In the seventeenth century, Baroque architecture and urbanism turned Rome into a theater with Catholicism in the starring role. Previously, Rome was the center of the Italian Renaissance, having adopted the role from Florence. In the movement’s wake, which had diminished the Catholic Church’s reputation, Pope Sixtus V led a Counter Reformation effort in the Eternal City to restore the Church to the high alter of Rome.
The city’s ancient monuments, fountains and basilicas were envisioned as stars, sideris, from which processional avenues would radiate. These rays of starlight were carved through the winding paths upon which Rome’s urbanism had developed, connecting the various symbols of Catholicism to one another both visually and physically.
In Baroque Rome, artists attempted to draw viewers into their work, while architecture made use of theatrics to interact with passersby, and urbanism heightened the experience further by linking these moments along a discernible path, thus restoring the Catholic Church’s place on the center stage of the city.
A century after Sixtus V embarked on his project in Rome, Pierre L’Enfant borrowed the Baroque pattern of urban order to create a plan for the capital city of a newly formed nation. Washington, D.C. was laid out as a grid bisected by diagonal streets terminating at important national landmarks. Another century later, Haussmann again revived Baroque city planning principles to rebuild Paris. Rather then organizing vistas around Catholic monuments, however, the Baron oriented his boulevards towards symbols of civic life as L’Enfant had done in D.C.