Rome: Santa Maria in Aquiro

Santa Maria in Aquiro.

I had been warned that a visit to the church of Santa Maria in Aquiro could be tricky. According to my source, visitors who wanted to view works of art in the building were not really welcome, while people who wanted to take photos could really get into trouble. Fortunately my own experience proved to be completely different. The biggest problem during my visit was the lack of light in the church, but the custodian had very helpfully turned on the lighting in the two most important chapels, where the best paintings in the church can be admired. Moreover, during my visit he also switched on a few extra lights in the choir, so that I was able to get a good look at the fourteenth-century altarpiece of the Santa Maria in Aquiro. Taking pictures was no problem at all. This may very well be different when mass is being celebrated, but that is much the same in other Roman churches.


The church was possibly founded in the seventh century as a diaconia. A diaconia was a church institution that was dedicated to care for the poor and distribution of food and other goods to those in need. It was basically a form of social security in the Middle Ages (see Rome: Santa Maria in Via Lata for another example from the same age). In the eighth century the diaconia had already been transformed into a church, which was restored by Pope Gregorius III (731-741). The Liber Pontificalis mentions a ‘basilica (…) a Cyro’, and that is the origin of the name Santa Maria in Aquiro. Cyrus may have been the founder of the diaconia, but if so, nothing is known of him, so this is no more than an assumption. Nevertheless, it is certainly conceivable that the diaconia was founded by an ethnic Greek. According to tradition the first deacon was appointed in 678, and in the first quarter of the seventh century most popes were Greeks. At the time Rome was still part of the Greek-speaking Eastern Roman Empire. The pope in 678 was the Sicilian Greek Agatho, who at the time of his death in 681 was said to have been more than a hundred years old.

Interior of the church. It can be quite dark inside.

From 1541 the church was administered by a confraternity that cared for orphans. In 1588 the confraternity decided that the church had to be rebuilt. For this project the architect Francesco Capriani da Volterra (1535-1594) was hired, who worked on the church from 1591 until his death in 1594. In 1602 work was continued under the direction of Carlo Maderno (1556-1629). Maderno was assisted by the relatively unknown Filippo Breccioli (ca. 1574-1627), to whom the design of the façade is attributed. For unknown reasons work on the church was suspended again in 1605. Only the lower section of the façade had been completed by then. It was not until 1774 that it was finished by Pietro Camporese the Elder (1726-1781), who must not be confused with his grandson Pietro Camporese the Younger (1792-1873; see Rome: Santi Vito e Modesto). In 1826 the Chierici regolari di Somasca (see Rome: Santi Bonifacio e Alessio) took over the administration of the church and the care for the orphans from the aforementioned confraternity. They are still here. In 1845 the church interior was destroyed by a great fire, which led to restorations in 1856, 1864 and 1866-1868.

Things to see

The exterior of the church is plain and simple. The façade is a mix of brick and travertine elements. In the triangular pediment topping the façade two putti are holding the coat-of-arms of a cardinal. The coat-of-arms features a two-headed eagle and a lion. Unfortunately I have not been able to establish whose coat-of-arms we see. As was already mentioned, the façade of the church was completed in 1774. This makes Andrea Negroni (1710-1789) a possible candidate for ‘owner’ of the coat-of-arms, as he was cardinal-deacon of the Santa Maria in Aquiro between 1763 and 1765. Between 1765 and 1775 the position was vacant. The church has two identical campaniles, which undeniably give the building a certain charm.

Fresco from the school of Pietro Cavallini.

I already stated that it can be quite dark inside the church. The interior is largely nineteenth-century and the big frescoes of saints on the pillars were made by Cesare Mariani (1826-1901) and his associates. If we walk through the nave to the choir, we arrive at the high altar which was made in 1681 by Mattia de Rossi (1637-1695). Part of the altar aedicule is a piece of fresco that is attributed to an anonymous master belonging to the school of Pietro Cavallini (ca. 1259-1330). Biographical information about Cavallini is scarce, but he was one of the most important artists of thirteenth and fourteenth-century Rome, famous for his splendid mosaics in the church of Santa Maria in Trastevere and his equally impressive frescoes in the church of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere. Cavallini was furthermore responsible for mosaics and frescoes in the basilica of San Paolo fuori le Mura (largely lost), the church where the artist found his final resting place.

The piece of fresco in the Santa Maria in Aquiro is not attributed to Cavallini himself, but to someone from his school. Nevertheless, this is a high-quality work. We see a Madonna and Child, two angels and Saint Stephen against a background of rather odd black vegetation. The fresco was obviously much larger once: just note the hand holding an object to the left of the Virgin’s elbow. Saint Stephen is clearly recognisable by the stones on his head. According to the Acts of the Apostles he was stoned to death outside Jerusalem for blasphemy. This horrible execution made him the protomartyr of the young Christian religion. The fresco features him kissing the feet of the Christ child, a lovely little detail. Originally the fresco was in the church of San Stefano in Trullo, which explains the presence of Saint Stephen. The church of San Stefano stood about 100 metres behind the Santa Maria in Aquiro, but was demolished during the pontificate of Pope Alexander VII (1655-1667).

Cappella della Passione di Cristo.

Crowning with Thorns.

The most interesting paintings in the church can be found in the second chapel on the left, the Cappella della Passione di Cristo. In 1633 the chapel was acquired by a certain Marco Antonio Pizzichetti, who had it dedicated to the Pietà. The frescoes on the ceiling and in the lunettes were made by Giovanni Battista Speranza (1600-1640). However, this chapel is all about the three oil paintings on the walls. The paintings depict the Deposition from the Cross (1635; centre), the Flagellation of Christ (ca. 1635; right) and the Crowning with Thorns (ca. 1635; left). It is clear that the maker or makers of the three paintings worked in the style of Caravaggio and used a lot of chiaroscuro. However, there is much discussion about their identity.

The altarpiece of the Deposition was made by a certain Maestro Jacopo. This name is apparently mentioned in a document, but we do not know who he was. I can only think of one Caravaggist painter whose name was Jacopo, and that is the Flemish painter Jacob van Oost (1603-1671). It is, however, quite unlikely that it was Van Oost who painted the Deposition. While he did spend several years in Rome, that was in the 1620s, and the canvas was almost certainly painted after 1633. By then the painter had long returned to his home town of Bruges. The Crowning with Thorns was previously attributed to Gerard van Honthorst (1592-1656). The information panel in the church still mentions his name and moreover erroneously calls him a Flemish painter (he was, in fact, a Dutchman from Utrecht). However, someone scribbled the name ‘Bigot’ on the information panel, and that is a reference to the French painter Trophime Bigot (1579-1650). His nickname was the Maître à la Chandelle, the master of candlelight. The Flagellation is also sometimes attributed to him, although the information panel asserts that the maker of his work is still unknown. I personally think it is not such a crazy thought to assume that all three works were made by Bigot. After all, the great Caravaggio himself also painted three works for a chapel in the church of San Luigi dei Francesi.

The third chapel on the right is very interesting as well. The frescoes in the chapel, which is dedicated to the Annunciation, were executed by the Venetian painter Carlo Saraceni (ca. 1579-1620). He painted them between 1611 and 1617. The altarpiece featuring the Annunciation was painted by someone else though. The painting is attributed to Francesco Nappi (ca. 1565-1630). If this attribution is correct, it must have been one of his last works.

Chapel of the Annunciation.


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