(b. 1475, Caprese, d. 1564, Roma)

Piazza Campidoglio

Piazza Campidoglio, Rome

Unique among Michelangelo's achievements was the architectural conquest of the Capitoline hill, that is to say, the depression between the ancient temple of Juno Moneta - who had survived as the Madonna of Aracoeli - and that of Jupiter Capitolinus. This was indeed the heart of the Roman Imperium.

In his earlier great works Michelangelo had repeatedly expressed himself in cosmogonic allusions and metaphors. On the Capitol he devised a complete plan of Creation, attested by the strange floor mosaics of the Capitol, laid in 1940 after etchings made from his long-forgotten designs. On the top of the sacred hill the master created in effect a model of the timeless, spaceless ideal universe. The three palaces demonstrate the mystery of divine Revelation. The magnificent downward sweep of the double staircase with its platform and its statues of river-gods symbolizes the divine descent from Truth into Goodness and Beauty, in other words, into Light and the Word, indicated by the polarity of the two lateral palaces which flank the square at a slightly diagonal angle.

The master's project was accepted but subsequently modified in places. The central Palazzo del Senatore was begun in 1546. Michelangelo is responsible for the outside staircase only, and in 1588 a new bell tower was added. The Palazzo dei Conservatori was completed in 1568 by Prospero Bocca Paduli and Tommaso Cavalieri. Giacomo del Duca enlarged it later and transformed the central window into a balcony. The Museo Capitolino lying to the left, close to Aracoeli, was built 1644-55, under Innocent X. Michelangelo lived to supervise the building of the Palazzo dei Conservatori, but the changes wrought in the original project by his successors were not to its advantage. Giacomo del Duca had destroyed the hieratic concord of seven porticoes with pillars, surmounted by seven windows ranged like archangels. And it was a mistake to smother the sides of the Cordonata, the gently rising staircase of the Capitol, with all kinds of plants.