Santa Maria del Popolo is an Augustinian church located in Rome, Italy. It stands to the north side of the Piazza del Popolo, one of the most famous squares of the city, between the ancient Porta Flaminia (one of the gates of the Aurelian Walls and the starting point of the Via Flaminia, the road to Ariminum (modern Rimini) and the most important route to the north of Ancient Rome) and the Pincio park. The Church of S. Maria del Popolo in Rome is the birthplace of the Order of Saint Augustine. By Roman standards (in a city of 1,000 churches), this church is not particularly old, nor particularly large, nor outside of Augustinian circles particularly famous, but it does has some very impressive works of art.
Originally a chapel (cappella) dedicated to the Virgin Mary was built on this site by Pope Paschal II in 1099. The Pope desired to commemorate the coming of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem into Christian control at that time. Tradition claims that Emperor Nero was buried on the slope of the Pincian hill near the Piazza del Popolo. In 1099, Pope Paschal II had the bones of Nero disinterred and thrown into the Tiber at the request of those who lived in the area. The chapel was built were the grave was said to have been.In the year 1227, the chapel was enlarged and blessed as the Church of Santa Maria del Popolo by Pope Gregory IX (1227-1241). It was to the Siena province of the Augustinian Order that was granted the house (convento) and church of S. Maria del Popolo in Rome about the year 1250 by Cardinal Richard Annibaldi. He was their appointed official mentor and liaison since he had presided at the Little Union of the Tuscan hermits in 1244.
The origin of the church's name is not certain. One obvious suggestion is that it was built at the expense of the people of Rome (Commune of Rome), popolo = people. Another credible suggestion is that Popolo derives from pioppo = poplar trees. The piazza had a role similar to a railway station. Because many travellers entered Rome via the Porta (gate) del Popolo, taxi carriages awaited them in this piazza. The Via Flaminia, the road that linked Rome with the main cities of the State and of the Church (e.g., Ancona and Bologna) started here.
The present church's baroque form of façade (as seen in the image above) was added in the seventeenth century. It was designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680), the famous Italian architect, sculptor and designer. A kitchen garden of the Augustinian community was situated to the immediate right of the church, i.e., closer to the camera position. This existed from the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries, and was removed when the architect Joseph Valadier was commissioned in 1816-1820 to enlarge the piazza (square) into its glorious present form.
The reasoning for the Tuscan Augustinians having a base in Rome was that Rome was the venue for their chapters that had been mandated by the Little Union and that originally were held annually. Furthermore, having a community in Rome would be convenient for their superiors when coming to Rome to meet with their Cardinal Protector, Richard Annibaldi. Never reluctant to wield his influence as one of the most powerful cardinals of the Roman Curia, Annibaldi had recently moved the Franciscans - protesting! - from S. Maria del Popolo into a former Benedictine monastery in Rome (Cf. Archivum Franciscanum, XVIII , 293-95). Cardinal Annibaldi moved the Franciscans to the monastery of Santa Maria in Capitolio, now Santa Maria in Ara Cioeli – which they still retain. He moved the Benedictines from there; they too were unsuccessful in their protests at losing their monastery. The monastery of S Maria del Popolo in 1256 would conveniently become the venue of the Grand Union of the Order of Saint Augustine.
The Church was further enlarged and made into its present interior design by Baccio Pontelli (1450 - 1492) under the direction of Pope Sixtus IV between 1472 and 1479. Sixtus IV was pope in 1471 - 1484, and formerly a Franciscan Prior General). Showing great favopur to the Augustinians, this construction at S. Maria del Popolo was done at his expense. For some of this time (i.e., 1475 - 1481) Baccio Pontelli was also designing and supervising the construction in the Vatican of the Sistine Chapel for Pope Sixtus IV. In this Sixtus IV was much encouraged by Ambrose Massari O.S.A. (Ambrogio Massari da Cori). He was Procurator General of the Order of Saint Augustine from 1470 to 1475, and then Prior General from 1476 until 1485. Massari was a great advocate of humanism, and a man of the Renaissance. For some of that time Massari was also the confessor of the Pope.
The Church of S. Maria del Popolo became additionally significant historically as one of the first churches of the Renaissance style of architecture. Its present baroque form of façade was added later again. It was designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Italian architect, sculptor and designer, who was born in Naples in 1598 and died in Rome in 1680. The years 1510 and 1511 were a busy period in Santa Maria del Popolo. For part of the year, Pope Julius II (Pope from 1503 to 1513) was away fighting his enemies near Bologna. Boldly facing the Piazza del Popolo, these are the twin churches of Santa Maria di Montesanto (on the left) and Santa Maria dei Miracoli (on the right), which have reopened after many years of restoration.
As a result, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel was only half completed, and Raphael had finished the first round of frescoes in the private apartments of the Pope, and was waiting for a second commission. While Michaelangelo pursued after Julius trying to get a partial payment, the more practical Raphael chose to use the time to earn a few extra ducats by using his skills as an architect to design the Cappella Chigi (Chigi chapel) in the Church of Maria del Popolo. At the same time, two Augustinians from Erfurt came to present a petition from the Augustinian Observant monasteries in Germany to the Prior General of their order, Giles of Viterbo O.S.A. However, they found he was with the Pope Julius in Bologna, and while they waited for almost a month, they lodged at the convento of Santa Maria del Popolo. The younger of the two Augustinians was Martin Luther, then aged 27. (For general pages about Luther on Augnet, click here.)
Giles returned to Rome in January or February 1511. When Pope Julius eventually returned to Rome from the (not very successful) fighting in June 1511, he hung a cannon ball that had narrowly missed him above the altar of Santa Maria del Popolo, suspended from a silver chain. It should be noted that for 140 years during the 15th and 16th centuries there were three Augustinian church venues in Rome, i.e., Santa Maria del Popolo, Sant’Agostino and on the Quirinal Hill the Church of Santa Susanna. The latter was under Augustinian administration from 1448 to 1587 (see Augnet’s page on Santa Susanna for details.)
An artistic appreciation
The Piazza del Popolo has three churches in it. The two Baroque churches at the south end are virtual mirror images of each other, Santa Maria di Montesanto and Santa Maria di Miracoli. The least imposing of the three, at least from the exterior, is Santa Maria del Popolo, just inside a gate in the Roman Wall, the Porta del Popolo.
The Augustinian Church of Santa Maria del Popolo is called "the artists church" because of the number of famous artists of the Renaissance and early Baroque period who contributed their skills to it. It is a powerful artistic example of the Renaissance and early baroque movements in Italy. Represented are numerous examples in all the artistic disciplines — painting, architecture, fresco, sculpture, mosaics, and stained-glass (leadlight) — from various eras and by some of the greatest names in art.
In the spirit of the early Renaissance, there are the frescoes of Pinturricchio (1454-1513), in the second chapel on the left. There too is the design of Bramante for the shell-motif apse. It is set with leadlight ("stained glass") windows by the French master of that art Guillaume de Marcillat (ca.1467-1529). It is flanked by a magnificent pair of tombs carved by Sansovino.
The Baroque really comes into its own, though, in the chapel to the left of the altar with the pair of paintings by Caravaggio. He was the master of realism and of the technique of chiaroscuro (using harsh light and deep shadows to convey drama). In this chapel are two of his paintings, Conversion of Saint Paul and the Martyrdom of Saint Peter. In the Cerasi Chapel, however, these two paintings of Caravaggio do not stand alone. The artist's great competitor, Annibale Carracci, received the commission for the main picture, an Assumption of the Virgin Mary, above the altar. There is a radical difference between his beautifully bright colors, the powerful blue and red he applies, as against the earth tones of Caravaggio, which are varied only by blue on Saint Peter and red on Saint Paul.
One of the great, unnoticed facts about this church is that all these works of art inhabit the chapels for which they were originally planned. This is very unusual these days, when most famous works are displayed in museums or art galleries. Photo GalleryFor the Augnet gallery on the Augustinian history of S. Maria del Popolo Church, click here.
Australian National University. Excellent photographs! A very comprehensive examination S. Maria del Popolo by by Michael Greenhalgh, MA, PhD, FSA. He is the Sir William Dobell Foundation Professor of Art History at the Australian National University, Canberra, Australia. There is a floor plan which is of assistance in appreciating the positioning of the works of art. Be sure to look at the wonderful internal panoramic photographs. (Be patient if you have a slow Internet connection.) http://rubens.anu.edu.au/htdocs/bycountry/italy/rome/popolo
Images of S. Maria del Popolo. From a huge web site of Mary Ann Sullivan, which is part of her art teaching project. http://www.bluffton.edu/~sullivanm/italy/rome/popolo/popolo.html
La Chiesa di S. Maria del Popolo a Roma. The history of the Augustinian Church, written in Italian. http://www.instoria.it/home/santa_maria_popolo.htm
Piazza and the church of Maria del Popolo. For an excellent web site, click on: http://www.romeartlover.it/Vasi21.htm
Santa Maria del Popolo. A Wikipedia summary. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Santa_Maria_del_Popolo
Chigi Chapel, within the Church of Maria del Popolo. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chigi_Chapel
Cerasi Chapel, within the Church of Maria del Popolo. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cerasi_Chapel