Monumental and elegant square, at the top where via del Babuino, via di Ripetta and via del Corso meet, the three main arteries of the historic center of Rome.
the urbanization of the area begins in the second half of the 16th century, with the construction of a first fountain, the Trullo fountain, designed by Giacomo Della Porta, today in Piazza Nicosia, and with the subsequent location of the Flaminio obelisk, about 24 meters high, and moved from the Circus Maximus by order of Sixtus V in 1589; it was the first obelisk to be moved to Rome, at the time of Augustus, to celebrate the conquest of Egypt.
The external facade of today’s Porta del Popolo (the ancient Porta Flaminia) was commissioned by Pope Pius IV to Michelangelo, who however transferred the task to Nanni di Baccio Bigio, who carried out the work between 1562 and 1565. “Felici faustoque ingressui MDCLV” (“For a happy and auspicious entrance”): this is the message engraved on the internal faÃ§ade, created by Bernini for Alexander VII, on the occasion of Christina of Sweden’s arrival in Rome in 1655 .
During the seventeenth century, the two twin churches were built, Santa Maria in Montesanto, also known as the “Church of the Artists”, and Santa Maria dei Miracoli, originally designed by Carlo Rainaldi, and both subsequently completed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, with the collaboration of Carlo Fontana. Conceived by Rainaldi as symmetrical constructions, due to space problems they have different floor plans and different domes – octagonal for Santa Maria dei Miracoli and dodecagonal for Santa Maria in Montesanto. Nevertheless, from the square, thanks to a pure optical effect, they appear identical.
On the opposite side of the square stands the splendid Basilica of Santa Maria del Popolo, dating back to the fifteenth century, enriched and modified over the centuries by the intervention of numerous architects and artists. Inside it preserves extraordinary masterpieces: the Chigi Chapel, built on a design by Raffaello from 1513, completed between 1652 and 1656 with the intervention of Gian Lorenzo Bernini; the Cerasi Chapel, which houses the Crucifixion of St. Peter and the Conversion of St. Paul, works by Caravaggio; the altarpiece depicting the Assumption of the Virgin by Annibale Carracci and the Della Rovere Chapel, created by the architect Andrea Bregno, between the end of the fifteenth and the beginning of the sixteenth century, decorated with magnificent frescoes attributed to Pinturicchio and his workshop . Legend has it that on the Colle degli Ortuli, where the Basilica stands, there is the cursed tomb of Nero, the emperor who committed suicide, whose ashes were buried in a porphyry urn under a walnut. Near the main altar of the church there are bas-reliefs that recall the story.
Following a new urban layout, designed by the architect Giuseppe Valadier at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the new Piazza del Popolo looks like a large ellipse around the Egyptian obelisk, embellished and framed by sculptures, gardens and fountains.
In the center of the square, there is the fountain of the Lions by Valadier himself, which replaces the sixteenth-century fountain by Della Porta and develops around the Flaminio obelisk. It has round travertine basins, dominated by Egyptian-style white marble lions, from whose mouths water jets gush.
At the center of the eastern hemicycle is the fountain of the Goddess Rome, adorned with a large sculptural group consisting of a statue of the armed goddess, flanked by two statues depicting the Tiber and the Aniene – the two rivers of Rome – and to which feet is the she-wolf nursing the twins. Behind it is the Parco del Pincio, a splendid urban promenade, from whose terrace you can admire a spectacular sunset.
Exactly in the center of the opposite hemicycle, stands the imposing sculptural group that adorns the fountain of Neptune: a statue of Neptune with the trident in his right hand, at whose feet are placed two tritons with dolphins, dominates a large travertine basin semicircular in shape, above which a large shell valve collects the water poured from a small basin at the top. Both fountains of the two hemicycles were designed by Valadier and sculpted by Giovanni Ceccarini.
The layout of the square is completed by the two sarcophagus fountains, placed in place of a drinking trough and a wash house, which up to the eighteenth century gave the area a rural aspect. One is leaning against the church of Santa Maria del Popolo, bears the portrait of a couple and dates back to the middle of the third century AD; the other is located close to the opposite Giacomo Acqua barracks, formerly of the papal guards, has a decoration with only a male toga and is datable to the last quarter of the same century.
Until the 19th century, the square was one of the places where executions took place at the hands of the famous executioner Mastro Titta. As recalled by a plaque affixed to the barracks in 1909, the two Carbonari Angelo Targhini and Leonida Montanari were guillotined here, “guilty of injured majesty and wounded with danger”.
Representation of the Renaissance papal patronage, an ancient venue for games, fairs and popular shows, Piazza del Popolo is certainly one of the most famous squares in the world. Its artistic beauties, its cafes, its shops and adjacent commercial premises, formerly frequented by personalities such as Trilussa, Guttuso and Pasolini, make it the cultural emblem of the “Romanita'” and spectacular entrance to the heart of the capital.