The San Luigi dei Francesi is located slightly east of the Piazza Navona and can be found right next to the Palazzo Madama, currently the seat of Italy’s senate, the Senato della Repubblica. The church was built in the sixteenth century and is the national church of France, its primary dedication being to King Saint Louis IX (1214-1270), who was canonised in 1297. Its most important treasures are three paintings by the Italian artist Caravaggio (1571-1610).
Originally, the site of the church had little to do with France. In Antiquity, the Baths of Nero were located here and in the Middle Ages, the terrain was acquired by the Benedictine Abbey of Farfa (in northern Lazio). There were two churches here, one of which was called the Santa Maria de Cella. King Louis IX died in 1270 in Tunis, North Africa. He had been a devout catholic, and first and foremost a crusader king. He was, in fact, probably the only monarch to participate in two separate Crusades, the Seventh (1248-1254) and the Eighth (1270). Neither Crusade was particularly successful, and that is putting it very mildly. During the Seventh Crusade, the king’s army was destroyed and he himself was captured and had to be ransomed. During the Eighth Crusade, just a month into the siege of Tunis, King Louis died of dysentery. The king’s genuine devotion won him a quick canonisation. Pope Bonifatius VIII (1294-1303) declared him a saint in 1297, just 27 years after his death. Many places are named after Saint Louis, chief among them Saint Louis in Missouri, United States.
France’s national church had for centuries been Santa Petronilla, which was located right next to Old Saint Peter’s Basilica. In the fourteenth century, the French community at Santa Petronilla funded the construction of a chapel dedicated to Saint Louis, which was located in the vicinity of the Sant’Andrea della Valle. This was just a small edifice, so plans were made to erect a proper church. In 1478, the French King Louis XI (1461-1483) bought the terrain of the former Baths of Nero, including the Santa Maria de Cella, from the Benedictines of Farfa. Plans were made to construct a church dedicated to Saint Louis here, but the project did not get off to a good start, perhaps partly caused by the death of Louis XI in 1483 and French involvement in series of wars in Italy by his successors.
The fact that the French lost possession of Santa Petronilla shortly after 1506 – it was knocked down to make room for New Saint Peter’s Basilica – breathed new life into the project. The already ruinous Santa Maria de Cella was demolished and the first stone of the new church was laid in 1518 by cardinal Giulio de’ Medici, the future Pope Clemens VII (1523-1534). Jean de Chenevières (ca. 1490-1527) served as San Luigi’s first architect. But then disaster struck. In January of 1527, De Chenevières – who had enlisted in the papal army – died of malaria. Four months later, Rome was pillaged by the marauding troops of Emperor Charles V in what became known as the Sack of Rome.
Construction of the San Luigi was now halted for at least two decades, until the project was resumed in the 1550s thanks to generous donations by King Henry II of France (1547-1559) and his Florentine wife Caterina de’ Medici. Giacomo della Porta (ca. 1532-1602) was commissioned to design the facade. This he did in 1581, and the church was completed by Domenico Fontana (1543-1607) in 1589. On 8 October 1589, the church was finally consecrated. The present dazzling interior is the result of an eighteenth century restoration by Antoine Dérizet (ca. 1685-1768), which was executed between 1749-1756. The large altarpiece at the back of the church features the Assumption and was painted by Francesco Bassano the Younger (1549-1592).
The French connection
The San Luigi dei Francesi is a French church in every respect. We can tell by, for instance, looking at the facade. Here we find four interesting statues which are the work of Pierre de l’Estache (ca. 1688-1774). The ones that are part of the lower tier of the facade represent Charlemagne on the left and King Saint Louis IX on the right. The upper tier has Saint Clotilde on the left and Saint Jeanne de Valois on the right. The former (ca. 475-545) was a Burgundian princess who became the wife of King Clovis and thus Queen of the Franks. It was Clotilde who persuaded her husband to convert to Christianity in 496, which is the main reason why she is venerated as a saint (Clovis’ conversion inspired the conversion of his entire people). Jeanne de Valois (1464-1505) was a daughter of the aforementioned King Louis XI and the founder of a female religious order called the Order of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Although she had already been beatified in 1742 by Pope Benedictus XIV (1740-1758), her canonisation would take another two centuries. It was Pope Pius XII (1939-1958) who declared her a saint in 1950.
Inside the church, the third chapel on the right is dedicated to Saint Jeanne de Valois, and there are many more chapels with a distinct French connection. The first chapel on the right is, for instance, dedicated to Saint Denis of Paris, who lived in the third century and is believed to have been the first bishop of Paris. The fourth chapel on the right is dedicated to Saint Remi (or Remigius), the bishop of Reims who baptised King Clovis, and the third chapel on the left is dedicated to King Saint Louis IX himself. The latter is one of the most interesting chapels in the entire church. The marvellous decorations in the chapel are the work of Plautilla Bricci (1616-1705), a pupil of Gian Lorenzo Bernini. What is special about Bricci is that she was a woman, and female artists were quite rare in 1680, the year in which the chapel was consecrated. Bricci was obviously very talented, both as an architect and as a painter. The altarpiece, depicting the king in royal attire, is also her work.
No matter how good Plautilla Bricci’s work is, the highlight of the church is definitely the chapel dedicated to Saint Matthew, which can be found at the end of the left aisle. It is more commonly known as the Cappella Contarelli. The name sounds Italian, but it was actually named after Matthieu Cointerel (1519-1585), a French cardinal who had commissioned the chapel in his will and left a handsome sum of money to construct it. Cointerel liked to call himself Matteo Contarelli in the Italian style. Since the cardinal was called Matthieu or Matteo – Matthew in English – it was never in doubt that the chapel was going to be dedicated to the Evangelist. However, the project proceeded just slowly after Cointerel’s death in 1585, and in 1599 the executors of his will hired Caravaggio to paint three pieces for the chapel.
Caravaggio finished his paintings around 1602. All three are related to the life of Saint Matthew the Evangelist. The altarpiece against the back wall features the Inspiration of Saint Matthew (see above). The painting on the left wall shows the Call of Saint Matthew while that on the right wall is about his Martyrdom. The latter has a little Easter egg: the painter himself can be seen in the background, just to the left of the semi-naked man in the centre. All three paintings are of outstanding quality and it is hard to say which of them is the best. I first visited the San Luigi dei Francesi in 2013 and it had a pretty strict “no photo” policy back then, so I bought a reproduction of the Call of Saint Matthew, my personal favourite. I re-visited the church in 2017 and apparently the rules have been relaxed. Photography is now allowed, as long as you do not use flash. The light in the chapel is excellent – as long as you put enough coins in the box – so you do not need flash anyway.
- Capitool Reisgidsen Rome, 2009 Dutch edition, p. 122;
- Luc Verhuyck, SPQR. Anekdotische reisgids voor Rome, p. 194-195;
- San Luigi dei Francesi on Churches of Rome Wiki.
 She was also briefly Queen of France in 1498. She had been married to her cousin, the future King Louis XII (1498-1515), since 1476. Louis had the marriage annulled by the Pope after he acceded to the throne on the death of his cousin King Charles VIII (1483-1498), Jeanne’s younger brother.