Sant'Agnese in Agone is a famous 17th century church of ancient foundation in the Piazza Navona, which is in the rione Parione. The postal address is Via di Santa Maria dell'Anima 30/A, but there is usually no way in here. Pictures of the church on Wikimedia Commons are here. There is an English Wikipedia page here.
The dedication is to St Agnes, and this is the traditional site of her martyrdom.
The church is not a minor basilica.
The early history of the church is inextricably bound up with the great ancient Roman athletics stadium which used to occupy the area of the present piazza, and which has left remains in the crypt. The Stadium Domitiani was built by the emperor Domitian in the year 86 for athletics competitions in the Greek style, of which he was a fan. Unlike modern athletics stadiums, this one was shaped like an extended horseshoe with the start and end of running races at the southern, straight end.
The structure was massive, and was constructed in brick and limestone. The cavea or terraces for the spectators (10 600 could be accommodated) were in tiers, supported by massive arched vaults with the outer walls faced in travertine. There was much sculptural decoration, and the famous nearby statue of the Pasquino is thought to be a surviving remnant of it.
The stadium was also known as the Campus or Circus Agonalis. This comes from the Greek word αγων (agōn), which means a competition involving some effort, usually physical. Hence, it came to mean an athletics meeting, and gave the name agone to the church. (The latter has nothing to do with the English word "agony", which is derivative.) Campus Agonalis mutated over the centuries into navona.
The stadium had a long history. It survived as an open space all the way through the Middle Ages, and in fact was one of the few that the mediaeval city had. Until 1477, when the city's main market was moved to here from the foot of the Capitoline, it continued to be used for sports and games. Only in the 15th century did the old cavea get quarried away completely and be replaced by domestic buildings.
St Agnes was buried in the catacombs at the present basilica of Sant'Agnese fuori le Mura after her martyrdom in 304. She is one of the great Roman virgin martyrs, but unfortunately the earliest references to her are not easy to reconcile. The complete legend that has come down to us, and which obviously influenced the works of art featuring her, is from the early 5th century and was published in both Greek and Latin. It seems to be a romance derived from the hints in the earlier sources, and hence unreliable.
The earliest narrative evidence is from St Ambrose, whose homily in her honour from the end of the 4th century describes her as just about at marriageable age, which was twelve in ancient Rome. In custody she refused to marry, which would have commuted her sentence of death as a Christian, and said that she did not want any man looking at her body. She was formally executed with the sword, which indicates that she was from a family of high social status. Further the fact that the body was released for burial, instead of being disposed of with contempt, reinforces this supposition. Hence, we glimpse a cemetery on the site of the basilica for people of some social standing. Also, the fact that she was allowed by her father to make a public proclamation of Christianity indicates that the family was Christian. Ancient Roman girls were absolutely under the control of their fathers (or nearest male relatives) until they married.
The trouble starts with the poetic epitaph composed for her grave by Pope St Damasus, slightly earlier than Ambrose, which is extant and visible at the basilica's entrance. It describes how the saint, at the first proclamation of the Great Persecution by the emperor Diocletian, rushed into the street to proclaim her Christianity and was seized and burned to death as a result. This fate would have been for a person of lower social status, unless her hostile father permitted it. Ambrose and Damasus obviously had different versions of the story. The epitaph also describes how she was forced to pose nude after her arrest, and preserved her modesty with her very long hair (Nudaque profusum crimen per membra dedisse). This episode is familiar in the iconography.
Prudentius, contemporary with Ambrose, adds the detail that the saint was sent to be "exposed in a brothel" before execution, where a young man who looked at her naked was struck blind. This theme is continued in the legendary acta, where her hair grows miraculously to cover her. This event allegedly took place in one of the arch-vaulted chambers under the terraces of the Stadium Domitiani, and her execution then occurred in the stadium itself. Just how horrible these chambers were can be realized from the Latin word fornicatio, literally meaning "things taking place under the arches" but giving the English word "fornication".
The church here preserves the alleged head of the saint, while the rest of her remains are enshrined at the basilica.
It may be noted that being "exposed in a brothel" in reality did not involve pornographic modelling. It is known to have been inflicted on Christian women of low or no social status, such as slaves, and entailed being chained to a bed and raped by the brothel's clients until death through exhaustion. One scholarly opinion is that the Agnes story has its ultimate source in a young Christian girl who was abducted, molested and killed at the stadium in this way, but this is controversial and the present consensus is that the Ambrose version is probably nearest the truth.
An oratory was established in the vaulted chambers where the brothel concerned had been located by tradition. The first evidence of it comes from the end of the 8th century, when it was mentioned in the Itinerary of Einsiedeln as dedicated to St Agnes. At this time, it was served by Basilian monks of the Byzantine rite.
There is a reference dating to 999 which shows that these vaulted chambers were being used as warehouses by Benedictine abbeys with property portfolios in the area, so the cavea of the stadium was still structurally intact then. The abbey of Farfa had a dependent convent at what is now San Luigi dei Francesi nearby, and was responsible for the administration of the oratory by this date. Given the pilgrimage interest in St Agnes by then, the oratory would have been a profitable little enterprise.
There were other oratories or chapels in these vaults; one dedicated to St Catherine is on record, and the church of Nostra Signora del Sacro Cuore on the other side of the piazza derives from another one.
In 1186 the church was listed as dependent on San Lorenzo in Damaso, and the Catalogue of Turin, c. 1320, states that it had one priest. It would have been fully parochial by this time.
By this time, the Piazza Navona contained several palazzi of high-status families, and it is on record that they used the church as a location for their sepulchral monuments. However one family, the Pamphilj (note the "j"), executed a successful takeover and turned the church into their private possession.
A plan of 1652 by Giovanni Battista Mola (1585-1665) survives of the small old church, which was commissioned when the rebuilding project was mooted. The old church also features in several contemporary depictions of the piazza.
The two entrances were on the present Via di Santa Maria dell'Anima, from which two sets of stairs led to a small basilical layout with three pillars on each side supporting the central ceiling vault. A narrow rectangular apse had an exit in its far wall which led into the Piazza Navona. The plan was rather irregular, the walls of the church being slightly skew, and a neighbouring building intruded into the near left hand corner. To either side of the apse was a staircase leading down to the crypt, advertised as the location of the original brothel.
There was a squat tower campanile with one round-headed soundhole on each face, also with pinnacles and balustrades on top which must have been added by the Clerks Regular.
The most famous person associated with the old church was St Francesca Romana, who was baptized here.
The Pamphilj family were not Roman patricians, but had migrated to Rome from Gubbio to seek their fortune at the end of the 15th century. Their enemies accused them of having been terroni who lived with their chickens, but this was untrue. Incredibly, they managed to have a family member elected as Pope Innocent X in 1644; he was a very capable pope, but thoroughly nepotistic and the family never looked back.
Early in his reign, the family built a palazzo next to the church which was designed by Girolamo Rainaldi. Then the pope had the idea of rebuilding the church as the mortuary chapel of the palazzo, in effect, and made the Clerks Regular an offer that they couldn't refuse. They moved to San Lorenzo in Lucina, and the parish was suppressed.
The rebuilding began in 1652, with the demolition of the old church except for the ancient Roman remains in the crypt. The first proposed design was by Girolamo Rainaldi (who was still working on the unfinished palazzo next door), and his son Carlo Rainaldi. They proposed a church on the plan of a Greek cross, with a drumless dome, rectilinear façade and a substantial flight of stairs leading to the front door on the Piazza Navona (that the church was to have its orientation reversed was part of the original brief). However, the design was publicly criticized and the pope was not happy with it, so he gave the commission to Francesco Borromini in 1653.
Innocent X died in 1655, and work proceeded slowly under the oversight of his nephew Camillo Pamphili. The new pope, Alexander VII, was no friend of Borromini and appointed a committee to enquire into any fraud or mismanagement on his part. Borromini resigned in 1657 before he could be dismissed, and Carlo Rainaldi took over again. Sadly, Borromini's imaginative design for the proposed pair of campanili was discarded in favour of something more conventional. More seriously, progress slowed right down.
Camillo died in 1666 before the church was finished, and his wife Olimpia Aldobrandini decided to call in Gian Lorenzo Bernini. He altered Borromini's design, leaving the façade mainly as planned but adding a high pediment surmounted by an attic. The edifice was completed in 1672, and the church was consecrated on 17 January of that year despite having decorative features uncompleted. Also, the entrance flight of stairs was only finished in the following year by Giuseppe Baratta.
You can spot a dove holding an olive twig in several places in the decoration of the church, and this comes from the family's coat of arms. They liked to say that the bird represented the family's friendliness and peaceful manners, and it is historically true to say that the Pamphilj have demonstrated a more developed sense of civic responsibility than some other old Roman families.
The original main altar was replaced by the present one in 1724. Unusually for a church, this altar is not dedicated to the patron but to St John the Baptist. Amazingly, the church remained in the private possession of the Pamphilj family for over three hundred years. However, they let it get into a serious state of disrepair in the early 19th century. To their credit, they then spent a very large sum of money in a thorough restoration by Andrea Busiri Vici, and this took place between 1852 and 1859. Also, they commissioned one G. B. Celsi to provide a set of wrought iron railings in 1851 to stop the rabble sitting on the entrance steps.
As well as the obvious one of prestige, the advantage to the family of having the church was as a place of burial. There is a sepulchral crypt under the presbyterium, next to St Agnes's crypt, but this became full in the 19th century and so the family built a mortuary chapel in the grounds of their country villa, the Villa Doria Pamphilj. When the property was sequestered to become a public park, they were allowed to keep possession of the Cappella dei Pamphilj which is worth a look if you are in the vicinity.
The family finally donated the church to the Diocese of Rome in 1992. Since then it has had no major pastoral function, but is one of the most popular churches for tourists to visit in Rome. The people interacting with the tourists, in selling souvenirs and answering questions, are usually more friendly than is the case in some nearby churches where tourists and visitors can be treated as a nuisance.
In July 1517, Pope Leo X made this a titular church. The title was suppressed by Pope Innocent XI in 1654, and transferred to Sant'Agnese fuori le Mura. In 1998, the church here was re-established as a titular deaconry by Pope John Paul II, with Lorenzo Antonetti as cardinal deacon. He was promoted to cardinal priest pro hac vice in 2008, but died in 2013.
The present cardinal deacon is Gerhard Ludwig Müller, appointed in 2014.
The plan is quite complex, and involves an octagon superimposed on a Greek cross itself superimposed on a square. The sides of the square line up with the inner corners of the campanili, which are part of the unified design of the façade which is tacked onto the near arm of the Greek cross. This arm forms the entrance vestibule, which leads into the domed nave which is an irregular octagon formed by chamfering a square smaller than the one just mentioned. The side arms of the Greek cross are the chapels dedicated to St Agnes (right) and St Sebastian (left), and the far arm is the apse containing the main altar.
The outline of the larger square is maintained by four enormous piers which support the dome, and into each pier is inserted a small apsidal chapel which open off the shorter sides of the octagon.
The stairs down to the crypt are in the right side of the chapel of St Agnes. To the left of the chapel of St Sebastian is the chapel of St Francesca Romana, and to the right of the same is the chapel of St Philip Neri. The left hand side of the chapel of St Agnes has a door which leads through two rooms to the main sacristy designed by Borromini.
The octagonal dome, ellipsoidal in lead with double ribs, sits on a high drum with a large rectangular window on each side. Alternate windows are sheltered by floating gables and archivolts. In between the windows are conjoined pairs of Corinthian pilasters supporting a cog-wheel entablature. The lantern is Carlo Rainaldi's design, and involves eight engaged Corinthian columns (Borromini wanted sixteen) with narrow round-headed windows in between. The columns support another cog-wheel entablature, decorated with eight flaming torch finials and with an ogee cupola on top. The whole ensemble is topped off by a cross on a globe.
If you go round to the Via di Santa Maria dell'Anima, you can see the back end of the church as a travertine façade containing a pedimented aedicule with an image of Our Lady. The interesting thing here is the pair of bricked-up doors with raised segmental pediments, descendants of the original entrances to the mediaeval church. The façade has two storeys, the first one having four Corinthian pilasters in shallow relief and the second having a very large archivolt enclosing a lunette window which lights the church from above the main altar.
To the north of this façade is a doorway which leads into a room which, in turn, leads either to the Chapel of St Agnes or to the Borromini Sacristy.
The wide, partly coved (concave) façade is the work of Rainaldi (although most of if was planned by Borromini), who worked on it from 1657 to 1672. It was very influential on later Baroque architecture in Europe.
There are three separate but unified design elements: The central coved frontage (which is the actual façade of the church), and the pair of identical campanili which front side rooms. All elements are of the same white travertine limestone.
Starting with the central zone, which is of one storey although there is a high attic (note that this term in Classical architecture does not refer to a loft). The focus is on a propylaeum with two pairs of Corinthian semi-columns supporting an entablature with a molded architrave, a blank frieze and a cornice with modillions (as is appropriate to the Corinthian order which is the background design element for the church). The capitals of the semi-columns are connected by swags. Above the entablature is a triangular pediment intruding into the attic, which has a blank tympanum (was a relief sculpture originally planned for this?). On the apex of the pediment is a coat-of-arms which reaches above the balustrade of the attic.
The very large central doorway has bronze doors sporting the Pamphilj dove, and a Baroque doorcase crowned by a winged putto's head beneath a segmental pediment set on a pair of inverted wineglass plinths.
The two coved zones either side of the propylaeum contain the smaller side doors, and it through one of these that visitors usually enter the church. They are crowned by vertical elliptical tondi sheltered by omega-shaped cornices, and each is bounded by a pair of semi-columns in the same style as those of the propylaeum. Above these doorways is a pair of blank, almost square tablets in relief with molded borders.
The attic has a balustrade with balusters except behind the main coat-of-arms, where it is solid.
The campanili have three storeys. The first has two pairs of conjoined Corinthian pilasters supporting an entablature which is a continuation of that of the central frontage. They enclose two large windows, a rectangular one with a triangular pediment and balustraded balcony over a round-headed one which looks as if it was originally intended as a doorway.
The second storey has a very high plinth which is a continuation of the central attic, and this supports a square kiosk with two Corinthian pilasters at each corner which support an entablature with a very prominent cornice. The plinth has four blind pilasters embellished with rectangular panels, and the outer two of these end in bases for statues. However, only the inner one of the right-hand campanile has a statue; the others are empty. The kiosk has a large archway with the wall above it bowed, and this bowed wall has a relief of flying angels supporting a coat-of-arms.
The third storey of the campanili is round, with four conjoined pairs of Corinthian columns supporting a cog-wheen entablature and framing rectangular apertures with pairs of pilasters. The cupolas are ogee shaped, in lead with finials in the same style as that on the dome lantern.
Note that the plinths of the second storeys of the campanili have two clocks. This was not originally a redundancy for the sake of symmetry. Originally one of them showed the Italian (originally ancient Roman) method of telling the time, which is now completely unfamiliar. This divided the duration of daylight into twelve "hours", the length of which of course changed with the seasons. Zero hour was sunrise, and the twelfth hour was fixed at sunset. This meant that the clocks had to be re-set regularly to be correct. Incredibly the Papal government persisted with this method of telling the time well into the 19th century, forcing the city to go back to the old method after the French occupation and only conforming to the rest of the world in 1842.
The other clock told the time in the familiar way, which used to be called tempo ultramontano or "the way they tell the time on the other side of the Alps".
Many tourist guides in Rome will explain how Bernini made one of the personifications in his Fountain of the Four Rivers hold his hand as if protecting himself from the imminent collapse of the church's façade after the alleged bodgery by Borromini. It is true that the relationship between Borromini and Bernini was tense (although they did work together at one time), but the fountain was completed before the façade so the apparent gesture was not intentional.
The Greek cross plan of Rainaldi was conserved by the later architects, and Borromini added eight large ribbed Corinthian columns of red cottanello marble to flank the arms of the cross. This arrangement emphasizes the octagonal shape of the intersection, and many fail to notice the Greek cross plan. The interior is dominated by the dome, sitting above the octagonal space.
The cross-arms are barrel-vaulted in gilded stucco, and the vault above the main altar is stepped inwards to focus attention downwards onto the altar. There is a large lunette window here.
The four smaller side chapels have conchs above the altarpieces, and above these are stucco panels between the capitals of the pairs of pilasters that flank the cottanello columns. These panels contain angels and putti with attributes of the saints to whom the chapels are dedicated.
The interior decoration is extremely sumptious, and very expensive. One immediately noticeable feature is that the altarpieces are not paintings, but relief carvings in marble. 19th century guidebooks were often dismissive of the ensemble ("the 17th century interior contains no artistic works of merit"), and it is true that the church contains no outstanding individual artworks. Its value lies in the survival as a coherent scheme of a major act of patronage of a famous source of artistic benefaction in the 17th century.
Each cross arm has a pair of doorways in the side walls, surmounted by cantoria for individual singers which look like floating opera boxes. In between these cantoria and the doorways are eight panels displaying flying angels holding attributes of the patron saint, and these are by Domenico Guidi and Ercole Ferrata. Going anticlockwise from the right of the entrance, the artists are: Guidi, Ferrata (2), Guidi, Ferrata, Guidi, uncertain.
The dome is one of several in Rome on the empyrean model, which attempts to persuade the one looking up that the view is of the heavens opened. The drum has paired ribbed Corinthian pilasters in between eight large windows having segmental pediments with split cornices, all the details being gilded. Blue strips between pilasters and windows emphasize the empyrean effect. The frieze of the entablature at the bottom of the drum has an inscription: Ingressa Agnes turpitudinis locum, angelum Domini praeparatum invenit ("On entering the place of uncleanness, Agnes found the angel of the Lord ready").
The dome fresco depicts The Apotheosis of St Agnes into the Glory of Heaven, and is mostly by Ciro Ferri. However, he died in 1689 before finishing it and his pupil Sebastiano Corbellini achieved completion. It contains a host of angels, saints and Old Testament characters centered on Our Lady welcoming Agnes. Not all the saints have been positively identified, but the bionda holding a cross is obviously St Mary Magdalen and the character with the harp is King David. St Philip Neri is also there, and there is a suspicion that he was added when the fresco was retouched during the 19th century restoration.
The lantern contains the dove of the Holy Spirit, which is a rather boastful allusion to the Pamphilj dove as well.
The four large dome pendentives display frescoes showing allegories of the four Cardinal Virtues. They are the first frescoes executed by Giovanni Battista Gaulli, nicknamed Il Baciccio, who was indebted to Bernini for the commission. Prudence and Providence are to the left of the main altar, and Justice and Peace to the right. Facing the entrace, Fortitude and Charity are to the left (note the violent putto hitting a Classical statue with a hammer), and to the right are Temperance and Chastity. The latter has a pair of putti having a fight; the winner is Anteros, and the blindfolded loser is Eros. The figure at the bottom wearing a rosy crown represents Lust, and there has been some speculation as to which of the Pamphilj family's female enemies it was modelled on.
As mentioned, the main altar is not part of the main decorative cycle of the church since it was only finished in 1724. It replaced an earlier one designed by Mattia de Rossi. Four ribbed Composite columns in verde antico support an entablature with the frieze in the same stone, and above is a split and involuted pediment into which is inserted a device containing a dove in glory. A pair of angels sit on the halves of the pediment, and above three putti hold a bronze scroll which reads: Non surrexit inter natos mulierum major Ioanne Baptista ("None has arisen among the sons of women greater than John the Baptist"). The altar is dedicated to him, and there is also a sly reference to Giovanni Battista Pamphilj, the former name of Pope Innocent X.
Allegedly, the columns came from the demolished triumphal arch of Marcus Aurelius in the Corso. If so, they were re-cut to remove the erosion. The design was by Francesco Moderati, while the two stucco angels are by Antonio della Bitta (they were put in their present places in the 19th century restoration).
The sculptural altarpiece showing The Holy Family with St John the Baptist and his Parents is by Domenico Guidi, was completed in 1683 and was re-inserted into the new altar. St John is the boy kneeling in front of the Christ Child, and his parents Zechariah and Elizabeth are to the right.
Chapel of St Agnes
This occupies the right hand arm of the Greek cross, and is embellished with yellow alabaster, breccia, gilded stucco and polychrome marbles including verde antico and pietrasanta. The altar itself is made from a sarcophagus in red cottanello marble showing the Pamphilj dove, and is by Rainaldi. Above it is a statue of St Agnes Among the Flames by Ercole Ferrata; the depiction is based on the Damasus epitaph, and symbolically the flames are a representation of the fire of sexulal temptation (St Agnes is a special patron of chastity). A small concealed lantern throws natural light onto the statue.
The altar is framed by a false perspective giving the impression of a barrel vault. This is achieved by having three pairs pilasters in verde antico of increasing hight supporting three nested archivolts in coralline breccia separated by the apparent vaulting in pale pink serravezza. The composition is framed by a pair of gigantic pilasters in alabaster.
Above the trompe l'oeil vault are a pair of angels carrying the symbols of martyrdom (palm branch and crown), and these were also executed by Ferrata. Above these he executed three putti holding a text saying In medio ignis non sum aestuata ("In the middle of the fire I am not burned").
Above the chapel apse there are three musician angels in stucco by Paolo Landini.
The side walls display four tondi containing alabaster cameos of famous Church personages who had devotions to the saint. To the right are SS Thomas Aquinas (top) and Jerome (bottom), and to the left are St Ambrose (top) and Pope Honorius I (bottom). A staircase on the right hand side leads down to the Crypt of St Agnes. It may be locked, but the sacristan will normally open it for you.
Crypt of St Agnes
The crypt is formed of three chambers made from ancient Roman remains of the stadium, one of these being the traditional brothel where St Agnes was abused. Throughout the church's history this area has been subject to damp and flooding, and this is still a problem. The Pamphilj did not help themselves in this, because before 1866 they regularly arranged the flooding of Piazza Navona so that the citizens could enjoy boating on the resulting lake. The water then had to be bailed out of the crypt.
At the foot of the stairs you will see a 17th century fresco of St Agnes Supported by an Angel, and below this is an epigraph of the acta of her martyrdom. Further on, the altar has a marble relief by Giovanni Buratti showing St Agnes Being Led to her Martyrdom. This is a disturbing piece of work, because it depicts an eleven-year-old girl being taken out of the brothel by ancient Roman soldiers and the execution of the scupture is very realistic.
It used to be thought that this work was by Alessandro Algardi, but at best he only inspired Buratti.
The seriously damaged fresco work on the walls here was by Eugenio Cisterna, executed in 1893 after major restoration by Vici in 1885. The style is Catacomb Christian, and the themes are the Apocalypse of St John and the martyrdom of St Agnes. The marble flooring and two panels in opus sectile were restored by Vici.
The last room is the ancient oratory which gave rise to the church. It has two columns with Ionic capitals supporting the ceiling vault, and some remnants of Cosmatesque decoration in the floor.
Legend claimed that there was a tunnel from this crypt leading to the catacombs of St Agnes on the Via Nomentana; no passageway has been found which might have given rise to this story, and it seems extremely unlikely that one has existed. On the other hand, those living up the Via Nomentana may hope that this odd legend is a prophecy of a Linea D metro line to help them get to the city centre!
Chapel of St Sebastian
This is in the Greek cross arm to the left, opposite the chapel of St Agnes. The decorative design of the two chapels is identical, except there are no cameos here. The statue of the saint over the altar is in a neo-Classical style, by Pietro Paolo Campi who finished it in 1719. It has been claimed that this was a genuine Classical statue that was reworked, but this is incorrect.
Chapel of St Philip Neri
A door to the right of the Chapel of St Sebastian leads into a room, which leads in turn via a right turn to the chapel of St Philip Neri which is just to the left of the main apse in the plan. The anteroom also give access to the Pamphilj burial crypt, completed in 1864.
The ceiling fresco of The Apotheosis of St Philip Neri is by Francesco Allegrini. This, together with the rest of the decorative scheme, was restored in 1859 by Annibale Angelini under the supervision of Vici.
This used to be the Blessed Sacrament Chapel, but in 1908 Pope Pius X decreed that the skull of St Agnes should be enshrined on the altar here. It used to be part of the collection of relics at San Lorenzo in Palatio ad Sancta Sanctorum, and ownership of the relic remains with the Papacy. This is a popular spot in the church for private prayer and veneration, since the tourists tend not to get this far.
Chapel of St Francesca Romana
As mentioned, St Francesca Romana was baptized in the old church. When that was demolished, the redundant baptismal font was kept as a sacred relic and enshrined under the chapel altar. The pair of angels flanking it are by Andrea Bolgi. The altarpiece is a marble relief of the saint accompanied by her Guardian Angel, and is anonymous. Domenico Guidi is suggested as the artist. It is set into an aedicule of purplish-red marble.
The ceiling fresco shows The Apotheosis of St Francesca Romana, and is thought to be by Francesco Cozza. The saint is shown being taken into heaven while accompanied by angels playing musical instruments; the quality of this artwork is not very good. In fact, it is so bad as to be almost charming.
Chapel of St Cecilia
Chapel of St Emerentiana
This is the top right hand one. It is dedicated to St. Emerentiana, an obscure early Roman female martyr who had her own catacombs (now inaccessible) further up the Via Nomentana than those of St Agnes.
She was co-opted into the developed legend of St Agnes, which describes her as the latter's milk-sister (that is, the daughter of Agnes's wet-nurse). After Agnes was buried, she was spotted by some pagans while praying at the tomb who tried to make her run away by throwing rocks at her. She refused to move, and was killed as a result. This event is depicted in the altarpiece, which was begun by Ferrata. Unfortunately, he died before he got very far and the work was completed by Leonardo Retti.
She has a church in the Trieste district, Sant'Emerenziana a Tor Fiorenza.
Chapel of St Alexis
This is the bottome right hand one, and is dedicated to St Alexis who has his basilica at Sant'Alessio all'Aventino. The legend of the saint is that he left his parents' home as a young man, and returned anonymously as a destitute beggar to live under an outside staircase which is preserved at his basilica as a relic. He was only recognized by his parents when actually dying, and the altarpiece here depicts the moment. It shows Pope Innocent I showing the parents the document which the saint had carried, and which proved his identity.
The work is by Giovanni Francesco Rossi.
Chapel of St Eustace
This is the bottom left hand one, and is dedicated to St Eustace who is the patron saint of hunters. The altarpiece shows the saint having been thrown to the lions in the amphitheatre, with the allegely miraculous result that they behaved like pussy cats. The work was begun by Melchiorre Cafà, but he died soon after beginning it and Ferrata and Rossi collaborated in its completion.
Tomb of Pope Innocent X
Above the main entrance you can see the funerary monument of Pope Innocent X which dates from 1730, and is by Giovanni Battista Maini. This oddly unsatisfactory work shows the pope standing behind his sarcophagus as if it were a balcony, flanked by two pairs of caryatids. The female figures sitting on the sarcophagus are Justice, to the right, and Religion.
Above this monument in turn is the church organ, inserted into the barrel vault of the Greek cross arm forming the entrance narthex. The present instrument dates from 1914, but used parts from the original 17th century organ including the lead pipes.
The body of the pope rests in the crypt to the left of the high altar.
A door in the left hand side of the Chapel of St Agnes leads into a room. Straight ahead is an exit into the Via di Santa Maria dell'Anima, while on the right hand side is a monumental entrance into the narthex of the so-called "summer sacristy" (as distinct from the actual sacristy next to the chapel of St Francesca Romana, which is nicknamed the "winter sacristy").
This edifice amounts to a small church in its own right, and since it is fully designed by Borromini it is very important and counts with his other small churches in the city such as San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane or Santa Maria dei Sette Dolori. It is dedicated to Our Lady, and contains the church's Marian altar (you may already have noticed a lack of one in the main church).
The entrance is flanked by two angels in marble, carrying holy water stoups, and these are by Andrea Baratta. It leads into the narthex, a transverse rectangular barrel-vaulted room with a lavatorium in a niche again by Baratta. The sacristy itself is entered through an archway, which has its echo in the triumphal arch into the apse containing the high altar at the other end.
The space is laid out as a collegiate chapel, with wooded choir stalls along the side walls. This indicates that perhaps the original intention when building the church was to have a convent or college of priests attached to serve it, something that did not happen. The layout is octagonal, the octagon being formed by chamfering a rectangle, and there is a spectacular ceiling vault in gold with white stucco embellishments which springs from Ionic pilasters (not Corinthian, as everywhere else in the church).
The frescoes here were painted by Francesco Allegrini in 1660. The ceiling vault has an Assumption, and the side walls of the apse have the Birth of the Virgin and the Annunciation. The icon on the high altar is also by him.
According to the church's website (May 2019), the church is open:
9:00 to 13:00, 15:00 to 19:00 (20:00 on weekends).
Masses during the week are not advertised on the church's website (May 2019).
Sunday Masses are at 19:00 (Saturday evening), 12:15 and 19:00. (The 11:00 Mass has been dropped.)
Visitors should not wander about during Mass.
- Bonelli, Renato. '"Borromini Today": In the 400th Anniversary of His Birth, 1599: Sant'Agnese .in Agone, Roma" article published in: L'Architettura V. 45 No. 523 (May 1999) P. 319-30
- "Church of St. Agnes, Rome, Italy" article published in: American Architect: The Architectural Review, 1922 Dec. 6, v. 122
- Huemer, Frances. "Borromini and Michelangelo, II: Some Preliminary Thoughts on Sant'Agnese in Piazza Navona", Article published in: Source (New York, NY) 2001, v. 20, no. 4, summer, p. 12-22
- Sciubba, S. Sant’ Agnese in Agone. Roma: Marietti, 1962. 116 p.