In the last episode (Angels and Demons: EARTH – Santa Maria del Popolo), we visited inside the church of St Maria del Popolo and found out that it’s even far more amazing than Dan Brown made it out to be in his novel.
It’s rich not only in treasured art created by some of history’s greatest masters like Raphael, Bernini, and Caravaggio, but filled with creepy tombs, skulls and symbols surrounding death and afterlife that are both Christian AND pagan….. And with creepy legends of evil spirits and ghosts, this church made a perfect setting for a novel like Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons.
In this episode, we’re stepping out of the church and into its square, Piazza del Popolo because here we’ll not only find more amazing Baroque architecture and style, but more Christian and Pagan symbols once again co-existing side by side. We’ll also visit one of Dan Brown’s main characters from his other novel (Da Vinci Code): THE Leonardo da Vinci, where the genius of this great master has come to life.
And of course, we’ll see where the movie Angels and Demons was taped during the St Maria del Popolo segment since they were banned by the Vatican from filming inside any of Rome’s churches. Let’s go!
When you come out of the church, you’ll notice a wall next to it with an arched entrance. This is Porta del Popolo “The People’s gate”, but it was once called Porta Flaminia in ancient Rome, and it’s also the starting point of Via Flaminia, the most important route in history going north from Rome. And for centuries, before trains, vespas and guided tours, if you were a tourist coming to Rome, this would’ve been the first view you’d get of the Eternal City.
Pope Alexander II asked Bernini to restore the inner façade of this ancient gate in preparation for the arrival of Queen Christina of Sweden after she converted to Roman Catholicism and abdicated her throne. The inscription on the plaque above translates to a Happy and Prosperous Entry. Apparently it worked. She was so happy in Rome she never left!! Maybe they can put this same sign above the Fiumicino Airport as you walk out and get the first glimpse of Rome when you arrive.
On the other side of the gate is the Flaminio Metro Stop, the only efficient means of public transportation available to bring you here.
Named Piazza del Popolo, or the People’s Square, it was then, like it is now, a gathering place for the people of Rome. But unlike concerts, celebrations, and political campaigns that take place now, back then, they also held gruesome public executions that took place untill 1826…probably that’s when they realized execution displays did nothing to improve Rome’s image for tourism.
In spite of all that gruesomeness , The Piazza itself didn’t always look like this. In the 1500’s, a former fountain was replaced with Obelisk Flaminio, an ancient Egyptian obelisk from Heliopolis that belonged to none other than Ramses II. It was brought to Rome by Emperor Augustus in 10 BC who erected it on the spina, or the spine, of the famous Circus Maximus that’s near the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill. It’s the 2nd oldest, and one of the tallest obelisks in Rome. It seemed fashionable back then to add a point of interest to important piazzas with an obelisk dug up from ancient Roman temples or circuses. You see many of these throughout Rome’s major piazzas. Later on, in early 1800’s, fountains with Egyptian style lions were added by Pope Leo XII, who else?
On each side of the piazza you’ll notice a beautiful fountain, but the one on the east side that gets most attention is set at the foot of Pincio hill and its gardens, which appears as though it will cascade onto the piazza at any given moment. Both fountains depict classical pagan figures, the west fountain depicting Neptune, and this one Roma. If you walk up a flight of steps on either side of the fountain, you not only get a glorious view of the piazza, but you can walk to the Pincio gardens as well as to the famous Villa Borghese Gardens.
This Baroque inspired symmetry is carried to the opposite end of the Piazza to the twin churches: Santa Maria dei Miracoli (St Mary of Miracles) and Santa Maria de Montesanto (St Mary of Montesanto). The architect of the Piazza, Giuseppe Valadier, went to great lengths to create an illusion of identical symmetry between the churches when viewed from the distance, but up close they’re architecturally unique from one another.
Surrounding these two churches is a Trident of streets radiating from the center: Via del Babbuino that takes you to the Spanish Steps, Via del Corso that leads to Piazza Venezia, and to the right is Via di Ripetta. Another trio worth mentioning is the three churches dedicated to the Virgin all in one piazza, and….all of them interestingly surrounded around an Egyptian Obelisk that was once upon a time dedicated to the ancient pagan Sun god. With so many pagan and Christian symbols in this Piazza and Church, no wonder it makes a perfect setting for a novel based on religious symbols. I’m sure someone with a keener eye and knowledge of symbols would be able to find many more in this Piazza.
Now as you may or may not know, the Vatican banned the movie Angels and Demons from being filmed in any of Rome’s churches. So when it came to filming the segment that took place at St Maria del Popolo, they only had to go as far as across the way. The scaffold building in the movie that represented the church was none other than the Caserma Giacomo Acqua barracks…which is now the Carabinieri (police) station. If you notice, it was built in the likeness of the church and the palazzo behind it to add symmetry to the piazza important in the Baroqe era – including a little dome!
Up next, we’re going to visit the second altar of Science: AIR, represented by the West Ponente plaque inside St Peter’s Square. If you think St Peter’s Square is void of symbols – both Christian and pagan, think again….The Vatican is an incredible place of historic, artistic, and religious significance, and one of the holiest places in the world. AND, the most controversial in the Angels and Demons’ novel. Until next time, ciao for now!