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  • Writer's pictureWill von Behr, MA

A Brief History of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome

What is San Luigi dei Francesi?

San Luigi dei Francesi, or The Church of St. Louis of the French in English, is a French national church in Rome built in the 16th century, featuring the Contarelli Chapel decorated by Baroque painter Caravaggio.

San Luigi dei Francesi exterior

San Luigi dei Francesi History

In the 16th century, before the Baroque period, European art was dominated by a style called Mannerism. Rather than adopting the harmonious ideals associated with the Renaissance’s greatest artists, Mannerists produced works that were undefined by reality or correctness, but rather manipulated elements to achieve a sense of sophisticated elegance. At the turn of the century, there was growing demand in Rome for large-scale paintings to adorn the swathes of new churches and palaces being built across the city. There was also a desire amongst the senior members of the Catholic Church to move away from Mannerist religious paintings and discover a new, alternative style that could also serve as a counter to the threat of Protestantism sweeping Europe. The figure that spearheaded this shift was the unruly Lombard painter, Caravaggio.

After arriving in Rome at the end of the 16th century, Caravaggio worked as a jobbing painter, taking any work that he could get to make his name. In 1597, the artist was commissioned to decorate the Contarelli Chapel, here in this church, which was funded by the will of a French cardinal named Matthieu Cointrel. This commission transformed the artist and from then on Caravaggio would never again lack for either patrons or work.

San Luigi dei Francesi ceiling

Forgoing the traditional technique of mural frescoes, Caravaggio decided to produce dramatic oil paintings that depict scenes from the life of Saint Matthew, the namesake of the work’s sponsor. However, the project did not get off to a good start. For the altarpiece, Caravaggio produced the Inspiration of Saint Matthew (which was sadly destroyed in 1945) that depicted the Apostle with his legs crossed and his feet rudely exposed to the public. Unimpressed with the saint’s appearance, the priests swiftly took it down. Above the altar now hangs a second version, known by the same name, where the saint is shown taking notes whilst an airborne angel dictates to him. This new canvas was accepted by the church since it was only half-finished on inspection (and didn’t yet include the saint’s elevated, bare foot).

On the left wall of San Luigi dei Francesi is the Calling of Saint Matthew, an ambitious painting that shows the moment Jesus asks Matthew to become one of the Apostles. In a state of disbelief, the disciple points to himself, whilst Christ, placed to the far right and with a shadow cast across his face, adds to the apparent realism of the scene. On the right wall is the Martyrdom of Saint Matthew, which shows the moment Matthew is murdered at the altar on the orders of the king of Ethiopia. Look to the left of the assassin and you’ll see a self-portrait of Caravaggio peering over.

With these paintings, Caravaggio became an overnight success. Over the next six years he produced his most celebrated works, fuelled by a continued demand from wealthy private collectors. In 1606, however, he fled the city after killing a young nobleman because of an argument while playing a ball game. He spent the rest of his life on the run, before dying in mysterious circumstances at the age of just 38.

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