Perched on the Quirinal, the highest of Rome’s seven mighty hills, looms the Palazzo Quirinale, or Quirinal Palace. Like many of the city’s grandest ruins and monuments, the Quirinal is imbued with a powerful and impressive history, undergoing several transformations since its conception.
One of the largest palaces in the world, the site’s origins can be traced back to ancient times: scholars maintain that the Romans constructed a temple to the deity Quirinus on the ground where the modern day palace’s foundation stands. Later, the Baths of Constantine and the Temple of the Sun were built here.
The palace’s first stone was laid in 1570 under the orders of Pope Gregory XII, who yearned for an escape far from the humidity of the Tiber River, and was finally inhabited in 1582. Sixtus V, the next pope in line, decided to adapt the palace to his taste, and hired architect Domenico Fontana to build an addition which overlooked the surrounding piazza.
Thus began a trend – all of the subsequent popes left their mark on the Quirinal, embellishing and enriching the marvels of the palace and its garden to suit their own whims: the “Nicchione,” or the magnificent water organ that hummed the notes of Nabucco; the splendid rooms by the architect Maderno; the angels that support the coat of arms on the loggia by Bernini; the stalls of the Dataria; the row of windows that faces Via XX Settembre; the frescoes by Pietro di Cortona; the coffee house commissioned by Benedetto XIV; and a spectacular pavilion frescoed by Pannini, Baldoni, and Van Blumen, are just some of the artistic masterpieces left in their wake. The Quirinal continued as the official papal home until the kings of Italy took it over in 1870, converting it into the official residence of the Italian Republic.
By 1946, the abolition of the monarchy expelled King Umberto II from the palace, where it languished for two long years before Luigi Einaudi, the second president of the Italian Republic, moved in.
Nowadays, the palace is composed of a main building built around a regal courtyard, the most intricate halls housing the representative offices and rooms of the Presidency of the Republic. The quarters of the head of state are found at the end of the manica lunga (literally, “long sleeve”), the 360-meter-long southern side of the building. On the very top reside the majestic imperial apartments.
The Quirinal Gardens, cultivated in the 1600s and until recently opened to the public only one day a year, stretch over four hectares and are meticulously tended to (fun fact: archaeologists reach their excavations through a trap door under the gardens, where they have unearthed the remains of the original temple to the god Quirinus and some insulae of the imperial age). The Quirinal has also evolved into a significant cultural space, housing countless works of art, furniture, tapestries, and architectures that span the Renaissance to the 20th century, all of which are of immense artistic value.
Up until recently, the Quirinal Palace has had a sort of detached and austere presence in Rome’s rich cultural patrimony—entrance to the building was temporarily granted in the '80s by President Sandro Pertini to display the newly restored Bronzes of Riace, and a decade ago again, in the exceptional event of the exhibition of Leonardo da Vinci’s Lady with the Ermine.
Eventually, accessibility to the public was expanded to every Sunday. As of June 2015, however, you no longer have to be a politician or royal to get in: the palace is now open to mere mortals every day of the week except Mondays and Thursdays.
Visitors can choose between two tours. For a brief overview of the palace and its history is an itinerary of an hour-and-a-half, and includes a walks of the Piano Nobile and the Ground Floor, which houses a detailed exhibition on the history of the palace, the Italian constitution, and “globe room,” which features a plethora of historical photographs and documents. For true history and art aficionados, there’s a longer tour of 2 and a half hours that encompasses the above-mentioned itinerary as well as a tour of the Vasella room, the Gardens, and the collection of carriages and harnesses.
What to expect? Breathtaking frescoes, period clocks, tapestries, and glittering chandeliers of Murano glass; the Sala di Druso, initially a papal audience room, and then the bedroom of King Umberto the I; the Paolina Chapel, where chamber music concerts are held; the president’s study (international heads of state are received here); Napoleon’s personal toilette, called the Salottino Napoleonico; the Biblioteca del Pifetti, an 18th century library; the Passaggetto di Urbano VII, a corridor adorned with frescoes from the 1700s that connect the summer apartment of the Pope with his winter quarters; and Mascherino’s winding 16th-century staircase.
And that’s not all! An enormous collection of historical pieces are also on display, including luxurious baby prams and carriages for the littlest aristocrats; invaluable 19th-century ceramics; Queen Margherita’s silk silver and crystal embroidered 19th century ball gown; and a dessert set believed to have belonged to her husband King Umberto I. The visit concludes with a glimpse at the papal stables, where over a 100 carriages are exhibited.
But why are the Quirinal Palace’s doors suddenly swung wide open to outsiders, after so many centuries of guarded privacy? “The Quirinal is a live, vital, palace for our democracy, a protagonist today like it was yesterday of the country's history, and as such fully deserves the name of the home of Italians," explained President Sergio Mattarella. We couldn’t agree more.
>>Advance reservations are mandatory and can be made online. The shorter itinerary is free, except for the reservation fee (€1.50). The longer tour costs €10. Too late to make a reservation? No problem. Virtual tours of the Quirinal Palace are avaliable.