San Luigi dei Francesi is the 16th century titular and French national church (built as such) at Piazza di San Luigi de' Francesi 5 in the rione Sant'Eustachio. Pictures of the church at Wikimedia Commons are here. There is an English Wikipedia page here.
St Dionysius here is a conflation of three persons, arising from a malicious forgery executed by Hilduin, a 9th abbot of the Abbey of St Denis near Paris. They are: St Dionysius the Areopagite (1st century disciple of St Paul at Athens), Pseudo-Dionysius (an early 6th century Syrian monk, it is thought) and St Denis of Paris (a 3rd century martyr, considered the first bishop of Paris).
The English form of Dionysius or Denis is either Dennis or, weirdly, Sydney.
France has possession of several churches in Rome, mainly owing to the annexation of smaller political units. The administration of the portfolio is taken seriously, and the churches are run by a French government department called Les Pieux Etablissements de la France à Rome et à Lorette.
Three lost churches are San Dionigi Areopagita, Santa Maria della Purificazione di Ponte and San Salvatore in Thermis. Items of carved stonework, mostly epigraphs, from these churches have ended up in the courtyard of the Palazzo.
The idea of a national church in Rome is an old one, although one needs to be careful about the term "national". In the 8th century, colonies of expatriates had settled around Old St Peter's. These included Greek, Syrian and Armenian monks in several monasteries, whose presence was maliciously airbrushed from Rome's historical awareness in the early Middle Ages. Four kinds of Germanic barbarians established colonies also, the Schola Langobardorum for the Lombards at the lost church of San Giustino to the north (the site is under the north colonnade of the piazza); the Schola Frisonum for the Frisians to the east, at what is now Santi Michele e Magno; the Schola Saxonum for the Saxons further to the east, at what is now Santo Spirito in Sassia and the Schola Francorum for the Franks. It is thought, unprovably, that the present church of San Pietro in Borgo originally served the last-named. This schola was founded by Charlemagne in 799.
French nationalism has been effective in subordinating historical realities to its mythopoetic fantasies, and this has influenced the design of some artworks in the church of San Luigi. Basically, the French have liked to pretend that their polity is the lineal descendent of the Frankish Kingdom and its successor, the Carolingian Empire. However, the Holy Roman Empire had a better claim to this political pedigree -and the Franks were Germanic speakers, anyway.
After the Carolingian Empire broke up in the 9th century, the Kingdom of France finally emerged together with the Holy Roman Empire. The latter took possession of the complex of the Schola Francorum, and the descendent of this is the German church of Santa Maria della Pietà in Camposanto. However the kings of France obtained the patronage of Santa Petronilla, which became known in the Middle Ages as the Cappella Regum Franciae. The French kings were responsible for its upkeep, so King Louis XI paid for a restoration in 1471.
However, at the start of the 17th century this church was demolished to make way for the new St Peter's, and this spurred the building of the present San Luigi.
The site of the church used to be occupied by set of ancient baths, the Thermae Neronis ("Baths of Nero"). This was the first imperial bathing complex in the city, commissioned by the emperor Nero (AD 37-68) and built by the government out of public funds. It was located between the Stadium of Domitian (the present Piazza Navona) and the Pantheon, and was restored by the emperor Alexander Severus in 227. From then on it was called the Thermae Alexandrinae.
It is thought that the bath complex only became a ruin about the late 6th century (the actual date of abandonment is unclear).
Santa Maria de Cella
The first documentary record of the church's predecessor dates from 998. The site of the baths had come into the possession of the great Benedictine abbey of Farfa, and a document exists detailing an agreement between its abbot and the clergy in charge of Sant'Eustachio in Campo Marzio nearby. Hülsen gives a quotation: Due ecclesiae Sanctae Mariae et Sancti Benedicti quae sunt aedifcatae in thermis Alexandrinis, cum casis, criptis....et oratorio Salvatoris infra se.
The church of St Benedict was later known as San Benedetto de Ferro, and the one dedicated to Our Lady as Santa Maria de Cella. The latter was on the site of the new San Luigi. The Oratorio Salvatoris was the later San Salvatore in Thermis. The abbey founded a priory on the property, which survived for 480 years.
Old San Luigi
The French expatriate community based at Santa Petronilla obtained permission in the 14th century to erect a little chapel in honour of King St Louis, after his canonization in 1297. (He had died horribly of dysentery during the futile Eighth Crusade in 1270.) The site of this was not that of the present church, but well to the south on the old Via Papalis very near the present Sant'Andrea della Valle. One tradition is that it was on the site of the present Santissimo Sudario di Nostro Signore Gesù Cristo.
The little edifice was more convenient for the expatriates than San Petronilla, and so proved inadequate in size in the 15th century. Also, the French pilgrims only had a small, cramped hospice adjacent. As a result, a very ambitious project was entered into for a new church and hospice complex.
The Abbey of Farfa kept possession of the priory that it had here until 1478. Then the whole complex was sold to the French crown, the deal being facilitated by Cardinal Guillaume d'Estouteville. Pope Sixtus IV approved the project, sponsored by King Louis XI, and authorized the foundation of the Confraternita della Concezione della Beata Vergine Maria, San Dionigi et San Luigi Re di Francia, the ancestor of the present Les Pieux Etablissements.
The part of the site north of the Via del Salvatore was reserved for the new church and its ancillary accommodation (the so-called Palazzo di San Luigi). The old church there of Santa Maria de Cella, which was parochial, must have been kept open to some extent because the French wanted to inherit its burial rights. However, it was allowed to fall into very bad repair in the interim before its demolition forty years later.
The original plan was that the part of the site south of Via del Salvatore, including the little church of San Salvatore, would become a large hospice for French pilgrims with that church as its chapel. This part of the project stalled, however, and the site was sold to Giovanni de' Medici, the future Pope Leo X, in 1505. This was the origin of the famous Palazzo Madama. However, the French kept possession of San Salvatore which hence became a dependency of San Luigi and, as such, was apparently not much use to anyone. However, it survived until the late 19th century.
The loss of Santa Petronilla kick-started the project again, albeit scaled back, immediately afterwards. King Francis I of France was the patron.
Pope Leo X commissioned his relative Cardinal Giulio de' Medici, later Pope Clement VII, to lay the foundation stone for the new church in 1518. He also gave the Confraternity to sell any ancient masonry and statuary that they found when excavating the foundations -a very useful concession financially.
Jean de Chenevière was appointed as architect. If you look at the plan of the church now, you will see that it is almost a perfect square. This seems to be because he originally planned a round church similar to (but much bigger) than the Tempietto di Bramante at San Pietro in Montorio, newly completed and proving an architectural sensation.
However, building was halted when Rome was sacked in 1527. The expatriate community was seriously reduced in numbers, and also impoverished financially, as a result of the sack. Progress only resumed after King Henry II of France put up a contribution in the middle of the century, together with his wife Catherine de' Medici. It is unclear who the architect was in this period, but the proposal was changed to a conventional plan with a nave, side aisles and external chapels.
Giacomo della Porta designed the façade in 1581, but it was finally completed in 1589 by Domenico Fontana and consecrated in that year. The work had taken 111 years from the first purchase of the land.
One unusual concession that Pope Leo X had made was to make the church an extra-territorial parish for all French expatriates. Thus, any French person living in the Diocese of Rome had this as his parish church, not his local territorial one. The immediate effect of this on the church fabric was a multiplication of funerary monuments. French expatriates as parishioners had the right to burial here -they did not have to seek (or pay for) the privilege.
The Diocese has been rightly wary of extra-territorial parishes ever since, and there are very few other examples. The one here has been suppressed.
The interior was spectacularly restored by Antoine Dérizet in the period between 1749 and 1756. Many funerary monuments were thrown out, but were then taken to the courtyard of the Palazzo where they still are.
The French have had the sense to leave the church mostly alone since, except for repairs and maintenance, and there are not many 19th and 20th century interventions.
Layout and fabric
As mentioned, the plan of the church is almost square. There is a nave of five bays with side-aisles, and off the aisles five chapels on each side. The church has no transept, but a long rectangular sanctuary with apse which is slightly narrower than the central nave.
The fabric is in brick (you can see this in the left hand side wall on the Via del Salvatore), but the façade is entirely in travertine limestone. Although the church has side aisles, the façade is rectangular and this is because the upper corners have two second-storey chambers behind them and over the bottoms of the aisles.
The gabled nave roof is pitched and tiled, and the aisles and side chapels are sheltered under single-pitched lower roofs. The sanctuary roof is slightly higher and, because the sanctuary has a saucer dome inside, it has a tall lantern. This is octagonal, with eight tall narrow round-headed windows and a hemispherical lead cupola.
The apse has its own pitched and tiled roof.
The campanile is a tall pierced slab, over the far end of the right hand side aisle.
The façade was designed by Giacomo della Porta. It has two storeys, of equal width, in travertine limestone. The first storey has six Doric pilasters, the inner four tripletted and the corner pair doubletted. These support an entablature with a blank frieze, and shallow untripletted posts over the pilaster capitals.
There are three entrances. The larger central entrance has a pair of Ionic columns with festooned diagonal volutes, supporting a triangular pediment with a recessed cornice on block posts. The two aisle entrances each has an oversized segmental pediment on strap corbels, over which is a large lunette window in a molded frame with a pair of lion masks above.
Next to the corner pilasters are two statues in round-headed niches, with decorative panels above and below. The statues are by Pierre de l'Estache, and depict Charlemagne to the left and King St Louis to the right. The tondi below the statues depict heraldic salamanders, the emblem of King Francis I. He died in 1547, hence they are survivors of the earliest construction effort here.
The second storey also has six pilasters, but these are Corinthian and stand on an attic plinth. Further, the corner pilasters are not doubletted, but the next pair in are. Another twist is that the cornice of the crowning entablature is dentillated -unlike the entablature separating the storeys.
There is a large central rectangular window, with a segmental pediment on posts supported by a pair of Ionic columns with transverse volutes (unlike those flanking the entrance). The window has a balustrade which is part of the attic plinth.
Between the pilasters on either side are two more round-headed niches with statues by l'Estache, these having triangular pediments and being set within blind arches with molded archivolts on Doric imposts. The statues represent St Clotilde, who was the 5th century queen of the Franks who converted Clovis, and St Jeanne de Valois who was a daughter of King Louis XI and who founded the female contemplative Order of the Annunciation in 1500.
Between the outer two pilasters on each side is a window in an ornate Baroque frame, with a swag of flowers above.
The façade is crowned by a triangular pediment (often erroneously called a tympanon in Italian), which only spans the space occupied by the inner four pilasters. It contains the coat-of-arms of France, carved in high relief. This was carved by Niccolò Fiammingo.
The courtyard of the Palazzo di San Luigi to the north of the church contains many epigraphs and funerary monuments formerly in this church, and in the French churches that have been demolished. Also, there are a few ancient Roman bits discovered in building works including a good sarcophagus.
Notable monuments here are: Andrea da Toledao 1518, Guglielmo d'Hautbois 1467, Bernard du Bovay 1625, an anonymous but impressive monument dated 1566, Giacomo de Penco 1510, one Heniguen 1471, Enrico Uranc 1471, Pietro de Amectis 1510, Jacques Brugère 1470, and anonymous 1382.
The church has a nave with side aisles, and five chapels on each side of its nave. There is no transept between the nave and sanctuary, neither is there any entrance vestibule.
There is an amazing number of high-quality funerary monuments in this church, many of them being to artists who contributed to the decoration of Roman churches. A good example is Pierre Legros, famous for his Ludovisi monument at Sant'Ignazio di Loyola a Campo Marzio.
The overwhelmingly rich interior decoration in polychrome marble and gilded stucco is by Dérizet, who finished it in 1756. An old rumour that appears in publications is that he used marble intended for use at the Gesù but "appropriated" when the Jesuits were suppressed in 1773. This is obviously false from the dates.
The arcade piers have gigantic Ionic pilasters with swagged capitals, revetted with a brecciated marble in red, green and white. This supports an entablature with its frieze in the same stone, which runs round the church. Above this each side wall has an attic plinth, on which sit four large round-headed windows. The barrel-vaulted nave ceiling springs from the plinth, with shallow lunettes over the windows.
The geometrically complex and richly decorated and gilded stucco work of the ceiling coffering contains the French fleur de lys. The central panels has a fresco depicting The Apotheosis of St Louis, which was painted in 1756 by Charles Joseph Natoire. He is famous for his paintings at Versailles.
The church organ is over the main entrance, in a balustraded floating gallery being held up by stucco angels.
The late 16th century painted wooden pulpit on the left hand side is worth inspecting.
The sanctuary has a dome, which is coffered in hexagons containing stars and rosettes. The pendentives sport stucco sculptures of the four Latin Doctors of the Church (SS Augustine, Jerome, Ambrose and Gregory). St Jerome is shown being taken into heaven with his lion! It is known that St Gregory is by Giovanni Battista Maini.
The pilasters and entablature frieze in the sanctuary are revetted in yellow marble. The high altar is against the far wall of the apse, and a doubletted pair of these pilasters supports a shallow triangular pediment with a broken cornice. Into the break is intruded the round top of the enormous altarpiece, a painting of the Assumption by Francesco Bassano the Younger. The pediment is occupied by a numinous stucco glory inhabited by angels, and above this the conch of the apse has diapered coffering bounded by wide flower garlands, all gilded.
The reason why the altar is dedicated to Our Lady is because of the full dedication of the church, which is to her primarily. This recalls the first church on the site, Santa Maria de Cella.
The chapels are described in anticlockwise order, beginning to the right of the entrance.
Chapel of St Denis of Paris
The first chapel on the right is dedicated to St Denis of Paris. The design is unusual, for there is no altar aedicule. Rather, the altarpiece in a red and white marble frame is simply hung on the far wall, which is revetted with verde antico -type green marble as if it were wallpaper. A pair of thin blind pilasters in alabaster occupy the corners. The altarpiece, by Renaud Levieux (1613-99) shows the saint curing a blind man.
The original memorials in here are to Claudio Puteani, 1577 to the right and Cardinal Charles d'Angennes de Rambouillet 1587 to the left. The former has a good bust, the latter a portrait in oils. To the right is also a memorial to Louis Roguet the sculptor, 1850.
Outside is a memorial to the French soldiers killed in their siege of the city in 1849, when the rebel Roman Republic was suppressed on behalf of the pope. Papal government only held on in the city for the next twenty years because of the support of the French.
Chapel of St Cecilia
The second chapel on the right is dedicated to St Cecilia, and has a polychrome marble aedicule in a correct neo-Classical style, the Corinthian order being used. There is a pair of yellow marble pilasters, not columns. The altarpiece depicting The Ecstasy of St Cecilia is a copy by Guido Reni in 1614 of a famous painting by Raphael.
The side walls and vault have frescoes of the Life of St Cecilia by Domenichino, painted 1616-1617. Before Caravaggio became fashionable in the 1950's, these were considered the main artistic attraction in the church. To the left the saint is recovering from an attempt to suffocate her in a steam bath, and to the right she is giving away her clothes to poor people. The vault shows her Apotheosis in the centre, flanked by her refusing to sacrifice to idols on the left and her being crowned by an angel with her husband Valerian, to the right.
Outside is a monument to the painter Xavier Sigalon, 1857.
Chapel of St Jeanne de Valois
To the right is the sumptuous neo-Classical monument to Louise Guilleman, 1859 and to the left is a memorial to Cardinal Arnaud d'Ossat.
Chapel of St Remigius
The fourth chapel on the right is dedicated to St Remigius of Rheims, who baptized King Clovis and hence was responsible for converting the Franks to Catholic Christianity. The altarpiece, by Jacopino del Conte 1547, shows the moment of the king's conversion in the presence of the saint.
The right hand wall fresco depicts Clovis at the Battle of Tolbiac. The work is anonymous, about 1550, although it has been attributed to Pellegrino Tibaldi. The same applies to the three battles scenes in the vault.
Outside is a monument to Just Pons Florimond, 1837 by Paul Le Moyne.
Chapel of the Crucifix
The fifth chapel on the right is dedicated to the Crucifix, and has a painted wooden one as its altarpiece.
There is an amazing number of small but high-quality 19th century memorials in this chapel, with a good selection of portrait busts, cameo medallions and bas-reliefs. The large Baroque monument is to Cardinal Henri Albert de La Grange d'Arquien, 1707. The sculptor Edmond Grasset, 1880, has a memorial here, as does Jean-Baptiste Wicar 1834. The Allegory of Painting on the latter is by Filippo Gnaccarini. The one to Pierre-Narcisse Guérin is by Lemoyne, 1836.
Chapel of St Matthew
The chapel was commissioned by Cardinal Matthieu Cointerel (he Italianized his surname), who left a legacy for it when he died in 1585. The executors first intended Jacob Cornelisz Cobaert to provide a statue as an altarpiece, and Giuseppe Cesari to fresco the side walls and vault. The latter actually did the vault, which has a central scene from the saint's life and two side panels depicting prophets. Then other projects caught his attention; meanwhile, Cobaert produced nothing.
The cardinal's executors lost patience, and commissioned Caravaggio in 1599 to finish the decoration. This was one of his first public commissions. The three paintings that resulted were finished in 1602, and depict three scenes from the life of the saint.
The Inspiration of St Matthew is the altarpiece, between two Corinthian columns in verde antico marble. It is actually the second attempt by the artist; the first was rejected by the executors as lacking in respect. This first attempt, St Matthew and the Angel, was eventually destroyed by bombing in the Second World War.
The Madonna at the entrance to the chapel is from the 15th century.
Chapel of Our Lady
The fourth chapel on the left is dedicated to Our Lady. The altarpiece is by Charles Mellin, who also frescoed the vault. The three fresco panels there show The Coronation of Our Lady in Heaven in the middle, flanked by two scenes from the Presentation of Christ.
The side wall frescoes are by Giovanni Baglione, and depict the Annunciation and the Visitation.
Chapel of St Louis of France
The third chapel on the left is dedicated to King St Louis IX, who has a chapel because the high altar is dedicated to Our Lady.
This is the most sumptuously decorated chapel in the church, in a lush Baroque style. It was fitted out by a woman architect called Plautilla Bricci, and consecrated in 1680. She was a disciple of Bernini, and it shows.
She also painted the altarpiece of the saint, which is a technically accomplished piece. It has a frame in yellow marble, matching the arc cornice above which is supported by a pair of Corinthian columns in red and white marble. Two stucco angels sit on the cornice, holding a bronze crown projecting over the altar which is also supported by a pair of swags hanging in mid-air.
This chapel has a little dome, occupied by angels and putti in white stucco relief superimposed on rays of glory from the garlanded oculus. This is a superb composition.
The large paintings on the side walls depict King St Louis with the Crown of Thorns by Ludovico Gimignani, to the right, and King Henry II and Queen Catherine de' Medici Present the Plan of the Church to King St Louis, by Nicolas Pinson to the left.
Chapel of St Nicholas of Bari
The second chapel on the left is dedicated to St Nicholas of Bari. The altarpiece showing the saint resurrecting three little boys, previously killed and pickled in brine, is by Girolamo Muziano. The two panels showing virgin martyrs that flank the aedicule are ascribed to Girolamo Massei (the left hand one shows St Catherine of Alexandria, but the identity of the right hand one is not obvious).
The side wall frescoes are by Baldassare Croce, and show the saint's birth to the left and his death to the right. They were restored by Giuseppe Manno in 1829, an effort amounting to repainting in several areas.
The vault frescoes are by Croce, although Ricci da Novara has also been suggested as the artist. The saint's Apotheosis in the middle, and his martyrdom to the left. The panel to the right shows him anonymously providing a dowry for a poor girl. Manno did restoration work on these as well.
Outside is a memorial to Cardinal Bartolomeo Lasagni, 1857 with a mosaic medallion.
Chapel of St Sebastian
The first chapel on the left is dedicated to St Sebastian. The altar has a pair of Corinthian columns in what looks like cipollino marble. The altarpiece depicting the saint's martyrdom is by Numa Boucoiran.
Here is a memorial to Cardinal François Joachim de Pierre de Bernis, sculpted by Francesco Massimiliano Laboureur in 1805. Also there is one to Pauline de Montmorin, by Joseph Charles Marin 1805. She had had a sexual relationship with Chateaubriand, who composed the epitaph. She is depicted in a bas-relief, dying of tuberculosis.
Outside is a monument to the painter Claude Lorrain (1600-1682) by Paul Le Moyne. He was famous for his studies of the Roman countryside, when the city was surrounded by over-grazed and treeless prairie with an ancient ruin here and there. Le Moyne demonstated his talent by carving an ancient Greek weeper embracing the bust of the deceased, while holding a wreath in that hand.
The church is open, according to its website (June 2018):
Daily 9:30 (11:30 Sundays) to 12:45 (12:15 Saturday), 14:30 to 18:30.
Please note that to protect the Caravaggio paintings in the church, flash photography of them is strictly forbidden. There are coin-operated lights by the paintings, and the lighting is good enough for you to take pictures without any flash.
Mass is celebrated, according to the church website (June 2018):
Weekdays 19:00. This is advertised as being preceded by "Vespers" at 18:45, although what sort of Vespers only takes under 15 minutes can be left to your judgment.
The nearby church of Sant'Ivo dei Bretoni is being used as a subsidiary Mass centre.
- Official diocesan web-page
- Italian Wikipedia article
- French Wikipedia article
- Interactive Nolli Map Website
- Church's website
- "De Alvariis" gallery on Flickr -exterior
- "De Alvariis" gallery on Flickr -interior
- Roma SPQR web-page with gallery
- Info.roma web-page
- "Romeartlover" web-page
- "Narthex" blog-page (in French, good photos)
- "Vinoconvista" blog-page (in English)
- Youtube video by Entraroma
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