Capitoline Hill (Campidoglio)

The Capitoline hill is the most important and enchanting of the seven hills on which Rome was founded. It symbolized the epicenter of the Roman empire and housed the most important temples in the city. The 16th century project of the current square is the work of Michelangelo.

Last update: 12 June 2020

    Capitoline Hill (Campidoglio). History, from the origins to today
    Photography: © 2020 Maxar Technologies, Google

    First construction: Bronze Age (17th-14th century BC) up to the Iron Age (9th-8th century BC)

    In photo: View from the top of the Capitoline hill

    Capitoline Hill (Campidoglio)

    Located near the Roman Forum , the Colosseum and the Palatine Hill , the Campidoglio is the smallest of the seven hills of Rome. It was a strategic place in ancient Urbe and was the center of religious and political power. During the Republican age, several temples were erected with a view of the Roman Forum, such as the Temple of Jupiter Capitoline, Temple of Juno Moneta and the Temple of Minerva .

    The origins

    Finds of ceramics dating back to the Bronze Age (around 1300 BC) and extensive craftsmanship dedicated to metalworking testify that the Capitol was inhabited long before the foundation of Rome.

    Two hills, the Arx and the Capitolium , originally characterized the hill, separated by a small valley which the first king Romulus used to welcome the inhabitants of the nearby towns by the name Asylum , (hence the name).

    The strategic position of the hill with very steep sides made it a real acropolis of the city, a bulwark for the defense of the inhabitants from external attacks. The first historical notes on the Capitol can be found in some stories and works by Latin poets ( Horace , Tacitus , Ovid , Titus Livy ), generally linked to the religious value of the hill.

    The Hellenistic origin of the foundation of Rome found an accurate narrator in the biographer Plutarch . Aeneas , the Trojan hero who landed on the Lazio coast after the fall of Troy had a son Ascanio who in turn gave birth to the royal lineage of Alba Longa from which Romolo founder of the city descended . 1

    Bloody struggles broke out between the people of the Sabines (1st millennium BC) stationed on the Quirinal hill and that of the Romans (stationed on the Palatine ) to affirm the dominance of the Capitoline hill.

    Origin of the name

    The name of the hill derives precisely from the temple of Jupiter Capitoline (Capitolium) , or temple of Jupiter Optimum Maximus, whose altar was dedicated to the Capitoline triad (Jupiter, Juno and Minerva).

    The Capitoline name derives from the discovery of the head (caput) of an Etruscan warrior Aulo Vipsania during the numerous excavations and restorations of its foundations to erect the temple.

    The name of the entire hill is assumed to have been created by: caput Auli from which Capitolium. The dimensions of the temple of Jupiter Capitoline, 53 mx 63, extraordinary at that time, were proof of the prestige and grandeur of the Rome of the Kings in the 6th century BC

    Temple of Jupiter

    In the Bucoliche di Virgilio , it is said how the Romans had built a “very rich” Temple dedicated to Jupiter:

    Tarpeji from here to the seat, and the Capitol leads;
    Golden now, but wild dumin;
    For now, they were afraid of the field as well as the ordinance of the men who loved
    the dread of the place; now as well as to the forest, a rock, were trembling;
    This leafy wood, which, he said, leafy top of a hill,
    Who is God, yet uncertain, there dwells God. The Arcadians
    believe they have looked to Jupiter. 1

    From the text it is clear “from here it leads to Mount Tarpeo and the Capitol, now golden, once bristling with wild brambles but always a place of divine veneration. The peasants trembled in fear in that fortress with a leafy forest where a god lived. The Arcadians believe they have seen Jupiter himself … “. The temple was consecrated in 509 BC

    From 750 BC, the hill has allowed dominion over the control of land traffic and the Tiber river thanks to its height of 48 meters above sea level. Here the Etruscan king Tarquino Prisco built the imposing temple of Jupiter making it rise to a religious center as well as a very political center influential.

    storage area

    On the slopes of the Capitol, in 78 BC, by the will of the consul Quinto Lutazio Catulo the Tabularium was built  to preserve the Tabule , in bronze to better preserve them, on which the most important public acts were engraved (decrees, laws, peace treaties etc … ).

    It was the state archive, huge and organized, testifying to the gigantic Roman organization and wisdom in documenting the real values ​​and culture for their descendants.

    The building, with its powerful structures in peperino and tuff and with its arched facade stands on a high base 73.7 m long. It was built as a defense stronghold and raised to the level of the Asylum. It is the same base that today supports today’s Senatorio palace, the seat of the Municipality of Rome.

    Its large corridor resting on a colossal substructure, 67 m long overlooking the Roman forum, is still visible. All Roman buildings used the loggia with half columns which was taken as a model for later constructions in the republican era.

    The Tabularium is part of the complex of the Capitoline Museums which, through the Lapidary Gallery, connects Palazzo Nuovo to Palazzo dei Conservatori. To date, three arches still persist while only a few traces of the Doric frieze with metopes and triglyphs remain.

    Republican Age (509-27  BC  )

    After the fall of the monarchy with the popular revolt that dismissed the last of the seven kings of Rome, the tyrant Tarquinio the Superb , the republican age (from 509 to 27 BC) began with a system that showed the Senate, exercise a wide power , because of the collective prestige of its members.

    In this historical context, two large families emerged by power, the Patricians who could hold political or religious positions, and the citizens who had no political authority, the Plebeians .

    Although the contrasts between the two classes continued to extend for about 2 centuries, the Plebeians, who made up the bulk of the army, organized a strike outside the city in 494 BC which resulted in their own assembly, the Concilium Plebis.

    During the first Roman republic, by virtue of the conquests over the Etruscans, Rome expanded its dominion throughout Italy and important new offices and political institutions were built. But even more prestigious was the development of an activity of grandiose architectural constructions which still today represent the pride and glory of Rome “caput mindi”. The Capitol testifies to these majestic buildings.

    The temples

    In Roman society temples had an important religious and political value. Between the III and II century BC the architecture of the Roman temples revealed an inspiration to the Hellenistic school with the characteristic decorative style, but placing the altar inside the temple.

    This innovation allowed the creation of meeting places, of forums of which the temple was the heart. The architecture of the Roman temple has allowed the creation of circular and rectangular temples whose style has influenced all the culture of the West over the centuries.

    The temple of Jupiter (6th century BC)

    The historian Tito Livio narrates that the Temple was designed by Tarquinio Prisco to celebrate the valiant victory over the people of the Gabii and to consolidate the treaty with the Etruscans. But who really started the construction works was Tarquinio the Superb, the last king of Rome before the Republic. 3 .

    An incredible event occurred as the temple was raised; a human head was found in the foundations, and the extraordinary discovery represented for all a premonition that that place would be the seat of the Empire and the capital of the world [caput mundi].

    The temple represented the power of the god in fact a large terracotta statue of Jupiter leading a quadriga was placed in the center. For Roman citizens the Capitoline temple became a religious center, but also the political symbol of the state.

    The external cladding was in Pentelic marble, the tiles and doors were gilded while magnificent sculptures alternated with the columns. From all over the city you could admire the majesty of the temple thanks to its position on the hill.

    The temple of Juno Moneta (4th century BC)

    The temple of Juno Moneta was part of the Capitoline triad (Jupiter, Juno and Minerva), erected on the capitoline hill and the goddess Juno was among the most loved Roman gods. It was the dictator Lucio Furio Camillo  who built it after his victory against the Aurunci in 345 BC

    The attribution to Juno of the epithet Moneta, that is “admonishing” (from the Greek ἐπίκλησις “invocation” in the religion of ancient Greece) can be traced back to the siege of the Gauls (390 BC), when the geese sacred to the goddess closed in the enclosure (the famous geese of the Campidoglio) began to flutter by waking the consul Marco Manlio Capitolino who foiled the assault giving the alarm.

    Near the temple the Mint was built (3rd century BC) and from the expression of popular language to indicate it ( ad monetam , at the temple of Juno Moneta) the money was given the name of coin.

    The temple and the nearby mint were destroyed during the great fire of Rome in 64 BC. The church of Santa Maria in Aracoeli was built on the remains of the temple (VII-XIII century).

    The occupation of the Sabines and the betrayal of Tarpea

    Tarpea , daughter of the keeper of the capitoline hill, going to the source outside the walls to draw water, meets a handsome young man full of gold jewelry on his arm, Tito Tazio , king of the Sabines, who besieged the fortress. The young woman falls in love and promises Tito that he would open the doors of the citadel for love but also to receive the jewels as a gift.

    The head of the Sabine army Appio Erdonio , sure of the support of the young Tarpea who would have facilitated the entrance, with a host of about 2000 mercenaries in 460 BC besieged the Capitol conquering it easily.

    The girl did not have time to rejoice because she was killed under the shields of the conquerors. A rocky cliff on the southern side of the hill bears its name (La rupe Tarpea) and from there the traitors of the homeland were thrown into the void. But a Tuscan army, assembled under the command of General Lucio Mamilio Vitulo,  reconquered the hill by killing the leader of the Sabines.

    The siege of the Gauls and the sack of Rome

    The Gauls Senoni, under the command of General Brenno, had placed under siege Chiusi, an Etruscan city, which was forced to seek help from nearby Rome. Three very noble young Romans of the gens Fabia were sent to deal with Brenno, but one of the three, Quinto Fabio in fact , reaching out on horseback beyond the ranks, killed the leader of the Gauls with a spear.

    Word spread that the killer was a Roman ambassador the Gauls, resentful of the offense raised the field for the siege of Chiusi and decided to march towards Rome, which advised by the messengers arrived from Chiusi on the speed and bellicosity of the enemies, he hastily prepared a poorly trained army.

    The battle clash took place at the Allia river , not far from the capital, and marked a date of mourning for Rome. The militias of the Gauls led by the leader Brenno defeated the Roman army by chasing the fugitives with the aim of conquering Rome.

    Their arrival terrified the people, the peasants fled in the face of the danger of arms, the city was frightened and the shouts of the people rose high. The invaders on horseback lined up marching far and wide occupying every place and plundering the surrounding countryside.

    The roosters sacked Rome for a few days, burning and devastating it, killing thousands of Roman and civilian soldiers. ” The sack of Rome ” occurred in dies Alliensis 4 on 18 July 387 BC.

    That day became a symbol of misfortune, noted in the imperial calendars as dies nefastus (inauspicious day). The disastrous event for Rome was for the chief Brenno the most important episode that made him famous in history: the success in the war against the Roman Republic.

    Brenne: “Woe to the vanquished!”

    Although devoid of any resistance, the few surviving Romans, senators, plebeians, women and young people, formed a small army to defend themselves from enemies by perching on the Capitol.

    The chief of the Gauls was forced to keep the hill under siege which lasted for a long time until a night assault was decided to surprise the staunch defenders of the garrison.

    The Gauls attacked the hill, but were repelled without difficulty thanks to the fluttering of the geese sacred to the goddess Juno, who woke up the Consul Marco Manlio Capitolino who gave the alarm by rearranging the besieged ready to reduce the attack.

    After several negotiations, the Romans agreed to pay a ransom of 1,000 pounds of gold; when weighing the gold on the scale Brenno would have rigged the measurement by placing the sword on the plate to increase its weight.

    To the grievances of the Romans, the chief of the Gauls pronounced the famous phrase ” vae victis “, ” woe to the defeated “. Not ceasing the siege, the Romans decided to call the consul Furio Camillo to help them, who, at the head of a troop of Roman soldiers and having obtained the powers of dictator and only legitimate authority, refused to pay the sum and in battle he defeated the Gauls.

    The shame of the ransom did not take place saving the honor of Rome and the phrase of Furio Camillo remained famous in history. ” Non auro, sed ferro, recuperanda est patria ” “Not with gold the Homeland is redeemed, but with iron”.

    The Servian walls

    The Servian walls were a defensive tuff structure built at the beginning of the fourth century BC, and the work takes its name from the sixth king of Rome, Servius Tullius .

    The walls were built with square blocks piled one on top of the other, and had 16 gates of which three still exist ( Porta Esquilina = Arco di Gallieno, Arcus Caelimontani , Porta Sanqualis ).

    From the Roman Republic up to the first Empire, the Servian Walls (as well as a military enclosure) were maintained to protect the city by holding it basically barricaded for the first three centuries of the Roman Empire.

    With an extension of about 11 km. the walls protected the Capitol, the Arx capitolina and later the other hills. The Roman defensive perimeter was at that time one of the largest in Italy and perhaps in the whole Mediterranean area.

    Imperial age

    The imperial age begins in 27 a. C.  with Gaius Julius Caesar Octavian , the first emperor, to end with the deposition of the young Romulus Augustolo , the last of the western Roman emperors 476 AD.

    Rome over the five centuries that will see it reach its maximum territorial expansion, is committed to promulgating Latin culture and literature in the conquered territories, while partially absorbing its influence.

    From the Giulio-Claudia to the Constantinian dynasty there is a continuous succession of events and wars but the cultural ferment sponsored by Augustus and the becoming of writers such as Virgil , Horace , Titus Livy who left the Greek ascendant are to be highlighted .

    The fires of the imperial age

    A terrible fire in 83 BC destroyed the Capitol, and the ancient temple of Jupiter Capitoline also went up in flames. A deep reconstruction was entrusted to the faithful of Silla, Lutazio Catulo who in 78 BC also took care of the state archive, the Tabularium , after the fire.

    In 69 AD, the entire Capitoline area was set on fire, once again damaging temples and monuments. The emperor Vespasian immediately took care of the restoration and to repair the damages due to the civil war.

    A few years later, however, in 80 AD with Tito Imperatore, the fire broke out again from the slopes of Campo Marzio. Domitian started the reconstruction from 81 AD. The construction of the temples of the mythological Gods Consenti and of Vespasiano and Tito dates from this period , located on the slopes of the hill.

    Medieval and modern times

    In medieval times, the architectural development of the Capitol merged with changes in municipal institutions. The sacred function of the capitoline hill was distorted by the new beating heart role of the civic government of Rome, firmly under the control of the Pope.

    Various motions of urban resistance swarmed in the city and in 1143, a riot of citizens against the papal authority and the nobles installed the reconstituted Senate of the Roman people on the hill with headquarters in Palazzo Senatorio.

    In 1363, a new conformation of government was adopted in the city: a single Senator assisted by two judges “side by side” and the Conservatives, representing the social classes that came to power.

    In the fifteenth century the popes Bonifacio IX and Niccolò V  fortified the Palazzo Senatorio as a stronghold protected by towers: at the same time the Palazzo dei Banderesi (captains of the city militia), commissioned by the Pope Niccolò V was adapted by the architect Bernardo Rossellino as the seat of the Conservatories thus becoming Palazzo dei Conservatori .

    Even if the coexistence between the papacy and the municipal systems is quarrelsome, the division between the Capitol and the Vatican as a place of pontifical power is decreed. In 1471 Pope Sixtus IV sanctioned the function of the Capitol with the donation to the Roman people of two large bronzes: the she- wolf , which became the symbol of the city and the large bronze portrait of Constantine.

    Michelangelo’s square

    In 1536 the Campidoglio area was a meadow of weeds and in such a state of absolute degradation that it was used for grazing goats, called for this “Monte caprino”. In anticipation of the visit to Rome of Emperor Charles V , Pope Paul III Farnese commissioned Michelangelo, his architect, sculptor and painter of trust, to design a new square, Piazza del Campidoglio.

    The pope’s work plan also included a remodeling of the existing buildings around the clearing. The development of the overall project involved facilitating access to the hill by building a staircase.

    When the emperor visited Rome, the imperial procession was unable to reach the top of the hill because very few works had been completed.

    The elliptical pavement inspired by Michelangelo’s precious starry pavement design, documented by the engravings of the cartographer designer Étienne Dupérac of 1569, was built only in 1940. After about four hundred years the project of a majestic architectural scenario was developed which developed over centuries of elaborations and reconstructions.

    To learn more, we recommend reading the discussion on the square:

    The Campidoglio square designed by Michelangelo

    Piazza del Campidoglio

    Around the square there are the following buildings:

    Palazzo Senatorio

    The Palazzo Senatorio was built on the remains of the Tabularium, in 78 BC (previously the Temple of Saturn) as the seat of the new council called dei Senatori, founded in 1143-44, which took away the authority for the administrative affairs of the city from the pope , thanks to a citizen rebellion movement against Pope Innocent II.

    Here the first Senators met, the collegiate elective body entrusted with the administration of justice and the city.
    Its renovation was entrusted to Michelangelo between 1542 and 1554 and had a double ramp staircase, giving rise to a refined architectural scenario for the placement of the two splendid ancient statues of river gods: the Nile and the Tiber .

    Today it is the administrative and representative office of Roma Capitale. It is the oldest existing town hall in the world.

    The Palazzo Nuovo

    In 1603, thanks to the financing of Pope Clement VIII, the Palazzo Nuovo was built under the guidance of Girolamo Rainaldi and his son Carlo on the project of Michelangelo who also conceived the facade.

    The Palace, located on the left side of the square, inside a large Egyptian collection made of finds not transferred from Egypt, but all coming from the Roman excavations of Villa Adriana and the Roman countryside (the crocodile, two cynocephaluses, a sparrowhawk, a sphinx, a beetle, etc.).

    The building houses together with that of the Conservatories in front of which is opposite, the seat of the Capitoline Museums , one of the oldest collections of classical works in the world.

    Palazzo dei Conservatori

    The Palazzo dei Conservatori, located on the right side of the square, was built in the thirteenth century to house the professional guilds of the arts and crafts. In the fifteenth century the officers appointed by the Pope were assigned to the conservatories, and in 1568, on the commission of Pope Nicholas V, the restructuring was started.

    The palace was redesigned by Michelangelo who did not see his work completed, continued by Guidetto Guidetti and completed by Giacomo Della Porta . Its pillars which extend over two floors characterize the remarkable facade.

    The courtyard is the privileged place of the collection of antiquities and for the fragments of the colossal statue of Emperor Constantine found in 1486.

    The basilica of Santa Maria in Aracoeli

    On the remains of the temple of Juno Moneta in the 12th century the basilica of Santa Maria in Aracoeli was built at the highest point of the Capitol, definitively assuming the role of church of the Roman people. The architectural style is Romanesque, Gothic and the 122 Roman columns that divide the interior of the church into three naves were recovered from several ancient ruins and monuments.

    1. “Bucoliche”, Virgilius – Complete text
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