It is the very centre of Rome, il Campidoglio, Michelangelo’s trapezoid shaped piazza. It was the centre of ancient Rome, too, but now the piazza turns us towards the renaissance city and San Pietro, away from the ruins of the Forum and the Palatino.
On his first visit there, at dusk, Robert Hughes was overwhelmed by the huge bronze horseman Marcus Aurelius, ‘…dark against the looming golden background of the Palazzo del Senatore, with the bats beginning to flit around’ (Rome, Vintage, New York, 2011). It’s a copy now, although still mightily impressive, and the horseman that so overwhelmed Hughes is inside the museum.
But this is about steps. There are steps everywhere in il Campidoglio. There’s the cordonata that leads you up to the piazza, long gentle sloping steps that enable the piazza to reveal itself slowly as you climb. They were designed so one could ascend on horseback. There are no horses now, though. Then there are the steps to the left of the cordonata, the daunting steps that take you to the entrance of Santa Maria in Aracoeli. A suggestion of penitence about these ones.
In the piazza itself there is the double staircase that Michelangelo designed for the front of the Palazzo del Senatore, and on the left a delightful set of steps that take you to the back of Santa Maria in Aracoeli and to a terrace and restaurant that looks out over the Forum. But the perfect steps are not any of these.
In my architecture days, I came across a commentary on il Campidoglio in which the writer described the extraordinary bodily sensation of walking up steps that were in a perfectly proportioned space. I don’t remember where I read this. I’m sure it wasn’t in Nikolaus Pevsner’s Outline of European Architecture. He had too many centuries to cover for that sort of detail.
Later, when I made it to Rome as a backpacker, it was to those steps that I went first. It was a pilgrimage, and I walked up them very, very slowly, almost ceremoniously. I still remember feeling that bodily sensation that the writer had so passionately described. It was true, they were perfect. These were the perfect steps.
The perfect steps are at the side of the Palazzo dei Conservatori, to the right of the Senatore. They don’t lead anywhere important, (today, law offices and a carpark), so that tourists, who might fill the piazza on a good day (or bad) will sit sometimes on the bottom steps to take a break from the Roman sun, but are not inclined to walk up them. Nothing to see up there. Sometimes wedding parties, fresh from the registry office in the Palazzo dei Conservatori, might be arranged across the lowest flight for photographs, but they don’t go up, either. It’s possible to have the perfect steps almost all to oneself.
The perfect steps are arranged in four flights. There are sixteen steps in the first flight, and fourteen each in the other three. Landings two metres wide separate the flights of steps, but when you stand at the bottom and look up, you can only see the steps…
…while when you stand at the top and look down, you only see the landings. (This doesn’t seem to be true of other flights of steps. There always seems some ‘leakage’ between the landings and the steps.)
On a visit to Rome in 2014, (the first for twenty years), I went to Michelangelo’s perfect steps six or seven times. Once in the early morning, occasionally during the day, a number of times at dusk. I walked up the steps each time and sat on the top step in the corner, just to be there in that perfect space. And each time I told myself, these are the perfect steps.
Almost all of the people who use the steps work in the offices at the top. I watch them as they climb and descend. They often combine their bodily sensation with conversations on their mobile phones. Is there anything I can make of that? Perhaps they are sharing the experience of this perfectly proportioned space with someone close? Probably not. Probably, they experience the steps purely as a bodily sensation, the sensation that comes when the body belongs perfectly in a space.