Church of San Pietro in Montorio – a place of artistic and religious contemplation

Church of San Pietro in Montorio, interior

Church of San Pietro in Montorio, interior

Generally this church is not visited until somebody’s second or third coming to Rome, since it is situated far from the well-known tourist trails. When it is visited, it is mostly by admirers of architecture who desire to see the Tempietto – a little pearl of the Renaissance, located in the monastery viridary of the church, the work of Donato Bramante. The modest façade of the church does not promise much, however, the interior convinces everyone with it silent and friendly atmosphere, while the illuminated pointwise chapels are like milestones of European art – the Renaissance and Baroque. This is by no means strange. After all this building was decorated by two of the most important artists of the modern era - Michelangelo and Gian Lorenzo Bernini.

Church of San Pietro in Montorio, interior
Façade of the Church of San Pietro in Montorio
Lintel of the Church of San Pietro in Montorio with coats of arms of Roman Catholic kings (Ferdinand II and Isabella  of Castile), on the top  King Alfonso XII
Church of San Pietro in Montorio, chapel with a painting by Sebastiano del Piombo, The Scourging of Christ
Church of San Pietro in Montorio, Sebastiano del Piombo, The Scourging of Christ
Church of San Pietro in Montorio, St. Peter from the Borgherini Chapel
Church of San Pietro in Montorio,chapel with the fresco La Madonna della Lettera, Pomarancio, at the top The Coronation of Our Lady in Heaven, Baldassare Peruzzi
Church of San Pietro in Montorio,images of the cardinal virtues, Baldassare Paruzzi
Church of San Pietro in Montorio, third chapel on the right – scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary, Michelangelo Carruti
Church of San Pietro in Montorio, images of sibyls, Baldassare Peruzzi
Church of San Pietro in Montorio, Chapel of the Crucifixion
Church of San Pietro in Montorio, Del Monte Chapel
Church of San Pietro in Montorio, The Conversion of St. Paul, Giorgio Vasari, del Monte Chapel
Church of San Pietro in Montorio, allegory of Religion and the tombstone of Cardinal Antonio del Monte, Bartolomeo Ammannati
Church of San Pietro in Montorio, allegory of Justice and the tombstone of Fabiano del Monte, Bartolomeo Ammannati
Vault of the transept of the Church of San Pietro in Montorio
Church of San Pietro in Montorio, presbytery, in the background The Crucifixion of St. Peter (copy)- Guido Reni
Raphael, The Transfiguration, Musei Vaticani - Pinacoteca Vaticana
Church of San Pietro in Montorio, Ricci Chapel
Church of San Pietro in Montorio, The Baptism of Christ, Daniele da Volterra, Ricci Chapel
Church of San Pietro in Montorio, Pietà Chapel, The Deposition, Dirck van Baburen
Church of San Pietro in Montorio, Fall under the cross, Dirck van Baburen, Pietà Chapel
Church of San Pietro in Montorio, St. Anne, Antoniazzo Romano
Raimondi Chapel in the Church of San Pietro in Montorio
Church of San Pietro in Montorio, Raimondi Chapel, St. Francis Receiving the Stigmata, Francesco Baratta
Church of San Pietro in Montorio, Raimondi Chapel, tombstone of Francesco Raimondi
Church of San Pietro in Montorio, Raimondi Chapel, tombstone of Girolamo Raimondi
Church of San Pietro in Montorio, Chapel of St. Francis, frescoes - Giovanni de Vecchia
Church of San Pietro in Montorio, St. Francis Receiving the Stigmata, Giovanni de Vecchia
Church of San Pietro in Montorio, tombstone of Giulio Maffei from the beginning of the XVI century
Church of San Pietro in Montorio, Chapel of the Crucifixion, lower part of the fresco Virgin Mary with St. John under the Cross
Church of San Pietro in Montorio, top of the Ricci Chapel
Church of San Pietro in Montorio, statue of St. Paul from the Ricci Chapel
Church of San Pietro in Montorio, statue of St. Peter,  Ricci Chapel
Church of San Pietro in Montorio, balustrade of the del Monte Chapel, putti and portraits of members of the del Monte family, Bartolomeo Ammannati
View of the left nave with Renaissance paintings at the base of the arcades, Church of San Pietro in Montorio
Baroque top of the Pieta Chapel, Church of San Pietro in Montorio
Church of San Pietro in Montorio, The Mocking of Christ, most likely David de Haen, Chapel of the Pietà
Church of San Pietro in Montorio, The Presentation of Our Lady, most likely Dirck van Baburen, Chapel of the Pietà
Church of San Pietro in Montorio, view from the apse (right nave)
Church of San Pietro in Montorio, left nave
Church of San Pietro in Montorio, right nave
Tempietto (The Chapel of the Martyrdom of St. Peter), Donato Bramante, temple in the viridary of the Church of  San Pietro in Montorio
Church of San Pietro in Montorio, Raimondi Chapel (on the right) and Chapel of the Pietà
Façade of the Church of San Pietro in Montorio, next to it buildings of the monastery, enterance onto the viridary Into the Tempietto
Second viridary of the old Franciscan monastery at the Church of San Pietro in Montorio, presently the residence of the Spanish Academy
Second viridary of the old Franciscan monastery at the Church of San Pietro in Montorio, presently the residence of the Spanish Academy
Steps leading into the Church of San Pietro in Montorio
Stations of the Cross on a road leading to the Church of San Pietro in Montorio from via Garibaldi
One of the stations of the cross (XX century) leading to the Church of San Pietro in Montorio

Generally this church is not visited until somebody’s second or third coming to Rome, since it is situated far from the well-known tourist trails. When it is visited, it is mostly by admirers of architecture who desire to see the Tempietto – a little pearl of the Renaissance, located in the monastery viridary of the church, the work of Donato Bramante. The modest façade of the church does not promise much, however, the interior convinces everyone with it silent and friendly atmosphere, while the illuminated pointwise chapels are like milestones of European art – the Renaissance and Baroque. This is by no means strange. After all this building was decorated by two of the most important artists of the modern era - Michelangelo and Gian Lorenzo Bernini.

Currently the church is more of an artistic salon than a place of worship – we will not encounter older ladies deep in prayer, repeating the litany, nor will we meet any passersby looking for moments of contemplation. None of the above – if one does find oneself on this hill, it is generally to immerse oneself in the unique atmosphere of art. This place is also often chosen for weddings, perhaps because, in front of the church there is a broad square, created at the beginning of the XVII century, with a beautiful view of the whole city.

 

The church, was reportedly situated in the location, where St. Peter drew his last breath, which is equivalent with putting in doubt one of the most important dogmas of the Roman Catholic Church, which says that Peter died a martyr’s death in the arena of the hippodrome on the Vatican, and that is why, at the beginning of the IV century, a monumental basilica dedicated to him was erected (San Pietro in Vaticano). How, then could he have died in two places at once, and how did it happen that a second church was constructed for him on Janiculum Hill (Gianicolo)? It seems, that, inspiration for that came from a passage about the death of the apostle, found in the so-called Acts of St. Peter from the II century, where the author writes that Peter climbed a hill, where a cross awaited him. Taking into account the fact, that crosses on which Romans were known to have hung troublemakers and bandits, were in ancient times placed in well visible places, most often on hills, such as on the Golgotha in Jerusalem, it may be assumed that this is the hill the author speaks of. The news that Peter the Apostle, contradictory to popular early-Christian belief, died here, on Janiculum, came about very early then, however it once again resurfaced in the Middle Ages and proved decisive in erecting a monastery and a church in this place at the beginning of the IX century. Its name was a reference to Monte d’Oro (Gold Hill), since that was the name given to it, due to the goldish color of the earth.

For several centuries the church as well as the monastery fell into ruin. The present-day structure was not built until the end of the XV century and was founded by the Spanish royal couple, Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella of Castile, known to us thanks to their protectorate of the Genoese – Christopher Columbus. At that time, the monastery came into the possession of the reformed Order of the Franciscans. How did it come about, that the Spanish became the protectors of this place? When a Franciscan, from the della Rovere family became pope (as Sixtus IV), he entrusted his confessor from the Iberian Peninsula with the church,  at the same time encouraging the royal couple to finance the construction of a new church, to which they agreed, giving testimony to the fact that they deserve to be called Roman Catholic kings. The building was consecrated in the year 1500, during the papacy of another Spaniard – Alexander VI, who also confirmed the title bestowed upon the royal couple by his predecessor.

The interior of the church is spacious, has one nave, onto which four side chapels open up from every side. Two other chapels, the broadest, are found in the transept of the structure and they are the ones which flank the long presbytery of the church.

 

Right nave (looking on from the enterance)

  • The first chapel houses the most famous painting in this church, which for centuries has attracted visitors. It is a painting in oil, of the skilled Renaissance, Venetian painter – Sebastiano del Piombo. It was created in 1524 to embellish the chapel of a rich banker with a Florentine surname of Borgherini, who was also the financier of Michelangelo. He was responsible for his banking affairs, mainly transfers of cash from the artist to his native Florence and to the many relatives residing there. It should come as no surprise that the banker could count upon the financial support of his compatriot, even if in this case, the executor of his concept was his protégé and fellow sculptor, ten-years his junior, Sebastiano. It made even more sense, since del Piombo was already known in the city on the Tiber, as a painter who worked, among others, in the suburban villa of another banker who settled in Rome – Agostino Chigi (Villa Farnesina). Generally all attention is concentrated on the chapel altar with the scene of The Scourging of Christ, yet we should admire the whole concept of this place. On both sides of the chapel, as if greeting the visitors, there are figures of St. Peter – the most important saint of the Eternal City and the church patron, as well as St. Francis – namesake of the client, and also the patron of the Franciscan monastery found next door. At the top of the apse we will see the scene of The Transfiguration of Christ, leading us into the mystery of the Christ transforming from a suffering and tortured man into God, meaning coming out of the dark into the light, accompanied by the Evangelists and old Testament prophets.
  • In the second chapel we will find a fresco attributed to Niccolò Circignani (Pomarancio), depicting the so-called Our Lady of the Letter (Madonna delle Lettera), however the more interesting frescoes are the ones at the top of the apse (Coronation of Our Lady in Heaven ), which are continued on the walls of the main nave, depicting the four cardinal virtues, flanking the coat of arms of the Spanish royal couple, Ferdinand and Isabella. These paintings are the work of Baldassare Peruzzi, a Renaissance painter and architect who completed several spectacular commissions in Rome, including a few in the aforementioned Farnesina.
  • The third chapel is once again devoted to the Virgin Mary, which is testified to by the altarpiece, The Presentation of Our Lady, while on the sides there are frescoes: The Annunciation and The Immaculate Conception, this time a work of a Rococo painter, Michelangelo Cerruti. One the face of the main nave we will once again see a painting by Peruzzi, this time showing the ancient fortunetellers – the sibyls.
 
  • Passing the fourth chapel, devoted to the Crucifixion, in which the apse frescoes show the Virgin Mary with St. John the Evangelist adoring the suffering Christ on the Cross, we will stand face to face with the fifth chapel (Cappella del Monte), named so because of the representatives of the family – the cardinal Antonio and the lawyer Fabiano del Monte, the uncle and grand-father of Pope Julius III. Our attention is drawn to a well-thought-out concept of the chapel, which was entrusted by the pope to students and collaborators of Michelangelo. The grand master also was to participate in its creation, which can be testified to by the kinship of style with the de Medici Chapel completed by him in Florence.  The author of this concept was Giorgio Vasari, a skilled mannerist of Florentine origin, known mainly for his important for art history book entitled The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects, in which he contained invaluable knowledge about several generations of Italian artists. His painting is also found in the main altar of the chapel and shows The Conversion of St. Paul (1550). Vasari himself, can be seen in a painting on the left side – he has a beard, dark clothing and gazes upon us intuitively. In the image, a typical example of mannerist painting, we are struck not only by the dance-like pose of the figures, especially those moving among the arcades in the background, but also its interesting iconography. The painter gave up on the typical representation of St. Paul at the moment of illumination immediately after falling off his horse. This is only an element of the background, supplementing the story of a humbled Jewish Pharisee, persecutor of Christians, who, in pain after the fall off his mount, converted to a new faith, is baptized in Damascus. However, the principal items in the chapel are two funerary monuments created in the middle of the XVI century, which are accompanied by allegories of Religion and Justice. They were completed by another exceptional Florentine artist, Bartolomeo Ammannati.
  • Passing through to the part with the main altar, it is worth looking upwards, in order to see the outstandingly arranged decorations of the vault. Looking at the deep presbytery of the church, we will notice organs in it, while in the distance a painting which is a copy of a well-known work of Guido Reni – The Crucifixion of St. Peter. The canvas, which used to be situated here in the past, is one of the greatest paintings of the period – The Transfiguration by Raphael (Rafael Santi). Stolen by Napoleon Bonaparte, it ultimately found its way to the Vatican Museums (Musei Vaticani) and today it is one of the main attractions of its rich collection. The two angels flanking the presbytery are from the XIX century, similarly to the wall decoration.

  Left nave

Moving onto the left nave, we find a mirror-like (with the one on the opposite side) chapel, with similarly shaped part at the top of the apse, this time founded by the Ricci family. The sculpting compositions also look similar, although they lack the lying figures which gave the chapel on the opposite side the look of a monumental mausoleum. The statues found in the niches represent two apostles, Peter and Paul, however the principal decoration of the interior is the painting The Baptism of Christ, by Daniele da Volterra – a student of Michelangelo a skilled although not above-average mannerist, who will be remembered in history as “The Breeches Maker” (Il Braghettone). That is the name he was given by unfavorable fellow painters, when he undertook the task of painting over the intimate body parts of figures which filled The Last Judgement in the  altar of the Sistine Chapel, immediately prior to the death of the author of this masterpiece and his master, in 1564.

 

  • The following (fourth) chapel, Chapel of the Pieta, was created for the ambassador of the Spanish king in Rome. It is adorned with works, which are completely different from the ones that have been seen until now. Created during the Baroque, it is richly decorated indeed, with stuccos and lighting contrasts, while its principal decoration is a high, topped off with a lantern, dome. The altarpiece is The Deposition (1617) – a successful copy of the great work of Caravaggio of the same title, whose author was the imitator of the master’s style and in this case also the painting topic – Dirck van Baburen from Utrecht. On the side walls, there is another painting of this Dutch artist, the outstanding Veil of Veronica, referencing the story of St. Veronica’s veil.
  • In the altar of the third chapel there is a popular topic in the Middle Ages – St. Anne, whose protagonists are the mother and grandmother (St. Anne) of Christ. This time it was undertaken by Antoniazzo Romano, one of the representatives of early Roman Renaissance.
  • The next chapel (Raimondi Chapel), strikes us with its size, but also the harmonious concept, worthy of a grand master. And so it should be: it is the first in the career of Gian Lorenzo Bernini family chapel (approx. 1635). In it he let himself be recognized as a master of the theatrical play of light and shadow. The chapel was commissioned by the Raimondi family. In it we see its representatives: Francesco and Girolamo, whose busts sculpted in marble look upon from the niches as if they were balconies, leaning on sarcophaguses adorned with reliefs. The principal element of the chapel, is however the altar relief depicting The Ecstasy of St. Francis, with typical for the Baroque exaltation and exaggeration, with added drama provided by lighting contrasts reflecting on the robes and bodies of the protagonists of this scene. This work was carried out by Francesco Baratta, a collaborator of Bernini, who was employed previously to complete the statue of the La Plata River, in the famous Fountain of the Four Rivers (Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi). On the other hand the funerary monuments are the work of other students of Bernini: Andrea Bolgi and Niccolò Sale.
  • In the first chapel we will find a scene once again depicting the stigmatization of St. Francis, who is accompanied on either side by St. Catherine of Alexandria and St. Nicholas. Their creator is a painter from the end of the XVI century – Giovanni de’ Vecchi. They constitute a sort of a pendant into the chapel found directly opposite founded by the Florentine banker, in which Francis also played an important role.

One more person, who is often discussed by tourist guides when visiting this church cannot be overlooked. This is the famous Beatrice Cenci, condemned to death, beautiful patricide, whose body after a barbarian execution was laid to rest within this church. And so it laid starting in 1599, surrounded by cardinals and high-ranking clergy – where exactly, we do not know. Some claim, that under the floor in front of the main altar, others that in one of the chapels. Her corpse was left in peace for a few centuries, until the moment when French armies under the leadership of Napoleon, desecrated her body during occupation of Rome and since that time no trace of her resting place has been found.

The most picturesque way to the church leads from the Trastevere: via Garibaldi, with stairs from vicolo del Cedro, along the Stations of the Cross (warning, during the afternoon break it is closed).