The page covers:
The plate by Giuseppe Vasi
Fontana di Piazza Colonna
Palazzo del Vicegerente
SS. Bartolomeo e Alessandro dei Bergamaschi
Palazzo Spada Piombino (Galleria Colonna)
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 noblemen who 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 the people 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 Tiber 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 (Palazzo di Montecitorio); 4) Palazzo del Vicegerente; 5) Chiesa della Nazione de' Bergamaschi. 3) is covered in another page. The small map shows also 6) Palazzo Ferrajoli; 7) Palazzo Spada Piombino.
The view in June 2010
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 the residence of Presidente del Consiglio dei Ministri, the head of the government and nearby Palazzo di Montecitorio houses Camera dei Deputati, the Lower Chamber of the Italian Parliament. Owing to security measures cars (and political and union rallies) are not allowed to access the square.
Tonight I have seen the column of Antoninus and the Chigi Palace by moonlight. The column stood on its gleaming white pedestal, black with age against the lighter night sky. To take in even a small part of everything there is to see here would take a lifetime or, rather, the return of many human beings learning from each other in turn.
J. W. Goethe - Italian Journey - July 24, 1787 - translation by W. H. Auden and E. Mayer - Collins 1962.
(left) Colonna Antonina; (right-above) statue of St. Paul (by Leonardo da Sarzana and Tommaso della Porta) and inscription on the eastern side; (right-below) cornice of the column. The image used as background for this page shows reliefs of the column
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, because of the misinterpretation of fragments of inscriptions which made reference to Antoninus, whose name Marcus Aurelius added to his own when he was named emperor.
The column was built and dedicated to Marcus Aurelius by the Senate after the Emperor's death in 180 AD. At the time of its erection the pedestal of the column was higher than it is today as the level of ancient Rome was some twenty feet below Piazza Colonna; the pedestal was decorated with reliefs depicting festoons, which in part we know through Renaissance drawings (it opens in another window); they were probably too badly damaged when the column was restored and they were erased.
Details of the reliefs showing: (above-left) Roman legions crossing the Danube at Carnuntum, an army camp between Vienna and Bratislava; (above-right) the miracle of the rain, an episode occurred during the campaign against the Quadi; (below-left) Victory (a winged woman) dividing the episodes of the column into two sections (you may wish to see a similar relief in Colonna Traiana); (below-right) Romans laying siege to a town in a "testudo" (tortoise) formation
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, again similar to Colonna Traiana, the reliefs show events of two campaigns (against the Quadi in 172-173 in today's northern Austria; against the Marcomanni and the Iazyges in 174-175 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 strengthen the Danube border by establishing new stable Roman provinces beyond it.
While the reliefs of Colonna Traiana could be viewed from buildings having approximately the same height, those of Colonna Antonina were seen from the ground and for this reason the figures stand out from the background more 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, perhaps because the Christian army of Emperor Theodosius was helped by a storm at the Battle of the River Frigidus in 394.
Detail showing the Emperor accompanied by Tiberius Claudius Pompeianus, his son-in-law and a valiant general, receiving the surrender of enemy leaders; the relief shows some (whiter) additions which were made in 1589 to replace missing parts
This scene is very similar to reliefs of a lost arch to Marcus Aurelius which were used to decorate Arco di Costantino. The fact that Marcus Aurelius was portrayed on a high pedestal has been interpreted as a sign of the process which led to attribute a divine nature to the emperors also during their lifetime.
Detail showing legionaries (below) and auxiliary troops (above) crossing a river
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 were modified in 1829-830 (the dolphins and the shells are by Achille Stocchi).
(left) View of the two fašades of Palazzo Chigi; (right) entrance in Via del Corso with 1586 inscription making reference to Pietro Aldobrandini the Elder
The Aldobrandini, a family of Florentine origin, 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 advisor 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 wealth 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 whole block of houses was given a consistent appearance, the main entrance being that in Via del Corso.
Fašade in Piazza Colonna; (inset) detail of the 1593 Map of Rome by Antonio Tempesta: red dot: Aldobrandini properties; black dots: demolished buildings
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 importance the Pope attached to Piazza Colonna.
Etching by Giovanni Battista Falda celebrating the new appearance of Piazza Colonna in ca 1665 and the enlargement of Via del Corso where Arco di Portogallo was pulled down. The building on the right side of the plate is Palazzo Spada Piombino
The initial design of Palazzo Chigi is attributed to Giacomo Della Porta and Carlo Maderno (but there are no precise records of their activities), while its completion is due to Felice Della Greca and Giovanni Battista Contini. An unassuming low upper storey was added in 1696 and it replaced the balustrade which is shown in the etching by Falda.
Palazzo Wedekind and passage to Piazza di Montecitorio
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 Bishop of Rome being devoted to his papal 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 the Younger 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).
(left) Detail of the portico; (right) reassembled baroque portal adjoining SS. Bartolomeo e Alessandro dei Bergamaschi (it comes from a demolished palace of Via di Ripetta near Mausoleo di Augusto and it has two laughing masks)
(left) Fašade; (right) detail of the portal
The upgrading of Piazza Colonna took a step further in 1725-735; 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 to 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 placed the Emperor in Purgatory. The relief was most likely one of those which decorated Tempio di Adriano in nearby Piazza di Pietra.
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 in 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. You may wish to see a directory of national churches in Rome.
(left) Main altar; (centre) 1569 wooden statue by Filippo dal Borgo; it resembles a statue by Michelangelo (it opens in another window) at S. Maria sopra Minerva; (right) portrait of Pope Saint John XXIII who was born at Sotto il Monte, a small town near Bergamo
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. You may wish to see the fountain in its courtyard.
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, Princes of Piombino, a small town in Tuscany. A 1762 etching by Giuseppe Vasi (it opens in another window) 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:
Il principale ingresso di questo magnifico palazzo sebbene stia sulla strada del Corso, il maggior suo prospetto per˛ si distende sulla Piazza Colonna. Fu principiato con disegno di Giacomo della Porta, seguitato da Carlo Maderno, e poi terminato da Felice della Greca per nobile abitazione de' nipoti di Alessandro VII. perci˛ sonovi de' quadri del Tiziano, del Perugino, del Tintoretto, di Paolo Veronese, del Caracci, dell'Albano, del Domenichino, del Badano del Guercino, del Pussino, di Guido Reni, di Pietro da Cortona, e di Carlo Maratti: evvi ancora una scelta libreria con centinaia di codici manoscritti Greci, e Latini di sommo valore.
Dalla maravigliosa Colonna coclite, che si vede inalzata in quella piazza, prende essa, e lo Rione il nome; perci˛ dalla medesima incominceremo il nostro giro. Fu eretta questa stupenda mole dal Senato, e Popolo Romano, e dall'Imperatore Marco Aurelio dedicata ad Antonino Pio suo suocero; e perchŔ questo non aveva fatta alcuna cosa notabile in guerra, fecevi scolpire le imprese da se medesimo fatte nella guerra Marcomanna, e nella cima porre la statua di quel pio Imperatore. E' alto questo trofeo della romana magnificenza palmi cento settantacinque e vi sono incavati 190. scalini con 40. finestrelle, con che si va comodamente alla sua cima circondata da una ringhiera, ove si gode tutta la CittÓ. Ritrovandosi questa per la sua vecchiezza molto guasta, Sisto V. nell' anno 1589. la ristaur˛, ed invece della statua di quell'Imperatore, vi pose quella di s. Paolo Apostolo fatta di metallo dorato alta palmi 19. Gregorio XIII. avendo ornata la piazza colla fontana dell'acqua vergine secondo il disegno di Giacomo della Porta, il Pontefice Alessandro VII. la ridusse nello stato presente. Fanno capo in questa i Mercanti, e Curiali, tantopi¨, che in essa sono gli ufizj de' Notari della Reverenda Camera Apostolica, e la residenza del Vicegerente di Roma,
L'anno 1561. fu quivi da una compagnia di pii fedeli eretta la chiesa sotto il titolo di s. Maria della PietÓ, collo spedale per i poveri pazzi; ma poi essendo questi trasportati alla strada della Lungara, presso lo spedale di s. Spirito, nel Pontificato di Clemente XI. fu la chiesa, e spedale conceduti alla Confraternita de' Bergamaschi, la quale rinnovando la chiesa dedicolla a s. Bartolommeo Apostolo, e s. Alessandro martire, e lo spedale fu stabilito per i suoi nazionali, con un collegio per li studenti.
Dopo la descritta chiesa evvi il palazzo Niccolini, e poi dall'altra parte del Corso ed incontro alla gran colonna, si vede quello della famiglia Spada, che sta sempre alla disposizione de' nobili forestieri, che vogliono dimorare lungo tempo in Roma.