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Notes on the Geography of Italy: Papal Rome

Just as the ruins of classical Rome have been heavily modified by later hands--sometimes constructively, sometimes not--so those later hands have themselves been prisoners of antiquity, relying on it not only for materials but for ideas. Perhaps that explains why, although there's an abundance of neoclassical Renaissance architecture in Rome, the city has almost nothing in the way of Gothic architecture or, ironically, in the way of Romanesque.

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We're south of the Circus Maximus and up on the Aventine Hill, with the Tiber curving alongside the busy road below. The monument to Vittoria Emmanuel II commands the right background; on the left is the square tower of the city's synagogue, completed in 1904. We're up here, however, for the church behind us.

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It's Santa Sabina, built in the 5th century and standing today as perhaps the purest--certainly the least overwhelmed by visitors--of the city's several basilicas.

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Columns from pagan antiquity decorate the entrance.

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Inside, the building appears much like those of the Roman Forum once did.

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Rome has several of these basilica-style churches. Even when decorated with rococo flourishes, they are still restrained in comparison with the Gothic. This is Santa Maria in Aracoeli, on the Capitoline Hill. The name refers to an "altar of heaven" foretold in the time of Augustus. The church was established in the 6th century, but the present ceiling, which is wood, dates to 1575. It was in this church that Gibbon conceived The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, a history, as he wrote, of "the greatest, perhaps, and most awful scene in the history of mankind...."

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The basilica format again, this time in the church of Maria Maggiore, a 5th century basilica possibly with roots in pagan times. The apsidal mosaic shows Jesus crowning the Virgin and is by Jacopo da Torrita (1295).

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The grand ceiling of St. John the Lateran, the cathedral of Rome.

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Detail of that ceiling.

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For a city dominated for a thousand years by basilicas. St. Peters was radical. Commissioned in 1506 by Julius II, who wanted a tomb, the huge church was under construction so long--120 years--that Julius never saw it. The facade was finished in 1613, about 20 years after the dome, and is so massive that it almost hides that dome--not easy when you're talking about a dome that rises 450 feet above the pavement. To help get a sense of scale: those portico columns are 90 feet tall, only seven shorter than the column of Trajan.

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"The greatest creation of the Renaissance," according to Banister Fletcher, a Victorian architectural historian. The dome was conceived by Michelangelo, though modified by Giacamo Della Porta and Domenico Fontana. It's an engineering marvel because it rests not on a cylinder of 360 degrees but on four piers cumulating perhaps 180. The view is from the Vatican museum.

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The ancient Romans, who knew masonry, imported half a dozen obelisks from Egypt. Caligula ordered this one, which was moved to St. Peters Square in 1586. Behind it is a small part of one arm of Bernini's colonnade, which embraces the Square.

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The popes did much more than commission churches: this is the Pontus Sisto, built by Sixtus IV in 1475. The "eye" reduces the river's resistance to flood waters. Handsome as it is, the idea was not new: compare it with the Ponte Rotto, 800 yards downstream (shown in Classical Rome 2).

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Papal Rome in the Renaissance also became a city of massive palaces. Their scale and spacing are suggested in this view looking north from the monument to Vittorio Emmanual II and across the lawn of the Piazza Venezia. The Corso appears by its directness to be a modern street cut through a medieval tangle, but it is ancient. Less than a mile ahead (and faintly detectable in the photo) is the Piazza del Populo, marking the Porta Flaminia and the start of the Via Flaminia, the road to Tuscany and, until mid-19th century, the road used by most arriving visitors.

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Turning slightly to the south: this is the Palazzo Venezia, built of stone quarried from the Colosseum. Built as a home for cardinals by the Venetian Paul Barbo, later Paul II, it was still later given by Pius IV (some authorities say Clement VIII) to the Venetian Republic, whose ambassadors occupied it from 1564 to 1797. It was the Austrian embassy for a time but was returned to Italy in 1916. A decade or two later, Mussolini harangued crowds from the balcony lost in shade here.

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Along the Corso. We're about to step into the courtyard of one of the grander palaces.

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Just a few steps off the Corso, the courtyard of the Palazzo Doria Pamphilj.

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The same, taken from inside and above street level.

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The grandest of all these palaces is the Palazzo Farnese, expanded from two to three stories when Cardinal Farnese became Pope Paul III. The top floor with its massive cornice is by Michelangelo, as are the two side facades of the square structure. The building was inherited by the Bourbons, who sold it in 1911 to France, whose embassy it still houses.

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The facade is 185 feet long, 96 high, and of brick covered with stucco and stone. The stone was quarried from the Coliseum and the Theater of Marcellus, prompting Gibbon to write that "every traveller who views the Farnese palace may curse the sacrilege and luxury of these upstart princes."  Tut, tut: so undiplomatic!

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The rear of the building opens onto an elevated garden; the interior includes a square courtyard, 81 feet on a side.

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The Villa Borghese, built in 1615 as the summer residence of Cardinal Scipio Borghese, was enlarged in 1782 and made into a sculpture gallery, much of whose contents was removed by Napoleon.  Later Borgheses began collecting once again. In 1902 they sold the building, with garden and art collection, to the Italian government.

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Pictures of the rooms in these palaces aren't easy to come by, but here's the ceiling of a cardinal's bedroom inside the Palazzo Altemps. The floor of this room is supported by arched masonry, not wood.

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Morning light in the same room (Room 23).

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A street-side window, upstairs (near Room 33).

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Renaissance Rome was a city of public as well as private spaces. Here, as much as in any buildings of the time, Renaissance Rome echoed the distant past because the curvature of the Piazza Navona follows the ancient stadium of Domitian. The Egyptian obelisk was moved here from the circus of Maxentius, out on the Appian Way.

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Just as the ancient Romans loved their baths, Renaissance Romans loved their fountains, fed by aqueducts built in classical times. Here, one of the fountains in the Piazza Navona.

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A detail of another Piazza Navona fountain, Bernini's Fountain of the Four Rivers. The rivers are the Danube, Ganges, La Plata, and--here, judging from the palm--the Nile.

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More spectacular yet, Niccolo Salvi's Trevi Fountain marks the end of the Aqua Virgo, built by Agrippa in the first century. The aqueduct was restored in 1759 by Nicholas V and succeeding popes, and the Trevi Fountain opened three years later. The same aqueduct also feeds the fountains in the Piazza Navona.

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Neptune, flanked by Health and Abundance, rides a chariot led by two tritons (the one on the right blows a conch.) 

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The fountain appears to grow out of the Palazzo Poli, completed about 30 years earlier, in 1730.


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