Nostra Signora del Sacro Cuore a Piazza Navona is a 15th century convent and titular church in Piazza Navona, dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary. The postal address is Corso del Renascimento 27, which is at the other end of the church from the Piazza Navona. This is in the rione Parione. Pictures of the church in Wikimedia Commons are here.
The church is in the care of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart, who run it as a devotional shrine and have their Roman provincial headquarters in the convent.
For most of its history this church was known as San Giacomo dei Spagnoli, meaning "St James of the Spaniards", and the name is still sometimes used.
The full name, as given by the Diocese, is Nostra Signora del Sacro Cuore a Piazza Navona. This is probably because there are two chapels with the same name in Rome.
The doctrinal rationale behind the name is that Our Lady was a temple of the Sacred Heart of Jesus both physically when she was pregnant with Christ, and spiritually by having his teaching as the centre of her mental and personal existence (in other words, in her own heart).
The church stands on the site of part of the arcade of the Stadium of Domitian, and is first recorded as being built in the 13th century. The original stadium was surrounded by raised spectator stands built on vaulting supported by massive piers, and the voids underneath thus created were accessed from the back.
The stadium survived for a surprisingly long time as a place of public entertainment during the Middle Ages, and apparently the stands were only systematically demolished from the 14th century as the site became valuable for building. Meanwhile, it is known that several small chapels were established in the vaults. The most famous later gave rise to Sant'Agnese in Agone on the other side of the square, and there was also one dedicated to St Catherine of Alexandria.
There seems to be no direct evidence that one of these early chapels was on the site of this church, but an interesting hint is that the first church known here had its entrance to the east, off a narrow street (the Via della Sapienza) to the south of the former Piazza Madama. The line of the frontage is in the roadway of the present Corso del Rinascimento, about a metre from the kerb in front of the present church entrance. This would have corresponded to the entrance to the old vault here.
The first documentary reference to the church is in the will of the Infante Enrique (1230-1304), fourth son of King St Ferdinand III of Castile. This was in the days before there was a united kingdom of Spain. He provided the funds to build the church in 1259 and also two hospice for Catalan pilgrims -one for males, and one for females. These were not then near the church, but the former was near Santa Chiara and the latter next to San Biagio in Mercatello.
The dedication was to St James the Great, patron of Spain in general and especially of the Reconquista or the re-conquest of the country from the Muslims. His shrine is at Santiago de Compostela; "Santiago" in place names is a corruption of Santo Iago, which in turn comes from Sanctus Iacobus or "Saint Jacob". In English, "Jacob" was corrupted to "James".
Church of the Spaniards
In the Holy Year of 1450 the church was completely rebuilt as a result of a private benefaction by Alfonso de Paradinas, who was then a canon of Seville Cathedral. When he died in 1485 he left his fortune to finish the project, which also involved a large new pilgrim hospice next door to replace the two old ones. Pope Alexander VI (a Spaniard himself) took an interest in finishing the work, which involved creating a little piazza in the Via della Sapienza just to the north of the main entrance. Also he ordered the building of a façade on the Piazza Navona, behind the sanctuary. This was designed by Bernardo Rossellino, and was one of the first stages in the process of turning the ruined stadium into the city piazza that it is now. At the same time the main city market was transferred here from the base of the Campodoglio where it had functioned for at least five hundred years.
In 1506 the church with its hospice was declared to be a national church of the Kingdom of Spain in Rome as the kingdoms of Castile and Aragon had been united into modern Spain in 1469. Further work was done on it in 1518 by Antonio da Sangallo the Younger, who was responsible for the ceiling vaults and the surviving Chapel of St James.
In the same year, however, the Aragonese in Rome built a new church and hospice of their own, Santa Maria in Monserrato. Hence, the new united kingdom had two national churches in Rome.
Appearance in the 18th century
As a Spanish national church, this edifice was important and was lavishly provided with decorations and works of art, much in the Mannerist style. At the end of the 18th century it still had its main entrance at the east end, and was a short and wide rectangular basilica. The nave had four bays with arcades supported by massive pillars, and the presbyterium was bounded on each side by a smaller arcade screen of two arches.
Here is the layout, as given by Mariano Armellini. He attached a personal remark, as to how incredible it was that the Spanish saw fit to destroy such an artistic ensemble:
There were a total of thirteen side chapels, six on the left and seven on the right (facing Piazza Navona). These were in shallow niches, except for the first three on the left which were in side chambers.
The second on the left was dedicated to the Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ, having first been dedicated to SS Cosmas and Damian. The wall frescoes and canvases were by Cesare Nebbia, and the vault was frescoed by Baldassare Croce. This work was done in 1584.
The third on the left was dedicated to the Immaculate Conception. Then came the entrance to the sacristy, surmounted by a beautiful Renaissance cantoria which survives. To the left of the doorway was a funerary monument to Pietro Ciaconio and Pietro Foix de Montoy, with decorative elements by Bernini.
The fourth chapel on the left was dedicated to St John the Baptist, and was built by Gonzalo Martinez de la Peña in 1618.
The fifth on the left was dedicated to St Anne, Mother of Our Lady, and contained a famous and beautiful marble sculpture of them. It was fitted out in 1543.
The sixth on the left was dedicated to SS Peter and Paul, executed by Giulio Piacentino in 1571.
The second on the right was originally dedicated to St Michael the Archangel, and was first fitted out in 1469. It was later rededicated to St James the Less (the Spanish call him "Diego") and redecorated in 1602. The frescoes were by Flaminio Ponzio, the stucco work was by Ambrogio Milanesi and the canvases were by Annibale Carracci.
The third on the right was dedicated to St Ildephonsus, and was finished in 1501. It contained the tomb of Cardinal Saens de Aguirre, a generous benefactor of the church.
The fourth on the right was dedicated to St James, and was described then as the most beautiful of the church. It survives in part. The architect was Antonio di Sangallo the Younger, the marble statue of the saint was by Sansovino (Armellini, the source, doesn't specify Jacopo or Andrea) and the wall frescoes were by Pellegrino Aretusi who was a pupil of Raphael. The patron of the artwork was Cardinal Alborense Giacomo Serra, whose tomb was here.
The other three altars on the right were, in turn, dedicated to the Nativity, the Annunciation and SS Cosmas and Damian.
The high altar had an altarpiece of the Crucifixion by Girolamo Siciolante da Sermoneta.
During their occupation of Rome, the French took revenge on their enemies by looting their churches. Hence, when peace was restored after Napoleon in 1815 the Spanish had two churches in poor repair. For some reason they decided to concentrate on Santa Maria in Monserrato, and effectively abandoned this one in 1829. In the process, they stripped most of the artworks out, took some back to Spain and left some more at the other church.
Missionaries of the Sacred Heart
The Missionaries of the Sacred Heart bought the derelict church in 1879. Pope Leo XIII took a great interest in the work, which involved a complete restoration and a re-consecration with the present dedication to Our Lady. In the process, the main entrance was moved to the Piazza Navona end and the main altar was moved to the east end.
However, the orientation had to be put back to what it was at first in 1938, when the current Corso del Rinascimento was built. In the process, the eastern façade of the church was demolished, the altar moved back to the other end and a new entrance opened as part of the building erected on the new street. (This road was a fragment of the mad scheme of the Fascists to criss-cross the Centro Storico with new motor roads, focusing on the major ancient monuments such as the Pantheon.)
The fabric of the church is invisible from the street, apart from the façade on the Piazza Navona. This is very misleading. Looking at it, you will see two storeys. In fact, only the first storey fronts the church; the second storey is in front of the domestic apartments which are located above the church for its entire length. These now house the Provincialate of the Missionaries, and used to be part of the Spanish hospice. In other words, the church has no independent architectural identity.
There was no campanile, and the church does not now seem to have a place to hang bells.
As mentioned, the main entrance is now on the Corso del Rinascimento. The 1930's building that you will find there, rendered in faded pale orange with a colonnaded loggia under the roofline, has an old doorway which has been saved and re-erected. Above it is a large and rather miserable apology for an oculus in a molded stone frame. However, the entrance itself is worth examining. The doorcase, in marble with moldings, has the arms of the Kingdom of Spain on its lintel. Above it is a frieze displaying the scallop shells which are the emblem of St James, and above that is a slightly oversized pediment with egg-and-dart decoration.
This is a rare survival in Rome of late 15th century church architecture, although it has been altered. Representations survive of the frontage before 1879, and these show a single storey with a large pediment containing a single rose window. This pediment was converted into a second storey in the 19th century re-ordering, with three rose windows.
So, as it now stands the façade has two storeys, in pale pink render with architectural details in white travertine.
The first storey has a high plinth, on which are six pilasters in what passed for the Composite style at the period. The capitals are degenerate in design, but finely executed. They support an entablature with a dedicatory inscription: Deo Optimo Maximo in honorem Mariae nostrae Dominae a Sacro Corde Iesu aedes dedicata an[no] MDCCCLXXIX. The outer four pilasters are in pairs. There are three arched windows with molded frames; these touch the entablature, and are over the three entrances.
Of these entrances, the middle one is much larger than the other two. It has a marble doorcase with a barley-sugar twist molding along its outer edge, and above it is a frieze decorated with swags. The tympanum of the dentillated pediment on top contains a rather eroded shield supported by flying angels. The names of the artists responsible for this pair of angels have been preserved. The right hand one is by Mino da Fiesole, and the left hand one by Paolo Taccone. On the tip of the pediment is a modern statue of Our Lady.
The side doorcases support fragments of entablature with projecting cornices, and above these are molded archivolts looking rather like stone rainbows.
The second storey, above the actual line of the church's vaulting, is the same width as the first but half the height. It has six pilasters of the same style, but slightly narrower. They support a second entablature with an inscription that reads: Ametur ubique terrarum Cor Iesu Sacratissimum ("May the Sacred Heart of Jesus be loved everywhere, in all lands"). The small triangular pediment only occupies the middle third of the width of the façade, and contains a cross bottony which means that it has trefoil endings to its arms. There is a cross finial on the tip of the pediment, and this is in the same style with a representation of the Sacred Heart in the middle.
This storey has three large rose windows; that is, round ones with Gothic tracery in an octagonal pattern. As mentioned, these do not light the church but the rooms above it. The windows themselves are the same size, but the middle one has a larger frame with a double molding. This central rose window was the one in the original pediment.
Layout and fabric
This is what is called a "hall church", which means that the side aisles are the same height as the central nave. For another example in Rome, see Santa Maria dell'Anima. There are four large square pillars on each side, and the cross-vaulting is supported by four attached pilasters which have capitals in the same sort of style as those of the façade. The vaulting ribs are attractively tricked out in barley-sugar twist moldings, recalling that around the main door on the Piazza Navona.
Most of the side chapels are in arched alcoves, and the barrel vaults of these now have large garlands rendered on them.
The aisles are open from one end of the church to the other.
The sanctuary is defined by a pair of screen walls in between the furthest pair of pillars and the far wall of the church, and each wall contains two arches. Above the arches is polychrome marble decoration in opus sectile, featuring a floral motif in an oblate octagonal panel. This motif is now replicated in modern frescoing over the chapels. To the left of the altar is a further narrow section of side wall between the last arch pier and the back wall of the church, and this has more polychrome marble in a cross and roundel motif. Opposite, there is no wall but a gap. The two responsible for this pair of screen arcades were Pietro and Domenico Rosselli.
The present, modern main altar is neo-Baroque, in the form of a triumphal arch. It re-uses older architectural details. The arch itself is supported by a pair of Corinthian columns in what looks like red marble, and behind these are a pair of tripletted pilasters. Either side of the arch is a relief panel showing a venerating angel, and on the outer corners is a pair of Corinthian pilasters in what looks like grey veined marble. Columns and pilasters support ornate entablatures either side of the arch springing. Above the arch is a triangular pediment with a deep entablature, supported either side of the arch by tiny marble pilasters flanked by curlicues.
After the quality of this work, the central picture is perhaps disappointing, although the subject of popular devotion. It is a full-length modern portrait of the Madonna and Child, in rather washy pastel colours.
Most of the older works of art and funerary monuments in the church were tranferred to Santa Maria de Monserrato when the Spaniards decided to abandon this church. In the restoration, little of the original wall frescoing was saved and the overall impression of the decor is now rather austere with much whitewash.
The superb cantoria over the sacristy door is by Pietro Torrigiano, and is a balustraded balcony with intricate decoration in white and gold and a central cardinal's coat-of-arms. It now contains the organ, although intended for solo vocal performers.
The Cappella di San Giacomo is also intact, although the frescoes by Pellegrino Aretusi are in a poor state. There is a coffered barrel vault by Sangallo, and the altar frontal is a 7th century Byzantine carved marble slab.
The other chapels now contain modern devotional works of variable quality, some horrible. The altarpiece in the chapel of St Anne, showing her with Our Lady as a little girl, is good.
The other chapels are dedicated to: Our Lady of Sorrows, St Anthony of Padua, St Margaret Mary, Jesus the Nazarene, St Benedict Joseph Labre, St Joseph and St Francis of Paola with his motto of Caritas.
Opening hours (tourist website 060608, July 2018):
Weekdays 6:30 to 9:50, 17:00 to 19:00.
Sundays 7:30 to 12:00, 17:00 to 19:00.
Note the early morning closing on weekdays.
This is the "other church in Piazza Navona"; most tourists head for Sant'Agnese in Agone, and ignore this one. As a result, you can be on your own in here while the piazza outside is bustling. It is slightly surreal to have the quiet tempered by the buskers in the piazza, some of whom are musically very good and others of whom need shooting.
It is important to note that visitors are not welcome to look around during Mass. If you try, you will be stopped.
Mass is celebrated, according to the Diocese (July 2018):
Weekdays 7:00, 8:00, 18:00.
Sundays 8:30, 10:30, 12:00 (winter only), 18:00