I had not yet visited this large Augustinian church just north of the Piazza Navona and it was high on my list. I had spent the morning visiting other Roman churches (this one, this one and this one) and then hurried towards the Sant’Agostino, hoping to get there on time before the doors would be closed for the extended lunch break between 12:00 and 16:00. Even though I kind of got lost on the way, I still managed to accomplished my mission. I had about twenty minutes left and that was more than enough to see all the highlights the Sant’Agostino has to offer. The church has interesting works of arts by Raphael, Caravaggio, Andrea and Jacopo Sansovino, which I will discuss below.
History of the church
The church is attached to a monastery administered by Augustinian friars and founded in 1286. The friars first used an old parish church in the vicinity as their conventual church, but began construction of a church of their own in 1296, during the pontificate of Pope Bonifatius VIII (1294-1303). Construction took exactly 150 years: the new church was consecrated in 1446. But that was not the end of the story: apparently the recently finished church was considered too small, and it was rebuilt on a much larger scale between 1479 and 1483. The man who funded the rebuilding is mentioned on the church facade: GVILLERMVS DE ESTOVTEVILLA, or Guillaume d’Estouteville (ca. 1412-1483). The text on the facade also mentions the year 1483 (MCCCCLXXXIII) and some of d’Estouteville’s many influential positions: bishop of Ostia, cardinal-archbishop of Rouen and camerarius or Camerlengo. What is omitted is that he was also cardinal-protector of the Order of Saint Augustine, which explains his interest in the church of Sant’Agostino, which is of course dedicated to this saint.
The design of the church facade is attributed to Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472). One may indeed notice similarities between this facade and that of the Santa Maria Novella in Florence, also (partly) designed by Alberti. But Alberti was not involved in the construction, as he was long dead when the rebuilding project funded by Guillaume d’Estouteville was launched. The architect responsible for putting Alberti’s design into practice was Giàcomo da Pietrasanta (died ca. 1495), who presumably led the rest the of the rebuilding process as well. The rather striking scrolls or volutes in the corners were reportedly added much later, during an eighteenth century intervention by Luigi Vanvitelli (1700-1773). The facade is relatively simple, but there is an interesting story – possibly true – that the travertine required to build it was taken from the Colosseum.
Much of the church interior we see today dates from the nineteenth century, when a drastic restoration was carried out during the pontificate of Pope Pius IX (1846-1878). Pietro Gagliardi (1809-1890) painted fresco’s for the pillars in the nave, the nave walls, the ceiling, the dome, the transept and two of the chapels. The nave pillars were encased in marble and the church was provided with a new floor as well. Gagliardi’s frescoes are quite good, but they are not the reasons why one should visit the Sant’Agostino. So what are those reasons? I can mention quite a few.
Raphael and the Sansovinos
Raphael’s fresco of the prophet Isaiah is among the most famous works of art inside the church. It was painted in 1512 for Johannes Goritz (ca. 1455–1527), a humanist scholar and patron of the arts from Luxemburg of whose cultural circle Raphael was a member. According to a rather humorous story, the painter charged Goritz fifty scudi for the fresco, which the latter considered extortion. The two parties asked Michelangelo to arbitrate in the conflict, and the famous Florentine is said to have remarked that Isaiah’s rather striking knee alone was worth fifty scudi.
Whether the story is true or not is not that relevant. It is certain that Raphael and Michelangelo knew each other’s work well and that the former borrowed heavily from the latter’s depiction of prophets on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, where Michelangelo had been active between 1508 and 1512. Raphael added two texts to his fresco, one in Greek (a language that was gaining popularity during the Renaissance), the other in Hebrew. The Greek text refers to Saint Anne, the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ. What is interesting is that Raphael uses the epithet Parthenotokos (Παρθενοτόκος – Virgin-bearer) to refer to Saint Anne as the mother of the Virgin. I am by no means a specialist in this field, but I know of no other uses of this term. The epithet Raphael uses for the Virgin – Theotokos (Θεοτόκος – God-bearer) – is in any case much more common. The final two words of the Greek text are abbreviations: ΙΩ ΚΟΡ is short for Ioannes Coricius, or Johannes Goritz. The Hebrew text is from Isaiah 26:2, “Open the gates, that the righteous nation which remains faithful may enter in” (NKJV).
Below the fresco is a sculpture of the Madonna and Child with Saint Anne by Andrea Sansovino (ca. 1467-1529). For some reason, Johannes Goritz was especially devoted to Saint Anne. He celebrated her feast day of 26 July with great solemnity with his circle of friends, had poetry read out in front of Sansovino’s statue and then hurried off to his garden in the former Forum of Trajanus for a huge dinner party.
The Sant’Agostino has another famous sculpture of the Madonna and Child, but this time without Saint Anne. It can be found near the church entrance and is known as the Madonna del Parto or Madonna of Childbirth. This statue is the work of Jacopo Sansovino (1486-1570), who was not related to the aforementioned Andrea Sansovino (he was, however, his apprentice for a while and took his name). There is a rather plausible theory that the sculptor based the head of the Madonna on that of a statue from Antiquity. The ‘Classical’ look is indeed hard to deny. This was a presumably a statue of Juno, the goddess who was closely associated with childbirth. The theory that Sansovino re-sculpted a statue of Agrippina the Younger holding young Nero is rather silly.
Other art worth seeing
Caravaggio’s Madonna dei Pellegrini is probably as famous as Raphael’s Isaiah. It is the second painting which makes this church worth a visit. The Madonna dei Pellegrini is not a fresco, but an oil painting on panel. It was executed between 1604 and 1606 and depicts a barefooted Madonna with an exceptionally large Christ-Child and two pilgrims (hence the name). The work caused quite a stir for two reasons. The model Caravaggio used was a high-class prostitute named Maddalena (‘Lena’) Antognietti and this was considered inappropriate by many. The Augustinian friars did not protest, however, and this is understandable: at least since the days of Johannes Goritz, prostitutes who had influential lovers were welcome in this church. They were even buried here, had their own funerary monuments and some even had their own chapels. By contrast, ordinary prostitutes were buried near the Muro Torto on the Pincian Hill, along with thieves, vagabonds and people who had committed suicide. Unfortunately all traces of the courtesans in the Sant’Agostino were erased in the nineteenth century.
The second reason the painting was controversial was the way Caravaggio had depicted the two pilgrims. He did not idealise them in any way, but portrayed them as ordinary people. One may notice the two feet of the bearded man, which feature quite prominently and look kind of dirty. Caravaggio had been accused of a lack of respect for sacred subjects before. One perhaps remembers his Inspiration of Saint Matthew for the church of San Luigi dei Francesi. The painting we see in that church is actually the second version. The first version was rejected because of the way Caravaggio had depicted Saint Matthew (he basically made the saint look like a halfwit). Fortunately the painter had no such problems with his Madonna dei Pellegrini. Neither the people who commissioned the work, nor the Augustinian friars objected to the painting being hung in one of the chapels. We may be grateful that it is still in situ and has not been moved to some museum.
The high altar was designed by Orazio Torriani (1578-1657). He was the architect who was responsible for raising the floor of the Santi Cosma e Damiano and constructing a new facade for the San Bartolomeo all’Isola. Torriani was obviously very talented: as a testament to his skill, the altar is often mistakenly attributed to the famous sculptor and architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Part of the altar is a fifteenth century icon of the Madonna and Child, which religious fantasists like to attribute to Saint Luke the Evangelist (as they do so often, see here, here, here and here). Obviously that tradition is pious hogwash, but there may be truth in the tradition that the icon was brought to Rome after Constantinople had been conquered by the Turks in 1453 (one of my travel guides mentions the year 1482).
The church is of course dedicated to Saint Augustinus of Hippo, but apparently it does not have any of his relics. It does, however, have the relics of his mother, Saint Monica. Monica had died in Ostia in 387 and had initially been buried there in the church of Sant’Aurea. Her body was translated to the Sant’Agostino in the fifteenth century. The sculptor Isaia da Pisa was presumably responsible for her funerary monument, made in ca. 1455. This monument has not survived intact. In the Chapel of Saint Monica, we can now only view her tomb, made of a Roman sarcophagus with an effigy of the deceased on top. There is not much to look at to be honest. Monica looks a bit like a mummy. The effigy on the tomb of Cardinal Pietro Grifi in the same chapel, made in 1492, looks a lot more lifelike. Monica’s remains are now enshrined beneath the high altar in the chapel (see the image above). Near the side entrance of the church are four statues from Monica’s monument which represent the Four Doctors of the Church. Of course her son was one of them.
- Luc Verhuyck, SPQR. Anekdotische reisgids voor Rome, p. 180-183;
- Sant’Agostino on Churches of Rome Wiki.