Honors in Rome - Summer 2006
At the northern edge of Rome sits Piazza del Popolo. Among its many uses, Piazza del Popolo is rumored to be the burial ground of the Domitia family, the most famous member of which was surely Nero, the fifth emperor of Rome. Notorious for his personal debaucheries and involvement in the burning of Rome, Nero went down in history as one of Rome’s most evil rulers. After Nero’s death and supposed burial in Piazza del Popolo, Romans believed that the area became haunted by demons. There grew a walnut tree that often had black crows in it, and these birds were thought to be the physical embodiment of the demons. In 1099, Pope Paschal II held a ceremony in Piazza del Popolo, during which he cut down this walnut tree. He then founded a chapel on the ground where the tree had stood and called it Santa Maria del Popolo.
Over the years, Santa Maria del Popolo grew. The chapel was rebuilt in 1227, when Pope Gregory IX turned it into a church and gave it to the Augustinians. Then, between 1472 and 1477, Pope Sixtus IV commissioned Andrea Bregno and Baccio Pontelli to rebuild the church again. The church has not changed much since then, and thus, it has remained largely affiliated with Pope Sixtus’ IV family, the della Rovere. Many della Rovere are buried inside the church. However, in the 1500s, Santa Maria del Popolo became important to another family, the Chigi.
The Chigi family was a wealthy banking family from Siena. Well known in the Tuscan region as early as the thirteenth century, it was not until the late 1400s that the Chigi‘s power began to spread to Rome. In 1487, Agostino Chigi opened a bank in Rome and was met with great success. Between 1500 and 1520, he was undoubtedly the richest man in Rome, and in 1503, Agostino’s influence was magnified when he befriended the newly elected Pope Julius II.
Pope Julius II was a della Rovere, but he developed strong ties to the Chigi family, becoming particularly close friends with Agostino. In 1507, Pope Julius II allowed Agostino to purchase a chapel in Santa Maria del Popolo and turn it into a mausoleum for Agostino and his heirs. Agostino acquired the chapel and commissioned Raphael to redesign it. Between 1513 and 1514, work on the chapel began under the supervision of Lorenzetto. Unfortunately, in 1520, the project was interrupted when both Agostino and Raphael died. Throughout the next few decades, small sections of the chapel were periodically completed. In the 1550s, after Salviati finished the altarpiece, the Chigi Chapel was opened for the first time, yet it was still far from complete.
It was more than a century later that another Chigi would take it upon himself to finish the chapel. In the Holy Year of 1650, Fabio Chigi, the great, great nephew of Agostino, declared that he would restore his family’s mausoleum in Santa Maria del Popolo. He commissioned Bernini to do the work, and several years later, the Chigi Chapel was finally complete.
Because the Chigi Chapel was patronized by more than one person, worked on by countless artists, and completed over such a long period of time, it is a unique and diverse compilation of art. Not surprisingly, Raphael, a master of Renaissance art, originally designed a classic chapel for Agostino. While it is difficult to know whether or not the chapel was completed to Raphael’s instructions, Raphael’s taste is visible in many aspects of the room.
The Chigi Chapel is laid out in an octagonal shape (see Figure 1). Standing in the entrance, one can see the high altar straight ahead, the tomb of Agostino Chigi on the right wall, and the tomb of Sigismondo Chigi, Agostino’s brother, on the left wall. The other four sides of the octagon are made up of niches, each of which contains a statue.
Figure 1: Raphael’s octagonal ground plan for the Chigi Chapel
The architectural design of the Chigi Chapel has often been compared to that of the Pantheon. The Pantheon is circular, not octagonal, but it does have several attributes that appear in the Chigi Chapel. First, the columns in the Chigi Chapel (see Figure 2) are reminiscent of those in the Pantheon (see Figure 3). They are arranged in a similar pattern and have Corinthian orders that resemble one another.
Figure 2: Chigi Chapel columns
Figure 3: Pantheon columns
Even more notable, however, is the similarity between the domes in the two spaces. Both the Chigi Chapel and the Pantheon have coffered domes, or domes with recessed panels. In the center of the Pantheon’s dome is an oculus, a round, open hole, thought to be an eye to the heavens. In the center of the Chigi dome is a circular mosaic entitled God the Father, the Creator of the Firmament, which was executed by Luigi de Pace in 1516 (see Figure 4). Although this is not an open hole, the background of the mosaic is blue like the sky, and the subject of the piece is God. In this way, the mosaic is a pretend oculus, as if the viewer can look through the dome and see into the heavens.
Figure 4: Chigi Chapel dome
In a ring around the Chigi Chapel’s “oculus” are eight other mosaics, each personifying a planet as an Olympian deity. This collection of Olympian gods in the dome may be another reference to the Pantheon, as the literal translation of ‘pantheon’ is a grouping of the gods. Within the mosaics, each Olympian is accompanied by the spherical representation of their planet, as well as that planet’s zodiac sign. Importantly, an angel also guides each Olympian. This is meant to show that God ultimately has control over everything, even Olympian deities.
The drum of the dome contains a series of frescoes that were completed by Francesco Salviati between 1552 and 1554. These frescoes depict Creation and Original Sin. Below the drum are four more Salviati frescoes of the Allegories of the Seasons. At the high altar is another fresco, the Nativity of the Virgin, painted by Sebastiano del Piombo between 1530 and 1534. Below this is a bronze relief of Christ and the Woman of Samaria, executed by Lorenzetto. This relief was originally part of Agostino’s tomb, but Bernini moved it to the altar in the 1650s.
As previously mentioned, the tombs of Agostino and his brother are located on the right and left walls of the chapel, respectively. Both of these tombs were designed by Raphael, executed by Lorenzetto, and later altered by Bernini. In keeping with the symmetry of Renaissance style, Raphael designed almost identical tombs for the Chigi brothers. Each tomb has a medallion depicting the face of the deceased, and the tombs have similar inscriptions. Above each tomb is a lunette by Raffaele Vanni, depicting Aronne above Agostino and David above Sigismondo. Most notably, though, both tombs are pyramidal in shape (see Figures 5 & 6).
Figure 5: Agostino Chigi’s tomb
Figure 6: Sigismondo Chigi’s tomb
This design was derived from ancient Roman models and was actually a common shape in Christian monuments and tombs during Raphael’s time. However, these tombs are not true pyramids; while normal pyramids are quite equilateral in shape, these pyramids are much longer than they are wide. Raphael used an innovative pattern for these tombs that combines a pyramid with an obelisk. It is as if he has stretched the pyramids vertically to partially transform them into obelisks. Their shape may be reminiscent of the funeral pyres on which Roman emperors were historically cremated. During these cremations, an eagle would be released skyward as a representation of the soul flying to heaven. Not coincidentally, there are eagles carved into the frieze above the Chigi tombs, representing the ascension of the Chigi souls into heaven.
Although the contemporary tombs are quite similar to Raphael’s original design, Bernini did make several changes. He stripped the tombs of their bronze, moved Agostino’s bronze relief to the altar, and cancelled plans for a matching relief that was meant for Sigismondo’s tomb. The original inscriptions on the tombs were also different. Raphael intended for the inscriptions to appear to be written on scrolls. Instead, Bernini allowed the inscriptions to span the pyramids.
Bernini also made an alteration to the floor of the Chigi Chapel. Above the entrance to the crypt, Bernini added a marble figure of Death (see Figure 7). This piece is a circular slab of black marble with a skeleton in the center. The dark background creates the illusion that the viewer is looking directly through the floor into the crypt, while the skeleton, with wings and bent knees, appears to be lunging out of the crypt. The skeleton is carrying the Chigi coat of arms, containing both Chigi and della Rovere symbols. Under the skeleton is a Latin inscription that refers to the ascension of the dead into heaven and contains a hidden reference to the Holy Year of 1650.
Figure 7: Skeleton carrying the Chigi coat of arms on the Chigi Chapel floor
Yet even more notable than these alterations were the changes Bernini made to the chapel’s statues. The Chigi Chapel contains four statues, two by Raphael and two by Bernini. In the front left niche is Jonah, designed by Raphael and executed by Lorenzetto (see Figure 8). Raphael’s selection of Jonah as a subject is important because Jonah is considered to be the precursor of the resurrected Christ, as he spent three days in the belly of the whale before being saved.
Figure 8: Jonah, by Raphael, Lorenzetto
The other statue by Raphael is located in the back right niche of the chapel. This sculpture is of Elijah and was executed by Raffaello da Montelupo (no figure available). Another interesting subject, Elijah represents Christ of the ascension because he once ascended to heaven in a chariot of fire.
In the front right niche is Bernini’s Habakkuk (see Figure 9). In Habakkuk’s story, he is taking a basket of bread to some field hands when an angel appears. The angel miraculously lifts Habakkuk “by the forelock” and carries him to Daniel, a Jewish exile in Babylon who has been cast into a den of lions and needs food. Bernini’s sculpture depicts the instant in which the angel lifts Habakkuk. Habakkuk is holding a basket, and the angel is pointing in the direction that she will take him.
Figure 9: Habakkuk, by Bernini
One only has to follow the outstretched hand of the angel to see that she is pointing across the chapel at Bernini’s other sculpture, which is, of course, Daniel (see Figure 10). Bernini shows Daniel in a moment of prayer. The figure is kneeling, his head upturned, his lips parted, and his hands raised, asking for deliverance from the lion’s den. At Daniel’s feet is a lion, but strangely, the lion is licking Daniel. This implies the story’s ending, in which Daniel’s prayers are answered.
Figure 10: Daniel, by Bernini
Bernini’s contribution of Habakkuk and Daniel significantly altered the way visitors to the Chigi Chapel were impacted. The sculpture of Habakkuk is one of the first things you notice upon entering the room. It has intentionally been placed near the altar so that the eye is drawn to it. Then, looking more closely at the sculpture, viewers may wonder where the angel is pointing. This leads one’s eye to Daniel, but the sequential experience does not stop here. Daniel is certainly not psychologically contained. Like Habakkuk’s angel, Daniel is gesturing to someone. Remembering the central mosaic of the dome, it is clear that Daniel is not gazing up at an imaginary God. Instead, he is engaged with the mosaic of God the Father. Bernini meant for the viewer’s gaze to be drawn to this mosaic as well, following from Habakkuk to Daniel to God.
Raphael was no stranger to this technique either. When he designed the God the Father mosaic, Raphael intentionally placed the figure of God on the North side of the mosaic, with His feet directly above the high altar. The optimal viewing point of this mosaic is near the entryway of the chapel. Raphael’s design forces visitors to face the high altar in order to view the central mosaic properly. Thus, after viewing the mosaic, the visitor’s eye will naturally fall upon the altarpiece and Piombo’s fresco, as a reminder that the chapel is dedicated to the Virgin.
In guiding visitors’ experiences of the chapel, Bernini and Raphael emphasized the religious function of the space. Thus, the chapel could be meaningful to all Romans, not just those desiring to pay tribute to the Chigi family. However, the second function of the chapel as a mausoleum was important to the overall themes that Raphael and Bernini portrayed in their art. The chapel’s message is one of creation and redemption. Creation is clearly represented in the dome of the chapel, with the figure of God, the mosaics of the planets, and the frescoes of Creation and Original Sin and the Allegories of the Seasons.
Yet the more important theme seems to be redemption. As aforementioned, Jonah and Elijah represent Christ of the resurrection and Christ of the ascension, respectively. Additionally, the eagles above the tombs and the skeleton emerging from the floor are representations of the dead ascending into heaven. It has also been theorized that the fresco in the altarpiece was originally intended to be the Ascension of the Virgin, which would logically fit with the theme of redemption. A more subtle portrayal of redemption is apparent in the chapel’s colors. The floor is black and white, and the lower walls of the chapel are composed of white, gray, and dark earth tones. This gives the chapel a shadowy feel. The dome, on the other hand, contains a lot of gold, making it very bright. Most of the mosaics have sky-blue backgrounds and glisten in the light. This color scheme was deliberately chosen to express the movement of the dead souls upward from the shadowy depths of the tombs to the golden light of heaven.
It is likely that not only the artists, but also the Chigi patrons were interested in promoting this idea of redemption. However, the Chigis had personal motivations for creating the chapel as well. Like most men of his wealth and status, Agostino wanted to be remembered as magnificent. His patronage of the arts was not simply for pleasure; it was a means of demonstrating his endless wealth. The Chigi Chapel is far from modest. It is full of expensive marble, with a dome coated in gold. Agostino requested the use of mosaics in the dome, rather than frescoes, which would have been more cost-effective. Furthermore, in yet another show of wealth, Agostino and Fabio hired two of the most sought after artists to work on the chapel.
The location and architectural form of the Chigi Chapel are no accident either. The chapel’s location in Santa Maria del Popolo is significant because the church is connected to both the della Rovere family and the Augustinians. At the time the chapel was built, the della Rovere had a great deal of power, and Agostino was glad to be affiliated with them. Likewise, it is not surprising that Agostino purchased a chapel in an Augustinian church. Augustus has been remembered as one of Rome’s finest leaders, and throughout history, other Romans have constantly aspired to be associated with him. Agostino was no exception; he used not only the location of his chapel, but also its form to connect himself to Augustus. The architectural similarities between the Chigi Chapel and the Pantheon were likely an intentional means of subtly reconnecting Agostino to Augustus. The Pantheon is thought to be associated with Augustus, so it is quite logical that Agostino would want to be associated with the Pantheon.
Unfortunately for Agostino, most present-day visitors to the Chigi Chapel find it interesting for its unique collection of art rather than its representation of Chigi wealth and greatness. Raphael’s work in this chapel was innovative for its time and influential to future artists. For example, his hybrid of the pyramid and the obelisk was a form often found in later works. Similar designs appeared throughout the seventeenth century in the Contarini monument at Padua, the Dumo at Vicenza, and in Naples. In fact, Fabio Chigi donated six reliquaries of this shape to Santa Maria del Popolo during his renovation of the church. Raphael’s design for the mosaics in the dome was also incredibly inventive. While previous artists had struggled to create illusionistic paintings across domes, Raphael managed to design a compilation of mosaics that suggest the existence of a continuous space beyond the dome. Indeed, the viewer feels as though God and the Olympian deities are together in one sky that is outside the chapel. Raphael’s dome design influenced the work of many future artists, including Correggio in Parma.
Yet the aspect of the Chigi Chapel that I find most fascinating is its rare combination of Renaissance and Baroque art. It is not often that one space contains such magnificent works from such different artists. While Raphael’s layout maintained a classic, symmetrical style that is aesthetically pleasing, Bernini’s alterations contributed a dramatic flair that keeps visitors intrigued. The end result is a chapel in which a beautiful mosaic of God looks down upon a dark, theatrical skeleton. It is a room in which two Renaissance sculptures and two Baroque sculptures face off across Bernini’s dramatic diagonals. Some claim that this blend of artistic styles has left the chapel disjointed and peculiar. Yet I would argue that the Chigi family is incredibly fortunate to be represented by not one amazing artist, but two, in a chapel that is truly one of a kind.
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