Church of San Marcello al Corso – a church filled with beautiful tombstones

Church of San Marcello, main nave, Jacopo Sansovino

Church of San Marcello, main nave, Jacopo Sansovino

A church, which rarely goes unnoticed by somebody who visits Rome, since it is located on one of the most famous Roman streets the via del Corso, but is equally rarely visited, was built in a location where – according to a legend - the martyrdom of Pope Marcellus I took place. Although, we do not know much about the bishop of Rome who became a saint and whose pontificate lasted only a year, his vita, perfectly illustrates the friction and problems, which occurred in the early-Christian Church. It is here, that one of the first titulae was created, a place of meetings for Christians, and later a church, which in the XII century took on a Roman appearance.

Church of San Marcello, main nave, Jacopo Sansovino
Church of San Marcello at via del Corso
Church of San Marcello, medallion in the lintel of the church depicting St. Philip Benizi Refusing the Tiara, Antonio Raggi
Church of San Marcello, tombstone of Giovanni Michiel and Antonio Orso, Jacopo Sansovino
Church of San Marcello, funerary monument of Cardinal Francesco Cennini, Giovanni Francesco dei Rossi
Church of San Marcello, interior with a view of the main enterance, in the lintel scene of the Crucifixion, Giovanni Battista Ricci
Church of San Marcello, Muti Chapel, tombstone of Giovanni Muti
Church of San Marcello, Muti family chapel, tombstone of Maria Colomba Vicentini
Church of San Marcello, Madonna with Child, XIV century
Church of San Marcello, fresco in the vault of the Chapel of the Crucifix, The Creation of Eve
Church of San Marcello, Chapel of the Crucifix with a crucifix famous for miracles
Church of San Marcello, Baroque funerary monument of Cardinal Fabrizio Paolucci, Pietro Bracci
Church of San Marcello, monument commemorating Cardinal Camillo Merlini
Church of San Marcello, Chapel of St. Paul (Frangipane family), The Conversion of St. Paul, Taddeo Zuccari, 1558
Church of San Marcello, Frangipane family chapel, funerary bust of the family, Alessandro Algardi
Church of San Marcello, Frangipane family chapel, busts of family representatives
Church of San Marcello, main altar, The Glory of St. Marcellus, XIX century
Church of San Marcello, vault of the Frangipane family chapel
Church of San Marcello, The Creation of Eve, fresco by Daniele da Volterra, Chapel of the Cross
Church of San Marcello, funerary monument of Cardinal Francesco Cennini
Church of San Marcello, tombstone of Cardinal Giovanni Michiel, fragment
Church of San Marcello, tombstone of Cardinal Giovanni Michiel and Antonio Orso, Jacopo Sansovino, fragment
Church of San Marcello, Paolucci Chapel
Church of San Marcello, Frangipane family chapel, main altar – The Conversion of St. Paul, Taddeo Zuccari
Church of San Marcello, top of the apse of the main altar
Church of San Marcello, funerary monument of Cardinal Fabrizio Paolucci, Pietro Bracci, fragment
Church of San Marcello, monument of Maria Colomba Vicentini, Bernardino Cametti, fragment
Church of San Marcello, frescoes by Francesco Salviati, in the center Madonna with Child
Church of San Marcello, Chapel of the Crucifix, classicist funerary monument from 1831

A church, which rarely goes unnoticed by somebody who visits Rome, since it is located on one of the most famous Roman streets the via del Corso, but is equally rarely visited, was built in a location where – according to a legend - the martyrdom of Pope Marcellus I took place. Although, we do not know much about the bishop of Rome who became a saint and whose pontificate lasted only a year, his vita, perfectly illustrates the friction and problems, which occurred in the early-Christian Church. It is here, that one of the first titulae was created, a place of meetings for Christians, and later a church, which in the XII century took on a Roman appearance.

 


In the XIV century a monastery was erected in this location, while the church was taken over by friars from the Order of the Servites. It almost completely burned down around 1519. Rebuilding of the church was undertaken by the architect Jacopo Sansovino, who completely changed its arrangements. Works lasted until the unfavorable for the city year of 1527. A band of loot-thirsty German landsknechts invaded the city, looting and desecrating churches and killing priests; a time of great misfortune began – Sacco di Roma. The money which was previously gathered and was to be used for church rebuilding was in fact used as an extortion payment for the invaders, who taking it, spared the lives of the friars and the church itself. Sansovino escaped from the city and never again returned. When the armies of Charles V, left Rome, the rebuilding slowly continued. This time its supervision was entrusted to another renowned constructor, the designer of St. Peter’s Basilica (San Pietro in Vaticano) – Antonio da Sangallo (the Younger). The main body of the building was completed in 1593, however it took another one hundered years, for Carlo Fontanta, to adorn it with a Baroque, eye-catching façade (1683). On it,   Baroque sculptures were placed, as well as a relief located above the enterance, depicting not as one would assume Saint Marcellus, but another saint connected with this church – Philip Benitius (Filippo Benizi) – since 1267 the general superior of the Order of the Servites. He was depicted at the moment of refusing to accept the papal tiara. This story is connected with the longest in the history of the Church, lasting for almost two years, conclave of Viterbo (1268-1271), during which Benitius firmly refused to accept the dignity of pope, choosing instead to lead the humble life of a monk and service to the sick and the poor.

The broad interior, designed by Sansovino in the form of a hall, onto which side chapels open, began to be decorated in the XVI century and this continued in subsequent centuries.

The tombstones located within are especially valuable.

  • One of these is located immediately at the enterance, a late-Renaissance, two-story tombstone, attributed to Jacopo Sansovino, dating back to the beginning of the XVI century. It was created for the unfortunate, poisoned by Pope Alexander VI, Cardinal Giovanni Michiel and his nephew Bishop Antonio Orso. It is one of those funerary sculptures, which shows not a dead, but a sleeping deceased, proposing an interpretation of death (sleep) as a transitional stage between earthly and eternal life.
 


  • On the other side of the enterance, another tombstone of similar kind is located. Here, the figure is also lying, but this time not sleeping, but looking directly at us from his funeral bed. The sculpture commemorates Cardinal Francesco Cennini, while its creator was Giovanni Francesco dei Rossi (1645), who then went to Poland, and worked there for many years. Comparing both of these tombstones, we can ponder the development of funerary art, which occurred over the course of 150 years, from the times of the Renaissance to rococo. The image of cardinal Cennini, is reminiscent more of an ancient god of rivers, rather than a church dignitary, even more so since he is accompanied by a personification (of most likely) Caritas with a bare breast.
  • A painting by Giovanni Battista Ricci (1613) stretches above both of the tombstones, depicting the scene of The Crucifixion, which is far removed from the standard which we are familiar with. The invaders which brutally interrupt the scene of the Passion, are a direct reference to the frightening moments experienced by the church and its guardians during Sacco di Roma.
  • In the second chapel on the right, there is a painting depicting the martyrdom of early-Christian holy virgins, whose relics are found in the main altar of the church. The founders of the church are the husband and wife duo of the Mutis, adoring the chapel altar. However, they do it in such a way, that it is difficult not to think that they are more concentrated on self-adoration, rather than prayer. We can also cannot help and think that the deceased Giovanni Andrea, in a draped wig, with an elegant gesture is inviting his wife (Maria Colomba Vincentini) dressed in a gossamer gown, to dance, an invitation she will gladly accept, as soon as she finishes her prayer. Here we are witness to a typical, not without mastery, example of rococo courtly art, which became popular in Rome in the first half of the XVIII century. The sculptures were completed in 1725 by Bernardino Cametti.
  • The third chapel on the right, of which the principal element is a XIV-century painting, depicting Madonna and Child, is adorned by the frescos of an outstanding Florentine mannerist Francesco Salviati, showing scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary. The tombstone with the image of Bishop Matteo Grifoni from 1567, is also located here.
  • The decorations in the following chapel (Chapel of the Crucifix) were entrusted to Perino del Vaga, a student of Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio). His paintings were supposed to represent The Creation of Eve, as well as the Four Evangelists. The works on them survived Sacco di Roma. Their completion was undertaken by Daniele da Volterra and Pellegrino Tibaldi. The amazing fresco depicting the birth of the first woman is found at the top of the chapel. We will see her, on desolate, barren land, while her calling to life is the beginning and an omen of fertile and lush nature. The greatest treasure of this chapel is a wooden crucifix. It survived a fire in a miraculous way and became a relic and an item of special worship since the moment, when carried in 1522, during a procession, which was to stop the epidemic in the city, it turned out to be effective.

 

In order to add something to our knowledge on the subject of funerary art, it is a good idea to take a look at a typical for classicism tombstone, located on the left side of the chapel. It was created in 1831 to commemorate Cardinal Ercole Consalvi and his brother Andrea.

  • In the fifth chapel on the right we will see a tombstone of Cardinal Fabrizio Paolucci (1729). This elegant tombstone was created by a fashionable at that time artist - Pietro Bracci, the very same who completed the main figure of Oceanus at the Fontana di Trevi. The bust of the cardinal, was placed in a medallion, which is held against the chest of an angel of death. On the opposite side, another much more modest medallion is found, of another cardinal from the Paolucci family – Camillo Merlini. Its creator was an artist who is more known in Poland than in Italy, a second-rate, nevertheless able stuccator and sculptor Tommaso Righi (1776).
  • In the fourth chapel on the left, we will discover the works of Taddeo and Federico Zuccari – almost textbook representatives of Roman mannerism, who decorated the chapel with paintings and frescos connected with the life of St. Paul. The shining, made on slate, altarpiece (1558) represents the frequently undertaken by the then artists (and forty years later by Caravaggio) topic of the miraculous conversion of the Jew Saul, on his way to Damascus, who is then transformed into a defender of Christians – Paul. Taddeo was clearly inspired by the fresco of Michelangelo from the palace chapel on the Vatican (Cappella Paolina), however, his Paul, as opposed to the one represented by Michelangelo Buonarroti, is young. On either side of the chapel, there are busts of the renowned Roman Frangipani family. The ones found on the right, distinguished by their expert craftsmanship, were created by Alessandro Algardi – a valued and gifted with talent sculptor, often forgotten due to Gian Lorenzo Bernini, who in the XVII century decisively overshadowed him with his fame. Out of the busts sculpted in marble (approx. 1640), as in an antique mausoleum, men of different ages look upon us, whom the sculptor endowed with individual, easy to recognize character traits – and it is worth taking a look at them. The first of the portrayed, Lello has a face of an unexperienced youth – he died at the young age of 26 in a battle, sent by Pope Clement VII in order to support the Hapsburg armies. If he had survived, as a mature man he would have looked like Muzio (last in the row), whom the sculptor bestowed with the traits of a decisive leader, a man of action. Or perhaps he would have been more similar to Roberto (in the middle), who led the life of a reflexive observer – a clergyman. On the other side there are busts that were created earlier by an anonymous sculptor.

 

Leaving this place of both religious life and art, it is worth taking a look at the main altar of the church, in which there is a XIX-century altarpiece depicting The Apotheosis of St. Marcellus – the church patron.