History and architecture of Piazza Del Popolo in Rome

This article is completely dedicated to Piazza del Popolo, one of the most scenic piazzas in Rome, and its history, architecture, facts and curiosities.
This square is home to some of Rome’s most spectacular monuments as well as artistic treasures that most travelers are unaware of, such as the two Caravaggio paintings in the Church of Santa Maria del Popolo.
The antiquity of this square, the complexity of its history and the repeated architectural and artistic interventions require that to truly understand its beauty and grandeur, in every sense, you must use this guide, written by someone who was born and raised in Rome and loves Piazza del Popolo in a special way.

Piazza Del Popolo’s history

At the time of the Romans, the Via Lata passed through here, starting in Rome’s center, coming out of the Aurelian walls and becoming the Via Flaminia. The Via Flaminia, a consular road connecting Rome to Rimini, is still in use today. It starts from the majestic Porta Flaminia through which you enter Piazza del Popolo.
The square is therefore the main entrance to the historic center of Rome from the north.
The arrangement of the square as well as the architectural elements in it have undergone renovations and interventions in every era.
The current design of the piazza is the work of the Roman architect Giuseppe Valadier, who wanted to provide Rome with a grand entrance. Before Valadier redesigned the square in the early 19th century, barns, granaries and vineyards were located here and atrocious executions were still carried out.

The Map of Piazza Del Popolo

The plan of the square is a double hemicycle. On the north side it is accessed through the three arches of the Porta Flaminia.
Next to the Porta Flaminia Gate is the Church of Santa Maria del Popolo.
In the center of the square there is an Egyptian obelisk surrounded by fountains. In line with the central fountain but at the edge of the square there are two other fountains with elegant sculptures.
Opposite the Porta Flaminia are the so-called “Twin Churches”. From the southern part of the square, behind the Twin Churches branch out three streets, collectively called “trident” from which one enters the historic center of Rome.

WHY IS THE SQUARE CALLED PIAZZA DEL POPOLO?

There are at least two traditions that explain the name given to the square.
The first one says that the name derives from the Latin “populus” which also means poplar, as one of the roads leading to the square was lined with numerous poplars.
The second hypothesis claims that the name comes from the Church of Santa Maria del Popolo, which was built at the expense of the Roman people (populus in Latin, as well) at the end of the eleventh century AD.

Architectural highlights in Piazza del Popolo

THE PORTA DEL POPOLO

This gate within the Aurelian Walls represents a scenic entrance to the city for those coming from the Via Flaminia. The exterior was remodeled in the 16th century while the interior was restored in the mid-17th century by Gian Lorenzo Bernini for the occasion of Queen Christina of Sweden’s visit to Rome. Above the central arch is a message of good wishes, surmounted by the coat of arms of the Chigi family.

Porta del Popolo, Piazza del Popolo, Rome
Porta del Popolo, gate to Piazza del Popolo | facade facing Piazzale Flaminio

 

Porta del Popolo indoor facade by Bernini
Porta del Popolo, gate to Piazza del Popolo | facade by Bernini facing the Fountain of the Lions

CHURCH OF SANTA MARIA DEL POPOLO

It is said that in the Middle Ages, on the slopes of the Pincio hill, where the church now stands, in the midst of the branches of a giant walnut tree, which grew where the ashes of Emperor Nero were buried, wandered the ghost of the deceased. The pope then decided to saw off the tree and have a church built there, at the expense of the Roman people. Hence the name of the church and the square of the same name (the Latin “populus” means “people”). In 1099 arose Santa Maria del Popolo.
The church today has 3 naves overlooked by 4 chapels on each side. Along the arches of the central column, sculptures of saints and martyrs exclusively female accompany the visitor to the painting of the Virgin near the altar, which is said to be miraculous. Behind the altar is the choir by Renaissance architect Donato Bramante.
The art treasures you definitely don’t want to miss are in the Cerasi Chapel, right next to the altar. Here you will find a painting by Carracci, “The Assumption of the Virgin” and two paintings by Caravaggio: “The Crucifixion of St. Peter” and the “Conversion of St. Paul”. Visiting this church is one of the best things to do in Rome for free.

Painting by Caravaggio | Church of Santa Maria Del Popolo, Rome
Painting by Caravaggio, The Crucifixion of St. Peter | Church of Santa Maria Del Popolo

 

Painting by Caravaggio | Church of Santa Maria Del Popolo, Rome
Caravaggio, The Conversion of St. Paul

PIAZZA DEL POPOLO: FOUNTAINS AND OBELISK

The obelisk known as “Flaminio” bears the hieroglyphics of Pharaoh Seti (1300 B.C.). It was the first obelisk to be transferred from Heliopolis to Rome under Augustus (10 b.C.) to celebrate the conquest of Egypt. It was first placed in the Circus Maximus as a symbol of the Sun and then in Piazza del Popolo in the 16th century. Valadier designed the Fountain of the Lions to replace the one that had been there previously. The fountain consists of four round travertine basins surmounted by 4 white marble lions in Egyptian style from whose mouths water fans come out.

Fountain of the Lions, People Square, Rome
Fountain of the Lions, People Square, Rome
Fountain of the Lions, People Square, Rome
Egyptian-style lion, sculpture, Valadier
Egyptian obelisk, Piazza del Popolo Rome
Egyptian obelisk, 14th Century b.C.

OTHER FOUNTAINS

In line with the Fountain of the Lions but at the limits of the square there are two other majestic fountains, by Ceccarini: one represents the Goddess Rome surrounded by the Tiber River, the Aniene River and the She-wolf; the other portrays Neptune with two tritons.

THE TWIN CHURCHES

Seen from the center of the square, for a purely optical effect, the 2 churches appear identical, but they are not. Bernini and Rainaldi, who finished building them, realized that there was less space on the left. The Church of Santa Maria in Montesanto, on the left, thus obtained an elliptical plan and a dome with twelve sides while Santa Maria Dei Miracoli has a circular plan and a dome with eight sides.

CURIOSITY

During recent restoration work, were discovered under the churches two funeral pyramids of identical size to the Pyramid of Caius Cestius in Rome’s Ostiense neighborhood.

WHERE TO GO FROM ROME’S PEOPLE SQUARE

After visiting all the monuments of the square, walk along the perimeter, on the side of the Church of Santa Maria del Popolo, climb the worn stairs that lead to the romantic terrace of the Pincio and enjoy the view of Piazza del Popolo from above.

  • From the Twin Churches, walk down Via del Babuino to reach Piazza di Spagna in 9 minutes.
  • Walking along Via del Corso, the street of boutiques and clothing stores, you will reach the Trevi Fountain in about 20 minutes, the Colosseum in 35 minutes.
  • Walking along Via Cola Di Rienzo, you’ll reach St. Peter’s Square in about 30 minutes.
  • Outside the square, on the side of Porta Flaminia, is one of the entrances to the Villa Borghese Gardens, where you can go to rest, have a picnic, or visit the Villa Borghese Museums.
  • Piazza del Popolo is the perfect starting point to visit Rome in one day.
Rome monuments Piazza del Popolo
Piazza Del Popolo history | Rome monuments

TIPS FOR VISITING PIAZZA DEL POPOLO IN ROME

HOW TO GET HERE

Getting to Piazza del Popolo is very convenient, as there is a subway stop on Line A just outside Porta Flaminia, called “Flaminio-Piazza Del Popolo”.

WHERE TO EAT NEAR PIAZZA DEL POPOLO

The cafes and eateries that overlook the square are expensive, but if you just don’t want to give up, eat at the historic restaurant “Il Bolognese”, which offers refined dishes from Emilia Romagna: tortellini, roast beef, battered vegetables, fish crudités.
To spend less, eat outside the Porta Flaminia, you’ll find most of Rome’s typical dishes and street food along the Via Flaminia:
Alice Pizza | Pizza by the slice, tasty and quality
Mondo Arancina serves delicious arancini that will satiate you along with other traditional Sicilian delicacies.
Caffè dei Pittori | Coffee shop that also serves lunch with dishes of the day
Al Borghetto | Refined dishes in an intimate environment

FUN FACTS ABOUT PIAZZA DEL POPOLO

Piazza del Popolo is so beautiful that naturally invites you to stop. There are always street performers interacting with passersby.
This is one of the places where locals gather to toast the new year, on December 31 at midnight. Sometimes concerts are also held here.
There is virtually no shade in Piazza del Popolo, so if you visit in the summer, remember to bring a hat and water and take refuge inside one of the churches to gain some fresh air.

Let me know if you’ve found this piece of Rome’s Piazza del Popolo’s history useful!

 

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