Friday was my fifth and last day of intensive Italian as well as my last art history class, which was onsite. Just as the language class was ending, it started raining. An hour and a half before my art history class was to start, thunder started and intermittent but torrential amounts of water drained from the skies. I was to meet my instructor Eleanora at Santa Maria del Popolo, a 2 kilometre walk. I headed outside when it looked like the rain had stopped. Luckily I got there without rain starting again.
I have been to Santa Maria del Popolo every time I’ve been to Rome because it has some of my favourite Caravaggio paintings, but I have never been with a guide. Being there with Eleanora taught me what I have been missing.
The founding legend is that in 1099, Pope Pascal II (ever heard of this pope?) wanted to rid the area of the devils that inhabited the area because the Emperor Nero had his bones buried at the site of the church. The site is next to one of the major roads entering the city through the Aurelian wall. The devils were causing problems for the people of Rome.
An exorcism was performed and a church built in thanks for removing the devils. As it was built in thanks for saving the people of Rome, the name is “Popolo”, the people—with, also, thanks to the Virgin Mary because of her icon (as explained below).
Eleanora demonstrated how art history in Rome can all be found in this church.
The burial site below that church is believed to be have been used by Nero’s family, i.e. since ancient Roman times.
Over the high altar is an icon of the Virgin Mary—hard to see in the photo because of the reflection off the glass. It is very medieval looking but supposedly this one was painted by Saint Luke, the patron saint of artist. That would make this a work of art from ancient Roman times, but it sure looks like a Byzantine icon.
Some of the tombstones have been here since before the Renaissance as evidenced by the wear on the marble.
One of the chapels of the Della Rovere family has an excellent example of what Eleanora calls the first period of the Renaissance. The chapel design and altar are by Pinturicchio. It displays classic elements of balance, restrained colours, perspective, imagined landscapes and idealized faces.
The tree in the painting is the symbol of the Della Rovere family, who was very rich and powerful during the Renaissance and Baroque periods. Members included Pope Julius II, who is most famous for commissioning Michelangelo to paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling, but he had a pretty eventful life and quite an un-holy character. He’s suspected of murdering other candidates to ensure he became pope.
The second period of the Renaissance, or what I would call High Renaissance, is found in the Chigi Chapel, where Raphael designed the centralized plan from Bramante and painted the dome.
Two of the sculptures in the chapel are based on designs by Raphael. Below, one of the two: a classic ancient sculpture has been “Christianized” by adding a fish so it represent Jonah and the whale.
The early Baroque is represented by Caravaggio and also the much neglected Carracci whose work between Caravaggio’s two paintings gets ignored—as demonstrated in my photos. Carracci’s work is “classicizing” or tending toward High Renaissance with its idealized people and bright colours in contrast to the chiaroscuro of Caravaggio. At the time the works were installed in the chapel, Carracci’s was considered the better artist and thus, he got to paint the middle one over the altar. Now, of course, Caravaggio is considered superior if only because of his innovative design. He more clearly represents the drama, emotion, movement and psychological portrayals that mark the Baroque style.
High Baroque is represented by Bernini, who has his work all over the church in the form of architectural elements such as the high altar but also the Chigi Chapel, which has the Raphael dome. The two statues by him relate to each other—which I didn’t know because I haven’t been reading the book of Daniel in the bible. The story is that when Daniel was in the lions den, Habakkuk, a prophet, was told to go feed Daniel. He said he didn’t know where Daniel was so an angel picked him up by the hair and took him there.
I have looked in this chapel before. It is in the movie “Angels and Demons” with Tom Hanks. But I missed seeing the lion.
The chapel also has the coat of arms of the Chigi family which includes elements from the Della Rovere family (the tree)
The coat of arms is also found under the organs on either side of the high altar.
The Cybo Chapel, designed by Carlo Fontana, represents the High Baroque, although his style was more classicizing and restrained, and not part of the shift to what became Rococo. Unfortunately, the lights in the chapel weren’t working so none of my photos turned out.