Sunday, September 17, 2006

Rome’s Entrance: the Piazza and Porta del Popolo

Johanna Madany
Honors in Rome - Summer 2006

How do you mask fading power? How do you cling to authority that is slowly slipping out of your fingers? This was the challenge that Pope Alexander VII faced during his papacy. Both the Piazza and Porta del Popolo played important roles as magnificent props for the Roman stage Alexander VII created to impress an audience of Rome’s visitors. From my own visit to Rome and to these sites, I believe that both the Piazza and the Porta fulfilled the purpose behind their creation.
The signing of the Treaty of Westphalia signified an end to the authority that the Roman Catholic Church exercised in all of Europe. The Treaty of Munster in 1648 marked the beginning of sovereignty for the nation states that were starting to form in Europe. This equalized the nations of Europe; meaning that the Protestant nations and churches had the same status as the Catholic ones. The concept of sovereignty was taking shape which began to infringe on the power of the papacy.

The Treaty of Westphalia was a crucial moment in the life of Fabio Chigi who became Pope Alexander VII. This very treaty is also the main reason the Piazza and Porta del Popolo were so carefully and grandly designed. Fabio Chigi played a major role in fighting for the cause of the Catholic Church in the Treaty of Westphalia and its defeat would haunt him for the rest of his life. He lived torn between his own unwavering belief in the power of the Catholic Chuch and his scarring memories of her defeat. Alexander VII continued to hold a very high opinion of the papacy and refused to face these new political realities.
Pope Alexander VII was born in Siena as Fabio Chigi. He received the education of a gentleman during that time. After serving as a Cardinal in the Church, he was elected pope in 1648. He had a number of very distinct characteristics which included his love of flattery and his pride of his family heritage. He enjoyed witty and spirited conversations with people. This is one reason why he worked with Bernini and respected Queen Christina of Sweden so much. Pope Alexander VII possesed a very active imagination and began many different projects of redesign around the city.

Pope Alexander loved beginning projects but he had a hard time letting go of control and delegating projects out to other people. Alexander was a very indecisive man who wanted to “have his hand in everything” (Krautheimer: 13). On top of this, Alexander VII was heedless of economic matters. The economic situation he inherited was already in a terrible position but this only worsened during his time in power. The population in Rome at this time was dwindling and unemployment was high. The state debt was huge and actually increased by 11 million ducats during his time in power.
Fabio Chigi chose the name Alexander for a number of different reasons. One that stands out is that he hoped to be the next Alexander the great, another founder of cities. As Pope, Alexander VII ended up being a great patron of the arts. However, unlike many of the Pope’s that went before him, Alexander was not interested in paintings. In fact, he surprisingly did not accumulate any painting collections during his time as Pope. Alexander’s passion was redesigning the city of Rome.
In his redesign of the city, Alexander VII specifically focused on the path that visitors took when entering Rome. He then extended the redesign from the Porta del Popolo down the Via del Corso to the Vatican. Every visitor that entered Rome during this period of time would come in from the north through the Porta del Popolo. Their first view and impression of the city occurred as they came through those gates and entered the Piazza del Popolo.

Alexander VII used his art; the buildings and their décor and layout to convey a strong political statement. Alexander VII felt it was his responsibility to reassert the power and the competence of the Roman Catholic Church. Alexander VII was very insecure about what visitors that entered the city thought of Rome. Visitors that entered Rome now were no longer only pilgrims but also the tourists of that era which included royalty, noblemen and great men of arts and science. The most remarkable visitor that entered Rome during Alexander VII reign was Queen Christina of Sweden.
For Rome and especially for Alexander, Queen Christina’s arrival in Rome was incredibly important. Christina’s father, Gustav II Adolf, who had been champion of the Protestant cause during the Treaty of Westphalia. Christina herself had reigned in Sweden from 1640 till 1654. In 1654 she abdicated the throne because she had converted to Catholicism which was illegal in Sweden at the time. Christina decided to move to Rome and on her way stopped in Spanish portion of The Netherlands. While there she was secretly received into the Catholic Church.

Queen Christina’s arrival was awaited with great expectation. Almost everyone came out to see her, except for the nuns. She was rumored to be a hermaphrodite who spoke with a man’s voice and who ride a horse like a man. As her arrival was such a victorious moment for Rome and Alexander VII, it was marked with great festivities. This included the remodeling of the Porta del Popolo.

The existing Porta del Popolo was part of the 3rd Century Aurelian Wall and located on the same spot as the ancient Porta Flaminia. The outer façade was created by Vignola for the Medici Pope Pius IV in 1561. The patronage of the outer façade is clearly shown by the Medici crest on the Northern face of the Porta del Popolo. The outer façade originally contained one fornix with columns that supported a Doric architrave and contained statues of St. Peter and St. Paul. The originals were moved into the Roma Museum in 1980.

The Porta del Popolo was redesigned again in 1655 for the arrival of Queen Christina. Pope Alexander VII commissioned Bernini to redecorate its inner façade. Still remaining from these decorations are the six mountains and star which crown the monument. This clearly shows that this piece of art was commissioned by a Chigi Pope. Underneath this is a special symbol created by Bernini which connects the oak (the symbol of Alexander VII) with the wheat for Queen Christina as this is the symbol of the royal Swedish family, the Vasa. At this time a low attic was also added to the Porta. Here Bernini inscribed “Felici Fausto Q. Ingressui Anno Com MDCLV”, meaning “To a fruitful and auspicious entry in the year of our Lord 1655” to commemorate the arrival of Queen Christina. The current shape of Porta del Popolo dates back to 1878. At this time the two towers that framed the main gate were torn down. The gate was widened to include two smaller gates on either side.
The redesign that Alexander VII began in the Porta del Popolo spread to the Piazza del Popolo. After entering through the gate, the Piazza del Popolo provided visitors with their first taste of the city of Rome. There were a lot of different stages of planning that Alexander and his architects went through to design the Piazza.

Before the 1600s, very little is documented about Piazza del Popolo. It was an unpaved and unimpressive area. The Piazza consisted of little more than an open space lined by small houses and filled with cattle and peasants. The first documented attention that the Piazza del Popolo received was in 1561 and 1562 when Pope Paul IV tidied the edges of the Piazza in preparation for the arrival of Emperor Charles V. Later on Gregory XIII added a fountain in the middle, which became the focal point of the piazza, as well as two utility fountains on the sides. Then in 1586, during the extensive urban redesign of Pope Sixtus V, Fontana moved the obelisk into the center of the Piazza where it became the new focal point. The obelisk is the second oldest one in Rome, from the time of Rameses. It was initially brought out of Egypt and placed in the Circus Maximus after which it was moved to the piazza.

The next recorded attention that the piazza received was from Alexander VII in 1655. The main challenge that the Piazza presented for Alexander was its irregular length and width. Different plans were contrived to mask this problem. One solution was to create a reverse funnel shape that would project the visitor out into the piazza and then out into the city. This meant that the piazza would briefly narrow after the gate and would then fan out to where the obelisk was located. There it would continue parallel until it reached the trident of streets; the axes of via del Babuino, Via del Corso & Via di Ripetta, where it would fan out into the city.

Construction went very slowly due to the lack of available funds and therefore the project slowly progressed over time. The decision was made to place twin churches on the wedges separating the trident of streets. The original design for these churches was drawn up by Rainaldi. However, Alexander VII, either by his own choice or through Bernini’s whispering, disapproved of the design because it would clash with the buildings that Bernini had done. Rainaldi’s design was very high Baroque while the style of Bernini was classical baroque. In 1660 a new design was presented by Carlo Fontana, but in the end a somewhat altered plan of Rainaldi’s church was chosen.

Alexander VII spent a great deal of effort and time on perfecting the wedges at the southern end of the piazza. In 1656 he began searching for all the owners of the houses in the area where he wanted to build. He is said to have told Bernini to take care of the “unsightly refuse’ around the piazza (Habel: 79). In the original plan the wedges were meant to serve as a backdrop to the actual Piazza del Popolo. However, with the addition of the churches to the plan, the wedges became the focal point. The Via del Corso had to be widened to allow it to align perfectly with the obelisk and the Porta del Popolo. This perfect symmetry is one of the most impressive parts of this Piazza.

The Piazza del Popolo was the “first formal trivium” (Ceen: 80). The purpose of a classic trivium is to focus the viewer’s attention on the vast roads stretching out into the city. With the addition of the churches to the wedges, they became the focal point and took the focus of the piazza away from the trident of the streets and placed it out into the city. This impressive backdrop of churches framing the city of Rome was a basic principle of Renaissance urban design in Rome.
Urban design in Rome during this time has often been compared to designing a stage for a specific audience. Alexander VII used his urban design specifically for this purpose. He still felt that it was his responsibility to reassert the power and authority of the Roman Catholic Church. The first impression that visitors had when they entered Rome was the focus of Alexander’s redesign. In creating the Porta and Piazza del Popolo, Alexander was creating a façade of how he wished his visitors would interpret Rome. The grand churches and luxurious palaces and squares were meant to assure the viewer that Rome and the Catholic Church had not lost their power. This stage was perfectly crafted to give the audience the false illusion that all was well in Rome.

Some more astute visitors to Rome commented on the stark difference that they saw between the churches and palaces that were built to uphold the prestige of the church and the city and the actual homes of the people of Rome. In part of his Papal court memos between 1656 and 1658, Lorenco Pizzati describes four different problems that he believes Alexander should address. Included in this list are dirt, epidemics, war and the deterioration of Rome. He accused Alexander of choosing simplistic solutions for the problems of Rome. He believed that Alexander should have spent his time and energy on creating adequate and affordable housing for the people of Rome instead of the new churches and palaces.
With the invention of cars, trains and airplanes the Piazza and Porta del Popolo no longer function as an entry point for visitors to Rome. While this original purpose of the Piazza and Porta del Popolo is no longer relevant, its perfect symmetry and grand design still impress all visitors that venture up to see it. What surprised me the most about researching the Porta and Piazza del Popolo was the amount of planning and forethought that went into the project. Before beginning my research I considered a piazza to simply be an open space where people could congregate. Now I know that in its original form every little detail of the Piazza was designed to perfection so it could fulfill the purpose for which it was created. The Piazza del Popolo serves as a splendid invitation to the city of Rome. Its duty is to spark the visitor’s anticipation as their gaze is directed past the actual space of the Piazza del Popolo to the city of Rome that lies beyond.

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