One of the most spectacular sites in Rome, the Piazza del Popolo has its fair share of history in a city renowned for its past. The crowning jewel of this stunning landmark is the Obelisk of Rameses II, which was brought to Rome after the conquest of Egypt and moved to the Piazza during the 16th century by Pope Sixtus V. Other popular tourist destinations in the Piazza are a trio of churches: the Santa Maria del Popolo, Santa Maria dei Miracoli and Santa Maria di Montesanto, which together contain artistic treasures created by the likes of Raphael, Bernini, Carvaggio and other Renaissance greats. This popular square is a place where people come together to celebrate events such as New Year’s Eve and various festivals. In fact, translated “Piazza del Popolo” means “Plaza of the People”.
A dark side exists for the picturesque Piazza…its past isn’t all holidays and festivals. In its confines, the criminals of Rome were often brought to be tortured for the amusement of the public, before being executed. The church of Santa Maria del Popolo was built by Pope Paschal II in 1099 in order to rid the square of the ghost of the abhorred Emperor Nero, who was renowned for his lavish excesses and his ruthless persecution of Christians. The locals had long feared the ghost of the Emperor, who was said to walk the Piazza, which was his (not quite) final resting place…. until the end of the 11th century when the chapel which would eventually become the Santa Maria del Popolo was built. At that time, it is said his remains were flung into the River Tiber and the church was built to banish his presence forever. It was also said that demons in the form of black crows also inhabited the square. The tree in which they used to nest was torn down to make way for the new church.
In spite of its sometime gruesome past, the Piazza is a place of amazing beauty and worth a visit the next time you pop in for a visit to the Holy City. If you are in the Piazza late in the evening when the crowds are absent, take a moment and listen and you may hear the ghostly strains of Nero’s famous fiddle still stirring the sultry night air.