THE HISTORY OF BORGO PIO
Borgo (sometimes called also I Borghi), is the 14th historic district (rione) of Rome, Italy. It lies on the west bank of the Tiber, and has a trapezoidal shape. Its coat of arms shows a lion (after the name “Leonine City“, which was also given to the district), lying in front of three mounts and a star. These – together with a lion rampant – are also part of the coat of arms of Pope Sixtus V who annexed Borgo as fourteenth rione to the city of Rome.
But what changed forever the destiny of the zone was the martyrdom of St. Peter at the foot of the Vatican hill in 67, during the first persecution of the Christians. The saint was buried nearby, and this turned the Vatican into a place of pilgrimage. Above the tomb of the saint, Pope Anacletus built an oratory, which in 324 Emperor Constantine turned into a huge basilica devoted to the prince of the Apostles. This church, known today as Old Saint Peter’s, soon became (until its destruction in the 16th century, when the new Saint Peter’s was erected in its place) one of the centers of Christianity.
In the Middle Ages, the quarter was not much populated, with sparse houses, some churches and a lot of vegetable gardens. The recovery started with the beginning of the Renaissance. At the same time, the Popes abandoned finally the Lateran complex for the Vatican, which now became the new center of power in Rome. The large amount of building activity and above all the rebuilding of Saint Peter, which was the ultimate result of this translocation, attracted several artists to the Borgo, while the renewed flood of pilgrims boosted commerce.
The golden Age of the Borgo reached its apogee during the reign of the two Florentine Popes, Leo X and Clement VII, both members of the Medici family. Under the latter, the quarter had a population of 4,926 inhabitants, almost all bachelors and non-Roman. Nine out of the twenty five Cardinals belonging to the Curia, each of whom maintained a court comprising hundreds of people, were living here. The most important artists (such as Raphael) took or built their houses in the Borgo.
Magnificent buildings were built at the beginning of the 16th century by high prelates and aristocrats, including Palazzo Branconio dell’Aquila, designed by Raphael; the Palazzo Caprini by Donato Bramante (a house that Raphael chose to buy, and later became part of the Palazzo dei Convertendi); Palazzo Castellesi, built by Cardinal Adriano Castellesi, attributed to Andrea Bregno or Bramante and a small-scale copy of the Palazzo della Cancelleria, and Palazzo dei Penitenzieri, perhaps designed by of Baccio Pontelli. The last three palaces faced a small square, Piazza del Cardinale di S. Clemente (later Piazza Scossacavalli), which became the most important in the Borgo.
with the growing urbanization of the Borgo, a row of houses started to grow between these two main roads Borgo Nuovo and Borgo Vecchio and formed the so-called “spina”. At about its middle, the spina was interrupted by a small square, called Piazza Scossacavalli. A recurrent theme of Roman city planning, were the various projects contemplating the demolition of the spina: starting with, that of Carlo Fontana in the late 17th century; and ending, in 1936, when, under Benito Mussolini and Pius XI, this task was finally accomplished.
The Borgo continued to grow to such an extent, that in 1565 Pius IV started the construction of three new roads, all north of the Passetto, named respectively Borgo Pio (after himself), Borgo Vittorio (after the victory of Lepanto) and Borgo Angelico (after Angelo, his own first name prior to his election). In order to boost the new settlement, he gave tax privileges to the Romans who choose to build their houses here. New Walls, and a new monumental gate (Porta Angelica), were built to protect the new area, which in honor of the Pope was named Civitas Pia.
Pope Alexander VII, after the completion of the beautiful colonnade designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (built between 1656 and 1665), ordered the demolition of the first block in front of it. He created so the Piazza Rusticucci, the vestibule to Saint Peter’s Square. Among the other buildings, which then went lost, there was Palazzo Branconio.
During the 18th and the early 19th centuries, the Borgo kept its characteristics. The bourgeoises abandoned the rione for the new settlements in Campo Marzio, and Borgo became a quarter inhabited by simple people (artisans or workers at the Vatican), very devoted yet always open to new ideas, and men of the church, who appreciated the vicinity to the Holy See.
Many sellers of religious goods, named Paternostrari or Coronari (rosary makers) had their shops here. At the edge of the quarter, in Vicolo degli ombrellari, a small lane near Borgo Pio, were the shops of the Roman umbrella makers, gathered there because of the bad smell coming from the oiled silk. In Borgo Vecchio several small foundries were active, where artistic objects made of bronze were cast. Particularly characteristic was the making of bells: the last foundry, located in Vicolo del Farinone, closed around 1995, after an activity lasted about 450 years. In the Borgo were also located many famous osterie, where Romans and pilgrims could eat and drink wine.
Things began to change again for the Borgo during the French occupation under Napoleon. The Préfet of Rome, Camille de Tournon, started the demolition of the spina, but the project had to be interrupted shortly after it began due to a lack of funds.
After 1870, the walls of Pius IV, which bordered the Rione to the N, were pulled down, together with the Porta Angelica, to ease communication with the new Rione of Prati. Between 1886 and 1911 a new bridge, Ponte Vittorio Emanuele II, located slightly north of the ruins of Nero’s Bridge, connected the new avenue of Corso Vittorio Emanuele with Borgo.
In the early years of the twentieth century it was again suggested to bring the district under the sovereignty of the pope but in the end with the Lateran Treaty of 1929 only the Vatican City became a foreign state.
This situation changed forever in 1936. In that year the project of the demolition of the spina, by the Roman architects Marcello Piacentini and Attilio Spaccarelli, was approved by Mussolini and Pius XI and put in execution. An agreement between the two leaders had been possible because of the new climate of collaboration between the State and the Church, which followed the signing of the Lateran Treaties (“La Conciliazione” in Italian) in 1929. On October 23, 1936 (the day after the anniversary of the March on Rome), the Duce himself, standing on a roof, gave the first stroke of the pickaxe. On October 8, 1937 (less than one year later), the spina had ceased to exist, and Saint Peter was freely visible from Castel Sant’Angelo
Due to World War II, the work was interrupted. In the aftermath of the war, although the political and cultural climate had changed, the government and the Vatican decided to finish the project. Two Propylaea were built in front of Saint Peter’s Square.
The result was that almost all the houses of the Rione south of the Passetto were demolished, and a new grand avenue emerged: the Via della Conciliazione (named after the Treaty of 1929 between Italy and the Holy See). A few major buildings (Santa Maria in Traspontina, Palazzo Torlonia, Palazzo dei Penitenzieri) were spared because they were more or less on axis with the new road. The result was that almost all the houses of the Rione south of the Passetto were demolished and reconstructed, or demolished and never constructed again.
Besides a few drawings, no scientific documentation of the old quarter was taken. Most of the inhabitants, whose families have been living and working in Borgo for centuries, were deported to the outskirts in the middle of the Campagna, as Acilia. That happened because no new apartment houses were built, but only offices, mainly used by the Vatican.
Judgement about the whole undertaking, controversial since the beginning, appears now to be largely negative. In fact, besides the destruction of many ancient edifices and, above all, of a whole social tissue, what was lost forever was the “surprise” (typical of the Baroque), when, at the very end of the narrow and dark lanes of the Borgo, the huge Piazza and Basilica suddenly appeared. Now, instead, Saint Peter’s appears in the distance, flattened as in a postcard, and the sense of perspective gets lost as well.
Borgo Pio today
Since 1950, the remaining Borghiciani (the name by which the inhabitants of the Borgo are called in Roman dialect), live north of the Passetto, where the quarter retained until recent times its popular character. Several high prelates live there: among them, Pope Benedict XVI, who had been living in Borgo Pio for more than twenty years before his election to the Papacy.
South of the Passetto the quarter houses only some offices (mainly belonging to the Vatican), an Auditorium, and the huge complex of the Hospital of Santo Spirito.