Honors in Rome - Summer 2007
The Capitoline Hill, or Campidoglio, currently represents a remarkable architectural project designed by Michelangelo, but its rich history in actuality spans some 2,500 years. During Roman times, the Capitoline Hill was the point of arrival of the triumphal ceremonies that were held in honor of victorious generals upon their return to Rome. The victors would march all the way from the Via Sacra and through the arches of Titus in the Roman Forum, gloriously displaying the spoils of war and exhibiting the prisoners. On this hill is where the city’s first and holiest temples stood, forming the Capitoline Triad which comprised of the Temple to Jupiter, Juno, and their daughter Minerva.
During the Middle Ages, however, the ancient buildings fell into disuse and were largely unkempt, so much so that it became known as the Monte Caprino, which signifies “goat hill,” named after the creatures that would graze on the hill. Despite this, the hill retained the seat of the Roman Senate and the heart of the ancient state cults. The space largely served municipal institutions and was installed by a collegial magistracy composed of senators and a Municipal Board. Although it is the smallest of Rome’s seven hills, it is also the highest and the most sacred, still evoking much of the religious and political symbolism that has been around since its early foundations.
It is not surprising, then, that when Alessandro Farnese—a connoisseur and appreciator of ancient Rome—became Pope Paul III, he rushed to congregate the best artists to do various works and reparations during his reign. In 1535, the Pope commissioned Michelangelo Buonarroti to finish work at the Sistine Chapel and subsequently asked the sculptor to renovate the buildings around the Capitoline Hill and reinstitute its presence as the center of the city.
In the 15th century, the papacy implemented various urban renewal programs and encouraged the general restoration and development of Rome in order to fortify the city and associate the image of Rome with the seat of Christendom. This is best articulated by Pope Nicholas V in his deathbed in 1455, who called for renovations to be made because “great buildings, which are perpetual monuments and eternal testimonies seemingly made by the hand of God,” demonstrate that “the authority of the Roman Church is the greatest and the highest” (Partridge 21). In the early 16th century, however, artistic projects had greatly declined. Pope Adrian VI’s well-known scorn for the arts and the breakup of the principal studio of painting during Clement VII’s reign are factors which lead up to the Sack of Rome and greatly aggravated artistic ambitions (Augenti 140). Pope Paul III’s ascent to the papacy therefore comes at an important time and marks a period of artistic rejuvenation and important renovations.
The desire for renovation was not solely driven by the need for historical preservation, however. Private reasons included the Pope’s summer villa in the nearby hill which called for the need for a revamped, aesthetic view of the Capitoline Hill. More crucially, the Sack of Rome had occurred a decade earlier in 1527, marking the end of the Renaissance at the culmination of political and cultural decline. It also marked an embarrassing defeat by the troops of the Habsburg Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, which made a mockery of papal claims to world dominion. Paul III was therefore determined to revitalize Rome’s glory and to stage a grandiose entry for Charles V through ancient monuments, making a clear distinction between the empire and the church and further enhancing the major east-west urban corridor.
This secularism was very important in the design and purpose of the Campidoglio. The Campidoglio was the seat of the civic government of Rome; it was comprised of the senator and the conservators, which mostly lacked political authority and were adherent to papal authority. The pope therefore wanted his power to have a religious and a laic pole, the latter of which would explicitly evoke the ancient Roman Empire (Argan and Contardi 213). This expression of secularism greatly pleased Michelangelo, who still had laments over the fall of the Republic of Florence. Perhaps it was also motivated by his own hopes in desistance of the pope, influence by his good friend Tommasso Cavalieri who was a well-connected member of the patrician class, the leading elite and their tradition of resistance to papal power (Burroughs 91).
The glory of the Roman Church would be unveiled at St. Peter’s a few years after Michelangelo drew up the designs for the Capitoline Hill. The Campidoglio must still have been on the artist’s mind, however, as he made ideological and urbanistic connections between St. Peter’s and the Campidoglio. Whereas in the Republican period, the Capitoline Hill faced center of the city or the Forum, the renovated version would now face St. Peter’s. The city would lie between the two ruling forces.
Michelangelo’s design starts at the base of the hill, creating an explicit entrance. We begin the smooth ascent to the Capitoline Hill facing a large, flat cordonata, or sloping road. The symbolism of the smooth cordonata cannot go overlooked in its sharp contrast to the adjacent steep and narrow steps leading to the Santa Maria in Arcoeli church on the Arx of the hill. By the time Michelangelo returned to Rome in 1534, the tempestuous artist had transitioned to a deepened conviction of his faith. For this reason, it has been suggested that the flat steps symbolize the easy ascent to political, earthly power contrasted to the more difficult and strenuous path to spirituality (Argan and Contardi 216). Still higher up is the Franciscan church, indicating the worth of the soul over everything else.
Another reason for the slanted steps is more pragmatic; it allowed for the smooth transition of horses and carriages. More specifically, it served important persons, such as emperors on horsebacks, the convenience of accessing the Capitoline Hill without first having to dismount. Although the Capitoline Hill was not completed until long after the anticipated arrival of Charles V, the procession was originally intended to lead up to the Capitoline Hill.
At the base of the cordonata are two Egyptian lions. Their placement invokes the ancient civic symbol of Rome, which was later replaced by the She-Wolf. Although they are a deviation from Michelangelo’s original design, they have grown to become an important facet in the entrance to the hill. The lions originally decorated the entrance to Santo Stefano del Cacco church in the middle of the 14th century and were placed at the bottom of the steps in 1562. In 1588, when the aqueduct Acqua Felice was brought to the Capitoline Hill, Giacomo della Porta changed the lions into fountains, adding two urns to collect the water from the lions’ mouths. According to the legend, each time a new Pope becomes installed in San Giovanni in Laterano, the lions gush out wine instead of water, an event which has been recorded at least twice.
Moving up on the balustrade are two colossal statues of Castor and Pollux, also known as the Dioscuri or the Heavenly Twins. According to the myth, Zeus impregnated the irresistible Leda under the guise of a swan. She later hatched two eggs, from which emerged four children which included the twins Castor and Pollux, the remnants of which are recalled on the back of the twins’ heads as egg-shaped caps. Their placement on the hill is warranted by the fact that they are broadly recognized as the protectors of the city of Rome and the insurers of liberty. According to the legend, the twins grew up to be famed horsemen, reputed to have helped the Romans at the Battle of Lake Regulus in 496 BC. The statues were brought to the Capitoline from near the Monte de’Cenci in 1585 and are not the same posed by Michelangelo, which now grace the entrance to the Palazzo del Quirinale.
Besides the Dioscuri are two marble reliefs of the Trophies of Marius, which recall the spoils of war that were returned to Rome after military victories. Finally, farther away from the stairs, are two statues representing Emperor Constantine and his son, Constantine II. Their presence is greatly conditional upon the fact that Constantine was the first Christian emperor. Since Michelangelo died in 1564, the ancient marble statues alongside the balustrade have been added by renowned architects over the course of the 1580s. Architect Giacomo della Porta faithfully implemented most of Michelangelo’s designs after his death. Other additions include the statues of the river gods on the sides of the staircase of the Senatorial Palace, the bell tower which was built by Marti Longhi the Elder in 1578-82, and the statue of Roma placed in the middle of the façade one year later (Augenti 144).
On top of the hill, the radiant, star-shaped design of the oval piazza emerges as if emanating from a colossal equestrian statue and enclosed by three buildings. Renovations officially started when the Pope ordered the move of the statue to the middle of the piazza. The horseman has been identified to be that of emperor Marcus Aurelius. Even though it has been transferred from the Lateran, some scholars now believe its original setting was right in the Roman Forum by the Antonine Column. Its importance is therefore historical; out of the 22 recorded equestrian statues, or equi magni, in the late imperial period, this statue is the only one to have been handed down through the centuries. Because of its integrity, it soon acquired a strong symbolic meaning for all those who aspired at becoming a legitimate heir to the Roman Empire.
The statue’s survival today is not just conditional upon this symbolism, however. The prevailing argument among scholars as to why it still remains standing instead of havingsuffered the same fate of other bronze statues that were melted down is that the statue was first believed to be Constantine, the first Christian emperor. During its placement on the hill, in fact, differing opinions existed as to the identity of the horseman, which included the character of the anti-imperialist “Gran Villano” and Alexander the Great.
Despite differing beliefs on the identity of the horseman at the time, a few records correctly identify it as Marcus Aurelius. A decree from the Lateran Chapter names the Emperor accurately and further complains that its presence lacked religious significance. Another record describes the advice of Michelangelo for the “reformatione statue M. Antonii” (Ackerman 71). The statue, therefore, was more likely understood by the Pope to represent the philosophical emperor and was meant for Charles V, the Holy Roman emperor. It was thence intended as a reminder of the imperial role of the pope, who liked to draw parallels between himself and other grand emperors of Antiquity. For this reason, some scholars speculate the pope may have believed the statue to be that of Alexander the Great, whose name resonates with the pope’s prior name, Alessandro (Augenti 144).
Whether it was believed to be Marcus Aurelius or Alexander the Great, Michelangelo was not supportive of the Empire and was therefore unhappy about the placing of the statue which drew attention to the emperor. The artist had just become citizen of Rome in 1537 at a ceremony that took place on the Capitoline Hill, and was himself a strong supporter of the Republic. The statue itself was not completely out of place in his arrangements, however. The anachronistic theme of the design, in many ways, shaped the role of the Campidoglio as a place of memory, history, and symbolism. Another theory suggests that the artist de-historicized the statue in his mind in accordance to his neoplatonic views. Michelangelo believed that history was a sort of “eternal returning” and therefore the statue would represent the ancient authority of Imperial Rome which had returned in the form of the apostolic authority of the pope (Argan and Contardi 217).
The present square is in the ancient Asylum, where the ancient triumphal processions ended. When Charles V visited Rome in 1536, the area was still unpaved. Some buildings that were forerunners stood in the area, some of them very irregular and full of nooks (Grundmann 142). In its stead, Michelangelo designed buildings to create a trapezoidal space which enclosed an oval piazza. This is because the building which stood in the place of the Palace of the Conservators’ was already at a sharp angle with the Senator’s Palace. Instead of tearing down the structure that went against his aesthetic feeling, as he had done in St. Peter’s, Michelangelo decided to keep the buildings meeting at the odd, 80-degree angle.
In the middle of the piazza is the Palazzo Senatorio, or Senator’s Palace, first built in the 12th century. The building preserves, within its structure, the ancient remains of the Tabularium, which held the city’s records in ancient Rome, and medieval period structures, which demonstrate the uninterrupted building phases. In 1547, the pope decided to demolish the ancient loggia on the front of the Senatorial Palace to be replaced by Michelangelo’s design of the large pilasters and the double staircase which divide the façade. The staircase gave access to the “noble” floor, which had earlier housed the hall of the Senator. This monumental entrance was built out of travertine and completed in 1598 by Giacomo della Porta, as evidenced by the heraldic devices of Clement VIII made visible on the attic.
A fountain adorned by two colossal statues now graces the entrance to the building. These were found at the beginning of the century on the Quirinal and represent the River gods, the Tiber and the Nile. They represent the geographical extent of Rome’s historical influence. Finally, in a niche at the center of the façade, came the addition of an ancient statue of seated Minerva, transformed into the goddess Roma. She is shown holding the world in her hands, a symbolic gesture of Rome’s place and hold on the world. The decorative program was completed in 1588.
To the right is the Palazzo dei Conservatori, or Conservators’ Palace, first built in the mid-16th century. A long portico with colonnaded arcades characterized the original façade. In the 15th century, the pride of ancestry was displayed on the façade by means of statues such as the She-Wolf, the mythical feeder of Romulus and Remus, which had now replaced the lion as the civic symbol of the city. Also displayed were the colossal bronze statue of Constantine and the River gods. Most of these statues have been moved inside the Capitoline museums, which are housed inside the palaces.
Michelangelo’s design, instead, eschewed statues; he preferred to express his ideas through architecture. Michelangelo redesigned the façade of the building and made use of the giant order column, also called the Corinthian pilasters design, for the first time. This refers to an order whose columns and pilasters span two or more floors. Michelangelo combined his giant pilasters with smaller columns that framed the windows of the upper floor, thus creating more emphasis on the floor which housed the zone of government and represented political order and reason (Burroughs 92). A line of guild offices was situated on the lower floor.
Facing the Conservators’ Palace and situated at the same 80-degree angle from the Senator’s Palace is the Palazzo Nuovo, or New Palace. This building’s primary function was to make the space symmetric, so its façade was identical to the Conservators’ Palace’s. The building also prevented the Santa Maria in Aracoeli church from towering over the square and becoming a focal point (Grundmann 143). By encasing the Senator’s Palace and forming a trapezoidal space between the buildings, the final addition redirects the focal view to St. Peter’s. Because of its utilitarian function and its lack of religious significance, funding for construction was very slow on this building. The buildings were not completed until more than a century later in 1646. It now houses a part of the Capitoline Museums.
Fitting snuggly between the trapezoidal space created by the trio of buildings, the oval star-shaped pavement design was the last element required for the completion of the project. However, the pavement was never executed by the popes who may have detected a non-Christian subtext, and had remained unfinished for three centuries. It was ultimately paved by Mussolini in accordance to Michelangelo’s design.
The design of the interlaced twelve-pointed star is modeled after the iconic scheme used by Isidoro of Seville which depicted the movement of the planets around the Earth and symbolizes the concordance of the lunar cycle (Ackerman 74). The astral significance is symbolic of Rome as the capital or navel of the world, recalling Sixtus IV’s vision for the city when he called it the caput mundi. Michelangelo was familiar with architect Marcus Vitruvius’s treatise “On Architecture” which alluded to the heavenly sphere with the zodiac signs, and thus the cosmological inclusion in his design would not have been improbable. Indeed, he liked to evoke much symbolism in his pieces, believing that it heightened the power of the imagination (Argan and Contardi 217).
Seville’s version only differs with Michelangelo’s star in the sense that it is inscribed in a circle and not an oval. In this matter, scholar Graziano Baccolini suggests that the oval design recalls the oval stone which defined Omphalos, the Greek navel of Delfi. This oval stone was an important religious symbol for Etruscans, which was indicative of the Umbilicus Caput Mundi, or the navel of the world (Baccolini).
Amidst the wealth of interpretation and symbolism, the intentionality of the piece is one that does not call for passive observation. The piazza interacts with the viewers in many ways through the ever-changing reflection of natural light emanating from the celestial ceiling. The mounded pavement evokes the earthly sphere and reflects the skies above and the stellate pattern below. The area is ripe with cosmological symbolism. At the entrance, the twins have been turned into the Gemini constellation by Jupiter. Rome’s place in the universe is made clear in the magnificent redesign by Michelangelo. The unplanned addition of the goddess of war and wisdom further embodies this theme with her strong hold on the world.
Perhaps most impacting is the rich history of the Campidoglio resuscitated in Michelangelo’s design. We cannot appreciate the renovation of the Capitoline Hill nor understand its significance without mentioning Ancient Rome. Beneath the hill lie the temple of Jupiter and remnants of the triad which are still being excavated to this day. Inside, the palaces house the oldest museum in the world, an antiquario started by Sixtus IV. In the middle of the piazza and all along the cordonata one finds sculptures evoking the glory of Ancient Rome.
Michelangelo’s design is also unique for its unclassical dynamism. The unusual trapezoidal arrangement was not only an economical model which preserved the old buildings, but was also an intentional move to direct the focal point towards St. Peter’s and to enclose an oval piazza. The first move for renovation occurred with the placement of the statue and the creation of its foothold, the latter which was built by Michelangelo in the shape of an oval. This, in turn, may indicate that the artist already had the oval pattern in mind for the whole space. The spatial illusion does not end with the piazza. The innovative giant order column also creates an interesting illusion of thin pilasters supporting the heavy, crowned cornice. The Ionic columns, in contrast, appear to support a wide stone entablature.
Most surprising in the design of the palaces is the diminutive function of the Palazzo Nuovo. The Campidoglio inspires a harmonic sense of symmetry throughout the ascent on the cordonata and all the way up the piazza, displaying emperor and successor, mythical twins, matching lions and identical buildings. In this sense, not only does Michelangelo achieve a harmonious, united space; he creates a perpetual monument, an eternal testimony “seemingly made by the hand of God,” or Jupiter below.
Bibliography and Consulted Sources
Ackerman, James S. “Marcus Aurelius on the Capitoline Hill.” Renaissance News 10.2 (1957): 70-75.
Aikin , Roger C. "Romae de Dacia Triumphantis: Roma and Captives at the Capitoline Hill." The Art Bulletin 62.4 (1980): 583-97.
Argan, Giulio C. Contardi, Bruno. “Michelangelo Architect.” New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1993.
Augenti, Andrea. “Rome: Art and Archeology.” Firenze: SCALA Group, 2000.
Baccolini, Graziano. “From Monotovolo to the Campidoglio: the Symbolic meaning of Michelangelo’s Oval Design.” Montovolo Retreats. Jan. 2003. 14 Aug. 2007 .
Bull, George. Michelangelo: A Biography. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995.
Burroughs, Charles. “Michelangelo at the Campidoglio: Artistic Identity, Patronage, and Manufacture.” Artibus et Historiae 14.28(1993): 85-111.
Frommel , Christoph L. “Papal Policy: The Planning of Rome during the Renaissance.” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 17.1 (1986): 39-65.
Grundmann, Stefan, ed. The Architecture of Rome. London: Daehan, 1998.
Leuschner , Eckhard. "Tempesta at the Capitoline ." The Burlington Magazine 141.1159 (1999): 618-21.
Partridge, Loren W. “The art of Renaissance Rome, 1400-1600.” New York : Harry N. Abrams, 1996.
Varriano, John. “A Literary Companion to Rome : Including Ten Walking Tours.” New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 1995.
Vertova , Luisa. "A Late Renaissance View of Rome." The Burlington Magazine 137.1108 (1995): 445-51.