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Chiesa Nuova

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Chiesa Nuova

English name: The New Church
Dedication: Gregory the Great and Blessed Virgin Mary
Denomination: Roman Catholic
Built: 15751599
Consecrated: 1599
Architect(s): Giovanni Matteo da Città di Castello, Giacomo della Porta, Martino Longhi the elder
Contact data
Address: 134 Via del Governo Vecchi
(Piazza della Chiesa Nuova)

Chiesa Nuova is one of the great Counter-Reformation preaching-churches of Rome, and is a parish, titular and convent church as well. It was built for St Philip Neri, and dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary and Pope St Gregory the Great. The postal address is Via di Governo Vecchio 134 in the rione Parione, but the main entrance is on the Piazza della Chiesa Nuova, part of the Corso Vittorio Emanuele II. Pictures of the church at Wikimedia Commons. [1] There is an English Wikipedia article. [2]

The church is almost always called the Chiesa Nuova or "New Church" especially in speech, but this is obviously just an nickname. The official name is Santa Maria in Vallicella, which is used by the Diocese and parish as well as in most formal documentation. Some private authors prefer it as well.


Ancient timesEdit

When the foundations of the new church were being excavated in 1575, a large and wide stone wall running the length of the old church was found. This was surmised to have been the source of the name of the rione Parione (paries is one of the Latin words for "wall"), but what the wall was is unknown and the area is not very well investigated archaeologically. In the locality was the Tarentum, a very ancient open-air religious enclosure dedicated to the pair of gods Dis Pater and Proserpina. The site of the altar was allegedly uncovered just to the west of the church in 1887, but this is now queried. It may have been more to the north-west near the curve of the river. The sacred site was apparently marking some sort of entrance to Hades, perhaps a spring or well or wide-mouthed sinkhole.

What is very strange about the altar here is that it was below ground level, and had to be excavated every time it was used.

Church before the OratoryEdit

By tradition, the first church on the site was built by Pope St Gregory the Great and hence later was given a subsidiary dedication to him. However, what is known from the archives of the Diocese is that there was a church here in 1179 which was made parochial seven years later. This earliest source already refer to it as Santa Maria in Vallicella, and this official name has never changed.

The name Vallicella is usually translated as "little valley", but this is uncertain. In Latin it is literally "room (storeroom, shrine) of the stockade (vallum) or valley (vallis)". There may have been a small stream here in the Dark Ages, but this is a surmise which cannot be supported by the present-day topography.

In mediaeval times this was a typical little parish church, one of many in mediaeval Rome, and perhaps served about thirty families or so. Also typical of little mediaeval parish churches was that it was not kept in good repair, and by the time it was given to St Philip Neri it was allegedly ruinous. Also it apparently stood in a depression in the terrain (the "little valley"?), causing boggy ground and pools of water which made drainage a serious problem. The fabric must have been rotten.


The association with St Philip Neri began in the late 16th century, but it was not the first church with which he was associated. As a young Florentine priest he had begun his ministry at Rome at San Girolamo della Carità where he attracted his first disciples, and also with San Giovanni dei Fiorentini because that was the church of the Florentine expatriates. However, when he formed his followers into the new secular congregation of the Oratorians they found that other activities at these churches interfered with their work. A church of their own was needed, and St Philip Neri received the rather dubious donation of the dilapidated and damp chiesolina from Pope Gregory XIII in 1575.

The Oratorians immediately undertook an enormous rebuilding project, and they had the donations to carry it out from the Pope and the Cesi brothers, both cardinals. The large new church was dedicated to Our Lady (under the title of Madonna Vallicelliana) and St Gregory, but kept its old name. Construction was initially overseen by Giovanni Matteo da Città di Castello, then by Giacomo della Porta, and later, from about 1577, by Martino Longhi the Elder. The church was consecrated in 1599. The façade, completed in 1605 or 1606, is the work of Fausto Rughesi. The church was modelled on the Gesù, regarded at the time as the foremost example of Counter-Reformation architecture and, as such, immensely influential architecturally in Catholic Europe.

The Oratorians moved to a nearby house in 1577, by which time the nave was completed. However, St Philip prefered to stay at San Girolamo della Carità, where he had lodged when he had first come to Rome from Florence, until he was ordered by the Pope to move in with his disciples in 1583 and accept his responsibilities as Superior. As such, one of the things that he insisted on was that the young noblemen wishing to join the Oratory were to do actual manual work in helping with the building project. At the time it was a disgrace for a noble to work with his hands, and this was one of the ways that the saint found out which of his disciples had genuine vocations to the life of an Oratorian.

The parish was suppressed in 1622, in order that the Oratorians could concentrate on a wider apostolate among the people of the city as a whole. In the first half of the 17th century, the enormous new convent next door was being built mostly under the supervision of Borromini from 1637 to 1652. It was only finally finished in 1666.

Modern timesEdit

The Oratorians fell on hard times in the 19th century, and in the latter part of that century the church was in serious disrepair. Before the 1880's the church was on a piazza surrounded by a little grid of side streets, and was not easy to find. However, then the new trunk road from Piazza Venezia to the Vatican, Corso Vittorio Emanuele II, was built and this massively raised the church's civic profile.

In 1905 it was decided that the local parish church of San Tommaso in Parione was too small for its parish, so the Chiesa Nuova was made the parish church instead. A major restoration was completed in 2006, but evidence for the previous disrepair can still be seen in damaged frescoes.

The present titular is Edward Bede Clancy.


Plan and elevationEdit

The church is built on a plan of a Latin cross within a rectangle, and has a short and wide nave with aisles and five enclosed chapels off each aisle. The transepts are short, and do not extend beyond the outer nave walls. There is a central dome, and the apse is three-sided and flanked by two large chapels. The roofs are pitched and tiled. The dome is externally low and unobtrusive, having a lead saucer on a very low drum, and was finished in 1650 by Pietro da Cortona. The disproportionally tall lantern has a cog-wheel entablature supporting a lead cupola which itself has a ball finial.
2011 Chiesa Nuova dome

A rare view of the dome from ground level.

To the left of the church is the Oratory (the convent of the Oratorians), which is extensive and contains two cloisters separated by the church's large sacristy. The latter is, unusually, detached from the church itself.

By the far corner of the right hand transept is the campanile, designed in 1666 by Camillo Arcucci. There are two storeys containing bells, the first with Doric pilasters supporting an exaggerated cornice. Between these on each side is squeezed an arched sound-hole with its own little balustrade. The top storey has bell-holes with ogee curved tops flanked by outward-facing double volutes, and the corners of the parapet have stone pineapples topped by rather spiky bronze three-dimensional stars.


Rughesi's 17th century façade, in travertine limestone, has two stories and is crowned by a triangular pediment. The central vertical zone is brought forward slightly for its entire height, and the two corner strips recessed slightly; this feature of the design was so as to prevent the façade looking like a cliff. In the first storey, this central zone has four Corinthian half-columns supporting an entablature, the latter continuing across the façade on either side where it is supported by eight Corinthian pilasters. The frieze of the entablature has a rather bombastic and cheeky inscription reading Angelus Caesius Episc[opus]. Tudertinus fecit Anno Dom[ini]. MDCV ("Angelo Cesi, Bishop of Todi, did this AD 1605"). This implies he built the church, but what he actually did was to pay for the façade only. His brother Pier Donato Cesi paid for most of the rest.

The doorway is flanked by a pair of Corintinan columns in the round, supporting a raised triangular pediment which is broken at the top in order to accommodate a large tablet bearing a dedicatory inscription. This latter is flanked by a pair of especially slinky double volutes looking like G-clefs from a piece of written music. The aisle entrances have raised segmental pediments supported by volute corbels, and above them is another pair of inscription tablets bearing praises addressed to Our Lady from the Biblical Song of Songs:

Tota pulcra es amica mea, and macula non est in te ("You are completely beautiful, my girlfriend, and there is no blemish in you").

The handles of the entrance doors are decorated with flaming hearts, since the cor flammigerum is St Philip's emblem.

In the centre of the upper storey, there is a round-headed window with a balustrade. This is flanked by a pair of Ionic columns with swagged capitals and supporting a segmental pediment. Below this, on top of the entablature above the four entrance columns, is a large segmental pediment containing a relief of the Madonna and Child, the Madonna Vallicellliana. She is seated on a throne with water gushing out on either side, this throne being on a bank of clouds and accompanied by a pair of angels. Either side of the window is a round-headed niche containing a statue and with a triangular pediment, the statues being of SS Gregory the Great and Phillip Neri. These statues have empty inscription tablets above them, and there is a pair of gigantic volutes flanking the upper storey. The pediment's tympanum is empty except for a small coat-of-arms in its apex.

In the archives of the Oratorians, in the convent adjacent to the church, there is a wooden model of the façade as it was originally intended to be; some changes were made at a later point. It has been suggested that it was Carlo Maderno who introduced the changes.


Overall layoutEdit

As mentioned, the church is on the plan of a Latin cross with three aisles, or a nave with side aisles. (NB Italian practice is to refer to a church nave like this as having three aisles, whereas in English it is more correct to talk about a nave with two side aisles.)

The nave has five bays, and the arcades have massive pillars. Since the church was built in one campaign, the side chapels are all of identical architectural design, being on a square plan with chamfered far corners. Each is entered through a doorway in a screen wall, and narrow passages connect adjacent chapels

Di Castello's original design had only one nave, and four chapels on each side. Giacomo della Porta changed the plan, making the side chapels deeper and the nave consequentally more narrow, and dividing the nave into three aisles. He also changed the number of chapels on each side to five. Originally the church had very little decoration, but against St Philip's wishes it was decorated with spectacular frescoes after his death. His original plan was to have only depictions of the Blessed Virgin, and they were meant to be rather discrete. The rest of the surfaces were to have been whitewashed.

A painting of the church as it was when new can be seen in the Vatican Pinacoteca, by Andrea Sacchi and entitled The Interior of S Maria in Vallicelli during the Festivities of 13 March 1602. It depicts the church as it looked when St Philip Neri was canonized.


The interior is richly decorated and gilded, and is embellished by polychrome stonework such as the red jasper pilasters attached to the arcade piers. The nave ceiling is barrel-vaulted, over a spacious area which was designed to accommodate the congregations attracted to the sermons of the Oratorians.

On the nave walls above the arcades are fourteen paintings of the end of the 17th century, painted by five artists who undertook pairs opposite each other. From the high altar, from left to right, these are: Creation of the Angels and the Fall of Lucifer by Lazzaro Baldi, the General Resurrection on the Last Day and the Expulsion from Eden by Giuseppe Ghezzi, the Last Supper and the Fall of the Manna by Daniele Seiter, the Penitent Magdalen and Rebecca at the Well again by Ghezzi, St Peter Accepting the Keys from Christ and Moses Breaking the Tablets by Giuseppe Passeri, the Immaculate Conception and Judith with Holofernes again by Seiter, and finally the Cleansing of the Temple and the Ark of the Covenant by Domenico Parodi. On the wall above the entrance is the Preaching of St John the Baptist by Seiter.

The ceiling fresco in the nave is by Pietro da Cortona, painted in 16641665. It depicts the miracle of the Blessed Virgin: St Philip was warned in a dream that the roof of the church would collapse, and had it repaired. The roof was in bad shape, and many would have been killed if it had collapsed during Mass. Something went badly wrong with the building work; perhaps the saint was not so wise in using his Oratorian disciples as amateur builders.


The saucer dome has no drum, but is placed directly on its cornice with four little round-headed windows. The entire surface is taken up by the fresco by Da Cortona again, the Triumph of the Trinity showing the Father and the Son in the main dome and the Holy Spirit in the oculus. The pendentives show the four major Old Testament prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezechiel and Daniel.

Transept chapelsEdit

The church has a pair of spectacular Baroque organ cases, and the one on the left hand side is unusual because some of the pipes have decorative spirals.

The two transept chapels have altars of similar design, with gorgeus polychrome marble work.

The left hand one is dedicated to the Presentation of Our Lady, and has two statues of SS Peter and Paul by Giovanni Antonio Paracca of 1592. The altarpiece is by Federico Barocci of 1603, and the fresco on the vault, showing Hannah, Elcana and the young Samuel, is by Alessandro Salucci. The allegory in stucco of Faith and Hope is by Cosimo Fancelli and Ercole Ferrata.

The right hand chapel is dedicated to the Coronation of Our Lady as Queen of Heaven, and have a pair of statues of SS John the Baptist and John the Evangelist by Flaminio Vacca of 1594. The altarpiece is by the Cavaliere d'Arpino of 1615, and the stucco allegory of Charity and Religion is again by Fancelli and Ferrata. The wooden pulpit or ambo is by Borromini, and does not belong here since it was designed for the convent.

Off the right transept, to the right of the apse, the Cappella Spada is dedicated to St Charles Borromeo and was only finished in 1679. The original design was by Camillo Arcucci, but Carlo Rainaldi helped to finish it. There are three rooms, the first being the Spada family cenotaph with funerary inscriptions in black marble placed in 1733. The little nave has a vaulted ceiling, and six colonnaded niches intended for statues. The four frescoes in tondi on the vault are by Giovan Francesco di Rossi, and depict scenes from the life of St Charles. Three concern his friendship with St Philip, and one shows the failed assassination attempt on him (the miscreant used cheap gunpowder in his pistol, which pooped). The wall frescoes of St Charles are by Luigi Scaramuccia of 1673. The presbyterium has an altarpiece from 1685 by Carlo Maratta, the Madonna Enthroned with Sts Charles Borromeo and Ignatius. Its vault fresco of the Holy Spirit is recorded as dating from 1729, but the artist is unknown.

Off the left transept, to the left of the apse, the Chapel of St Philip is especially sumptious since the saint is enshrined here. The decoration in the Baroque style, employing mother-of-pearl, coral, onyx, lapis lazuli, agate, gold, marble, bronze and stucco, was completed in 1604. The dome is by Pietro da Cortona. The frescoes on the walls and vault, depicting scenes from the saint's life, are by Cristoforo Roncalli nicknamed Il Pomerancio. The saint's body rests in a crystal urn below the altar. The altarpiece mosaic of him with Our Lady is a copy by Vincenzo Castellani of a painting by Guido Reni .

Presbyterium and High altarEdit

De Cortona painted the Assumption of Mary in the apse (as well as the Angels with the Instruments of the Passion of Our Lord in the ceiling of the sacristy, which is not part of the church).

The 13th century miraculous icon of Our Lady of Vallicella is enshrined above the high altar behind a Madonna with Angels by Peter Paul Rubens, painted on slate in order to reduce light reflection. The construction is quite unique, since this painting can be moved aside by means of a system of strings and pulleys to reveal the icon. Rubens also painted the pictures on either side of the sanctuary, completing the three between 1606 and 1608. The mail-clad figures in the left-hand one are SS Papias and Maurus, traditional soldier martyrs whose relics lie beneath the high altar and who are here depicted with St Gregory. The right hand one shows SS Domitilla, Nereus and Achilleus. These are now the only pictures by Rubens in a Roman church.

The altar itself was completed in 1608, and has a painted wooden crucifix enshrined in its pediment which is by Guglielmo Berthelot of 1615. The pair of stucco angels adoring it are by Francesco Maratti of 1697. The bronze tabernacle was added in 1681, and is by Ciro Ferri.

Aisle chapelsEdit

The side chapels were made available to wealthy families. They were given a letter of concession, and were then expected to decorate and maintain the chapel. This is common in many churches in Rome (consider the family chapels in Santa Maria Maggiore and Santa Maria del Popolo), but this is a rare example of the process being planned from the start. Memorial plaques in the chapels name the families. It is obvious from the state of certain chapels that some families fell behind on maintenance.

The ten side chapels are decorated with a cycle of scenes from the life of Our Lady, conforming to St Philip's request. Some of them, such as Federico Barocci's Visitation, were commissioned by the saint himself.

The description below is clockwise from the entrance.

The first chapel on the left is dedicated to the Purification of Our Lady, and the paintings are by the Cavaliere d'Arpino . The altarpiece is of 1627, and the damaged vault frescoes of 1620 depict SS Ambrose, Monica and Augustine. They were restored in the 19th century. The stucco work is by Stefano Longo.

The second chapel on the left is dedicated to the Epiphany, and the altarpiece showing the Adoration of the Magi is by Cesare Nebbia of 1578. The stucco and marble decoration are again by Longo, of 1605. The vault frescoes are possibly by Baccio Ciarpi, and are badly preserved.

The third chapel on the left is dedicated to the Nativity, and the altarpiece, the Adoration of the Shepherds, is by Duranto Alberti of the late 16th century.

The fourth chapel on the left is dedicated to the Visitation of Our Lady. It has the altarpiece by Federico Baroccii of 1586 of which St Philip was especially fond. The damaged frescoes are by Carlo Saraceni.

The fifth chapel on the left is dedicated to the Annunciation to Our Lady, and has an original fresco cycle by Andrea Lilio of 1591. The altarpiece is by Il Passignano.

The fifth chapel on the right is the Cappella Pinelli, dedicated to the Assumption of Our Lady, and has frescoes by Aurelio Lomi. The altarpiece is by Giovanni Domenico Cerrini.

The fourth chapel on the right is dedicated to the Holy Spirit given at Pentecost, and has frescoes by Egidio della Rivera. The altarpiece of 1689 is by Giovanni Maria Morandi.

The third chapel on the right is dedicated to the Ascension, and has frescoes by Benedetto Piccioli of 1624 showing three Egyptian Desert Fathers: SS Copres, Alexander and Patermuthius. The altarpiece is by Girolamo Muziano.

The second chapel on the right is dedicated to Our Lady of Pity (Pietà), and has frescoes by Angelo Caroselli. It used to have a very famous altarpiece, the Taking Down from the Cross, or Deposition, by Caravaggio of 1604. However this was looted in the French occupation, and when returned was not put back where it belonged but taken to the Vatican Museums. The present altarpiece is a copy by Michele Koeck. Here's the original: [3]

The first chapel on the right is dedicated to the Crucifixion, and has frescoes by Giovanni Lanfranco. The altarpiece is by Scipione Pulzone.


The sacristy, which as mentioned before has a ceiling painted by da Cortona, was designed by Paolo Marucelli in 1629, and is considered one of the finest sacristies in Rome. Here there is a statue of St Peter with an angel by Alessandro Algardi.

It is usually open to the public, and access is through a short passage at the near corner of the left hand transept and then across a corridor.

St Philip's roomEdit

St Philip Neri's room and chapel is upstairs, via a spiral staircase built into the right wall of the left transept. You may ask the sacristan if you wish to see them. The room is reconstructed but the furniture is original, and there are several relics. The need for reconstruction was caused by a fire started by a stray rocket from a fireworks display at Castel Sant' Angelo.

One of the items in the room is a Nottingham alabaster of the head of St John the Baptist on a plate and the Lamb of God, It was given to St Philip from among the loot of a captured Turkish ship.

Oratorio di San Filippo NeriEdit

The Oratorio di San Filippo Neri, the convent, is attached to the church and encloses it on the left and far sides. Its main façade is to the left of the church's one. A convent was first built for St Philip Neri in 1572 by Pope Gregory XIII and Cardinal Cesi, and was designed by Martino Longhi the Elder. It should not be called a monastery, as the Oratorians were a religious society whose members continued their careers in the secular world and did not take formal religious vows.

It was massively restored and extended from 1637 by Borromini, and the work was only finished just under thirty years later. There are three cloisters or garden courts, a smaller one straight ahead from the entrance, a very large one (the Cortile degli Aranci or Court of the Orange Trees) on the other side of the sacristy and an irregularly shaped one behind the church apse. Next to the last, behind the top left hand corner of the church's apse, is the interesting refectory or dining hall which has an unusual elliptical plan. Arguably Bernini's façade is more interesting than that of the church, and its ideosyncratic design is typical of the architect.

It was in this convent that St Philip organized the first sacred performances of music for soloists and choir, which is the reason for the musical term oratorio . However, these did not take place in the present private chapel of the convent which is just inside the entrance, on the left. This was part of Bernini's work, and has now been formally deconsecrated. The Oratorians would use it especially in winter, when the main church was too cold; one adversity that Romans do not shrug their shoulders about is cold weather. You might notice "winter choir" chapels attached to other Roman churches. Since the deconsecration this room is called the Sala dell'Organo.

The convent now houses the Vallicelliana Library , which was established by St Phlilip in 1581 and is the oldest public library in Rome. Here are the Institute for Roman Studies including the Capitoline Historical Archives, the Roman Newspaper Archives with copies of almost all newspapers published in Rome since the 18th century, as well as the archives of the Oratorians.


The church used to open quite late, but now opens at 7:30 which is the best time to make a serious visit in summer. There are guided tours at 10:30, 11:30, 16:30 and 17:30 (as at 2011).

The number 64 bus from Termini station to St Peter's stops outside it, and there will be a Chiesa Nuova station on the new Linea C metro line.

External linksEdit

Official diocesan web-page

Italian Wikipedia page (exceptionally good)

Parish website in English

"Romelover" web-page with 18th century engraving

"Roma SPQR" web-page (click for gallery)

"Info.roma" web-page

"In Italy" magazine article

Gallery on Flickr

Photo of nave ceiling

Photo of dome interior

Photo of presbyterium

Photo of apse

Photo of altar

Photo of SS Domitilla, Nereus and Achilleus by Rubens

Photo of shrine of St Philip Neri

Armellini's history (p 390)

Youtube video

St Philip by Reni

Relics of St Philip

Illustrated article on the Oratorio, with plan

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