Tuesday, 13 February 2007

Caput Mundi: Piazza del Campidoglio, Rome

The project to remodel the Capitoline Hill in Rome originated under Pope Paul III and his diplomatic efforts to cement an alliance with the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Imperial forces had sacked Rome in 1527 and the city was still in the process of slow recovery from its devastation. The construction of the new basilica of St. Peter’s was proceeding, albeit at an unhurried pace, but the pope required a setting suitable civic grandeur for the entry in 1536 of the first emperor to visit his official capital since 1452. The centre of municipal government on the Campidoglio, overlooking the ruins of the Forum Romanum had the requisite resonance, although its actual state represented a far from dignified view. Two palaces formed an open space on the summit of the hill overshadowed by the huge medieval church of Sta. Maria in Aracoeli. Disparate elements were required to be integrated into any new project and its author therefore had to produce a work which had political significance, civic decorum and quasi-museum functions. The design which developed was initiated by Michelangelo but was not completed until long after his death in 1564, his posthumous reputation ensuring that the extensive subsequent work was a faithful reproduction of his recorded intentions.

The political dimension was served not only by the location of the work, but by its orientation, turning its back towards the Forum Romanum, because of the practical necessity of maintaining the Senator’s palace, but also framing the new direction of view towards the modern Rome that was developing, with the massive structure of St.Peter’s emerging on the horizon. This reorientation served to emphasise the city’s dependency on papal power rather than its independence as represented by its ancient origins. The decision to relocate the ancient bronze equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius from the Lateran in 1538 also meant that the antiquarian character of the existing sculpture collection was to be superseded by an emblem of imperial power, emphasising images of rulership over communal democracy. The elliptical pavement swelling up within a slightly lowered central space provided the footing for the equestrian statue, helped deceive the eye as to the non-rectangularity of the plan, and provides a symbolic language for Rome’s claim to be the centre of the world.

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