The fifteenth century saw the return of the popes to Rome and also the dawn of the Renaissance with its humanistic revival of interest in antiquity. This revival brought new laments for Rome's vanished glory, although the renaissance city, whose popes drew to her the ranking artists of the time, was now no unfit successor to the imperial state. Rome had not yet seen the full flowering of the Renaissance when, some time before 1431, Poggio Bracciolini, humanist of Florence, recorded what he could see of Rome's ancient monuments from the Capitol. Sitting somewhere on the hill, looking across the Forum and the city's ruins, he meditated on the contrast of past and present:
'How greatly does this Capitol differ from that which Vergil describes as "Now golden, where once throve the tangled wood". This line is reversed to "Once golden, now with thorns and brambles spread! . . ."
'This Capitol hill, once the head of the Roman Empire, the citadel of the earth, which so many kings have feared, so many emperors ascended in triumph, which has been enriched by the spoils of so many nations-this spectacle of the world, how is it fallen, how changed from its former state. Vines cover now the benches of the senators, which have become a waste heap and a dunghill. . . . The public and private buildings, founded for eternity, lie prostrate now, nude and broken like the limbs of a gigantic decaying corpse.'
More had fallen or had been destroyed before Marten van Heemskerck made his drawing a century later, but in essentials the artist saw the Capitol much as Poggio had described it.
The Middle Ages had revived the Senate and created the Senator's Palace, the hidden nucleus of the building which stands today. It remained for Michelangelo and those who carried out his plans to give the building its present form. The great square where markets had been held in the Middle Ages was levelled off and a road built up to it from the western side, finally completing the change of approach from ancient days.
Under the popes, affairs of importance to the papal state--and therefore all affairs of an international nature--were conducted from the papal offices. But many civic matters were left, as they are today, for action on the Capitol. Plays were presented there on festival days, such as the celebration of the traditional birthday of Rome on April 21st or the reception of distinguished visitors. The various academies of art and literature which sprang up toward the end of the Renaissance held special fêtes and meetings there. The custom of crowning poets on the Capitol had been kept up at intervals since Petrarch's day. The year 1776 saw the crowning of a poetess--Corilla, famous in her day for improvised poetry, though now remembered chiefly as the original of Madame de Stäel's popular heroine, Corinne.
Before the middle of the eighteenth century, when the French painter Hubert Robert sketched it, the Capitol piazza had taken on the form it has today. The glory of Renaissance and baroque had waned, but papal Rome, in the last full century of its unique existence, was still the goal of artists, the centre of learned academies, a city which retained to the last the elegance and long perspective of the eighteenth century.
Gibbon, when he conceived the idea of his immortal History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, saw the Capitol as Robert drew it. 'It was at Rome, on the 15th of October, 1764,' he wrote, 'as I sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the bare-footed fryars were singing Vespers in the temple of Jupiter, that the idea of writing the decline and fall of the City first started to my mind.' In another, Journal he tells the story somewhat differently, narrowing the setting to 'the Church of the Zoccalanti or Franciscan fryars . . . on the ruins of the Capitol' ( Santa Maria in Aracoeli). It matters little that the historian, as we now know, mused above the ruins of Juno's rather than of Jupiter's temple. Had he known this he might have been even more deeply stirred by the continuity of history through which one queen of heaven succeeded another and Mary's hymns were sung where Juno had so long been worshipped.
But beneath the surface elegance and reason, change fermented. The Revolution which began in France with a wave of popular republicanism swept southward into Italy where it united with a native longing for national unity and independence. This was a revolution doomed from its beginning. French forces were occupying Rome when, in 1798, the Roman Republic was proclaimed and a Tree of Liberty planted in the Capitol square in the presence of four hundred French dragoons. Napoleon's empire soon overwhelmed the republic, but the idea of freedom did not die.
Again, in 1848, revolution began in France and swept through Europe, and again it led to a short-lived republic in Rome. On February 5th, 1849, a Roman Assembly gathered once more on the Capitol to go in solemn procession to its meeting place in the Chancery Palace. Here, at one in the morning on February 9th it voted to establish a Roman Republic. The next step was to proclaim it from the Capitol. Margaret Fuller, friend of Emerson, crusader for liberty, and one of the group of Americans who remained in Rome throughout this stormy period, wrote her impressions of that day: 'At last the procession mounts the Campidoglio. It is all dressed with banners. The tricolor surmounts the palace of the senator; the senator himself has fled. The deputies mount the steps, and one of them reads in a clear, friendly voice . . . The Fundamental Decrees of the Constitutional Assembly of Rome.' These deprived the Church of temporal power and declared that 'the form of government of the Roman State shall be a pure democracy, and will take the glorious name of Roman Republic.' In the pauses between the articles 'the great bell of the Capitol gave forth its solemn melodies; the cannon answered; while the crowd shouted: Viva la Republica! Viva Italia!' At night the buildings of the Campidoglio were lit in celebration of the new government.
But the time was not yet ripe for Italian independence. The rest of Europe, as usual, would not let Italy alone; France and Austria combined to overthrow the republic in the summer of 1849 despite Garibaldi's heroic defence of Rome. Yet the wave of national feeling, though halted, could not be turned back. The principle of republic versus monarchy was of less importance at the time than that of national unity and freedom. As a result the kingdom of Sardinia, the only state in Italy to keep its constitution of 1848, became the champion of a united Italy. In 1861 the Italian territories, with the exception of Rome which remained under papal rule, united under Victor Emmanuel II of Piedmont and Sardinia; in 1870, his shrewd statesman, Count Cavour, seized the opportunity provided by the fall of the French Empire of Napoleon III to move upon the Eternal City. The papal troops made only a token resistance and on October 2, by popular vote, Rome was united with the rest of Italy and became once more its capital. The result of this plebiscite was announced from the Capitol. But when the next year the government officially moved from Florence to Rome, the national seat was established in the papal palace on the Quirinal, leaving the Capitol hill the seat of Roman city government.