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  • Writer's pictureWill von Behr, MA

A Brief History of Santa Maria Della Vittoria in Rome

What is Santa Maria Della Vittoria?

Santa Maria Della Vittoria is a 17th-century Roman Catholic church in Rome that was designed by Carlo Maderno and is famous for Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s Cornaro Chapel.

Santa Maria Della Vittoria Exterior

Santa Maria Della Vittoria History

The Baroque Period in art, architecture and sculpture is characterised by its exuberance and theatricality, designed in order to rouse viewers’ emotions. This theatricality is clear in Santa Maria Della Vittoria, one of Rome’s most typically Baroque churches, with its ornate, complex designs and statues sculpted to convey a sense of motion and intensity. Whilst you wander around the well-proportioned interior (designed by Carlo Maderno, one of the masters of early Baroque architecture), you’ll notice vibrant ceiling frescoes with three-dimensional stucco angels that appear to be flying overhead. The image above the main altar shows the moment the sun’s rays break through the clouds. The scene is dynamic, filled with light and energy.

The church’s most famous work is Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s marble group, the Ecstasy of Saint Theresa, famed for its sexual connotations and found in the centre of the Cornaro Chapel. This dramatic work captures the moment an angel plunges an arrow into Saint Theresa, an encounter that had come to her in a vision. Saint Theresa’s clothing, although constructed from marble, seems to flow and swirl around her, whilst the angel stands poised, ready to thrust the arrow into her heart at any moment.

Santa Maria Della Vittoria Ceiling

The sculpture is framed with large columns and ingeniously illuminated by natural light, which falls through a window of yellow glass hidden behind the pediment: a clever piece of 17th-century stagecraft. As if to emphasise the drama, on either side figures from the family of Cardinal Federico Cornaro (Bernini’s patron who commissioned the chapel) spectate from theatre boxes. Look closely at the left-hand box and you’ll see a head peeping out from behind the figure reading a book: this is said to be a portrait of Bernini himself.

The central scene was inspired by the principles of the Counter-Reformation (a period of Catholic resurgence in the 16th and 17th centuries), that stressed the value of reliving Christ’s passion. Bernini’s depiction of the ecstatic saint, which aims to induce an intense religious experience in worshippers, is generally considered by art historians to be the sculptor’s best work.

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