Rome: Santa Maria in Monserrato degli Spagnoli

Santa Maria in Monserrato degli Spagnoli.

It is not easy to say when exactly modern Spain came into existence. Was it in 1469, when Isabella of Castile married Ferdinand II of Aragon? Or perhaps in 1479, when Ferdinand inherited the throne of Aragon from his father John II and the two spouses Isabella and Ferdinand jointly ruled over the two kingdoms? Another possibility is 1516, when Charles V, grandson of Isabella and Ferdinand, ascended the Spanish throne. Strictly speaking, Charles still ruled over two separate kingdoms. It may also be noted that he did so together with his mother, Joanna the Mad, until 1555, although she had been locked up for insanity. If we must exclude joint rulers, then perhaps Philip II, who ascended the throne in 1556, can be considered the first true Spanish monarch. However, Spain did not become a unitary state until the Decretos de Nueva Planta were issued between 1707 and 1716. Among other things, these decrees put an end to the privileges that Aragon had enjoyed up until then.

This rather complicated history partly explains why we find two Spanish national churches in Rome. The Santa Maria in Monserrato is the first one, the Nostra Signora del Sacro Cuore – previously San Giacomo dei Spagnoli – on the Piazza Navona the other. From a cultural point of view, the former church is by far the most interesting of the two, if only because in the nineteenth century it was embellished with works of art taken from the latter church. On the other hand, the Santa Maria in Monserrato cannot really boast of having an attractive location. The Via di Monserrato is a narrow street full of parked cars and scooters. The façade of the church is dirty and artistically unimpressive. Taking pictures of it is rather difficult because of the narrowness of the street. By contrast, the church interior is surprisingly light and bright.

Interior of the church.


The predecessor of the current church dates from the tenth or eleventh century. This church, dedicated to Saint Andrew, was acquired by a woman from Barcelona in 1354. Henceforth the church was known as San Niccolò dei Catalani. Unsurprisingly, it has always had strong ties with Catalonia, a part of Spain that has a complicated history of its own. In 1164 the county of Barcelona, which can be seen as a predecessor of Catalonia, and the kingdom of Aragon were united in a personal union, which is usually called the ‘Crown of Aragon’. Around the same time the kingdom of Castile flourished, and the Castilians in Rome held their religious services in the church of San Giacomo dei Spagnoli. After Isabella and Ferdinand married, the San Giacomo became the preferred church for Spaniards, but the Catalonians and Aragonese went their own way and decided to construct a whole new church. The project had the apparent support of Pope Alexander VI (1492-1503), who had been born Rodrigo de Borja (Borgia in Italian). Alexander was originally from the kingdom of Valencia, then part of the Crown of Aragon.

The foundation stone of the new church was not laid until 1518 and the first architect was Antonio da Sangallo the Younger (1484-1546). The church was dedicated to the Virgin Mary and was called the Santa Maria in Monserrato. The name is a reference to a famous Benedictine monastery on Mount Montserrat in Catalonia. Work on the new church progressed slowly, in part due to a lack of funds. Between 1584 and 1593 the architect Francesco Capriani da Volterra (1535-1594) worked on the façade, but ultimately only managed to complete the lower part. After the high altar had been consecrated (in 1594) and the vault of the nave had been finished (in 1598), all building activity was suspended until 1675. In that year the architect Giovan Battista Contini (1642-1723) built a new apse, while the high altar was also replaced.

Crucifixion – Girolamo Siciolante da Sermoneta.

Right up until the start of the nineteenth century Spain continued to use two national churches in Rome. That all changed when Napoleon had been defeated and the French were finally kicked out of Italy in 1815. The Spanish authorities then chose the Santa Maria in Monserrato to become the one and only Spanish national church in Rome. The San Giacomo on the Piazza Navona was stripped and much of its art was sent to the other church. As the Santa Maria in Monserrato was in a poor state of maintenance as well, it was renovated between 1818 and 1821 by Pietro Camporese the Younger (1792-1873). Meanwhile the façade of the church was still only half-finished. If you want to know what it looked like, see this watercolour from 1834. In the end, the top part of the façade was only added in 1926 by the architect Salvatore Rebecchini (1891-1977). Rebecchini was also a politician and served as the first post-war mayor of Rome between 1946 and 1956.

Things to see

The façade of the church is actually rather ugly. The lower part looks smudgy, the niches are empty and the contrast between the lower part and the equally uninteresting upper part is impossible to miss. On the other hand, the decoration above the entrance has a certain charm. Here we see a sculpture of the Madonna with the Child on her lap next to a hacksaw in a rock formation. This is a pun on the word Monserrato/Montserrat, which mean something along the lines of ‘saw mountain’. Unfortunately I have not been able to establish who made the sculpture. As the interior of the church is of much greater interest, let us now quickly go inside.

Decoration above the entrance.

The Santa Maria in Monserrato has a single nave and three identical chapels on either side. The interior has a golden glow and is very pleasing to the eye. At the back we find the main altarpiece, a simple but beautiful Crucifixion by Girolamo Siciolante (ca. 1521-1580), a painter from the town of Sermoneta in Lazio. The painting, by the way, previously hung in the San Giacomo dei Spagnoli. Also interesting is a fresco of the Coronation of the Virgin in the nave. This was painted by Giovanni Battista Ricci (1537-1627).

Coronation of the Virgin – Giovanni Battista Ricci.

The most interesting chapel is the first one on the right. It is currently dedicated to the Spanish saint Didacus or Diego of Alcalá (ca. 1400-1463), a Franciscan who was canonised in 1588. The altarpiece by Annibale Carracci (1560-1619) was again taken from the San Giacomo. In this church it was part of the decorations of a chapel that also featured a series of mural paintings about the life of Didacus that were transferred to museums in Spain. The altarpiece depicts a kneeling boy with a white collar. He is the son of Juan Enriquez de Herrera, the nobleman who had the chapel in the San Giacomo consecrated and decorated. The son was called Diego, after the saint.

Right side of the church. On the far right the chapel dedicated to Diego of Alcalá.

Altarpiece by Annibale Carracci / monument for the Borgia popes, with the monument for King Alfonso XIII below it.

Saint James the Great – Jacopo Sansovino.

The chapel also has a fairly simple nineteenth-century monument for the two Borgia popes, i.e. for the aforementioned Pope Alexander VI (1492-1503) and his uncle Pope Callixtus III (1455-1458), whose real name was Alfons de Borja. Callixtus is, among other things, known for the revision of the trial against Joan of Arc. The monument was made by Felipe Moratilla Parreto (1827-1908). Below it we see a simple memorial for King Alfonso XIII of Spain. He died in Rome in 1941, having previously abdicated in 1931. The abdication made him the last king of Spain until his grandson Juan Carlos ascended the throne in 1975. The commemorative plaque mentions that the remains of the king were taken to the Escorial in Spain in 1980. A spicy detail from the king’s life is that Alfonso was a big fan of erotic movies and commissioned a couple of these himself.

The third chapel on the left is also worth a closer look. The altarpiece we find here is a large statue of the apostle Saint James the Great. He is considered the patron saint of Spain, where according to tradition he also found his final resting place. The statue was made by Jacopo Sansovino (1486-1570) and it originally stood  in the San Giacomo dei Spagnoli, which was after all dedicated to Saint James. The latter church now only has a copy of the statue. The real statue has partially been painted in gold and that looks rather spectacular. Conspicuous elements are the scallops – or shells of Saint James – on the staff and belt of the apostle.

In the chapel we also find two splendid funerary monuments that are attributed to Andrea Bregno (ca. 1418-1503). I assume that these monuments too were also once in the other Spanish church. The tomb on the left is, after all, that of Alfonso de Paradinas (1395-1485), the cleric who in 1450 had the San Giacomo rebuilt. It is entirely logical that he was buried in his own church. The other tomb is that of Juan de Fuensalida (died 1498). According to his epitaph he was, among other things, secretary to Pope Alexander VI.

Funerary monument of Alfonso de Paradinas – Andrea Bregno.

Further reading: Churches of Rome Wiki.

One Comment:

  1. Pingback:Rome: Nostra Signora del Sacro Cuore – – Corvinus –

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