Santa Maria del Popolo is a a minor basilica, a 15th century parish, titular and convent church on the north side of the Piazza del Popolo (at number 12) in the rione Campo Marzio. It is located right next to the Porta del Popolo. Pictures of the church on Wikimedia Commons are here. There is an English Wikipedia page here.
A chapel dedicated to Our Lady was built here, on the site of the Roman tomb -the Domizi Enobarbi Mausoleum- of the gens Domitia, by Pope Paschal II in 1099. Tradition claims that the emperor Nero was buried here on the slope of the Pincian hill, since by birth he belonged to the family of Ahenobarbus which was part of this gens. In 1099, people living nearby were disturbed by a horrible nocturnal noise (an eagle owl?) coming from a walnut tree, which they thought was the ghost of the emperor. As a result Pope Paschal II had his ashes taken out of their porphyry urn and thrown into the Tiber, and the tree cut down. The chapel was built were the alleged grave had been. Alternative twists to the story is that the pope thought that a flock of rooks living in the tree were demons waiting for the re-incarnation of Nero as the Antichrist, or that he wanted to suppress veneration of the dead emperor on the part of locals leaving flowers in his tomb.
It has now been demonstrated from documentary evidence that the chapel was financed by the municipal authorities, so we can translate its appellation popolo as "people" (an alternative interpretation used to be that a poplar tree gave the name). It was enlarged, and consecrated as a church in 1235 by Pope Gregory IX (1227-1241), who gave it an icon of Our Lady previously at the Lateran. This is the famous and venerated image over the high altar, which by tradition was painted by St Luke.
The church was initially run by Franciscans, but they were not there long. In 1250 it was given to the Augustinian friars (Eremiti di San Agostino) of the Tuscan congregation, and they founded a monastery adjacent to it.
The church and monastery were rebuilt between 1472 and 1478 on the orders of Pope Sixtus IV, making this one of the first Renaissance churches in Rome. Baccio Pontelli is often described as the architect, but modern scholars dispute this.
The complex was simultaneously donated to the Augustinian friars of the Lombard congregation. It was in this monastery that Martin Luther stayed during his visit to Rome in 1511, since he was one of the friars at the time. It was pillaged and ruined during the Sack of Rome in 1527, and subsequently renovated. In the early part of this century Bramante restored the choir, and more famously Raphael decorated the new Chigi Chapel.
Baroque and modernEdit
The present monumental layout of the Piazza del Popolo is a modern invention. Before the 19th century, the piazza was a small trapezoidal open space but the restoration by Giuseppe Valadier completed in 1822 created the spectacular layout now to be enjoyed. One casualty of the work was the monastery, which was demolished and rebuilt as a much smaller edifice (although in the same Renaissance style) in order to obtain a vista of the Pincian.
The Augustinian friars are still in charge of the church and parish, but have changed their name to the Order of St Augustine or Agostininiani. They are not the same thing as the Canons Regular of St Augustine, and are friars not monks. Hence, people who describe Luther as a former monk are mistaken.
This is one of the most interesting, prestigious and popular (in the modern sense) churches in Rome, both for natives and tourists. It can get overwhelmed in the tourist season, and may also be found inaccessible at times over the weekend because it is part of the Centro Storico marriage circuit. It is best to visit early in the morning, or in winter.
The title was established in 1587.
Layout and fabricEdit
The church has a basilical plan, with a nave and aisles. There are four external chapels on each side off the aisles, and a transept with a central dome. The ends of the transept have apse chapels. Beyond is a long thin presbyterium with an apse, and a pair of chapels on each side of this leading off the transept.
The roofs are pitched and tiled, and have little dormer windows inserted. The central dome is on an octagonal drum with an arched window in each face, and is hemispherical with eight pitches in lead. There is no lantern, but a spike finial with a ball.
The smple and dignified early Renaissance façade is accessed by a flight of stairs from the level of the piazza, and is of two storeys in white travertine limestone. It is tentatively attributed to Andrea Bregno (1418-1506), although documentary evidence is lacking. For the first storey, four thin pilasters in shallow relief and with high plinths support an entablature, and have non-Classical capitals which are rather eroded. They feature pairs of roses. There are three entrances, the main one being much larger than the outer two.
The marble doorcase of the main entrance has egg-and-dart and barleysugar molding, and a raised triangular pediment over a lintel decorated with foliage and little putti. The lintel of the doorcase displays the coat-of-arms of Pope Sixtus IV. The pediment contains a relief of the Madonna and Child within a stylized rainbow. The aisle entrances also have triangular pediments, and short dedicatory inscriptions on their lintels. A pair of large round-headed windows are above these entrances.
The second storey has a pair of derivative Composite pilasters supporting a large triangular pediment. In the centre of this storey is a round window with a sunburst fenestration, and on the apex of the pediment is a set of stylized mountains surmounted by a star from the arms of the Chigi family. The outer angles of the pediment have a pair of stone torch finials looking rather like candlesticks. The outer corners of this storey have the two halves of a broken and separated segmental pediment, and the sweeping curves that connect these to the nave frontage are decorated with caterpillar-shaped garlands.
Two of the external nave chapels have their own domes, and architecturally amount to little churches in their own right. The southern dome belongs to the Cybo Chapel. It is a prominent landmark on the Piazza, and is similar in style to the main dome except that the drum is very low and that there is a lantern with columns and a tiny cupola. The chapel itself only occupies the central portion of the subsidiary block facing the piazza, which is rendered in orange with the corners taken up by rusticated masonry in grey. There is a prominent commemorative tablet for Pope Pius VII, who oversaw the re-ordering of the piazza, and four relief tablets of varying sizes and showing a medley of ecclesiastical symbols are placed below the flat roofline.
To the right of the church façade, in this block, is a subsidiary entrance with a raised triangular pediment, and this leads firstly into an antechamber and then into the Chapel of the Nativity or Delle Rovere Chapel. Around the corner, beyond the protruding Cybo Chapel, is the main entrance to the convent.
The other dome is on the north side belongs to the Chigi Chapel, and is not easily seen except from the Viale Giorgio Washington (through the city gate and turn right). It has a shallow tiled saucer dome on a tall circular drum with eight large rectangular windows.
The church's campanile is attached to part of the convent to the right of the main dome. It is a plain square tower in yellow limestone, with an arched soundhole on each side. Very unusually for Rome, it also has a stone spire with a ball on top and four cylindrical pinnacles with conical caps.
Next to the church on the right hand side is the convent. As mentioned, this was rebuilt when the Viale Gabriele d'Annunzio (as it is now called) was laid out, and used to be much bigger. The present main block is squeezed tightly against the church, but runs behind its apse in the form of an L. The main entrance is not in the vaguely Renaissance 19th century main block out of which the campanile and its steeple rises, but next to the Cybo Chapel to the left. It has a tall marble doorcase with rolled lintel and triangular pediment.
In between the church and the city gate is a small gallery run by the Augustinians. They usually have exhibitions of the works of young Italian artists.
The nave and aisles have four bays, and the same number of external chapels on each side. The transept has an apsidal chapel at each end, and a dome over its crossing. The pair of chapels either side of the presbyterium, leading off the transept, brings the total number of chapels in the church to fourteen. There is some confusion in the sources over the dedications of these chapels; the list given by Mariano Armellini is used here. The names used in the headings are mostly of the noble families which used them as mortuary chapels.
The main floor of the church contains many interesting slab tombs, as the temptation to re-lay the floor afresh has always been resisted (unlike in most other Roman churches). Other tombs worth looking at can be seen in the aisles, where they are on the arcade pillars and on the walls in between the chapels. These will be mentioned in the tour of the chapels.
The descriptions below start with the nave, then work around the church anti-clockwise starting with the near corner of the right hand aisle.
The arcades are 15th century, and look it. There are four piers on each side, and each one has four semi-columns made out of blocks of travertine. Three of these support the arches and the aisle vaulting, while the fourth tall one supports the nave vault. These semi-columns have derivative and rather poorly designed capitals in what could be called the Composite style.
The 15th century cross-vaults in the nave and aisles have also been preserved, but Bernini had them decorated with saints and angels in white stucco. They sit on the cornices of the arcades, and also over the triumphal arch into the transept. The coat-of-arms on the latter is of Pope Alexander VII, executed with the angels holding it by Antonio Raggi. You can see this heraldic emblem of six mountains and a star everywhere in Rome, including over the city gate outside.
Bernini designed and supervised the stucco figures, but did not execute them himself. The artists of the nave figures are as follows: On the right, the first pair is by Giovanni Francesco de Rossi ; of the second pair, the first figure is by Lazzaro Morelli and the second by Paolo Naldini; the third pair is by Giovanni Antonio Mari and Rossi again did the fourth pair. On the left, the first pair is by Ercole Ferrata, the second by Raggi again, the third by Perone and the fourth by Raggi. If you look over the entrance door, you will see another pair of angels by Ferrata.
To his credit, Bernini left the vaulting itself alone and also did not cover the arcading with stucco as happened in several other Roman churches at the time. The nave vault remains merely whitewashed. Here's a photo of the interior.
In the floor to the right near the entrance are tomb-slabs of Filippo Belma, 1448, and a late 14th century bishop whose effigy is within a Gothic canopy (if the date is right, this pre-dates the 15th century rebuilding). There are other 15th century slabs with illegible inscriptions further down the nave; under the third arcade arch on the right is a nobleman, and under the fourth a prelate. On the left hand side there are six, of bishops and nobles.
On the wall to the left of the main entrance (as you enter) is a monument to Maria Eleonora Buoncompagni Ludovisi, dated 1745. This is in pietra dura, or marquetry in coloured stones. The work is so fine that it looks like a fresco.
Further to the left, tucked away next to the door into the kiosk selling guidebooks, is the monument of Giovanni Battista Gisleni, described in the next section. Beyond that are memorials to Raffaele Globicz, 1665 and Stefano Spada, 1563. The former is rather unusual; a marble drapery with a putto, and this epitaph:
Hic lapis centrum est cuius peripheria vita fuit, giratus est quondam in hoc turbulento vitae circulo nobilis Samuel Raphael Globicz de Buczina Boemus Pragensis -parente regni geometra- qui infelicissime quadraturam circuli invenit dum filius hic eius dilectissimus sub hoc quadrato lapide sepulchrali anno MDCLXV die XVIII augusti aetate XXV humatus est.
("This stone is the centre, the periphery of which was a life, which the noble Samuel Raphael Globicz de Buczina of Prague in Bohemia once orbited in this turbulent circle of living, his parent being the geometer of the kingdom, who unhappily found how to square the circle when he buried his very beloved son under this squared stone on the 25 August 1665.")
At the bottom of the right hand aisle are memorials to Vincenzo Danesi, 1682, Vincenzo Bonadies, 1687 and the French painter Félix Boisselier, 1811.
Giovanni Battista Gisleni died in 1672. He was a Baroque architect who was born and died in Rome, but did much work in Poland. He designed his memorial himself in 1670, and saw it installed before it died.
It is a macabre piece, but great fun also. At the top is his portrait in a tondo, above a long memorial inscription. Below the latter is a skeleton wrapped in a shroud "facing" (skulling?) the viewer, above which are two bronze medallions which demonstrate a hope in the resurrection. The left hand one shows a tree with its branches pruned but sprouting new shoots and containing a caterpillar spinning its cocoon, while the right hand one shows the metamorphosis of the caterpillar into a moth. Both of these are symbols of death in this world, and new life in the next. The left hand one says In nidulo meo moriar ("in my nest I will die" -a reference to his dying in Rome after a long expatriate career), while the right hand one says Ut phoenix multiplicabo dies ("as a phoenix I will multiply [my] days"). Below the portrait it says Neque hic vivus, and under the skeleton it says Neque illic mortuus; together this means "Neither living here, nor dead there".
The portrait was by Jacob Ferdinand Voet, who was a very popular Flemish portraitist in Rome until he was deported for painting ladies with their nipples peeping over their décolletage.
Cappella della RovereEdit
The first chapel on the right is the Cappella della Rovere. It is dedicated to St Jerome, and apparently also to the Nativity as the altarpiece depicts the latter. It was also the mortuary chapel for a while of the Della Rovere family, immigrants from Savona who made good in Rome. Their emblem is the oak tree, and this can be seen on the marble screen separating the chapel from the church, since Robur is Latin for "strength" but also means "oak timber". The chapel was built by Cardinal Domenico della Rovere in 1490 for his family, but it passed to the Venuti family in due course.
The frescoes in the lunettes depicting scenes from the life of St Jerome are by Tiberio d'Assisi, and were executed 1485-1489. Above the altar you can see a scene where he takes a thorn from the paw of a lion; this event actually belongs to St Gerasimus of the Jordan, but early mediaeval pilgrims to the Holy Land got him muddled with St Jerome.
The superb and famous altarpiece of the Nativity above the altar is by Pinturicchio. You can tell that this Renaissance artist was still struggling with the proper use of perspective. St Joseph is looking at the Child with a rather doubtful air, and this is an ancient iconic tradition. The story is that he was being tempted by the Devil to disbelieve the source of the child. (The same artist possibly also decorated the Cappella Basso della Rovere, although it is now thought this was by his school.) An image of the altarpiece is here.
On the right side of the chapel is the tomb of Cardinal Juan de Castro (died 1506), perhaps by Antonio da Sangallo the Younger. It has been moved here from elsewhere in the church, and is a bit too large for its setting.
On the left, the tomb of Cardinal Cristoforo della Rovere (died 1478) is by Andrea Bregno, and that of Cardinal Domenico della Rovere (died 1501) is by Mino da Fiesole. (It is rather uncertain as to who carved which parts of these tombs, as the relief of Our Lady on the former tomb looks as if it might have been by Mino).
On the pier between this chapel and the next is a memorial to Franz Ludwig Catel, a painter from Prussia, 1856 with a bust by Giulio Troschel, and opposite is one to Galeotto Bernardini, 1591.
The next chapel on the right-hand side is the Cappella Cybo, large, domed and on the plan of a Greek cross. This was originally built in the 15th century by Cardinal Innocenzo Cybo and decorated by Pinturicchio with marble sculptures by Bregno, but it was given a complete makeover by Carlo Fontana for the family of Alderano Cybo between 1682 and 1687. This entailed the complete loss of Pinturicchio's work. Some of the fittings were taken to the church of San Cosimato.
The polychrome marble work is sumptuous, dominated by the use of black marbles, green verde antico and some alabaster with veined red "marble" (which is actually Sicilian jasper ) for the columns. There are eight of these flanking the altar, and two more on each side near the entrance. The colour contrast is rather alarming, and the effect of the dark green and black marbles cannot be described as cheerful. This melancholic use of polychrome stonework is one of the features of Baroque funerary chapels, and is intended to be slightly depressive.
The tomb of Bishop Girolamo Foscari (died 1463), by Vecchietta, was brought here to join the monuments of various members of the Cybo family. It is a superb naturalistic representation in bronze of the bishop laid out in death.
The huge altarpiece by Carlo Maratta depicts The Immaculate Conception and Four Doctors of the Church, and is painted on the stone wall. The saints depicted are John the Evangelist, Gregory the Great, John Chrysostom and Augustine, and the work is one of the most important by the artist. Below the altar is an urn containing relics of the obscure Roman martyr St Faustina, which were brought here from the catacombs. The main part of her is enshrined under the high altar with St Priscus.
On the walls of the vestibule are two paintings by Daniel Seyter (1642-1705), the Martyrdom of St Catherine and the Martyrdom of St Lawrence. On either side of the chapel itself are the tombs of two Cybo cardinals, Alderano and Lorenzo, with busts sculpted by Francesco Cavallini. The same sculptor was responsible for the bronze putti supporting the altar table, and for St Faustina's urn. The dome fresco of Eternal Glory is by Luigi Garzi (1638-1721).
This chapel is dedicated to St Lawrence.
On the pier between this chapel and the next is a memorial to Adele Julien, 1860 with a bust by Tenerani, and opposite is one to the painter Gaspare Celio, 1640 with a portrait in oils by Francesco Ragusa (1591-1665).
Cappella Basso della RovereEdit
The next chapel, dedicated to St Augustine, was built by Giovanni Basso della Rovere, whose tomb on the right hand side was sculpted in 1483 by the school of Andrea Bregno.
The superb frescoes are by the school of Pinturicchio -spot the little dog! It is thought that the master supervised the painting in person, and designed the overall decorative scheme which invoves trompe-l'oeil columns flanking the windows. The coloured frescoes have recently been restored. The altarpiece of Our Lady with Saints is especially noteworthy. The lunettes depict scenes from her life, and on the left hand wall is depicted her Assumption.
The star-vaulted ceiling has tondi showing prophets, surrounded by grotesquery (nothing to do with the modern "grotesque", but inspired by the frescoes in the buried rooms of the Domus Aurea).
Also especially good are the monochrome frescoes at the bottoms of the walls, which show a trompe-l'oeil effect; these were restored in the early 19th century by Vincenzo Camuccini. The original artist is unknown, but the latest suggestion is that they were by a Bolognese artist called Jacopo Ripanda. Below the painted columns are panels showing the Sibyls, while above the four wall benches are scenes showing the Martyrdom of St Paul, Martyrdom of St Catherine, Disputation of St Augustine and Martyrdom of St Peter.
Between this chapel and the next are memorials to Teresa Olivi Benvenuti, 1855, Stefano Desiderii, 1633 and Maria Anna de Magistris, 1856. Opposite is a monument to two members of the Masci family set up in 1613.
At the end of the right aisle you will find the Cappella Costa, which is dedicated to St Catherine of Alexandria. The founder of the chapel, Jorge Cardinal da Costa from Portugal who died in 1508, has his monument on the left. Also on the left is a memorial to Vincenzo Casciani, 1833 with a bust by Matteo Kessels. The monument to the right is of Marcantonio Albertoni, 1486.
The memorial to Cardinal Pietro Foscari in front of the altar was moved here from the chapel just described, and used to be in its own chapel which no longer exists. The bronze effigy is is now thought to be by Giovanni di Stefano, but was formerly attributed to Vecchietta. By the look of it, the effigy and bier used to be within a much larger work which has been destroyed.
The marble altarpiece is by the school of Andrea Bregno, and depicts SS Vincent, Catherine of Alexandria and Anthony of Padua. The lunettes of the ceiling vault are by the school of Pinturicchio again, depicting the Four Latin Doctors; they have been damaged by damp, and other work by the master here has been lost.
In the floor is the effigy of a bishop, Giorgio Bracharin, by the school of Pollaiolo.
Outside are memorials to Giovanni Gerolamo Albani, 1591 and Caterina Marini, 1827 by one Simonetti. Opposite is one to Giovanni Battista Pallavicini, 1524 which is attributed to the school of Luigi Capponi.
Chapel of the VisitationEdit
At the end of the right hand side of the transept is the Chapel of the Visitation, designed by Bernini. He also designed the chapel in the opposite end of the transept, and the two chapels form one decorative scheme.
The altarpiece showing the Visitation is by Giovanni Maria Morandi. The angels on the frame are by Ercole Ferrata (to the left) and Arrigo Giardè. On the right side is the tomb of Cardinal Ludovico Podocatoro (died 1504), sculpted about 1508, and a memorial to Giuseppe Seffer,1860.
There is a superb cantoria (strictly speaking a balcony for solo singers, but here an organ loft) by Antonio Raggi (1624-88) over the two transept side chapels here. There is a matching cantoria in the opposite, left hand end of the transept. Below the curving balustrade is the coat-of-arms of Pope Alexander VII, supported by a lively angel in stucco helped (or hindered) by a putto.
The organ in the right hand cantoria is original to the Baroque restoration by Bernini. The pipes are festooned by oak branches in bronze, an innovative design by him. The organ itself was built by Giuseppe Testa, finished in 1658 and restored in 1814. It is again in need of some attention, as six of the total of twenty-seven pipes are out of commission.
The organ in the left hand cantoria is a modern instrument of very high quality, built in 1906 by Carlo Vegezzi Bossi and restored in 1975. It has thirty three pipes. Beforehand, this cantoria had been empty since the 18th century. The organ that had been in the church before the Bernini restoration had found a home here, but was disposed of as redundant a century later.
The sacristy is reached through a door in the right hand of the transept, which leads into a corridor. To the right this takes you to a side entrance; you have to turn left and walk a little distance, as the sacristy is next to the apse.
Some tombs and sculptures have been brought here. There is a relief sculpture of The Coronation of Our Lady in Gothic style, early 15th century, near the door. There follow: Monuments to Bernardo Heloin, 1584, Nestore Malvezzi, 1488 and Carlo Guattani, 1713; a relief sculpture (altarpiece?) of SS Augustine and Catherine (note the wheel) with Our Lady, late 15th century; monuments to Cherubino Alberti, 1615 and Carlo Traversari, late 14th century and finally a relief of Our Lady over the sacristy door in the style of Mino da Fiesole.
In the sacristy itself is the former high altar and tabernacle made by Andrea Bregno for Rodrigo Cardinal Borgia, later Pope Alexander VII (1492-1503). The altarpiece looks like a wall fresco from elsewhere of the Madonna and Child, and has been described as being of the Sienese school of the 13th century.
Here are also monuments of Bishop Pietro Guliermo Rocca (died 1482) and Archbishop Ortega Gomiel of Burgos, 1514. A little lavabo or holy water basin has two busts of SS Augustine and Monica, and is 15th century
The sacristy is described as being open on request, but it seems generally accessible to visitors who find their way there during the hours when the parish office is open. Few visitors do.
This chapel is in the top right hand corner of the transept, and is probably the quietest place in the church when there are lots of tourists visiting.
It was the funerary chapel of the Cicada family, but was dedicated to St Rita of Cascia in 1901 by Cardinal Agostino Ciasca. The altarpiece is a painting of her by Giovanni Piancastelli. On the right is a bust of Odorardo Cicada, sculpted allegedly about 1500 (he died in 1545).
This chapel was originally dedicated to Corpus Christi, but was re-dedicated to St Lucy in the 15th century. Here were the tombs of Giovanni Borgia, son of Pope Alexander VI (1492-1503), and his mother Vannozza dei Cattanei. Her original funeral plaque was defaced by enemies of the Borgias, and has been moved to the porch of San Marco. A picture of St Lucy for which Vannozza posed used to be here, but when Pope Alexander VII came to inspect Bernini's completed restoration he spotted it and immediately said: "Get rid of that!".
Beware of the confusion in online sources as to the location of these tombs.
There are worn and unidentifiable tomb slabs of the 15th century in the floor of this chapel, and just outside. On the pier is a memorial to Giuseppe Giacometti, 1851. He was a noted medal engraver, and the cameo portrait was executed by his son Pietro.
This little chapel is dedicated to St Thomas of Villanova, and was restored by Pietro Feoli in 1858. The decoration, and the altarpiece showing the saint, was executed then by Casimiro de' Rossi. Visitors don't usually bother with this chapel, either.
There are some 19th century Feoli family memorials here: to Carlo 1873 and Luigi 1871, both sculpted by Cerulli, and Agostino 1858. Also there is one to Ferdinando and Luisa Bartolucci, 1859.
The dome has a frescoed saucer over an octagonal drum lit by a window in each side. The fresco is Our Lady in Glory by Raffaele Vanni who finished it in 1658. Apparently Pope Alexander VII hated it; perhaps he was put out by having just seen Vannozza's picture. The same artist painted the pendentives, which show four Old Testament types of Our Lady: Ruth, Judith, Esther and Deborah.
The triumphal arch was designed by Bramante, but covered in five 17th century gilded stucco reliefs which certainly look spectacular. The legend of Nero's grave and the foundation of the church is depicted in these reliefs in the archivolt above the high altar, and the pilasters have angels and winged putto's heads.
The massive Baroque high altar of 1627 by Bernini replaced the previous one by Bregno, which was moved into the sacristy. The replacement has four Corinthian columns of black marble, supporting a complex pedimental arrangement which involves a divided segmental pediment into which a tablet with a dedicatory inscription has been inserted. This has its own little triangular pediment. Sitting on top is a crew of angels and putti, and charmingly the outer pair is giving you a wave. The polychrome marble decoration is rich and sumptuous. A photo of the altar is here.
The altar was paid for by a large donation by Antonio Sauli, a Genoese who was cardinal archbishop of his native city.
The venerated icon of the Blessed Virgin displayed here, known as the Madonna del Popolo, was given by Pope Gregory IX in 1231. It had previously been in the treasury of the Lateran. The tradition is that it had been painted by St Luke, but it is usually dated to the late 12th or early 13th century by art historians. This means that it must have been repainted. Here's a photo: .
Below the altar are enshrined relics of two obscure Roman martyrs, Faustina and Priscus. It is stated that their relics were obtained from the catacombs, which makes them dubious since there was no continuity of veneration. They are not listed in the Roman martyrology. The altar itself is dedicated to Our Lady, of course.
Either side of the altar are arched doorways on which large statues of Augustinian friars stand. These lead into the choir, which is where the friars would chant the Divine Office. They seldom do so now owing to reduced numbers, using the house chapel in the convent instead.
At the base of the wall to the right of the altar is a relic of the mediaeval church, a marble monument to two female members of the Annibale family embellished with Cosmatesque decoration. The pier to the left of the altar has a memorial to Olimpia Mangoni, 1582.
The choir was designed by Bramante between 1500 and 1509, on the orders of Pope Julius II. If you see a custodian, ask if he will take you there. It helps to be knowledgeable about what you want to see.
The stained glass windows are the oldest in Rome, made by the French artist Guillaume de Marcillat in 1509. They depict scenes from the childhood of Christ on one side, and the life of the Blessed Virgin on the other, and can best be seen from behind the altar.
On the side walls immediately behind the altar are the large and sumptuous funerary monuments of Cardinal Ascanio Sforza, died 1505, and Cardinal Girolamo Basso della Rovere, died 1507, both by Andrea Sansovino. These are among the most important Renaissance sculptures in Rome, and show familiarity with Classical and Etruscan forms derived from the renewed interest in ancient art that was emerging. One of the female figures on the Rovere tomb has a bare breast, which would not have been acceptable in a church in the Middle Ages. Note also the lizards on the Sforza tomb, and the satyrs' heads on the Della Rovere one. The effigies are showing the cardinals reclining as if dozing, not lying in state after death as was the mediaeval practice. This innovation apparently arose after the discoveries of Etruscan tomb sculptures.
The vault was painted by Pinturicchio in 1508, and is considered his best work in the church. In the centre is the Coronation of Our Lady in Heaven, while the four medallions around show the Latin Doctors of the Church. The other panels show the Evangelists (in the corners) and Sibyls (in between the doctors). The decoration is rich, with vine tendrils on a gold background and a spangled mosaic effect both in red and in green. An image from immediately below, which you won't be able to appreciate if you can't get into the choir, is here.
You will see the heraldic symbol of an oak tree in several places. This is claimed to be of the original architect of the church, Baccio Pontelli. However, it needs to be distinguished from the identical emblem of the Della Rovere family, and matters are complicated by the fact that the Chigi family also used the oak tree as an emblem (the bronze oak branches on the right hand organ belong to it).
The Chapel of the Assumption, or the Cappella Cerasi, is the one just to the left of the presbyterium, and is where the tourists head for when the church opens in the afternoon. This is because of the two canvases by Caravaggio. It has its own English Wikipedia article here.
The chapel itself was commissioned as a family mortuary chapel in 1600 by Tiberio Cerasi, who was treasurer to Pope Clement VIII at the time (he later became a cardinal). He commissioned Caravaggio for two canvases,the Conversion of St Paul and the Crucifixion of St Peter, and these were painted 1601-1602. Cerasi disliked the first version of the former and told the artist to do another one. This was a fortunate decision by the patron, because Caravaggio's reputation would not have been enhanced by the confused Mannerism of the first painting.The rejected picture is now in the Odescalchi Baldi Collection, in the eponymous palazzo in the Piazza dei Santi Apostoli. The Conversion is here, and the Crucifixion here. The rejected version of the former is here.
At the same time, Cerasi commissioned the altarpiece, the Assumption by Annibale Carracci. Here it is. The two saints showing amazement are Peter and Paul. He also frescoed the chapel vault, which has attractive stucco work.
The Caravaggios are on the side walls, facing each other with the Carracci in between. The dark-hued realism realism of the former, and the contrasting polychrome luminosity of the latter, give the chapel an intense atmosphere. This is one of the few places where you can see masterpieces of such rank in their original settings and performing their orginal functions, instead of being in galleries or collections. Art students interested in these works need to remember that the chapel as a whole is an artwork with its own integrity and meaning. The most important painting is the altarpiece, where the two saints are venerating Our Lady being taken into heaven. They are doing so as an acknowledgement of the grace of Resurrection. The two Caravaggios depict one saint being shown the reality of this by the resurrected Christ, and the other as witnessing to the same reality by being martyred. Hence the Caravaggios are focusing the believer's attention on the doctrinal message of the altarpiece.
Note that the dedication of this chapel is to the Assumption, not to SS Peter and Paul as is often asserted.
The memorials in here are to Bartolomeo Monardi, 1575, Tiberio Cerasi 1601, and Teresa Spelker 1852 sculpted by Pietro Tenerani.
This is in the top left hand corner of the transept, next to the Cappella Cerasi. It is easily overlooked, but is a Mannerist gem and should not be missed. If the scrum next door is too much to handle, have a look in here until Caravaggio's admirers hopefully thin out.
It is dedicated to Catherine of Siena -Catarina detta del Calice. The vault has frescoes surrounded by delicate stucco work of 1569, all by Giulio Mazzoni. A photo is here. Some of the paintwork in the vault has been retouched.
The altarpiece statue of the saint is also by Mazzoni, as are the statues of SS Peter and Paul.
The depiction of the Annunciation is by Giacomo Triga, from the early 18th century.
The founder of the chapel was Troiano Alicorno, but he passed it on to Girolamo Teodolo who was bishop of Cadiz in Spain. Hence the chapel has a subsidiary dedication to St Jerome.
Outside is a memorial to Arturo Mostowsky, 1852.
Chapel of the Return from EgyptEdit
This is in the left hand end of the transept, and is dedicated to the Holy Family "returning from Egypt". The altar is again by Bernini, and the two angels flanking it are by Giovanni Antonio Mari on the left and Antonio Raggi on the right. The altarpiece is by Bernardino Mei.
Here is the tomb of Cardinal Bernardino Lonati (1452-97), by the school of Bregno. His effigy is shown lying in state, the old mediaeval artistic tradition in contrast to the more naturalistic style shown in the Sansovino tombs in the choir. A photo of the monument is here.
There are some more worn-out 15th century figurative floor tomb-slabs hereabouts.
This is the third chapel off the left hand aisle, and is dedicated to the Crucifixion. It once belonged to the Cybo family, and was founded by Teodorina Cybo after she fell off her horse and escaped harm. However, in 1800 they passed it on to the Soderinis who were Roman patricians originally from Florence. The crucifix is 15th century, and by tradition St Philip Neri had a vision while praying before it.
Outside is a memorial to Giovanni Battista Robiani, 1585.
The Cappella Mellini is dedicated to St Nicholas of Tolentino, and the altarpiece showing him with Our Lady and St Augustine is by Agostino Masucci. This, the Mellini mortuary chapel, was founded by Pietro Mellini in the late 15th century and is seriously overcrowded with tombs. Cardinal Giovanni Garcia Mellini had it restored in the early 17th century, and commissioned the frescoes by Giovanni di San Giovanni. On the vault are shown scenes from the life of the saint, and in the four lunettes are allegories of the Cardinal Virtues.
The monument to the cardinal is by Alessandro Algardi, c. 1630, and is a masterpiece. Also here by the same artist is a bust of Urbano Mellini, to the left of the altar, and the effigy of Mario Mellini. To the right of the altar is the tomb of the founder, Cardinal Pietro Mellini, of 1483 by Giovanni Dalmata. The depictions of Cardinal Savo Mellini, Pietro Mellini (another one) and Cardinal Antonio Paolo Mellini are by Stefano Monnot, a French sculptor.
Outside are monuments to Alessandro Maggi, late 16th century, and opposite to Teodoro Trivulzio 1614 (the bust has been stolen) and Luigi Placeteri 1845 with his wife Maria.
This octagonal domed chapel is dedicated to Our Lady of Loreto, and if it were standing on its own would count as a Roman church of the first importance in its own right. It has its own English Wikipedia page here. The Italian Wikipedia page is more detailed, here. Pictures of the chapel on Wikimedia Commons are here. There has been a recent restoration.
The octagon of the plan is irregular, being formed by chamfering a square. The long sides are occupied by the entrance, the two tombs and the altarpiece. These occupy tall arched recesses which reach the entablature of the dome. The short sides are occupied by niches containing statues of prophets, and these niches are flanked by pairs of Corinthian pilasters which support short entablatures occupying the width of each short side. Above these entablatures are the truncated pendentives of the dome, which contain fresco medallions. A view of the interior is here.
The chapel was designed by Raphael, and was paid for by his friend and patron the banker Agostino Chigi (died 1520) and his brother Sigismondo (died 1526). Both of them are buried here. Their tombs, one on each side of the chapel, have an unusual pyramidal form in red marble which was inspired by the Pyramid of Cestius on the Ostian Way. They were designed by Raphael, and sculpted by Lorenzo Lotti. The latter was nicknamed Il Lorenzetto, and was one of Raphael's best pupils. His work on these tombs is so accomplished for the period that it was long thought to have been by Bernini; it is still argued that the latter provided the portrait medallions. Here is Agostino's.
Work on the chapel was interrupted in 1520 by the deaths of both Raphael and Agostino. It was only completed in 1652 for Cardinal Fabio Chigi -the future Pope Alexander VII.
Raphael drew the sketches for the superb mosaics in the dome, which were executed by Luigi de Pace from Venice in 1516. The mosaic panels have backgrounds in blue, and are set in sumptuous coffering in gold. God the Father as Creator of the Firmament is in the centre, and he is surrounded by symbols of the sun and planets. The entablature of the dome bears an inscription announcing the chapel's dedication to Our Lady of Loreto. Two sketches for the design by Raphael are at the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford, England. A photo of the dome is here.
The altarpiece, depicting the Nativity of the Virgin, is by Sebastiano del Piombo, made 1530-1534 and completed by Francesco de' Rossi known as Il Salviati. The latter artist also finished off the mosaics. The bronze bas-relief on the altar frontal is by Il Lorenzetto, depicting Christ and the Woman of Samaria. It was originally intended for Agostino Chigi's tomb, but was moved here by Bernini. The original inspiration was an ancient relief now in the Louvre at Paris.
There are statues of four prophets in the niches in the corners of the chapel. Of these, Jonah (note the whale) and Elijah are by Il Lorenzetto, again from designs by Raphael. The former statue was inspired by an ancient sculpture of a boy and dolphin now at the Villa Borghese, and the head is a copy of the Antinous Farnese. The latter statue was completed by Raffaello da Montelupo. The two other statues of prophets are by Bernini. One depicts Habakkuk, to the right of the altar, with an angel telling him to go to Babylon miraculously to feed Daniel in the lions' den. The other shows Daniel, opposite, with a lion. Above the tombs of the Chigi brothers are lunettes now thought to have been painted by Raffaele Vanni in 1653. They depict the Creation and the Fall, and were originally thought to have been by Salviati. The latter was responsible for the medallions depicting the Seasons in the pendentives.
The hanging lamp featuring three acrobatic putti is by Bernini, as is the floor in pietra dura. The winged skeleton holding the Chigi shield is typical of the artist. Here it is. The epigraph reads Mors aD CaeLos, "Death to Heaven", and the capital letters spell out the date MDCL or 1650.
Maria Odescalchi monumentEdit
On the pier to the left of the Chigi chapel is one of the best monuments in the church, of Princess Maria Flaminia Odescalchi Chigi which was executed in 1771. This makes it one of the latest Baroque monuments in Rome -in fact, it has been called the Last Baroque Tomb. She died in childbirth aged twenty, and her portrait in black and white marble shows her long-necked and big-nosed -very Roman patrician, the length of the neck hoping to persuade the viewer that she was not a Jew. Unfortunately, such things mattered back then.
The designer was Paolo Posi, and he used emblems associated with the Odescalchi and Chigi families in his design. The portrait is in a bronze tondo set with stars (Chigi), which is being held up in front of a banner in red marble by a pair of putti. An eagle on top, which looks as if it wants the left hand putto for its lunch, is Odescalchi. The banner bears the memorial inscription, and is itself being held up by a bronze oak tree (Chigi). At the bottom, in white marble like the putti and eagle, are a lion (Odescalchi) on a mountain (Chigi) and a smoking incense burner (Odescalchi).
The sculptural work was by Agostino Penna.
The whole thing might be in very bad taste and over-the-top, but is enormous fun. It has its own web-page here.
Opposite is a memorial to Francesco Mantica, 1613.
The chapel immediately to the left of the entrance is the baptistery, and is appropriately dedicated to St John the Baptist. It was founded by Giovanni di Montemirabile, who was a bishop of Vaison in France, in 1479 and whose tomb-slab is in the floor.
Here there are two ciboria by Andrea Bregno, which came from the former high altar. The tombs of Cardinal Francesco Castiglione (died 1568) on the right, and Cardinal Antonio Pallavicini (died 1507) on the left, are also here. The altarpiece of the Baptism of Christ is by Pasqualino Rossi.
Opening hours, according to the parish website in May 2019:
Mondays to Fridays 7.30 to 12.30, and 16.00 to 19.00;
Saturdays 7:30 to 19:00 (no lunchtime closure);
Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation 7:30 to 13.30, and 16.30 to 19.00.
Note that the times have been changing from year to year. Beware of incorrect information being displayed in tourist websites.
Mass is celebrated (parish website, May 2019):
Weekdays 8:00, 10:00 (not July and August), 18:30;
Sundays and Solemnities 8:00, 10:00, 11:00, 12:00, 13:00 (not July and August), 18:30.
Please note that everyone is welcome to attend Mass and the other liturgies, but not to wander about the church and look at artworks during them. If you try, you will be stopped. Hence, it is wise to plan your visits with the above times in mind.
The major feast day of the church is Our Lady's Birthday on 8 September.