There is the Piazza del Popolo just below us. This Circle and the Pincio Gardens behind us are used as the public promenade of the city ; its charming avenues and shady paths are brightened by the glint of the sunshine upon the busts and statues of distinguished Romans which are found on every hand.
On pleasant afternoons, a bright and lively throng of people resorts to this fascinating place, and elegant equipages roll along and riders dash by on handsomely caparisoned horses, while a military band dispenses animated music that penetrates to the remotest part of the garden, and even to the busy streets of the city below.
We have advanced to the parapet of the Pincio, and the prospect from this terrace is one of the most interesting to be seen anywhere in the world. Grey, who wrote the ” Elegy in a Country Churchyard,” entered Rome, in 1739, by the Porta del Popolo, which is just to our right, and stood where we are now standing; and as he looked out over the city he enthusiastically exclaimed that this view was the most picturesque and noble he had ever imagined.
The center of the Piazza del Popolo below us is the position of that fine obelisk, which might be seen entirely if it were not for this Roman who so contentedly sits on the stone coping. The obelisk, whose hieroglyphics we see even from our present position, was brought to Rome by the Emperor Augustus, who placed it in the Circus Maximus, as a gift to the Sun, and it was set up in this Piazza, by Sixtus V, in 1587. As the symbol of the sun, it originally had a blazing orb at its summit. Its stay in Rome, although two thousand years in duration, is but a part of its history, for it was hewn in long past ages and originally set in position beside the Nile, perhaps many years before Romulus built the walls of his city.
The first day I was in Rome I came with three companions to this Piazza, and we stood near this shaft.
There is no better starting point for a stranger in all the city.
The church which you see facing the piazza on the left, is the Church of S. Maria de’ Miracoli, and the street between it and that fine corner building opposite is the Via di Ripetta, along which we walked when we went to see the Castle of St. Angelo and St. Peter’s. Leading from out that street, toward the river, several blocks from here, is the Via dell’ Orso, on which stood for centuries the famous Bear Hotel. Montague stayed there, and Dante made it his home whenever he came to Rome, as he frequently did, in the capacity of ambassador of Florence to the Pope of Rome.
Between the church just referred to and the corner of the building seen to the extreme left is another church, that of S. Maria di Monte Santo. The street which separates the two churches is the famous Corso, which leads to the Capitol and the Roman Forum. You can see its long, straight course on the map. The Corso was the great center of attraction in the gay and festive days of the Carnival, when a window facing upon the street brought a fabulous price.
Between these two churches, at the time of the Carnival, cables were stretched across the entrance to the Corso, and there in the square were placed horses without harness or bridles, without riders, free as when they roamed the desert. Restively they wandered to and fro in the narrow space allotted to them. The street was cleared, and at a given signal, the cables were dropped, and with lash or burning fagot, the steeds were started down the long narrow Corso, the houses on either side being filled with life and tumult as the terrified animals rushed by.
At the other end of the Corso was the balcony where the senators sat, and that was the goal. The owner of the winning horse received the prize, the expense of which was borne by the Jews in Rome, as it has been even from the time of the Middle Ages when they were compelled to render tribute as a substitute for feudal service. It was this wild horse race that gave the street its name – the Corso, the course.
Goethe, in his visit to Rome, lived in an apartment in the house 15-20 Via del Corso, only a few steps from this Piazza. He used to style himself while here, ” The man who lives across the way from the Rondanini Palace.” This palace can be seen on the map two blocks from this square. Charles VIII, when here, dwelt at the other end of the Corso in the great Venetian Palace.
Readers of Hawthorne’s fascinating and instructive romance, The Marble Faun (or in England, Transformation), will call to mind with singular interest the author’s reference to Hilda’s Tower. It is situated in an out-of-the-way corner of the city in a short, narrow street, the Via Portoghese which, as you can ascertain from the map, is just west of the Corso a half mile to our left. It is one of those medieval watch towers that abound in Rome. The Romans call it the Tower of the Monkey from the legend, that, years ago, a monkey seized a child on the street and climbed with it to the summit of the tower, while the parents vowed that if ever they received the child unharmed, they would erect a shrine to the Virgin. Thereupon, to the surprise of all, the monkey brought down the child, and, as a result, the shrine was erected.
The street between this second church, which we do not see, and the corner of the building seen to our extreme left is the Via di Babuino, and leads into the Piazza di Spagna, scarcely more than a quarter of a mile from us, the center of the English and American colonies in Rome.
Beside the Piazza San Pietro, three piazzas in Rome are world-famous, the Piazza di Trevi, this Piazza del Popolo and the Piazza di Spagna.
In 1817 Byron paid a visit to the city and lived in No. 85 Piazza di Spagna ; and at No. 26, in the same square, the gifted English poet, John Keats, died.
Adjacent to this Piazza del Popolo to our right beyond the range of our vision (see map), is the highly ornate and elegant church of S. Maria del Popolo. In the convent beside this church, Luther lived during his stay in Rome. Here he attended mass upon his arrival in the city and here, also, he celebrated it for the last time before he departed for his home.
Right at the foot of the terrace in front of us, between our position and the piazza, at the base of what then was called ” the Hill of Gardens,” the Emperor Nero was buried A. D. 68. His tomb was of porphyry, having a richly adorned altar of Luna marble and was surrounded by a superb balustrade of Thasos marble. No trace of it remains at the present day. Some authorities place the site of Nero’s tomb where the church of S. Maria del Popolo now stands, and there is a legend which says that out of this tomb grew a huge walnut tree which became the resort of innumerable crows – so numerous that, at times, those living in the neighborhood often mistook the flock for a storm cloud. Paschal II dreamed that these crows were demons and that he was commanded by the Holy Virgin to cut the tree down and build a church on the spot, which he did 1099 A. D., the Church of S. Maria del Popolo.
Out through the Porta del Popolo to our right, beside the church of the same name, is the road which leads around to the north and behind us to the Borghese Villa and Gardens (plainly seen on the map), Raphael’s favorite resort, and a delightful place for a stroll when one is satiated with the ruins and palaces of the city. There the flowers bloom most sweetly and the fountains toss their streams of bending light into the fragrant air ; and there, it was my privilege, one glorious day in early summer, to meet King Humbert and Queen Marguerite and the present King, then the Prince of Naples, all of whom. in return for my salute, greeted me with a pleasant bow. And there, too, is a beautiful palace, the Villa Borghese, to which we have referred and which will well repay a visit.
Through this square at our feet, too, we remember, ran the old Flaminian Way, over which Caesar and his legions passed backward and forth on their way to and from Gaul.
But in that wide expanse before us, with splendid hotels and fine modern edifices, two imposing structures claim all our attention and fill the whole horizon. One is the Castle of St. Angelo. And where is it, do you ask? Let us trace it out together, and then, look almost where you will, you cannot fail to see it.
We will start with that corner house opposite the Church of S. Maria de ‘Miracoli, the one facing the piazza on our left. Then, beginning at the left-hand corner of the building, look over the third window of the top floor to the whitened end of that structure, a short distance beyond. Now, look over that white wall, and beyond it, toward the distant Janiculum Hill, where St. Peter is said to have suffered martyrdom, and you will see a tall structure whitening in sunlight, surmounted by a piece of statuary, rising above the skyline ; beneath this structure, which is, in reality, a superstructure, you can discern, if you examine it closely, the embattled summit of a huge fortress – that is the Castle of St. Angelo.
To the right of the Castle of St. Angelo, at the north-ern extremity of the Janiculum Hill, is seen the Villa Barberini again, surrounded by its gardens. In that section were the house and gardens of Sallust, which was probably destroyed by fire A. D. 410, though portions of it still remain. One cannot but regret that the growth of the modern city is crowding this memorable spot and obliterating so much that is of historic value.
But, overshadowing everything else, is that stately pile of buildings surmounted by a dome so vast and grand that it seems impossible that it can be the work of men’s hands. Near the church you cannot appreciate its grandeur, because the portion nearest to you absorbs your thought and dwarfs your conception of the whole ; but, standing at this distance, we can get the proper perspective and see the magnificent proportions of what is perhaps the most majestic structure ever built by the hand of man. To the left of the church and the Vatican is seen a portion of the wall of Leo IV, and if you will look up the street to the right of the obelisk, straight in front of us, you will see a tower built on this wall. This tower is now used as an observatory, and is one hundred and eighty-seven feet above the sea, and commands an unlimited view over the Campagna and the coast. The wall was constructed for the defense of the Vatican Palace and St. Peter’s as a result of the first Saracenic invasion, 846 A. D. It was evidently the intention of Leo to imitate the Aurelian walls inclosing the city, and in order to prosecute the work laborers were drafted from every town and monastery in Italy, the Pope continually encouraging the builders by his presence. The walls are twelve feet thick and vary in height from fifty-three feet to seventy-seven feet in more exposed places, and are crowned with round towers at regular intervals.
What person having sat and dreamed under the noble, wide-spreading trees that abound on the Pincio, back of us, and having looked out over this historic spot, can ever forget this magnificent scene? Nearest us are the modern buildings, and beyond are the old city’s peaked and mossy roofs clustering one above another, covering the vast plain out from which rise the stern old castle and the myriad domes, above whose center, like a celestial city set on a hill of purple, towers the sublime Church of Christendom, vast as if sculptured by the giants of prehistoric ages, and beautiful as though touched and garnished by angels’ hands. It is a prospect contemplating which one is disposed to linger, and when at length we turn away it is with the conviction that we must be going, but we cannot say that we are glad to be gone.
We shall now direct our attention to the most ancient, and, in many respects, the most remarkable building now standing in Rome. We find its position on the map a mile south of us, a few blocks west of the Corso. The red lines there show that we are to stand on the north of the Pantheon and look slightly east of south.