Santa Maria del Popolo ★★

Rome's church of Santa Maria del Popolo is like a primer on the development of art and architecture from the early Renaissance through the baroque

Santa Maria del Popolo ★★
Piazza del Popolo 12
tel. +39-06-361-0836
Open Mon–Sat 7am–noon and 4–7pm
Sun 7:30am–1:30pm and 4:30–7:30pm

Santa Maria del Popolo tours
Best of Rome Afternoon Walking Tour
Private Tour: Borghese Gallery and Baroque Rome Art History Walking Tour
• Context: Caravaggio's Mean Streets
Rome Angels and Demons Half-Day Tour
• Rome Art History Tour: Walking in Caravaggio's Footsteps Rome Map

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The church of Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome
Santa Maria del Popolo.
This church of "St. Mary of the People" was original built to evict Nero's ghost. By the Middle Ages, locals were complaining that the shade of the hated emperor was haunting his grave, in a grove of walnut trees on what was once his family estate at the very northern edge of the city center.

In 1099, church officials exorcised the specter by razing the trees and building on the site a church dedicated to "St. Mary of the People" (presumably those self-same superstitious people who clamored for its construction). The church was rebuilt in the 15th century.

Though virtually ignored by the Rome's teeming crowds of tourists, it's perhaps my favorite out of all the city's nearly one thousand churches. This little gem acts as a primer of Italy's Renaissance and early baroque movements, with examples in all the artistic disciplines—painting, architecture, fresco, sculpture, mosaics, and stained-glass—from various eras and by the very top names in the Old Masters game.

Frescoes by Pinturricchio in Rome's Santa Maria del Popolo.
Frescoes by Pinturicchio.
Representing the EARLY RENAISSANCE, we have Pinturicchio's 15th century frescoes of the Adoration of the Child and Life of St. Jerome in the first chapel on the right.

The Apse

Architecturally, there Bramante's design for the shell-motif apse (nip through the curtain to the left of the high altar; they don't mind; switch on the lights in the fuse box on the left wall) set with Rome's first stained glass windows, commissioned in 1509 from undisputed French heavyweight master of that art Guillaume de Marcillat.

The apse is also and flanked by a magnificent pair of Early Renaissance tombs carved by Sansovino.

The Chigi Chapel

Forget Angels & Demons
I don't want to get into an argument about it. Let's just say this: entertaining though his adventures may be, pretty much everything Dan Brown wrote about this church was—from a factual and historical point of view—wrong.

The Chigi Chapel in Rome's Santa Maria del PopoloThe Chigi Chapel—from left: Sigismondo Chigi's tomb, Lorenzetto/Raphael's Jonah, Sebastiano del Piombo's painting, Bernini's Habakuk and the Angel, and Agostino Chigi's tomb (Photo by Francesco Gasparetti)
In the HIGH RENAISSANCE department, Raphael added to this church his design for the wondrous Chigi Chapel (second on the left).

When banking mogul Agostino Chigi commissioned his favorite artist, Raphael, to design a memorial chapel tomb for him, he had no idea he'd need it so soon.

Both patron and artist died in 1520, by which time Raphael had barely begun construction on the pyramid-shaped tombs of Agostino and his brother.

Chigi Pope Alexander VII later hired other artists to complete the chapel and ceiling mosaics to Raphael's designs, with God in the center of the dome seeming to bless Agostino's personal horoscope symbols, which surround him.

Sebastiano del Piombo painted the altarpiece and Lorenzetto carved the statues of Jonah and Elijah in the niches to Raphael's designs.

This chapel also takes us into the BAROQUE, with the other niche statues of Habakuk and the Angel and Daniel with his friendly lion (and the gruesome pietra dura skeleton set in the floor) by Bernini.

The Caravaggios

Caravaggio's "Crucifixion of St. Peter" (1602) in Rome's Santa Maria del Popolo
Caravaggio's "Crucifixion of St. Peter" (1602) in Rome's Santa Maria del Popolo.
The baroque really comes into its own, though, in the chapel to the left of the altar. Here you're treated to a unique juxtaposition of the two rival baroque masters, Annibale Carracci and Caravaggio.

Crowd-pleasing Annibale was more popular in his day, as the colorful, highly modeled ballet of his Assumption of the Virgin in the center might suggest, but posterity has paid more attention to the moody chiaroscuro of Caravaggio's tensely dramatic, original style.

He used overly strong and patently artificial light sources to enhance the psychological drama of The Conversion of St. Paul and The Crucifixion of St. Peter, and to draw the viewer right into the straining muscles, wrinkled foreheads, dirty feet, and intense emotions of his figures.

The virtue of in situ

The preserved chapel with the works by Caravaggio and Caracci in Rome's Santa Maria del Popolo
The preserved chapel with the works by Caravaggio and Carracci in Rome's Santa Maria del Popolo.
One of the great, unnoticed facts about this church is that all these works of art inhabit the chapels for which they were originally painted (very unusual these days, since most famous works get shunted to museums or moved about the church for various reasons).

Why is that important? Well, for one thing the light streaming in through the real window continues right across the frame and into the painted space of Caravaggio's canvases.

What's more, the statues in Raphael's Chigi Chapel are placed so that they tell more complete stories: the angel grabs Habakuk by his hair on one side, ready to carry him and his picnic basket across the chapel to the niche containing Daniel, starving in the den of a rather friendly-looking lion (though perhaps I'm wrong on that score; could be the big cat is licking Daniel's feet not to be cute and cuddly but by way of working up an appetite).


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This article was written by Reid Bramblett and was last updated in April 2013. All information was accurate at the time.

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Copyright © 2008–2013 by Reid Bramblett. Author: Reid Bramblett