According to legend, the church of Santa Maria del Popolo stands on the site of the tomb of the emperor Nero (r. 54-68). For centuries the local populace was convinced the area was haunted by Nero’s ghost and that the large, black crows, which roosted in a nearby walnut tree, were his evil familiars. In 1099 the newly elected pope, Paschal II (1099-1118), decided to put an end to such superstitions by having the tree felled, the grave exhumed and the bones thrown into the Tiber. The pope then made sure the area remained free of evil spirits by building an oratory on the site.
In time the oratory was enlarged into a church, which, since 1250, has belonged to the Augustinian friars. It was in the monastery, which was once attached to the church, that Martin Luther stayed during his visit to Rome in 1511.
Between 1472 and 1478 the church took on the form we see today. The architect was Baccio Pontelli (1450-92), who rebuilt the church on the instructions of Pope Sixtus IV (r. 1471-84). Santa Maria del Popolo has a simple yet dignified Renaissance façade, the work, some think, of Andrea Bregno (1418-1506). The two side doors have lintels inscribed with the name of Pope Sixtus IV, but the one on the left is misspelt! Santa Maria del Popolo might be a small church, but it is one which punches well above its weight. The list of architects, sculptors and painters who worked there reads like a roll-call of famous figures from the Renaissance and the Baroque.
The church retains much of its original design in the arcades of the nave. There are four pillars on either side, each surrounded by four half columns. Two centuries later, Gian Lorenzo Bernini added the statues of female saints to the arches of the nave. Each saint, the work of pupils and not the master, is identified by an inscription in the spandrels of the arches. The work was carried out during the papacy of Alexander VII (r. 1655-67), whose coat of arms adorns the triumphal arch.
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 popular tomb lies to the left of the main entrance and belongs to Giovanni Battista Gisleni, a little-known architect, who died in 1672. Gisleni was born in Rome, but 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.’
A short distance away, to the left of the Chigi Chapel (second bay of the left aisle), is one of the most curious funerary monuments in the whole of Rome. It records the early death, in childbirth, of the twenty-three year old Princess Maria Federica Odescalchi-Chigi. The monument was made in 1771 by Paolo Posi, who combined the emblems of the Odescalchi and Chigi families in his design. The Odescalchi eagle looks down on a portrait set with Chigi stars. The red marble banner, which bears the memorial inscription, is being held up by a Chigi oak tree, while at the bottom an Odescalchi lion is resting his two front paws on the Chigi hills. The incense burner at the bottom right is a final reference to the Odescalchi family.
The Cappella Chigi was designed by Raphael (1483-1520) for his friend and patron, the wealthy banker Agostino Chigi and his brother Sigismondo, both of whom are buried here. Raphael may have designed the chapel, but the actual work was done by other artists. The beautiful mosaics in the dome were executed by the Venetian, Luigi de Pace, while the tombs of the two Chigi brothers, which face each other across the chapel, were made by Lorenzo Lotti, also known as Il Lorenzetto (1490-1541). No doubt, Raphael had in mind the Pyramid of Cestius, the famous ancient funerary monument of Gaius Cestius, which is still one of the landmarks of Rome. The altarpiece, which depicts the Nativity of the Virgin Mary, is by Sebastiano del Piombo.
Both Raphael and Agostino died in 1520 and work on the chapel soon stopped only to be restarted in the middle of the following century by Bernini (1598-1680). While Bernini may or may not have carved the medallion portraits on the tombs, there is no doubt that he carved the prophets, Daniel and Habakkuk. The prophets, Jonah and Elijah, are the work of Il Lorenzetto. Bernini also designed the delightful bronze lamp, which hangs at the entrance to the chapel, as well as the pavement. In the centre of the floor a winged skeleton holds up the Chigi coat of arms, while the epigraph Mors aDCaeLos translates as From Death to Heaven. The letters in capitals spell MDCL, 1650, the year the chapel was completed.
The third chapel off the left aisle is the Cappella Mellini, the mortuary chapel of the Mellini family. Filled to the brim with tombs, it was founded by Pietro Mellini in the 15th century. It was restored by Cardinal Giovanni Garcia Mellini in the early 17th century and his monument on the left wall is the work of Alessandro Algardi (1598-1654). Algardi was a contemporary of Bernini and the second greatest sculptor in 17th century Rome, but his portrait busts are much less flamboyant, and more understated, than those of his rival. Cardinal Mellini turns towards the altar, his left hand on his heart and his right hand marking the place in his prayer book. The portrait was much admired in Algardi’s day with many praising, in particular, the lace on the cardinal’s sleeve.
Santa Maria del Popolo is a major stop on Rome's Caravaggio trail and two of his paintings can be found in the Cappella Cerasi, which lies at the end of the left aisle. Caravaggio (1571-1610) was commissioned by Tiberio Cerasi, who was treasurer to Pope Clement VIII, to paint the Conversion of St Paul and the Crucifixion of St Peter (1601-2). The two apostles were (and are) central to the Catholic Church and the themes of conversion and martyrdom were both popular in Counter-Reformation Rome. However, Cerasi disliked and rejected the artist’s version of the Conversion of St Paul and asked him to paint another. Caravaggio complied and soon found a buyer for the rejected work. The altarpiece is by Annibale Caracci (1560-1609) and depicts the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. The two figures in the bottom of the painting are St Peter and St Paul. In religious terms, the altarpiece is the most important painting in the chapel, even if, nowadays, most visitors pay it scant attention.
The Baroque high altar is the work of Bernini and replaces the one designed in the Renaissance style by Andrea Bregno, which can now be found in the sacristy. The extravagantly ornate broken pediments are crowned by a group of angels and putti, the outer pair of which are waving.
The choir, which is normally out of bounds, was designed by Bramante between 1500 and 1509 for Pope Julius II (1503-13). Here we find the funerary monuments of cardinals Ascanio Sforza and Girolamo Basso della Rovere, both the work of Andrea Sansovino (1467-1529).
They are among the most important Renaissance sculptures in Rome. Both effigies are depicted reclining half-asleep, a marked departure from the medieval practise, which portrayed the dead, more formally, as lying in state. The stained glass windows are the oldest in Rome and depict scenes from the childhood of Christ on one side and the life of the Virgin Mary on the other.
The vault of the choir was painted by Pinturicchio (1454-1513) and depicts, in the centre, the Coronation of the Virgin.
The organ in the right transept is festooned with bronze oak branches, the idea of Bernini and a reference to the Chigi coat of arms. The beautiful organ loft is the work of one of Bernini’s more talented pupils, Antonio Raggi.
The first chapel in the right aisle is the Cappella della Rovere, which is dedicated to St Jerome and was built for Cardinal Domenico della Rovere. The family, which hailed from Savona, a town in the north west of Italy, produced two popes, Sixtus IV and Julius II. Their emblem is an oak tree, which can be seen in the marble screen separating the chapel from the church. The altarpiece of the Nativity is by Pinturicchio, who also painted the rather faded frescoes in the lunettes. St Joseph rests his head on his left hand and looks down at the Christ Child with rather a dubious air. According to an ancient tradition, St Joseph was often tempted by the Devil to doubt the divine origin of his son!
The third chapel in the right aisle is the Cappella Basso della Rovere. The cardinal's splendid tomb was carved by pupils of Andrea Bregno. The paintings of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary and the Virgin and Child, and the five frescoes in the lunettes, are by pupils of Pinturicchio. The extremely illusionistic monochrome frescoes were also by pupils of the Umbrian master. The chapel retains some of its original floor tiles, which are made from Deruta majolica.
At the end of the right aisle, in the Cappella Costa, is the beautiful bronze effigy of Cardinal Pietro Foscari, the work of Lorenzo di Pietro (1410-80), better known as Il Vecchietta.