he Quirinal Hill owes its name to the temple dedicated to Quirinus, which stood on it summit, or perhaps to the town of Curi, from where the Sabines of Tatius came to settle on this hill. The imposing complex of the Baths of Constantine once stood on the area now occupied by the Pallavicini-Rospigliosi palace.
|Map of the Baths of Costantine
The institution of the baths is certainly one of Rome's most original contributions to the history of architecture and life style. The history of the baths is a short history of the city itself.
The history of the baths is also the history of the city
In the time of Scipio the African the baths were nothing but a pond in a sheltered place where the farmers of the Republic went to wash after working in the fields. But as early as the 2nd century B.C. the habit of going to the baths had become widespread and in the 1st century A.D. the baths took on a definite layout: a vast enclosed area, capable of containing a large number of people, with monumental halls, hot, cold and lukewarm baths, massage rooms, gyms and libraries.
Thus what had started out as a necessity became a ceremony, often to fill the emptiness of an idle day. "The care of the body was, for the Romans, the nearest thing to a religious sentiment and the baths were its temple", states Lewis Mumford, author of "The city in history".
In any case, the ritual of baths also had a practical aspect: the habit of personal cleanliness kept down the problems due to a rather precarious hygiene-health situation. Mumford goes on to make a careful analysis regarding the baths: "By developing the dome and the vault, imported from Syria and Egypt, the Romans attained the highest level of architecture. The sky was not so much a limit for them as a model. In times when they were used by particularly large crowds they were able to give the baths or the basilicas an appearance that made the presence of so many bodies inoffensive: in fact, the space left above compensated for the pressure of the masses from below and people who raised their eyes towards the ceiling could breathe and see freely ".
The dimensions of the buildings played a key role for the Baths of Constantine also. Fascinating pictures of the ruins have come down to us through the engravings of artists like Du Perac and Giovannoli.
Michelangelo Buonarroti probably used to wander among those ruins: he often went along the road of the Baths to get to the Church of S. Silvestro al Quirinale to talk about art and faith with Vittoria Colonna. It is quite possible that the dramatic and disturbing grandeur of those ruins aroused secret resonances in the soul of Michelangelo and that there may be an echo of that experience in his work.
Michelangelo Buonarroti probably used to wander among those ruins
The Baths of Constantine contained a series of big marble sculptures. In particular, the two colossal groups of the Dioscuri, horsemen of the heavens and bringers of light, present for thousands of years, seem to be the holders of the secret of the place, the witnesses to a single story, composed of thousands of fragments of different lives.
Other marble groups in the Constantine complex were drastically moved: the two colossal Fluvial Deities and the statues of Constantine II and Constans were moved to the square of the Campidoglio, the statue of Constantine to the atrium of the Basilica of St. John Lateran.
Thus at the end of the 16th century the magnificent ruins were deprived of those thousands of years old presences, which had made them so famous and strange to the eyes of the mediaeval pilgrims. The great statues, removed from their history and placed elsewhere by the architects of the papal court, had become destined to increase the splendour of papal Rome.
In 1574, right in front of the ruins, at the top of the Quirinal Hill, Gregory XIII started building a palace that was intended to be a summer residence. The choice of the site was due to its particular salubriousness, already known in ancient times, and to the airy position of the hill, which made the summer temperature pleasant. But in 1592, with Clement VIII. the palace had already become the seat of the papal court and remained so until 1870, when it became the palace of the sovereigns of Italy.
Since 1947 it has been the official residence of the italian President of the Republic.
Finally, the Baths were almost completely razed to the ground by order of Cardinal Scipio Borghese Caffarelli, nephew of Pope Paolo V; at the beginning of the 17th century he decided to build a new building on the same area to allow him to live close to the Papal Palace and he had no hesitation in destroying the ancient monument, of which a few pieces were left and incorporated into the new building. It is quite possible that the enormous quantity of material, accumulated with the demolition was used to build the embankment on which the garden of the "Aurora" was to built or that it was even what gave the idea for it, considering how difficult it would have been to get rid of the debris.