The Parish Basilica of Santa Maria del Popolo (Basilica Parrocchiale Santa Maria del Popolo) is a titular church run by the Augustinian order. It is located on the north side of Piazza del Popolo, one of the must-visit squares of Rome.
The history of the creation of the basilica is connected to the memory of Emperor Nero and Pope Paschal II. After Nero’s suicide, he was buried in the mausoleum of his paternal family, the Domitii Ahenobarbi, at the foot of Pincian Hill.
The tomb was afterward buried under a landslide and on its ruins grew a huge walnut tree that ″was so tall and sublime that no other plant exceeded it in any ways.″ The tree soon got to be the haunt for a large number of horrendous demons harassing the inhabitants of the area and also the travelers arriving in the city from the north through Porta Flaminia
As the devils endangered an important access road of the city and also disturbed the whole populace, the recently chosen pontiff, Paschal II, was genuinely concerned. So the Pope fasted and prayed for three days, and at the end of that period, exhausted, he dreamt of the Blessed Virgin Mary, who gave him detailed instructions on how to free the city from the demonic scourge.
On the Thursday after the Third Sunday of Lent in 1099, the Pope organized the whole clergy and people of Rome in one impressive procession that, with the crucifix at its head, went along the urban stretch of the Via Flaminia until it reached the infested put. There, Paschal II performed the ceremony of exorcism and then struck the walnut tree with a determined blow to its root, causing the evil spirits to burst forth, madly shouting. When the tree was removed, the remains of Nero were found among the ruins; the Pope requested these thrown into the Tiber.
When the Pope liberated Rome from the demons, he devoted that corner to Christian worship. Paschal II, to the sound of hymns, placed the first stone of an altar at the former site of the walnut tree. Within three days, a simple chapel was built on this place and dedicated to the Virgin Mary.
The early history of the basilica is mostly unknown because the archives of it were lost during the Napoleonic era. However, several documents survived from before 1500, where first archival sources are from the 13th century
The name “del Popolo” (“of the people”) is derived from “Populus,” meaning large rural parish in medieval Latin. Thus, the name is connected to the suburban settlement around Via Flaminia that was created after the chapel had been built. Moreover, the name S. Maria ad Flaminiam appeared in some 15th-century documents.
The church was given to the Order of Saint Augustine in the middle of the 13th century. The Augustinians were a new mendicant order established under the guidance of Cardinal Riccardo Annibaldi, one of the most influential members of the Roman Curia at the time.
Later, a community of friars was established by the church and the Franciscans were compensated for the their loss with the monastery of Ara Coeli (1250-1251)
The strong connection between the Annibaldi family and the church was validated by an engraving that mentioned two noble women of the family, Caritia and Gulitia, who set up some marble monuments within the basilica in 1263.
On the orders of Pope Sixtus IV, the basilica was reconstructed between 1472 and 1477. This Pope presented himself as Urbis Restaurator of Rome and worked on an ambitious renovation project. The medieval version of the church was completely destroyed. A new three-aisled, Latin cross-shaped basilica was built with four identical chapels on both sides, an octagonal dome above the crossing, and a tall bell tower at the end of the right transept. This reconstruction became an example of early Italian Renaissance architecture in Rome.
Despite the fact that there were many later changes in the basilica, it still keeps its Sistine form nowadays
The reconstruction also had a symbolic message that the evil walnut tree of Nero was supplanted by the beneficent oak of the Della Rovere. The papal coats of arms were set on the façade. Another vital aspect of the Sistine reproduction was that it made the basilica – the first church for travelers arriving in Rome from the North – a dynastic monument of the Della Rovere family. This was strengthened by relatives of the Pope and other personages of his court who bought chapels and built funeral monuments.
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With the election of Julius II Della Rovere in 1503, the Basilica of Santa Maria del Popolo became the favorite church of the Pope. Julius was devoted to the icon of Madonna del Popolo. He changed his uncle’s work and built a spacious new choir between 1505 and 1510 behind the main altar. Donato Bramante, the favorite architect of the Pope, was working on this project.
The choir was built in the High Renaissance style and decorated with the frescoes of Pinturicchio on the sail vault and the stained glass windows of Guillaume de Marcillat. Later, it was also used as a mausoleum where Andrea Sansovino created two monumental tombs for Cardinal Girolamo Basso della Rovere and Cardinal Ascanio Sforza.
One of the most important comissions was for Raphael, where the master painted the Madonna of the Veil, a portrayal of the Holy Family (1508), and the Portrait of Pope Julius II (1511)
However, in 1591, both paintings were taken from the church by Paolo Emilio Sfonrati and later sold off.
Sienese banker Agostino Chigi, adopted into the Della Rovere family, built a mausoleum to replace the second chapel on the church’s left side in 1507. The chapel was dedicated to the Virgin of Loreto, whose cult was promoted by the Della Rovere popes. Raphael designed the Chigi Chapel, which was primarily completed in 1516 but remained unfinished for many years.
After the era of Della Rovere, the basilica lost its role as a papal church but still was one of Rome’s most important pilgrimage churches. In 1561, Pope Pius IV held a solemn procession from St. Peter’s to the Basilica of Santa Maria del Popolo on the occasion of reopening the Council of Trent.
The last important Renaissance addition was the Theodoli Chapel between 1555 and 1575 by Giulio Mazzoni
The basilica became a parish church when Pope Pius IV created the Parish of St. Andrew “outside Porta Flaminia” and united it in perpetuity with the Augustinian priory. The friars and Pope Pius V led the care of the new parish. Moreover, the parish still exists nowadays and encompasses a vast area, including the southern part of the Flaminio district, the Pincian Hill, and the part of the historic center around Piazza del Popolo.
In 1594, Pope Clement VIII ordered the removal of the tomb of Vannozza dei Cattanei, the mistress of Alexander VI, from the basilica to make the memory of Borgias less visible as it is possible
The Cerasi Chapel in Santa Maria del Popolo contains two paintings by Caravaggio. These paintings are: “The Conversion on the Way to Damascus” and the famous “Crucifixion of Saint Peter.”
“Crucifixion of Saint Peter” (Crocifissione di san Pietro, 1601) is the artwork that delineates the martyrdom of St. Peter by crucifixion— Peter asked to rearrange his cross for not copying his God, Jesus Christ. Consequently, he is portrayed upside down.
“The Conversion on the Way to Damascus” (Conversione di San Paolo, 1601) portrays the moment described in Chapter 9 of Acts of the Apostles when Saul, soon to be the apostle Paul, fell headed straight toward Damascus. Instead, he heard the Lord say, “I am Jesus, whom you persecute, arise and go into the city.” The Golden Legend, a gathering of medieval translations of biblical events, may have framed the occasion for Caravaggio. This scene demonstrates the specific minute Paul is overcome with the spirit of Jesus Christ and has been flung off his pony.
See a guide to all Caravaggio’s works in Rome.
The basilica’s facade was built in the early Renaissance style in the 1470s during the renovation process by Pope Sixtus IV. Moreover, it was later reworked by Gian Lorenzo Bernini in the 17th century the preserve its original form. Initially, there were panels in the windows and spokes in the central rose window. In addition, the previous version of the church was free-standing, with a clear view of the bell tower.
Andrea Bregno designs the architecture, but this information is without explicit confirmation. The architect tried to reach perfect proportioning in his project and managed to create masterful details. The high facade was built of Roman travertine, like many other buildings in Rome of that period. Even though the architecture is simple, there are many details. It is dignified with 4 pilasters on the lower level and two pilasters flanking the upper part with the rose window in the middle.
If you are a fan of the famous Angels and Demons book/movie by Dan Brown, you should visit the basilica. The scene where after racing across town, Langdon and Vittoria reach Santa Maria del Popolo was in reality filmed in the basilica. They enter and find Raphael’s Chigi Chapel with “earthly” connotations. There they find the cover stone depicting Mors, the Roman god of Death, with a ladder descending.
Langdon enters the tomb where he finds the first Cardinal, buried to the waist, dead from choking on earth stuffed down his throat. His chest is branded with a symbol of EARTH, reminding Langdon of the brand on Leonardo Vetra.
Author: Kate Zusmann
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