The Santa Maria del Popolo Church is 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 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.)
History and description
The Church of Santa Maria del Popolo is located diagonally across from the Porta del Popolo. The facade of the church makes a rather nondescript impression, which might be due in part to the richly decorated city gate almost next to it.
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 here 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) dates from the Renaissance period (1472 to be exact).
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 these, the businesswoman Vannozza Catanei, is supposedly buried in the church itself. 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 adjacent monastery during his stay in Rome. Disgusted by the vulgarity and excesses he witnessed on a daily basis, he 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. These were not always performed in a humane manner. As late as 1853, for example, a group of highway robbers was clubbed to death.
What to see
The facade is probably the work sculptor/architect Andrea Bregno and dates from 1492. The fresco above the entrance depicts a “Madonna and Child”.
The bell tower dates from the 15th century, and is part of the adjacent monastery.
There are two chapels in the back of the left aisle. The one on the right is the Cappella Cerasi, which contains 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.”
The Chigi Chapel, named after a wealthy banker, is the second chapel on the left. This chapel alone contains more famous works of art than can often be seen in an entire church.
This harmonious Raphael-designed chapel, with an image of God surrounded by pagan symbols decorating the dome, was made famous in part by Dan Brown‘s “Bernini Mystery.”
In a niche to the left of the altar, is a sculpture designed by Raphael depicting Jonas escaping from the jaws of the whale.
Francesco Salviati was responsible for the paintings between the windows.
A century after its construction, Bernini was to complete the chapel, including the sculptures “The Prophet Habakkuk and the Angel” (to the right of the altar) and “Daniel in the Lion’s Den.”
Sebastiano del Piombo painted “Birth of the Virgin,” above the altar.
Before it was called Chigi Chapel, the chapel was known as the Cappella della Terra, or “Chapel of the Earth.”
Inside the church, there are several medieval floor tombs. More tombs are located along the walls and in the chapels.
It is possible, but not certain, that Vannozza Catanei and her son Giovanni are buried somewhere in the last chapel on the right. A plaque claiming this for a fact at some point suddenly, and inexplicably, 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, and 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 likeness can be seen above it had made for himself in the 17th century.
More points of interest
The apse of the church was designed by Bramante.
The reliefs in the first chapel on the left used to decorate the baptismal fonts.
In the presbytery, behind the high altar are ceiling frescoes by Pinturicchio, depicting “The Coronation of the Virgin”. The two tombs lining the side walls were the work of 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. He painted the “Adoration of the Child,” in the last chapel 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.