I had a bit of a laugh when I read in one of my sources that the church of Santissima Trinità dei Pellegrini has “perhaps one of the scruffiest church frontages in the Centro Storico”. The façade of the church is indeed quite remarkable. The travertine has changed colour and now has an orange-brown tone that looks outright dirty. The statues in the niches look weathered, and the maintenance work in progress on the little piazza in front of the church did not exactly help create an atmosphere of grandeur. Nevertheless, it would be a pity to cite these reasons to skip the church. The Santissima Trinità dei Pellegrini has an interior for which it need not be ashamed at all. The altarpiece by the Baroque painter Guido Reni (1575-1642) is famous, and in the side chapels more beautiful art can be admired.
The Santissima Trinità dei Pellegrini is, as its name indicates, a real pilgrim’s church. Around 1540 a group of followers of the great Filippo Neri (1515-1595) founded a lay fraternity that was involved in charity. One of their charitable activities was caring for pilgrims arriving in Rome, especially during Jubilees. In 1558 Pope Paulus IV (1555-1559) upgraded the fraternity to an arch-fraternity and formally charged it with providing care for pilgrims. The arch-fraternity was assigned a small church that was in a bad state of maintenance. It subsequently built a large hospice next door to house the pilgrims, which offered accommodation to several hundred people. During the Jubilee of 1575 so many pilgrims visited the Eternal City that enough money was made to demolish the old church and build a new one. In 1587 the newly hired architect Martino Longhi the Elder (1534-1591) started the construction of this church. Longhi died four years later, and his unknown successor completed the building in 1597. It was not until 1616 that the church was consecrated.
At the end of the seventeenth century there was a threat that the dome of the church would collapse. Therefore in 1699 the architect Giovanni Battista Contini (ca. 1642-1723), a student of Bernini, was commissioned to execute large-scale restoration works. The Corinthian columns that help support the dome were part of his intervention. The façade of the church was added at an even later date. It was built in 1723 by Francesco de Sanctis (1679-1731), a man who became famous for building the Spanish Steps. The remarkable discolouration of the façade is apparently the result of the burning of coal in the vicinity of the church, so of air pollution. I do not know whether this explanation is correct, but I have in fact seen a similar discolouration elsewhere in Rome. In 2009 the rear façade of the church of Santi Vito e Modesto was still dirty and orange-brown for instance, while in 2019 it was white again. This implies that a thorough cleaning of the façade of the Santissima Trinità dei Pellegrini should be able to give it back its original colour. Presumably, however, a lot of money is required to get the job done.
Between 1847 and 1853 the interior of the church was remodelled by Antonio Sarti (1797-1880). At the start of the twentieth century the hospice was closed, and with the closure the raison d’être of the church was lost. The church was slowly withering away for several decades, but then in 2008 everything changed. In that year Pope Benedictus XVI (2005-2013) made the Santissima Trinità dei Pellegrini the parish church for the celebration of mass according to the Tridentine rite.
Things to see
Much has already been said about the façade of the church. The statues of the four evangelists were made by Bernardino Ludovisi (ca. 1693-1749). In the niches on either side of the main entrance we see Luke (with a bull) and Mark (with a lion). John (with an eagle) and Matthew (with a man) have been placed in the niches below the pediment. In this pediment we see a triangle as the symbol of the Holy Trinity. You might have guessed already: the church is dedicated to this Santissima Trinità. On the architrave we read a text that refers to a certain IO[ANN]ES DE RVBEIS PEDEMONTANVS, or Giovanni Battista de’ Rossi from Piedmont. He was the man who financed Francesco de Sanctis’ façade. De’ Rossi (1698-1764) was a very special person. Although he suffered from epilepsy, he was ordained as a priest in 1721. He then founded a hospice for homeless women and in 1737 was made a canon of the church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin. Since 1748 he was also associated with the Santissima Trinità dei Pellegrini, where he was buried after his death in 1764. In 1860 Giovanni Battista de’ Rossi was beatified and in 1881 he was made a saint.
The interior of the church is rather dark. It is largely the result of Antonio Sarti’s restoration. Giovanni Battista Contini’s columns, placed below the dome, immediately catch the eye. That is more than can be said of the dome itself: it is hardly visible from the outside. The four pendentives were painted by Giovanni Battista Ricci (1537-1627). The four men we see are again the four evangelists with their respective symbols. The lantern of the dome features God the Father looking down on us. He was painted by Guido Reni. As was already mentioned, Reni also painted the large altarpiece of the Holy Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit in the shape of a dove. Two putti are holding the cross-beam of the cross and on the ground two angels are kneeling. Reni painted the altarpiece in 1625. It was placed in a beautiful high altar with columns of black marble, made in 1616.
Giovanni Battista Ricci also painted the frescoes in the third chapel on the right, which is dedicated to the aforementioned Saint Giovanni Battista de’ Rossi. Artist and saint shared the same first name, but obviously Ricci did not know that when he painted his frescoes (at the time the future saint had not even been born yet). In the left transept we find an altar with an altarpiece also by Ricci, at least partially. In the centre of the altarpiece we see a medieval icon of the Madonna and Child, and Ricci painted Saint Joseph, Benedictus of Nursia and several angels and putti around it. A similarly constructed painting can be found in the Chiesa Nuova, which is coincidentally Filippo Neri’s church.
In the right transept is a statue of Saint Mark the Evangelist who is aided by an angel in writing his gospel. This is a familiar theme in art, which is also present on a famous painting by Caravaggio (see Rome: San Luigi dei Francesci). The statue of Matthew is a work of Jacob Corneliszoon Cobaert (ca. 1535-1615), who was from Edingen (or Enghien) in Hainault. Apparently the angel was not sculpted by Cobaert: it is attributed to Pompeo Ferrucci (1565-1637). Unfortunately I was not able to get a closer look at the statues: the sanctuary of the church had been roped off.
Lastly, I would like to mention the altarpieces and frescoes in the three chapels on the left side of the church. The three altarpieces were painted by Jacques Courtois (1621-1676), Giuseppe Cesari (1568-1640) and Baldassare Croce (1558-1628) respectively. The first two artists are perhaps better known as Il Borgognone (‘the Burgundian’) and the Cavalier d’Arpino.
- Capitool Reisgidsen Rome, 2009, p. 147;
- Santissima Trinità dei Pellegrini on Churches of Rome Wiki.