.
Palazzo Braschi was the last Papal palace built (18th century). It houses a museum of paintings, drawings and artifacts of daily life during Medieval Rome.
Last but certainly not least there’s Palazzo Altemps. It is part of the Museo Nazionale Romano and contains a few landmarks in the history of art. The famous Ludovisi throne relief is here.
Also worth a visit are the Torre dell’Orologio designed by Bernini with his customary play of convex and concave facades. The mosaic of the Virgin Mary is by the great artist Pietro da Cortona. The painting of the Virgin at the corner held by sculptures of angels is in Bernini style.
Campo de’ Fiori
Moving further south we come to the area dominated by the Campo de’ Fiori square “the field of flowers“. The area is vibrant and since medieval times has been the site of a popular flower and vegetable market.
The Medieval buildings and housing seem to have time-warped into the present whilst the statue in the middle of the square is an ominous reminder of the inquisition: the thinker Giordano Bruno was burned on the stake for heresy during the Inquisition. Not surprisingly this is the only square in Rome which hasn’t got a church.
Around this square Medieval Rome gives way to the Renaissance.
Piazza Farnese and Via Giulia
For example the Farnese Palace in Piazza Farnese was designed by Michelangelo. It is now the French embassy. Palazzo Spada and other palaces-come-fortress testify how this area was favoured by the powerful Roman families of the Renaissance. The palazzo della Cancelleria is here also. It was used as the papal archive and still today constitutes part of Vatican state territory.
Taking a quick walk we bump into the unexpected excavations at Piazza Argentina. These have brought to light four temples which are amongst the most ancient brought to light. They date back to the Republican period ie. before Julius Caesar and then Augustus turned the government of Rome’s dominions into that of an Empire. The earliest of the temples dates back to the third century BC. Another was used as the foundations of a medieval church, since demolished.
Behind two of the temples we have a large stage made of heavy blocks. This was part of the Roman Senate during the period of Pompey and Caesar. It seems this was the site where Caesar was so famously murdered on the ides of March in 44BC by Republican activists. Few students have never heard the words “Et tu Brute“.… This was the place.
The Jewish Ghetto
We have already mentioned how this area exhibits good examples of ancient Rome turned medieval turned modern. One such example is the Theatre of Marcellus. Another is the Portico di Ottavia. The portico is the remainder of a large and important ancient Roman complex. Through time it has been variously used for mercantile trade.
The portico is also the northernmost limit of the small area known as the Jewish Ghetto – there has been an extremely significant Jewish population in Rome ever since ancient Roman times right through to today. Initially brought to work as slaves they soon took a place in Roman society as doctors and merchants.
Their relative freedom went on throughout the medieval and Roman Renaissance period until persecutions picked up around the 16th century which forced them to live in a limited area of town. They were only allowed out by day and on Sundays they were forced to attend Christian sermons on Sundays.
This practice was only ended towards the middle of the 19th century. The Second World War saw renewed persecutions and deportations by the hundreds.
The synagogue was built at the beginning of the 20th century and houses a museum of Jewish history in Rome.
The area is still characterised by textile merchants and great food, you can also get kosher, the pastries and cakes enjoy quite a reputation.
Hopping across the river we have the Tiber Island with a curious history all of its own. Notice its vague shape as a ship. Not surprisingly the ancient Romans went further than simple resemblance and intimately linked the island’s appearance to its function, but not quite as you might expect….