Santa Maria del Popolo is one of the most important buildings of the Roman Renaissance, not only for its architectural features, but also paintings and sculptures that make it a valuable museum of Renaissance art.
The church was built on a small chapel built by Pope Paschal II in 1099 when the Romans responded to a sort of subscription for the construction of what was to be a small chapel: it was in fact to free the area from a variety of demons that made hard life of those who had to pass through the Porta Flaminia. This crowd of evil spirits was due to the presence there of the tomb of Emperor Nero placed at the foot of the “Horti” belonging to his family. The church was enlarged later by Gregory IX in 1227, which brought forth from the chapel of the Holy Saviour in the Lateran, an image of the Madonna.
Because of the presence of ancient miraculous image of Our Lady, became an attraction for the faithful to the ancient church was pronounced and an adjoining convent of the Augustinian friars assigned to.
Between 1471 and 1477, as part of the extended activities for renewal of the city, promoted by Pope Sixtus IV, the entire complex was renovated and expanded to a design by Baccio Pontelli and Andrea Bregno, and took what is the present aspect; the church and monastery were entrusted to the Augustinian monks of the Congregation of Lombardy.
The church was modified in the seventeenth century and is linked to the names of Bramante, Sansovino, Pinturicchio, Mino da Fiesole, Raphael, Caravaggio.Of the latter are the Conversion of St. Paul and the Crucifixion of St. Peter, together with Assumption by Annibale Carracci decorate the Cerasi chapel, to the left of the main altar.
Follow-up actions were those of Bramante’s designs on which the choir was rebuilt in the early sixteenth century by Raphael, which, at the same time, designed the Chigi chapel, and those of Gian Lorenzo Bernini, who between 1655 and 1660, restored the church again, this time giving it a decidedly baroque can still be seen today.
Outside the great monastery – over the time already organized around two cloisters, one of which, that of the fifteenth century it was decorated with pictorial cycles of the school of Pinturicchio – extended until the middle of the chamber. In early 1800 it was destroyed to build the current square. The new monastery, on which stands the fifteenth-century tower with its characteristic cone termination, was designed by Giuseppe Valadier.
The Church stands at the top of a high staircase that has a dual function: a function of protection from the frequent flooding of the river Tiber, and to give more monumentality to the building, like an ancient Roman temple standing on a high pedestal.
The facade is made of thick slabs of travertine (lapis tiburtinus of the Romans, whose main quarries are, even today,Tivoli) obtained or extracted from the ancient buildings.
The image of the facade that we see today is the result from the work of Gian Lorenzo Bernini, who has modernized by eliminating the internal elements that constituted the “wheel” of the rose window: all to channel more light inside. The interior is enhanced by the choir built by Bramante and the extraordinary Chigi Chapel, one of the most important architectural works of Raphael.
The interior plan is a Latin cross divided into three naves with cross vault and four chapels on each side, ending with a large transept, on which overlook four chapels, a dome and a deep presbytery.
Sober and proportionate shows the schematic of the Cistercian churches.
In the floor there are several tombstones dating from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. The chapels are filled with funerary monuments and works of art. Among these, the most important is the Chigi Chapel, second on the left, designed by Raphael for the banker Agostino Chigi on 1513 and only completed between 1652 and 1656 with the intervention of Gianlorenzo Bernini for Pope Alexander VII Chigi.
Raphael created for the chapel the cartoons for the mosaics of the dome (God the Father and Creator of the heavens of the seven symbols of the sun and planets), performed by Louis Peace in 1516, and the design for the pyramid tombs of Agostino Chigi and his brother Sigismund , performed later by Lorenzetto, Raphael da Montelupo and Bernini with some modifications. Even the statue of Jonah coming out of the whale was made by Lorenzetto from a design of Raphael.
By Bernini are two statues that adorn the chapel, Daniel and the Lion (first left) and Habakkuk and the Angel (second right), depicting scenes from the Book of Daniel.
The finger of the angel, who tells Habakkuk the seat of Daniel (which is not eaten by the lion for his faith in God), is reread Angels and Demons by Dan Brown as the clue to reach the second “altar of science” (Chapter 69).
Inside the Cerasi Chapel are two extraordinary masterpieces of the great Caravaggio: the Conversion of St. Paul and the Crucifixion of St. Peter. The great painter, playing with an unprecedented spatiality, managed to give breath to the two paintings, forced into the narrow space of the chapel.
Transgressive and unconventional as ever, Caravaggio, in the Conversion of St. Paul, uses the horse as a disruptive element of the framework and leave the second floor the figure of the saint, while in the martyrdom of St. Peter the diagonal line created by the arrangement of the cross determines the strong involvement the viewer.
Of great importance inside the church the painting works: we highlight in the choir vault frescoes by Pinturicchio Coronation of Mary, and the altarpiece, representing the Assumption of the Virgin by Annibale Carracci in the Chapel of Rovere the Nativity with St. Jerome of Pinturicchio.
Also in the transept we find the testimony of an event of great importance, the chapel dedicated toSaint Lucia, which had accepted two of the sons of Rodrigo Borgia and then their mother, Vannozza.
The altarpiece is the work of Sebastiano del Piombo and Salviati.
The “Madonna”which adorns the main altar, probably aByzantine work of the twelfth century, according to a tradition deeply rooted was the work of the evangelist Luke,and was subsequently moved here from St. John Lateran by Pope Gregory IX in 1235.