Santissima Trinità dei Monti is a 16th century convent and titular church at Piazza Trinità dei Monti 3 in the rione Campo Marzio. Pictures of the church at Wikimedia Commons are here. There is an English Wikipedia page here.
This is a French national church, because the French government owns the property.
PLEASE DON'T RING THE DOORBELL OF THE CONVENT WITHOUT AN APPOINTMENT, unless you wish to venerate the Mater Admirabilis. See notes on "Access", below.
The dedication is to the Holy Trinity. The official name of the church, as used by the Diocese, is Santissima Trinità al Monte Pincio but this is rarely used by anyone else.
San Felice in PinciEdit
This church was a new foundation when it was built in the 16th century, but there have been published references to a predecessor. These concern the church of San Felice in Pinci, which has its first documentary mention at the end of the 8th century. After being listed in the late mediaeval catalogues, it vanishes after its last listing of 1492. The references do not allow the delineation of its site.
Hülsen suggested that mediaeval masonry in the fabric of the Villa Malta nearby might have been part of this church.
St Francis of PaolaEdit
The church and convent owe their existence entirely to the career of St Francis of Paola (1416-1507), the founder of the Minim friars in 1435. He was from Calabria, where his order had its roots, but came to the notice of the French who became embroiled in Italian politics in the late 15th century. When King Louis XI was dying in 1482, he asked the saint to help him spiritually and so St Francis went to France reluctantly. This was as a result of a direct order from Pope Sixtus IV.
Foundation of conventEdit
King Charles was the original founder of the convent, acting out of his personal admiration for St Francis. He instructed the French ambassador in Rome to purchase a site, with the result that the approval of Pope Alexander VI was obtained in 1493. A vineyard on the Pincio was bought and the foundations of a friary laid out in the following year, which was when Charles entered Italy with a French army to prosecute the Italian War. This went on until 1498.
Perhaps as a result of the financial implications of this, construction of the actual friary only began in 1502. The church was only begun in 1514, and the work was dragged out over a long period -over seventy years. The initial intention was to build a grand edifice in the French Gothic style, but lack of funds resulted in an architecturally understated structure with a little Gothic design incorporated.
The architect was Sebastiano di Marino, who was from Fano.
Progress with churchEdit
The convent had an enormous setback in the Sack of Rome in 1527. Soldiers of Emperor Charles V pillaged and occupied the convent, and they cruelly tortured some of the friars as they thought that the latter knew the location of hidden treasures.
The body of the church was finished by about 1560. Then King Henry III of France put up enough money for a façade, and this was begun before 1567. It was designed by Giacomo della Porta, who proved elsewhere that could do better than this -he must have had a small budget. (See the Gesù for example.)
There was only one way then to get to the completed church and convent, and that was via a dead-end track up the side of the hill on the line of the present Via Gregoriana. Pope Sixtus, however, commissoned a major road-building scheme centred on Santa Maria Maggiore, and this church was one of the destinations served. Domenico Fontana was the supervisory engineer.
In the Middle Ages, the hills of Rome within the ancient walls were depopulated and covered with vineyards, producing pissy wine which was to attract the contempt of the French. The only throughfares were narrow, winding country lanes confined by vineyard walls, and there were surprisingly few of these. (A surviving fragment is by the church of Santa Balbina Vergine.) Pope Sixtus ordered a new road, initially named Strada Felice after him (he was baptized as Felice Peretti) which was to run from Santa Croce in Gerusalemme via Santa Maria Maggiore to Santissima Trinità, and a hairpin bend of a junction with the Via Gregoriana. The dead-end terminus of the road was the gate of the Villa Medici, later to be famous as the centre of French expatriate society in Rome in the 19th century.
Fontana got into some difficulty surveying the north end of the new road, and had to leave the church at some height above it by excavating the side of the hill. Hence, he provided a monumental staircase which he copied from the Palazzo Senatorio on the Campidoglio. This was finished in 1587.
By the end of the 16th century, rival nationalisms were causing trouble within religious orders which were international in scope. This problem was especially acute where there was agitation for reform. Here, the result was that the convent was formally reserved to Minim friars of French nationality by 1617 -Italians were excluded. A major restoration and expansion of the complex followed, which was completed in 1624. As regards the church, the work was confined to the provision of a new sacristy by Filippo Breccioli.
A separate Order of Minim Friars of France was established. The Italian Minims established two convents of their own in Rome: Sant'Andrea delle Fratte nearby and San Francesco da Paola which is now the headquarters of the surviving Order of Minim Friars (virtually confined to Italy).
The presence of the façade of the church at the top of the Spanish Steps makes up one of the most famous architectural views in the world. However, the former is almost a century and a half older than the latter.
Proposals to create a direct throughfare up the hill in front of the church were mooted immediately after completion at the end of the 16th century, and continued in the 17th. Back then, what was here was a wooded hillside. Finally, in 1717, Francesco de Sanctis was commissioned to lay out the present oversized version of a Baroque garden feature, which immediately became a casual meeting place for city folk and visitors (the contribution of Specchi is debated). The work was finished in 1725.
The church's ceiling vault was restored by Giuseppe Pannini in 1775.
The convent was suppressed in 1797, immediately after Rome was conquered by Napoleon. The French Minims became extinct, and the convent was never re-founded. The church was then closed down for the duration of the French occupation, and the moveable artworks dispersed. An effort was made to plunder the two famous frescoes by Daniele da Volterra, but the transfer to canvas caused such damage that they were not, in the event, sent to Paris and were later returned to the church.
Sisters of the Sacred HeartEdit
After the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy in France in 1815, the kings of France were recognized as being the patrons of the church. As a result, Louis XVIII ordered a restoration of the derelict building in the following year. The work was supervised by François Mazoit, who did a very good job.
There was some puzzlement over what to do with the convent. Finally, in 1821, it was transferred to St Madeleine Sophie Barat, who had founded her Sisters of the Sacred Heart in 1800. This was effected by King Charles X, and agreed to by Pope Leo XII.
The congregation had been founded in order to teach girls, and the pope hoped that a school for the female offspring of the city's nobility would be the result. His policy was, overall, to suppress all developments in modern civilization and to return Roman society to its condition before the French Revolution. (This policy proved to be a disaster for the Papacy.) Part of this campaign was to confirm the status and privileges of what was later called the Black Nobility, hence the school project.
The congregation was not keen in making this convent their headquarters, and built a new convent for the purpose at Sacro Cuore di Gesù a Villa Lante. This is now the provincial headquarters, with the Generalate at Via Tarquinio Vipera 16.
The Society of the Sacred Heart found it increasingly difficult to justify its occupation of the convent in the late 20th century, and it was obvious that it was falling behind on maintenance of the complex. Further it suffered a serious identity crisis after the Second Vatican Council, and vocations collapsed. The convent was not a happy place at the end of the 20th century.
As a result, in September 2006 the sisters withdrew from the church, which was entrusted by the French government to the Monastic Fraternities of Jerusalem (Fraternités Monastiques de Jérusalem). This is a new Roman Catholic monastic order, founded in 1975 to live the monastic life in the heart of the modern city according to the ideals of the Desert Fathers.
Both monks and nuns are now in residence in the complex.
There has been a major restoration in recent years, completed in 2013.
The church was made titular two years after its consecration, in 1587. Since its restoration in 1823, every cardinal has been a French national.
The current titular of the church is H.E. Cardinal Philippe Barbarin.
Layout and fabricEdit
The most impressive part of the exterior has little to do with the church itself, which is not architecturally impressive. Rather, the location at the top of the Spanish Steps makes it stand out among the churches in Rome.
Structurally it is a nave of six bays with side aisles, but the aisles have been divided by blocking walls to form self-contained chapels. Beyond the nave is a transept, and then a sanctuary of two bays. Beyond this, mostly invisible to visitors, is the conventual choir in a rectangular apse.
The nave is under one pitched and tiled roof, and the transepts, sanctuary and choir are under a separate, slightly higher one. The fabric is in red brick, with a few architectural details in stone.
The large convent is to the north, on the left hand side. To the south, a chaplain's house abuts the church. As a result, only the façade is visible from the street.
The hieroglyphs are not original; they were copied from the obelisk now in the Piazza del Popolo, and whoever copied them got them wrong. (If you are interested, take photos of both and compare.)
It is now clear that the Romans were importing uninscribed obelisks from Egypt as rather gross status symbols, and so they were either being quarried for them or the exporters were using up pre-existing temple-builders' stock.
The double staircase was orginally by Domenico Fontana, and was added by him when he carved the piazza out of the hillside.
Two transverse staircases with balustrades run up to a patio in front of the entrance, from which there is a spectacular and famous view. The retaining wall below the stairs is in blank white render, except for a large epigraph reading:
Ludovicus XVIII, exoptatus Gall[orum] rex, templum SS Trinitatis in Pincio restituit, curam agente comite Blacas de Alpido regis legato ad Pium VII Pontificem Maximum, ann[o] sal[utis] MDCCCXVI.
This deliberately makes it clear that it was the King of France who had the church restored in 1816, not the Pope. The epigraph tablet is flanked by four Doric pilasters which support the patio balustrade, and above the outer pair of these are two panels bearing single stars. The balustrades of the staircases themselves have three panels each bearing the coat-of-arms of Pope Clement XI, comprising a star above three mountains. This is proof that the balustrade at least was rebuilt in the early 18th century.
The bottom of the stairs on each side has a very odd assemblage comprising a plinth, an ancient Composite column capital and, on top of that, a 16th century bas-relief in the form of an ancient tombstone. The reliefs were donated originally by one Gualdi di Rimini. The right hand one shows St Francis of Paola with his motto of Caritas (Charity), while the left hand one has what looks like a Vestal virgin. The plinths have the three mountains of Pope Clement facing the road, and the coat-of-arms of Pope Sixtus V round the side.
The façade was finished in 1584 by Giacomo della Porta, and is now bright and white after a major restoration. Beforehand it was dirty and brownish, the 19th century white-on-orange render having weathered badly.
It is best described as two identical campanili, with a slightly recessed central section between them. Each campanile has three storeys, the second being half the height of the first and the third being the actual bellchamber above the roofline.
The first storey of each has a pair of Corinthian pilasters at the outer corners, duplicated round the corners and on high limestone plinths. These support an entablature with a molded architrave, and a projecting cornice with dentillations and modillions. The modillions are fronded, and have rosettes between them. The entablatures of the campanile are joined across the central section of the façade, which gives the design some unity.
Between the pilasters, and with its keystone touching the architrave, is a blind arch springing from Doric imposts and with a molded archivolt. The impost capitals are joined by a molded string course, and the tympanum thus created contains a vertical oval oculus (round window) with a molded stone frame. A large rectangular window is in the arch, again with a molded frame.
The second storey of each campanile is almost cubical, and has a large clockface within a molded frame flanked by a pair of Doric pilasters.
The third storey, the actual tower, is a rectangular kiosk with a large arched and balustraded soundhole on each face. The arches have Doric imposts, and the kiosk has an Ionic pilaster on each corner. Each side has a triangular pediment, and above these is an octagonal drum with an elliptical opening on every other face. This in turn supports an ogee-curved cupola in lead, with a final little octagonal pepperpot finial with its own miniature cupola.
The central recessed section of the façade is dominated by the single entrance, which has a molded doorcase within a propylaeum comprising two Ionic columns supporting an entablature and triangular pediment. The columns are ancient, and are of cipollino marble from Euboea in Greece. Above the entablature, the second storey of this section has an enormous arch with a double molded architrave, divided into three windows by a pair of vertical mullions.
The entablature that unites the façade as a composition has a dedicatory inscription on the frieze, which unusually starts and finishes round the corners so you can't read it in one go. It says:
S[anctae] Trinitati, regum Galliae munifentia et pior elemosynis adiuta, Minorum sodalitas struxit ac d[e]d[it] anno MDLXX.
Note that the second storeys of the campanili have two clockfaces. This was not originally a redundancy for the sake of symmetry. Originally the right hand one showed the Italian (originally ancient Roman) method of telling the time, which is now completely unfamiliar. This divided the duration of daylight into twelve "hours", the length of which of course changed with the seasons. Zero hour was sunrise, and the end of the twelfth hour was fixed at sunset. This meant that mechanical clocks had to be re-set regularly to be correct.
Incredibly the Papal government persisted with this method of telling the time well into the 19th century, forcing the city to go back to the old method after the French occupation and only conforming to the rest of the world in 1842.
The left hand clock told the time in the familiar way, which used to be called tempo ultramontano or "the way they tell the time on the other side of the Alps".
After 1842 the right hand clock was removed and replaced with a sundial. This was completely obscured until the recent restoration, but is now back in full working order (when the sun is out, of course).
You need to pre-book a guided tour here to view the convent, but it is worth it.
The large rectangular cloister is north of the church, and has arcades on all four sides. It was begun in 1549, and took about twenty years to finish. The arcade lunettes concern St Francis of Paola, and these are by several famous artists of the time:
The Canonization of St Francis of Paola is by the Cavalier d'Arpino, Charity (the saint's major virtue) is by Girolamo Massei, St Francis Curing an Invalid is by Cristoforo Roncalli and scenes from his life are by Paris Nogari. Giacomo Semenza painted scenes showing the saint with the king of France and with Cardinal Giuliano. Marco da Faenza executed five scenes, showing the saint's birth, baptism, clothing as a religious, as a hermit and as the founder of a monastery.
Some of the works have been badly damaged by damp.
The springer vaults flanking the lunettes have a famous series of portraits of French kings, mostly by Avanzino Nucci from 1616 but the later ones by other artists. The series was continued up to Charles X in the 19th century, and begins with Pharamond who was the mythical first king of the Franks.
The ceiling of the refectory features an important work by Andrea Pozzo, depicting The Glory of the Trinity with Saints. Separate panels show the apotheoses of SS Francis of Paola and Francis de Sales.
The corridors above the cloister arcades have two very unusual anamorphic frescoes; that is to say, the actual form of the artworks is distorted so that must be viewed at a side angle and not head-on. The Minim community in the 17th century held friars with a serious interest in scientific matters including optics, and these two works seem to be a witness to this interest. They are thought to be either by a friar called Jean-François Niceron, a noted mathematician and expert on anamorphosis, or by another friar called Emmanuel Maignan.
A venerated and allegedly miraculous painting of the Blessed Virgin known as the Mater Admirabilis used to be in an arched niche in a corridor of the convent, but the corridor has been converted into a little chapel. The icon has its own website here.
It is possible to see and venerate it. Many former students of the Society of the Sacred Heart, who used to run a girls' school in the complex, have found their way here to do so.
It was painted in 1844 by a French laywoman at the convent school called Pauline Perdrau (born 1817), who later became a religious here. On October 20th 1846 Pope Pius IX visited the convent, and was delighted when he saw the picture after pulling back a drape concealing it. He exclaimed Mater Admirabilis, hence the title. The date is the icon's feast-day.
The painting can be considered bad in execution (the proportions of the limbs are wrong), but Perdrau was very well-informed iconographically. Our Lady is pictured as a teenager, just before she was to marry Joseph (not a Mater yet, in other words) in a pose of thoughtful repose. The book in the basket is the traditional Latin attribute which she holds in pictures of the Annunciation, but the spindle that she is holding is the equivalent Byzantine tradition. The legend is that she helped to spin the thread that went into the curtain of the Temple that tore when Christ died on the cross.
St Teresa of the Child Jesus came to pray before this painting that she would be allowed to enter Carmel at the age of fifteen -which she did.
The single nave has six bays, with two side chapels off each bay. These were sponsored by noble families as funerary enclosures, hence the richness of the Mannerist works of art in them. Don't forget to look into the chapel ceiling vaults -they are spectacular.
The entrances into the chapels form two side arcades, with the arches separated by Doric pilasters supporting a pair of entablatures. The arches themselves spring from Doric imposts, have molded archivolts and strap finials on their keystones.
The ceiling is barrel-vaulted, with transverse rib-arches separating the bays. Over each chapel the vault has a lunette containing a window, and these windows are the main source of natural light for the church.
The decoration is very simple, and is in monochrome creamy white. Apart from the fourth chapel on the right, stucco embellishments are confined to the window frames.
The first three bays are separated from the other half of the nave by a wrought iron screen. This was inserted to mark the friary enclosure in 1679, and has been kept closed outside the times of liturgical celebrations. This means that casual visitors can only view part of the church.
At the entrance is a white marble statue of Christ by G. Meli.
The nave ends in a triumphal arch which is pointed, that is, Gothic. The crossing vault beyond this has Gothic tracery, formed of diagonal main ribs in an X and Y-ribs in between. The ends of the transept have their own Gothic triumphal arches, and each has a ribbed cross-vault
There is an external side chapel off the right hand end of the transept, but not one off the left hand end because of the convent cloister here. Instead, the left hand end comprises the famous Cappella Pucci. The right hand end also used to be fitted out as a chapel, until the altar was removed for the entrance to the external chapel mentioned.
The sanctuary has two bays, with arcades of two arches on each side leading into short side aisles. The design of the arcades and the ceiling vault resembles those of the nave.
The right hand side aisle has a custodian's chamber at its end, while the left hand one is the access to the sacristy and convent. These aisles used to contain a chapel each, the right hand one being the Cappella Rayal and the left hand one, the Cappella della Pietà.
Over the arcades are four cantoria or opera-boxes for solo musicians and singers, having balustraded fronts on corbels.
The massive and overwhelming main altar aedicule was designed by Jean Regnaud, also known as Jean de Champagne or Giovanni Rinaldi in Italian (he was French). He was of the school of Bernini (it shows), and executed the work in 1679. There was a modification at the start of the 19th century by Guillaume Lethière.
This altar is unusual in having no altarpiece of its own, and in having a very uncommon design. Four ribbed Corinthian columns in a black-veined white marble and with gilded capitals support a coved entablatature in the form of a three-quarter circle. The frieze of this is in a pale green marble, and bears the declaration that this is a "privileged altar" in bronze lettering. The same marble is used in two panels inserted between the front and back column pairs, and the edges of these panels are done as alabaster pilasters with capitals to match. Two wings supported by another pair of columns project on either side. Above is the triangular symbol of the Trinity in glory, venerated by stucco angels. The stucco work is by Pietro Sassi and Giuseppe Ruggieri.
There is a large tabernacle on the altar, designed by Charles Errard in the form of a round temple. The altar frontal is in verde antico, alabaster and a purple-veined marble. The inscription on the frieze refers to the fact that the altar was counted as one of those in Rome which pilgrims could visit in order to obtain a plenary indulgence.
There are two Paschal candlesticks in white marble at the sides of the sanctuary, in the form of twisted barley-sugar columns. These imitate the serpentine columns that once embellished the shrine of St Peter in the Old Basilica of St Peter. These ones are dated to the 13th century, and are similar but not a matching pair.
The sanctuary is set off by a low balustrade with an outward curve, in white marble and what looks like red jasper.
The very small choir hidden away behind the aedicule has a semi-circular set of wooden stalls. The far wall has a painted Calvary, which you can see through the altar aedicule. It has been suggested (dubiously) that this was the original altarpiece of the Cappella Borghese by Cesare Nebbia.
The side walls have St Louis, King of France allegedly by Charles Thévenin and a copy of the Deposition by Daniele da Volterra. The side chapels are described anticlockwise, beginning at the right of the entrance.
Chapel of St John the BaptistEdit
The first chapel on the right, the Cappella Dosio or Cappella Altoviti, is dedicated to St John the Baptist. It was founded and originally designed by Giovanni Antonio Dosio in 1570, but taken over by the Florentine Altoviti family three years later, who had it re-dedicated to their city's patron.
The altarpiece and most of the frescoes are by Giovanni Battista Naldini, 1580, but the ceiling stucco work is Dosio's. The altarpiece shows The Baptism of Christ, and the two figures flanking the altar are the prophets Isaiah and Zechariah.
A very enjoyable work is on the left hand side wall, which shows The Dance of Salome in the context of a 17th century banquet. Herod Antipas looks as if he is wondering whether Salome is going to tread on the cat. The other small animal is proof that kick-dogs are not a modern Roman phenomenon. In the lunette above is The Beheading of St John the Baptist, with Salome collecting the head.
The ornate cross-vault above has four scenes from the life of the saint, being the Visitation of St Elizabeth and Our Lady, Birth of St John the Baptist, St John Leaving His Parents for the Desert (a charming composition) and St John Preaching in the Desert.
There is an interesting trompe l'oeil fresco showing two doors opening onto views, one with a figure entering through a curtain.
The monochrome frescoes of scenes from the life of the saint in the window embrasure are not by Naldini, but by Giovanni Balducci. Above the window is St John in prison, and this is by Naldini.
Chapel of St Francis of PaolaEdit
The second chapel on the right is dedicated to St Francis of Paola, and is also called the Cappella Simonetta after Giacomo Simonetta who had it erected in 1521.
The chapel was restored with an altarpiece and frescoes by Fabrizio Chiari 1665, but was re-dedicated and re-ordered by one Raffaele Piccirelli in the 19th century. The altarpiece of St Francis by Chiari was replaced by one by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres depicting Christ Delivers the Keys to St Peter, and this in turn was replaced by the present painting later in the same century.
The altarpiece is now an anonymous 19th century copy of a contemporary likeness of St Francis of Paola, and other copies of this are fairly common in Roman churches.
This is perhaps the least interesting of the chapels, although the polychrome marble decoration is impressive. The two angels in the entrance arch spandrels are the sole survivors of Chiari's work.
Chapel of the AssumptionEdit
The third chapel on the right, the Cappella Lucrezia della Rovere, is dedicated to the Assumption of Our Lady and was commissioned by the lady of the same name in 1548. It is completely frescoed by Daniele da Volterra and his school, 1550, and is a masterpiece. He was a pupil of Michelangelo.
The altarpiece fresco showing the Assumption was seriously damaged by the French when they tried to loot it, and the 19th century restoration was not very good. However the work is still powerful, obviously reminiscent of the style of Raphael . The last figure on the right is thought to be a portrait of Michelangelo.
Daniele also executed the Presentation of Our Lady on the right hand side wall, but the Massacre of the Innocents on the left hand wall is by Michele Alberti -this is regarded as the artist's best work.
The lunette frescoes have been badly damaged. The left hand one is of the Presentation again, by Giovanni Paolo Rossetti, and the right hand one of the Birth of Our Lady used to be ascribed to him but is now considered to be by Gaspar Becerra. The two in the lunette corners over the altar show the Annunciation.
The vault is formed of four lunettes meeting at a tondo, and the former have frescoes of scenes from the life of Our Lady by Pellegrino Tibaldi and Marco Pino. Two putti hold onto the shield of the Rovere family in the central tondo which bears an oak tree (robur is Latin for oak timber), and oak trees also feature in the archivolt fresco over the entrance.
The arch spandrels have a pair of prophets.
Chapel of the FlagellationEdit
This chapel was decorated by Paris Nogari, but was restored in the 19th century. Here is a funerary monument to Cardinal Rodolfo Pio da Carpi, 1564. The other memorial is to Cecilia Orsini da Carpi, 1575, both were executed by Leonardo Sormani.
He also carved the marble heraldic shields just below the vault -Orsini to the right, Pio da Carpi to the left and Caetani over the entrance.
The altarpiece depicting The Flagellation is by Louis Vincent Leon Pallière, 1817, replacing one that showed The Entombment of Christ by Nogari. The altar has a pair of stucco angels with gilded wings sitting on the ends of its broken segmental pediment. They obscure two prophets on the lunette.
The glory of the chapel is the vault, lushly decorated in gilded stucco with fresco panels by Nogari depicting scenes from the Passion. These are: The Last Supper, The Washing of the Feet, Christ in Gethsemane and Christ Before Pilate. The pendentives have oval tondi containing Doctors of the Church (note St Jerome with his lion).
The side lunettes show the Flagellation again on the left, and The Road to Calvary to the right.
This chapel differs from the others in having a pair of stucco angels in the spandrels of its entrance arch.
This is not the Cappella Orsini which was the original home of the Deposition by Daniele da Volterra.
Chapel of the NativityEdit
It is frescoed throughout in a style similar to that of Raphael. The artist is anonymous, but has been claimed to have been Michele Alberti. A recent claim has been made for Pietro Negroni as having done the altarpiece.
This altarpiece, including trompe-l'oeil columns, depicts The Adoration of the Shepherds. To the right is The Adoration of the Magi, and to the left The Circumcision. The actual cut is in the process of being made in the latter work -ouch.
The lunette above the altar has two evangelists either side of the window. The side lunettes depict The Baptism of Christ and The Escape to Egypt. The cross-vault shows four prophets, David, Isaiah, Jeremiah and Daniel.
The pilasters have two Sibyls, the Hellespontine and Tiburtine. The arch spandrels have a pair of angels in monochrome.
Chapel of the AscensionEdit
The sixth chapel on the right, the Cappella Guerrieri, is dedicated to the Ascension of Christ. Melchiorre Guerreri commissioned the chapel in 1513. The frescoes it contains are early, and are thought to have been completed just before the Sack in 1527. In the 18th century they were shown to tourists as works of Perugino, but 19th century art critics made the valid observations that they are not very good, and are probably not even of his school.
This might be fair comment, and the works do have a cartoon-like quality, but they are good fun and the putti lifting Christ into heaven, while playing musical instruments, are in such bad taste as to be charming. Modern art critics describe them merely as in the Umbrian style.
The altarpiece is the Ascension, to the left is the Resurrection and to the right, Pentecost. The altar lunette shows the Annunciation, and the side lunettes have the Nativity and Adoration of the Magi. A frieze above the main panels shows scenes from the Passion.
The cross-vault depicts four Doctors of the Church, and is actually better quality work which might be from the school of Perugino.
Chapel of St MichaelEdit
The Cappella Chateauvillain used to occupy the right hand end of the transept, until it was knocked through to make an entrance for the next chapel. It was dedicated to St Michael the Archangel, and wall frescoes survive. The triumphal arch is Gothic, as is the ribbed cross-vault. The large round aperture above the far doorway used to be an external window.
It was acquired in 1581 by Ortensia Farnese and in 1584 by Marco Antonio Colonna, but passed to the Verospi family in 1607 (hence it is sometimes called the Cappella Verospi). It was then owned in turn by the Gavotti family before its destruction in 1739. The frescoes are by Jacopo Siculo and Angelo Maino, of the school of Michelangelo, 1530. The right hand wall has The Apparition of St Michael on the Castel Sant'Angelo, and the left hand wall a damaged Annunciation. The lunettes show two scenes from the foundation legend of the shrine of Monte Gargano, where the saint allegedly manifested himself as a wild ox.
The destroyed altarpiece fresco showed The Expulsion of the Rebel Angels from Heaven.
Chapel of St Magdalen Sophie BaratEdit
The small chapel off the right hand end of the transept is dedicated to the foundress of the Society of the Sacred Heart, St Magdalen Sophie Barat .
It was originally erected by the Minims between 1739 and 1754, and dedicated it to St Francis of Sales. It was then that the present entrance from the transept was knocked through the former back wall of the chapel of St Michael.
The sisters re-dedicated it to their foundress after she was beatified in 1906, and hence the altarpiece is presently a portrait of her. However, the monastics now in charge might want to re-fit this chapel again in the future to further their own devotion.
The Dream of St Joseph by Matteo Piccioni has been kept in here.
Chapel of Our Lady, Queen of HeavenEdit
In the left end of the transept is the Cappella Pucci, which is similar architecturally to the Chapel of St Michael except that there is no round window. It is dedicated to Our Lady, Queen of Heaven.
The chapel was originally commissioned by Cardinal Lorenzo Pucci in 1523, and Perin del Vaga was appointed to fresco the interior. He executed the four fresco panels showing scenes from the life of Our Lady in the cross-vault, and The Visitation in the lunette above the altar. Then the Sack of Rome in 1527 caused him to flee, and the work was abandoned.
The chapel was then taken over by Cardinal Giacomo Cauco, who appointed Taddeo Zuccari to finish the job. Unfortunately, Taddeo died in 1566 and his brother Federico Zuccari completed the project. There has been some debate about which paintwork belongs to which brother, with a theory that they worked in tandem from the beginning.
The altarpiece shows The Assumption. This and God the Father with the Dead Christ and St Augustine and a Sibyl Venerating Our Lady are by Taddeo or the brothers together, but the Coronation of Our Lady near the sacristy is by Federico. The Death of the Virgin is thought to be by Taddeo alone.
Over the entrance arch is a heraldic shield containing a moor's head, which is from the coat-of-arms of the Pucci family.
Chapel of the Sacred HeartEdit
The sixth chapel on the left is the Cappella Turchi, commissioned in 1532 and now dedicated to the Sacred Heart (the original dedication was to the Immaculate Conception). The altarpiece is by Alexander Maximilian Seitz, 1858, as are the side wall pictures of The Wise and Foolish Virgins and The Prodigal Son.
The dedication in the 19th century was to St Louis, King of France with an altarpiece of him by Thévenin now in the choir.
Chapel of St Mary MagdalenEdit
The fifth chapel on the left is the Cappella Massimo, and is dedicated to St Mary Magdalen. The altarpiece depicting Noli me tangere is anonymous, of the 16th century. There is a 19th century neo-Classical monument to Emidio Antonini.
This chapel is the scene of a minor artistic tragedy. It was originally commissioned by a wealthy prostitute called Lucrezia Scanatoria (hence the dedication), but passed to the Massimo family in 1537. They commissioned Giulio Romano and Giovan Francesco Penni, of the school of Raphael, to fresco the interior and they completed the lunettes and altarpiece. (The latter by Penni, also a Noli me tangere, is now in the Prado at Madrid.) Perin del Vaga completed the job, with scenes from the life of Christ and with fantastically elaborate stucco work by Guglielmo della Porta.
The vault collapsed, and the surviving frescoes were plundered and sold on in 1837. An accessible survivor is at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, which is The Resurrection of Lazarus. The British Museum and the National Museum at Budapest also have fragments, and others are in private hands.
Chapel of St JosephEdit
The altarpiece used to be an Ecce Homo by Giovanni Battista Biscara. The original dedication was to Our Lady and St John the Evangelist.
Chapel of the Immaculate ConceptionEdit
The third chapel on the left, the Cappella Elena Orsini, is dedicated to the Immaculate Conception, and was re-fitted in 1830 by Cardinal Louis-François-Auguste de Rohan-Chabot . After his death in 1838 his heart was buried here.
The altarpiece is by Filippo Veit, 1830. The side walls have frescoes by Joseph Erns Tunner, showing the Annunciation and the Visitation.
The dedication used to be to St Helen, the patron of Elena Orsini who commissioned Daniele da Volterra to fresco it. Like the Cappella Massimo, this chapel was extremely rich in its decoration and stucco work. Tragically, during the French occupation in 1800 the vault collapsed and no effort was made to save the artworks except the famous Deposition described below. When this was returned to the church, it was put in the sacristy and a copy by Nicolas Poussin was put here as the altarpiece until the 1830 refitting.
Chapel of the DepositionEdit
The second chapel on the left, the Cappella Aldobrandini or Cappella Bonfils, now contains the famous altarpiece of the Deposition from the Cross by Daniele da Volterra, 1546 which used to be in the previous chapel.
The painting used to be the altarpiece fresco of the Cappella Elena Orsini, and part of a larger decorative scheme by Daniele. Allegedly the inspiration for the design of the work was Michelangelo's. This particular painting created an archetype for later Mannerist and Baroque works, and influenced many famous painters such as Caravaggio and Rubens. Poussin (1594-1665) made the famous allegation that it was the third most important painting in the world after the Transfiguration by Raphael and the Communion of St Jerome by Domenichino. However, his artistic enemies alleged that he was talking merde to further his own style -perhaps a valid observation.
When the vault of the chapel collapsed in 1800, the fresco was left exposed to the elements for six years. Then it was was targetted for looting by the French, and transferred to canvas in 1810 by Pietro Palmaroli. This was an innovative technique which resulted in serious damage, and hence Palmaroli patched up the work in a rather freestyle way. It was decided not to take the painting to Paris because it was too fragile, but it was not returned to the church. However it was judged to be the property of the Orsini family and not the French state, and in 1822 it was heavily restored by Vincenzo Camuccini who removed Palmaroli's daubings. The family then donated the painting to the church, but it was kept in the sacristy until 1861. Only then was it finally installed in the Cappella Bonfils.
During the 20th century the painting decayed badly, owing mainly to the oxidisation of the wax covering which the 19th century restorers had applied. At the start of the 21st century it was thoroughly restored, and was returned to the church in 2005. Those who saw the painting before this will be amazed at its present colourfulness and brightness.
Most of the original fresco work in this chapel is by Paolo Cespedes, 1571. The side walls have Adam and Eve Expelled from Paradise, and the Nativity. The pilasters have King David and the prophet Daniel with a tame lion, and the vault has the four Evengelists. Over the altar is a small representation of the Marriage of Our Lady to St Joseph, thought to be by Cesare Arbasia, and Adam and Eve are also ascribed to him.
Chapel of Our Lady of SorrowsEdit
The first chapel on the left is now dedicated to Our Lady of Sorrows, and is the Cappella Borghese. It used to be dedicated to the Crucifixion.
The fresco work here is by Cesare Nebbia. SS Francis and Catherine of Siena flank the altarpiece, Sibyls are in the lunettes above and a side wall has Christ Falls Beneath the Cross. The superbly intricate vault has fresco panels with scenes from the Passion.
The altarpiece is now a large plaster Pietà, a copy of a marble sculpture by Wilhelm Achtermann in Münster Cathedral which was destroyed in the Second World War. It replaced a painting of Christ Curing the Demoniac by one Forestier.
The church is now open:
Daily 6:30 to 20:00 EXCEPT
Thursdays 6:30 to 23:59 (midnight).
The rule of the monastics specifies Monday as a "Desert Day", when they go into solitude and have no public interface.
The church's opening hours are now very generous for Rome. However, outside the times of the liturgies the part of the church beyond the iron enclosure screen is not visitable except, apparently, as part of the monastery guided tour or with special permission from the office of the Presidente degli Stabilimenti Francesi in Italia.
In high summer, the church can be impossible to view because of the crush of casual visitors. Further, on hot August days the smell of body odour can become sickening. On the other hand, a visit at dawn on a clear winter's day will give you a view of the domes of the city gilded by the rising sun.
Older guidebooks and online reports suggest that you can ring the doorbell of the convent for access to the church if it is closed, also to arrange to view the convent buildings. VISITORS ARE NOW REQUESTED NOT TO DO THIS, unless you wish to venerate the Mater Admirabilis (see below).
Pre-booked guided tours are available for the convent -see here. They start at the convent entrance, which is to the left of the church.
Mater Admirabilis Edit
You can ask at the convent entrance for access to venerate the icon of Mater Admirabilis, which is in its own convent chapel. The times for visiting are advertised as:
Weekdays 8:00 to 20:00 (subject to change, especially as regards Mondays).
Saturdays 8:00 to 16:00.
Sundays 9:00 to 17:00.
August has special arrangements.
Mass and the Divine Office are now celebrated daily in the church, except on Mondays.
Tuesday to Friday: Lauds 7:00, Sext 12:30, Vespers with Mass 18:00.
Saturday: Lauds 8:00, Mass 12:30, Vespers 18:30.
Sundays and solemnities: Lauds 8:00, Mass 11:00, Vespers 18:30.
Only those attending the liturgies are allowed in the church while they are taking place.
The times given are liable to change.