Although certainly not the most interesting church in Trastevere, the Santa Maria della Scala may come as a pleasant surprise to many. Behind a fairly simple facade, one can find a rich Baroque interior. The name of the church – Our Lady of the Staircase – refers to a medieval icon that had been placed on an external staircase. The staircase was originally part of a private residence, which was later transferred to the Church and used as a home for former prostitutes who had given up their sinful profession. When the icon of Our Lady of the Staircase was held responsible for the miraculous recovery of a child in 1592, the decision was taken to build a devotional church on the spot.
It was Pope Clemens VIII (1592-1605), fresh on the Throne of Saint Peter, who initiated the project. He commissioned the architect Francesco Capriani da Volterra (1535-1594), who had risen to fame for his work on churches such as the Santa Maria dell’Orto and the Santa Pudenziana. Capriani started work in 1593 and managed to finish the nave and side chapels before he died on 15 February of the next year. The Santa Maria della Scala was ultimately completed in 1610, but unfortunately we do not know who succeeded Francesco Capriani as chief architect. I will not speculate about the identity of the successor here. Suffice to say that in 1597 the church was entrusted to friars from the order of the Discalced – i.e. shoeless – Carmelites. Their female counterparts could be found at the nearby church of Sant’Egidio.
As stated above, the facade of the Santa Maria della Scala is very simple. It is made of travertine and has two storeys. Two of the three niches of the lower storey are empty now, but it is not inconceivable that they once contained statues (the church was looted in 1849). We can certainly still find a sculpture in the niche above the entrance: a Madonna and Child attributed to Francesco di Cusart and sculpted in 1633. Virtually nothing is known about this sculptor and the Madonna and Child of the Santa Maria della Scala seem to be his only known work.
Once inside, one is easily struck by the opulence of the interior. The interior is colourful and dazzling, but some of it is fake and a few cracks have appeared here and there, especially in the conch of the apse. The present interior is the result of a restoration executed in 1730. Interesting works of art to be found here include a baldachin by Carlo Rainaldi (1611-1691) and paintings in the apse by the Cavalier d’Arpino (1568-1640) and the Flemish painter Lucas de la Haye (1612-1682). The first chapel on the left has a painting of the Carmelite prior Simon Stock by Cristoforo Roncalli (ca. 1553-1626), while the second chapel on this side has a painting of the Death of the Virgin by the Venetian painter Carlo Saraceni (1579-1620). Saraceni’s work is anything but spectacular, and its fame rests solely on that of the painting it replaced. Originally the much more famous artist Caravaggio (1571-1610) had been commissioned to execute a painting about this theme, but his Death of the Virgin was rejected by the church authorities.
The exact reason for the rejection is not known with certainty, but it has been speculated that Caravaggio used either his own mistress or a drowned prostitute as a model for the Virgin. Both stories are likely not true, but the painting was considered unfit nonetheless. It was sold to the Duke of Mantua in 1607 and acquired by King Charles I of England twenty years later. When King Charles was beheaded in 1649, it became the property of the English Commonwealth, which in turn sold it to the Franco-German banker Everhard Jabach (1618-1695). Jabach sold it to King Louis XIV of France in 1671, which explains why the Death of the Virgin can be found in the Louvre in Paris today.
For me as a Dutchman, the most interesting work of art was a painting by the Dutch artist Gerard van Honthorst (1592-1656). Van Honthorst was from the city of Utrecht and was known as a follower of Caravaggio. Like many other painters from this city, he spent several years in Italy in the 1610s. Van Honthorst and his colleagues became known as the Utrecht Caravaggisti. In 1619, the Dutch painter completed his Decapitation of Saint John the Baptist for the first chapel on the right, which is dedicated to this saint. The influence of Caravaggio is evident, especially as regards the chiaroscuro effects.
For more information about the church, see this website.
Update 17 July 2022: images have been updated.