Walking down the Via Flaminia, the ancient access road to Rome historically used by so many visitors, you see an impressive city gate at the end of the street. This is the 16th century Porta del Popolo, replacing the Aurelian Porta Flaminia, built in the 3rd century, at the same place. It was intended to leave an impression on whomever arrived in Rome. Massively towering above you, the gate almost completely blocks your view, as the openings are relatively small. It then comes as a surprise, when you walk through the gates, when an enormous space opens up in front of your eyes. This is Piazza del Popolo. Right in front of you, an obelisk, on your right, carabinieri barracks, on your left, the Santa Maria del Popolo church; the vast square has two prominent fountains on the east and west side; furthermore, behind the obelisk, you see the "twin" churches of Santa Maria dei Miracoli and Santa Maria di Montesanto. Looking through Via del Corso, you can also clearly identify enormous Monument of Vittorio Emanuele. Piazza del Popolo, called after poplar trees that grew here, was for a long time used to park carriages; it was also used for executions until the 1820s.
It was still early when I entered the Piazza del Popolo, and I took advantage of my early arrival to explore the square. Almost inevitably, I was drawn towards the obelisk, taken from Egypt 10BCE, and one of the tallest of Rome. It is surrounded by Egyptian lions spurting water into the surrounding fountains. When the Piazza del Popolo got its current design by Giuseppe Valadier between 1811 and 1822, he created a balanced square, with two groups of fountains on the east and west side of the square, with different neoclassical statues on either side. Their appearance and sound add to the peaceful setting of the square. Piazza del Popolo is not car-free, but traffic is smartly guided behind the semicircular walls defining the contours of the square. I walked past the so-called Tridente: from the south-side of the square, where the Santa Maria dei Miracoli and Montesanti churches stand, three streets lead southwards: the Via di Ripetta, via del Corso, and Via del Babuino.
From here, I walked up the Pincio hill on the east, which, apart from being a welcome green patch in the city, also gives the best views; not only over the Piazza del Popolo itself, but, as you climb higher, also the entire city. After having enjoyed the views, I came down to the Piazza del Popolo again to visit the Santa Maria del Popolo church. In the abundance of churches that call Rome home, this is probably one of the finest. Originally constructed in the late 11th century in celebration of the Crusades, the existing church was reconstructed in the 15th century. The exterior is quite simple, an early example of Renaissance architecture, although Bernini modified it in the 17th century to give it a Baroque flavour. Once inside, you notice that the interior is far richer, with an plethora of art in the chapels, and on the ceiling. Among others, you can see masterpieces of Caravaggio and Rafael. In fact, Santa Maria del Popolo is almost more of a museum than a church, and it is easy to spend an hour here in admiration of all the beauty surrounding the visitor. When I stepped outside, I found myself at the Porta del Popolo again. The square was filling up now, and it was time to head elsewhere.
Personal travel impressions both in words and images from Piazza del Popolo (Italy). Clicking on the pictures enlarges them and enables you to send the picture as a free e-card or download it for personal use, for instance, on your weblog. Or click on the map above to visit more places close to Piazza del Popolo.
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