Basilica of Santa Maria del Popolo

Basilica of Santa Maria del Popolo
Basic information
Location Rome, Italy
Geographic coordinates 41°54′41″N 12°28′35″E / 41.911389°N 12.476389°E / 41.911389; 12.476389Coordinates: 41°54′41″N 12°28′35″E / 41.911389°N 12.476389°E / 41.911389; 12.476389
Affiliation Roman Catholic
Province Diocese of Rome
Year consecrated 1477
Ecclesiastical or organizational status Basilica
Status Active
Architectural description
Architect(s) Baccio Pontelli, Andrea Bregno, Gian Lorenzo Bernini
Architectural type Church
Architectural style Renaissance, Baroque
Groundbreaking 1472
Completed 1477
Direction of façade W
Dome(s) 3
Spire(s) 1
Front of the basilica.
Interior of the basilica.
The dome.

The Basilica of Santa Maria del Popolo is an Augustinian church in Rome, Italy. It stands on the north side of Piazza del Popolo, one of the most famous squares in the city. The church is hemmed in between Porta del Popolo (the ancient Porta Flaminia) and the Pincian Hill. Porta Flaminia was one of the gates in the Aurelian Wall as well as the starting point of Via Flaminia, the most important route from the north. The church contains works by several famous artists, such as Raphael, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Caravaggio, Alessandro Algardi, Pinturicchio, Andrea Bregno, Guillaume de Marcillat and Donato Bramante.


In 1099, a chapel was built by Pope Paschal II to Our Lady over the tomb of the Domitii Ahenobarbi. Tradition has it that the site was haunted by Nero's ghost or demons in the form of black crows; therefore the pope chopped down the walnut tree sheltering the crows and built a chapel in its place. The name del Popolo ("of the people") probably derives from its funding by the people of Rome, but some sources say it comes from the Latin word populus, meaning poplar and referring to a tree located nearby. The chapel was enlarged and became a church by will of Pope Gregory IX in 1235, and was given to the Augustinian friars, who still oversee it, in 1250.

Santa Maria del Popolo was reconstructed by Baccio Pontelli and Andrea Bregno in 1472-1477 on the orders of Pope Sixtus IV and was given to the congregation of Lombard friars in Rome. The result of the reconstruction was an early and excellent example of Italian Renaissance architecture. In 1655-60 the façade was modified by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, who was asked by Pope Alexander VII to update the Renaissance church to a more modern Baroque style.



The apse was designed by Donato Bramante. The oldest stained glass window in Rome can be found here, made by French artist Guillaume de Marcillat. Pinturicchio decorated the vault with frescoes, including the Coronation of the Virgin. The tombs of Cardinals Ascanio Sforza and Girolamo Basso della Rovere, both made by Andrea Sansovino, can also be found in the apse.

Side chapels

Plan of the basilica; the numbers identify the side chapels

1. Della Rovere Chapel

The Della Rovere (or Nativity) Chapel is the first side chapel on the right aisle. It was built by Cardinal Domenico della Rovere from 1471 to 1484 after the reconstruction of the church by his relative, Pope Sixtus IV. The pictorial decoration is attributed to Pinturicchio and his school. The main altar-piece, The Adoration of the Child with St Jerome is an exquisite autograph work by Pinturicchio himself. The tomb of Cardinal Cristoforo della Rovere (died in 1487), a work by Andrea Bregno and Mino da Fiesole, was erected by his brother. On the right side the funeral monument of Giovanni de Castro (died 1506) is attributed to Francesco da Sangallo. The chapel is one of the best preserved monuments of quattrocento art in Rome.

2. Cybo Chapel

The Cybo Chapel was radically rebuilt by Cardinal Alderano Cybo (1613-1700) between 1682 and 1687 according to the plans of Carlo Fontana. For the beauty of its paintings, the preciousness of marble revetments covering its walls and the importance of the artists involved in its construction the chapel is regarded one of the most significant sacral monuments erected in Rome in the last quarter of the 17th century.

3. Basso Della Rovere Chapel

The Basso Della Rovere Chapel was built by Girolamo Basso della Rovere in 1471-84. The architecture is similar to the Chapel of the Nativity and the painted decoration is attributed to Pinturicchio and his workshop. The highlights of the chapel are the great fresco of the Madonna and Child Enthroned with Saints Augustine, Francis, Anthony of Padua and a Holy Monk above the altar, the Assumption of the Virgin Mary on the first wall and the illusionistic monochrome decoration of the pedestal with painted benches and martyrdom scenes. The original maiolica floor tiles from Deruta also survived.

4. Costa Chapel

The Costa Chapel follows the same plan as the Della Rovere chapels but it was furnished by Portuguese Cardinal Jorge da Costa who purchased it in 1488. The most important works of art are the paintings of the lunettes by the school of Pinturicchio depicting the four Fathers of the Church; the marble altar-piece by Gian Cristoforo Romano (c. 1505); and the funeral monument of Cardinal Costa by the school of Andrea Bregno. The bronze and marble funeral monument of Pietro Foscari from 1480 is preserved here.

5. Montemirabile Chapel

The chapel was built by Giovanni Montemirabile in 1479 and it was transformed to the baptistery of the basilica in 1561. The most valuable works of art in the chapel are the edicules of the baptismal font and the holy oil. These marbles originate from the old main altar of the basilica by Andrea Bregno. The funeral monument of Cardinal Antoniotto Pallavicini on the left wall was also made by the Bregno workshop in 1507.

6. Chigi Chapel

Main article: Chigi Chapel

Banker Agostino Chigi commissioned Raphael to design and decorate a funerary chapel for him in 1513. The chapel is a treasure trove of Italian Renaissance and Baroque art and is considered among the most important monuments in the basilica. The dome of the centralized octagonal chapel is decorated with Raphael's mosaics, the Creation of the World. The statues of Jonah and Elijah were carved by Lorenzetto. The chapel was later completed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini for Fabio Chigi. His additions include the sculptures of Habakkuk and the Angel and Daniel and the Lion.

7. Mellini Chapel

The chapel, which was dedicated to Saint Nicholas of Tolentino, is one of the original 15th-century hexagonal side chapels of the basilica, but its inner decoration was changed during the later centuries. It has been the funerary chapel of the Mellini family for centuries and contains several funeral monuments among them the works of Alessandro Algardi and Pierre-Étienne Monnot. The frescos of the vault were created by Giovanni da San Giovanni in 1623–24.

8. Cybo-Soderini Chapel

The Chapel of the Crucifixion or the Cybo-Soderini Chapel was remodelled in the Baroque era when a Flemish artist, Pieter van Lint executed its cycle of frescos on the vault and the lunettes which depict Angels with the Symbols of the Passion and Prophets. Two big frescos on the side walls show scenes from The Legend of the True Cross. There is a 15th-century wooden crucifix above the main altar in a Corinthian aedicule. The chapel was restored by Lorenzo Soderini in 1825.

9. Theodoli Chapel

The chapel is a hidden gem of Roman Mannerism and a major work painter and stuccoist Giulio Mazzoni. It was also called Cappella Santa Caterina «del Calice» or «del Cadice» after the classicising marble statue of Saint Catherine on the altar, the stucco chalices on the spandrels and the title of its patron, Girolamo Theodoli, Bishop of Cádiz. The decoration was originally commissioned by the first owner, Traiano Alicorni in 1555, the work was restarted under a new patron, Girolamo Theodoli in 1569 and finished around 1575.

10. Cerasi Chapel

Main article: Cerasi Chapel

The Cerasi Chapel holds two famous canvases painted by Caravaggio - Crucifixion of St. Peter and Conversion on the Way to Damascus (1600–01). These are probably the most important works of art in the basilica. Situated between the two works of Caravaggio is the altarpiece Assumption of the Virgin by Annibale Carracci.

11-12. Feoli and Cicada Chapels

The two identical chapels opening in the right transept are relatively insignificant in terms of artistic value in comparison with the other side chapels of the church. Both were built during Bernini's intervention in the 17th century but their present decoration is much later. The most significant work of art is the fragmented sepulchral monument of Odoardo Cicada, the Bishop of Sagona by Guglielmo della Porta which is dated around 1545. The tomb, which was originally bigger and more ornate, is located in the Cicada (or Saint Rita) Chapel.


Monument of Maria Eleonora Boncompagni

The church was a favourite burial place for the Roman aristocracy, clergy and literati, especially after Bernini's intervention. Besides the tombs in the side chapels the most notable monuments are:

1. Maria Eleonora Boncompagni Ludovisi

The first monument as you enter the basilica is the wall tomb of Maria Eleonora I Boncompagni, the sovereign Princess of Piombino right by the door on the counterfaçade. The princess died in 1745 after visiting a hospital. Her tomb was designed by Domenico Gregorini in 1749.[1]

The funeral monument is a typical Late Baroque artwork with distinctly macabre details. On the base there is a winged dragon, the symbol of the Boncompagni family. The plaque of the epitaph is made of polished, colored stones in pietre dure. The inscription is surmounted by the personification of Time (a winged skull), the coat-of-arms of the Principality of Piombino and two allegorical figures (Charity and Meekness). The plaque is set in a white marble frame with a conch in the lower part and a gable at the top with a shell, two flaming torches and another winged skull.

2. Giovanni Battista Gisleni

The lower part of the Gisleni monument

The tomb of Giovanni Battista Gisleni, an Italian Baroque architect and stage designer who worked for the Polish royal court during the years 1630-1668, is probably the most macabre funeral monument in the basilica. It is set between a wooden booth and a stone half-column on the right side of the counterfaçade. The memorial was designed and installed by the architect himself in 1670 two years before his death.

The upper part of the monument is a stone plaque with a long inscription and the portrait of the deceased in a tondo which was painted by a Flemish portraitist, Jacob Ferdinand Voet. There is a painted canopy supported by angels on the wall. The lower part is more interesting: a skeleton is peeping through a window behind an iron grill. The sinister, shrouded figure is facing towards the viewer with his bony hands clutched on his breast. The stone frame of the window is decorated with a coat-of-arms and two bronze medallions. The left one shows a tree with its branches cut but sprouting new shoots and containing a caterpillar spinning its cocoon, while the right one shows the metamorphosis of the caterpillar into a moth. These are the symbols of death and resurrection. The inscriptions convey the same message: In nidulo meo moriar ("in my nest I die" i.e. in the city of Rome) and Ut phoenix multiplicabo dies ("as a phoenix I multiply my days"). There are two enigmatic inscriptions on the upper and lower part of the monument: Neque hic vivus and Neque illic mortuus ("Neither living here, nor dead there").

On this tomb the skeleton is not the personification of Death as in other Baroque tombs but a representation of the deceased (the transi image) on his way towards the resurrection and due to this "death became a symbol for life".[2]

3. Maria Flaminia Odescalchi Chigi

Monument of Maria Flaminia Odescalchi Chigi

The funeral monument of Princess Maria Flaminia Odescalchi Chigi is sometimes dubbed the "last Baroque tomb in Rome".[3] It is probably the most visually stunning, exuberant and theatrical sepulchral monument in the basilica. It was built in 1771 for the young princess, the first wife of Ferdinando Chigi who died in childbirth at the age of 20. It was designed by Paolo Posi, a Baroque architect who was famous for his ephemeral architecture built for celebrations, and executed by Agostino Penna. The tomb is located by the pillar between the Chigi and Montemirabile Chapels.

The portrait of Cardinal Gian Girolamo Albani by Paracca.

The monument shows the influence of Bernini's tomb for Maria Raggi in Santa Maria sopra Minerva. Posi used the heraldic symbols of the Chigi and the Odescalchi to celebrate the intertwining of the two princely families. In the lower part of the monument a white marble Odescalchi lion is climbing a mountain of the Chigi; to the right a smoking incense burner alludes to the Odescalchis again. A gnarled bronze oak tree (Chigi) grows from the mountain with a huge red marble robe on its branches. The robe is hemmed with gold and decorated with an epitaph made of golden letters and also the stars of the Chigi and the incense burners of the Odescalchi at the lower part. In the upper part of the tomb a white marble eagle and two angels are carrying the black and white marble portrait of dead which is set in a richly decorated golden medaillon.

In the 19th century the monument was dismissed as tawdry. Stendhal called it an "outburst of the execrable taste of the 18th century" in his 1827 Promenades dans Rome.[4]

4. Giovanni Gerolamo Albani

One of most important Mannerist funeral monuments in the basilica is the tomb of Cardinal Gian Girolamo Albani, an influential politician, jurist, scholar and diplomat in the papal court in the last decades of the 16th century. He died in 1591. The Late Renaissance monument is one of the main works of the Roman sculptor, Giovanni Antonio Paracca. The bust of the Cardinal is a realistic portrait of the old statesman. He is seen praying with his head turned toward the main altar. Facing this monument the cenotaph of Cardinal Giovanni Battista Pallavicino (1596) is likewise attributed to Paracca.

5. Ludovico Podocataro

The wall tomb of the Cypriot Cardinal Ludovico Podocataro, secretary and physician of Pope Alexander VI, is a monumental work of Roman Renaissance sculpture. The prominent humanist and papal diplomat was buried on 7 October 1504 with great pomp; the location of the tomb in the right transept was originally close to the funerary chapel of the Borgia family, Podocataro's patrons, but the chapel is no longer extant.

Originally the monument had a dual function as an altar and tomb. It was probably commissioned by the cardinal between 1497, when he made a donation to the Augustinian church and 1504, his death. The master(s) of the monument are unknown but on stylistic grounds it is assumed to be the work of different groups of sculptors. The architectural composition is traditional and somewhat conservative for the beginning of the 16th century, it follows the models set by Andrea Bregno.

Cardinal Priests

Hyacinthe Thiandoum was the Cardinal Priest of the Titulus S. Mariae de Populo until his death in 2004. On 24 March 2006, Pope Benedict XVI elevated Stanisław Dziwisz to the position.


  1. Claudio De Dominicis: Carlo De Dominicis, architetto del Settecento romano (Roma, 2006) p. 74
  2. Kathleen Cohen: Metamorphosis of a Death Symbol: The Transi Tombs in the Late Middle Ages and the Renaissance (University of California Press, Berkeley-Los Angeles-London) p. 185
  4. Stendhal: Promenade dans Rome, Vol. 1 (Editions Jérôme Millon, 1993), p. 120


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