When we think of Rome Piazzas: images of grand squares embellished with statues and fountains come to mind. We are all familiar with the most famous squares in Rome, on the tick list to visit – Piazza di Spagna with the steps and the Piazza di Trevi with its famous fountain but what of the lesser-known squares and piazzas? How and when did all these come to be? Before we can answer this; one has to remember – Rome wasn’t built in a day!
What is a Piazza?
The first square or piazza formally created was Piazza Campidoglio on the Capitoline hill. The city was a mess after years of neglect and the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V was coming to visit. Pope Paul III asked Michelangelo to redesign and the square as a fitting monument. Completed in 1536, it would mark the beginning of a major reworking of the city. Many of the beautiful squares of Rome were conceived and paid for by various popes or cardinals of the time. Piazzas were the focal point for the community and around the piazza were inns, bars, restaurants and tradesmen sold goods at markets.
Campo Dei Fiori
An alternative little piazza that developed organically is Campo dei Fiori, with jumbled buildings tacked onto each other. It became the main marketplace after the Campidoglio was redesigned and still has a daily market today. This Piazza is the only square in Rome without a church. Is this because it wasn’t a formal design or because of the public executions that took place here? In the centre of the piazza stands Giordano Bruno, a Dominican Friar and scientist burnt at the stake in 1600 for heresy. As public gathering places, the piazzas doubled as effective execution spots.
Piazza Del Popollo
Piazza del Popolo was another prolific execution space in the city. This was once the Northern gate into Rome and had welcomed visitors and their carts for thousands of years. With its grand central fountain and obelisk, it is hard to imagine stakes and hangman scaffolding amid the picturesque statues. (If you want to know more check out our blog Dark Rome).
Piazza Della Minerva
Piazza della Minerva with Bernini’s Elephant and obelisk (behind the pantheon) holds the darkest history of all. The church S. Maria Sopra Minerva and the adjoining cloister (where the state archive is today) was the seat of the Dominican order, where the Roman Inquisition began. Behind and below the church are the small rooms where Galileo was imprisoned, tortured and eventually recanted.
Other piazzas in Rome developed around and above the ancient monuments that lie beneath them. The most obvious is Piazza Navona, the most enigmatic of all which owes its extraordinary shape to the ancient running track that lies beneath it. Later builders simply built the surrounding houses or palazzo on the ancient remains of the seating of the large stadium. Today the square is embellished by 3 fountains; the most central is the famous fountain of four rivers by Gian Lorenzo Bernini.
Piazza Di Pietra
Another example of this is Piazza di Pietra, nestled in the narrow streets by the pantheon. Here the remains of an ancient temple to Hadrian blends seamlessly into later buildings. The columns are original and the temple wall is riddled with holes from the marble slabs that once covered it. The bars and apartments opposite stand in place of an ancient colonnaded portico that surrounded it. It is a romantic square to stop in, on the corner you will find my favourite coffee house.
Piazza della Republica
The most modern square of Rome is undoubtedly Piazza della Repubblica, surrounded by two grand semi-circular palaces with top-class hotels, a cinema and an erotically charged fountain at the centre dating to the early 1900s. Yet, even the shape of this new square is ancient, it was formerly known as piazza dell’esedra due to a large semi-circular wall, part of the ancient baths of Diocletian dating back to the 3rd century AD.
The square was redesigned at the end of the 1800s, the exedra was literally cut in two to create via nazionale, a main shopping street in the centre. Across the square behind you will see the ancient brick remains of the rest of the bath that houses a museum, the planetarium, and Michelangelo’s church S Maria dei Angeli e Martyri.
Visit the Best Rome Piazza’s on our Walking Tours
The piazzas of Rome take us from Ancient Rome to the present, weaving throughout time and each one has a story to tell. If this has left you wanting more you could always join us on our walking tours on which we will share stories of the most famous piazzas of Rome.