The richly decorated church of Sant’Antonio dei Portoghesi is dedicated to Saint Antonius of Padova (1195-1231). As I have written previously, the saint’s real name was not Antonius and he was not from Padova either. He had in fact been born as Fernando Martins in the Portuguese city of Lisbon. After joining the Franciscans, Fernando took the name Antonius, after the fourth-century Saint Anthony the Great, also known as Saint Anthony of Egypt or Anthony the Abbot, the so-called ‘Father of All Monks’. In Italy, he met Franciscus of Assisi, the founder of the Order, and quickly became not just his follower, but also his friend and confidant. In about 1226, Antonius settled in Padova. Just five years later he died there while still only in his mid-thirties. Already in 1232 he was canonised by Pope Gregorius IX (1227-1241). The church of Sant’Antonio in Rome has always had close ties to both Portugal and the Portuguese.
The first version of the church was built by order of cardinal António Martins de Chaves, the bishop of Porto (died 1447). I have previously discussed his tomb in the cathedral of Rome. The first church was dedicated to the Virgin Mary and Saints Vincent of Saragossa and Anthony the Great. In the seventeenth century it was rebuilt, and it was then decided to exclusively dedicate the edifice to the other Saint Anthony, Antonius of Padova. The first architect to work on the new church was Martino Longhi the Younger (1602-1660). He was involved in the rebuilding between 1624 and 1638 and completed a large part of the church. The dome was finished in 1657 by Carlo Rainaldi (1611-1691). Cristoforo Schor (died 1725) in his turn worked on the apse and high altar. Schor was an architect who had Austrian roots; his father was a native of Innsbruck.
The church has an incredibly extravagant interior (see above). There is a story that the marble used to decorate the interior was actually intended for the church of Sant’Ignazio di Loyola. That is a Jesuit church, and in 1773 Pope Clemens XIV (1769-1774) had dissolved the Jesuit Order. A large shipment of marble was said to have subsequently been diverted to the Sant’Antonio dei Portoghesi. The story might be true, given the fact that in Portugal the Jesuits had been virulently opposed by the Marquis of Pombal, who served as prime minister of the country back then. During my visit to the church in January 2022 I asked the custodian, a friendly American living in Rome, whether there was any truth in the claim. He did not know the story, so he could neither confirm nor deny it. The church was restored in 1842 and 1873. In the latter case the architect Francesco Vespignani (1842-1899) was responsible.
Thing to see
The façade of the church is not very special. The building faces the Via dei Portoghesi, which is not a very wide street, so it is not easy to get a good view of the façade and take pictures of it. Rainaldi’s dome is completely invisible, unless one goes a considerable distance into the Via dei Pianellari. It is immediately clear that the Sant’Antonio is a Portuguese church: above the large rectangular window we see the Portuguese coat-of-arms, five shields forming a cross surrounded by seven castles.
The rich interior of the church is dominated by the colours yellow, red and white. The interior is largely attributed to Carlo Rainaldi, with later additions in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The large ceiling fresco was for instance executed by Salvatore Nobili. The kneeling man in armour on the fresco wearing a red cloak is the first king of Portugal, Afonso Henriques (Afonso I; 1139-1185). The crucified Christ appears to him before a battle and an angel points to the words IN HOC SIGNO, which means that the king will conquer in this sign. The fresco refers to the Battle of Ourique, which was fought on 25 July 1139 between a Portuguese army and a force of Moors. The Portuguese were victorious, and the victory is generally seen as the birth of the kingdom of Portugal, which had merely been a county previously. The fresco basically equates Afonso Henriques with the Roman emperor Constantine, who had also seen a cross and the words IN HOC SIGNO [VINCES] prior to a decisive battle.
The pendentives and the inside of the dome were also decorated in the nineteenth century. The frescoes were made by Francesco Grandi (1831-1891). Among other things he painted an image of Pope Damasus I (366-384), who was said to have been born in what is now Portugal (it is also possible that his parents were from that part of the Roman Empire). The other people who have been depicted were Portuguese too, and on the triumphal arch below the dome we again see the Portuguese coat-of-arms. The marble wall decorations in the choir were designed by Francesco Navone (1731-1804), while the aforementioned Cristoforo Schor made the high altar. The altarpiece is by Giacinto Calandrucci (1646-1707) and depicts the Madonna and Child and Saint Antonius of Padova. The same artist was responsible for the altarpiece in the second chapel on the right, which is dedicated to Saint John the Baptist. It should therefore hardly come as a surprise that this painting depicts the Baptism of Christ.
Francesco Navone designed the chapel in the right transept, which is dedicated to Saint Elizabeth of Portugal. She was a scion of the Royal House of Aragon. In 1282 she married the Portuguese king Dinis I (1279-1325). Together they had a daughter and a son. Between 1322 and 1324 the son, the future Afonso IV (1325-1357), rebelled against his father because the latter purportedly favoured another son from an extramarital affair. Elizabeth played the role of mediator in the conflict. Once, when the armies of Dinis and Afonso were about to engage each other, she was said to have prevented the battle by riding between the lines on a mule. This event has not been depicted on the altarpiece of the chapel, but we do see how the queen manages to reconcile father and son. The painting was made by Luigi Agricola (ca. 1750-1821). In 1526 Elizabeth was beatified and in 1625 she was canonised. In the chapel we furthermore find an eye-catching sarcophagus made of green marble.
The opposite chapel in the left transept was designed by Luigi Vanvitelli (1700-1773), the son of the Dutch painter Caspar van Wittel. The chapel was, however, built by Carlo Murena (1713-1764). The altarpiece is by Giacomo Zoboli (1681-1767) and the chapel has sculptures by Filippo della Valle (1698-1768).
Of greater importance is the sculptural work in the first chapel on the right, where on the right wall we find a funerary monument made by the great sculptor Antonio Canova (1757-1822). The monument clearly shows signs of water damage, the result of the river Tiber frequently overflowing its banks in the past. The monument has a relief of a crying woman sitting next to the bust of a man. The deceased is Alessandro de Souza Holstein (died 1803). He served as ambassador to Pope Pius VII (1800-1823). His rather odd last name indicates that he had both Portuguese and Danish roots.
Lastly, we have the altarpiece in the second chapel on the left. It was painted by Antoniazzo Romano (1430-1508) and represents the Madonna and Child with Saints Franciscus of Assisi and Antonius of Padova. Antonius can be identified by the burning heart in his hand, one of his attributes. We do not know when Antoniazzo Romano painted the altarpiece. The golden background was already considered rather archaic during his lifetime, but it was the style he liked to work in. The work was originally in a convent on the shores of the Lago Albano, not far from the summer residence of the Pope. In 1937 the altarpiece was taken to the Sant’Antonio dei Portoghesi.
Source: Churches of Rome Wiki.