by Roderick Conway Morris

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Private collection
The Carnival on the Corso by Ippolito CaffÌ, 1852

Fountains and Festivities on the Corso, a Street 2,000 Years Long

By Roderick Conway Morris
ROME 30 July 1999


No street in the world concentrates as much ancient history and present-day activity along a continuous strip as Rome's Via del Corso, familiarly known simply as il Corso.

On this nearly mile-long, straight road itself, or within a few paces to its left or right, are the first Roman emperor's mausoleum; Italy's parliament building; the prime minister's official residence; Rome's first department store; the Plaza, one of its oldest and best preserved grand hotels; several of its finest and most beloved fountains; its most notable private art gallery; a host of churches, palaces and other monuments, including Marcus Aurelius's Column; and dozens of shops, restaurants and cafés.

Now, in Palazzo Cipolla at number 320, the Corso has acquired its own museum, the Museo del Corso. Its inaugural exhibition, 'A Street 2,000 Years Long,' highlights some key elements in the thoroughfare's story, featuring paintings, sculpture, prints, coins, medals, photographs and, in its small theater, an interactive computerized reconstruction of the Corso at the time of Augustus. The show runs until Sept. 30.

A trip to the museum is certainly likely to make those already acquainted with the Corso look at its historic role with renewed curiosity, and encourage visitors to Rome to investigate this highway and its byways for themselves.

The best place to begin a stroll along the Corso is at the circular Piazza del Popolo. This was the first view of Rome of countless travelers and pilgrims as they arrived after long and arduous journeys from the north. One of the most famous was Queen Christina of Sweden, who reached here in 1655 having renounced her protestant religion and crown to spend the rest of her days in the city.

In Christina's honor Pope Alexander VII had Bernini restore and elaborate the Porta del Popolo, the gateway at the top of the square. The splendid 24-meter (79-foot) obelisk in the middle of the Piazza - the first ever to be transported from Egypt to Rome - was erected there by Sixtus V in 1589. Surprisingly, the four crouching lions at its base, from whose mouths ice-cold water leaps like tongues of glass, were added as late as the early 19th century, but the whole wonderful ensemble would be unimaginable without them.

Mercifully, this majestic piazza has recently, at last, been closed to the cars that used to whirl round it and park in its center, restoring the dignity of its vistas and proportions.

The first section of the Corso, originally called Via Flaminia, was the initial part of the Roman road that ran on through the Porta del Popolo for more than 320 kilometers (200 miles), all the way to Rimini on the Adriatic coast. The lower part, ending at the foot of the Capitoline Hill, was known as Via Lata. But from 1466 at carnival time the street became the scene of festive races, starting at Piazza del Popolo and finishing at Piazza Venezia. Among the categories were races for donkeys, naked children and prostitutes, but the most popular event was a breakneck dash between small, fast, riderless horses. And ever since those times the street has been known as the 'Corso.'

The pace nowadays has become less hectic, even if the speeding drivers on the lower section of the road seem often to be trying to keep up old traditions. The stretch of street from Piazza del Popolo as far as Via dei Pontefici, which is permanently closed to traffic, is a favorite place for the evening passeggiata or promenade. Goethe, who recorded that 'everyone flocks here either to see or be seen,' stayed in the late 1780s at number 18. The poet's former lodgings are now a museum devoted to his life and works, where special shows and concerts are also regularly held.

The Corso is, in theory, shut to traffic on Sundays and public holidays, but the unwary should keep an eye out for rogue motorists and motorcyclists bowling along it, sometimes under the impassive gaze of the forces of law and order.

Via dei Pontefici leads to Augustus's massive mausoleum. It is sunk in a deep depression that gives a good idea of the ground level in Roman times. Behind the tomb is the Ara Pacis, the monument built by Augustus to celebrate his bringing of peace to the empire. It is housed in a rather gray, box-like modern edifice, but well worth a visit, not least to see the frieze of the imperial family in procession, which vividly brings the period to life.

The Ara Pacis was originally sited under what is now Palazzo Fiano further down the Corso. This densely built-up area was once the vast open space of the Campus Martius. At its center was a tall obelisk, now in front of the parliament building to the south. The piazza was laid out as a giant sundial, and the Ara Pacis was placed so that the obelisk's shadow fell on its altar every Sept. 23, Augustus's birthday.

Just before Palazzo Fiano, on the left, is Via Condotti, at the end of which the Piazza di Spagna and the Spanish Steps can be seen. The name, which means Conduits Street, recalls a turning point in the Corso's history.

In the Roman era this area was provided with water by the Aqua Virgo, a mostly subterranean aqueduct leading from springs about 14 kilometers east of Rome. After the collapse of the empire it fell into disrepair, and the Corso and surrounding district for many centuries languished in decay, as Rome's hugely diminished population moved toward the Tiber, the only remaining water source.

The restoration in 1570 of what was now called the Acqua Vergine heralded a new dawn for this quarter of the city. In 1572 a fountain in Piazza del Popolo was opened, the first new public fountain since the ancient times. In due course, water was available along the full length of the Corso, feeding numerous outlets - including the city's most humorous fountain, the Barcaccia, or Old Boat, that leaking marble hulk in Piazza di Spagna out of which, rather than into which, water constantly pours, and its most fantastical and breathtaking, the Trevi Fountain.

The gleaming white extravaganza of the Trevi, a few yards off the Corso along Via delle Muratte, is a difficult act to follow, and from this point - the Museo del Corso is a little farther down on the right - the thoroughfare becomes more closed in, noisy and unappealing. There are, nevertheless, still some treasures to be found here, among them the fine facade of Pietro da Cortona's Santa Maria in Via Lata, and the Palazzo Doria, with its recently refurbished Old Masters art gallery.

From the sublime to the ridiculous, said Napoleon, is but one step. In the case of the Corso, which starts with the elegant spaciousness of Piazza del Popolo and ends at Piazza Venezia, over which looms the gigantic and preposterous monument to unified Italy's first king, Victor Emmanuel, this takes rather longer - about 3,500 paces, according to Goethe - but by then we will have seen many charming, diverting and beautiful things along the way.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024