History of Via Della Conciliazione

Via della Conciliazione is the most disliked avenue in Rome.

It is a relatively short street, running east/west from the Castel Sant’ Angelo on the north bank of the Tiber (here swinging southwest around the historical city centre) to the magnificent Piazza S. Pietro.

The walk from the Castel to the Piazza engenders an almost ethereal state of mind and heart. There’s a sense that the street, the basilica, the avenue leading not only one’s feet but one’s eyes and in fact one’s soul toward the splendor of the rising edifice are ageless, timeless, ancient: and meant to be.

And yet, less than 90 years ago Via della Conciliazione did not exist. What did the path from the Castel Sant’ Angelo to St. Peter’s Basilica look like before Via della Conciliazione sliced its way through? What relics of ancient Rome were displaced or destroyed to create it, and why? And why is it the most disliked avenue in Rome?

via conciliazione roma

We’ll start with the Castel Sant’ Angelo, originally built as Hadrian’s mausoleum around 130 AD. Given its position on the banks of the river it quickly became part of the ancient city’s fortifications. Walls were built from the Vatican fields – reportedly the site of the burning and crucifixion of St. Peter and later the area of Vatican City – to the mausoleum, and it was the area bounded by these walls that became known as the Borgo.

The Borgo began as many neighborhoods do, to house groups of people gathering together around a central theme – an ethnic background or belief or a certain religious or cultural site. In this case, the draw was the original Saint Peter’s Church, built by Constantine in the 4th century. Through the 5th to 9th centuries the Borgo grew and eventually contained hostels financed by various countries for pilgrims, monasteries, hospitals, churches, water fountains, lavatories, smaller churches and chapels, food vendors, blacksmith shops; in short, all things necessary for travelers and pilgrims who were visiting the city.

The walls continued to be maintained and strengthened through the years. When they were torn down in the 9th century the city was ransacked by the Saracens, a hard-won lesson to the citizens of Rome. Pope Leo IV had the walls rebuilt again as soon as the marauders left, once again fortifying the city and its populace and pilgrims against outside threats.

Via della Conciliazione.

When the popes left Rome for Avignon in the early part of the 14th century, the Borgo fell into ruin. The walls deteriorated, the until-then busy and prosperous businesses withered. The papacy returned to Rome in 1378 and the Borgo prospered, the walls were rebuilt and the area once again catered to and supported the huge – and growing – numbers of tourists and pilgrims from around the world who came to see Saint Peter’s Church.

However, the church they saw was not what we see today. St. Peter’s Basilica as we know it was constructed in the 16th and 17th centuries on the site of the ancient 4th century church. It was designed by such renowned architects as Bramante, Raphael, Antonio de San Gallo, Michelangelo, Giacamo dell Porta, and Bernini who designed the spectacular elliptical piazza and encircling quadruple colonnades.

And unlike today, there was no one main route from anywhere to the Piazza and St. Peter’s. And certainly the route from the Castel Sant’ Angelo wasn’t straightforward, as it is today. Walking west from the river and faced with two and three story buildings and narrow, twisted streets, visitors and pilgrims throughout the ages, regardless of the version of St. Peter’s they were seeing, must have felt they were entering a maze. Their anticipation and excitement at finally nearing the end of their journey could only have been heightened by the inability to see the holy place they had come so far to visit, and they must have come upon it almost by accident, by a circuitous route.

Until 1936. Enter Benito Mussolini. An entire architectural movement called Fascist Architecture – monumental buildings that incorporated or remembered the style of ancient Rome – can be attributed in large part to this dictator who ruled Italy from 1922 – 1943, but we’ll concern ourselves with just one aspect of that: Via della Conciliazione.

Via della Conciliazione circa 1900
Via della Conciliazione circa 1900

In 1929 Mussolini and Pope Pius XI signed the Lateran Treaty, a conciliation of sorts between the Italian government and the Vatican, one of the provisions of which made Roman Catholicism the official religion of Italy. To celebrate the signing, Mussolini conceived of a grand avenue that would link the Italian State – centered across the Tiber River and reached by the Ponte Sant’ Angelo – with the Vatican State, making manifest the concept behind the treaty. The result was the destruction of much of the Borgo. Between 1936 and 1950, twenty two Medieval and Renaissance buildings and dozens of habitations were torn down, as well as walls and streets. In their place Mussolini’s grand vision was constructed – the Via della Conciliazione. It was completed in 1950.

Today, the view from the east as one walks along this street is honestly stunning. The dome of St. Peter’s rises impossibly, framed by sculpted angels on the roof of the basilica. The Piazza can be seen from afar, encircled by Bernini’s portico. Walking the avenue toward the basilica, the eyes have a chance to get used to the scale, to adjust slowly to the immensity of it all – the church, the Piazza, the columns and stairways leading through the doors that would allow entry to six horses abreast. And the heart has a chance to quiet, to settle in and to be prepared to enter one of the most awe-inspiring, truly beautiful buildings in the world.

And yet, this stunning view, this adjustment to scale, this quieting of the heart these run counter to what St. Peter’s Basilica was originally intended to do. Imagine instead the effect of rounding a corner, stumbling from narrow, dark and cramped streets into what must have seemed the home of God himself.

The Via della Conciliazione took away from St. Peter’s the essential moment of revelation, the moment of heart-stopping beauty that pilgrims traveled thousands of miles to experience. Yes, one can see St. Peter’s from a distance, but no longer can we step through ancient city streets knowing that maybe with the next step, around the next corner or through the next dim alleyway, we’ll suddenly enter something close to heaven.

That is what the Via della Conciliazione no longer allows – that moment of stepping from the maze of the Borgo into the immense Piazza without being prepared. You see, being prepared was never the point. The point was to experience God – in whatever form that takes for each of us. The point was to be awed, and overwhelmed.

The point was to walk from darkness into light.

In today’s Rome, Via della Conciliazione doesn’t let us experience the darkness, and the light somehow isn’t as bright as a result.

By Teresa Cutler

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