The Piazza del Popolo is my favourite square in Rome and a very good point to start any visit of the city. It offers a choice of the best shopping or a menu of history subdivided by period: Ancient Rome, Renaissance and Baroque. Just outside the gates we have the grand entrance to Villa Borghese. Just inside we have the Piazza del Popolo square.
The square is actually the northern entrance point to the city, just inside ancient Rome’s city walls.
Much of the square was reworked during the period of Romanticism by an architect called Valadier (18/19th Century). The gate itself is pretty interesting and has been reworked several times up to the 18th century into the image of ancient Roman triumphal arches, very apt to welcome pilgrims arriving by road from the north.
The centre of the square sports one of the largest obelisks in Rome (almost 24m or 70ft tall which with the pedestal reaches some 36m) made of red granite. What is particularly interesting is that the obelisk belonged to Ramses II in the 13Century BC – ie well well before the founding of Rome and was brought over to Rome by Emperor Augustus around the year 10BC to stand in the centre of the Circus Maximus.
Just to the left of the gate we have the lovely church of Santa Maria del Popolo which apart from containing paintings by Caravaggio himself was also shrouded in myth and medieval superstition: apparently it was built over the site where Emperor Nero’s tomb once stood. The story has it that the emperor’s spirit inhabited a tree which stood on the site. Following a series of mysterious events the tree was cut down and burnt. The embers were thrown in the Tiber and a chapel built over the site.
But there is more and more and more to this area. Standing with our backs to the gates, and looking high up to the left we have the Pincio belvedere (you can probably see people looking down). To the front and right we have the area known as the Campus Martius, field of Mars, which in ancient Roman times was the military training ground. Now known as “Campo Marzio” this area is the site of Augustus’ tomb (built according to his own astrological birth stars) and the impressive Ara Pacis altar to peace. Not bad for shopping either.
Looking straight on we see a trident of streets leading into the city. The access to these streets from the square is set off two (almost) twin churches. The urban development of this area was driven by the increasing influx of pilgrims from the north and a need to channel them through the city to the Vatican without impinging on the increasingly cramped conditions of Medieval Rome.
The rightmost street (Via di Ripetta) leads towards the Campo Marzio (more said below) and the river. Following the river banks it is the most direct route to the Vatican.
The central street (Via del Corso) is perhaps the most important as it leads straight to the center of town: the Piazza Venezia, the Victor Emmanuel monument – aka the Type-Writer – and the Capitoline hill. Go on and you cross the Forums and reach the Colosseum.
The left street, called Via del Babbuino because of the ugly river god statue lying someway along it, leads you to Piazza di Spagna and the Spanish steps. In the seventeenth century two of the greatest European powers: France and Spain cut themselves a piece of town around this area. The Spaniards settled on the Piazza di Spagna square which to this day has their name and embassy to the Vatican. The French built the steps up to a number of French interests atop the Pincio hill, also including the Trinita’ dei Monti church and Villa Medici. If I’m not wrong there was a statue to the French king standing somewhere around here also.
The Spanish and French then gave way to English tourists of the grand tour during the 18th Century – the age of Romanticism. This latter term refers to the foreign love for all things classical and Roman rather than any home-grown artistic movement. In fact the area became a favourite of international artists including the likes of poets such as Byron, keats, Shelley and Goete. It continued to be a venue of painters, particularly French painters of the Academy such as Ingres and later on many others we have since come to refer to as the Impressionists. The arts brought the café culture along with them which still persists. Coffee bars such as Babbington’s and the Antico Caffe’ Greco have been there for several centuries now (see section on Rome’s coffee bars further on).
The back streets between Piazza del Popolo and Piazza Venezia have become a shopping heaven spiced with jewelers and upper class antiques dealers. They’re all here: Valentino, Ferragamo, Prada, Bulgari etc etc etc.