The Quirinal Hill: from Imperial Rome to Saint Theresa in Ecstasy
After several devastating invasions in the 5th and 6th centuries A.D., the Quirinal Hill, its pleasure gardens, public baths, and senatorial villas were slowly abandoned.
In 537 A.D., when Goth assailants destroyed the aqueducts that furnished Rome with water, the Quirinal, Rome’s tallest hill, was left literally high and dry—and would remain so for the next thousand years. In the mid-1500s, Cardinal Felice Peretti corrected a millennium of neglect by constructing a villa on the untended hill. When the Cardinal was elected Pope Sixtus V, he enthusiastically commissioned myriad public works. Thus his family insignia (a lion with pears or pear trees — because Peretti means “little pear tree” in Italian) would spring up all over Rome, celebrating his name and his projects.
Pope Sixtus V had an ancient Roman aqueduct restored to irrigate his villa and the neighborhood around it. Three fountains were then built along the Quirinal, celebrating the return of fresh, running water. These are the magnificent Dioscuri Fountain in Piazza del Quirinale (where we meet), the mediocre Quattro Fontane, and the confused Moses Fountain. We’ll discuss all three.
The presence of water and new fountains attracted inhabitants and many religious orders start calling the Quirinal their home. The Carmelites refurbished a church, now called Santa Maria della Vittoria, near the Moses Fountain. Not only a Baroque gem in itself, it also boasts the pinnacle of Baroque statuary, the Ecstasy of Santa Teresa by Bernini.
Just down the road from Santa Maria della Vittoria is Borromini’s masterpiece, the cozy church of San Carlo. It is so small that locals can’t resist using the diminutive, calling it San Carlino. In his early years, the architect Borromini was so anxious to launch his career that he offered his services to the poor religious order of the Discalced Trinitarians for free. The church was dedicated to the Counter Reformation hero, the Milanese Charles (Carlo) Borromeo, who may have also been one of Borromini’s role models. Stark yet joyful, the church is a gem that expresses Borromini’s and the Trinitarians’ personal feelings about the Divine. We’ll pay special attention to the church’s hidden geometry that heightens our emotions and controls our gaze.
In contrast, almost as if he sought to snub Borromini, Bernini constructed the lavish church of Sant’Andrea for the powerful and wealthy Jesuits several years later. Bernini, in his old age, would sit in the church and admire his own work for hours, enjoying the sunlight on gold sunbursts and the shifting light on the warm red marble lining the walls. Faced with some of the same spatial challenges as Borromini at San Carlo, Bernini opted for different solutions. Thus two prodigies of Baroque architecture produced two totally different Baroque masterpieces.