Piazza del Popolo

Here’s a very impressive square in Rome, which I suspect a lot of people never see when they come. It’s a bit on the edge of things: if you’re going to the Villa Borghese, you might pass through it; if you ride the subway, you might pass under it. But otherwise unless it’s on your itinerary you might never see it. It’s called Piazza del Popolo (the People’s Square).

The “twin” churches (fraternal twins?), for all their external similarity, are quite different on the inside. Both have images of Our Lady above the main altar. But the church on the left, even though it looks a bit smaller, at least feels much larger when you go inside.

The obelisk in the center of the square – a familiar sight in Rome’s piazzas – is from Ancient Egypt; it was brought to Rome in 10 BC and was originally erected at the Circus Maximus (which you can still visit) – it’s always amazing to think about how they managed to transport these massive stone monuments from Egypt to Italy back then. It was placed in this square by Pope Sixtus V in 1589.

At the base of the obelisk are four fountains in the form of Egyptian lions, which were added in 1818.

This fountain originally was a source of fresh water for the local residents; today they remain as things of beauty and charm, even as they still spew forth fresh water.

On the opposite side of the square – i.e., behind me as I took these photographs – is the famous “Porta del Popolo” or “People’s Gate”, one of the main entrances to the ancient city. Beyond it there is a metro stop and the entrance to the beautiful Villa Borghese.

But right next to the gate is the ancient Basilica-Parish of Santa Maria del Popolo (Our Lady of the People), a beautiful place to pray that contains art by the likes of Bernini, Raphael, Caravaggio, and Bramante.

The original church on this site was built in 1099; this current one dates to 1477.

Here is a photo of the main altar, with its precious image of “Our Lady of the People”:

Low light conditions and no tripod do not make for very clear photography.

To the left of the sanctuary is a chapel that contains some of the church’s renowned art. On the side walls of this chapel – in which no photography is allowed – are two very famous paintings by Caravaggio. Look for this chapel, which is hard to miss for the crowd that is usually gathered there. You have to put a Euro in the machine to turn the lights on.

If you’re lucky, there’ll be a tour guide inside the chapel explaining things in English when you visit.

One final impression of Santa Maria del Popolo: I noticed this beautiful memorial plaque in the rear of the church, placed in honor of the Italian princess Maria Eleonora Boncompagni Ludovisi († 1745 at the age of 59). The edifying Latin inscription talks about how she spent herself in service to the poor.

In fact, her young death was caused by an illness she contracted during hospital visits.

I have more photos that I could post, but I just wanted to provide a sampling of Piazza del Popolo and encourage you to visit it if you come to Rome. A good way to get to it is by walking from the Spanish Steps down the street called Via del Babuino (translation: Baboon Street. Seriously). It’d be about a 5 minute walk at a faster pace, or 10-20 minutes’ stroll. It’s a nice street.

Then, after you are done with your visit to the square, you could walk down Via del Corso (the street between the “twin” churches), which runs for a mile from Piazza del Popolo to the famous Piazza Venezia (where the so-called “wedding cake” monument is). Via del Corso is largely a pedestrian zone (motor traffic is heavily restricted for about half of it), so there are usually a lot of people, but there are also a lot of high-end stores to window-shop. There’s also about five interesting churches along the way.

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