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  • Writer's pictureAman Mehta

A Brief History of Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome

What is Santa Maria del Popolo?

Basilica Parrocchiale Santa Maria del Popolo is a 15th-century church in Rome that’s built on the grounds of Emperor Nero’s burial, containing paintings and sculpture by leading Renaissance and Baroque artists.

Santa Maria del Popolo chapel

Santa Maria del Popolo History

The remains of Nero, notorious as one of ancient Rome’s most wicked emperors, are said to have been buried on these grounds. Consequently, the site acquired a reputation for popularity with demons. Tradition relates that these evil spirits came in the form of a group of black crows, which alighted on a giant walnut tree that had sprung up from Nero’s grave. As part of the medieval penchant for exorcising the remnants of paganism, Pope Paschal II ceremoniously cut down and burned the tree, before building a chapel on the site dedicated to the Virgin Mary.

The church, which gives the adjoining piazza its name, has been rebuilt several times. What you see today, a church with three aisles and many side chapels, is essentially the 15th-century Renaissance version, though there have been some minor subsequent alterations. Donato Bramante enlarged the apse in the early 16th century, and Gian Lorenzo Bernini redecorated the interior and added some Baroque touches to the façade in the 1650s.

Santa Maria del Popolo

The enormous artistic value of the church lies in its interior decoration, to which some of the most talented artists of the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries contributed. The Della Rovere Chapel, the first on the south aisle, has glorious frescoes by Pinturicchio, an Umbrian painter of the quattrocento, including his delightful Adoration of the Child located above the altar. He also painted the magnificent biblical scenes adorning the vaulted ceiling of the presbytery, the part of the church reserved for the clergy.

The painting of the Madonna del Popolo, set into the main altar, was believed for centuries to have been painted by Saint Luke, one of the four Evangelists, until art historians recently attributed it to the 13th-century Roman painter, Filippo Rusuti. Also not to be missed is the well-lit, octagonal Chigi Chapel designed by Raphael, which can be found on the north aisle. The chapel’s unusual pyramid-shaped marble tombs of the banker Agostino Chigi and his brother, on the right and left walls of the chapel respectively, may have been inspired by the Roman pyramid of Cestius located in the southwest of the city.

The star attraction of the church, however, is the Cerasi Chapel, which lies to the left of the main altar. Given his wealth and social standing, the papal treasurer Tiberio Cerasi could not only afford a chapel in this revered church, but could commission two of the leading artists of his day, Caravaggio and Annibale Caracci, to decorate it. Here you’ll find two of Caravaggio’s most dramatic paintings: the Crucifixion of Saint Peter, which depicts Peter’s executioners straining to elevate the cross to which he’s been nailed; and the Conversion of Saint Paul, which shows a carthorse standing over the prostrate figure of Saul who has ‘seen the light’. Although created around the same time, Caracci’s colourful altarpiece, the Assumption of the Virgin, contrasts strikingly with Caravaggio’s foreshortened and dramatically lit figures.

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