Basilica of Santa Maria del Popolo
Here’s my guide to visiting the Basilica of Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome Italy. The church is one of the best free things to do and see in Rome and a must visit destinations for art lovers. I give you an overview of the church’s history and tell you everything to see inside.
Santa Maria del Popolo stands on the northern end of one of Rome’s famous squares, the Piazza del Popolo. It’s a minor basilica in Rome, run by the Augustinian order. Like the Basilica of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, it has an unassuming facade but inside houses magnificent artistic treasures.
You can find works by the greatest Renaissance and Baroque artists of the day — Caravaggio, Raphael, Bernini, Pinturicchio, and Carracci. The most famous works can be found in the Chigi Chapel and the Cerasi Chapel.
History of Santa Maria del Popolo and the Piazza del Popolo
Santa Maria del Popolo began life as a modest church, intended to erase the memory of the evil Emperor Nero. The first foundation stone of the basilica was laid on the spot where Nero was buried.
Legend holds that a tree grew from Nero’s bones and was possessed by demons. In the 11 century, Pope Paschal II exorcised the demons and removed the tree, clearing the way for the basilica.
side view of the basilica
In the late 15th century, Pope Sixtus IV began a series of building projects. He demolished and rebuilt the 11th century church. In the 16th century, his nephew Pope Julius II expanded and decorated the church.
In 1589, Pope Sixtus V erected the 13th century B.C. obelisk in the center of the Piazza del Popolo. The obelisk was originally brought to Rome from Egypt by Emperor Augustus.
Sixtus moved it from the Circus Maximus to the Piazza del Popolo. Topped with a cross, it’s the focal point of this triumphal gateway to the city.
In 1655, the Chigi pope ascended to the papacy as Alexander VII. He had Bernini embellish the basilica and developed the piazza in earnest. He commissioned Carlo Rainaldi to design and build the other two churches on the piazza, Santa Maria idi Montesanta and Santa Maria dei Miracoli.
detail of the Neptune fountain in the Piazza del Popolo
What To See at the Basilica of Santa Maria del Popolo
Although the foundations date to the 11th century, as it stands, Santa Maria del Popolo is largely a Renaissance church, with contributions by Raphael and Bramante.
Here are the highlights and things not to miss at Santa Maria del Popolo:
The simple Renaissance facade was added by Baccio Pintelli. It’s made of white travertine limestone. The rectangular door and windows are paired up and topped by triangular pediments. There are two domed chapels.
To the right as you face the church is a second entrance with a raised triangular pediment. This door leads firstly into an antechamber and the domed Chapel of the Nativity.
The other dome, on the north side, belongs to the Chigi Chapel. It has a saucer style dome set on on a circular drum with eight rectangular windows.
high altar, designed by Bernini
The church has a classic basilica plan — a Latin cross footprint with a nave and two side aisles. There are four chapels in each aisle and a transept with a central dome.
In the 17th century, Pope Alexander VII had Bernini give the church’s nave a Baroque makeover. Bernini designed a rather gaudy main altar.
There’s a well lit painting of Mary over the altar, though it’s rather obscured by all the Bernini marble. But Bernini left the vaulting white.
The architect Donato Bramante also built the apse choir in a shell shape, behind the high altar.
3. Pinturicchio Ceiling Fresco in the Choir
If you head into the choir through one of the portals on the sides of the altar, you’ll see Pinturicchio’s masterpiece, The Ceiling of the Tribune. He painted it for Pope Julius II in 1509.
Pinturucchio’s Ceiling of the Tribune
Pinturicchio was from the town of Perugia in Umbria. He worked often with Pietro Perugino, who employed a young Raphael. Pinturicchio also decorated the Borgia Apartments in the Vatican Museums.
The ceiling fresco depicts Jesus crowning Mary. Mary and Jesus are in the center. The four evangelists are in the medallions around them. In the corners are doctors of the Latin church and the sybils.
Pinturicchio painted this fresco at the same time Michelangelo was working his magic on the Sistine Chapel frescos.
On each side of the choir, you’ll also see beautiful stained glass windows. Made for Pope Julius II in 1509, they show scenes from the life of Mary and Jesus.
the Chigi Chapel
4. Chigi Chapel
The Chigi Chapel is an impressive and spectacularly underrated site in Rome. It was originally designed by Raphael, who was commissioned by Agostino Chigi of Villa Farnesina fame. Bernini finished the chapel 150 years later for another Chigi, Pope Alexander VII.
The chapel not only features sculptures by Bernini, but has paintings by Caravaggio and mosaics designed by Raphael. The floor mosaic is Bernini’s Winged Death with the Chigi coat of arms.
At first glance, the Chigi Chapel seems just like any other church chapel, adorned with art and inlaid with precious stone. But the space has a compelling geometry. There’s an interplay of drum and dome, a rhythm created by the vertical Corinthian pilasters, and matching red marble pyramids mark the Chigis’ graves.
Bernini’s Winged Death design for the mosaic floor
Bernini’s Daniel sculpture in the Chigi Chapel
For this chapel, Bernini carved two sculptural groups in 1655-61, Daniel in the Lions’ Den and Habakkuk and the Angel.
These two sculptures show the beginning of Bernini’s late style, with slightly more elongated figures characteristic of the earlier Mannerism.
Daniel is the superior one. In it, a young Daniel reaches his arms toward heaven, praying to escape the lion. The flowing drapery is pure Bernini.
Raphael designed dome of the Chigi Chapel
In designing the chapel, Raphael used an octagonal shape for the chapel and topped it with a cupola inlaid with mosaics. Raphael designed the cartoon (preparatory sketch) for the mosaics.
A famous Venetian mosaicist, Luigi della Pace, created the mosaics. Depicting pagan gods, these are the last classical mosaics in Rome. And the only surviving mosaics designed by Raphael.
Painting by Sebastian del Piombi
Del Piombi created the altarpiece painting between the Bernini sculptures. Del Piombo, a favorite of Michelangelo, used a Michelangelo cartoon to paint the Nativity of the Virgin.
5. Cerasi Chapel: Caravaggio Paintings
The Cerasi Chapel is the most popular spot in the church.
In 1600, Monsignor Cerasi commissioned Caravaggio to create two paintings for the chapel, the Crucifixion of St. Peter and the Conversion of St. Paul. This was a difficult commission. Cerasi rejected Caravaggio’s initial paintings, forcing him to redo them. Caravaggio later resold them to his more avid collectors.
Both accepted paintings are austere and intense. The Crucifixion of St. Peter is still full of bold choices.
In it, Peter looks like an ordinary man, not a glorified saint. One of his executioners even has dirty feet. Caravaggio effectively put biblical characters on the same level as ordinary citizens.
The Conversion of St. Paul is also powerful. It shows Caravaggio’s masterful use of light. A warm glow washes over Paul as he falls from his horse and emerges from the darkness in an ecstasy of revelation.
Annabale Carracci’s Assumption of the Virgin
The horse rather than Paul is the dominant feature of the composition. Its rump is pointed at another painting in the chapel by Caravaggio’s Baroque rival, the painter Annibale Carracci.
This controversial angle sparked controversy. A church official queried, “Why have you put a horse in the middle, and Saint Paul on the ground?” Caravaggio responded: “Because! Is the horse God? No, but he stands in God’s light!”
In between Caravaggio’s two paintings is an Assumption painting by Carracci. Unlike the Caravaggios, it’s an idealized devotional depiction with vivid color and less emotion and naturalism than Caravaggio’s works.
Pinturicchio’s painting of Jerome at the Christ Child’s Chamber
6. St. Jerome’s Chapel
This chapel is also known as the Cappella della Rovere. It’s to the immediate right of the main altar.
The chapel is home to one of Pinturicchio’s greatest works, The Nativity with Saint Jerome, painted from 1482-85. Above this painting in the vaults are five scenes from the life of Jerome. Above that is a dark blue sky studded with stars.
The chapel also contains two della Rovere tombs and the tomb of Giovanni de Castro.
7. Chapel of Saint Augustine
This chapel also has some lovely Pinturicchio frescos. In 1486-1504, the artists painted scenes of Mary. Mary is mourned in her sarcophagus and then is taken to heaven by angels.
view of the Piazza del Popolo from the Borghese Gardens
Practical Information for Visiting Santa Maria del Popolo:
Address: Piazza del Popolo 12
Hours: Monday to Friday 7:00 am to noon & 4:00 pm to 7:00 pm. Saturdays 7:30 am to 9:00 pm. Sundays 7:30 am to 1:30 pm & 4:30 to 7:00 pm. Visits are not allowed during mass.
Entry fee: free
Getting there: The Flaminio Metro stop is a 1 minute walk. The Spagna stop at Piazza di Spagna (Spanish Steps) is a 10 minute walk.
Pro tips: There is a beautiful view of the Piazza del Popolo from the Pincio Terrace in the Borghese Gardens. The basilica in an 8 minute walk to the stunning Borghese Gallery.
I hope you’ve enjoyed my guide to visiting the Basilica of Santa Maria del Popolo. You may enjoy these other Rome travel guides and resources:
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