Updated: Nov 28, 2021
The Chigi Chapel in Santa Maria del Popolo
— Saint Mary Of The People is one of the oldest parish churches in Rome.
It is also one of the highest example of early Renaissance architecture and a rare gem whose beauty radiates throughout the cities along the lines of the tridente (from the Piazza del Popolo three main streets of Rome—Via Ripetta, Via del Corso, Via del Babbuino—depart like rays from a diamond.)
But St Mary of the People is also a haunted place.
Here once stood the tomb of Emperor Nero, whose damned soul, according to a medieval legend, inhabited a cozy walnut tree nearby. In 1099 to put an end to the haunting Pope Paschal II had the tree burnt down and its ashes thrown in the Tiber. Since then, there are no news about the soul of Nero. But the pope built a chapel where the tree stood and dedicated it to St Mary. The chapel was subsequently enlarged by later popes until it became a parish church where the most famous Renaissance artists competed to create their masterpieces. Names as famous as Brabante, Carracci, Bernini, Raphael and Caravaggio, worked and left their indelible mark, lest the walnut tree be remembered. Martin Luther also resided here in 1515, right before starting the Lutheran Reform that was about to change the history of Rome and the Church—forever. I think some popes might have later thought that it would have been more convenient to just leave the tree where it was.
Caravaggio, Crucifixion of Saint Peter
Anyways, inside the church visitors can now admire the Chigi Chapel, one of the most remarkable chapel of the Renaissance. It was designed by Raphael himself and then completed by Bernini. The Chigis were a family of bankers and one the most powerful in Rome. Well, both Raphael and Agostino Chigi, who had commissioned the chapel, died in 1520, right after they had these words carved into the floor: Mors ad coelos iter (Death is the way to heaven).
But the impression I had when first visiting this stunning place is that actually Art is the way to heaven. For example in one of the other chapels, the famous Cerasa Chapel, the visitors can admire two amazing paintings by Caravaggio: St Paul’s conversion on the way to Damascus, and the Crucifixion of St Peter. Both paintings give off the impression that sometimes our life takes unexpected turns. I wonder what Caravaggio was trying to say.
Anyhow, this is really beautiful and overall the impression one has entering this place for the first time is really that of being in a magic and special place. Definitively a must-see during your trip to Rome.