All images © by Roberto Piperno, owner of the domain. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org. Text edited by Rosamie Moore.
Page revised in July 2010.
Piazza Colonna (Book 2) (Map B2) (Day 1) (View C6) (Rione Colonna)
In this page:
The plate by Giuseppe Vasi
Fontana di Piazza Colonna
Palazzo del Vicegerente
SS. Bartolomeo e Alessandro dei Bergamaschi
Palazzo Spada Piombino (Galleria Colonna)
The Plate (No. 22)
In 1752 when Giuseppe Vasi drew this etching Piazza Colonna was the most important square of Rome; or to be more precise of the relatively lay society made up of the noble families which had their palaces along Via del Corso, of the rich foreign travellers who stayed at the inns of the Strangers' Quarter, of the many solicitors and barristers practising at the tribunals in Palazzo di Montecitorio and in general of those involved in trade and professions.
From a historical point of view Piazza Colonna was not entitled to such a role, but it acquired it because its location became central at the end of a process which started in the late XVIth century with the construction of Palazzo del Quirinale. This palace was originally meant to be a summer residence, but it eventually became the site of the papal court; Piazza Colonna was in-between this palace and the old Renaissance centre of the city near the river and it was also at the midpoint between Piazza Venezia and Piazza del Popolo. The square lacked a grand church, but Colonna Antonina, the imposing ancient column after which it is named, made up for this shortfall.
The view is taken from the green dot in the small 1748 map below. In the description below the plate Vasi made reference to: 1) Colonna Antonina; 2) Palazzo Chigi; 3) Curia Innocenziana or Palazzo di Montecitorio which is covered in another page; 4) Palazzo del Vicegerente; 5) Chiesa della Nazione de' Bergamaschi. The small map shows also 6) Palazzo Ferrajoli; 7) Palazzo Spada Piombino.
The only change to the buildings relates to Palazzo del Vicegerente which was largely modified by Pope Gregory XVI in 1838; today Piazza Colonna is the centre of Italian political life because Palazzo Chigi is the office and official residence of Presidente del Consiglio dei Ministri, the head of the government. Owing to security measures cars are not allowed to access the square and ralliers are prevented from disturbing the industrious activity of the prime minister and his staff.
In 1589 Pope Sixtus V restored the column and freed it from any pagan significance ("ab omnia impietatem expurgatam") by placing a statue of St. Paul on its top. The inscriptions dictated by the pope say that the column was dedicated to Emperor Antoninus Pius by Emperor Marcus Aurelius, his adoptive son and successor; the column was known as Columna Antonini, perhaps because of the misinterpretation of fragments of inscriptions which made reference to Antoninus, whose name Marcus Aurelius associated with his own (see an inscription at Ostia which shows that this practice was adopted also by later emperors).
The column was built and dedicated to Marcus Aurelius after the emperor's death in 180 AD. At the time of its erection the pedestal of the column was higher than today as the level of the ancient Via Flaminia was some twenty feet below today's Via del Corso; the pedestal was decorated with reliefs which in part we know through Renaissance drawings; they were probably too badly damaged when the column was restored and they were erased.
There have never been doubts that the spiralling reliefs of the column portrayed events of Marcus Aurelius' campaigns, because Antoninus Pius was not involved in any war; the design of the column is almost identical to Colonna Traiana which was erected eighty years before and it has the same height (100 Roman feet; the ratio between the Roman foot and the English foot is 36 Rf equal to 35 Ef).
Similar to Colonna Traiana the reliefs show events of two campaigns (against the Quadi in 172-73 in today's northern Austria; against the Marcomanni and the Iazyges in 174-75 in today's Eastern Hungary); Marcus Aurelius repelled these Germanic tribes and punished them for their raids of Roman towns, however unlike Emperor Trajan, he was unable to stabilize the Danube border by conquering new territories beyond it.
While the reliefs of Colonna Traiana could be observed from buildings having approximately the same height, those of Colonna Antonina were seen from the ground and for this reason the figures stand out more from the background than those of Colonna Traiana; the reliefs of Colonna Antonina were consistently regarded as being of a lower quality; many episodes are almost identical to similar ones in Colonna Traiana, but one episode is of particular interest: it shows a supernatural creature (and not a traditional god) intervening in a fight: it represents a sudden storm which helped the Romans win a difficult battle; in the following centuries the miracle was attributed to prayers by Christian soldiers.
Fontana di Piazza Colonna
Giacomo della Porta designed most of the fountains which Pope Gregory XIII and his successor Pope Sixtus V built to distribute the water from Acqua Vergine and Acqua Felice; the fountain he designed in Piazza Colonna is different from the others for the stripes of white marble which decorate it and for the reddish colour of the main basin; ancient marble blocks from Chios which were found at Porto were used for the latter; the spouting points and the central basin were modified in 1829-30 (the dolphins and the shell are by Achille Stocchi).
The Aldobrandini were a family of Florentine origin who acquired importance in the second half of the XVIth century; in 1570 Giovanni Aldobrandini was nominated cardinal and the same occurred in 1585 to his brother Ippolito; Pietro, a third brother, became avvocato concistoriale, an important assistant to the papal court on legal matters (including the process of canonization); in 1580 he bought some small houses along Via del Corso and along the nearby narrow street which led to Montecitorio; he then commissioned restructuring works in order to unite his properties; the buildings were sold in 1587 after his death, but they were bought back by his son Pietro in 1615; this second Pietro Aldobrandini was a cardinal; the family in the meantime had greatly benefited from the fact that in 1592 Cardinal Ippolito Aldobrandini was elected Pope Clement VIII and that he ruled for thirteen years. The houses which separated the Aldobrandini properties were bought and the whole block was given a consistent appearance, the main entrance being that in Via del Corso.
In 1659 the palace was sold to the Chigi, the family of Pope Alexander VII, the reigning pope, who did to Piazza Colonna what his predecessor Pope Innocent X had done to Piazza Navona; he combined family interests with the desire to embellish Rome; the block of houses which divided the palace from Colonna Antonina were pulled down and the square acquired its current dimension; the fašade of Palazzo Chigi in Piazza Colonna became the main one; Gian Lorenzo Bernini developed a project for placing also Colonna Traiana next to Colonna Antonina (the attempt was never made) which shows the role the pope wanted to assign to Piazza Colonna; an etching by Giovanni Battista Falda (external link) celebrated the new appearance of the square and the enlargement of Via del Corso where Arco di Portogallo was pulled down.
The initial design of Palazzo Chigi is attributed to Giacomo Della Porta and Carlo Maderno (but there are no precise records of their role), while its completion is due to Felice Della Greca and Giovanni Battista Contini.
Palazzo del Vicegerente
The Vicegerente was a bishop and the main assistant to Cardinale Vicario, who was in charge of the actual management of the Roman diocese, the time of the pope (formally the Bishop of Rome) being devoted to his superior role; these two positions still exist; when Pope Innocent XII bought Palazzo di Montecitorio from the Ludovisi to house public offices there, he also bought a nearby palace the Ludovisi had in Piazza Colonna and assigned it to the offices and residence of the Vicegerente.
In 1814 Pope Pius VII turned the building into the Central Post Office because of its convenient location. The palace was redesigned by Pietro Camporese for Pope Gregory XVI in 1838; he added a portico supported by twelve ancient columns found at Veii, an ancient town north of Rome; in 1847 one of the column was relocated to S. Francesco a Ripa by Pope Pius IX; Camporese placed two clocks at the top of the building; they indicated the Italian hour and the French/International hour; in 1876 the palace was bought by Roberto Wedekind, a banker, and in 1879 one of the clocks was removed and the other one was positioned centrally (more on the Italian hour).
SS. Bartolomeo ed Alessandro dei Bergamaschi
The upgrading of Piazza Colonna took a step further in 1725-35; the south-western corner of the square was occupied by Ospedale dei Pazzarelli, an asylum for lunatics founded in the mid XVIth century; it included a small church dedicated to S. Maria della PietÓ; the reference to PietÓ was not linked to the activity performed by the institution, but by the fact that the whole neighbourhood was called PietÓ; the name came from a lost ancient relief existing in the area and portraying a woman, representing a province, on her knees in front of an emperor; during the Middle Ages it was interpreted as portraying Emperor Trajan compassionately listening to the mother of a murdered man. This legendary episode is known as the Justice of Trajan and it was popularized by Dante who included the emperor in Paradise.
Probably the lunatics caused embarrassment to their important neighbours and in 1725 they were relocated by Pope Benedict XIII to Via della Lungara, on the very edge of the river bank, one of the unhealthiest locations of Rome.
The asylum was turned into Collegio dei Bergamaschi which has its main entrance near Piazza di Pietra; it belonged to the inhabitants of Bergamo living in Rome (Bergamo, for many centuries an independent town near Milan, was at the time a Venetian possession); the church was redesigned by Carlo De Dominicis and dedicated to the patron saints of Bergamo; the fašade is most likely a work by Giovanni Battista Contini (click here for a list of national churches in Rome).
The palace is named after its XIXth century owners, because making reference to the Del Bufalo for whom it was built would cause confusion with Palazzo del Bufalo al Collegio Nazzareno; it was designed by Francesco Peparelli in 1627 and completed by Giovanni Antonio De Rossi in 1642. It has one of the best positioned loggias of Rome.
Palazzo Spada Piombino
The eastern side of Piazza Colonna is now occupied by Galleria Colonna, a large building designed by Dario Carbone and completed in 1922 which houses two arcades. It replaced Palazzo Spada al Corso (not to be confused with Palazzo Spada alla Regola) which was pulled down to enlarge Via del Corso; this palace was also known as Palazzo Piombino because in 1819 it was bought by the Boncompagni, Dukes of Piombino, a small town in Tuscany, which they acquired from the King of Spain as payment for paintings they sold him. A 1762 etching by Giuseppe Vasi (external link) shows the palace with an ephemeral fašade when it was the residence of Cardinal Ignazio Michele Crivelli.
Excerpts from Giuseppe Vasi 1761 Itinerary related to this page: