Santa Maria in Montesanto is one of the twin 17th century churches on the Piazza del Popolo, the other being Santa Maria dei Miracoli (they are often treated together in the literature). The address of this one is Via del Babuino 197, and the rione is Campo Marzio. Pictures of the church on Wikimedia Commons are here. There is an English Wikipedia article, shared with its twin, here.
Unlike its twin, this church is a minor basilica and is also Rome's "Church of the Artists".
The antecedents of this church lie in the campaign for reform within the Carmelite order in the 16th century.
The Carmelites were originally Roman-rite hermits who had settled in the Holy Land in the 12th century after its conquest by the First Crusade, and who especially favoured the wooded peninsula of Carmel (hence the name). The ones there were given their rule by St Albert, Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, at the start of the 13th century. However, after the original Carmelite hermits went into exile from the Holy Land they transitioned into a mendicant order, but still maintained a desert spirituality based upon their original rule and then the mitigated rule of 1247.
The trouble started when the order obtained papal approval for a serious mitigation of their lifestyle in 1432, on the grounds that the original rule was too severe on cultured city-dwellers. This mitigation sparked reactions within the order seeking to preserve the original charism, the most famous being the Discalced Carmelites of Spain who arose in the 1560's and who eventually became a separate order. However, other smaller reform movements existed elsewhere, notably those of Mantua in northern Italy and Monte Santo in Sicily.
The last was founded in 1618 by Fra Desiderio Placa from Catania who wished to keep the original Rule of St Albert in its entirety. A convent was established on the outskirts of Messina, which was named Monte Santo and which housed a venerated image of Our Lady.
These Reformed Carmelites of Monte Santo, the Carmelitani del Primo Istituto, obtained papal approval to establish a convent in Rome in 1640. They settled on a site near the Porta del Popolo at or near the present church, and started with a little chapel which was probably just a room in their house. Then, in 1662 Cardinal Girolamo Gastaldi laid the foundation stone for a proper church.
The published assertion that the Monte Santo Carmelites arrived in Rome in 1525 is anachronistic -they were not to exist for almost another century.
The Piazza del Popolo was the most important gate in mediaeval Rome, because it was where pilgrims and overland travellers from western Europe arrived. The obvious alternative of coming by boat up the Tiber bore the risk of ending up as a slave in Muslim North Africa after being captured by pirates. So, in the 16th century a campaign of town planning began to make the location more impressive to, and convenient for, travellers.
The Via di Ripetta came first, being ordered by Pope Leo X (1517-19) -it used to be called the Via Leonina. Pope Clement VII ordered the Via del Babuino (initially the Via Clementina) in response to horrible problems with crowds of pilgrims in the alleyways in the Jubilee of 1525. This was finished in 1543. This left three streets leading off the enlarged piazza (shaped like a trapezoid with its narrow end at the gate) with the Corso in the middle. The gate was rebuilt in 1565, and the obelisk put in place by Pope Sixtus V in 1589 -it had come from Heliopolis in Egypt via the Circus Maximus.
Twin churches projectEdit
In 1662, Pope Alexander VII ordered a pair of churches to be erected on the wedge-shaped sites between the three streets, to provide a monumental backdrop to the piazza which would greet anyone entering through the gate. One of the twin churches was to take over the
Carmelite project to replace their little convent chapel, while the other was to house a miraculous icon venerated locally. Cardinal Gastaldi put up a large sum of money in exchange for being commemorated in the decoration of the two churches.
The first architect was Carlo Rainaldi, and he planned two exactly identical round edifices. Unfortunately, Pope Alexander died in 1667 and his successors had little interest in the project. Work stopped for four years, but the Carmelites wanted their church. So, work resumed in 1671 under Carlo Fontana who finished it in 1673 in time for the Jubilee of 1675. Hence, the work on the church must have been fairly well underway when it stopped in 1667. Santa Maria dei Miracoli had to wait until 1678 before its completion.
However, it seems that the Carmelites only opened the church to the public in 1679.
Bernini was involved in the design here, which seems not to be the case for the twin. It is alleged that his was the suggestion to change the plan from circular to elliptical. The consensual reason for this, as commonly given, was that the site here is narrower than that of the other church. This is true, but not by much and the two churches are about the same width. There are two other possible reasons: An elliptical plan allowed for two more chapels, giving a total of seven altars on which the Carmelite priests could say Mass. Or, having one church circular and one elliptical was simply more fun than having two circular ones.
in 1707, Handel composed a Vespers of Our Lady of Mount Carmel for the community here.
In 1761, the campanile was added to a design by Francesco Navone.
In 1825, both churches had their domes re-covered in grey fish-scale slates on the orders of Pope Leo XII.
He also conferred the title of minor basilica on this church -although not on the twin. Further, he removed the church from the administration of the Carmelites, re-dedicated it to Our Lady, Queen of Heaven (Santa Maria Regina Coeli) and put in the charge of a chapter of prebendary canons of the same name which had previously been in charge of Santa Lucia della Tinta.
In 1873, after the conquest of Rome by Italy, the prebendary canons (who had a salary each) were suppressed and replaced by honorary canons (no salary), and this arrangement continued until 1974. The church is now a rectory in the parish of Santa Maria del Popolo.
Church of the ArtistsEdit
The Via del Babuino became the centre of an artists' quarter in the 18th century, soon after the Spanish Steps were built, and was famous as such in the 19th century. Hopeful artists could use the Steps for open-air exhibitions, hoping to catch the eye of a possible patron. Also, the Steps were a notorious hang-out for local "male models", some of whom might conceivably not have been rent-boys. Unusually there was not a neighbourhood church here (Sant'Atanasio a Via del Babuino is for Greek expatriates), and so Santa Maria in Montesanto performed that function for an area with a bohemian reputation.
The artistic status of the neighbourhood continued into the 20th century (although not the 21st). In response, in 1953 the enormously erudite art critic Monsignor Ennio Francia began the celebration of a "Mass of the Artists" in this church every Sunday. This tradition has continued ever since, and so the church has become the Chiesa degli Artisti. Francia's impressively wide circle of artistic friends and colleagues ensured the success of this outreach, which continues to be fruitful.
The church fell into a bad state of repair in the later 20th century, and was in danger for several decades. In belated response, a major restoration was undertaken at the end of the century and this was completed in 2016.
Layout and fabricEdit
At first glance the church seems identical to its twin sister, but there are differences which are mentioned as they arise.
The church here is elliptical on the major axis, whereas the other one is circular. Both churches have deep external apses, but here there are six side chapels instead of four.
The fabric is in brick, rendered in a very light tan colour, with architectural details in travertine limestone. Unlike the other church, the apse here is within the buildings of the former convent.
The shapes of the domes also differ. This one has a dodecagonal one stretched on the major axis to fit on the ellipse, and the other has a dome based on a regular octagon. Both are covered by grey fish-scale slates. The latter feature is unusual in Rome, but another example is the Cappella Bandini at San Silvestro al Quirinale, also Sant'Eligio dei Sellai (tragically demolished).
The dodecahedral drum has a large, almost square window on ten faces, and these windows provide most of the light for the church. The corners have tripletted blind pilasters supporting a projecting cornice on which the dome sits. The twelve sectors of the dome are separated by slated ribs matching the pilasters in form. The dome itself is not hemispheroidal, but looks as if it has a parabolic curve. The front and back sectors are the largest, twice the width of those flanking them.
The lanterns are also different, and not just because the one here is elliptical. Here, the dome's oculus has a simple elliptical plinth bearing corbels on which are twelve flaming torch finials. On the plinth is an elliptical tempietto with six narrow arched windows separated by twelve little Corinthian pilasters supporting an entablature and a tiled cupola. In the middle of the cupola is another plinth, decorated with horizontal ovals, and this ends in a second-storey tiled cupola in the shape of a trumpet with a ball finial.
The campanile was built in imitation of that of the twin church, but is not as complicated a design. Also, it is set further back and is not over a chapel but over the end of the former convent building. This design oddity is a more disturbing break in the symmetry of the two churches than the other details that differ.
Here, the campanile is in the form of a kiosk with each face having a pair of Ionic pilasters with swagged capitals which support an entablature and triangular pediment. The corners have four Ionic columns supporting diagonal posts. Above, the cupola in lead is in the form of an incurved square trumpet on a plinth, and has a ball finial.
The façade is dominated by the portico, but to each side is a coved (concave) zone with a side door having a square panel above with a molded frame. The doors have raised triangular pediments, and these side zones are each bounded by a pair of columns in the same style as those of the portico. The far members of each pair are in front of two conjoined pilasters. Above is a balustraded entablature.
The portico is, in Classical terms, a pentastyle but the central column is missing leaving only four Composite columns with a wide gap in the middle. The volutes of the capitals are exaggerated. The columns support an entablature with an inscription on the frieze commemorating Cardinal Gastaldi's involvement. Then comes a dentillated pediment with a blank tympanum; it looks as if some sort of sculpture was intended for the latter.
There is a story that the portico columns were originally intended for an abortive campanile project for the new St Peter's.
The frontage behind the portico has four pilasters matching the columns. The main doorway has a raised segmental pediment, over a lintel giving the year 1675 which was a Jubilee year.
There are eight statues on the roofline of the façade (the other church has ten), which depict various Carmelite saints. Two flank the pediment, two are over the corners of the entrance frontage and four are over the far ends of the curved side frontages. They are by the school of Bernini, and the crew concerned are listed as: Lazzaro Morelli, Francesco Rondone, Sillano Sillani and Antonio Fontana (the information is from Filippo Titi, who was contemporary and should have known -if he couldn't always be bothered to be accurate).
Layout and fabricEdit
On entering, you are immediately in an elliptical space dominated by the dome. The major axis of the ellipse is that of the church.
To each side are three side chapels, entered through arches with molded archivolts which spring from Doric imposts and which have heraldic shields on their keystones (some of these are supported by stucco angels).
Flanking the entrance and the apse are four doorways, forming smaller and narrower archways with cantorias or opera boxes for solo musicians over them. The pair by the entrance are the side entrances (never used), while those flanking the apse lead to the sacristy (left) and former convent (right). These archways have molded archivolts on Doric imposts.
Chapels and side entrances are separated by gigantic Corinthian pilasters supporting an entablature that runs round the entire church. This has a cornice with dentillations and modillions interspersed with rosettes. On this the dome sits; unlike in the other church, there is no proper drum but, instead, an attic with Doric pilasters from which the dome ribs spring. The ribs are molded but not decorated, and meet at the elliptical oculus which has a stucco flower garland.
The shallow entrance bay and the deeper apse both have the entablature running round them and an arch above, that intrudes into the dome. Over these arches are a pair of windows with garlands on their lintels. The dome sectors on either side have stucco statues within round-headed niches, themselves within frames crowned by double nested archivolts. The other eight dome sectors have windows with double nested segmental pediments. The four statues are by Filippo Carcani (nicknamed Il Filippone), who did much of the rest of the stucco decoration.
Over the entrance is a large tablet proclaiming the construction of the church, topped by the coat-of-arms of Cardinal Gastaldi.
The overall decorative scheme is in a cream colour, very simple, especially in the dome. (The chapels are a different matter, with polychrome marble decoration.)
The series of sculptures commemorating the Stations of the Cross is the work of several modern Italian sculptors.
Over the triumphal arch is the coat-of-arms of Cardinal Gastaldi, supported by stucco angels sculpted by Carcani.
The sanctuary has two bays, with a barrel vault having simple coffering panels and an apse with a conch. The conch is divided into three sectors by garlanded ribs, which meet at a scallop shell, and each sector contains a blank oval tondo. Also, at the bottom of each sector is a lunette window. The entablature of the nave runs around the sanctuary and below the conch, and is supported by two pairs of gigantic Corinthian pilasters. In between these are two doors with raised segmental pediments on each side, over which are cantoria.
Either side of the altar are niches framed by black marble pilasters supporting curved entablatures. These contain busts in bronze of popes who had assisted Cardinal Gastaldi: Alexander VII, Clement IX, Clement X and Innocent XI. These are by Girolamo Lucenti.
The altar aedicule has a pair of dark green marble Corinthian columns, supporting a triangular pediment embellished with rosettes, modillions and scrollwork on the gable interior. Two more columns support projecting posts to the rear at each side. On the pediment are two frolicking angels, and two more hold up the altarpiece. This altar was designed by Mattia De Rossi, and the anonymous altarpiece is in the style of Antoniazzo Romano.
The altarpiece is a 16th century copy of the icon of Our Lady of Montesanto (actually Our Lady of Mount Carmel), allegedly preserved from the former convent chapel that the church replaced. A pair of floating putti in stucco embellish it. The picture shows Our Lady holding a globe and the Brown Scapular in her right hand, and a label reads: In Monte Sancto suo Carmelo steterunt pedes eius ("On his holy mountain Carmel stood his feet"). This is a reference to the prophet Elijah, whom the Carmelites used to claim as their founder -a gross piece of romantic fantasy.
The side chapels are described anticlockwise, beginning to the right of the entrance.
Chapel of the CrucifixEdit
The first chapel to the right is dedicated to the Crucifixion, and was fitted out by Alessandro Cesani in 1670. It has rich stucco and polychrome marble work, the former being by Pietro Papaleo. The altarpiece crucifix is anonymous.
This chapel used to have four works by Salvatore Rossi, but these were sold on in 1802 (an inscription to the right inform you of this). The replacements are: Two tondi by Ferdinando Cavallèri, showing David with the Head of Goliath and Judith with the Head of Holofernes. The pictures under these are by Ludovico Venuti, and show Tobias and Tobit with the Corpse (see Book of Tobit), and The Prophet Ahijah with the Wife of Jeroboam (see 1 Kings Ch 14).
The vault cupola has a fresco of the Dove of the Holy Spirit
Chapel of PurgatoryEdit
The second chapel on the right used to be dedicated to "SS Albert and Lawrence", who seem to be St Albert of Jerusalem and Lawrence of Rome. However, in 1899 it was given its present very unusual dedication of the Souls in Purgatory under the patronage of Our Lady of Montligeon.
The chapel is frescoed by Silvio Galimberti, except for the vault fresco showing the Souls in Purgatory which is anonymous. The sumptuous Baroque altar, with four Corinthian columns in yellow and black veined marble, now has an altarpiece showing The Supper at Emmaus by Riccardo Tommasi Ferroni, a very interesting modern artist influenced by Mannerist and Baroque art -especially that of Caravaggio. (He is more famous for his etiolated nudes, showing obvious Mannerist influence as does the foreground figure here.)
Here were memorials to Bishop Achilles Rindaldini, 1880 and Carolina Fratoddi, 1866.
Chapel of St AnneEdit
The third chapel on the right is dedicated to St Anne, mother of Our Lady. The stonework is again very sumptous, featuring Corinthian altar columns in red Sicilan jasper and revetting in verde antico and alabaster. The architect was Carlo Bizzaccheri, a pupil of Carlo Fontana.
The altarpiece, depicting The Holy Family with St Anne, is by Niccolò Berrettoni who also painted the vault fresco featuring God the Father. The stucco work in here, including the winsome putti, is by Pietro Paolo Naldini not Carcani.
The church's sacristy is through a door to the left of the sanctuary. It was designed by Fontana, with an altarpiece of The Deposition from the Cross by Biagio Puccini. The ceiling vault fresco is anonymous, in the style of Baciccia, and depicts Angels in Heaven with the Instruments of the Passion.
Chapel of SS James the Great and FrancisEdit
The third chapel on the left is dedicated to St James the Great and St Francis of Assisi. It was the funerary chapel of the Montioni family, whose coat-of-arms is above the arch, and the architect was Tommaso Mattei.
The altarpiece depicts Our Lady with St Francis, and is by Carlo Maratta. The depiction of her face, cruelly described as looking like the English Queen Victoria detecting a silent fart, proved surprisingly influential in Baroque art.
Chapel of St Mary-Magdalen de' Pazzi.Edit
The second chapel on the left is dedicated to St Mary Magdalen de' Pazzi, a Carmelite nun and mystic. Her family were Florentine nobility who patronized the chapel, hence the dedication. The original patron was Giovanni Battista Aquilanti, whose portrait bust is in a tondo to the right of the altar.
The paintings in here are by Ludovico Gimignani. The altarpiece shows the saint with Our Lady, and the side walls have The Apparition of St Augustine to St Mary Magdalen and The Communion of St Mary Magdalen. The vault fresco shows Christ in Glory. The stucco work is by Carcani, and is sumptuous with gilded garlands and putti.
Chapel of St LucyEdit
This was also the funerary chapel of the Palombi family. To the right are memorials to Francesco and Isabella Palombi, 1831, Elisabetta Palombi (above) and Adelina Morelli (below). To the left are memorials to Tommaso and Costanza Romagnani Palombi (the cameo portraits are good, and it is cruel to ask "which is which"?), and to Giuseppe de Gasperis, 1862.
The church has been re-opened (2016) after a major restoration.
It is open (church website, June 2018):
Monday to Friday, 10:00 to 12:00, 17:00 to 20:00;
Saturday 10:00 to 12:00 (closed in the afternoon);
Sunday, 11:00 to 13:30 (ditto).
Mass is celebrated (church website, June 2018):
Weekdays 19:30 (not Saturdays),
Sundays 12:00 (Missa degli Artisti).
On 11 July, Our Lady of Mount Carmel is celebrated as the original dedication feast of the church. 8 September is the feast of Our Lady, Queen.