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The Piazza del Popolo - a square in Rome, Italy

October 3rd, 2007 / / Links: Google Earth, Google Maps, Yahoo! Maps, Virtual Earth / Nearest places

The Piazza del Popolo is a square in Rome, Italy. The name in modern Italian literally means "piazza of the people", but historically it derives from the poplars (populus in Latin, pioppo in Italian) after which the church of Santa Maria del Popolo, in the northeast corner of the piazza, takes its name.

The Piazza lies inside the northern gate in the Aurelian Walls, once the Porta Flaminia of ancient Rome, and now called Porta del Popolo. This was the starting point of the Via Flaminia, the road to Ariminum (modern Rimini) and the most important route to the north. At the same time, before the age of railroads, it was the traveller's first view of Rome upon arrival. For centuries, the Piazza del Popolo was a place for public executions, the last of which took place in 1826.

The layout of the piazza today was designed in neoclassical style between 1811 and 1822 by the architect Giuseppe Valadier, who demolished some insignificant buildings and haphazard high screening walls, to form two semicircles, reminiscent of Bernini's plan for St. Peter's Square, replacing the original cramped trapezoidal square centred on the Via Flaminia. Valadier's Piazza del Popolo, however, incorporated the verdure of trees as an essential element, and conceived his space in a third dimension, with the building of the viale that leads up to the balustraded overlook from the Pincio (above, right).

An Egyptian obelisk of Rameses II from Heliopolis stands in the centre of the Piazza. The obelisk, known as the obelisco Flaminio, is the second oldest and one of the tallest in Rome (some 24 m high, or 36 m including its plinth). The obelisk was brought to Rome in 10 BC by order of Augustus and originally set up in the Circus Maximus. It was re-erected here in the Piazza by the architect-engineer Domenico Fontana in 1589 as part of the urban plan of Sixtus V. The Piazza also formerly contained a central fountain, which was moved to the Piazza Nicosia in 1818, when fountains in the form of Egyptian-style lions were added around the base of the obelisk.

Looking from the north, three streets branch out from the Piazza, forming the so-called "trident" (il Tridente): the Via del Corso in the centre, the Via del Babuino on the left (opened in 1525 as the Via Paolina) and the Via di Ripetta (opened by Leo X in 1518 as the Via Leonina) on the right. Twin churches (the chiese gemelle) of Santa Maria dei Miracoli (1681) and Santa Maria in Montesanto (1679), begun by Carlo Rainaldi and completed by Bernini and Carlo Fontana, define the junctions of the roads. Close scrutiny of the twin churches reveals that they are not mere copies of one another, as they would have been in a Neoclassical project, but varying their details, offering variety within their symmetrical balance in Baroque fashion.

To the south, the central Via del Corso follows the course of the ancient Roman Via Flaminia, coming from the Capitol and the forum. The Via Flaminia became known as the Via Lata in the Middle Ages, before becoming today's Via del Corso and leads to the Piazza Venezia. The Via di Ripetta leads past the Mausoleum of Augustus to the Tiber, where the Porto di Ripetta was located until the late 19th century. The Via del Babuino ("Baboon"), linking to Piazza di Spagna, takes its name from a grotesque sculpture of Silenus, that gained the popular name of "the Baboon".

To the north of the Piazza stand the Porta del Popolo and the ancient church of Santa Maria del Popolo. The Porta del Popolo was reconstructed to the current appearance by Pope Alexander VII in 1655, to welcome Queen Christina of Sweden to Rome after her conversion to Roman Catholicism and abdication. It was designed by Bernini: whereas such festive structures elsewhere were built of weather-resistant plaster, in Rome the structure was more permanently executed in stone. Opposite Santa Maria del Popolo stands a Carabinieri station, with a dome reflecting that of the church.

In his urbanistic project, Valadier constructed the matching palazzi that provide a frame for the scenography of the twin churches and hold down two corners of his composition. A third palazzo he set to face the fine Early Renaissance façade of Santa Maria del Popolo, holding down the other two corners. Valadier outlined this newly-defined oval forecourt to the city of Rome with identical sweeps of wall. Behind the western one, a screen of trees masks the unassorted fronts of buildings beyond. Fountains stand on the each side of the Piazza to the east and west.

Valadier's masterstroke was in linking the piazza with the heights of the Pincio, the Pincian Hill of ancient Rome, which overlooked the space on the east. He swept away informally terraced gardens that belonged to the Augustinian monastery connected with Santa Maria del Popolo. In its place he created a carriage drive that doubled back upon itself and pedestrian steps leading up beside a waterfall to a balustraded lookout in Pincio park, supported by a triple-arched nymphaeum and backed by a wide gravelled opening set on axis with the piazza below, between formally-planted bosquets of trees. The planted Pinco in turn provides a link to the Villa Borghese gardens.

Until quite recently, the Piazza del Popolo was choked with traffic in a sea of car parking; today, these have been swept away in favour of

[Source: Wikipedia]

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