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In Roman mythology, the Campidoglio is best known as the hill that wasn't Rome. As the story goes, when twins Romulus and Remus decided to establish a city, there was a dispute over where to build. Remus selected the Capitoline Hill, while Romulus favored the Palatine. Romulus won out after a sign from the gods (more birds circled his hill). Remus was killed and didn’t get a city named after him.

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.

Rome, Italy

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