Located next to the northern gate of Rome on the elegant Piazza del Popolo, the 15th-century Santa Maria del Popolo is famed for its wealth of Renaissance art. Its walls and ceilings are decorated with paintings by some of the greatest artists ever to work in Rome: Pinturicchio, Raphael, Carracci, Caravaggio and Bernini.
History of Santa Maria del Popolo
Before the monumental Piazza del Popolo was created in 1538, the Church of Santa Maria del Popolo was already standing proudly next to the northern entrance into the city. It was originally built in 1099 by Pope Paschal II to solve an unusual problem.
Apparently, the ghost of Emperor Nero (believed to be buried nearby) was haunting the site. The locals complained, so Paschal ceremonially chopped down a walnut tree that was sheltering demonic-looking black crows and built a church on the site.
The original Romanesque chapel was enlarged in 1227 and entirely reconstructed in 1472-77. The present building dates from this latter period. An impressive army of Renaissance artists were brought in to decorate the church and its chapels, beginning with Raphael in 1513.
What to See at Santa Maria del Popolo
There is not too much to see of Santa Maria del Popolo on the outside - the long side facing the piazza is covered with buildings. The facade, which is perpendicular to the Porta del Popolo, is in a simple Baroque style designed in 1660 by Bernini. Some of the small domes of the chapels can be glimpsed from the piazza.
Santa Maria del Popolo's interior is in the early Italian Renaissance style of the late 15th century. Its rib vaulted nave has large round arches, wide side aisles, no gallery, and small windows in the clerestory.
The apse was designed by Bramante for Pope Julius II around 1502; it was one of the artist's earliest works in Rome. There is a light switch on the left side. The vault frescoes, painted by Pinturicchio in 1508-09, depict the Coronation of the Virgin, the Four Evangelists, four Sibyls, and four Fathers of the Church. The small altar painting is the venerated 14th-century Madonna del Popolo.
The apse also contains the monumental tombs of Cardinal Girolamo Basso della Rovere (1507) and Cardinal Ascanio Sforza (1505), signed by Andrea Sansovino. The organ case in the south transept was designed by Bernini and bears the Della Rovere oak tree, part of the Chigi coat of arms.
The first chapel to the left of the choir in the north transept is the Cerasi Chapel, famed for its two canvases painted by Caravaggio in 1600-01. They depict the Crucifixion of St. Peter and the Conversion of St. Paul - key events in the lives of the patron saints of Rome. Both are characterized by dramatic lighting, emotion and realism. St. Paul lays on the ground, stunned, while St. Peter is depicted as an old man facing a humiliating and painful death.
The chapel's altarpiece is The Assumption of the Virgin by Annibale Carracci, painted just prior to Caravaggio's paintings. It looks old-fashioned next to the modern use of light and realism in the Caravaggios. Carraci also designed the vault frescoes.
The Chigi Chapel, in the north aisle left of the altar, was commissioned by the Sienese banker Agostino Chigi (1465-1520). It was built and decorated by Raphael (who also decorated Chigi's home, the Villa Farnesina) in 1513-16. The dome mosaic of God the Father in Benediction was carried out by a Venetian artist after cartoons by Raphael.
Both Agostino Chigi and Raphael died in 1520, bringing major work on the chapel to a halt. The tombs of Agostino and his brother Sigismondo (d.1526) were given a unique pyramidal design, based on ancient Roman models.
The altarpiece of The Nativity of the Virgin was painted by Raphael's rival Sebastiano del Piombo in 1530-34. The bronze altar frontal was sculpted by Raphael's disciple Lorenzetto, as were the statues of Jonah and Elijah (executed after the design plans of Raphael).
The chapel was completed by Bernini for Cardinal Fabio Chigi (Pope Alexander VII) after 1652, including the famous sculpture of Habakkuk and the Angel and the prophet Daniel. Bernini also added the oval medallions on the pyramidal tombs.
Quick Facts on Santa Maria del Popolo
|Names:||Santa Maria del Popolo|
|Visitor and Contact Information|
|Coordinates:||41.911503° N, 12.476660° E|
|Address:||Piazza del Popolo 12|
|Hours:||Mon-Sat: 7-noon and 4-7pm, Sun: 7:30-1:30 and 4:30-7:30pm|
|Lodging:||View hotels near Santa Maria del Popolo|
- Alta Macadam and Ellen Grady, Blue Guide Central Italy with Rome and Florence, 1st ed. (Somerset: Blue Guides Limited, 2008), 44-45.
- Rome: The main streets and their monuments - Encyclopaedia Britannica (accessed March 2009)
- Caravaggio, The Conversion on the Way to Damascus - Web Gallery of Art
- Caravaggio, The Crucifixion of St. Peter - Web Gallery of Art
- Santa Maria del Popolo - Fodor's Italy
- Piazza del Popolo - Fodor's Italy
Map of Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome
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