See world-class art at one of Rome’s most unique basilicas.
Santa Maria del Popolo might seem like an unassuming church on the outside, but it holds artistic treasures from the likes of Caravaggio and Raphael within. From its legendary origin story to its prime location on one of the most popular piazzas in Rome, this basilica won’t fail to impress.
- Discover the magnificent Chigi Chapel, designed by Raphael and completed by Bernini.
- Feel the drama exuding from Caravaggio’s masterpieces in the Cerasi Chapel.
- Learn about the basilica’s legendary beginnings – do you feel the presence of an evil spirit?
What to see and do
Although the exterior of the church may be a little subdued compared to other Roman churches, the interior holds exquisite treasures. The chapels are undoubtedly the highlights of any visit. Here are some of the best of them below.
The Chigi Chapel
The Chigi Chapel is probably the most famous chapel in the basilica. It was designed by Renaissance master Raphael for his friend and patron the banker Agostino Chigi. He’s interred here in an unusual pyramidal tomb, also designed by Raphael.
Unfortunately, work on the chapel was interrupted in 1520 by the untimely deaths of both Raphael and Chigi and was only completed a century later by Bernini at the request of Pope Alexander VII, also belonging to the Chigi family.
Raphael made the sketches for the mosaics of the dome and designed two of the statues of the prophets (Jonah and Elijah) in the niches of the chapel, but they were all completed by other artists. The other two prophet statues were designed by Bernini.
The Cerasi Chapel
The Cerasi Chapel contains two masterpieces by Caravaggio: The Crucifixion of St. Peter and The Conversion of St. Paul. They were commissioned in 1600 by the owner of the chapel, Tiberio Cerasi, who was treasurer to Pope Clement XVII.
Caravaggio’s signature use of chiaroscuro is on full display here and the two paintings face each other, charging the chapel with an intense atmosphere.
At the same time as the Caravaggio commission, Cerasi also employed renowned artist Annibale Carracci in painting the altarpiece, which depicts The Assumption. This is displayed between the two Caravaggio’s and also shows Sts. Peter and Paul, this time looking up at the Virgin in amazement.
The Della Rovere Chapel
This chapel was built for the Della Rovere clan in the 15th century. They were a family from the northwest of Italy who made their fortune in Rome. It’s dedicated to St. Jerome and to the Nativity.
The frescoes in the lunettes depict scenes from the life of St. Jerome, and they are certainly worth a look, but the real draw to the chapel is the magnificent altarpiece of The Adoration of the Child by the Renaissance artist Pinturicchio.
In it, baby Jesus lies in front of the hut of the Nativity while the Holy Family, together with St. Jerome and the shepherds, adore him. In the distance, a city can be seen on the banks of a river with bluish mountains behind it. Pinturiccio, though a master, is struggling a bit with the proper use of perspective as can be seen by his depiction of the figures in the background.
Santa Maria del Popolo is located on the north side of Piazza del Popolo, one of Rome’s most visited squares. It’s easily accessible by both public transport, and on foot from other hotspots in Rome.
Metro: Line A – Flaminio
Bus: Lines 88, 95, 117, 119, 490, 495 and 926 all stop nearby.
Tram: Line 2 – Piazzale Flaminio
Did you know that: (5 Interesting Facts!)
- Santa Maria del Popolo has the oldest stained glass windows in Rome. They were designed by French artist, Guillaume de Marcillat in 1509.
- There is some debate as to the origin of the name ‘Popolo’. It originates from the Latin word ‘populus’ which can mean either ‘of the people’ or ‘poplar trees’. Apparently, the church was constructed by the desire of the people of Rome, but it was also built in an area that used to be covered by a forest of poplars.
- Some say that the church is still haunted to this day by the ghost of Emperor Nero and that the nearby residents are plagued by evil spirits!
- In 1511, Protestant reformer Martin Luther stayed in the monastery adjacent to the church on his visit to Rome, as he was a former Augustinian friar.
- The church is featured in the bestselling novel by Dan Brown, Angels & Demons, the prequel to The Da Vinci Code.
- Legend has it that one of Rome’s most notorious emperors, Nero, was buried at this site at the base of the Pincian hill. From his grave had sprouted a haunted walnut tree where crows said to be demons roosted.
- In 1099, to put an end to the myth, Pope Paschal II threw Nero’s ashes in the Tiber river, cut down the tree, and built a Romanesque chapel here in its place.
- In 1235, the church was enlarged and consecrated to Our Lady Mary by Pope Gregory IX.
- Although initially run by Franciscans, in 1250 they were replaced by Augustinian friars, who founded a monastery right next door to it.
- Between 1472 and 1478 the church and the monastery were rebuilt by order of Pope Sixtus IV, making it one of the first Renaissance churches in Rome.
- In 1527, the church was pillaged and damaged during the Sack of Rome and was subsequently renovated. During this period Raphael decorated the new Chigi Chapel and Bramante restored the choir.
- In 1600, Pope Alexander VII commissioned Gian Lorenzo Bernini to restore parts of the façade and the interior, thus giving the church a more Baroque appearance.
- During the 19th century, Piazza del Popolo, the square that hosts the church, was completely renovated and given a new layout. In the process, the monastery was torn down and rebuilt on a much smaller scale.
- Today, Santa Maria del Popolo is a functioning church that is much loved by both locals and tourists alike. People come here to attend mass, get married, or simply admire the beautiful artworks.
Address: Basilica Parrocchiale Santa Maria del Popolo, Piazza del Popolo 12, 00187 Roma, Italy · view larger map