There was once a poplar tree (populus) on Piazza del Popolo, around which the bloodthirsty Nero danced at night whenever there was a full moon. It was to rid the place of his unhappy memory that a church was built here in the 12th-century, the cornerstone of what would become one of the most beautiful squares of the city. One of the most important, too, as it is the entry point from the north, the extension of the ancient Via Flaminia of all the roads leading to Rome, by far the most travelled.
There is an Orientalist aspect to this place: under the impassive gaze of four Egyptian lions, admire the majestic obelisk brought from Heliopolis by its conqueror Augustus. At the southern end of the square stand in perfect symmetry the Baroque Santa Maria dei Miracoli and Santa Maria di Montesanto. Play ‘spot the difference', and you'll soon realise that they are actually fraternal twins. On the opposite side is another Renaissance masterpiece: Santa Maria del Popolo, a basilica renovated in the 15th century by Bernini. In its chapels, other surprises await: the chiaroscuro of Caravaggio and an astral ballet by Raphael. Fans of more ‘contemporary' delights will find their bliss in the three shopping areas that converge on the square.
Piazza del Popolo