The Three Romes: Papal Pilgrimage City

NB: This post owes its historical content both to the previously mentioned “History of European Urbanization,” and also to an excellent lecture I tagged along for given to Prof. Saloojee’s Rome class given by Roman native and architectural historian, Paolo Ale.  

When we left off yesterday, Rome had shrunk from its Imperial glory to a city of 17,000 people.  The Forum was a cow pasture and the ancient city had been largely abandoned.  Even the papal influence was removed during the removal of the Vatican to Avignion in the 1300’s, abandoning the city to a number of warring baronial powers who wrestled for control of the city.

Finally in the 1420’s, the return of the papacy began to turn the city around.  The newly returned Popes were interested in drawing a symbolic connection between the ancient world and their own power and also in creating a city which would suitably impress the growing number of European pilgrims coming to visit the city they had read so much about.  The commission for Michaelangelo to re-design the Campidoglio in the 1530’s came on the heels of a papal embarrassment when the Holy Roman Emperor, just returned from conquering Tunisia in the name of the church, failed to make it up the Palatine hill on his horse during a January triumphal procession.  There was a huge dicsconnect between the image that people still held of Rome as a classical, imperial city (derived fro their study of classical texts) and the reality of “goat hill.”

The result was the first cohesively designed piazza in history.  One architect planning all the buildings on a court to work together and achieve a central design goal.  The concept of main central building, flanking sides and designed open space in the center has been repeated endlessly since, but was originally the vision of Michelangelo.  The Campidoglio plaza is rich in symbolism.  It marked a midpoint between the church of St. Peters (at the Vatican) and St. John the Latern (which was built and donated by Constantine, the first christian Roman emperor) and was a stop on the traditional procession from one to the other (from spiritual to secular) that each Pope made as part of his election confirmation.  The piazza was also a spot of Roman significance – the site of the temple of Jupiter – and the building which sits there now has a staircase intended to evoke the triangular pediment which would have capped that temple, as if the new papal-designed building was resting on the ancient history as a base.  This was a time when references to the classical past were immensely popular as a way of underlining the centrality of Rome in European power.

The Popes continued to re-shape the city through the next few centuries.  Sixtus the fifth undertook to drive straight processional streets through the medieval urban tangle to connect major points of religious or touristic significance.  He marked the ends of these avenues with obelisks robbed from classical Rome.  Old churches were re-furbished (or re-fronted).  The streets don’t go in straight lines but process from monument to point of interest to fountain.


The Vatican itself was separated from the city by the Tiber river.  It, too, got a facelift from Michelangelo and a later piazza addition by Bernini (a huge rounded court representing the arms of the church, which can block the view of the dome of St. Peters if you get too close).


In addition to its churches, the Vatican constantly expanded its living quarters and headquarters areas during this period, commissioning all the greatest artists of Italy to contribute.  I spent a whole day in the Musei Vatican absorbing a fraction of this accumulated wealth in beauty.


The popes didn’t keep quite all the largess for themselves inside the Vatican – some of their artistic piracy was delegated to their family members.  The Bourghese Gallery houses an amazing art collection that is contemporary with this period of urban renewal in Rome.   Its collector, Cardinal Scipione Bourghese, was the nephew of Pope Paul V and used his position and connections to amass (and commission) a truly stunning house full of (somewhat ill-gotten) art.  Its still so rarefied that one has to make an appointment in advance, online or by phone, for a particular two hour time slot in which to visit the museum but the collection is well worth the hurdle jumping.  My attention was grabbed and riveted by the set of sculpture by a young Gian Lorenzo Bernini, whom I had previously known only as an architect.


Yet more Rennaisance and Baroque additions to the city.  These were must-see stops I made following the trail of old Architectural History class notes.

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