The salamander was the personal emblem of King Francis I of France (r. 1515-47) and the facade of the 16th century church of San Luigi dei Francesi (the national church of France) sports two beautiful images of the creature.
In times past, it was believed that the salamander was immune to fire. This belief may have originated from a behaviour common to many species of salamander, the tendency to hibernate in, and under, rotting logs. When wood was brought indoors and put on the fire, the salamanders 'mysteriously' appeared from the flames.
Fire has a twofold power in that it can both support life and destroy it, and the motto of Francis I, which is inscribed above one of the salamanders, was: NUTRISCO E EXTINGO (I nourish and I extinguish). The second inscription reads: ERIT CHRISTIANORVM LVMEN IN IGNE (It will be the light of the Christians in the fire).
The church was begun in 1518 for the future Pope Clement VII (r. 1523-34) and was completed in 1589 by Domenico Fontana to a design by Giacomo della Porta (1532-1602). The statues in the niches are the work of the French sculptor Pierre l'Estache (1688-1774). At the lower level we have Charlemagne and St Louis and above St Clotilde and St Joan of Valois.
San Luigi dei Francesi is home to three beautiful paintings by Caravaggio (1571-1610), which can be found in the Contarelli Chapel.
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: