Rome is a difficult city to sum up. It is so many different things all rolled into one. Ancient imperial city. Seat of one of the world’s major religions. European capital. It is old; it is new. It is, above all, overwhelming, in a chaotic but kind of perfect way.
Perhaps no place serves as a better microcosm of all things that Rome is than the Capitoline Hill. On a single small hilltop, one of Rome’s famous seven, one can experience ancient ruins predating imperial Rome, the best of classical Rome, a renaissance square, a stunning church, a modern era monument to a unified Italy, and the best views of the city as a whole. All that is wonderful, and all that is completely intimidating, of the Eternal City can be had here, and, as with Rome itself, it is pretty perfect.
This is where Rome began, and evidence of human habitation on Capitoline Hill goes back to at least 1500 BCE. Of course, there is mythology behind the founding, and a statue sits atop the hill to that (it is a replica; the original is in the Capitoline Museums). The myth states that two sons of Mars, Romulus and Remus, were cast out as babies and ended up here, where they were suckled and raised by a she-wolf before later founding the city that would be named for Romulus. The statue was erected in 296 BCE, and shows the infants and the wolf.
Civilization on Capitoline Hill is so old that during the golden age of Rome, archaeological digs existed here, and the scholars of the day catalogued the relics of eras past. At the Capitoline Museums, artifacts dating to the Bronze Age, beautifully upkept from imperial times to now, are on display, along with one wall from the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus, which dates back to 509 BCE. It is dizzying to think that in times we consider to be ancient, archaeologists were studying times they considered ancient.
Of course, the Capitoline Museums, established by the Church in 1734, contain much more than these ancient relics. Artifacts on display range from classical Roman sculpture to Renaissance paintings, and pretty much everything in between, in a building that is as beautiful as the collection itself. Among the highlights: busts of all the Roman emperors, remnants of a massive statue of Constantine, an ornate chariot, a stone inscription granting Roman citizenship to Michelangelo, and some of the coolest crystal chandeliers I’ve seen. And that is barely scratching the surface of a museum complex (it is in three buildings connected underground) that one could easily spend a full day exploring.
However, the single best aspect of the Capitoline Museums is its viewpoint looking out on the Roman Forum. That alone is worth the admission fee, and the sight brought me close to tears.
The museum buildings flank the Piazza del Campidoglio, a beautiful Renaissance square designed by Michelangelo in the sixteenth century. The geometric pattern in the square is best seen from above from a museum window, and holds a statue of Marcus Aurelius on horseback in the center. As with that of Romulus and Remus, the statue is a replica, the original being on display in the Capitoline Museums. From here, a winding path descends to one side of the hill, while a gentle staircase meant to be the entrance way (also designed by Michelangelo) leads to Piazza Venezia at the base of the hill.
Nothing more accurately sums up all that is both wonderful and frustrating about Rome than the fact that the other two main attractions on Capitoline Hill are not accessible from the top, but rather via separate staircases from Piazza Venezia and the nearby Piazza d’Aracoeli. One is the Basilica of Santa Maria in Aracoeli, one of more churches named for Santa Maria than any city should have. After ascending dozens of polished marble steps (go slowly, especially if it is wet out), visitors are treated to a beautiful church with an ornate ceiling and dozens of chandeliers.
Originally the site of a Byzantine church, Santa Maria in Aracoeli was completed in the twelfth century with a plain brick exterior that stands at odds to the beauty within.
Finally, visitors to the Capitoline Hill can celebrate a modern unified Italy by ascending the stunning white monument to the first Italian King, Victor Emmanuel II. Known by locals as the typewriter, the Vittoriano monument was begun in 1885 and competed fifty years later. It honors the 1861 unification of Italy, and a museum built inside of it traces the process of unification from the early nineteenth century all the way through World War One. (We will discuss Italian unification more in another article.)
The museum is lovely, and features some incredible artifacts, but with admission comes a ticket up an elevator located on the back side of the Vittoriano to a modern-day viewing platform with the best 360 degree views of Rome that you’ll find anywhere. (I guess you can also say that with a ticket up to the platform, you’ll also receive admission to the museum, judging by the priorities of most visitors.)
Rome is so many things all rolled into one, and with a single day spent on the Capitoline Hill, visitors can experience pretty much all of those. You’ll witness imperial Rome (and even earlier times), wander a Renaissance square, marvel at a Catholic basilica, and celebrate Italian unification. You’ll see more beautiful vistas that you can process, be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of art, and be frustrated by the fact that nothing in the city runs in a straight line. It is Rome.
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