Capitol(ine) Hill

What better way to start the comparisons between Rome and Washington, D.C. than at the center of it all – Capitol Hill.

In Rome, it’s called the Capitoline Hill – or Capitolium in the original Latin, and Campidoglio in the modern Italian.

Ancient Rome was famously settled around seven hills. Although the Capitoline was the smallest, it was the symbolic center of the ancient city, both spiritually and politically.

On its peak was the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus, dedicated to the king of the gods. And just behind it was the Forum, where all official political business took place.

A 19th Century drawing depicting the Temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline Hill during the Roman Republic.

During the peak of the Roman empire, this small hill was literally the power center of the world.

So how did Washington end up with it’s very own Capitol Hill?

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From Rome with Love

So last year around this time, I was in Rome for a conference involving my day job.

The Capitoline Venus had just come to the National Gallery of Art in Washington in honor of our newly minted sister city agreement with Rome, and I was at the Capitoline Museum looking at her empty pedestal.

It seemed like the perfect opportunity to blog about the similarities between our two capitals – and it would be Historic District’s first official field trip.

Unfortunately, the day job took over, and I never got around to blogging.

Well, tempus fugit, and this month I find myself back in the Eternal City.

The difference this time is that I’m purely on vacation, and I’ve made my offering to the blog gods to keep me writing as long as I’m here.

My offering to the blog gods – do try this at home.

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The Capitoline Venus in the Nation’s Capital

My European visitors are usually a little bit surprised when we tour downtown Washington and they get a first glimpse of our federal office buildings.“All of your architecture, it looks like Rome,” one of them told me, more than a little amused.

I think they’re expecting to see something a little more “American.”

But in the early days of the republic, both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson helped set the tradition of looking back to antiquity for civic symbolism.

As president, Washington was responsible for planning the new federal capital along with his Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson. They encouraged the use of Roman architecture for all of our new buildings – including the White House and the Capitol – to link the new American republic with the ancient Roman one.

Even today, visitors can find traces of Rome throughout Washington, D.C. That symbolic link was made more official last month as the District signed a sister-city relationship with the Eternal City.

As one of the first cultural exchanges in the relationship, Rome lent Washington one of its treasures: the Capitoline Venus.

Capitoline Venus - NGA
The Capitoline Venus will be at the National Gallery of Art through September. (Photo: Robert Yule)

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