The church of Santa Maria del Popolo is full of tombs. There are tombs in the floor, tombs resting against the columns, tombs galore in the chapels. Tombs seem to be squeezed into every nook and cranny of the church.
A much-photographed tomb lies to the left of the main entrance and belongs to Giovanni Battista Gisleni, a little-known Roman architect, who died in 1672. Gisleni may have been born in Rome, but he spent most of his working life in Poland. He might not have left any buildings in his native city by which to be remembered, but he did leave this extraordinary monument, which he designed himself.
We see a portrait of Gisleni at the top and at the bottom a skeleton wrapped in a shroud. Above the skeleton are two bronze medallions. The one on the left depicts a tree sprouting new roots, but with an empty nest resting in its branches. The inscription: IN NIDVLO MEO MORIAR (In my nest I die), a reference to Gisleni’s dying in the city in which he was born. The medallion on the right shows the metamorphosis of a caterpillar into a moth with the inscription: UT PHOENIX MULTIPLICABO DIES (As a phoenix I multiply the days).
The two inscriptions under the portrait and the skeleton, NEQUE HIC VIVVS and NEQVE ILLIC MORTVVS, translate as ‘neither living here, nor dead there.’
My name is David Lown and I am an art historian from Cambridge, England. Since 2001 I have lived in Italy, where I run private walking tours of Rome.
Search Walks in Rome: