50%

Fountains of Papal Rome/Piazza del Popolo

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search

THE fountains in the Piazza del Popolo should not be considered as individual creations; they must be regarded as parts of an architectural composition which includes the piazza as a whole—its shape, dimensions, and location, and the buildings which surround it. This composition is the work of the distinguished Roman architect Giuseppe Valadier, whose life lay within the last thirty-eight years of the eighteenth century and the first three decades of the nineteenth. His bust stands in the place of honor on the Pincian; that is, it stands at the end of and facing the long, broad drive called the Passeggiata, which begins on the terrace before the Villa Medici and runs northward along the Western crest of the Pincian Hill. Valadier had been papal architect under Pius VI and Pius VII, and he had laid out for Napoleon the public gardens of the Pincian. Up to that time most of that land had belonged to the Augustinian monks whose convent stands below the hill, close to the Church of Santa Maria del Popolo. It has been their vineyard, and the story goes that it was while he was walking in this vineyard that Valadier got his first conception of what he might make out of the Piazza del Popolo.

Standing on the brow of the hill, from which is obtained the incomparable view of St. Peter's at sunset, Valadier looked down upon the Piazza del Popolo as Piranesi had engraved it in his time (1720-1778). A somewhat shapeless area of flat ground stretching in an indeterminate way westward from the base of the Pincian Hill, it seemed to be only the debouchment of the three great thoroughfares running into it from the heart of the city. The twin churches standing one on either side of the Corso, the centre thoroughfare, were the chief architectural features on the south side, while on the north side ran the city wall and the Church of St. Mary of the People. In the centre of this area stood the obelisk as it stands to-day, placed there by Sixtus V in 1689, and with a single fountain at its foot a huge basin carved by Domenico Fontana out of one solid block of marble taken from the ruins of Aurelian' s Temple of the Sun. The water supplying this ountain was the Acqua Trevi, the same which fills the fountains of the present day. Such was the Piazza del Popolo as Valadier's eyes beheld it, but at that point where the Aurelian wall is pierced by the Porta del Popolo (the old Flaminian Gate) he saw something else: He saw the end of the Flaminian Way the great highroad leading directly from the north- And at that point the actual faded away, and to Valadier there came a vision* He saw the Piazza del Popolo as the magnificent and adequate antechamber to Rome. He saw it approached by this great highroad which, first skirting the shore of the Adriatic, then traversing the breadth of Italy and the watershed of the Appenines, descends thence to the western slopes of Mount Soracte and, crossing the Ponte Molle, comes all the way to Rome from far-off Ariminum, or Rimini, the Roman fortress and frontier town on the Adriatic two hundred and twenty miles distant and the key to Cisalpine Gaul. Down this road, which is but a continuation of the still greater Via Emilia, have come all the northern friends and all the northern foes of Rome. Other eyes than Valadier's can see that procession. Barbarian invaders and imperial armies have covered all the countryside like swarms of locusts the progress of most of them marked by burning farms and plundered villages. In quieter times there have come pilgrim hosts and companies of merchants; and travelling scholars, and artists "withhearts on fire" for Rome; also ambassadors and foreign prelates, exiles and penitents, great bridal processions like Margaret of Austria's in 1587, funeral pageants, bandit troops, fugitives of every type, barelegged Mars (among them a Luther), soldiers of fortune, and English noblemen in travelling carriages with postilions; every sort and condition of man whom the north has sent forth to the Eternal City, Down this Flaminian Road they came, passed through the Flaminian Gate, and received their first impression of Rome here in the Campus Martius the modern Piazza del Popolo. Valadier lived in the period of the First Empire, when the shock of change and of contrast quickened even the most formal imagination. He came down from his "mount of vision" and designed the noble and finely proportioned piazza of the present day. He formed the vast and slovenly-shaped piece of ground into a stately ellipse, whose broadly curving ends, made of Roman brick and travertine, ornamented by sphinxes and allegorical figures, become the retaining walls of the terraced gardens at their rear, so that these long retaining walls seem coped by a line of glistening green foliage. On the side of the Pincian Hill the grass and trees of the Pindan Gardens rise in four tiers of terraces, high against the sky. Behind the retaining wall, opposite the Pinciaii, the tall cypresses screen the new city which stretches off toward the Tiber. A beautiful small semicircular basin, with a shell-like upper basin, stands in the centre of each of these curving ends. They might be called decorative keystones to recumbent arches. The water gushes through the retaining walls which form their background and falls between the convolutions of the shell in a fringe of steady, slender streams.

It has been truly said that the eighteenth century did not die with the dose of the year 1799. It lingered on through the first, and more than the first, decade of the century which followed. Valadier remained an eighteenth-century architect to the end of his life. This is most apparent in the Piazza del Popolo, his work of widest scope and freest fancy and the product of his most mature talent* Elegance, proportion, and formality are the qualities on which Valadier relies. His composition is simple, polished, and formal, and the note of affectation ingrained in the art of that period is given in the Egyptian character of some of the ornaments and accessories. This character was undoubtedly suggested by the obelisk, but it is a curious coincidence that many archaeological remains of Egyptian origin have been discovered in this part of Rome.

The allegorical groups placed behind the fountains represent on the side of the Pincian the god Mars in full armor, supported by the river-gods Anio and Tiber, each with his respective emblem, one of the emblems belonging to the Tiber being the figure of Mercury, the god of trade. On the side toward the river the group represents Neptune between two Tritons. These groups are by Valadier, and their mass of elaborate detail proves an admirable foil to the fountains beneath, which in their great simplicity are among the very loveliest in Rome. Small white marble sphinxes, said to be made out of blocks of Greek marble, found under the sea at the time that the bronze vase of Mithradates in the Palazzo dei Gonservatori was discovered, mark the descending grades along the curving wall, and, as might be expected, statues of the four seasons adorn its four terminal piers.

These conventional figures are the work of various and now little known artists of Valadier's time or later. The effect of Valadier's creation has been somewhat marred by the huge monument to King Victor Emmanuel I of ItalyThis ponderous and tasteless masonry rises in a series of three tiers, placed one above the other, against the Pincian Hill, and makes a hard and artificial background to the fountains in the square. Besides being far less attractive than the green turf and living foliage, this monument is quite out of proportion to all its surroundings. It occupies the place where Valadier had intended in the first instance to construct a vast fountain, which was to rise in various jets on the summit of the hill now bordered by the esplanade and balustrade, and descend in cascades from terrace to terrace until it gained the level of the piazza.

The scheme was abandoned for lack of water. Only the aqueducts of imperial Rome could have furnished the amount required for such a fountain. The design was most imposing, but it is possible that Valadier himself may have relinquished it willingly. He was keenly alive to the beauty of proportion, and the monument to " II Re Galantuomo" shows how incongruous a Niagara would have been amid such circumscribed and highly finished surroundings*

When the time came to carry out Valadier's design for the fountains about the obelisk, Domenico Fontana's massive old basin was removed from its position on the south side of that monument and placed in the gardens of San Pietro in Montorio, now the public gardens on the Janiculum. Then the low stone terrace with its five steps was built around the base of the obelisk, and the four corners of this terrace were marked by miniature pyramids of seven steps, the top of each pyramid supporting an Egyptian lioness couchant carved of Carrara. The water gushes in a copious fanshaped stream from the mouths of these beasts and falls into four massive travertine basins, each basin set so close against the base of its pyramid that the lower steps of the pyramid project well over a portion of the basin's rim. The task of providing a modern architectural setting to an Egyptian obelisk is probably an impossible one. It must be conceded, however, that Valadier, while not achieving the impossible, did succeed in producing a design which enhances the dignity and importance of the obelisk, considered as the central architectural feature in a Roman square. More than this could not be expected, and as much as this has not been achieved by any other architect. The obelisk on Monte Cavallo is in no way affected by the objects grouped about it. It is as utterly detached from the Roman fountain and the Greek statues at its base as though it stood by itself at Alexandria. Bernini's extravaganzas, in which the Egyptian symbol of the mystery of life becomes the meaningless centrepiece for a banal fountain, have long ceased to give pleasure. It is doubtful whether the obelisk was altogether pleasing to the ancient Romans. They could not fail to admire its austere dignity and strength, and they regarded it as the insignia of supreme power, human or divine. Roman Emperors from Augustus onward constantly imported them to Rome to celebrate a victory, to adorn a circus, or to place in pairs, one on either side of the entrance to a tomb. But when the Romans re-erected an obelisk, whether in Rome, in Egypt, or in Constantinople, they frequently, if not always, raised the monolith a perceptible distance above the plinth of the base. On the four corners of this plinth they placed a bronze crab one of the emblems of Apollo or, as in Constantinople, a square of metal, and the obelisk itself rested upon these, daylight being distinctly visible between the obelisk and its base. The crabs were fixed into the plinth of the base by huge bronze dowels, and other dowels ran up into the four corners of the obelisk, holding it in place. The obelisk in New York, its mate in London, the larger Constantinople obelisk, and the Vatican obelisk were all re-erected by the Romans in that way. Opinions differ as to the reason for this departure from the original Egyptian method, but the decorative effect of this bold but simple device is at once apparent. It is obvious that an obelisk mounted in this way lends itself more easily to alien architectural surroundings.

This obelisk of the Piazza del Popolo was brought to Rome by young Octavius, afterward the Emperor Augustus, to honor his victory over Mark Antony at the battle of Actium, B. C. 3i. Octavius believed that he owed his triumph to Apollo; and this obelisk erected by an Egyptian monarch of the XEXth dynasty before the great temple in Heliopolis, the city of the sun, seemed an altogether appropriate trophy. Octavius erected it in the Circus Maximus, where it stood throughout the greatest days of the Roman Empire, But the fate of the Roman obelisks had overtaken it at some time, for when Domenico Fontana suggested to Sixtus V to remove it to its present position it was lying broken in three pieces under masses of rubbish on the site of the old Circus.

There is no inscription upon the four fountains of the lionesses. They are to be regarded solely as adjuncts architecturally suitable to the obelisk, the interest of which must transcend all minor annals.

In developing his design for the Piazza del Popolo, Valadier had to consider and amalgamate the architectural features of many previous generations; for here in the Piazza del Popolo are grouped the works of a great number of Roman architects men of the very first distinction in their own time and who have left the imprint of their industry or genius upon a large part of modern Rome. Baccio Pintelli, Michelangelo, Vignola, Carlo Fontana, Rainaldi, and Bernini were at work here in the centuries preceding Valadier, but to this last was given an opportunity of combining the past with the works of his own creation, such as had not fallen to the lot of any other Roman architect since the days when Michelangelo remodelled the Capitol.

Throughout the Middle Ages, all that part of Rome which lies between the Flaminian Gate and the Church of San Lorenzo in Lucina on the Corso was almost devoid of human habitation and given over entirely to orchards and gardens. This condition still prevailed when Sixtus IV (i47i-i484) demolished the old Flaminian Gate, through which, some five hundred years before, the Saracens had captured Rome. He did this in order to build the modern Porta del Popolo. It was by way of this Porta del Popolo that Charles VIII of France entered the city on New Year's Day, i4g5, with the most imposing and brilliant force of arms which modern Rome had ever beheld. At three o'clock on the winter's afternoon, the great gates opened to receive them, and it was nine at night before they could close. For six hours the great procession marched down the Corso, and when darkness fell torches and flambeaus were lighted and held aloft by the marching troops. The advance-guard of Swiss and Germans was followed by five thousand Gascons, small of stature and very agile, like the bersaglieri of the present day. Then came the cavalry, twenty-five hundred cuirassiers from the French nobility, all arrayed in silk mantles and golden collars, and each knight followed by his squire and grooms leading three additional horses. Then more cavalry, and finally four hundred archers, of whom one hundred were Scotch. These last formed the body-guard of the King, who rode surrounded by two hundred of the greatest of his nobles; and among these came Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere, afterward Pope Julius II, at that time papal legate to France and the most implacable enemy of the Pope whose territory they were invading. "The Bang," wrote Brant6me, "was in full armor; lance on thigh as though pricking toward a foe. Riding thus in full and furious order of battle, trumpet sounding, drums a-beating," the rattle and rumble of the artillery bringing up the rear, Charles made his way to the Palazzo di Venezia, whence he issued his edicts and gave his orders, while his army, with all its network of sentries and pickets, occupied the city as though it were Paris.

Pope Alexander VI fled to the Vatican and, later, to the Castle of St. Angelo. Very little came or, for the time, very little seemed to come of all this glitter and commotion. " Charles VIII and his lusty company of young men, among them the youthful Bayard, all of good family, " says the old chronicler, "but little under control," were making a holiday war. They could not have comprehended the great forces that were at work beneath the noisy agitation of their enterprise. Yet King and nobles fell at once under the spell of Italy. Charles VIII, bred in the fortress castles of Louis XI, wrote home to his sister, Anne de Beaujeu, describing the loveliness of his Neapolitan gardens and the genius of the Italian painters who were to do wonderful ceilings for him when he had carried them back to France. Before he quitted Rome, the army got one day of pillage and the King founded the Church of the TrinitA de' Monti. Then after six months more of picturesque soldiering Charles went back to France, planning his return already in his heart, and taking with him over the Alpine passes an army which spread the legend of Italy far and wide through the northern countries. In the fifteenth century there were but two ways for a man to see the world. Either he went on pilgrimage to some far-distant shrine or he had to join an army of invasion ! Charles VIII did not return, but he had shown his subjects the way to Rome, having been the first French King to cross the Alps since Charlemagne. Even before the Porta del Popolo was finished and long after the orchards and gardens of this district had been converted into the spacious Piazza del Popolo, Rome and France felt the influence for evil and for good set in motion by this unjustifiable and light-hearted incursion of (as the old Huguenot historian calls him) a "madly adventurous young King," Modern methods of travel have deprived men of one of life's greatest sensations. Lovers of Rome know this. One of them, a schoolboy, spoke for all when he came out of the railway station, exclaiming in bitter disappointment: " So this is ancient Rome I It might as well be modern Chicago ! " The Piazza del Popolo is no longer the entrance hall to the Eternal City. It must be sought for, with guide-book or map; but when it is found there is no better way to revive the ghost of that thrill which came spontaneously to those who entered Rome by the Porta del Popolo than to seat oneself upon the edge of one of Valadier's fountains, preferably the western one, and then to try to think !