For centuries, piazza del Popolo was the first glimpse most travellers got of Rome, for it lies at the end of the ancient via Flaminia and directly inside the city's northern gate, the Porta del Popolo. If Grand Tourists arrived during carnevale time, they were likely to witness condemned criminals being tortured here for the edification and/or entertainment of the populace. The piazza was given its present oval form by Rome's leading neo-classical architect, Giuseppe Valadier, in the early 19th century; the obelisk in the centre was brought from Egypt by Augustus and stood in the Circo Massimo until 1589, when it was moved to its present site by Pope Sixtus V. It appears to stand at the apex of a perfect triangle formed by via Ripetta, via del Corso and via del Babuino, although this is an illusion.
The churches on either side of via del Corso - Santa Maria dei Miracoli and Santa Maria di Monte Santo - look like twins, but are actually different sizes. Carlo Rainaldi, who designed them in the 1660s, made them and the angles of the adjacent streets appear symmetrical by giving one an oval dome and the other a round one. The immense Porta del Popolo gate was given a facelift by Bernini in 1655 to welcome Sweden's Queen Christina, who had shocked her subjects by abdicating her throne to convert to Catholicism. The plaque wishing felice fausto ingressui ('a happy and blessed arrival') was addressed to the Church's illustrious new signing. The piazza's greatest monument is the church of Santa Maria del Popolo, and the piazza contains those eternally fashionable meeting points: cafés Rosati and Canova.