Santa Maria del Popolo ★★

The Cerasi Chapel, with paintings by Annibale Carracci (center) and Caravaggio (left and right), Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome, Italy (Photo by Frederick Fenyvessy)
The Cerasi Chapel, with paintings by Annibale Carracci (center) and Caravaggio (left and right)

Rome's church of Santa Maria del Popolo is like a primer on the development of art and architecture from the early Renaissance through the baroque

This church of "St. Mary of the People" was original built to evict Nero's ghost. By the Middle Ages, locals were complaining that the shade of the hated emperor was haunting his grave, in a grove of walnut trees on what was once his family estate at the very northern edge of the city center.

In 1099, church officials exorcised the specter by razing the trees and building on the site a church dedicated to "St. Mary of the People" (presumably those self-same superstitious people who clamored for its construction). The church was rebuilt in the 15th century.

Though virtually ignored by the Rome's teeming crowds of tourists, it's perhaps my favorite out of all the city's nearly one thousand churches. This little gem acts as a primer of Italy's Renaissance and early baroque movements, with examples in all the artistic disciplines—painting, architecture, fresco, sculpture, mosaics, and stained-glass—from various eras and by the very top names in the Old Masters game.

Representing the EARLY RENAISSANCE, we have Pinturicchio's 15th century frescoes of the Adoration of the Child and Life of St. Jerome in the first chapel on the right, the Cappella Basso della Rovere.

The Apse

Architecturally, there Bramante's design for the shell-motif apse (nip through the curtain to the left of the high altar; they don't mind; switch on the lights in the fuse box on the left wall) set with Rome's first stained glass windows, commissioned in 1509 from undisputed French heavyweight master of that art Guillaume de Marcillat.

The apse is also and flanked by a magnificent pair of Early Renaissance tombs carved by Sansovino, for Cardinal Girolamo Basso della Rovere and Cardinal Ascanio Sforza.

The Chigi Chapel


I don't want to get into an argument about it. Let's just say this: entertaining though his adventures may be, pretty much everything Dan Brown wrote about this church was—from a factual and historical point of view—wrong.
In the HIGH RENAISSANCE department, Raphael added to this church his design for the wondrous Chigi Chapel (second on the left).

When banking mogul Agostino Chigi commissioned his favorite artist, Raphael, to design a memorial chapel tomb for him, he had no idea he'd need it so soon.

Both patron and artist died in 1520, by which time Raphael had barely begun construction on the pyramid-shaped tombs of Agostino and his brother.

Chigi Pope Alexander VII later hired other artists to complete the chapel and ceiling mosaics to Raphael's designs, with God in the center of the dome seeming to bless Agostino's personal horoscope symbols, which surround him.

Sebastiano del Piombo painted the altarpiece and Lorenzetto carved the statues of Jonah and Elijah in the niches to Raphael's designs.

This chapel also takes us into the BAROQUE, with the other niche statues of Habakuk and the Angel and Daniel with his friendly lion (and the gruesome pietra dura skeleton set in the floor) by Bernini.

What's more, the statues are placed so that they tell more complete stories: the angel grabs Habakuk by his hair on one side, ready to carry him and his picnic basket across the chapel to the niche containing Daniel, starving in the den of a rather friendly-looking lion (though perhaps I'm wrong on that score; could be the big cat is licking Daniel's feet not to be cute and cuddly but by way of working up an appetite). 

The Caravaggios

The baroque really comes into its own, though, in the chapel to the left of the altar. Here you're treated to a unique juxtaposition of the two rival baroque masters, Annibale Carracci and Caravaggio.

Crowd-pleasing Annibale was more popular in his day, as the colorful, highly modeled ballet of his Assumption of the Virgin in the center might suggest, but posterity has paid more attention to the moody chiaroscuro of Caravaggio's tensely dramatic, original style.

He used overly strong and patently artificial light sources to enhance the psychological drama of The Conversion of St. Paul and The Crucifixion of St. Peter, and to draw the viewer right into the straining muscles, wrinkled foreheads, dirty feet, and intense emotions of his figures.

The virtue of in situ

One of the great, unnoticed facts about this church is that all these works of art inhabit the chapels for which they were originally painted (very unusual these days, since most famous works get shunted to museums or moved about the church for various reasons).

Why is that important? Well, for one thing the light streaming in through the real window continues right across the frame and into the painted space of Caravaggio's canvases.

Photo gallery
  • The Cerasi Chapel, with paintings by Annibale Carracci (center) and Caravaggio (left and right), Santa Maria del Popolo, Italy (Photo by Frederick Fenyvessy)
  • The Basilica of Santa Maria del Popolo, Santa Maria del Popolo, Italy (Photo by Jakub Hałun)
  • The nave, Santa Maria del Popolo, Italy (Photo by Peter1936F)
  • The Capella Basso della Rovere, frescoed by Pinturicchio, Santa Maria del Popolo, Italy (Photo by Peter1936F)
  • The Capella Basso della Rovere, frescoed by Pinturicchio, Santa Maria del Popolo, Italy (Photo by sailko)
  • The dome, frescoed by Raffaello Vanni in 1656–58, Santa Maria del Popolo, Italy (Photo by Livio Andronico)
  • Stained glass windows by Guglielmo de Marcillat, Santa Maria del Popolo, Italy (Photo by Lalupa)
  • Funerary monument for Cardinal Ascanio Sforza (1505) by Sansovino in the apse, Santa Maria del Popolo, Italy (Photo by Peter1936F)
  • Funerary monument for Cardinal Girolamo Basso della Rovere (1507) by Sansovino in the apse, Santa Maria del Popolo, Italy (Photo by sailko)
  • Detail of the funerary monument for Cardinal Girolamo Basso della Rovere (1507) by Sansovino in the apse, Santa Maria del Popolo, Italy (Photo by Sailko)
  • The Chigi Chapel, Santa Maria del Popolo, Italy (Photo by Peter1936F)
  • The tomb of Agostino Chigi, Santa Maria del Popolo, Italy (Photo by Peter1936F)
  • The dome of the Chigi Chapel, Santa Maria del Popolo, Italy (Photo by Livio Andronico)
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Tips

How long does Santa Maria del Popolo take?

 I usually spend 30–40 minutes in here because there's just so much to see. 

Useful Italian phrases

Useful Italian for sightseeing

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
Where is?... Dov'é doh-VAY
...the museum il museo eel moo-ZAY-yo
...the church la chiesa lah key-YAY-zah
...the cathedral il duomo [or] la cattedrale eel DUO-mo [or] lah cah-the-DRAH-leh
     
When is it open? Quando é aperto? KWAN-doh ay ah-PAIR-toh
When does it close? Quando si chiude? KWAN-doh see key-YOU-day
Closed day giorno di riposo JOR-no dee ree-PO-zo
Weekdays (Mon-Sat) feriali fair-ee-YA-lee
Sunday & holidays festivi fe-STEE-vee
     
ticket biglietto beel-YET-toh
two adults due adulti DOO-way ah-DOOL-tee
one child un bambino oon bahm-BEE-no
one student uno studente OO-noh stu-DENT-ay
one senior un pensionato oon pen-see-yo-NAH-toh

Basic phrases in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) pro-nun-see-YAY-shun
thank you grazie GRAT-tzee-yay
please per favore pair fa-VOHR-ray
yes si see
no no no
Do you speak English? Parla Inglese? PAR-la een-GLAY-zay
I don't understand Non capisco non ka-PEESK-koh
I'm sorry Mi dispiace mee dees-pee-YAT-chay
How much is it? Quanto costa? KWAN-toh COST-ah
That's too much É troppo ay TROH-po
     
Good day Buon giorno bwohn JOUR-noh
Good evening Buona sera BWOH-nah SAIR-rah
Good night Buona notte BWOH-nah NOTE-tay
Goodbye Arrivederci ah-ree-vah-DAIR-chee
Excuse me (to get attention) Scusi SKOO-zee
Excuse me (to get past someone) Permesso pair-MEH-so
     
Where is? Dov'é doh-VAY
...the bathroom il bagno eel BHAN-yoh
...train station la ferroviaria lah fair-o-vee-YAR-ree-yah
to the right à destra ah DEH-strah
to the left à sinistra ah see-NEEST-trah
straight ahead avanti [or] diritto ah-VAHN-tee [or] dee-REE-toh
information informazione in-for-ma-tzee-OH-nay

Days, months, and other calendar items in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
When is it open? Quando é aperto? KWAN-doh ay ah-PAIR-toh
When does it close? Quando si chiude? KWAN-doh see key-YOU-day
At what time... a che ora a kay O-rah
     
Yesterday ieri ee-YAIR-ee
Today oggi OH-jee
Tomorrow domani doh-MAHN-nee
Day after tomorrow dopo domani DOH-poh doh-MAHN-nee
     
a day un giorno oon je-YOR-no
Monday Lunedí loo-nay-DEE
Tuesday Martedí mar-tay-DEE
Wednesday Mercoledí mair-coh-lay-DEE
Thursday Giovedí jo-vay-DEE
Friday Venerdí ven-nair-DEE
Saturday Sabato SAH-baa-toh
Sunday Domenica doh-MEN-nee-ka
     
Mon-Sat Feriali fair-ee-YAHL-ee
Sun & holidays Festivi feh-STEE-vee
Daily Giornaliere joor-nahl-ee-YAIR-eh
     
a month una mese oon-ah MAY-zay
January gennaio jen-NAI-yo
February febbraio feh-BRI-yo
March marzo MAR-tzoh
April aprile ah-PREEL-ay
May maggio MAH-jee-oh
June giugno JEW-nyoh
July luglio LOO-lyoh
August agosto ah-GO-sto
September settembre set-TEM-bray
October ottobre oh-TOE-bray
November novembre no-VEM-bray
December dicembre de-CHEM-bray

Numbers in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
1 uno OO-no
2 due DOO-way
3 tre tray
4 quattro KWAH-troh
5 cinque CHEEN-kway
6 sei say
7 sette SET-tay
8 otto OH-toh
9 nove NO-vay
10 dieci dee-YAY-chee
11 undici OON-dee-chee
12 dodici DOH-dee-chee
13 tredici TRAY-dee-chee
14 quattordici kwa-TOR-dee-chee
15 quindici KWEEN-dee-chee
16 sedici SAY-dee-chee
17 diciasette dee-chee-ya-SET-tay
18 diciotto dee-CHO-toh
19 diciannove dee-chee-ya-NO-vay
20 venti VENT-tee
21* vent'uno* vent-OO-no
22* venti due* VENT-tee DOO-way
23* venti tre* VENT-tee TRAY
30 trenta TRAYN-tah
40 quaranta kwa-RAHN-tah
50 cinquanta cheen-KWAN-tah
60 sessanta say-SAHN-tah
70 settanta seh-TAHN-tah
80 ottanta oh-TAHN-tah
90 novanta no-VAHN-tah
100 cento CHEN-toh
1,000 mille MEEL-lay
5,000 cinque milla CHEEN-kway MEEL-lah
10,000 dieci milla dee-YAY-chee MEEL-lah


* You can use this formula for all Italian ten-place numbers—so 31 is trent'uno, 32 is trenta due, 33 is trenta tre, etc. Note that—like uno (one), otto (eight) also starts with a vowel—all "-8" numbers are also abbreviated (vent'otto, trent'otto, etc.).