Eternal City’s Building Craze also Bolstered Urban Planning

Study demonstrates that a public voice can help develop a theocratic city

HUMANITIES, November/December 2015, Volume 36, Number 6

As University of Tennessee professor Dorothy Metzger Habel examined architectural archives for seventeenth-century Rome, she started hearing voices. The many participants in the Eternal City’s building boom at that point—when 30 percent of the work force was engaged in the construction industry—came to life in her mind as she studied plans, laws, and other documents. They offered insight, she writes in the introduction to the NEH-funded When All of Rome Was Under Construction: The Building Process in Baroque Rome (Pennsylvannia State University Press, 2013), into “fundamental questions, ranging from how to finance building and how to speed the work of building to how to account for costs and how to accommodate displaced constituents.”

A financing plan Habel found tucked away in one archive seemed particularly notable. It aimed to redevelop and open up the Piazza Colonna, making it into a majestic public space surrounded by private and commercial buildings of note, and to do this “without expense and without aggravating anyone.” The usual method had been to raise money through the sale of bonds and to levy taxes to pay the interest. But an innovative scheme took hold in the 1650s that would add shares to existing financial instruments. The whole operation was to be guided by a set of clearly stated best practices. Private, papal, and commercial interests would all work in common, and one project could piggyback on another.

Cover of When All of Rome Was Under Construction

The plan was at first given a nod of approval by Pope Innocent X, known, in fact, for his “acumen in economics and law,” but then later rejected by him. The many competing interests around the piazza at the time explain why.

A strong Spanish diplomatic presence in the city required fine residences for official duties and entertaining. The Spanish, in fact, were the first to recognize the Papal See. Additionally, several influential Spaniards held high office in the Vatican. The Piazza Colonna was an attractive address. It offered proximity to several churches of prominence and was commodious enough to provide prospective renters plenty of room for the foot traffic and carriages arriving at the residences.

Rivalries among Spanish factions in Rome at the time, however, led to street skirmishes near the piazza and proved alarming for Innocent X. Rather than put a stamp of approval on a scheme that seemed to encourage disruptive groups with diplomatic immunity to lodge securely at a key spot along the city’s main artery, Via del Corso, Innocent pulled the plug on the project. Another reason may have been a whiff of fraud traceable to the plan’s principal proponent, Marco Giovanni Stefano, secretary of a prominent financial institution. Still another reason was the fact that the piazza’s principal structure—Palazzo Aldobrandini—was owned by rich widow Olimpia Aldobrandini, who fell in love with Camillo Pamphili, the papal nephew. Camillo resigned his position the next year as the cardinal nepote, and he and Olimpia wed the next month. However, “tongues wagged in Rome at news of the marriage,” writes Habel, “and the newlyweds were banished from the city for a period of nearly four years” (the Roman populace and the Vatican were both somewhat taken aback by Camillo’s swift transition away from his ecclesiastical calling and duties).

A few years later, Piazza Colonna was transformed into a public space, thanks to the “builder pope,” Alexander VII. The financing, however, was not the creative scheme suggested by Stefano.

Habel follows similar stories in other architectural work in Rome. As Stephanie C. Leone notes in a review for the College Art Association, each case—but especially in the opening of Piazza Colonna—points to a broader question: “Did the public have a voice in the development of a theocratic city?” Yes, in fact, they did, demonstrating that principal stakeholders helped put controls into place “to ensure that the space [did not] become identified with a single individual.”