But here we were. It was perhaps 10am, the weather a little cool but comfortable. We passed through Porta del Popolo, the gate at Via Flaminia that, for centuries, was the entry point into Rome for those traveling from the north. Designed by architect Nanni di Baccio Bigio, the outer face features statues of St. Peter and St. Paul. The wall’s inner elevation, commissioned by Pope Alexander VII, was designed and built a century later by Gian Lorenzo Bernini. The enormous oval piazza, which has evolved over the centuries, was directly in front of us.
Welcome to Rome, Can I Interest You in a Caravaggio?
The Better Half, who’s been coming to Rome her whole life to visit her nonna, suggested we make a quick stop at Santa Maria del Popolo to see the Caravaggios there. We were both tired, but we would be walking right by the church’s centuries-old doors. She led the way, walking smartly, her roller suitcase clickity-clacking behind her on the cobblestone. I trudged behind, tired and trying not to teeter under the weight of my stuffed-to-the-max backpack laden with guidebooks, cameras, and nearly 2 weeks worth of clothes.
Locals strolled by and passed in front of us going about their business. I couldn’t have felt more out of place. With my backpack and Marmot jacket, I was the picture of high-tech fabric, zippered pockets, and Velcro. I would have fit in better with a group making its way to Everest Base Camp. Only I didn’t have a sherpa. It was hardly the sort of couture worthy of the high-fashion sense Italy is known for. I told myself this was the sort of gear one needed for Rome in October.
We pulled open one of the heavy doors and walked in. Dating from 1472, Santa Maria del Popolo has one of the most impressive stashes of art anywhere in Rome. After our eyes adjusted to the dim interior light, we found a place to set down our bags and had a look around. The main altar was, unfortunately, encased in an impossible maze of scaffolding, so we set out to explore the two most famous chapels, Cerasi Chapel and Chigi Chapel.
Two spectacular Caravaggio canvases hang in Cerasi Chapel, The Crucifixion of St. Peter, and The Conversion of Saul, both dating from 1600. Unfortunately, the lighting leaves a lot to be desired and the paintings flank either side of the chapel, so one gets a less than perfect view of both of them. I must say, though, that they are two of the most impressive Caravaggios I have ever seen. Chigi Chapel, designed by Raphael, features an altar by Sebastiano del Piombo, flanked on either side by statues by Bernini and Lorenzetto. Highlighting the floor is a kneeling skeleton mosaic, which was added later.
Déjà vu, Piazza del Popolo
After that initial, abbreviated visit upon our arrival in Rome, we returned to Piazza del Popolo for a better look a couple of days later. This time we were able to explore the area at our leisure.
The large piazza, the focal point each year for Rome’s New Years Eve celebration, is centered by the Obelisco Flaminio and fountain. The Egyptian obelisk dates from 1200 B.C. and was taken from the Sun Temple in Heliopolis by the Emperor Augustus in 10 B.C. It was brought to Piazza del Popolo in 1589. In 1815 and 1816, Giuseppe Valadier redesigned the square and added the central fountain around the obelisk, which features four Egyptian lions. He is also credited with designing the nearby Pincio Gardens.
The other main focal point is at the south end of the piazza, where the twin churches of Santa Maria dei Miracoli and Santa Maria di Montesanto flank Via del Corso, the main artery (and shopping drag) leading south to Piazza Venezia. Both churches, commissioned by Pope Alexander VII in 1658, were the work of architect Carlo Rainaldi. He cleverly gave Santa Maria dei Miracoli (on the right in the photo) a circular dome and Santa Maria di Montesanto an oval one so that they would appear symmetrical, even though Santa Maria di Montesanto was shoehorned into a narrower strip of land. Though the exteriors of the two churches are more attractive than that of Santa Maria del Popolo at the opposite end of the piazza, neither contains artistic treasures approaching those we saw upon our arrival in Rome.
Piazza del Poplolo has been the backdrop for countless events and popular performances of all kinds, including the Corsa di Barberi, a horserace that occurred during Roman Carnavale. It’s also been the site public executions as recent as the early 19th century.
Today, Piazza del Popolo is one of Rome’s most appealing squares. This vibrant piazza is one of the best places to soak up the Roman experience. The triangle to the south is home to some of the city’s most exclusive shopping, and the ocher-colored buildings that dominate the surrounding neighborhood make for pleasant wandering through narrow side streets. We had one of our most enjoyable lunches at one of the outdoor cafés surrounding the piazza.
Results 1-6of 6 Reviews
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From journal Rome is the 3rd Most Visited City in the EU
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September 25, 2005
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From journal The Italian Job: Rome, Part II
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December 6, 2002
Santa Maria del Popolo has very modest looking doors and facade, but once you enter the church, you see a great collection of Renaissance masterpieces.
The church has a lot of chapels. As you enter on the right handside there is the Della Rovere chapel that dates back to the 15th century, here the frescoes are by Pinturicchio. As you approach the altarpiece, the painting of the Madonna in the altar dates back to the 13th century. Walk behind the altar and look up at the ceiling – here the frescoes are also by Pinturicchio and if you are standing with your back to the altar, look to the left and you will see the fresco of Delphic Sibyl which is the most famous. At first I couldn’t find the sibyl, so I asked the priest who was passing by where it was. He just pointed with his finger in the direction of the fresco and left. I could tell he really didn’t like the tourists.
Santa Maria del Popolo is a real treasure in many aspects. This is the first church in Rome to have stained-glass windows which are also located here, behind the altar. But even more than that, on the left side of the altar in the Cerasi chapel you will find two paintings by Caravaggio, one of which is showing the crucifixion of St. Peter and the other conversion of St. Paul. The Chigi chapel on the left handside of the entrance was designed by Raphael, later statues by Bernini were added. This chapel is truly magnificent and is the most beautiful in the whole church. It is full of light and was the last chapel built in this church.
From journal Italy in May - Rome, Part II
Rome has a lot of large squares with fountains and obelisks and churches surrounding them, and Piazza del Popolo is one of the most well-balanced in that respect. It is a large square (well actually it has an oval shape) that seems much smaller than it really is because of the symmetry in its design. However once you start walking from one side to the other you realize how huge it really is.
The Piazza nowadays is a place for tourists to visit and enjoy this part of Rome, however this was the place of public executions just over a century ago.
If you walk in through the Porta del Popolo’s central arch, you will get the best view of the Piazza, with Santa Maria del Popolo being on your left handside, the 3,000 years old Egyptian obelisk right in front of you in the center of the Piazza and the twin churches in the background of the obelisk. Porta del Popolo is located between Piazzale Flaminio and Piazza del Popolo and was designed in the 16th century to look like one of the classical Roman arches, later Bernini was commissioned to decorate the façade of the arch. The obelisk came to Rome when emperor Augustus conquered Egypt but was placed in the Piazza only in the 16th century. In the 17th century the twin churches were built. The twin churches are Santa Maria dei Miracoli and Santa Maria in Montesanto designed by Carlo Rinaldi. They are called the twin churches since they look identical and provide symmetry for the Piazza, however one of the churches had less space for contruction. Rinaldi then built a circular dome on the right church and oval dome on the left and when you look at the churches you would never notice that one is slightly narrower than the other. On each side of the Piazza at the level of the obelisk you can also see beautiful fountains that add to the symmetry effect.
But the real jewel of the Piazza is Santa Maria del Popolo church.
Continued in Part II
August 8, 2000
From journal 3 Weeks in Rome