The church of San Pietro in Montorio is located on the Gianicolo, an ancient hill north and west of Trastevere which was named after the Roman god Janus. The church is dedicated to Saint Peter, the apostle who needs no further introduction. An old tradition dictates that Peter was crucified upside down at this location, or rather at the site of the Tempietto, a Renaissance building next to the church (see below). This story is not based on any evidence and should be ignored.
There are several explanations for the name ‘Montorio’, some more plausible than others. Montorio is from the Latin ‘mons aureus’, which means ‘golden mountain’. The Gianicolo may have been called the golden mountain because of the reflection of the sunlight on the yellow sand of the hill, which gave the Gianicolo a golden glow when seen from a distance. Alternative explanations are that a treasure of gold was found here (but when? And by whom?), or that the San Pietro was rebuilt using gold seized by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain from the Moors. The explanation referring to the colour of the soil seems to be the most credible to me.
A church and monastery were present at this site since at least the early ninth century. Both buildings were presumably ruinous by the time Pope Sixtus IV (1471-1484) gave them to a branch of the Franciscan Order called the Amadeans (named after Amadeus of Portugal). The Amadeans made the decision to completely rebuild the church in 1481. The new church was completed by 1494 and consecrated in 1500 by Pope Alexander VI (1492-1503). This pope was a Spaniard born Rodrigo Borgia, and the church and surrounding area have always had strong ties to Spain. The aforementioned King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella commissioned the Tempietto in 1500 and King Philip III of Spain paid for an important restoration in 1605. The Reale Accademia di Spagna – the Spanish academy of history, archaeology and fine arts – is next door. In 1999, King Juan Carlos of Spain visited the site of the Tempietto and his country contributed to a restoration of the little temple in the light of the Holy Year 2000.
The church is a popular wedding location nowadays and its interior is impressive, especially the ceiling in the nave. Many famous sixteenth and seventeenth century artists contributed to the decorations in the church and side chapels. Among them were Sebastiano del Piombo and Baldassare Peruzzi – who were involved in the construction and decoration of the Villa Farnesina as well – but also Nicolò Circignani (Il Pomarancio), Giorgio Vasari, Daniele da Volterra, Antoniazzo Romano, the Dutch painter Dirck van Baburen and of course Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680), the most famous architect and sculptor of the seventeenth century. Bernini was responsible for creating the Raimondi chapel inside the church. It contains memorials for Francesco and Girolamo Raimondi, members of a Ligurian noble family. Andrea Bolgi (1605-1656) sculpted their busts. Francesco is reading a book, while Girolamo is looking towards the visitor. The altarpiece is a relief of The Ecstasy of Saint Francis, executed by Francesco Baratta (1590-1666). Both Bolgi and Baratta worked under Bernini.
Beatrice and the French
There is a popular story – likely true – that Beatrice Cenci (1577-1599) lies buried in this church, either beneath the high altar or somewhere in the fourth chapel on the right (known as the Chapel of the Crucifix). The precise location of her grave is apparently unknown and there is no marker or memorial. Beatrice was a young Roman woman who was put on trial and beheaded in 1599 for the murder of her tyrannical father, who had raped her on multiple occasions. The Italian painter Guido Reni (1575-1642) painted her portrait (now in the Palazzo Barberini) just before her execution and thus made her immortal. Another story – probably not true – claims that French soldiers who had invaded the Papal States in 1798 (see Galleria Corsini for details) stole the valuable chalice that had held her severed head and played football with her skull.
The French did show poor behaviour on some other occasions. The church once had a famous altarpiece, the Transfiguration by Raphael, which was his last work. French soldiers confiscated the painting, took it to Paris and put it on display at the Louvre. The Transfiguration was returned to the Papal authorities after the Napoleonic Wars, but it was never brought back to the San Pietro. Instead, it ended up in the Vatican, where it can now be found in the Pinacoteca of the Vatican Museums. The current altarpiece is a copy of Guido Reni’s Crucifixion of Saint Peter. Again, the original work can be found in the Vatican Museums. Ironically, the French confiscation of the Transfiguration probably saved it from destruction. In 1849, French troops under general Oudinot intervened on behalf of Pope Pius IX against the self-declared Roman Republic. The French bombarded the Gianicolo and accidentally hit the San Pietro, severely damaging parts of it. If the Transfiguration had still been there, it might have been destroyed.
Other things to see
Below is an impression of the rest of the church.
The Tempietto – Italian for ‘little temple’ – is often considered the first Renaissance building in Rome. It was commissioned in 1500 by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, already mentioned above. Ferdinand and Isabella hired the services of Donato Bramante (1444-1514), who would later become the first architect of new Saint Peter’s Basilica. The Tempietto is a religious building. It is a chapel dedicated to Saint Peter the Apostle and built on the spot where, according to tradition, he was crucified upside down. The tradition is rubbish of course, as explained above. Work started in 1502 and the wonderful Greco-Roman style edifice was completed in 1509, the decoration of the interior taking another three years. The connection with Spain is again evident: a royal Spanish coat-of-arms is attached to the drum of the dome.
The Tempietto consists of a chapel and a crypt. A statue of Saint Peter holding the Keys of Heaven can be found in the largest niche in the chapel. The niche was likely painted in gold in the past, but only traces of paint remain. Below the statue is a scene of the crucifixion of Peter. The saint is hanging upside down on a cross and is flanked on either side by soldiers, trumpeters and horsemen. The relief features “a naked soldier with a prominent bare behind”, as the wonderful Churches of Rome Wiki elegantly puts it. The statue of Saint Peter is flanked by statues of two of the four evangelists in the smaller niches. They are Saint John and Saint Matthew, who can be identified by the eagle and the man that are in the niche as well. Statues of the other two evangelists are on the other side of the chapel.
The crypt is not accessible to visitors, but can be admired through the doorway. It has a beautiful Cosmatesque floor and polychrome marble walls. Above the altar is a statue of Saint Peter, again holding the Keys of Heaven. He is flanked by angels. There is an inscription on the altar, which is somewhat eroded, but can be reconstructed (by specialists, not by me). It reads:
“Sacellum Apostolorum Principis Martirio Sacrum Ferdinandus Hispaniarum Rex et Elisabeth Regina Catholici post erectam ab eisdem posuerunt Anno Salutis Christianae MDII.” (source)
and indicates that the Tempietto was built in the year 1502 by the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain on the site of the sacred tomb of the first and foremost of the apostles.
Fontana dell’Acqua Paola
Just around the corner of the San Pietro is the enormous Fontana dell’Acqua Paola, which the visitor may recognise from the opening scene of the movie La Grande Bellezza, the movie that won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 2014. In the seventh year of his pontificate (which was in 1612), Pope Paulus V completed the restoration of an ancient Roman aqueduct from the days of the emperor Trajan in order to provide the citizens of the Gianicolo with fresh water. The huge fountain was constructed to mark the end of the aqueduct. It was enlarged in 1690 by Carlo Fontana, the man who also designed the octagonal fountain on the Piazza di Santa Maria in Trastevere. The fountain is known as “Il Fontanone”, the Big Fountain, a name it certainly deserves.
- Capitool Reisgidsen Rome, 2009, p. 219;
- Luc Verhuyck, SPQR. Anekdotische reisgids voor Rome, p. 67-69 and 102-103;
- San Pietro in Montorio on Churches of Rome Wiki.
Update 14 January 2017: pictures have been updated.
Update 30 January 2022: pictures have again been updated and improved.