The use of marble or bronze reliefs in the decoration of doors, monuments, fountains, fašades of palaces and churches was
widespread in XVIIth century Rome and it was based on both Classic (Trajan's Column) and Renaissance (Ghirlandaio, Donatello) models.
The fact however that Michelangelo, who was regarded as the supreme sculptor, had used reliefs only in some
early works, relegated this kind of sculpture to the level of a minor art. Gian Lorenzo Bernini shared this view and his reliefs
or reliefs designed by him and executed by others had an ancillary role in a more complex work of art (reliefs in Cappella Raimondi and Cappella Cornaro).
This general view was shaken by Alessandro Algardi in 1646 when he prepared a stucco model for a relief to be placed on an altar in St Peter's. For that altar Guido Reni had been commissioned a painting showing Pope Leo I repulsing Attila, King of the Huns. Guido Reni was commissioned other paintings and did not go ahead with this commission. Cavalier d'Arpino, who got the commission after Guido Reni, died having only designed some initial sketches. In 1646 Pope Innocent X assigned the commission to Algardi whose work was immediately highly praised and considered a new kind of work of art: the "marble painting".
Algardi split the scene into three parts: the Pope and his cortege, Attila and the Huns and above them St Peter and St Paul descending fully armed from heaven. The Pope and Attila
are fully three-dimensional statues, while the other characters have more or less relief to give a sense of depth.
Algardi and Borromini were highly praised by Pope Innocent X and they both were involved in the design of S. Agnese in Agone.
Borromini asked Algardi to take care of the marble altar-pieces of five chapels (including the main one). Algardi died in 1654 and the altar-pieces were designed and executed by Domenico Guidi, a scholar of Algardi, and by other sculptors who often worked also with Gian Lorenzo Bernini (Ferrata, CaffÓ, Raggi). The scenes of these reliefs have architectonical elements (steps, columns) which help in indicating the different scale of the figures. The influence of Bernini is particularly visible in the slender bodies and in the animated drapery. The relief by Melchiorre CaffÓ was clearly inspired by the gigantic statue of S. Longino by Bernini.
For nearly a hundred years the richest chapels had marble altar-pieces. Antonio Raggi maintained Algardi's tripartition of the scene in his altar-piece in S. Andrea della Valle. Melchiorre CaffÓ made an attempt to combine Algardi with Bernini in designing an altar-piece in S. Caterina a Magnanapoli. The use of different marbles, the heads of cherubins, the clouds are all references to works by Bernini.
S. Maria della Vittoria - The Shepherds and the Flight to Egypt by Pierre Monnot (1696)
Towards the end of the XVIIth century a more sober design began to prevail. This was in part due to the influence of French sculptors who after having studied in the Accademia di Francia elected to live and work in Rome. They can be considered Roman Baroque sculptors with a leaning towards the style of Algardi rather than that of Bernini. The reliefs by Pierre Monnot in Cappella di S. Giuseppe (a chapel opposite Bernini's Cappella Cornaro) in S. Maria della Vittoria are a homage to Algardi.
S. Giacomo degli Incurabili - S. Francesco di Paola intercedes with Madonna dei Miracoli by Pierre Le Gros (1714)
Pierre Le Gros was the designer of a very creative altar-piece where a painting (a sacred image) was inserted into a high relief. It shows that the interest in experimenting in new ways of combining architecture, painting and sculpture was alive in the first part of the XVIIIth century.
Marble altar-pieces continued to be fashionable until the end of the first half of the XVIIIth century.
Other marble altar-pieces in this web site:
Lorenzo Ottoni - Vision of the Holy Family in S. Maria in Campitelli
Francesco della Valle - Annunciation in S. Ignazio
School of Alessandro Algardi - Death of St. Thomas Aquinas at Fossanova.
Other pages dealing with Baroque sculpture:
Statues in the act of praying
Representation of Death in Baroque sculptures
Monuments showing the dead in a medallion
Three chapels by Gian Lorenzo Bernini
Bernini's Exiled Statue
Baroque Monuments to the Popes
Three busts by Alessandro Algardi
Statues Close to Heaven
Embittered Andrew (the statues in St. Peter's octagon)
Playing with Colours