~ miscellaneous ~

- 3b -
Capitolium Square

featured on the 50 Eurocents coin
and on all 2 coins commemorating the Treaty of Rome


The Capitolium is the smallest among Rome's famous seven hills, yet the most important one, because since the Republican Age, there stood the most sacred place of worship, the city's largest temple, dedicated to the Capitoline Triad, i.e. Jupiter Optimus Maximus, Juno, and Minerva, the equivalent of a Christian cathedral.
The top of the hill is divided into two peaks: on the tallest of the two, also called Capitolium, was the aforesaid major temple. On the other, slightly lower, stood the temple of Juno Moneta (admonishing Juno) and the Republican coin mint; today this peak corresponds to the church of Santa Maria in Aracoeli.

present view of Capitolium Square →



model of the Capitolium Hill in the early Republican Age (Museum of Roman Civilization), featuring
the Capitolium with the major temple of Jupiter, the Arx, the Asylum and, at the back, the Roman Forum
Between the peaks was a deep saddle, called Asylum, in the centre of which stood the temple of Veiovis; this saddle, now less evident, having the ground level risen by several metres above the original one, today corresponds to Capitolium Square.

The hill overlooks the area where the Roman Forum stood; in ancient times its top could be accessed from the same side, i.e. looking south (opposite to the present approach), which used to be less steep than its present shape.

During the Middle Ages, when the temples had crumbled and almost every trace of the ancient Roman civilization had disappeared from this site, the Capitolium was nicknamed Monte Caprino ("goat hill"), after the custom of grazing goats and other animals all over the place. However, in the 7th century the first church of Santa Maria in Aracoeli was founded there. Before the making of Senators Palace (see further), this church acted as a town hall: the city administrators used it for their meetings.
The church was rebuilt in c.1320 into its present shape, while its steep marble staircase with 122 steps was built for the Jubilee Year of 1350.

← Capitolium Hill and its buildings (arrow) in a map of Rome dated 1472

The first important civil building to stand again here was Senators Palace (Palazzo Senatorio), built in the 12th century over the remains of the Tabularium, Rome's state archive since 80 BC (in earlier times, the Temple of Saturn was used for this purpose).
The latter was located at the northern end of the Roman Forum (right); it had been used for some time as a salt deposit and then turned into a jail. Of its original six tall arches that face the Forum, only three are still open: in the early 1400s pope Martin V had half of them filled up, to prevent the outer wall from crumbling under the weight of the building above.
Senators Palace was built as a seat for the new board of officers called Senators, founded in 1143-44, which took away from the pope the authority over the city's administrative affairs.
As most other late medieval buildings, also this one was partly conceived as a fortress, with towers in three out of four corners, added between the late 1300s and the mid 1400s, besides the original central one. But its front was already turned towards the north, i.e. facing the square, whereas the old Tabularium overlooked the Roman Forum, at the back of the palace.

the back of Senators Palace, resting on the ancient Tabularium
at the northern end of the Roman Forum

the ancient sculpture of the lion
In those years public trials were held in a hall on the left side of Senators Palace, that could be reached from the square by means of a ramp. By the entrance of the hall stood an ancient sculpture featuring a lion that attacks a horse, of Greek origin, likely dating to the 4th century BC. The spot was known by the people as the place of the lion (the horse was unrecognizable, as it was missing the head, as well as the legs and the tail, carved again in 1594), and executions were often held there. The sculpture, now held by the Capitoline Museums (on the left), may have had a strong symbolic value, considering that during the Middle Ages, not a she-wolf but a lion was featured in Rome's coat of arms.

On the right side of Capitolium Square, at square angles with Senators Palace, stood Banderesi Palace, the headquarters of the city police corps that had been established in the mid 1300s.

Instead opposite Banderesi Palace, the square was open (see the drawing on the right); it adjoined one side of the medieval church of Santa Maria in Aracoeli and its convent, which could be reached by means of a flight of steps. Up to 1535, by the staircase stood a small ancient Egyptian obelisk, topped by a bronze globe (far right end of the drawing), whose description can be found in the Obelisks monograph.


Capitolium Square began to achieve its present look during the first half of the 1500s, when Pope Paul III (1534-49) gave Michelangelo the commission to draw a new plan for the site; in 1536 the king of Germany and Holy Roman emperor Charles V had payed an official visit to the pope, who on that occasion had felt ashamed for the state of abandonment of the site.

the left side of the square during the first half of the early 1500s, in a drawing by
Maerten van Heemskerck; in the background stands Santa Maria in Aracoeli's church;
the small obelisk (far right) was moved to Villa Mattei, presently Celimontana

The new layout of the square included the enlargement of Senators Palace, the making of new buildings on both sides and the arrangement of a number of statues. The picture below features the site around 1545, while the works were still in progress.

  1. Senators Palace under reconstruction: its right half still had the medieval structure.
  2. Also the central tower of the building was still the medieval one.
  3. The left half of the staircase was almost finished.
  4. Banderesi Palace, altered during the second half of the 1500s, and renamed Conservators Palace.
  5. The statue for the right half of the staircase, temporarily stored on one side of the square.
  6. The statue of Marcus Aurelius, moved from the Lateran grounds.
  7. The left side of the square was still bare; the making of the New Palace only started in 1644.
Senators Palace was refurbished inside and its front was changed according to the Renaissance fashion. When Michelangelo died (1564) the works were still in progress; architects Giacomo Della Porta and Girolamo Rainaldi, who took over the workshop, also added a few changes and completed the building in 1605.


the site in 1561 (from a map by G.A.Dosio), still
reached by a plain ramp, before the staircase was built
The double staircase on the front is the only part entirely consistent with Michelangelo's original project, who also drew the long flight of stairs leading to the square from the bottom of the Capitolium, with long and low steps, that could be climbed also riding on horseback. This staircase ascends the Capitolium on its northern side, i.e. opposite the side that faces the Roman Forum; since the late 1400s, the districts located in the northern part of the city, from which the population had fled during the Middle Ages, had become once again inhabited, giving reason for this new approach to the top of the hill.
Michelangelo had also drawn a geometric pattern for the square's pavement, but this part of his project was disregarded.

Only in 1940, four centuries later, Michelangelo's original plan was retrieved, and the city administration finally had the square paved according to the famous 12-pointed star pattern (above right).
Also the making of the building on the left side of the square, which should have matched Conservators Palace, was delayed; so the square remained open towards the church (see pictures above and right). The works started one century later, in 1644; the workshop was led by Girolamo Rainaldi and in the end the new building was given the name New Palace (Palazzo Nuovo).

in 1593 (map by A.Tempesta) the staircase was finished, but the left side →
of the square was still open towards the church of Santa Maria in Aracoeli

← in 1667 (map by G.B.Falda) on the left
side of the square stands New Palace


Among the statues set in the square, the most famous one, which appears on the 50 Eurocents coin, is that of emperor Marcus Aurelius (AD 161-180). This bronze monument dates back to the 4th century and originally stood in the Lateran grounds, near St.John's basilica, more or less on the spot where today the Lateran obelisk can be seen. Despite Michelangelo disagreed with the pope's idea of moving the Roman relic, in 1538 the statue was actually dragged the top of Capitolium Hill.

Some old depictions of the Lateran grounds feature the mounted statue in its original location. Among them is a famous fresco dated c.1485 by Filippino Lippi in the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva. In a drawing by Maartens van Heemskerck (below right), made shortly before the statue was moved, by its base two Egyptian lions are seen, maybe the same ones that Giacomo Della Porta used by the late 1500s for making the fountains at the bottom of the flight of steps that lead to Capitolium Square (see Fountains). Also in a few late medieval maps of Rome the statue is clearly seen, located next to St.John's church.

the statue (arrow) featured in a map of Rome of 1447, and in a drawing of the basilica of St.John in the Lateran, c.1535

In the centre of Capitolium Square, the statue was rested on an elegant stand drawn by Michelangelo, as well. It features the mounted emperor in the attitude of speaking to the people, although others believe that his stretched arm is a gesture of mercy upon the figure of a war prisoner (now missing) that may have originally lain below the horse's raised hoof. Marcus Aurelius is remembered as one of Rome's most enlightened and cultured rulers, known as the 'philosopher emperor' for his interest in this field; he is one of the very few emperors who completely disregarded gladiator games, preferring his readings, although he is also remembered for his victorious military campaigns against the barbarian populations who lived in central Europe.
During the Middle Ages, though, this statue was believed to feature Constantine I, the most celebrated among Roman emperors by the Church of Rome, having lifted the ban on the Christian religion in 313.

the mounted statue of Marcus Aurelius (copy)

Such mistaken identity enabled the bronze statue to remain well preserved, whereas most other images of pagan emperors were deliberately destroyed around the 5th century, when a wind of religious fanatism swept over the dying Roman Empire.
Originally, the statue of Marcus Aurelius was gilded. The golden layer came off in a short time (some parts were likely stolen) and very soon only a few patches of the precious metal were left in place. However, for a long time the people believed that the statue had been mnoulded in gold and then covered with a bronze layer that was gradually coming off.

Marcus Aurelius (original)
This popular belief inspired a famous legend, according to which on the day the statue would turn completely gold, the 'owl' on the horse's head (actually, a tuft of hair mistaken for a bird, shown in the picture on the right) would sing, and the city of Rome - thus the whole world - would come to an end.
Obviously, this never happened. But in recent times a serious threat to Marcus Aurelius and his horse was caused by air pollution: in the late 1980s the original statue (detail on the right) had to be carefully restored and then given an indoor location, while a faithful copy was set in the centre of the square.

the horse (original)

Besides the mounted emperor, other statues were moved from their original location for decorating the baluster that runs on both sides at the top of the long staircase that leads to the square.

the Dioscuri, Castor and Pollux
The first two personages on either side are the Dioscuri, the twin sons of Jupiter and Leda, named Castor and Pollux, each one leading his own horse; they were unearthed by the house of the Cenci family (mentioned in the Legendary Rome section).
Then two smaller groups featuring spoils of war, in the shape of shields and weapons taken away from enemies, known as 'Mario's trophies', that come from the ancient fountain or nymphaeum whose ruins stand on the site of today's piazza Vittorio Emanuele II (see the Fountains monograph).
Further sideways stand the statues of two emperors of the late imperial age, the aforementioned Constantine I (right) and his son Constant II (left), both dating to the 4th century, found among the ruins of the Baths of Constantine (described in There once was in Rome...).

one of the groups of shields and weapons

The outermost ornaments on the baluster are two columns coming from the ancient Appian Way, where they acted as milestones; they bear inscriptions by emperors Vespasian and Nerva (late 1st century AD).


the double staircase of Senators Palace, with the fountain in the centre
When by the end of the 16th century the ancient aqueducts were fixed and reopened, the square could be finally reached by running water. A large double basin was added in front of the staircase of Senators Palace and turned into a fountain.
The two large reclining statues that rest in front of the staircase had been found in the ruins of the baths of Constantine; they allegorically represent two rivers: the Nile (on the left), which bears a small distinctive statue of a sphynx, and the Tygris on the opposite side, which once bore a small tiger. But not to leave the square without a reference to the city's own symbols, the head of the tiger was chiselled off and replaced with that of Rome's she-wolf; a pair of twin children was also added below. So the statue was turned into an allegory of the Tiber.

In acknowledgement to the great importance that Capitolium Hill had for the city over the past centuries, Senators Palace is today Rome's Town Hall and the official seat of the mayor.

The buildings on the side of the square, instead, house the Capitoline Museums, which claim to be the most ancient public collection of antiquities in the world. The first specimens had been acquired by Sixtus IV (1471-84), one of the earliest popes who showed an interest towards ancient remains; they include the famous 'Boy With Thorn' (below right), and the even more famous Capitoline She-wolf (right); the latter was kept by the Lateran palace, at least since the 10th century, and marked the place where trials and executions were held (as well as the aforesaid lion did in Capitolium Square), before being moved for some time to the church of St.Theodore, at the back of Capitolium Hill (see Campitelli district).
The She-wolf had always been considered a work dating to the classical age (ranging from the 5th to the 3rd centuries BC), but very recently its medieval origin seems to have been proven, about the 10th century, while the twins may have been added even later (some mention Antonio Pollaiolo, late 15th century).

the Capitoline She-wolf
probably a medieval work


↑ the Dying Galatian and Boy with Thorn →
In 1471 the pope gave his antiquities to the City Council, as a token of friendship towards Rome's administrators, thus sparking the beginning of the collection, which several following pontiffs gave contribution to. It was officially opened to the public in 1734 by Clement XII.

A modern underground passage, which is also part of the museums, runs below the square connecting the two buildings and the remains of the Tabularium.


The famous pattern by Michelangelo for the paving of Capitolium Square is also featured on 2 Euro coins issued in 2007 by all countries belonging to the Eurozone, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the European Economic Community, the Treaty of Rome, which was actually signed at Conservators Palace on March 25, 1957.