Two churches for the price of one. This post is about the famous twin churches of Santa Maria in Montesanto and Santa Maria dei Miracoli. Together they dominate the south side of the equally famous Piazza del Popolo. Although they are the product of one and the same project and are rightly called twin churches, there are in fact clear differences between the two edifices. The bell-towers for instance do not resemble each other at all, while other differences are more subtle. Santa Maria in Montesanto, the church on the left side, has the shape of an ellipse and a dodecagonal dome for example. Santa Maria dei Miracoli, on the other side, is a circular church with an octagonal dome. The number of chapels in the two buildings is not the same either, six vs. four. Lastly, there is an important religious difference between the churches. The Santa Maria in Montesanto used to be the church of a Carmelite convent, while the Santa Maria dei Miracoli first of all served to house an icon that was believed to have the capacity to perform miracles. The former church moreover has the status of a minor basilica and the latter does not.
The history of the Santa Maria dei Miracoli goes back to the fourteenth century. In 1325 a Roman child fell into the river Tiber while collecting firewood. The child was about to drown, but after the mother had prayed to an icon of Our Lady, it was miraculously saved. A chapel was subsequently built next to the river to house the icon. It stood about 200 metres west of the present church. The Tiber frequently overflew its banks in those days, so the chapel was often flooded. Therefore a copy was made of the icon, while the original was taken to the church of the Capuchins that administered the chapel (currently the church of San Giacomo in Augusta). The location of the chapel remained problematic, however, and in 1662 a solution was found. Before I come to speak of it, let us first go over to the other church, that of Santa Maria in Montesanto.
In 1618 a convent of a reformed branch of the Carmelite order was founded in Monte Santo, just outside Messina on Sicily. In 1640 these reformed Carmelites were granted permission to also found a convent in Rome. They settled at the Piazza del Popolo and held their religious ceremonies in a small chapel. Then in 1662 Pope Alexander VII (1655-1667) took a very important decision. He wanted to embellish the Piazza del Popolo and gave the order to build two almost identical churches on the south side of the large piazza. The Santa Maria dei Miracoli was intended to house the icon of Our Lady of Miracles – or rather the copy of the original icon –, while the Sicilian Carmelites would be given the Santa Maria in Montesanto to celebrate mass there. The foundation stones of the two buildings were laid by the future cardinal Girolamo Gastaldi (1616-1685), who invested a lot of money in the project. The first architect of the twin churches was Carlo Rainaldi (1611-1691), who is, among other things, known for building the apse of the basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore.
Rainaldi worked on the project tirelessly until 1667, but Pope Alexander VII’s death in that year proved to be a gamechanger and caused work to be suspended for several years. In 1671 Carlo Fontana (ca. 1638-1714) was hired as the new architect of the Santa Maria in Montesanto and work on this church was resumed. Fontana received some help from Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680), by far the greatest architect of the seventeenth century. In 1673 the church was completed, which was no doubt a great relief for the Carmelites. Attention then shifted to the other church, the Santa Maria dei Miracoli. In 1675, after an eight-year construction stop, Carlo Rainaldi was allowed to continue the project. However, in 1677 Carlo Fontana took over from him and the next year, in 1678, he managed to complete the church. The south side of the Piazza del Popolo now finally had its splendid backdrop.
Travellers from the north visiting Rome at the end of the seventeenth century entered the city through the Porta del Popolo. The gate’s previous name was the Porta Flaminia, and this was the spot where the famous Roman road called the Via Flaminia reached the city. The urban stretch of the road was called the Via Lata or Broad Way. This is now the Via del Corso. To manage the flow of pilgrims, the Popes Leo X (1513-1521) and Clemens VII (1523-1534) had ordered the existing narrow streets on either side of the Via del Corso to be converted into broad lanes. Leo was responsible for the Via di Ripetta (previously the Via Leonina) and Clemens for the Via del Babuino (previously the Via Clementina).
In 1589 Pope Sixtus V (1585-1590) had an Egyptian obelisk erected on the Piazza del Popolo. The obelisk was originally from Heliopolis and was made during the reign of Pharaoh Seti I (ca. 1290-1279 BCE) and his son Ramses II (ca. 1279-1213 BCE). The Roman emperor Augustus had the object shipped to Rome in 10 BCE and placed it on the spina of the Circus Maximus. Centuries later, Pope Sixtus V commissioned Domenico Fontana (1543-1607) to erect the obelisk on the Piazza del Popolo. Travellers from the north first passed by the obelisk and then saw the twin churches on the south side of the square.
Things to see in the Santa Maria in Montesanto
I will first discuss the church that is on the left, seen from the piazza. The bell-tower of the Santa Maria in Montesanto dates from 1761 and is clearly much simpler and a bit lower than the tower on the right. The architect was the relatively unknown Francesco Navone (1731-1804), while the bell-tower of the other church is attributed to Girolamo Theodoli (1677-1766). The portico of the Santa Maria in Montesanto is supported by four columns. On the frieze above it we read the name of cardinal Gastaldi, who latinised his name: HIER(ONYMVS) GASTALDVS. Lastly, on the balustrade above the triangular pediment we see eight statues of Carmelite saints, made by sculptors from the school of Bernini.
The interior of the church is fairly light, and in any case much lighter than that of the Santa Maria dei Miracoli. The most important works of art can be found in the choir. Here are bronze busts of the four popes under whom cardinal Gastaldi served, i.e. Alexander VII (1655-1667), Clemens IX (1667-1669), Clemens X (1670-1676) and Innocentius XI (1676-1689). The busts were made by Girolamo Lucenti (1627-1692) and the high altar is by Mattia de Rossi (1637-1695).
A very special work of art is the altarpiece of the Madonna and Child. It was long attributed to an anonymous master who worked in the style of Antoniazzo Romano (1430-1508). During a thorough restoration of the Santa Maria in Montesanto the icon was examined and the identity of the painter was finally established. Surprisingly, the painter turned out to be a woman, Plautilla Bricci (1616-1705). She had actually signed the icon on the reverse side. Bricci, who never married and was known as a zitella (spinster), was a versatile artist. She painted, made miniatures, sculpted and worked as an architect. The Galleria Corsini elsewhere in Rome recently had an interesting exhibition about her life and work.
A remarkable story is told about the icon. When a young Bricci painted it around the year 1640, she was said to have had difficulty getting the face of the Madonna right. In the end she decided to call it a day and went to bed. When she awoke again the next day, the face had been miraculously completed. On the icon we see a text that refers to Mount Carmel in present-day Israel. It was here that, at the end of the twelfth century, the Order of the Carmelites was founded. The sacred mountain (Monte Sancto) mentioned in the text of course also refers to Monte Santo on Sicily and to the name of this church. Other interesting art can be found in the six side chapels. See for instance a painting by Carlo Maratta (1625-1713) in the third chapel on the left and works of Ludovico Gimignani (1643-1697) in the second chapel on the left (see the image below). The church also has statues made by Filippo Carcani, nicknamed Filippone, who lived in the second half of the seventeenth century. These statues have been placed in niches in the dome.
Things to see in the Santa Maria dei Miracoli
Since 1915 the Santa Maria dei Miracoli has been administered by Priests of the Sacred Heart of Betharram (whom I had previously encountered in Pistoia, Tuscany). The church has exactly the same portico as the Santa Maria in Montesanto with exactly the same inscription mentioning cardinal Gastaldi. On the balustrade are ten statues, two more than the twin church has. Among the sculptors active here were the aforementioned Filippo Carcani, Cosimo Fancelli (1618-1688) and Ercole Ferrata (1610-1686). Most statues represent Franciscan saints. After all, the chapel next to the river, the predecessor of this church, was administered by Capuchins, who belong to the Franciscans. In 1628 they were replaced by Franciscan tertiaries. These tertiaries subsequently also administered the Santa Maria dei Miracoli from its completion in 1678 until 1793.
On the high altar of the church we find the icon that saved the child in 1325 (or rather a copy of the icon; see the image above). It is supported by four stucco angels made by Antonio Raggi (1624-1686). Much more interesting than the icon are the two funerary monuments that we find in the choir of the church. The monument on the left side is that of cardinal Gastaldi, the monument on the right that of his brother Benedetto. The monuments were designed by Carlo Fontana, but the sculptures are the work of Antonio Raggi and the aforementioned Girolamo Lucenti made the busts of the two deceased. In my honest opinion, the works of art in the four side chapels are not that interesting. Visitors may very well skip them.
- Capitool Reisgidsen Rome, 2009, p. 136;
- Luc Verhuyck, SPQR. Anekdotische reisgids voor Rome, p. 134-137;
- Santa Maria in Montesanto on Churches of Rome Wiki;
- Santa Maria dei Miracoli on Churches of Rome Wiki.
 The church itself dates the event to 1325, but some sources (Verhuyck for instance) believe it occurred in 1525.