A Tourist in Rome - Porta del Popolo

Location:On the northern edge of Piazza del Popolo, just south of the Flaminio metro stop
Metro:Flaminio
Time:about 20 minutes
Cost:Free
Hours:Viewable at any time

The Aurelian Wall (red wall on the map below) was a city wall built around Rome between 271 AD and 275 AD by Emperor Aurelius to replace the then-insufficient Servian Wall (black wall on the map below). By then, Rome had expanded much beyond its old Servian Wall, and although it had stood essentially unfortified for centuries because it was protected by its powerful armies, incursions by Germanic barbarians and Vandals (in 270 AD) and internal revolts forced Rome to rethink its defenses and construct the new, larger and taller wall. The wall enclosed all seven hills of Rome plus the Campus Martius and the Trastevere district across the Tiber River. The wall ran for a distance of 12 miles, surrounding an area of 5.3 square miles. It was 11 feet thick and 26 feet high, with a square tower every 97 feet. It was built from bricks, and featured a walkable passage on the inner side that fully protected soldiers on patrol. Aurelian died a few months before it was completed even though the construction only took 5 years. Part of the reason for the quick progress and low cost was incorporation of existing buildings into the new wall. Approximately 1/6 of the wall might have been composed of pre-existing structures. Places where you can see this still today are at the Pyramid of Cestius, and near Porta Maggiore where a section of the Aqua Claudia was used for the wall. An area inside the wall was cleared to enable the wall to be reinforced quickly in an emergency. The wall was effective against the hit-and-run raids which barbarians commonly used, but would probably not have been effective against a prolonged siege. A 4th century remodelling of the wall by Maxentius doubled its height to 52 feet and improved the watch-towers. In 401 AD, under Honorius, the walls and gates were improved by facing the brick gates with thick white stone, adding semicircular towers, walling up the second arch in two-arched gates, and by replacing gate doors on hinges into portcullises which dropped down from above. Despite these improvements, Rome fell to Alaric I, king of the Visigoths in 410 AD, whose army entered the city through Porta Salaria. Totila, king of the Ostrogoths destroyed 1/3 of the wall in 545 AD when he sacked Rome, entering the city through the Porta Asinaria. The wall was repaired and continued defending the city until 1870, when the army of King Victor Emmanuel II of the Kingdom of Italy breached the wall near Porta Pia and captured Rome. Today, several parts of the wall are still well-preserved, the best being along the northern edge from the Muro Torto (Villa Borghese) to Corso d'Italia to Castro Pretorio; along the eastern edge from Porta Maggiore to Porta San Giovanni; along the southern edge from Porta Metronia to Porta Ardeatina and from Porta Ostiense to the Tiber; and along the western edge near the Porta San Pancrazio on the Janiculum Hill. The Museo delle Mura near Porta San Sebastiano explains how the wall was built and defended. Most of the gates stand at their original sites but have gone through changes over the centuries, adapting their purpose according to the needs of the day.

    
Servian Wall (black) and Aurelian Wall (red)

Named Porta Fmaminia in ancient times because Via Flaminia, the road from Rome to the eastern coast of northern Italy passed through it, Porta del Popolo was once a gate in the Aurelian Wall but now simply stands at the northern edge of Piazza del Popolo. It is thought to have originally had two archways due to its use mainly to sort traffic entering Rome from the north rather than as a defensive gate. Until 1879, it also had two cylindrical side towers like the rest of the gates in the Aurelian Wall. The current Porta del Popolo was built by Pope Sixtus in 1475 on the site of the ancient Porta Flaminia which was partially buried because the level of the ground had risen since ancient times due to floods. The decoration of the outside of the gate was designed by Nanni di Baccio Bigio with the advice of Michangelo, taking inspiration from the Arch of Titus. The four columns surrounding the central gate came from the former St. Peter's Basilica. The circular towers from ancient times were replaced with square watchtowers. The decoration of the inside of the gate was designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini to celebrate the entrance of Queen Christina of Sweden into Rome on December 23, 1655. The statues of St. Peter and St. Paul at ground level on either side of the main arch were added in 1638 by Francesco Mochi. Those statues had ben rejected for the basilica of St. Paul's Outside the Walls and given back to the sculptor without payment. In 1879, the square towers were demolished and the two lateral archways were opened to accomodate the increase in traffic.

    
The outside of Porta del Popolo
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The inside of Porta del Popolo
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