Saint John the Baptist is the patron saint of Florence. Therefore is was self-evident that, when the Florentine community in Rome decided to build a large new church at the beginning of the sixteenth century, this church was going to be dedicated to Saint John. The San Giovanni dei Fiorentini is known for its conspicuous location near a bend in the river Tiber. The rear of the church can be seen very well from the Gianicolo, the hill on the other side of the river. The front adjoins the small Piazza dell’Oro. This is where the Via Giulia starts, a famous street named after Pope Julius II (1503-1513). It was during his pontificate that the Florentines decided to demolish their old church, dedicated to Saint Pantaleon, and have a grandiose new church erected. The façade that we can admire from the aforementioned Piazza dell’Oro was only added in 1734-1738. This is a clear indication that the San Giovanni dei Fiorentini was not built in a day.
Since 1448 a confraternity existed of citizens of Florence living in Rome. After having decided to build a new church as early as 1508, the confraternity organised a competition during the pontificate of Pope Leo X (1513-1521), who happened to be a Florentine himself. The winner of the competition would be granted the right to build the church. Such competitions were quite common in Florence, where similar competitions had been held for the second set of bronze doors of the Baptistery and for the dome of the local cathedral. Four architects of some fame participated in the Roman competition. Three of them were still quite young: Raphael (1483-1520), Baldassare Peruzzi (1481-1536) and Jacopo Sansovino (1486-1570). On the other hand, the fourth competitor, Giuliano da Sangallo (ca. 1445-1516), was already rather elderly. Sansovino, by far the youngest of the four, won the competition and in 1519 he could start the construction of the San Giovanni. Unfortunately he proved to be a big failure. The church had been projected very close to the river, and this proved to be problematic with regard to the foundations of the building. Two years after starting the project Sansovino left again. In spite of his failure he still had a distinguished career as a sculptor and architect.
In 1523 the project was continued by Antonio da Sangallo the Younger (1484-1546), a nephew of Giuliano da Sangallo. At the time Pope Clemens VII (1523-1534) sat on the throne of Saint Peter. He too was a Florentine. Sangallo had no trouble laying the foundations of the church, but now construction was interrupted by the notorious Sacco di Roma of 1527. The architect had to wait until 1534 before he could dedicate himself to the project again, but at the time of his death in 1546 the church was still far from completed. Then in 1584 the construction was continued under the direction of Giacomo della Porta (1532-1602). When he died in 1602, Carlo Maderno (1556-1629) took over. Maderno completed the large dome in 1612 and the rest of the church in 1620.
The building was now structurally finished, but it still had to be provided with an interior. After Pietro da Cortona (1596-1669) had already done some preparatory work, Francesco Borromini (1599-1667) was hired in 1665 to embellish the choir. Borromini was a distant relative of Carlo Maderno. He worked on the choir until his self-inflicted death in 1667, after which the project was finished by Carlo Fontana (ca. 1638-1714) and Ciro Ferri (1634-1689). As was already mentioned in the introduction of this post, the construction of the façade started as late as 1734. The architect was Alessandro Galilei (1691-1737), a Florentine who is best known for building the current façade of the cathedral of San Giovanni in Laterano. Galilei died rather young in 1737, and his façade for the San Giovanni dei Fiorentini was not completed until a year after his death.
Things to see – exterior
Galilei’s travertine façade is very wide and high. The text on the façade refers to Pope Clemens XII (1730-1740) and mentions the year 1734, the fourth year of his pontificate: CLEMENS XII PONT MAX A S MDCCXXXIV P IV. On the pediment above the main entrance we see the coat-of-arms of this Pope. Several sculptors contributed to the embellishment of the façade. The two most famous among them were probably Filippo della Valle (1698-1768) and Pietro Bracci (1700-1773).
On the balustrade of the façade are statues of six saints, three on either side. According to this source those on the right represent Bernardo degli Uberti (ca. 1060-1133), Eugenius of Florence (died 422) and Caterina de’ Ricci (1522-1590). Bernardo was a Florentine who became bishop of Parma. Eugenius was a student of Saint Ambrosius and worked in Florence as a deacon. Caterina, in her turn, was a Florence-born Dominican lay sister famous for her visions and mysterious bleedings. In 1732 she was beatified and in 1746 she was canonised. On the other side we see, according to this source, from left to right: Saint Petrus Igneus (died in 1089), Saint Filippo Benizi (1233-1285) and Saint Maria Maddalena de’ Pazzi (1566-1607). All three saints had been born in Florence. We may therefore conclude that all six saints on the balustrade had close ties to Florence. Inside the church chapels have been dedicated to Filippo Benizi and Maria Maddalena de’ Pazzi.
Things to see – interior
Those entering the large church will at first perhaps be a bit disappointed. The nave and aisles are rather bleak and only sparsely decorated (see the image above). The inside of Carlo Maderno’s dome also features very few decorations. Moreover, it can be quite dark in the church. I even got the impression that tourists were not really welcome, as all visitors were shood out at least 15 minutes before the official lunch break closure.
Fortunately the church does have a lot of interesting art, A good example is the beautiful altar aedicule in the choir, designed by Borromini. This talented artist was from Bissone in modern-day Switzerland. He first worked as a stonemason and in 1619 he settled in Rome, where he was allowed to work on Saint Peter’s Basilica under the direction of Carlo Maderno. As was already mentioned above, Borromini and Maderno were distant relatives. The former’s talent was quickly acknowledged and Borromini became the rival of that other giant of the Baroque era in Rome, Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680). However, at times the two rivals also worked together, for instance during the construction of the Palazzo Barberini in Rome (although they quarrelled all the time). It seems that Borromini often suffered from deep depressions. In the end he committed suicide by falling on his sword. Unfortunately the attempt went horribly wrong. The architect only succeeded in severely wounding himself and ultimately passed away after a long and horrendously painful ordeal.
Maderno and Borromini are both buried in this church. Two memorials have been set up to keep the memory of the latter alive. First of all, there is an epitaph as part of the floor that has the words FRANCISCUS BORROMINI 1599-1667. The second memorial is a plaque attached to one of the pillars of the nave. It dates from 1955 and is accompanied by Borromini’s portrait. The text of the plaque enumerates all the buildings in Rome on which Borromini worked. San Giovanni’s choir was his last project. The altarpiece is a splendid sculpture group representing the Baptism of Christ. It was made in 1665 by Antonio Raggi (1624-1686), who was from Vico Morcote, not far from Bissone. The protagonists of the Baptism of Christ are of course Jesus Christ and John the Baptist, but in the sky above them we also see God the Father and the dove of the Holy Spirit. Behind Christ is another person, but I have not been able to establish who he is. Perhaps the figure is an (arch)angel.
On either side of the aedicule are beautiful funerary monuments. These were made for the brothers Orazio (died in 1664) and Lelio Falconieri (1585-1648). The monuments were designed by Borromini, but sculpted by others. The monument on the right is Orazio’s. He was the man who commissioned Borromini to build the choir. The sculptures are by Ercole Ferrata (1610-1686). Orazio’s brother Lelio was a cardinal and titular archbishop of the Greek city of Thebes. His monument on the left side has sculptures by Domenico Guidi (1625-1701).
Of course a church dedicated to Saint John the Baptist has a baptistery as well. In this case it is the third chapel on the left. Here we again find a sculpture group representing the Baptism of Christ, this time sculpted by Francesco Mochi (1580-1654). The work dates from 1644 and originally stood in the choir, until it was replaced with the aforementioned sculpture group by Antonio Raggi. Francesco Mochi is best known for his two equestrian statues on the Piazza dei Cavalli in Piacenza. His Baptism of Christ is a bit simpler than Raggi’s, but it is a splendid work of art nonetheless.
We find more excellent sculptures in the right transept. Memorials have been affixed to the walls that were made by the aforementioned Ercole Ferrata and by Alessandro Algardi (1598-1654). To the right of the choir is a chapel with a large altar into which a tiny piece of a fresco of the Madonna and Child has been incorporated (see the image above). The painter of the fresco was Filippino Lippi (1457-1504), while the other frescoes in the chapel are the work of Agostino Ciampelli (1565-1630). Ciampelli also painted the altarpiece featuring Saint Anthony the Abbot in the fourth chapel on the right. In the chapel to the left of the choir we may admire work by the painter Giovanni Lanfranco (1582-1647), while the fifth chapel on the left has frescoes by Niccolò Circignani (ca. 1530-1597), nicknamed Il Pomarancio. He embellished the walls of the chapel with scenes from the life of Saint Franciscus of Assisi. It seems they represent the test of fire at the court of the sultan of Egypt and the approval of the Franciscan rule by the Pope (either Innocentius III or Honorius III). The altarpiece in the chapel is by Santi di Tito (1536-1603), a painter from Florence.
Next to the church is a small museum, the Museo di Arte Sacra. The museum possesses, among other things, a statue of Saint John the Baptist attributed to Michelangelo and two busts made by a young Bernini. Unfortunately the museum turned out to be closed during my last visit to Rome, perhaps because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Capitool Reisgidsen Rome, 2009, p. 153;
- Luc Verhuyck, SPQR. Anekdotische reisgids voor Rome, p. 305;
- Robert Hughes, De zeven levens van Rome, p. 319-321.
- San Giovanni dei Fiorentini on Churches of Rome Wiki.