Piazzas (or plazas) are open spaces in Italian cities, and it is in Mediterranean countries where piazzas have a special place in city life. While open spaces can be found all over the world, in Italy they have been used to promote political aspirations, to demonstrate power and to serve as meeting places for protests and reform as well as serving as architectural “canvases” for artists such as Bernin, Borromini, and Michelangelo. Italians even have an expression, andare in piazza (literally, “to go to the plaza”), that means to take to the streets and protest!
Like many buildings and architectural space in Rome, the piazza is a leftover from the ancient Romans who constructed fora or forums throughout the city. Many of the modern day piazzas were also important meetings places for the Ancient Romans. Many of these piazzas, though, have a history all their own, and Rome is fortunate to have several magnificent piazzas. They make excellent waypoints as you navigate through Rome since many of Rome’s most important buildings, churches and sites are located in the piazzas profiled below. They are also useful places to stop, rest your feet, and relax, and many of the piazzas below are filled with cafes, shops and restaurants (although, be warned: they tend to cater to tourists and may be slightly overpriced – caveat emptor!).
Once a stadium dedicated to the Emperor Domitian, the piazza has retained the basic form of the stadium over the centuries and is home to many important sites and monuments in the city. The most notable monument is the church of Sant’Agnese in Agone, designed by Francesco Borromini – a rival of Gianlorenzo Bernini’s whose Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi sits in front. It is believed that the sculpture of the Rio de la Plata cowers in fear of the “crumbling” facade – in reference to the often critical work done by Borromini (in reality, the church came after the fountain). Two other fountains, Fontana del Moro and Fontana di Nettuno, sit on each end of the piazza and make for excellent photo ops. You’ll often see street artists selling paintings of the fountains and monuments within the Piazza Navona and from all over Rome. The Brazilian Embassy is also located in the piazza in the Palazzo Pamphilj.
Piazza del Popolo
The Piazza del Popolo is my favorite piazza in Rome for several reasons. First, the Pincio, one of Rome’s seven hills, is located nearby, overlooking the piazza and offering an excellent vantage for taking some memorable photographs. The short trek up to the Pincio offers some great opportunities to take photos of Rome’s skyline and the piazza itself. Second, the piazza is home to one of Rome’s obelisks, Obelisco Flaminio, which sits atop a fountain (whose water is drinkable, by the way!). Also located in the piazza are the seemingly twin churches: Santa Maria in Montesanto and Santa Maria dei Miracoli. Cafes and restaurants line the piazza, and there is some shopping (albeit expensive shopping!) to be done if money is no object. The Museum of the Ara Pacis is nearby and is worth a visit — the museum that houses the Ara Pacis is a source of controversy for many Romans and Rome’s politicians!
Piazza di Spagna
The Piazza di Spagna is one of the most crowded and bustling piazzas in Rome and is notable for the immense staircase. The staircase is considered a monument so it is important to avoid eating and drinking. While it might look like a nice place to sit and relax, don’t be surprised if you are chased away or even fined by police. The staircase is the largest in Europe and was built with funds left by a French diplomat in order to connect the Spanish Bourbon Embassy and the Church of the Trinità dei Monti (both located at the top of the stairs). This piazza is easy to reach with its metro stop nearby and is a very central location to hit many of Rome’s important sites, such as the Trevi Fountain, Pantheon or the Palazzo Barberini. Located in the center of the piazza is one of Bernini’s fountains, Fontana della Barcaccia (Fountain of the Old Boat), which sits at the bottom of the staircase. The English poet, John Keats, resided in the Piazza di Spagna, and his former home is now a museum.
Piazza del Campidoglio
The Piazza del Campidoglio is located on the Capitoline Hill, one of Rome’s seven hills, and its current design that we see today is a work of Michelangelo. Sadly, almost none of the work was completed during Michelangelo’s lifetime, and it took many years for the work to be completed. Mussolini ordered the work completed faithfully to Michelangelo’s design with the final paving of the piazza which can be seen today.
In ancient times, the orientation of the buildings on the hill faced the Roman Forum, but Michelangelo altered the layout so that it pointed symbolically towards the Vatican. The piazza is the home to Rome’s city hall as well as four palazzi, three of which are home to the Capitoline Museum, one of Rome’s most amazing museums and most definitely a place to visit on any trip to Rome. A copy of the famous equestrian bronze statue of Marcus Aurelius stands in the middle of the piazza (the original can be found in the Palazzo dei Conservatori). Also of note is the cordonata – a series of large stairs that form a seemingly almost flat path to allow the transit of horses and other beasts of burden.
Piazza della Bocca della Verità
Admirers of the film, Roman Holiday, should be familiar with this piazza as it is the home of the Mouth of Truth, an ancient manhole cover that legend says has the ability to bite your hand off should you tell a lie. If you have seen the movie, you will remember Audrey Hepburn’s character, Princess Anna, putting her hand into the statue, afraid that it might come to life and expose her. This piazza is one of the oldest in Rome and is home to several ancient temples as well as the church, la Chiesa di Santa Maria in Cosmedin, one of Rome’s minor basilicas.
The land that encompasses the piazza was known as the Forum Boarium in ancient times and served as Rome’s cattle market as well as being the first site for gladiatorial games, hence the placement of the circular Temple of Hercules Victor, often confused with the temple to the goddess, Vesta.
The Arch of Janus can be found nearby and is the only quadrifon (four-sided) triumphal arch in the city. It is erroneously called the Arch of Janus and probably received this mislabeling during the Renaissance, most likely constructed as a dedication to one of Rome’s later emporers, Constantine I or Constantius II. The Temple of Portunus is also located nearby – another wonderfully preserved Roman temple. Portunus was the god of keys, doors and livestock – a fitting place for such a temple in the ancient Forum Boarium.
The piazzas of Rome are a great way to (proverbially) kill two birds with one stone – by planning your trek through the city and hitting some of the major piazzas, you can see dozens and dozens of other sites and marvels of Rome. While there are many more piazzas in Rome than mentioned here, you can see how visiting the five piazzas profiled above allows you to see more than twenty of the most important churches, sites and monuments in Rome.