Tuesday, October 1, 2013

The “Minor” Churches of Rome

Domes, art, architecture and a few surprises.
Sant'Agnese in Agone.
There are more than 900 churches in Rome, from St Pater’s Basilica on down, so any attempt to recommend a few of the lesser lights has to be highly selective. However, here’s a couple of highlights from the “lesser” known churches of Rome.

The Church of St Louis of the French

Known as “The French Church” of Rome. The last chapel on the left is covered in no less than three large and extraordinary frescoes by Caravaggio. They depict the life of San Matteo (Matthew), who was a tax collector before joining the merry band of Jesus’s Apostles. They display all the dark and drama and concentration on human faces and minor characters that make Caravaggio so enthralling. 

The church was built between 1518 and 1589, and completed through the personal intervention of Catherine de' Medici, who donated to it some property in the area. It is the national church in Rome of France.
Caravaggio detail (who's that boy in the centre?)

Caravaggio: San Matteo
Basilica of Sant’Agostino 

Caravaggio: dirty feet.
There’s another Caravaggio in this church near Piazza Navona - of peasants adoring the Christ child, complete with dirty clothes and feet.  Easy to miss, there’s also a beautiful old fresco on one of the columns, by Raphael of Isaiah (third pillar on the left). Sansovino (who built several lovely buildings in Venice) made a special Madonna del Parto, who will help you if you want to have a baby. Lots of successful parents have returned to leave her baby gifts. 

Sant'Agostino was one of the first Roman churches built during the Renaissance. The façade was built in 1483 by Giacomo di Pietrasanta, using travertine taken from the Colosseum. It’s a plain work of the early Renaissance style. Sant'Agostino was once noted for the presence of a number of courtesans and prostitutes in its congregation.

Raphael: Isaac
The Madonna del Parto, with her baby gifts.
St Agnes in Agony (Sant'Agnese in Agone)

Sant'Agnese in Agone  is just opposite the famous Bernini Fountain of the Four Rivers in Piazza Navona. It’s architect was Boromini (for most it, anyway), Bernini’s arch rival. There’s a legend that some of the figures on the fountain are turned away from the facade of the church in mock horror, but in fact the facade post-dates the fountain.

The church was built in the 17th century its interior is highly, writhingly, Baroque. Piazza Navona is said to be the site where the Early Christian Saint Agnes was martyred in the ancient Stadium of Domitian. Saint Agnes was a virgin reluctant to be married to a noble, who in revenge had her stripped naked - but her hair immediately and miraculously grew to cover her nakedness. The wicked noble then cut off her hair, and put her to burn at the stake, but angels doused the flames. He eventually chopped her head off. 

And the name? It’s natural to assume that the name of the church is related to the ‘agony’ of the martyr; but in fact ‘agone’ was the ancient name of Piazza Navona (piazza in agone), and meant, from the Greek, ‘the site of the competitions’, because Piazza Navona was built on an ancient Roman stadium on the Greek model. From ‘in agone’, the popular use and pronunciation changed the name into ‘Navona, but other roads in the area kept the original name (says Wiki).

St Agnes on the Pyre
Photos are generally not allowed inside the church, but I attended one of those lovely ancient music concert, where the performers played period instruments and sang in Gregorian plainsong. We, the small audience, were entertained in the sacristry and in the main church after the doors had closed to the tourists for the evening. There was much fugue and ornamentation - the Baroque era was the era of the virtuosi.

All altars in the church are dedicated to martyrs with reliefs or statues depicting the circumstances of their deaths. It’s truly a pantheon of agony. There’s the Death of Saint Alexius by Giovanni Francesco Rossi; The Martyrdom of Saint Emerentiana by Ercole Ferrata, The Death of Saint Cecilia by Antonio Raggi; and The Martyrdom of Saint Eustace by Melchiorre Cafà. Ercole Ferrata is responsible for the side altar depicting Saint Agnes on the Pyre, one of his best works (flames leaping around her in coloured marble). Opposite is Saint Sebastian by Paolo Campi, Both the statue of Saint Agnes and of Saint Sebastian are placed in an illusionistic architecture of coloured marble. There’s also the Tomb Monument of Pope Innocent X, and a shrine for Saint Agnes, containing her skull.

The Sacristry in Sant'Agnese in Agone.
Waiting for music.

You can only go inside Sant'Ivo on Sundays, but check out the exterior - Borromini’s twisting spire is unique - so vivacious for such a grumpy old architect.

The full name of the church is Saint Yves at La Sapienza (Italian: Chiesa di Sant'Ivo alla Sapienza). It was built by Borromini in 1642-1660 and is considered a masterpiece of Roman Baroque architecture. In the 14th century, there was a chapel here for the palace of the University of Rome. The University is called La Sapienza, and the church was dedicated to Saint Yves (patron saint of jurists). Borromini adapted to the already existing palazzo and chose for the church a plan resembling a star of David. The building has a curious curved facade and that novel corkscrew lantern on the dome.

Sant'Ivo: Borromini's curving facade.
The curly spire on Sant'Ivo.
Sant'Andrea della Valle

It’s a bit tough to list this church amongst the “minor” ones, since I sought it out because it’s huge dome is visible from far away and all around (and also because it’s dedicated to Sant’Andrea, the patron saint of Amalfi). 

The fresco decoration of Sant'Andrea's dome was one of the largest commissions of its day. The work was done by two Carracci pupils, Giovanni Lanfranco and Domenichino. Lanfranco's lavish dome decoration (completed in 1627) set the model for such decorations for the following decades. This dome was for a long time the third largest dome in Rome (after the Basilica of St. Peter and the Pantheon).

The apse decoration is by Alessandro Algardi. In the apse half-dome the ‘History of Sant'Andrea’ and ‘Virtues’ are frescoed by Domenichino. In the apse walls are three frescoes: Crucifixion, Martyrdom and Burial of Sant'Andrea by Mattia Preti (1650–1651),

And here’s some opera trivia: The first act of the opera ‘Tosca’ by Puccini is set in Sant'Andrea della Valle. (However, the Cappella Attavanti used was a poetic invention.)

Sant'Andrea della Valle
Strangely, you can't see the dome from this close angle.
But it can be seen from just everywhere else in central Rome.
Poor Sant'Andrea is martyred.
Looking up into the massive dome.

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