One thing Rome is not short on is churches. But, with (literally) centuries of history to explore, it would be near impossible to visit each one. So I have compiled a list of my top three favorites (excluding St. Peter’s because let’s be real, St. Peter’s would be number one and is probably already number one on your list too) in an effort to help winnow down your list.
Chiesa di Sant’Ignazio di Loyola
Much of the art in this church was commissioned during what is sometimes known as the Counter-Reformation period. I believe I have talked about how the Counter-Reformation influenced art in a previous post, but to briefly recap: during the Counter-Reformation, the church commissioned grandiose works of art that were intended to inspire, and even intimidate, viewers. The thinking was that parishioners were less likely to convert to Protestantism if their churches were awe-inspiring (at the time, Protestants believed that religious artwork violated the First Commandment – thou shall not have any God but me – because artwork encouraged viewers to worship the images rather than God himself). Because much of the art was commissioned during this period, the Church of St. Ignatius houses magnificent artwork that can only be described as overwhelming.
The church is particularly well known for its vaulted ceiling, which was painted by Andrea Pozzo, a lay Jesuit brother. Pozzo used a painting technique known as quadratura. Quadratura uses painted decoration to create an illusion of infinite space. To achieve such an effect, the artist mimics the building’s architectural details in the painting to make it appear that the room extends beyond the confines of its actual space. Indeed, when you look up, you feel as though the ceiling opens up into the heavens (for those HP fans out there, the feeling is what I imagine looking up at the Great Hall would be like – just without St. Ignatius ascending, all the angels, etc.).
The most famous scene from the vault is of St. Ignatius accompanied by the angels. According to art historians, St. Ignatius is meant to represent the Jesuit Society as a whole. If you look closely, you can see light pouring from the saint’s body. This light is supposed to represent the knowledge of God, which the Jesuits believed that they themselves gave to the world.
Indeed, if you take another look at the vault, you can see that four of the world’s continents are represented along the sides of the painting (North and South America have been merged into a single continent). Each group of figures holds a plaque with the names of the following continents (from left to right; top to bottom): Asia, Evropa (Europe), Africa, America.
Pozzo also painted the works in the presbytery. Each painting illustrates important events in the vocation of the Society, including the Siege of Pamplona, service given to plague victims, Francis Borgia’s entry into the Society, and the departure of Francis Xavier to the Indies.
To the right of the transept is an altar dedicated to Gonzaga (also produced by Andrea Pozzo), which holds the saint’s remains while to the left is the Ludovisi Chapel (created by Filippo della Valle), which holds the remains of St. John Berchmans. Interestingly (or creepily – you choose), St. John’s body does not have its heart, which is now a relic kept in the Church of Saint-Michel in Leuven.
Probably one of the most famous churches, although many do not know that it is technically a church, is the Pantheon. The Pantheon was never intended to be a Catholic Church. Indeed, the façade of the Pantheon was built by Marcus Agrippa, Roman Emperor Augustus’ long-time pal and general, and eventually son-in-law. The main body of the Pantheon was built by Emperor Hadrian (who you may have heard of due to his eponymous wall located in Northern England). Originally, the Pantheon was dedicated to the worship of every god, but now as a consecrated Catholic church, it is dedicated to the worship of only one god.
The church also houses the remains of the first king of (unified) Italy, Victor Emmanuel II (prior to Victor Emmanuel, multiple figures have anointed themselves with the some version of the kingly title, most famously Napoleon Bonaparte) and the remains of the artist Raphael, whose paintings I’ve discussed in prior posts.
One aspect of the Pantheon that is rather well known is its domed ceiling, which is famous for giving Filippo Brunelleschi the key to completing the dome of Santa Maria del Fiore, commonly known as il Duomo, Florence’s Cathedral. Indeed, the secrets of engineering that held the Pantheon’s dome aloft had been long forgotten by Brunelleschi’s time, leaving the Florentines at a loss as to how to complete their dome without it collapsing. Brunelleschi, however, re-discovered linear perspective, an ancient mathematical technique used to construct the Pantheon.
Santa Maria in Campitelli
The final church that I am going to talk about is known both as Santa Maria in Campitelli or Santa Maria in Portico. It was built in response to the plague of 1656. The pope during this plague, Pope Alexander VII, took a vow to the icon St. Maria in Portico to commission a church should the plague abait. These types of vows occurred so often that churches built as a result as commonly known now as “Plague Churches.” Well, the plague eventually did abait, and so Alexander fulfilled his promise and laid the foundation stone on September 29, 1660.
Above the doorway, you can see the inscription “S.P.Q.R. VOTVM S. ALEXAN. VII. P. M. S. MARIAE IN PORTICV A. FVNDAM. POS. A. M. DC. LXV.” Now, it has been a while since my last college Latin class, but S.P.Q.R. (an acronym that you will see all over Rome) means Senātus Populusque Rōmānus, or in English, “The Senate and People of Rome.” “VOTVM S.” also appears quite regularly in ancient inscriptions, albeit in another form (“V.S.L.M.”). Votum translates as a vow, thus referring to Pope Alexander’s vow to build the Church, and the “S” is an abbreviation of the Latin verb solvit, meaning “to fulfill.” The next three are easier: “Alexan. VII. P. M.” translates as Alexander VII, Pontifex Maximus; “S. Mariae in Porticv” means Santa Maria in Portico; and “A Fundam.” is an abbreviation for the latin phrase “a fundamenta,” translated into english as “from foundations.” “Pos.” is the abbreviation for “posuit,” translated roughly as “put” or “laid.” Finally, “A. M. DC. LXV.” refers to the date, Anno 1000 (M) 600 (DC) 65 (LXV), or 1665, the date the façade was completed.
|S.P.Q.R.||The Senate and People of Rome|
|VOTVM S.||Fulfilled Vow|
|Alexand. VII. P. M.||Alexander VII, Pontifex Maximus|
|S. Mariae in Porticv||Santa Maria in Portico|
|A. FVNDAM. POS.||Laid from Foundations|
|A. M. DC. LXV.||In the Year 1665|
After putting it all together, the inscription means In the Year 1665, The Senate and People of Rome fulfilled Pope Alexander VII’s vow to rebuild Santa Maria in Portico from its foundations (the church was built atop the site of a prior church dedicated to Mary).
The altar tabernacle was designed by Giovanni Antonio de Rossi to contain the aforementioned icon.
The icon is a typical Byzantine work, with Mary holding Jesus against a blue background between two oak leaves. Allegedly, the icon is linked to a 6th century event, when St. Galla had a vision of a couplet stating, “Hic est illa piae Genitricis Imago Mariae quae discubenti Gallae patuit metuenti,” meaning, “This is the image of Mary Mother of God revealed to Galla, humble and fearful, while serving the poor.” The image in possession of the church is probably a reproduction of a more ancient painting.
Marian devotion looms large in Roman culture, especially as she has been linked to the Port (Porto/Portico), which is typically a place of welcome and shelter, alluding to the security of the womb.
Another fun fact about this church: Henry Stuart, Duke of York, became the cardinal deacon of the church in 1747, and he and his father James Stuart (“the Old Pretender“), instituted the Perpetual Prayer, mandating that every Saturday, a mass would be celebrated with the singing of the Litanies to the Virgin to beg her to return the Church of England to the Catholic faith. Obviously, this prayer was less than successful as the Church of England has remained Anglican to this day.