I stumbled upon this lovely little church by chance. It is located directly behind the Santa Maria dell’Anima, not far from the Piazza Navona. The most intriguing exterior feature of the church is its facade, and especially the round portico designed by Pietro da Cortona (1596-1669) in the seventeenth century. Inside is a famous fresco of the Four Sibyls by Raphael (1483-1520). When I visited the church in 2015 and 2017, it noticed that it had a rather peculiar policy with regard to photography. The text in Italian prohibited taking pictures with flash, but the texts in English, French (or German, I forgot) and Spanish forbade taking pictures at all!
The church is not that old, but some things about its history are not clear. For instance, we do not know who built it. Furthermore, I have been unable to find the exact year in which construction started or the year when the edifice was completed and consecrated. What we do know is this. Tradition dictates that around the year 1480, a drunk soldier who had lost a lot of money gambling flung a knife (or a stone) at an icon of the Virgin Mary. The icon then miraculously started to bleed. Pope Sixtus IV (1471-1484) heard about the miracle and decided to check it out. He vowed to build a church to Our Lady of Peace if she were to restore the peace. My travel guide claims she was supposed to end the war with the Turks. This not impossible, because an Ottoman army had invaded Southern Italy in 1480 and had occupied the city of Otranto. 813 of Otranto’s citizens had been killed in cold blood. The Pope called a crusade and the city was retaken the next year.
However, it seems more likely that the Pope was referring to the so-called Pazzi Conspiracy in Florence and the papal war that followed it. The Pazzi Conspiracy was an attempt by noble families in Florence, led by members of the influential Pazzi family, to wrest power in the city from the hands of the ruling Medicis. But Pope Sixtus IV was probably involved as well and the plot seems to have actually been hatched in Rome. On Sunday 26 April 1478, while attending the Easter Mass in the Duomo, Lorenzo de’ Medici and his brother Giuliano were suddenly attacked by the conspirators. Giuliano was killed and Lorenzo was wounded, but managed to reach the safety of the sacristy where he locked himself in. The conspiracy soon lost momentum as the Medicis and their supporters fought back and began arresting the ringleaders. Jacopo and Francesco de’ Pazzi were captured and hanged (see Florence: Santa Croce).
Perhaps more importantly, Francesco Salviati, the archbishop of Pisa, had also actively participated in the plot. He had been charged with capturing the Palazzo Vecchio, the seat of the Florentine government. Salviati had failed miserably. He had been arrested and was quickly lynched by a mob. Since the archbishop had been a client of Pope Sixtus, the Holy Father was not amused, excommunicated Lorenzo and placed Florence under an interdict. A papal war was launched against the city, and that may have been the reason the Pope invoked Our Lady to restore the peace (after his victory of course). Forces from Naples and Siena defeated the Florentines at Poggio Imperiale in September 1479, but the conflict would ultimately be resolved through diplomacy. Which, by the way, freed the Neapolitan forces to fight at Otranto.
Construction of the Santa Maria della Pace presumably started shortly after March 1480, when peace had been made with Florence, or after 1 May 1481, when Otranto had been retaken from the Turks. Pope Sixtus died in 1484, shortly after having fought another war, the so-called Salt War (1482-1484). We can be fairly certain that he never saw his peace church completed. History remembers him as the pope who built the Sistine Chapel, not as the man who built the Santa Maria della Pace. But the latter was definitely a success. Between 1500 and 1504, Donato Bramante (1444-1514) added a cloister to the church, which can be found slightly to the north of it. Wealthy Roman families began commissioning chapels. The large dome was presumably designed by Antonio da Sangallo the Younger (1484-1546) and constructed in 1525.
The church has a strong connection to the Chigi family of Siena. The first chapel on the right is the Cappella Chigi, and it was commissioned by the rich banker Agostino Chigi (1466-1520), whose splendid Palazzo I have discussed previously. In 1655, one Fabio Chigi was elected pope and chose the name Alexander VII (1655-1667). This scion of the Chigi family decided to renovate the Santa Maria della Pace in the Baroque style, a job he entrusted to Pietro da Cortona. It was during this restoration that Da Cortona erected the elegant portico. The architect also redecorated the Chigi chapel inside the church. The Chigi family’s coat of arms – a star above mountains – can be seen twice on the facade.
Da Cortona’s restoration gave the church its present appearance. The Santa Maria della Pace has a very short nave followed by the wide open space below the large dome, sometimes called the ‘transept’. The nave has four chapels while the dome section has another four. At the end of the dome section is a small apse with the sanctuary. Here we find the high altar and a frame with the icon of Our Lady of Peace. The ornate frame is the work of Carlo Maderno (1556-1629).
The most interesting work of art in the church is Raphael’s fresco of the Four Sibyls on the arch of the Chigi chapel. The Sibyls were prophetesses from the pagan world, who were nevertheless considered to be connected to the Christian world as well because they had purportedly prophesised the coming of Christ. There were some ten specific Sibyls. The ones portrayed by Raphael are usually identified as – from left to right – the Cumaean, Persian, Phrygian and Tiburtine Sibyls. Since the women are not labelled, we cannot be 100 percent sure of their identities. Also in the scene are several angels and putti.
Most of the texts on the slabs and scrolls in the fresco are in Greek, just one is in Latin. The texts are revelations that refer to Christ’s coming, death and resurrection. The Latin text is from Vergilius, from Eclogues IV.7 to be precise. It reads:
IAM NOVA PROGENIES [CAELO DEMITTITUR ALTO]
(“A new lineage is sent down from high Heaven”)
Raphael painted the fresco in 1514. The artist died before he could execute the intended second fresco above it, so this one had to be painted by Raphael’s pupil Timoteo Viti (1469-1523). As you can tell by looking at Viti’s year of birth, he was actually fourteen years older than his master! Viti painted the four Old Testament prophets Habakkuk, Jonah, David and Daniel, and was certainly true to his master’s style. Raphael would have been quite pleased with the result.
- Capitool Reisgidsen Rome, 2009 Dutch edition, p. 121;
- Franco Cesati, The Medici. Story of a European Dynasty, p. 38-41;
- John Julius Norwich, The Popes, Chapter XVII;
- Luc Verhuyck, SPQR. Anekdotische reisgids voor Rome, p. 206-207;
- Santa Maria della Pace on Churches of Rome Wiki.