Piazza del Popolo, Facts, History & Legends

Piazza del Popolo is one of the most visited squares in Rome and the starting point to reach some of the main streets of Rome’s city center such as Via del Corso, Via del Babuino and Via di Ripetta. Surrounded by cafes, shops, restaurants and hotels, Piazza del Popolo is always alive and crowded with people. However, the history of this area was not always as bright as today.
Piazza del Popolo lies inside the northern gate of the Aurelian Walls, Porta del Popolo, the starting point of Via Flaminia, which was the most important road connecting Rome to Northern Italy.
Notwithstanding its popularity, just a few among visitors as well as locals know the real origin of Piazza del Popolo.

Piazza del Popolo and the Obelisk
Credits: image by @marmax
Location: Piazza del Popolo
Tickets: Not Needed
Accessibility: Accessible
Kid-friendly Attraction

Origin of the name

The name of this large urban square literally means “People’s Square” in Italian. Someone may think that the square was named after the nearby Church of Santa Maria del Popolo, which construction was wanted by the people of Rome. However, this is not the real origin of its name. “Popolo” originates from the Latin word “populus” which means also poplars (or “pioppi” in Italian).

At the age of the Emperor Nero, who lived between 37 A.D. and 68 A.D, Piazza del Popolo didn’t exist. The area was indeed covered by a vast forest of poplars. According to legend, when Nerone died, his body was buried inside the forest  under a century-old walnut tree.

The Hunted Square

Legend holds that the entire area became a cursed place. The area was so full of sorrow and desolation that at around 1100 the Roman population asked for the area to be exorcised. Under the papacy of Paschal II, Nero’s corpse was exhumed, his ashes burnt and scattered into the Tiber River. The Pope also told the Roman population that this instruction was given to him by the Virgin Mary during a vision. Pope Paschal II was able to restore the peace and put an end to these inauspicious rumors that threatened social peace.

Entering the nearby Church of Santa Maria del Popolo you will notice the bas-reliefs of the chapel above the altar depicting Pope Paschal II in the act of cutting down the tree.

The Egyptian Obelisk

However, the square was destined to have a dark future over the years to come. Across centuries, Piazza del Popolo became the main stage for public executions, the last of which occurred in 1826.

The present layout of Piazza del Popolo was designed by the architect Giuseppe Valadier, who connected the square with the heights of the Pincio Hill and built the walls around the square, giving it its oval shape.

At the center of the square you can admire the Egyptian Obelisk of Seti I, brought to Rome in 10 B.C. by Augustus. This is indeed the second oldest obelisk in Rome. The Obelisk was originally placed inside Circus Maximus to commemorate the conquest of Egypt. It was only on March 1589, that the monument was moved to Piazza del Popolo by Pope Sisto V.

The Three Churches

Three churches surround the square: The Church of Santa Maria del Popolo and the twin Churches of Santa Maria in Montesanto and Santa Maria dei Miracoli. The last ones were built under Pope Alexander VII by the architect Cardinal Rinaldi, but completed by Gianlorenzo Bernini and Carlo Fontana in the second half of the 17th century.

The Church of Santa Maria del Popolo is the oldest of the three. It was erected in 1477 right next to Porta del Popolo and contains impressive masterpieces, two famous paintings by Caravaggio and the Chigi Chapel, designed by Raphael.

Other interesting facts about Piazza del Popolo

1In 1562, Pope Pius IV appointed the architect Nanni di Baccio Biagio with the construction of a huge gate to impress pilgrims coming to Rome. That gate is Porta del Popolo. Looking closely at the inner part of the gate, you’ll see elaborate decorations made by Bernini, who worked on the gate in 1655 to impress Christina, Queen of Sweden, who was coming to Rome.

2On the opposite side of Piazza del Popolo, there are two fountains. On the west side stands the Fontana del Nettuno or Neptune Fountain, featuring the Roman god with its triton and two dolphins.

3On the east side, at the bottom of the Pincio Gardens, you’ll see the Fontana della Dea di Roma, depicting the Goddess of Rome and two allegorical figures, the Tiber and Aniene rivers.