Piazza del Popolo, Once a Site of Christian Persecution, Now Embraces the Eternal City’s Pilgrims

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By Melissa Butz

Piazza del Popolo the “People’s Square,” one of Rome’s biggest urban plazas. It’s now known for hosting concerts and political gatherings. But from the Middle Ages on, this square was the very first place Christian pilgrims saw as they entered the gates of Rome.

It was through this grand doorway that the early Christians fulfilled their dream of coming to the Eternal City. One of its most famous pilgrims was Queen Christina of Sweden, a seventeenth century royal who created a scandal when she abdicated her throne and converted to Catholicism.

To prepare for her visit, Roman expert and tour guide Livia Galante explains, the arch was completely redone by Pope Alexander VII, who baptized Queen Christina into the Catholic faith.

“This was a big victory for the papacy,” said Livia. “She was welcomed with all the possible honors and Gian Lorenzo Bernini was requested to refurbish the arch in order to welcome the queen in the most grand style.”

Upon their arrival, early pilgrims like Queen Christina stopped at the church of Santa Maria del Popolo. Built by Pope Pasqual II in 1099, and expanded by Pope Sixtus IV in the fifteenth century, it’s where believers thanked the Blessed Mother for their safe travels.

“The most venerated image of Our Lady is above the main altar,” said Livia. “It’s one of the most venerated icons of Rome, the ‘Madonna del Popolo.’ It is this image the pilgrims revered after their pilgrimage. After they arrived in the Eternal City on the footsteps of the saints and the martyrs.”

Once in the square, the obelisk now stands as the centerpiece. It was transferred from Circus Maximus in 1589. 

“From there, a pope named Sixtus V moved the obelisk to decorate the square that welcomed the pilgrims,” said Livia.

This towering pillar witnessed the persecution of Christians in Circus Maximus, to only later embrace the city’s newcomers, who were exhausted from their journey to the Eternal City. 

Throughout the centuries, Piazza del Popolo has seen new additions and dramatic changes, but the sole element that has remained untouched since the 15th century is its namesake, the Church of Santa Maria del Popolo, the original welcoming site for Christian pilgrims.