Known in Italian as Campidoglio, the Capitoline Hill is one of Rome’s famous Seven Hills. You’ll find it right at the center of the city, close to the Roman Forum and the Palatine Hill. It’s sandwiched between the famous Roman Forum and the historic center of the Campus Martius.
There are many reasons to visit the Capitoline Hill. First of all, it is so centrally located, close to the Altar of the Fatherland, the Colosseum and the Roman Forum, that adding it to your itinerary is actually very easy. Secondly, once you walk up the marvelous staircase – designed by Michelangelo nonetheless – that from Piazza dell’Ara Coeli (right by Piazza Venezia) takes you to Piazza del Campidoglio, you will be granted with one of the most impressive views of Rome.
Located on the Capitoline Hill you’ll find important monuments, a wonderful museum, statues and more. And while there is a fee to access the museum, visiting the Capitoline Hill is actually free, and you can swing my at any time of day and night.
Curious to find out more? Just continue reading as I share everything you need to know about the Campidoglio.
You should also read my posts Which Are The Seven Hills Of Rome? and 25 Free Things To Do In Rome.
The History Of The Capitoline Hill
The Capitoline Hill is one of the most important areas of Rome and has played host to numerous historical events that have helped to shape the identity of the Italian capital. Its history is intrinsically linked to the early development of the ancient city, back when it was only a kingdom.
It was here that, led by the mythological maiden Tarpeia, the Sabines attacked Rome. They sneaked their way over the city’s defensive walls in order to deal a blow to the fledgling power. Four thousand Sabine soldiers occupied the city for four days, but were eventually defeated.
However, Tarpeia met with a gruesome end, when she was executed by way of being thrown from a cliff on the hill. That very cliff is still famously referred to as the Tarpeian Rock. Many other people across the centuries would also meet their ends (by way of execution) at this macabre cliff.
The Capitoline Hill also played host to a number of early temples connected to the culture and religion of ancient Rome. The fifth king of Rome, Tarquinius Pricius, established the Temple for the Capitoline Triad on the hill.
Elsewhere on its slopes is located another religious structure important in the ancient days of Rome, the Temple of Juno Moneta. There’s also the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus Capitolinus, which was built in 509 BC and was, at the time, a symbol of the city — in fact, its size rivaled that of the much later-built Pantheon.
There are many stories surrounding the Capitoline Hill. One of these involves the Capitoline geese, sacred animals kept within the grounds of a temple dedicated to Juno. During the nocturnal invasion of Rome by the Gauls in 390 BC, these holy geese began squawking, waking nearby citizens and alerting them that something was wrong.
Though they didn’t actually “save” Rome (the Gauls still sacked the city), the legend remains a memorable episode in the hill’s history.
In the nascent stage of Rome’s development and rise to power, the Capitoline Hill played not only a central role in terms of religion and culture, but was also the literal geographical core of the ancient city.
These two factors resulted in the English word “capitol” and “capital”, both of which refer to the center of government; Capitol Hill in Washington DC, for example, is the home of the Senate, the United States Capitol and the US Congress.
Fast forward to the medieval period, and these ancient temples and sacred structures were erased in favor of grand civic buildings. But one of the most important factors in how the hill today came to be shaped lies in the 12th century.
During this tumultuous period, when Papal authority had recently been firmly cemented over the city of Rome, the Capitoline Hill became a refuge for those who disagreed with the absolute control of the church. This eventually led to a popular revolt in 1144, in which several nobles and even a senator moved onto the hillside permanently.
The senator’s new home, the Palazzo Senatorio, would become the outline and foundation for Michelangelo’s design of the Piazza del Campidoglio, which wouldn’t be built for another 400 or so years. During these several centuries, the Capitoline Hill became a sometime execution site and fell into a period of abandonment, with many of the properties now in a state of disrepair.
Michelangelo was drafted in by Pope Paul III to create a lavish new civic space, both to symbolically represent a “New Rome” and to impress a historic visit by Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, in 1538.
Michelangelo’s design dates from 1536. He intended to create a civic square based on the orientation of the senator’s old 12th-century palazzo. He restored the Palazzo Senatorio, adding Renaissance detailing and a double stairway, also restoring the Palazzo dei Conservatori.
There was also a new addition: the Palazzo Nuovo. This new layout was set around a unique trapezoid-shaped piazza. Finally, he added steps that led from the foot of the hill to the newly dubbed Piazza del Campidoglio.
Throughout the project, Michelangelo was faced with a variety of challenges; he also sadly died before it was completed. However, the artist’s creation in all its glory still stands atop the Capitoline Hill to this day, and still draws thousands of visitors to marvel at its beauty — and to visit the sights scattered around the architectural wonder.
What To See On The Capitoline Hill, Rome
Today, the Capitoline Hill is most famous for the Capitoline Museums, the history of which begins in 1471, when Pope Sixtus IV gave a sizeable collection of bronze statues to the city of Rome. These ancient statues were displayed in the buildings on the Capitoline Hill.
The collection grew to include yet more items, from mosaics and paintings to medieval artifacts. But it wasn’t until 1734 that the collection was opened to the public by Pope Clement XII. This move to throw open the doors to the people is believed to have resulted in one of the world’s first public museums.
The three main buildings surrounding the piazza — the Palazzo Senatorio, Palazzo dei Conservatori and Palazzo Nuovo — comprise this hilltop part of the Capitoline Museums today. There’s also the Galleria di Congiunzione, a tunnel that runs beneath the piazza itself connecting to many different sights, as well as the New Wing, a glass-covered hall designed in 1996.
It’s in the New Wing that you’ll find some of the most famous artifacts in the museums, namely the Equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelius and the Colossus of Constantine. Elsewhere in the Capitoline Museums, there’s the original 5th-century BC Capitoline She Wolf, thought to be Etruscan in origin, and related to the founding myth of Rome itself.
You should also read my post The Ultimate Guide To Visiting The Capitoline Museums, Rome.
Piazza del Campidoglio
Famously designed by Michelangelo in the 16th century, the Piazza del Campidoglio is the center of the Capitoline Hill itself. It’s considered to be an archetype of Renaissance architecture and civic design, with the artist himself creating the space when he was at his peak, and already well known for his extraordinary creations.
One of the most interesting things about the Piazza del Campidoglio is how the view from the piazza was literally shifted. Once, the orientation of the top of the Capitoline Hill looked towards the Roman Forum, but Michelangelo’s pivoted the perspective towards the Vatican instead. This heralded the new political center of Rome, turning away from the Rome of the past.
Michelangelo conceived of an intricate paving design for the piazza, which was based around a 12-point star. At its center would be the Equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelius; today a copy stands in the place where the original was once placed (this is in the Capitoline Museums).
From here, it’s all about taking note of the design of this amazing space: the facades of the buildings decorated with statues of the gods, the grand staircases, and the view. It’s so famous that it actually used to appear on the 10,000 Lira note.
You should also read my posts The Most Beautiful Piazzas In Rome and Where To See The Works Of Michelangelo In Rome.
Statue of Marcus Aurelius
The Equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelius is also very famous; it’s depicted on the Italian Euro 50 cent coin. The ancient bronze statue measures 4.24 meters (13.9 feet) high and is made of bronze. It’s believed to show Emperor Marcus Aurelius, who reigned from 161 to 180 AD, and is thought to have been made around 175 AD.
Historians can’t actually pinpoint either the location of where the statue was first erected — or who it is exactly. Some debate that it stood in the Roman Forum, others that it was located in the Piazza Colonna.
There were many statues of men on horses created during the ancient Roman period, many of which were melted down and re-purposed as coins or other structures, which is what makes this particular bronze statue a notable artifact.
As for its identity, it was for many years believed to be a statue of Constantine the Great, and is thought to have survived because of this (Constantine was the first Christian emperor). It also looks quite a lot like many statues of Emperor Augustus.
The influence of this statue cannot be understated. For centuries afterwards, even to the 20th century, there have been many bronze statues made of leaders on horseback, the majority of which can be said to trace their influence to this very statue.
The replica which stands in the center of the Piazza del Campidoglio was first made in 1981. The original statue was scanned for it to be completely accurate.
Don’t forget to also read my post 30 Statues In Rome You Should See.
A cordonata is a gently sloping hill that is punctuated by long cordoni, which are shallow steps that allow for horses or donkeys to use the slope. The example at Piazza del Campidoglio was designed by Michelangelo to allow for an easier ascent from the foot of the Capitoline Hill to the piazza at the top.
At the base of the cordonata there are elaborate fountains, but they are no longer in use; these are decorated with lions carved out of black basalt. At the top of the steps are enormous statues made out of marble, which depict the twins Castor and Pollux; these larger-than-life depictions see the mythological brothers standing alongside equally giant horses.
The Palazzo Senatorio was originally built by a senator in the 12th century. Once the home of Rome’s ancient archives, this structure lay at the center of Michelangelo’s redesign in 1538. In 1870, this palazzo became the new home of Rome’s City Hall; in fact, to this day it is still used as the city’s central office.
One of the most impressive aspects of this grand palace was the later addition by Michelangelo of dual staircases that lead to a terrace. These equally grand additions sweep symmetrically into the center of the palace from each wing, emphasizing the architectural design of the building as a whole.
Palazzo dei Conservatori
This lavish building was built in the 15th century for the magistrates of the city of Rome. The stately structure was where the seat of the elected magistrate was once located; from here, decisions on local politics would be made by the elected government. But there’s more history to it than this: The building was actually constructed on the grounds of the 6th-century BC Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus Capitolinus.
When Michelangelo took over the design of this area, he added extra detailing to the facade of the Palazzo dei Conservatori in the form of giant Corinthian columns and porticos to match. And now, as part of the Capitoline Museums, the palace plays host to an array of artifacts from ancient Greek and Roman statues to Egyptian sculptures.
You should also read my post 15 Most Beautiful Palaces In Rome.
The newest building in the triad of structures that surround the Piazza del Campidoglio, the Palazzo Nuovo may seem new, but it actually dates back to 1603. Built to Michelangelo’s exact design specifications, the exterior of this palace mirrors that of the Palazzo dei Conservatori. Its halls provide ample space for a plethora of artifacts; these include sarcophagi, mosaics, statues and busts.
The Rome She-Wolf
The original, and very ancient She-Wolf (Lupa Capitolina), can be found inside the Capitoline Museums. It formed the nexus of the collection that was donated by Pope Sixtus IV in 1471. However, atop a column in Via di San Pietro in Carceri, just next to the Palazzo Nuovo, you can see a replica of the 5th-century BC statue.
You can see this anytime without having to visit the museum, and it looks quite cool on the backdrop of the 400-year-old palace walls (though it is much weathered).
View over the Roman Forum
If you only do one thing when visiting the Capitoline Hill in Rome, it has to be this one. The views over the Roman Forum from the Campidoglio will make you wow a few times. I never tire of it, especially when I walk by at night.
Being one of Rome’s renowned Seven Hills, you’d expect the views from atop the Capitoline to be impressive – and you’d be right, of course. It’s from here that you can soak up views out across the city over the Roman Forum, towards Saint Peter’s Basilica, with the rooftops stretching out into the distance.
It’s no wonder that the hill formed the core of Rome’s new political center; you can really get a feel for how this would have been the ideal defensive position, and a good place to put the most important religious buildings in the city.
By day it’s a fantastic vantage point to see the monuments, but as night falls the Roman Forum is illuminated, making for some amazing night-time photo opportunities.
How To Get To The Capitoline Hill
Getting to the Capitoline Hill is very easy. First of all, as I have said at the beginning of this post, chances are that if you are staying in the Centro Storico or in the Monti neighborhood you’ll walk near it at some point – it’s right about half way between the two. If that’s the case, simply walk up and take in everything it has to offer.
If, on the other hand, you prefer planning an actual visit of the Campidoglio and are staying elsewhere, you’ll be glad to know this part of town is very well served by public transport.
If you want to take the metro (from Termini), take Line B to Colosseo. From here you walk around one kilometer (0.6 miles) along the magnificent Via dei Fori Imperiali to the Piazza del Campidoglio, which you can access via the historic cordonata.
You can also take the bus to the Capitoline Hill. Again, leaving Rome Termini station, you can use bus routes 85, 83, 81, 63, 30 or 44 to reach the base of the hill. The nearest bus stop is Teatro Marcello/Ara Coeli.
Get off here and then it’s just a simple matter of a few minutes stroll to reach Piazza del Campidoglio, which you can access either via the staircase that starts in Piazza dell’Ara Coeli. Other access points are from beside the Altar of the Fatherland (Vittoriano) and from the back of Giano’s Arch.