The Santa Maria del Popolo Church is today one of the most visited churches in Rome, and that thanks to one of the most improbable books ever written. Attractions include the Chigi Chapel and the two paintings by the hand of Caravaggio in the Cerasi Chapel.
Santa Maria del Popolo Church Rome
The address of the Chiesa di Santa Maria del Popolo is Piazza del Popolo, 12 – Rome (Tel. +39 06 3610836). District: Campo Marzio. Admission is free. Opening hours are from 07:00 to 12:00 and from 16:00 to 19:00 during the week and from 07:30 to 13:30 and from 16:30 to 19:30 on weekends. (Note that opening times and admission may be subject to change.)
The Church of Santa Maria del Popolo is located diagonally across from the Porta del Popolo and has a rather nondescript facade, which is probably due in part to the richly decorated city gate itself, which you look straight at from the Piazza del Popolo.
The tomb of Emperor Nero used to be located on or near the spot where the church was built. According to one legend, the church was built in this spot as a kind of exorcism against the emperor’s ghost.
The latest version of the Santa Maria del Popolo (earlier reconstructions date from 1099 and 1227) was built in the Renaissance period (1472 to be exact) and owes its fame primarily to the two Caravaggio paintings.
The most important person for the construction of the Santa Maria del Popolo Church was Alexander VI. This pope, whose real name was Rodrigo Borja (later corrupted to Borgia) and who was of Spanish descent, had multiple mistresses, one of whom, the businesswoman Vannozza Catanei, is buried in the Santa Maria del Popolo. Her son Giovanni, who was probably murdered by her other son Cesare, is keeping her company.
Luther, being an Augustinian monk, probably slept in the monastery next to Santa Maria del Popolo during his stay in Rome. He was disgusted by the vulgarity and excesses he witnessed on a daily basis in the church and left Rome a disillusioned man. His experience was to eventually lead him to start the Reformation.
Public executions used to take place across from the church, not always in a humane manner. As late as 1853, for example, a group of highway robbers were clubbed to death.
The facade is probably the work sculptor/architect Andrea Bregno and dates from 1492.
Inside the church there are a number of medieval tombstones in the floor and more tombs are located along the walls and in the chapels.
The apse of the Santa Maria del Popolo church was designed by Bramante.
The bell tower dates from the 15th century, and is part of the adjacent monastery.
What to see
It is possible, but not certain, that Vannozza Catanei and her son Giovanni are buried somewhere in the last chapel on the right. There used to be a plaque claiming this for a fact, but inexplicably it suddenly vanished, to reappear in the Church of San Marco. (The pope’s master of ceremonies, Johann Burckhardt, was also said to be buried in the church, but no one knows exactly where his tomb is supposed to be either.)
The marble skeleton to the right of the exit is a monument that the man whose image appears above it had made for himself in the 17th century.
Above the entrance is a “Madonna and Child” mural.
The reliefs in the first chapel on the left used to decorate the baptismal fonts.
The 2nd chapel on the left is the Chigi Chapel, which Raphael and later Bernini worked on.
In the right hand chapel (Cappella Cerasi) of the two in the back of the left aisle are two famous paintings by Caravaggio: “The Conversion of St. Paul” and the “Crucifixion of St. Peter” (see above). Saint Peter hangs upside down because he himself wanted to be crucified this way, out of reverence for Jesus. The painting above the altar of this chapel is Annibale Caracci’s “Assumption of Mary.”
In the presbytery, behind the high altar are ceiling frescoes by Pinturicchio, depicting “The Coronation of the Virgin,” while the two tombs lining the side walls were created by Andrea Sansovino. Above the main altar is a small 13th-century panel depicting the “Virgin and Child.”
A corridor, graced with 15th- and 16th-century sculptures, leads to the sacristy, with an altar created by Andrea Bregno in 1473. The statues of the two bishops flanking the altar are also by Bregno.
The angels adorning the transept were made by (pupils of) Bernini.
Pinturicchio was responsible for many of the paintings in the chapels on the right. “Adoration of the Child,” in the last chapel was painted by the man himself, while “Scenes from the Life of the Virgin” was done by his pupils. The last chapel also contains another tomb made by Bregno, with a “Madonna” sculpted by Andrea da Fiesole.