The Santa Maria del Popolo is located on the edge of Rome’s historical city centre (centro storico) and only just within the third century Aurelian Walls. It is right next to the Porta del Popolo, the former Porta Flaminia. The present church was built in the fifteenth century, replacing a late eleventh century edifice. It is truly a treasure trove of Renaissance and Baroque art, with works by many important Italian artists. Early work was executed by Andrea Bregno, Pinturicchio and their respective schools. Later, artists such as Bramante, Raphael, Gian Lorenzo Bernini and Carlo Fontana worked on the interior of the church and its chapels, while Annibale Carracci and Caravaggio provided famous paintings for what is arguably the most popular chapel in the church, the Cappella Cerasi. People who have read Dan Brown’s novel Angels & Demons will be familiar with the Santa Maria del Popolo, and especially with its Chigi chapel and its sculptures by Bernini.
The Santa Maria del Popolo has one of the strangest founding legends of all the Roman churches. On 9 June 68, the Roman emperor Nero committed suicide. The Spanish governor Servius Sulpicius Galba had rebelled against him and the emperor had fled to a villa outside Rome owned by one of his freedmen. When horsemen were approaching, Nero ordered his secretary Epaphroditus to kill him. Since the emperor was born Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, he was buried in the family mausoleum of the Domitii Ahenobarbi. The Roman historian Suetonius claimed that “his ashes were deposited by his nurses, Egloge and Alexandria, accompanied by his mistress Acte, in the family tomb of the Domitii on the summit of the Hill of Gardens, which is visible from the Campus Martius”. The Hill of Gardens is now called the Pincio or Pincian Hill.
Nero was of course notorious for his persecution of Christians, and apparently the emperor’s spirit continued to haunt this place for more than a thousand years after his death. In 1099, the newly elected Pope Paschalis II (1099-1118) was forced to intervene when residents living nearby were petrified by nocturnal noises coming from a lone walnut tree. This was thought to be Nero’s ghost. Paschalis decided to cut down the tree and remove Nero’s ashes from their urn and throw them into the nearby Tiber. A chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary was subsequently built over the mausoleum. This chapel was upgraded to a proper church by Pope Gregorius IX (1227-1241) in about 1235.
Almost two and a half centuries later, Francesco della Rovere was elected pope and chose the name Sixtus IV (1471-1484). He is best known for building the Sistine Chapel, but he was also responsible for the construction of two churches in Rome: the Santa Maria della Pace and a new Santa Maria del Popolo. It is Sixtus’ church, built between 1472 and 1478, that we can admire today. As with the Santa Maria della Pace, the architect is unknown. The Renaissance facade is attributed to Andrea Bregno (ca. 1418-1503) on stylistic grounds, but there is no documentary evidence. It features the coat of arms of Pope Sixtus IV above the main entrance and that of another pope, Alexander VII (1655-1667), on the triangular pediment. This Alexander hired Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) to restore and modernise the church in the seventeenth century. Bernini completed his assignment in 1660.
When in the thirteenth century Pope Gregorius IX consecrated the chapel built by Paschalis as a proper church, he had a famous icon known as the Madonna del Popolo installed on the high altar. It can still be admired in the present church. Tradition dictates that it was painted by Saint Luke the Evangelist, but as with many such traditions, this is pious nonsense. It is probably a late twelfth or early thirteenth century work of art executed in the Byzantine style. The current high altar was designed and executed by Bernini, but the choir and triumphal arch are by Donato Bramante (1444-1514). The choir had been commissioned by Pope Julius II (1503-1513). He was Pope Sixtus IV’s nephew and thus also a scion of the Della Rovere family. Unfortunately, the choir seems to be inaccessible to the public (it was when I last visited the church), so it is almost impossible to admire the original stained glass windows, made in 1509 by Frenchman Guillaume de Marcillat (his work in Arezzo has been discussed previously). In the seventeenth century, gilded stucco reliefs were added to the triumphal arch. The ones on the archivolt tell the foundation legend of the church.
The Santa Maria del Popolo has fourteen chapels. Many of these were leased by important Roman families to be used as funerary chapels. As it would be tedious to discuss them all in great detail, I will only provide descriptions of the most interesting chapels below.
Agostino Chigi (1466-1520) was a wealthy banker and Maecenas from Siena who owned a most wonderful villa elsewhere in Rome. He commissioned his friend Raphael (1483-1520) to design a chapel for him in the Santa Maria del Popolo. Both Agostino and his brother are buried here, but since Raphael – like Agostino – died in 1520, the chapel was not finished for a long time. An attempt to complete it was made in 1652 by cardinal Fabio Chigi, also a member of the Chigi family and cardinal-priest of the Santa Maria del Popolo. He would be elected Pope Alexander VII three years later. Chigi employed the services of Gian Lorenzo Bernini, who finally finished the chapel around the year 1656.
I think that it is fair to say that the construction of the Chigi Chapel was a Sisyphean labour. Raphael designed the two pyramidal tombs for Agostino Chigi and his brother, but they were executed by Lorenzo Lotti (1490-1541), known as Lorenzetto. The latter was also responsible for the statues of Jonah and Elijah in the chapel. Raphael designed the dome mosaics himself but commissioned a relatively unknown artist from Venice named Luigi de Pace to actually make them (the Venetians were known for their mosaic-making skills). They are dated to 1516.
The deaths of both Raphael and Agostino in 1520 and that of Agostino’s brother Sigismondo in 1526 threw the whole project into disarray. The Venetian painter Sebastiano del Piombo (ca. 1485-1547) started painting the huge altarpiece depicting the Birth of the Virgin in 1530, but left it unfinished in 1534. Del Piombo was long dead when it was finally completed in the 1550s by Francesco de’ Rossi (1510-1563), nicknamed Il Salviati.
The most famous additions to the chapel are by Gian Lorenzo Bernini. He was responsible for two more statues and for the laying of the floor. The statues show Daniel (on the near left) and Habakkuk and the Angel (on the far right). The floor is graced by an inlaid roundel at the centre of the chapel, which features a winged, kneeling skeleton and the coat of arms of Pope Alexander VII (a set of mountains combined with the oak tree of the Della Rovere family of which Popes Sixtus IV and Julius II where members). The roundel has the text Mors aD CaeLos (“Death to Heavens”), and the use of capitals is intentional: these spell out the year MDCL or 1650 (perhaps the year in which Bernini received his commission from Fabio Chigi). Both the statue of Habakkuk and the winged skeleton feature prominently in Dan Brown’s novel.
This chapel is directly opposite the Cappella Chigi. Like the latter, it has a dome of its own and basically constitutes a small church in its own right. The dome can be seen rather well from the Piazza del Popolo outside (see the first image of this post). The chapel was originally decorated by Pinturicchio (1452-1513) and Andrea Bregno, but all of their work was destroyed when the chapel was completely redecorated by Carlo Fontana (1634/38-1714) in the Baroque style in the seventeenth century. The result is quite impressive and can be described as “colourful marble galore”. Yet even though we do not know what Pinturicchio and Bregno’s decorations looked like, we can still lament the loss of their work. The altarpiece by Carlo Maratta (1625-1713) shows The Immaculate Conception and Four Doctors of the Church. The chapel was leased by the Cybo family, which was originally from Genoa (the name presumably has Greek origins). In 1484, Pope Sixtus IV died and was succeeded by one Giovanni Battista Cybo, who chose the name Innocentius VIII (1484-1492).
Cappella Della Rovere
To the right of the Cybo Chapel is the Della Rovere Chapel. The name Della Rovere has already been mentioned a few times above. Both Pope Sixtus IV and Pope Julius II (uncle and nephew) were from this prominent family. The Cappella Della Rovere was the family’s funerary chapel. The highlight here is the altarpiece of the Nativity by Pinturicchio. The chapel should not be confused with the Cappella Basso della Rovere to the left of the Cybo chapel. This chapel was decorated by artists who are usually identified as (anonymous) painters from Pinturicchio’s school. The altarpiece here shows The Virgin Mary with Saints.
This chapel is the main reason why tourists visit the Santa Maria del Popolo. Expect huge crowds here and make sure you have a few coins to pay for the illumination. The chapel takes its name from one Tiberio Cerasi who acquired the chapel in 1600 and then hired Caravaggio (1571-1610) and Annibale Carracci (1560-1609) to decorate it. Carracci’s altarpiece of the Assumption featuring Saints Peter and Paul is colourful, in marked contrast to Caravaggio’s much darker paintings on the side walls. It is difficult to take good pictures of the latter two paintings, as most of the chapel is roped off and visitors are not allowed inside. Still, Caravaggio’s works are masterpieces indeed. The painting on the left wall depicts the Crucifixion of Saint Peter. It shows three men trying to crucify the saint upside down, according to his own wish (tradition dictates that Peter did not consider himself worthy to die in the same way as Christ). The painting on the right wall is The Conversion of Saint Paul, who is struck blind on the road to Damascus.
- Capitool Reisgidsen Rome, 2009 Dutch edition, p. 138-139;
- Luc Verhuyck, SPQR. Anekdotische reisgids voor Rome, p. 201-204;
- Santa Maria del Popolo on Churches of Rome Wiki.
Update 19 February 2022: images have been updated.
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