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Santa Maria dei Miracoli is one of the twin 17th century churches on the Piazza del Popolo, the other being Santa Maria in Montesanto (they are often treated together in the literature). The address of this one is Via del Corso 528, and the rione is Campo Marzio. Pictures of the church on Wikimedia Commons are here. There is an English Wikipedia article, shared with its twin, here.
The dedication is to Our Lady, who is venerated here as "Our Lady of the Miracles" because of a miraculous icon of her over the high altar.
Unlike its twin, this church is not a minor basilica.
This church had a predecessor chapel, arising from the veneration of its icon. This apparently was originally located in an arched niche near the river west of the Porta Flaminia, when that gateway was still an ancient ruin. The story is that, in 1325, a woman dropped her baby into the river and prayed to the icon for help. The baby was miraculously saved, and as a result of the ensuing devotion the chapel was built next to the river at about the present west end of the Via Angelo Brunetti. The icon was moved into it.
In 1515, the chapel was entrusted to the confraternity running the syphilis hospital of San Giacomo degli Incurabili (the present church of San Giacomo in Augusta), and it was authorized to use the pious donations received to help with the hospital's finances. Then, in 1529 the shrine was entrusted to the Franciscan Capuchins but they refused the responsibility the following year because the river flooded the chapel. This was a continual problem through the rest of the century. As a result, in 1590 the original icon was transferred to the church of San Giacomo and replaced with a copy. Hence, there are two versions of the original miraculous icon now available for veneration -one here, and one in San Giacomo.
In the Middle Ages, the piazza was not the present monumental layout but was a little square inside the gate with the church of Santa Maria del Popolo on its east side. The streets of Via di Ripetta and Via del Babuino did not exist then, and the Corso was flanked by narrow, filthy alleyways.
It should be noted that some sources give the year of the miracle story as 1525.
The Porta del Popolo was the most important gate in mediaeval Rome, because it was where pilgrims and overland travellers from western Europe arrived. The obvious alternative of coming by boat up the Tiber bore the risk of ending up as a slave in Muslim North Africa after being captured by pirates. So, in the 16th century a campaign of town planning began to make the location more impressive to, and convenient for, travellers.
The Via di Ripetta came first, being ordered by Pope Leo X (1517-19) -it used to be called the Via Leonina. Pope Clement VII ordered the Via del Babuino (initially the Via Clementina) in response to horrible problems with crowds of pilgrims in the alleyways in the Jubilee of 1525. This was finished in 1543. This left three streets leading off the enlarged piazza (shaped like a trapezoid with its narrow end at the gate) with the Corso in the middle. The gate was rebuilt in 1565, and the obelisk put in place by Pope Sixtus V in 1589 -it had come from Heliopolis in Egypt via the Circus Maximus.
Twin churches project Edit
The little shrine chapel containing the icon was taken over by the Third Order of St Francis (Conventual Tertiaries) in 1628. But in 1662 Pope Alexander VII ordered a pair of churches to be erected on the wedge-shaped sites between the three streets, to provide a monumental backdrop to the piazza which would greet anyone entering through the gate. The icon was to occupy one of these, which would be administered by the Tertiaries. The twin church was to replace a little convent chapel of the Carmelites of Monte Santo in Sicily.
The foundation stones of the two churches were laid in 1662 by Cardinal Girolamo Gastaldi, who put up a large sum of money in return for being commemorated in the churches' decorations. The first architect was Carlo Rainaldi, and he planned two exactly identical round edifices. Unfortunately, Pope Alexander died in 1667 and his successors had little interest in the project. Work stopped here for eight years (for the twin, only four). There is a charming story that a poor old woman living nearby was upset by this, so saved all the money that she could. When she died, her will left 150 scudi to be spent finishing the church. Touched, Cardinal Gastaldi obtained the approval of Pope Clement X to complete the church to mark the Jubilee year of 1675.
Rainaldi continued with his interrupted work here until 1677, but it was left to Carlo Fontana to finish it off. The church was finally finished in 1678 and consecrated in 1681, its twin having been completed in 1673. Bernini was involved in the work on Santa Maria in Montesanto, but not apparently directly here.
The assertion that the church of Santa Orsola a Ripetta formerly stood here is incorrect, as this was on the site of the (now deconscrated) chapel of Santa Maria del Rosario della Divina Provvidenza down the Via di Ripetta. The information board by the church mentions a Santa Orsola in Piazza del Popolo as demolished by Pope Alexander -what is the source for this? It seems to be an error.
The church has justified its existence more as a civic monument than an actual place of worship ever since.
In 1793, it was taken over by the Confraternity of the Blessed Sacrament attached to the parish of the nearby Santa Maria del Popolo, and hence became in effect an oratory. However, in 1815 it passed to the Confraternity of St Gregory Thaumaturgus which had its base at San Gregorio Taumaturgo (now demolished) near the Piazza Venezia.
In 1825, both churches had their domes re-covered in grey fish-scale slates.
Finally, in 1915 the church obtained a pastoral function when it passed to the Society of the Sacred Heart of Jesus of Bétharram. This used to have its Roman headquarters at the church of Angelo Custode, but when that was demolished it moved here and established its convent at Via Angelo Brunetti 27 nearby.
Priests of the Society are still in charge.
Layout and fabricEdit
At first glance the church seems identical to its twin sister, but there are differences which are mentioned as they arise.
This church has a circular plan, while the other has an elliptical one. Actually, the plan here
resembles a keyhole since the church has a deep U-shaped apse as well as four side chapels (two on the longitudinal axis, and two on the diagonal between these and the apse).
The fabric is in brick, rendered in a very light tan colour, with architectural details in travertine limestone (the external apse walls, invisible from the street, are bare brick and the apse itself has a normal pitched and tiled roof). The side walls have two planes, separated by a slight angle.
The shapes of the domes also differ. This one has an octagonal dome, and the other has a dodecagonal one stretched on the major axis to fit on the ellipse. Both are covered by grey fish-scale slates. The latter feature is unusual in Rome, but another example is the Cappella Bandini at San Silvestro al Quirinale, also Sant'Eligio dei Sellai (tragically demolished).
The octagonal drum has a large, almost square window on each face, and these windows provide most of the light for the church. The corners have tripletted blind pilasters supporting a projecting cornice on which the dome sits. The eight sectors of the dome are separated by slated ribs matching the pilasters in form. The dome itself is not hemispherical, but looks as if it has a parabolic curve.
The lanterns also differ. Here, the top of the dome has a cog-wheel entablature on which are eight flaming torch finials. On this is a round tempietto with eight tall arched windows, separated by little tripletted Corinthian pilasters supporting a second cog-wheel entablature with a dentillated cornice. Then comes a very low drum with a third cornice bearing strap modillions, then a tiled trumpet cupola and finally a ball finial.
The dome and lantern were by Fontana.
The bell-towers of the two churches are good examples of the Baroque style, and differ in design. Here, the design is Borromini esque. On a square plinth stands a kiosk with three Corinthian columns at each corner, hugging a central blind pillar. The rectangular openings of the kiosk have balustrades. The pillars support an entablature with a projecting post at each corner, and these posts have very unusual finials which are spheres sprouting flames. The basically pyramidal Baroque spire is in lead, and is embellished with an archivolt on each face and an outline curlicue at each corner above these. Fronds cluster around the tip, which has a ball finial.
The façade is dominated by the portico, but to each side is a coved (concave) zone with a side door having a square panel above with a molded frame. The doors have raised triangular pediments, and these side zones are each bounded by a pair of columns in the same style as those of the portico. The far members of each pair are in front of two conjoined pilasters. Above is a balustraded entablature.
The portico is, in Classical terms, a pentastyle but the central column is missing leaving only four Composite columns with a wide gap in the middle. The volutes of the capitals are exaggerated. The columns support an entablature with an inscription on the frieze (not easy to see) commemorating Cardinal Gastaldi's involvement. Then comes a dentillated pediment with a blank tympanum; it looks as if some sort of sculpture was intended for the latter.
There is a story that the portico columns were originally intended for an abortive campanile project for the new St Peter's.
The frontage behind the portico has four pilasters matching the columns. The main doorway has a raised segmental pediment, over a lintel giving the year 1678.
There are ten statues on the roofline of the façade, which depict various saints. Eight of these are Franciscans, recalling the Tertiaries who used to run the church. Two flank the pediment, two are over the corners of the entrance frontage, four are over the far ends of the curved side frontages and two are set well back over the side walls and are easy to overlook. These statues are by Ercole Ferrata, Cosimo Fancelli, Filippo Carcani, Lazzaro Morelli and Michel Maille, the school of Bernini all working under the direction of Rainaldi.
Layout and fabricEdit
On entering, you are immediately in a circular space dominated by the dome. At bottom left and right are the side entrances, to each side is a large square chapel and either side of the altar is a smaller square chapel. The larger chapels are actually within the thickness of the wall, here structurally making four enormous piers to support the dome.
On the counterfaçade over the entrance is a tablet with an epigraph commemorating the construction, and over that a relief coat-of-arms of Cardinal Gastaldi inserted into a broken segemental pediment.
The cardinal side zones (entrance, sanctuary, major side chapels) are flanked by pairs of gigantic Corinthian pilasters which support the entablature on which the dome sits. The cornice of this entablature has strap modillions interspersed with rosettes (one of the titles of Our Lady is rosa mystica). At the entrance and the sanctuary the entablature is interrupted, and the gap is bridged by an archivolt which, in the case of the sanctuary, leads into the sanctuary vault. This sanctuary archivolt has on it the coat-of-arms of Cardinal Gastaldi again, in stucco with supporting angels, a work by Antonio Raggi who was also responsible for the other decorative elements in the church.
The pilasters flanking the sanctuary are ribbed, with gilding on the ribs and capitals. On the entablature frieze above these are winged putto's heads, and above the major side chapels are two triangular pediments.
The dome is simply rendered, having eight wide ribs with central gilded stripes focusing on an oculus with a gilded garland. Inside the lantern is a fresco of the Dove of the Holy Spirit.
The smaller side chapels and side entrances are arched niches, over which are cantoria or opera-boxes for solo singers and musicians. The side entrance arches have tympani which depict angels holding onto the shield of Gastaldi. The design here has an unusual feature, as the doors are undersized and inserted to one side of the niche. The angels are typical of Raggi; laid-back with one having his leg dangling, and with a hint of cannabis about them.
The two larger chapels have bigger arches, and each has a large lunette window in the back wall over the altar. The chapels are connected by little doors.
The same heraldry occurs in the floor inlay under the dome, just in case you haven't noticed it already.
Overall, the paint scheme is very straightforward, based on a cream colour, and the effect is chromatically cool. There is a notable lack of polychrome in this church, either marble or fresco.
The nave was by Rainaldi, the dome and sanctuary by Fontana.
The sanctuary is a deep and high barrel-vaulted apse with a conch. The dome entablature runs round the inside, but here it has stucco decorations of vegetative curlicues. The conch of the apse has its own triumphal arch, supported by a pair of pilasters in the same style as those at the sanctuary entrance, and the conch itself has a stucco Dove of the Holy Spirit in a glory (ungilded, but lit by side windows). The archvolts of the two arches are embellished with flowers, and the conch one has a label held by putti and saying Immaculata est Maria.
The barrel vault has a simple X decoration focusing on a rosette.
Over the high altar you can see the miraculous icon of the Blessed Virgin which has given the church its name. It is recessed within the aedicule, and is supported by four stucco angels. The aedicule has four Corinthian columns in black marble with the inner pair recessed as well, and these support a broken and sagging segmental pediment occupied by angels holding up a cross and a putto playing with a flower garland. The sags of the pediment fragments, as if the weight of the angels is pushing them down, is a typical Baroque architectural joke.
The altar frontal has a bronze relief of The Last Supper.
The side walls of the sanctuary have monuments to Cardinal Girolamo Gastaldi to the left, and Benedetto Gastaldi to the right. They were designed as a matching pair by Fontana, and are located over the sacristy doors and under a pair of cantoria. The busts of the deceased are bronze. Each monument has two seated allegorical Virtues: Girolamo has Faith and Hope, while Benedetto has Prudence and Temperance. The busts are by Girolamo Lucenti, and the Virtues are by Raggi again.
The four side chapels are described in anti-clockwise order, beginning from the entrance.
Chapel of the AssumptionEdit
The first chapel on the right is dedicated to the Assumption of Our Lady. The altarpiece shows this, being witnessed by St Gregory Thaumaturgus. This 3rd century saint is the first recorded in history to have a vision of Our Lady. The picture, bad enough to be charming, belonged to the eponymous confraternity that used to run the church.
The altar with its tabernacle is in white marble with bronze inlays, and is more neo-Classical than Baroque.
To the left is a modern statue of St Michael Garicoïts, the founder of the Society of the Sacred Heart. On the right hand wall is a funerary monument of the Guglielmi delle Rocchette family, 1868 with a female mourner sculpted by Cesare Benaglia (obviously not the famous modern artist of the same name).
Chapel of St JosephEdit
The second chapel on the right was dedicated to St Joseph, but has had its altar removed. The anonymous altarpiece remains, showing St Joseph with the Christ-Child. The side walls have two tondi containing frescoes over the doors, the left hand one showing Christ in the House of Martha, Mary and Lazarus and the right hand one depicting The Sinner in the House of Simon the Pharisee. The woman concerned used to be identified with St Mary Magdalen in the West.
To the left is a bronze crucifix by Pericle Fazzini.
In the centre of the chapel is a white marble statue which is a reproduction by Gino Mazzini of the Madonna of Bétharram by Alexander Renoir, but the quality is not of the best. The Marian shrine of Our Lady of Bétharram in the south of France was where the Society of the Sacred Heart was originally founded.
Chapel of the CrucifixEdit
The second chapel on the left contains a large mediaeval wooden crucifix, an object of popular devotion. Note that the arms of the cross end in little icons of Our Lady and St John the Evangelist. A modern statue of Our Lady of Sorrows accompanies it to the left.
The layout of the chapel resembles that of the previous one, except that the altar here has been kept. The tondi over the doors depict The Finding of the True Cross to the left, and The Return of the True Cross to Jerusalem After the Persian War on the right.
Chapel of St AnthonyEdit
The first chapel on the left is dedicated to St Anthony of Padua. He is shown venerating the Madonna and Child in the altarpiece, along with St Anthony of Egypt. This work is attributed to Henri Gascard (1635-1701).
Under the altar is a glass box containing a clothed wax image. This encloses the relics of St Candida, who is a putative martyr whose relics were brought from the Catacombs of Priscilla. She is not in the Roman Martyrology, and her status is no more than a guess.
Here is a memorial to the sculptor Antonio d'Este, of the school of Canova.
The church is open (unofficial source):
Weekdays 7:00 to 13:00, 16:00 to 19:30,
Sundays 8:00 to 13:00, 16:30 to 19:30.
Mass is celebrated:
Weekdays 7:30, 12:00, 19:00,
Sundays 10:30, 11:30, 12:30, 19:00.
This is generous for a little Centro Storico church which is not parochial. It has gained the reputation for being a friendly place -some other worshipping communities in historic churches have (not surprisingly) acquired a reserved attitude (or worse) towards visitors.
The feast of the Miracle is 20 June, and that of St Michael Garicoïts who founded the Bétharram Fathers is 14 May.
Youtube video by Luigi Di Giacomo (Good, with Italian text from Wikipedia.)