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Rome's Top 10 : Santa Maria del Popolo

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Few churches are such perfect primers on Roman art and architecture. Masters from the Early Renaissance (Pinturicchio, Bramante), High Renaissance (Raphael) and Baroque (Caravaggio, Bernini) exercised their genius in all disciplines here: painting, sculpture, architecture and decoration. It’s also one of the few churches with major chapels still intact, preserving the artworks that together tell a complete story (most Italian chapels have been dismantled, their paintings now in museums). In the Cerasi Chapel, Caravaggio and Caracci collaborated with a frescoist to create a depiction of Peter, Paul and Mary and, on the vault, their connections to Heaven. Bernini altered Raphael’s Chigi Chapel to help clarify the interplay of its art across the small space.

  • Piazza del Popolo 12

  • Open 7am–noon, 4:30–7:30pm Mon–Sat, 8am–1:30pm, 4:30– 7:30pm Sun

  • Free


The People’s Church

The ghost of Nero, buried in the Domitia family crypt on the Pincio , terrorized this neighbourhood in the form of demon crows that lived in a cursed tree. Pope Paschal II reassured the locals in 1099 by replacing the tree with a chapel paid for by the people (il popolo). It was enlarged in 1227 and rebuilt in Lombard style in 1472–7. Andrea Bregno may have added the Renaissance façade, and Bernini a Baroque touch to the interior.


Plan of Santa Maria del Popolo

Façade, Santa Maria del Popolo

Canova and Rosati cafés are both on Piazza del Popolo.


Some of the church’s treasures are behind the High Altar in the choir and apse. When mass is not in session, you are allowed to go behind the curtain to the left of the altar and switch on the lights in the fuse box to see them.




Top 10 Features
  1. Crucifixion of St Peter

    Caravaggio has avoided the melodrama and goriness of his earlier works and packed drama into this chiaroscuro work (1601). The naturalistic figures quietly go about their business, the tired workers hauling the cross into place, Peter looking sad and contemplative.

  2. Conversion of St Paul

    Again, Caravaggio leaves all drama to the effects of light, depicting an awe-struck Paul transfixed by blinding light (1601).

  3. Raphael’s Chigi Chapel

    Raphael designed this exquisite chapel for papal banker Agostini Chigi, including the frescoes and niche statues (1519–23).

  4. Bernini’s Chigi Chapel

    Cardinal Fabio Chigi hired Bernini to finish the job begun by Raphael 130 years earlier. The artist only deviated from the original plan in two Biblical niche statues.

  5. Pinturicchio’s Adoration

    Raphael’s elder contemporary retained more of their teacher Perugino’s limpid Umbrian style in this 1490 work in the della Rovere chapel. Also in the chapel is Cardinal Cristoforo’s tomb sculpted by Francesco da Sangallo (1478), while Domenico’s tomb (1477) features a Madonna with Child by Mino da Fiesole.

  6. Sansovino Tombs

    Under triumphal arch tombs, Tuscan Andrea Sansovino gave a Renaissance/Etruscan twist to the traditional lying-in-state look (1505– 07). These effigies of Cardinal Girolamo Basso della Rovere and Cardinal Asciano Sforza recline on cushions as if merely asleep).

  7. Marcillat’s Stained-Glass Window

    The only Roman work by Guillaume de Marcillat (1509), the undisputed French master of stained glass, depicts the Infancy of Christ and Life of the Virgin.

  8. Bramante’s Apse

    The Renaissance architect’s first work in Rome, commissioned by Julius II around 1500, was this beautiful light-filled choir and scallop shell-shaped apse.

  9. Cybo Chapel

    Carlo Fontana managed to make this Baroque confection of multicoloured marbles and a Carlo Maratta Immaculate Conception altarpiece blend together in his 1682–7 design.

  10. Sebastiano del Piombo’s Nativity of the Virgin

    This altarpiece in the Chigi Chapel (1530–34) is in contrast to the dome’s Neo-pagan themes, the Eternal Father blessing Chigi’s horoscope of planets symbolized by pagan gods.

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