Sant'Ivo alla Sapienza is a 17th century Baroque collegiate church with a postal address at Corso del Rinascimento 40 in the rione Sant'Eustachio. Pictures of the church on Wikimedia Commons are here. There is an English Wikipedia article here.
The church is dedicated to St Yves, patron saint of lawyers.
Early days of institution
The church was built from 1632 to 1660 by the architect Francesco Borromini, as the church of the University of Rome known as La Sapienza ("wisdom — knowledge"). It performed this role for almost three hundred years.
The remote ancestor of the university was the Studium Urbis, founded as a house of studies for clerics by Pope Boniface VIII in 1303. The Diocese of Rome had no in-house theological training on offer for its priests, so they had to go elsewhere such as to the University of Bologna. The pope was worried about the implications for discipline.
The studium was at first a house near the church of Sant'Eustachio in Campo Marzio. When the brief of the institution was extended to allow entry to any male citizen of Rome, other houses were purchased. This ad-hoc arrangement required the students to attend San'Eustachio, since no chapel was provided for what had become the Archiginnasio Romano.
Chapel of SS Fortunatus and Leo
The lack of dedicated premises was a burden. Pope Eugene IV (1431-47) ordered the re-fitting of the entire range of houses on the south side of the city block now occupied by the palazzo, on the present Via dei Sediari.
However, a chapel had to wait until 1514 when Pope Leo X ordered a room in one of the houses to be fitted out as a chapel dedicated to SS Fortunatus and Leo. This is the predecessor of the present church, and was just to the left of the main entrance to the Archiginnasio which was itself halfway along Via dei Sediari. An odd requirement was that Mass was to be celebrated just before sunrise, for the students only. The local clergy did not want any competition.
In 1564, plans for a complete reconstruction of the premises were finally put out to tender. Pope Pius IV commissioned Pirro Ligorio and Guidetto Guidetti to build a Domus Studi. Work progressed slowly, but Pope Gregory XIII (1572-85) authorized the demolition of the chapel to make way for construction. The members of the studium then had to worship in the nearby San Giacomo dei Spagnoli, which proved unsatisfactory.
The pope also appointed Giacomo Della Porta in 1577 to expedite the work, and he remained in charge until he died in 1602. Then there was a hiatus, leaving the institution with no church -although a site was reserved for it. By this point, the institution had become known as the Studium Urbis Sapientiae. Oddly, Della Porta built the surviving campanile -which is surviving proof that he also intended to build a church. The evidence suggests that this would have been round, modelled on the Temple of Romulus at Santi Cosma e Damiano.
Borromini was appointed as supervising architect in 1632, during the reign of Pope Urban VIII Barberini. However, he only began work on the church in 1643. Pope Innocent X Pamphilj (1644-55) oversaw the erection of the actual fabric, finished in 1652, but his successor Alexander VII Chigi authorized the consecration of the church in 1660 when the interior decoration was finally finished. He had intervened selfishly by requiring that his own family emblems appeared in the church decorations, with rather crass results (see the façade).
The heraldry of the families of these three popes dominate the decoration of the church. The Baberini gave their bees, the Pamphilj their dove with olive branch and fleur de lys, and the Chigi their stylized mountains and star.
Borromini used the façade of the church to terminate the courtyard of the palazzo at its far end, following the proposal of Della Porta.
Loss of prestige
Borromini's interior design allowed for an enrichment with statuary, but this was never carried out.
Initially, the church was admired and its innovative details copied elsewhere. Especially, the famous corkscrew spire inspired the one on the Church of the Saviour at Copenhagen .
However, with the advent of the ideologically-driven neo-Classical style in the later 18th century, the church fell out of fashion. Guidebooks and descriptions of Roman churches from then on and through the 19th century might not mention the church at all, these including the famous expositions by Titi and Nibby.
In 1783, a new high altar was provided by Nicola Forti.
In 1870, the Sapienza became a secular university. For the next sixty-five years it remained here, but the site became intolerably cramped.
What is kept very quiet nowadays is that the church was actually deconsecrated at the end of the 19th century, and used as a museum. Diego Angeli writing in 1903 has this: Oggi la chiesa è transformata in Museo pedagogico e fa parte della facoltà de lettere dell'Università. Il quadro dell'altare maggiore ... resta coperto da una tela.
All movable religious items were removed, including the two side altars.
In 1935, the University finally moved to a suitable campus provided for it, the Città Universitaria near San Lorenzo fuori le Mura. There, it was provided with a new church which took up the name of the old one -Chiesa della Sapienza (worth visiting). Expansion continued, and the University now has a large suburban campus with its superb modern church of San Tommaso d’Aquino a Tor Vergata.
The vacated palazzo was re-fitted as the headquarters of the Archivio di Stato di Roma, which it remains. The church was re-consecrated, but has only recovered its early fame as an important architectural statement since the Second World War.
Unfortunately, the restoration did not include any attempt to re-introduce any devotional works of art. As a result, this is one church in Rome of no interest to religious pilgrims and where no-one visits to light a candle.
Since 1997, the complex has also been the location of the Centro Culturale "Paolo VI", an offshoot of the University chaplaincy outreach of the Diocese. The courtyard has become the venue of musical events (details here).
The external layout is rectangular, with an incurved segmental arc as the façade occupying one narrow end of the rectangle. The fabric is an integral part of the palazzo, and is in brick with the dome in concrete reinforced by brick.
The arcaded walkways at ground level of the palazzo continue as passages to either side of the church, to two large street doorways on the Via del Teatro Valle off the Piazza di Sant'Eustachio. Behind the church façade either side of the main entrance are two hexagonal side entrance vestibules, entered via these passages. Further on, just before the exits to the street, are two further side entrances which lead into two sacristies on an irregular tetrahedral plan, flanking the church's main altar.
The church's campanile, by Della Porta, is not by the church but is over the north-west corner of the palazzo. It is easily missed.
It is a kiosk in bare pink brick, with architectural details in travertine limestone. Each face has a large arched soundhole with shallow Doric imposts, flanked by a pair of Siamese-twin blind pilasters (joined at top and bottom) which do not quite reach the corner of the kiosk. These support a stone entablature without an architrave, posted out over the pilasters. Above is a low second storey, each side of which has a horizontal elliptical aperture and matching pilaster twins. However there is only a brick cornice above, supporting an ogee-curved cupola on a low brick attic. This is crowned by a ball finial.
The façade provides a stop to the vista along the courtyard of the palazzo from the main entrance. It is coved, with a segmental arc, and has two storeys. The fabric is in pink brick, with architectural details in limestone.
The first storey has four Doric pilasters, with a wider fifth pair at the ends of the curve which are distorted by the obtuse angle here. A sixth pair is folded into the corners between the façade and the frontages of the palazzo. These pilasters support a dividing entablature with a blank frieze. Each of the five zones defined by the pilasters is occupied by a blank arch with a narrow archivolt springing from Doric imposts.
The central arch is occupied entirely by the single entrance door (the side entrances are off the cloister walkways beyond the façade). The other four zones each has a rectangular window within a molded stone arch frame, itself bounded by a recessed arch in the brickwork.
The second storey is, at first glance, identical to the first with the exception that the central zone is identical to the others instead of having a door. However the pilasters are Ionic, with swagged capitals, and the entablature above has modillions (little brackets) on its cornice. This storey stands on an attic plinth, with stone pedestals below the pilasters and doubly recessed rectangular panels in the brickwork between them.
Above the second cornice is a crowning attic plinth, with stumpy Doric pilasters supporting a thin architrave under the eaves of the horizontal roofline. The central panel of this attic has a tablet with an inscription: ALEXANDRO VII PONT MAX OB AEDEM SAPIENTIAE TOTO AMBITV PERFECTAM ET BIBLIOTHECA HORTOQVE MEDIO INSTRVCTAM SACRI CONSISTORII ADVOCATI POSS MDCLX. The four side panels each has a horizontal elliptical window into which the eight-pointed star of the Chigi family is inserted. This was Pope Alexander VII's doing.
At each end of the façade roofline is a large and rather silly heraldic device which also derives from the Chigi coat-of-arms. It looks like a blancmange on a drum topped by a sea-urchin, but is meant to be the star over stylized mountains.
The dome, with its corkscrew lantern, is remarkable in its novelty. Its plan is based on a lobed hexagon, that is a hexagon with outwardly curved sides, and it is entirely rendered in white. The drum stands on a low attic plinth, and has six windows, one for each lobe. These are alternately round-headed and gabled, but are within identical tall rectangular framed recesses. The round-headed window facing the courtyard has a bas-relief of the Lamb of God over it, sitting on the Scroll with Seven Seals.
Each window is flanked by a pair of Corinthian pilasters with the Chigi star in their capitals (the same design feature occurs inside the church). Also, the corners between the lobes have tripletted pilasters of the same form. The pilasters support an entablature running round the roofline of the drum, and rather weirdly the cornice of this has a line of human heads underneath it. Over each window recess is a circular tondo containing the Pamphilj dove, which is placed over the entablature.
The actual external dome is very shallow, and has six sectors. Each sector has ten ascending steps, and is separated from its neighbours by incurved buttresses each starting with a squat Doric pilaster with a small arch behind. Over the latter is a finial consisiting of a ball on a pair of Ionic volutes. The steps and buttresses end at a circular balustrade with horizontal rectangular openings, within which is the lantern.
The lantern has six pairs of engaged Corinthian columns, standing on a cogwheel plinth and supporting a cogwheel entablature both of which have curved incisions. Each face has a rectangular window, over which in turn is a pair of downward-facing double curlicues, a Pamphilj fleur-de-lys and the Pamphilj dove, with its olive branch, sitting on a swag. On the entablature are six flaming torch finials, of square cross-section with festoons, and on its frieze are either rosettes or fleurs-de-lys. The latter are over the windows.
The famous spire is in the form of a cone with a spiral ramp running up it in four turns. The English are privileged to have a term for this shape, which is helter-skelter.
The side of the ramp has panels with non-figurative Baroque decoration, and its edge has ball finials with curlicues in between. These finials are perhaps a mistake by Borromini, as they break up the integrity of the form.
It has been debated whether Borromini was inspired by something in designing this, or whether it was simply the result of his genius. There is an odd resemblence to some mediaeval depictions of the Tower of Babel, and these in turn might have derived from the form of the 9th century minaret of the Great Mosque at Samarra in Iraq, the so-called Malwiya. The latter seems to be the only possible architectural inspiration for Borromini's design.
The spire ends in a wreath with flames issuing from it. Above is a bronze finial formed of four bowed semi-hoops supporting a ball, over which is a looped cross embellished with the Pamphilj dove and fleurs-de-lys. This is now also the lightning conductor.
Many published diagrams of the interior layout are over-complicated, and some derive from a wish to discern what was in Borromini's mind when he designed the church. However, the template is quite simple despite appearances.
To take in the basis of the design at a glance, look up at the dome cornice on entering the church. The form that this has, is created in three easy geometric steps. Firstly, take an equilateral triangle, and divide each side into six equal lengths. Secondly, draw an external semi-circle on each side with the diameter being the middle two lengths of that side. Thirdly, cut off each corner of the triangle with an arc of the same radius as the semi-circles, cutting at a length down each side from the corner. Simple. The shape that you get is here.
However, the complex rhythms of the interior based on this shape have a dazzling geometry. The undulations, both concave and convex, of the interior surfaces create a jarring yet stunning aesthetic appeal. The whole is an example of rational architecture or Baroque as mathematics, which is intricate to the eye and perhaps more Platonic than the contemporary gilded and plaster excesses of Gianlorenzo Bernini (Baroque as theatre).
Entablatures and pilasters
Let us then start with the cornice. This has curved modillions interspersed with rosettes and wreaths, and is over a blank frieze and molded architrave. The entablature made up by these three elements runs round the interior without a break. It is supported by ribbed Corinthian pilasters, which occupy the angles and have Chigi stars within wreaths in their capitals. Those in the interior angles are folded in very tighly, because these angles are acute (less than ninety degrees).
About two-third of the way up the side walls is another entablature, of simple form and running behind the pilasters around the church except in the sanctuary.
The three semicircles in the cornice are on the top of apses. One of these is for the sanctuary, which is a tall barrel-vaulted rectangular niche with a doorway on either side leading into the two sacristies. This is flanked by a further pair of pilasters. The other two apses contain the side entrances, each of which consists of a pair of doors set at an angle within an arched recess. Over the doors is a stucco device of crossed palm branches within a crown and wreath, and over the recess is a raised triangular pediment containing a winged putto's head. This is similarly flanked by a pair of pilasters.
In between these pilasters and the corner pilasters for each apse is a pair of empty semi-circular round-headed niches, which look as if they were intended for statues. The conchs of these have attractive stucco representations of flowering plants, which look like roses and tulips.
Chapels and entrance
The concave portions of the cornice are over the entrance, and the two side chapels flanking the sanctuary. The latter are two semi-circular arched recesses fitted in between the pair of folded pilasters in the corners, and each has a shallow archivolt over a conch decorated with wreaths.
These chapels are now completely bare. The right hand one was dedicated to Our Lady.
Over each chapel is a cantoria or balcony for solo musicians. It has a balustrade replacing a section of the lower entablature, and a gilded and fretted wooden modesty screen in three panels. The entrance is similarly treated, except obviously the entrance doors occupy the arched recess and the balcony fronts the central window in the second storey of the façade.
The short sections of wall connecting the apses with the entrance and chapel niches each has a statue niche identical to those in the apse. There are a total of twelve of these in all.
The dome has six sectors, separated by simple ribs meeting at an anulus around the oculus which contains twelve Chigi stars. The oculus itself now contains a blank gilded glory, but apparently the glorified emblem which used to be in here was a Barberini bee. If you look carefully, you can see the hole left by the attachment.
Each sector has eight Chigi stars running up each side, and a six-winged putto's head at the top next to the anulus. This is a symbol of a seraph, itself a symbol of wisdom.
The sectors over the apses each has a gable-topped window with a winged angel's head over it, protected by an omega cornice resting on posts from which dangle chains of wreaths. Over the omega cornice is the "six mountains beneath a star" emblem of the papal Chigi family.
The sectors over the chapels and entrance each has a round-headed window over which is a seraph symbol within a triangular pediment with a broken cornice. Over this is a complicated device consisting of a rose plant within crossed palm branches within a crown, themselves within garlands.
The tessellated marble floor, in white and dark grey trapezoids, is original and was designed by Borromini.
The sanctuary is a tall round-headed niche, with a vault coffered in squares with gilded rosettes. In between the capitals of the pilasters that hug it is a Baroque tablet bearing the inscription: INITIVM SAPIENTAE TIMOR DOMINI (The fear of the Lord is the beginning of Wisdom), a quotation from Psalm 111.
The only religious artwork surviving from the original interior is the enormous altarpiece by Pietro da Cortona, portraying a group of saints in glory with angels. They are: SS Yves, Leo the Great, Pantaleon, Luke and Catherine of Alexandria. This painting fits snugly into the niche, so the altar has no aedicule.
The only other religious artwork of any kind is an icon of Our Lady on the altar.
Only statue-less church in Rome?
This is claimed to be the only church in Rome without any religious statues at all.
Visiting the interior of the church can be difficult without planning ahead.
According to an unofficial source (060608, October 2017), the church is only regularly open on Sundays, 10:00 to 12:00. This is half an hour less than two years previously, apparently.
It is closed altogether in July and August.
The church is now considered to be a masterpiece of Roman Baroque architecture, and as a result visitor pressure can be high. The best time to visit is immediately the church opens, on a Sunday in November.
One recent improvement is the setting up of a website for the church, which advertises occasional liturgical activities and music concerts -see "External links", below
Mass is celebrated regularly on Sundays and Solemnities at 11:00, except in July and August. (The writer has not been able to find out whether the Sunday opening times given above apply to Solemnities, too.)
A Wednesday Mass seems to have been discontinued.
Please don't walk about or take photos during Mass -this can cause serious offence.
- Official diocesan web-page
- Italian Wikipedia page
- German Wikipedia page (very good)
- Church website
- Pictures of the church at Wikimedia Commons
- Interactive Nolli Map Website
- Archivio website
- Centro Culturale "Paolo VI" website (the church is now associated with this institution.)
- "De Alvariis" gallery on Flickr
- Roma SPQR web-page with gallery
- "Romeartlover" web-page
- Info.roma web-page
- "Romasegreta" web-page
- "Tesoridiroma" web-site with photo gallery
- "Greatbuildings" web-page
- "Ro.ma" web-page
- Unusual photo of interior
- Photo of main altar
- Isometric drawing
- Geometrical layout
- "The Floor Plan of St Ivo" article (pdf)
- Youtube video "The Motiv of San'Ivo"
- Youtube video "S. Ivo e di misteri del Borromini"
- Youtube video "Choir in Sant'Ivo"