The name Chiesa Nuova is obviously just a nickname. The official name of this immense Counter-Reformation church is and has always been the Santa Maria in Vallicella. The church is dedicated to the Virgin Mary and has a subsidiary dedication to Pope Saint Gregorius the Great (590-604). This latter dedication derives from the tradition that it was Pope Gregorius who built the first church on this spot. Evidence, however, is lacking. We can only be certain that there was a church here as late as 1179.
San Filippo Neri
It was this church that Pope Gregorius XIII (1572-1585) gave to the future saint Filippo Neri (1515-1595), who was known as the Apostle of Rome and also affectionately as Pippo Buono. Neri was a Florentine by birth. He had arrived as a pilgrim in Rome in 1534 and was ordained as a priest in 1551 at age 36. The future saint was quite a phenomenon. He demanded of his followers that they humiliate themselves by dressing in rags and even wearing a foxtail between their legs. Many of his followers were young Roman nobleman and Neri ordered them to do manual labour, which was unheard of in that era. Filippo Neri was not afraid to be controversial.
In 1575, Neri founded the Congregation of the Oratory, a new religious order, also known as the Oratorians. A deeply religious man, Neri stressed the need for humility. In order to become humble, he believed it was necessary “to despise the world, to despise no person, to despise one’s self, to despise being despised”. Neri was not afraid to criticise and rebuke Popes and was said to have taken his followers to the church of Santo Stefano Rotondo on the Caelian to admire the rather gruesome frescoes showing the Sufferings of the Martyrs. Filippo Neri died in 1595. He was beatified in 1615 and then canonised in 1622. Calling him colourful is definitely an understatement.
The medieval church of Santa Maria in Vallicella was in a pretty rotten state when it was given to Neri by the Pope in 1575. It was a damp and dilapidated building that basically needed to be rebuilt from scratch. Donations necessary to finance the project came from many sources. Pope Gregorius XIII himself provided funds, and so did the people of Rome. Important sponsors were furthermore Angelo Cesi (1530-1606), bishop of Todi, and his older brother Pierdonato Cesi (1522-1586), an influential cardinal. The former Cesi’s name is actually mentioned on the facade: ANGELVS CAESIVS EPISC(OPVS) TVDERTINVS.
The first architect of the Chiesa Nuova, Matteo Bartolini da Castello (ca. 1530-after 1597), got off to a flying start. Neri, who was in his early sixties at the time, had ordered his many followers in Rome to work on the new church and they complied en masse. Work progressed well, and enough of the edifice had been completed by 1577 to be able to celebrate the first mass in that year. However, Bartolini then left the project for unknown reasons and it was not until 1586 that work was resumed under Martino Longhi the Elder (1534-1591). By the time of Longhi’s death in 1591, the Chiesa Nuova had still not been completed. The design was then altered by Giacomo della Porta (1532-1602), who had already worked on that other great Counter-Reformation church in Rome, the church of Il Gesù, mother church of the Jesuits. It was Della Porta who finished the Chiesa Nuova, which was consecrated in 1599.
The facade is the work of the little-known architect Fausto Rughesi. Construction of this part of the church started in 1594 and it was completed in 1605, a year mentioned on the facade itself (in Roman numerals, MDCV). Next door is the convent of the Oratorians. It is known as the Oratorio dei Filippini – i.e. the followers of Filippo Neri; it has nothing to do with the Philippines – and is mostly the work of the famous architect Francesco Borromini (1599-1667). The Oratorians gave their name to the musical genre known as the ‘oratorio’.
As a devout and humble Christian, Filippo Neri wanted a sparsely decorated church that would mainly be used for preaching activities. A few frescoes of the Virgin Mary here and there would suffice. A quick glance at the interior of the Chiesa Nuova makes it clear that this wish was ignored by Neri’s followers, and that is again an understatement. What we see today is a lavishly decorated church, although I would say that it does not match for instance the already mentioned church of Il Gesù in terms of extravagance.
The spectacular frescoes in the church are the work of Pietro da Cortona (1596-1669) and his studio. This architect and painter worked in the church between ca. 1647 and 1666. Da Cortona did not just add frescoes, he also constructed the current dome of the Chiesa Nuova in 1650 and then provided the interior of it with a fresco featuring the Triumph of the Trinity. The fresco in the apse is also by Pietro da Cortona and shows the Assumption of the Virgin. However, by far the most spectacular fresco is that of the ceiling of the nave, executed by the same artist and his co-workers between 1664 and 1665. The fresco tells the story of a miraculous intervention by the Virgin, who personally prevented the roof of the Chiesa Nuova from collapsing by supporting one of the beams. Filippo Neri, who is also depicted in the fresco, was apparently warned that this might happen in a dream. There might be some truth in this story; the young noblemen that Neri forced to work on his church were obviously not skilled labourers. The stucco work surrounding the ceiling fresco is the work of Ercole Ferrata (1610-1686) and the brothers Giacomo Antonio (1619-1671) and Cosimo Fancelli (1618-1688).
Among the most interesting pieces of art inside the church are three works by the Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640). Rubens first of all painted the altarpiece of a Madonna with Angels. It is rather curious work, painted on slate (lavagna in Italian) rather than on wood or canvas. Behind the medallion in the centre with the Madonna and Child painted by Rubens is the original icon of Our Lady of Vallicella from the thirteenth century. The rather simple icon and Ruben’s seventeenth century remake can be seen side by side here. Apparently, the altarpiece can be moved aside by some sort of mechanism to reveal the icon behind it.
Rubens painted two more works for the sanctuary of the Chiesa Nuova, also on slate, which can be found on either side of the high altar. On the left are the soldier-saints Papias and Maurus (martyred in 303) with Pope Saint Gregorius the Great. On the right are Saints Domitilla, Nereus and Achilleus. Domitilla may or may not have been Flavia Domitilla, granddaughter of the Roman emperor Vespasianus (69-79). However, the legend that Nereus and Achilleus were her butlers is just pious fiction. Rubens’ three works can be dated to 1606-1608, so he executed the paintings while still a young man.
The Chiesa Nuova has five identical chapels on either side of the church and two more chapels flanking the sanctuary. This plan might be useful. The Chapel of Our Lady of Sorrows, which is the second chapel on the right, used to have perhaps the most famous altarpiece in the entire church, more famous even than Rubens’ work. I am referring to Caravaggio’s Entombment of Christ, which the artist painted in 1604. The painting was stolen by the French under Napoleon, who certainly knew great art when they saw it. The French put it on display at the Louvre and later returned it to the Papal Authorities after Napoleon’s defeat. But unfortunately Caravaggio’s masterpiece then ended up in the Pinacoteca of the Vatican Museums. What we see in the chapel today is a copy by the little-known Austrian painter Michele Koeck (1760-1825).
To the right of the sanctuary is the Cappella Spada or the Chapel of Saint Carlo Borromeo. Carlo Borromeo (1538-1584) was a contemporary of Filippo Neri and archbishop of Milan. He was also one of the sponsors of the Chiesa Nuova. In this chapel we should be able to find the monument for cardinal Caesar Baronius (1538-1607), the great Catholic church historian. Unfortunately this part of the Chiesa Nuova was kept closed when I visited the church in January of this year.
Finally, the most important part of the church from a religious point of view is arguably the Chapel of Saint Filippo Neri himself to the left of the sanctuary. This is the chapel where the saint was buried, which is the reason why it attracts a lot of pilgrims. It was lavishly decorated by the aforementioned Pietro da Cortona and frescoes were provided by Cristoforo Roncalli (ca. 1553-1626), one of three artists nicknamed Il Pomarancio. One of the other Pomarancios – Niccolò Circignani – happened to be the artist responsible for the horrifying frescoes in the Santo Stefano Rotondo that Filippo Neri was so fond of (see above), but he was probably already dead when the chapel for Neri was built and decorated.
The altarpiece in the chapel shows the saint kneeling before the Madonna and Child. If you watch closely, you will notice that it is not a painting, but a mosaic. Initially, the Baroque painter Guido Reni (1575-1642) had provided a painting for the chapel. This painting was moved to the convent in the eighteenth century and replaced with a copy in mosaic by one Vincenzo Castellani.