In 1748 architect Giambattista Nolli made this map of Rome. It was so accurate that by the 1970s, the Italian government still relied on it as the basis for maps of the city and used it as a reference for urban planning. Rome is roughly divided into three main sections: the ancient part of Rome, where you’ll find the Roman Forum, the Colosseum, and other ancient sites like the Circus Maximus and the Baths of Caracalla. Then there’s the Renaissance and Baroque part of Rome, this is where the most famous buildings and piazzas are located, including the Vatican City and St Peter’s square on the other side of the river. And then there’s this place called Trastevere, which means “at the other side of the Tiber”, which is the name of the river, and here you will find a lot of palaces and villas from the Renaissance period.
We’re going to focus on this part of the city because thanks to Renaissance and Baroque artists and architects these public spaces became not only a focus for tourists and artists but also a watershed of inspiration throughout the Western world. Everything is within a walking distance, and you’ll find the most wonderful buildings, fountains, and streets that make walking in Rome a more fascinating experience than walking in pretty much any other city in the world. This entire city is like a museum filled with architectural masterpieces.
If you think about the Renaissance, architects in Italy had this one general thought: “we want to be like the Romans”, but they were thinking about that from an intellectual point of view, they were looking at the forms of the Romans: Domes, pediments, columns, round arches, geometry, symmetry, but they weren't so much looking at the infrastructural technology of the Romans, and in 1585, Sixtus V gets elected as pope, and he picks up this other aspect of what it is to be a Roman and he becomes very interested in infrastructure, building roads, building bridges, building aqueducts. The final form of Renaissance Rome owes most to the pontificate of Sixtus V, he was in the papacy for only five years, it was a relatively short period of time, but during that time he undertook all of these projects to modernize Rome. Medieval Rome was a mess, although it was home to major centers of religious pilgrimage, the city’s haphazard street system impeded circulation and diminished spectators’ vantage on its monuments.
Also, the city was sacked by invading armies several times, and it had been sacked in 1527. So a lot of the roads and aqueducts weren’t working since Roman antiquity in the imperial period. When Sixtus V assumed the papacy only one ancient Roman aqueduct was still in service delivering fresh water, it was the Aqua Virgo, and it was bringing in water near the area where we now have the Trevi Fountain, but water was needed in many other parts of the city.
So the pope had a competent architect, Domenico Fontana, to whom he gave the task of restoring the ancient aqueduct of Alexandrina and bringing water in to other parts of Rome. So this fountain, called Acqua Felice, might simply look like another piece of pompous and grandiose baroque architecture, but it is much more than that. Acqua Felice is the head of the ancient aqueduct of Alexandrina that was restored by him to bring fresh water into 27 new fountains situated across Rome, quite an accomplishment. With the restoration of the ancient aqueducts more fountains could be made functioning in the city of Rome and more people could have fresh water, Sixtus V also drained marshes that had been places for malaria mosquitoes to breed, and he reestablished some roads and bridges that had been broken and that had fallen into disrepair. This outline represents the Aurelian Wall, built by Aurelian the Roman Emperor in the third century. So in the ancient times of Rome, Rome was this big,
and in the Renaissance and Baroque time, Rome was about this big, this is a big disappointment if you happen to be the Pope, and so what Sixtus V wanted to do was make Rome better, and he undertook this big project of urbanism. The main program of works made by Sixtus consisted in connecting key points in the city. Rome was a great pilgrimage city, so he opened several wide long principal streets that provided a link between the seven pilgrimage churches of Rome - St Peter's; San Giovanni in Laterano; Santa Maria Maggiore; San Paolo fuori Ie Mura; and San Lorenzo fuori le Mura, the original five churches, and two accorded special veneration later - Santa Croce in Gerusalemme and San Sebastiano. This realized the ambition to make Rome a worthy capital of Christendom. Sixtus V was not, however, concerned only to facilitate religious ceremonial. He was well aware of the role the new streets could play in generating growth in the largely uninhabited districts. So he got built a series of fake roads with fake facades, these incredibly thin walls that you can observe in the Nolli plan, which in reality had agricultural land behind with farm animals like cows and chickens, and the ambition with these fake facades was to define the street edge, no matter what happens behind the street edge. The city today is completely urbanized,
but traces of these fake facades can still be seen in the gardens of the Palazzo Quirinale, or along this street going toward the Porta Pia, where these baroque churches appear to respect the continuity of the wall, but at the same time get identified as a monument within the city, and if you look at them from the side, you see no church, you see how completely autonomous the façade is from the actual church that’s behind. This diagram of Rome leaves so much out that it shows you what the big idea is, we have the main gates to the city, the Piazza del Popolo and the Porta Pia establishing these major axes, Porta Pia goes straight to the Palazzo Quirinale, which is the Pope's Summer Palace, and then we have the Trident, these three roads coming off of Piazza del Popolo. The first one was originally planned to link the isolated Santa Croce in Gerusalemme directly to the Piazza del Popolo, some 4 kilometers distant, by way of Santa Maria Maggiore, but the architect was forced to terminate the street in front of the church of Santa Trinita dei Monti because of the steep slopes of the hill. But thanks to that, a magnificent flight of steps -scalinata- was built down the hillside to the Piazza di Spagna, and from there, the street would continue all the way to the Piazza del Popolo. Aware of his own limited time, Sixtus V devised a unique method of ensuring that his successors would be obliged to continue to implement his program of connecting the main points of Rome.
He placed obelisks at points where, during the coming centuries, the most important squares would develop: in the future Piazza del Popolo, at the intersection of the three routes; at Santa Maria Maggiore; in front of San Giovanni in Laterano; and, most significantly in terms of its subsequent effect, in front of the still unfinished St Peter's. Urban design really doesn't have to do everything at one moment, actually, the best thing that can happen in terms of urban design is to set a plan in motion and allow history to fill it in. So more obelisks were added by later popes at other intersections of the street system, like the one at the top of the scalinata, the one at Piazza del Quirinale, in front of the Pantheon, and at Piazza Navona. And what’s so amazing is that every single street in Rome is terminated by a visual ending point, whether it’s an obelisk, the façade of a church, or the façade of an interesting building. And if you’re moving through the city, you know where you’re going because every obelisk is visible from the next, it's a big city, it’s a tangled city, but we're moving with direction and with understanding about how the city works because of these interventions placed there by Sixtus V.
The middle street of the Trident shoots straight to Piazza Venezia, and to the Vittorio Emanuele II monument, a national monument from the 20th century. Behind this is the Campidoglio, the Capitoline. The Capitoline is the hill where the temple of Jupiter was located in Roman antiquity. Since the beginning of Rome, it has always been this place where power was centralized, the most important hill among the Seven Hills in Rome. Throughout the
Middle Ages and continuing into the Renaissance it became the seat of secular government, basically the Town Hall. In the Medieval period, however, the Capitol was just as disorderly as so many other places in Rome; the famous hill had been plowed up by horsemen, and bushes grew at random over the uneven terrain. In 1537 Michelangelo got commissioned a project for a monumental square on the site. Michelangelo is arguably the most gifted of the many versatile architects of the Italian Renaissance. As the focal point of his plan for the Capitol,
the bronze statue of Marcus Aurelius, the only surviving equestrian statue of ancient Rome, was erected on a pedestal. The piazza is not a completely enclosed space. The three buildings form a trapezoid with the fourth side open along the edge of the hill, up which the monumental approach flight of steps has been cut, slightly wider at the top than at the bottom. It is a small space, 55 m across at its widest and 41 m at its narrowest, between the flanking buildings. This effect of false perspective, forced on Michelangelo by
the existing alignments, accentuates the importance of the Palazzo del Senatore. The unity and coherence of the design were achieved thanks to the shape of the oval, and its two-dimensional star-shaped pattern. Immediately below the Capitoline stretches out the Roman Forum, and immediately in front of it in the other direction, you have the extent of Rome moving towards St Peter's. so not simply does the secular seat of power conceptually draw a line between the two Romes, the Renaissance Rome of the Vatican, and the pagan Rome of classical antiquity, but it does so physically as well. And the third street from the Trident would have met this point called the Porto di Ripetta, it was a riverport that was demolished in the early 1900s because the river would flood all the time so they put a big flood wall there, and it's really tragic because the relationship of Rome to its river is really awful now, and once there would have been this kind of wonderful Baroque opening up into the river, but you can still see it in the Nolli map and in some old photographs.
I mentioned how Sixtus’s plan is established by these two major axes, and at some point, these axes intersect, and the way Sixtus’s architect Domenico Fontana marked this special moment within the plan, was to chamfer all the corners at 45 degrees and stick a fountain in each corner, hence the name of that intersection, Le Quattro Fontane, the four fountains. And at this juncture, we also have this little church stuck at the corner by one of my favorite architects: Francesco Borromini, probably one of the most beautiful churches in Rome. Here you can see a mapping of all the obelisks and all the streets that Sixtus put to connect the important sites in Rome. If we see the way they all hang together,
these early Christian churches form a cross, and they come together in the Colosseum, so the Colosseum itself becomes a point of interest, and there was a project to put a church inside the Colosseum, and that becomes interesting because even though it never got built, the idea of an ovalized courtyard, already suggested here by the appropriation of the Colosseum, is something that other people begin to operate on: Bernini puts a giant ovalized courtyard in the Vatican with obelisk in the middle, and Valadier puts a giant ovalized courtyard at Piazza del Popolo with obelisk in the middle. Piazza del Popolo was the main entrance place to the city even since Roman times. And you can see here that two twin-domed churches were built in the angles formed by the three streets, and this trapezoidal piazza that existed during Sixtus’s time with the obelisk in the center, got rebuilt much later to the ovalized space that we have today, again, subsequent generations fleshing out the implications of the early work. The scalinata, or the Spanish steps, were as well built later, between 1721 to 1725, and they are the only example in the history of city planning where a staircase does not merely lead to a square in front of a monumental structure that is the church, but where the stairs themselves become the visual and spatial center. Before they got built
you had to go up these smaller stairs in the back, but what happens here in the Spanish steps is an example of this theatricality or the tendency of the city to be seen as a stage set in the Baroque period. You have a series of extended landings that become like stages, and the rhythm is strange because it stretches and it contracts over and over again, and you’re constantly experiencing different things, it’s about moments like these, which redirect your view to other parts of the city, and you’re proceeding on this very shallow incline, so that you appreciate the materiality of the stone and the changing aspects of this topographically complex city, and also when you get to the top you see Rome in a different way, you don’t see the bases of churches, you see the domes of churches, and the city becomes almost like a field with ideal pavilions in it, just the domes floating up there. They’re called the Spanish steps because in the 17th century the Spanish embassy was located at the base of the stairs. The houses, palaces, and churches of the Piazza Navona follow precisely the layout of the Roman circus built by the Roman Emperor Domitian in the 1st century AD; indeed the well-preserved ruins of the seats and corridors are incorporated into the piazza's foundations. You can see that the plan of the piazza has the same shape as the plan of a Roman circus. The final spatial
organization of the piazza was carried out by Bernini in the 17th century. The long and narrow form of the space meant that all views had to be designed as oblique perspectives. The piazza contains three richly modeled fountains whose cascading waters are enhanced by the surrounding houses and the two churches of San Giacomo degli Spagnuoli and Sant'Agnese. There are more fountains in Rome than in any other city in the world, and this is the greatest of all the fountains in Rome, La Fontana di Trevi, the Trevi Fountain.
The original design was by Bernini and it was eventually stopped at the death of the Pope that commissioned it and was finished in the 18th century by Nicola Salvi. It's a great idea, to make a fountain that’s part of the city, and he does it by attaching the fountain to the façade of a building. So the very concept of the fountain is: building that collapses into rustication. Rustication in architecture means to give the rock a deliberately rough surface. So the marble in the Trevi Fountain looks like the living rock, and then water squirts out of the building, and you've got these wild horses inside, and these heroic classical figures all over the place, but essentially what is going on in the Trevi Fountain is, it gets its power by making this direct confrontation between a natural condition and a cultural condition, you begin to see how architecture simply cannot hold its own in a world where nature is so powerful, and the architecture begins to dissolve into nature. And this is something Bernini has done in other places, for example, we saw the Fountain of the Four Rivers in Piazza Navona, where he's very interested in hyper-rustication, or in finding a way that things carved by man become like nature. The great church of St Peter's was built between 1506 and 1626 but it lacked an appropriate entrance forecourt until 1655 when Bernini carried out the two major sections of a three-part piazza complex. These spaces are the piazza retta, directly in front of the church,
and the vast piazza obliqua enclosed by the semi-circular colonnades. The third section, the Piazza Rusticucci, has never been finally completed and is represented only in part by Mussolini's avenue linking St Peter's with the Tiber River. In preparing his layout, which was successful in competition with his leading contemporaries, Bernini had to incorporate the central obelisk erected in 1586 by Sixtus V, and the two fountains built by Maderno in 1613.
The scale of both the church and the spaces is vast: the piazza retta in front of the eastern elevation is 125 m wide narrowing to 91 m where it adjoins the piazza obliqua, and 98 m deep; the piazza obliqua itself is not a true ellipse but consists of two semi-circles of radius of approximately 79 m, with a rectangle in between giving a total width of 198 m. Sixtus’s plan was so successful that a very similar plan was executed in Paris about three hundred years later, where many wide long streets were opened through the messy medieval layout of the city to connect important moments within the city. And it has since continued to influence other cities in the world, many of which have been planned using this same scheme. You can find a lot more of Rome on my channel, so make sure you go check it out, make sure you subscribe.
I really hope you enjoyed this video, I really hope you learned. Thanks for watching, please leave a like because it really helps me a lot to continue, and I'll see you very soon in another episode. Goodbye!