But don't feel bad for the Campidoglio. Rome eventually grew to encapsulate it, and it was the site of the ancient temple to the Roman triad of Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva (you can still see pieces of the foundation behind Santa Maria in Aracoeli). The temple housed Brutus and his co-conspirators after Julius Caesar's murder, and criminals were thrown from the Tarpeian Rock on the side of the hill.
It wasn't all violence and intrigue, though. In the Middle Ages, the Palazzo Senatorio was constructed on top of the ancient Tabularium, and the building became the center of Roman civic life. The Campidoglio as it exists now, however, was built primarily during the Renaissance to impress Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, who planned a visit to the city several years following his troops' sack of Rome.
Michelangelo was given the responsibility of replanning the piazza. He gave the two existing palazzos updated facades, and he constructed another side palazzo to create an enclosed feeling. An ancient bronze statue of Marcus Aurelius (which escaped destruction by early Christians because they believed it was a statue of Constantine) was erected in the center of the piazza. The wide staircase, planned largely in contrast to the difficult staircase leading to Santa Maria in Aracoeli, was designed so that Charles's horse could climb up them, and the result is an easy, comfortable walk up an otherwise steep hill.
Most visitors to the Campidoglio walk through it quickly on the way to the Capitoline Museums, remembering only briefly a note in their guidebook that said it was somehow connected to Michelangelo. But the Campidoglio as a space deserves more attention than that. Enter from Michelangelo's staircase, to get the greeting from Castor, Pollox, and Marcus Aurelius that was originally intended. Sit on the steps in front of one of the side palazzos, and relax. The Campidoglio is a popular place for Romans to take wedding pictures and also of the occasional political protest, so it’s a wonderful spot to people watch. If possible, get there just before sunset, and sit talking leisurely, with the sun setting behind St. Peter's dome in the distance. The Campidoglio has been an important part of Roman life from the city's mythic origins to its current role as housing the local government, and the location should not be underestimated, both for its historic significance and its artistic harmony.
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St. Louis, Missouri
October 5, 2005
From journal A Study Abroad Semester in Rome
June 18, 2004
It just happened that the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V was paying a visit to Rome. Worthy of this emperor title, Charles's procession would go on the Capitoline Hill, the Campidoglio. In Roman times, this hill overlooking the Forum was the center of Roman civic life. Michelangelo was put in charge of the design of the Campidoglio and he started in 1536, once again demonstrating his abilities at multi-tasking (remember, he was a sculptor, painter, architect and even a poet).
You access it by walking on gentle flight of stairs that slowly reveals the statue, put in the center and the building of the Campidoglio (now Rome's City Hall). It is graceful and harmonious and it's pure Renaissance style. Although, Michelangelo never saw it finished, his plans have mostly been respected. The famous marble "star" design surrounding the statue (you have to go up to the entrance of the City Hall to really admire it) is Michelangelo's design but was finished in the 20th century!
Go behind the city Hall and you'll find balustrade overlooking the Forum and giving you an extensive view, all the way to the Coliseum.
From journal La dolce vita a Roma.