Rome has a long and complex history that extends thousands of years and through many cultural changes involving numerous political and religious leaders. The urban form of modern Rome exhibits visible layers from centuries of change making it difficult to understand completely. However, some of the most significant influences to the urban form of modern Rome were accomplished by a few deliberate interventions of one man during a brief five year reign as Pope.


Rome significantly shrunk in size during the Middle Ages from its ancient classical stature. The result was a severely diminished urban core concentrated in a small area at a bend in the Tiber River . The population decreased from over a million individuals to less than 17,000 people huddled together in this small urban core (Rogers 2001:149). The city walls encircled a much larger area and contained the classical ruins of ancient Rome as well as seven churches that were the foci of annual pilgrimages by worshippers. The city was an unorganized collection of structures and destinations connected by footpaths that meandered over the countryside between the landmarks (Rogers 2001:149).

As the Church in Rome gained more power during the beginning of the Renaissance period it became necessary to position Rome as a cultural and religious center in the world. Several Popes following the middle ages began to assert power and help the make this shift (Newton 1971:146). Several important streets were straightened to assert organization and building height restrictions were instituted to maintain the physical dominance of the churches in the landscape.

Other improvements were made that began to organize city spaces such as the Michelangelo’s masterpiece of urban design at the Piazza Campidoglio and the broad street known originally as Via Pia, known today as Via Settembre (Rogers 2001:151). However, as of 1585 when Sixtus V became pope, only Michelangelo’s design demonstrated an attempt to organize more than one building spatially. While these attempts made significant impacts, they were largely uncoordinated single actions when compared to the impact made by Pope Sixtus V (papacy 1585 – 1590).

Cardinal Montalto, an exiled religious leader, had developed ideas for reorganizing Rome before he became Pope Sixtus V. He wanted to reinvigorate the city and create a place suitable to be the center of the Christian world. Using the entire city, Pope Sixtus V overlaid an organizational structure for circulation routes that connected major spaces and structures by means of an element that would literally establish points in space that would be difficult to be taken away (Bacon 1967:131). Classical Rome was a collection of monumental architectural structures that did not consider spatial relationships or circulation issues. Sixtus V introduced a new way of thinking about the city by articulating circulation as organizational structure. Bacon attributed the emergence of the spatial thinking required for the realization of the plan envisioned by Pope Sixtus V to the development of perspective drawing in the first half of the fifteenth century. This visual aid allowed design to include movement through spaceas experiential sequence instead of individual static elements in space.

He said it was “not manipulation of mass but as articulation of experience along an axis of movement through space” (Bacon 167: 123). Pope Sixtus V developed a plan for Rome that organized the whole city around several key points in space that relate to each other over the expanse of the city. Utilizing major landmarks, he located 4 obelisks across the city that allowed clear visual connections and movement between them. This established a framework for future development that is visible in Rome today. This did more for Rome than any single building project could have ever accomplished. It provided a simple and understandable framework for future building that would continue long after his papacy. Most of the work that is visible today in Rome that was a direct result of this vision was constructed after his death in 1590. The pattern he developed was based on providing a clear defined circulation pattern for the destinations of the pilgrimage to the seven churches of Rome that were scattered about an open, undefined landscape. The realization of his plan was not due to his individual power as a Pope to influence design and building in Rome but was due to the clarity of the message delivered in the few small, simple projects that he completed.


The idea of relocating several existing obelisks to key locations helped to direct the development of circulation paths between them in straight avenues that converge on the obelisks but also influenced the space that surrounded each one and along the connecting paths (see map 1).

Saint Peter’s Square

The first obelisk was installed at the front ofSaint Peter’s Basilica and began a long period of reconstruction and aesthetic decisions that lasted long after his death in 1590. The new location influenced the redesign of the front elevation of the basilica to address the symmetrical placement of the obelisk (see photo 1). The placement of the vertical element helped to stimulate the design and construction of the now famous oval piazza and the construction of the symmetrical colonnades by Bernini with two fountains later installed on the cross axis through the obelisk. Today, Saint Peter’s Piazzais well known as one of the best examples of urban design for such a large expanse of pavement. This is the result of the design intelligence by many designers following Pope Sixtus V initial vision, however, it was theplacement of the obelisk in this precise location that provided the inspiration for redesign and construction of the church, piazza, colonnade and the elements within that make it what it is today.

Piazza del Popolo, San Trinita dei Monti and the Spanish Steps

A second obelisk was installed at the Piazza del Popolo (see photo 2) near the city gate at Porta del Popolo at the northern end of the city (map 1). This gave rise to the prominence of three intersecting streets that connect respectively to the Porta di Ripetta on the bank of the Tiber River to the west; the central avenue leading to the Forum and the Campidoglio, and finally the eastern avenue Via del Bauino leading to thePiazza d’Espagna. Also envisioned by Sixtus from this point was the extension of the Strada Felice (named for Pope Sixtus V) to the Piazza del Popolo to create converging streets instead of three; however this was not realized due to severe grade changes between San Trinita dei Monti and the Porta del Popolo (see map 2). The influence of Pope Sixtus’ V plan is evidenced by the future construction of theSpanish Steps that lead vertically from the terminus of the Via del Babuino at the Piazza d’ Espagna to San Trinita dei Monti, where the third obelisk was placed and connects to the intersection with the Via Pia and to the Santa Mari a Maggiore at its terminus (see map 3). The installation of the steps in this location compensated for the absence of the extension of the Strada Felice as originally envisioned by Pope Sixtus V and resolved the design in an elegant and successful fashion.

The Four Fountains and Acqua Felice

To provide a visual anchor and structure for future development Pope Sixtus V placed four fountains at each corner at the important intersection of the Strada Pia and the Strada Felice (see map 3 and map 4). The Strada Pia-an ancient and important street that extends east to the city wall and gate Porta Pia (see photo 3) by Michelangelo – intersects perpendicularly with the Strada Felice . The construction of the four fountains (see photo 6) at this location would provide a structural and visual anchor midway between Santa Mari a Maggiore and the San Trinita dei Monti for future development along both streets (see photos 4and 5). Pope Sixtus V placed the four fountains here to recognize the significance of the cross axial connection to Porta Pia . Along the Strada Pia between the Four Fountains and the Porta Pia Pope Sixtus V also created a structure to commemorate the renovation of the aquaducts and the return of water to Rome, known as theAcqua Felice and also served as an organizational element between the two landmarks as well as the square immediately surrounding it (see photo 7).


Bacon, Edmund N. 1967. Design of Cities. Penguin Books.

Newton , Norman T. 1971. Design on the Land: The Development of Landscape Architecture. Harvard University Press.

Rogers, Elizabeth B. 2001. Landscape Design: A Cultural and Architectural History.New York : Harry N. Abrams.