Rome day 6 (continuation 3)

Piazza Navona, Sant’Agnese in Agone, Pasquino, Chiesa Nuova or Santa Maria in Vallicella

Piazza Navona  before interventions in the 17th century 16250-1644 Museo di Roma Palazzo Braschi
Piazza Navona  before interventions in the 17th century 16250-1644 Museo di Roma Palazzo Braschi
Piranesi ‘Piazza Navona’ mid-17th century Rijksmuseum Amsterdam and the Piazza before Innocent V’s alterations    Livecam
Piazza Navona Piranesi ca.1650

Sant’Agnese in Agone

Innocent X (Pamphili) wanted to rebuild the old church as the crown on his renovation of the Piazza Navona that his family’s palazzo faced and where Bernini had built the Fountain of the Four Rivers.

Girolamo and his son Carlo Rainaldi created a new design, a Greek cross with a straight façade. The old church was torn down in 1652 and construction of the new church began. However, the pope decided during the construction that he did not like the design, and fired the Rainald is to appoint his favourite architect Francesco Borromini in their stead. Borromini immediately had the straight façade demolished and designed a new one. He couldn’t drastically change the church’s floor plan because that would have been too costly. He did, however, add columns to the pilasters on the corners of the domed room. The design for the façade has survived. Borromini had created big, oval flights of stairs that would have projected into the square, and a recessed central bay with no less than eight big columns. By 1655, the façade had been completed up to the level of the cornice.

That’s when everything went wrong. Innocent X dies that same year and Alexander VII (Chigi) is elected pope. He took little interest in the Sant’Agnese in Agone. A commission was appointed to decide what had to be done about the project. Their decision was devastating for Borromini: he is fired and the project is reassigned to Carlo Rainaldi. He makes changes to Borromini’s design, but eventually Bernini is commissioned to complete the church. He also made a large number of changes. Bernini’s studio was of course commissioned to adorn the church with frescos and Bernini used quite a lot of coloured marble and stucco. Borromini must have been horrified. He never used coloured marble, usually a serene light grey or white. We head south and pass another famous building by Francesco Borromini that faces the Piazza di Pasquino (Wikipedia). This little square is home to a weather-beaten Hellenistic statue from the 3rd century AD.

En route to Pasquino

 Piazza di Pasquino


Antonio Lafréry 1550
Achille Pinelli 1835    Scorza Sinibaldo 17th century
Antonio Lafréry Pasquino 1550

The statue probably represents Menelaos protecting Patroclus’ dead body. When the neighbouring Via dei Leutari was repaved in 1501, workers discovered this damaged statue. Cardinal Carafa had it placed on the corner near the square. The story goes that a tailor  – or as some say a cobbler  – named Pasquino ran a flourishing business in the neighbourhood. Pasquino often had occasion to visit the Papal court and knew what was going on behind the scenes. He was fiercely critical of the political situation in Rome, and more specifically of the goings-on at the papal court. After his death, the statue was placed next to his shop. Romans would attach notes to the statue with witty comments on local politics, for instance the lampoon (satirical poem attached to statue near Pasquino’s shop) by Urban VIII’s physician Giulio Mancini that I talked about earlier: ‘Quod non fecerunt barbari, fecerunt Barberini’ (what the barbarians did not do, the Barberinis did, i.e. taking the bronze from the Pantheon’s portico) You will encounter many of these speaking statues in Rome.

Pasquino Rome

picture: depor_guga

Facing the busy Corso Vittorio Emanuele II on the right is the Chiesa Nuova with the adjoining Oratory by S. Filippo Neri. We first head to the Chiesa Nuova. Here is a floor plan with ‘clickable’ chapels and an aerial photograph of the adjoining oratory.

Chiesa Nuova or Santa Maria in Vallicella

Chiesa Nuova or Santa Maria in Vallicella      Tympanum Mary with Child
Chiesa Nuova or S. Maria in Vallicella facade detail Rome
Chiesa Nuova Facade and interior and virtual: Chiesa Nuova
Chiesa Nuova interior Rome

In the middle ages, this site was home to a church that was called the Santa Maria in Vallicella. Philip Neri had the present-day church, the new church, built. We are not going to look at the architecture of this church, just some of its paintings. The artist Pietro da Cortona, whose Santa Maria della Pace we already looked at earlier, with some interruptions worked on painting the nave, the dome and the apse for 20 years.

Pietro da Cortona ‘Madonna en San Filippo Neri’  ceiling large size

Photo: Lawrence OP

Ceiling of the Chiesa Nuova
‘St Philip’s vision of the Virgin’ by Cortona. It recounts a dream of St Philip’s, in which he sees the church roof about to collapse, and the Virgin Mary appears and holds the splintered beams aloft.Today, 26 May, is the feast of St Philip Neri, founder of the Oratorians.

Source: Lawrence OP

If we can get permission, we will first go to the sacristy, where we will find a big by the sculptor Algardi. Next we will visit the chapel and final resting place of the saint to which this church is dedicated.

Alessandro Algardi ‘Philip Neri with an Angel’ 
Filippus Neri Chiesa Nuova sacristie
Alessandro Algardi Philip Neri with an Angel Chiese Nuova Sacristy


Chapel of Philip Neri    Philip Neri 
Chapel of Philip Neri Chiesa Nuova

pictures: Lawrence OP and ppfinney

Philip Neri was one of the most prominent figures of the counterreformation. He was a sincere Christian who took his faith very seriously. He founded the Congregation of the Oratory in 1551. They met in the neighbouring Oratory (oratorio= prayer room and chapel).

Chiesa Nuova  private departures from Philip Neri
Ground plan number 11  
Chiesa Nuova Privé vertrekken van  Filippo Neriri

They would preach, sing in the vernacular and engage in pastoral care. Young Roman princes who wanted to join, first had to complete a list of assignments, for instance making mortar or carrying bricks for the construction of the new church. Philip Neri died in 1595 and was buried in the Chiesa Nuova.

Philip Neri’s death mask
Philip Neri's death mask 

The church is home to three paintings of the young Rubens. One of them is located above the main altar and the other two beside it. If we are lucky, and the sexton is kind enough to fetch his remote, we will see that behind the oval painting of the Virgin Mary by Rubens there is an oval box that can be opened to reveal a 14th century fresco of the Blessed Virgin which reportedly performed miracles.  In a letter, Rubens had the following to say about the first painting that he did for the monks of the oratory:

“You should know that my painting for the main altar of the Chiesa Nuova has turned out quite well, much to the satisfaction of the friars, and also to the satisfaction of those (which is rare) who saw it ahead of time. However, the lighting of this altar is so bad that one can hardly distinguish the figures, or enjoy the beauty of the colours and the fineness of the heads and draperies that I painted so carefully, after nature, and according to the judgement of all, completely successfully. Therefore, in light of the fact that the work’s merits are all wasted and appreciation of my efforts will only be forthcoming when the results can be seen, I have no intention of unveiling it. I would rather take it back and find a better place for it […] but the friars refuse to part with it unless I am willing to make a copy in my own hand, for the same altar, on stone or another material that will absorb the colours in such a way that they are no longer reflected by this unfavourable light. However, I don’t believe it would be right for my reputation that two identical paintings by my hand should exist in Rome.”

Peter Paul Rubens in a later dated 2 February 1608. Quoted from: R.S. Magurn, ‘The letters of Peter Paul Rubens’, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1955 page 42.

Rubens eventually decided to paint a new altar piece after all, but this time on slate.

Peter Paul Rubens  altar with the three paintings
St Gregory, Maurus and Papianus      Madonna with Child, worshiped by angels 1608 slate 425 x 250 cm     Detail of the altar piece
Peter Paul Rubens Madonna della Vallicella Chiesa Nuova

picture: Bruno Cerboni

So that this time the material would “absorb colours”. Rubens did not make a copy, but painted the composition you can see in the church today. At the bottom of the image plane you see angels looking up in adoration at a frame in which the Virgin Mary and her child can be seen (behind her is the miraculous fresco).

Peter Paul Rubens ‘Madonna with Child, worshiped by angels’
Partly open    Mary fresco  14th century    Youtube opening box starts at 7.53
Rubens Madonna della Vallicella|detail Madonna with Child, worshiped by angels

The altar piece wasn’t to be Rubens’ only painting for this church. He painted to more big paintings, both of them on slate. These two paintings hang a little lower, so that the three of them together resemble a traditional triptych. St Gregory, Maurus and Papianus are to the left of the main altar and to the right St Nereus, Domitilla and Achilleus. Both works feature three saints come to pay their respects to The Virgin Mary and her child in the central panel. The relics of the six martyrs depicted on both the flanking painting, including Gregory and Domitilla are enshrined in this church. The Chiesa Nuova originally also featured a famous painting by Caravaggio in the second chapel on the right; the Vittrici Chapel. You will see this painting later in the Vatican’s Pinacoteca. For now, we will have to make do with a replica of the Entombment of Christ. We will nevertheless discuss this painting here because it has to be seen in context to be understood.

Caravaggio ‘Entombment’ 1603-1604 300 x 203 cm. large size
Vatican Pinacoteca
Caravaggio ‘Entombment' Vatican museum
Caravaggio ‘Entombment’  detail Pinacoteca Vaticana
Mary, Mary Magdalene and Mary Kleopas
Caravaggio ‘Entombment’  detail Pinacoteca Vaticana

I will provide some information here that is partly a repetition of what I have already written under Day 5: Caravaggio. Pope Gregory XIII, who was a close friend of Vittrici’s, introduced an indulgence for praying in his chapel in the Chiesa Nuova. Vittrici died before his chapel was completed. The chapel and altar were completed after his death. The pope reiterated that the privilege that was granted must be upheld. This meant that a chapel like the one we are standing before now, was very popular with the faithful, because it would get you an indulgence. The Santa Maria in Vallicella, as this church is officially called, houses a total of 10 altar pieces in the chapels near the aisles. These altar pieces form a single continuing story about the Road to Calvary. Each of the altar pieces includes a representation of the Virgin Mary among the other figures.

Chiesa Nuova nave and aisle
Chiesa Nuova Santa Maria in Vallicella nave interior

photo: Dennis Jarvis

Chiesa Nuova or the Santa Maria in Vallicella three out of ten side chapels 
Chapel of the Crucifixion
Cappella dell’Ascensione
First chapel right
Scipione Pulzone
Altar piece ‘Crucifixion’
  Chapel of Vittrici dedicated to the Pietà
Cappella (Vittrici) della Pietà
Second chapel right
Copy to Caravaggio by Michele Koeck
Altar piece ‘Entombment’
  Chapel of Ascension
Cappella dell’Ascensione
Third chapel right
Girolamo Muziano
Altar piece ‘Christ’s Ascension’

The two chapels adjoining the Vittrici Chapel feature altar pieces depicting the Crucifixion and Ascension. The Entombment that Caravaggio painted for the Vittrici Chapel fits in perfectly. Many of the altar pieces had already been completed when Caravaggio started on his altar piece in 1603. We will compare the adjoining Crucifixion by Pulzone with Caravaggio’s work. You will see that Caravaggio not only makes the story properly connect with Pulzone’s painting, but also some of the figures and their clothing, for instance the red robe and green cloak. St John (the man close to Christ in the green cloak and red robe) has the same face as the apostle painted by Pulzone The light that comes from the right and the diagonal composition perfectly match this chapel’s natural lighting. If you stand in front of this replica, it seems like you form part of the entombment; you are standing in the grave looking up. Rubens, who six years later worked on his altar piece above the main altar here, agreed. However, he felt that Caravaggio’s composition did not make clear where exactly Christ would be laid to rest. Several years later Rubens was to paint an entombment that did make this clear.

Rubens, ‘Entombment’

Rubens did not understand why Caravaggio painted this specific composition, which was never intended as a good description of the actual site. Central to this painting is its deeper meaning and the atmosphere of the entombment. It is more of an icon than a story, which also applies to Michelangelo’s Pietá. In his letter to the Romans (Romans 6: 4-6) Paul explains the link between entombment and resurrection. Man must follow Christ in death to be able to lead a new life. This idea is only properly illustrated when during consecration the priest raises his host while standing before the altar, and then right before the painting of the grave and the dead Christ speaks the words: ‘for this is my Body, which will be given up for you. Do this, as often as you do this, in memory of Me. The worshippers attending mass could actually see the body of Christ while listening to these words. Seen in this light, it is an icon of the Corpus Domini.

If you compare Raphael’s entombment, which you will see in the Villa Borghese, with this one you will notice big differences. Raphael strongly idealised his figures. In a famous letter to Castiglioni, he wrote that he did not use models, but ideas. Caravaggio’s figures in this altar piece are very realistic, for instance Nicodemus, the man in the foreground on the right, S.t John, Mary or Mary of Clopas. Caravaggio used a Roman street girl as a model for Mary of Clopas, the woman who throws up both hands. The gesture she makes is very classical, it can be found on many a sarcophagus from antiquity.

Caravaggio’Christ entombment’ detail the right hand of John the Apostle zoom in
Caravaggio detail ‘Entombment’


Youtube Caravaggio Entombment  Vatican (3.53 minutes)
Behind Nicodemus are seen the mourning Marys, one with her arms upraised, another with her veil raised to her eyes, and the third looking at the Lord.  Caravaggio had Michelangelo in mind again when he created The Entombment. Pierto Vittrice’s burial chapel was dedicated to the Pietà, the solitary lamentation of Mary over the dead Christ.
Caravaggio deliberately harked back to one of the most hallowed images of that earlier event in the story, namely Michelangelo’s marble Pietà  in St Peter’s. The limp right arm of Caravaggio’s dead Christ, with its prominent veins, is a direct paraphrase in paint of the same element in Michelangelo’s [arm, hand, legs] composition. The flesh of the arm gently bulges over the supporting hand of St John, just as it does over the hand of the Virgin Mary in the marble Pietà. But in Caravaggio’s  painting, John’s hand inadvertently opens the wound in Christ’s side. For the pathos and poetry of Michelangelo’s sculpture, in which Mary mourns the man she once cradled as a child, Caravaggio substitutes his own intense morbidity. Caravaggio’s dead Christ is punishingly unidealized. He truly is the Word made in flesh: a dead man, a real corpse weighing heavily on those who struggle to lay him to rest. John strains not to drop the sacred burden. Nicodemus stoops awkwardly as he clasps the body around the knees in a bear-hug, locking his right fist like a clamp around his left forearm. Once more, the painter emphasizes the bare feet of Christ and his disciples. Nicodemus’s feet, so firmly planted on the tomb slap by the heavy load of the corpse, are veined and creased at the ankle. […]  His winding sheet dangles below the tomb slab, touching the leaves of a plant – a juxtaposition perhaps meant to symbolize the hope of a new life brought even to the darkness of the grave.  Pietro Vittrice had especially venerated the Holy Shroud of Turin, fabled as the winding sheet in which Christ had had been interred.”

Andrew Graham-Dixon, Caravaggio A Life Sacred and Profane, Penguin Books, 2011 pp. 279-280

Typical of Caravaggio is the inattentive St John’s hand that comes out from under Christ’s armpit with his fingers opening up Christ’s wound. This sort of detail is characteristic of Caravaggio. If you still have the image of Michelangelo’s Pietà in your head, you will realise that Caravaggio used that work for inspiration, as he was wont to do. We now leave the church and go to the adjacent building, more specifically to the meeting hall of the Oratorians.

April 2018
Theft of Batoni’s Sacred Heart in the new church
This morning around nine o’clock, a canvas was stolen from the Santa Maria Vallicella, better known among Romans as the Chiesa Nuova. The stolen painting is ‘The Sacred Heart’ by seventeenth-century artist Pompeo Batoni. The as of yet unidentified thieves have left behind the frame. After the canvas was recovered, research by the Carabinieri revealed that it was a copy. The original is located in the Il Gesù.


Oratorio dei Filippini Neri and the Chiesa Nuova and and aerial picture  Oratorio and Chiesa
Oratorio dei Filippini Neri and the Chiesa Nuova

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