The Porta Pia, a gate in the ancient Aurelian Walls, was designed by Michelangelo (1475-1564) for Pope Pius IV (r. 1559-65). It was the master's last architectural work and he died shortly before it was completed. The final stage of the project was carried out by Giacomo del Duca (c. 1520-1604).
Hailing from Milan, Pope Pius IV was born Giovanni Angelo Medici, a distant relation of the famous Florentine clan.
According to legend, the curious decorative device above the coat of arms of Pius IV depicts a towel draped over a bowl, and a bar of soap, a sign that the pope was the descendant of a family of Milanese barbers. The bowl and towel (minus the soap) are twice repeated at a lower level.
An outer gate was added to the Porta Pia in 1869, the work of the Roman architect Virginio Vespignani (1808-82). It was commissioned by Pope Pius IX (r. 1846-78) as a memorial to his escape following the collapse of the audience chamber at the convent of Sant' Agnese (which lies on Via Nomentana, the road beyond the gate), which took place during the pope's visit on April 12th, 1855. An inscription above the arch records the escape. The two saints are Agnes and Alexander.
On September 20th, 1870, the Porta Pia entered the annals of modern Italian history when troops of the Kingdom of Italy broke through the walls, a few metres west of the gate, and entered Rome. This brought to an end papal rule of the Eternal City, leading one wag to comment: 'Porta Pia, ieri tua, oggi mia' ('Porta Pia, yesterday yours, today mine').
My name is David Lown and I am an art historian from Cambridge, England. Since 2001 I have lived in Italy, where I run private walking tours of Rome.
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