I was forced to go to Piazza del Popolo today because I needed a haircut. Visiting Piazza del Popolo is never a burden, however; in fact, it’s one of my favorite spots in Rome. If you visit Piazza del Popolo, do not have food or drinks at the fancy restaurant on the west side of the piazza. Go to Canova, the restaurant on the east side of the piazza, unless you’re there in the late afternoon and the sun is in your eyes. The food and the prices are better at Canova (although it’s still pricy if you sit outside).
And whatever you do, don’t miss Santa Maria del Popolo, the church to the right on the north side of the piazza. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
In modern Italian, Piazza del Popolo means People’s Square, but the church was originally named after a poplar tree, and the piazza took its name from the church. The piazza is huge and sits at the north end of Via del Babuino (the street in front of the Spanish Steps), Via del Corso, and Via di Ripetta, which enclose the main shopping area in Rome. Piazza del Popolo is home to one of Rome’s many obelisks (Egypt influenced many of the early Roman emperors including Caesar). This obelisk is the second oldest (brought to Rome in 10 BC) and one of the tallest. My favorite parts of the piazza are the sphinxes atop the walls surrounding the piazza and the lions that form the fountain below the obelisk. I like the fountain on the east side, too.
I’d been wanting to visit Santa Maria del Popolo since last fall when I reread Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons, in which Robert Langdon yet again miraculously escapes certain death in the Chigi (kee-gee) Chapel. (That character should have been dead about a thousand times in Brown’s two books, shouldn’t he?). Raphael designed the Chigi Chapel, and Bernini later completed it, so I when I found myself with an extra half hour (not quite enough, but never mind) this morning, I raced to the church.
Before I even reached the Chigi Chapel, I stumbled on the Cerasi Chapel, which to my delight had not just one but TWO enormous (he didn’t think small!) paintings by my guy Caravaggio: Crucifixion of St. Peter and Conversion [of St. Paul] on the Way to Damascus. A sign on the wall said, “No photos,” which is just as well, since I would have had to take the photos at odd angles and the light isn’t great.
Onward I went to the Chigi Chapel and found to my amazement tombs embedded along the edge of the nave. Figures were sculpted in marble, and most people didn’t even notice them. In fact, so many people have walked on them through the centuries that many of the carvings are almost completely worn down—so sad!
I finally reached the Chigi Chapel. I was so excited! I looked up, and IT WAS CLOSED FOR RESTORATION! Argh! If this restoration is anything like other restorations in Rome (including the lobby of our building), I’ll never see the Chigi Chapel except on the web or in picture books!
But I will try again—I promise. You should, too. Just don’t step on those gorgeous tombs!
P.S., I recommend Angels and Demons if you’re planning a trip to Rome. It has great descriptions of Santa Maria del Popolo, Piazza Navona, Santa Maria della Vittoria, and other tourist sights, even though their locations aren’t accurate. I found myself going into the wrong church the first time I tried to find Santa Maria del Popolo!