The page covers:
The plate by Giuseppe Vasi
Casa di S. Caterina
S. Maria sopra Minerva
Convento della Minerva
Obelisco della Minerva (and Palazzo Fonseca)
In many of his etchings Giuseppe Vasi did not hesitate to enlarge and twist streets in order to show an interesting corner of Rome; it is surprising that in 1758 he did not do this when dealing with the nunnery of S. Chiara because the very important church of S. Maria sopra Minerva is situated at the end of the street; the church is not shown in other plates and therefore it is missing in the ten books of Magnificenze di Roma Antica e Moderna by Vasi.
Giovan Battista Falda - View of Piazza di S. Maria della Minerva - 1665
The building to the right of the church is Palazzo Fonseca which Vasi partly shows in his view which is taken from the green dot in the 1748 map below. In the description below the plate Vasi made reference to: 1) Casa di S. Caterina; 2) Palazzo Fonseca. The small map shows also 3) S. Chiara; 4) S. Maria sopra Minerva; 5) Convento della Minerva; 6) Obelisco della Minerva; 7) Accademia Ecclesiastica.
The view in April 2009: (left) Casa di S. Caterina; (right) S. Chiara
Two floors have been added to Casa di S. Caterina. The church and the nunnery of S. Chiara were entirely redesigned in 1890 and in the process the coats of arms which are visible in the plate were lost. Vasi showed the church bathed in sunshine; today this is unlikely to occur because it faces north and the buildings on the other side of the narrow street are taller than they were in 1758.
(left) Interior; (right) late XIXth century painting portraying St. Louis IX, King of France
In 1844 Rev. Jeremiah Donovan wrote in Rome Ancient and Modern: S. Chiara was built in the XVIth century, after the design of Francesco da Volterra; but its front is by Carlo Maderno. Its interior is lofty and not inelegant; but it contains no object of antiquity or art worthy of particular attention.
In 1855 the roof of the church collapsed and for some time the building was abandoned. The complex was acquired by the Society of the Sacred Heart of Mary, a French congregation founded by Franšois Libermann and it was entirely rebuilt in 1883-890 by Luca Carimini in a neo-Renaissance style which is very unusual in Rome. Today the nunnery houses the French Seminar in Rome and the church is not usually open to the public.
(left) Entrance to the Chapel; (right) main altar with a painting by il Cavalier d'Arpino
Towards the end of the XVIth century the house where St. Catherine of Siena died in 1380 was included in a larger building where Pope Gregory XIII housed newly converted people. In 1637 Cardinal Antonio Barberini the Elder, brother of Pope Urban VIII built Collegio de' Neofiti in Rione Monti to this purpose. The Cardinal relocated the walls and the floor of the room where the saint died to nearby Convento della Minerva and to the nunnery adjoining SS. Domenico e Sisto; a chapel was built on the site of the room and the complex was assigned to Arciconfraternita della SS. Annunziata, an institution founded in 1464 by Cardinal Juan de Torquemada to provide poor brides with a minimal dowry. The building was modified in the XIXth century and for a time it housed a small theatre. Today it is used as a venue for private parties and conferences.
(left) Ceiling stucco depicting the Annunciation; (right) sarcophagus containing relics of St. Eraclius, a Roman martyr of the IIIrd century
The church and the obelisk
The reference sopra Minerva is somewhat misleading because the church was not built above a lost Temple to Minerva, but in the vicinity of it.
S. Maria sopra Minerva was designed in the XIII/XIVth centuries by Dominican friars; the simple 1453 fašade was modified in the XVIIth century (you may wish to see it in a 1588 Guide to Rome). The papal coat of arms belongs to Pope Pius V, a member of the Dominican Order and titular cardinal of the church in 1557-561. Six tablets on the fašade indicate the levels reached by the River Tiber during major floods.
(left) 1725 project for a new fašade by Ferdinando Fuga; (right) 2015 proposal esquisse by Niki J. Covington (it opens in another window)
In 1725 Pope Benedict XIII, a former Dominican friar, examined projects for a new fašade, but he eventually limited himself to cover the red bricks with a white paint. The fašade continues to prompt artists to develop new projects.
(left) Detail of the interior before its redecoration; (right) the main nave in a 1905 painting by Alberto Pisa (you may wish to see other paintings by Pisa showing interiors of churches)
The interior of the church had austere Gothic features which were poorly modified in 1855, so that the main interest of a visit to S. Maria sopra Minerva lies in its chapels and its many funerary monuments and works of art. Similar to S. Maria del Popolo it is a museum inside a church.
Cappella dell'Arciconfraternita della SS. Annunziata with a painting by Antoniazzo Romano portraying the Annunciation and Cardinal Juan de Torquemada with the poor brides he helped. It is dated 1500 and it is the last known work of this painter
The chapel was redesigned in ca 1600 by Carlo Maderno at the initiative of Cardinal Benedetto Giustiniani whose bronze bust is shown in the lower right corner of the image (the other bust portrays Cardinal Torquemada).
(left) Cappella dell'Arciconfraternita della SS. Annunziata: Monument to Pope Urban VII by Ambrogio Bonvicino (1614); (right) Cappella di S. Domenico: Monument to Pope Benedict XIII designed by Carlo Marchionni (you may wish to see a detail of it)
Popes Leo X, Clement VII and Paul IV in addition to Pope Urban VII were buried at S. Maria sopra Minerva because S. Pietro Nuovo was not yet completed.
In 1730 Pope Benedict XIII chose of its own to be buried at S. Maria sopra Minerva because of his links with the Dominicans.
(left) Monument to Cardinal Astorgio Agnesi (d. 1451) in the cloister, school of Andrea Bregno; (right) Monument to Francesco Tornabuoni from Florence (d. 1480) by Mino da Fiesole
The chapels of S. Maria della Minerva were very sought after by the wealthiest and most influential families of Rome. This led some Renaissance monuments to be demolished or removed from their original location to make room for those of the new owners of the chapel, among them the Aldobrandini, the family of Pope Clement VIII whose father and mother are buried in very interesting monuments.
(left) Monument to Andrea Bregno by Luigi Capponi, his favourite assistant; (centre) monument to Giovanni Vigevano by Gian Lorenzo Bernini; (right) Charity by Antonio Raggi (it is part with Justice by Antonio Mari of a Monument to Cardinal Domenico Pimentel which was designed by Bernini)
Funerary monuments were placed not only in the chapels as in most other churches, but also on the huge pillars which support the vaults of the naves. Some of them are works by Andrea Bregno (1418-1503) or by sculptors of his school, but the majority are by Bernini and other baroque artists.
Andrea Bregno himself chose to be buried at S. Maria sopra Minerva; this sculptor and architect had a leading role in Rome at the end of the XVth century. He was born near Como, a town in northern Lombardy with a long tradition of stone-cutting and sculpture. According to the inscription his art could be compared to that of Polykleitos, the Greek sculptor renowned for his statues of athletes (you may wish to see the Diadumenos found at Delos). Bregno had a collection of ancient Roman statues (often copies of Greek originals), including Torso del Belvedere (it opens in another window), a fragment of a nude male statue which was studied by all Renaissance artists. Neither the inscription, nor the monument have any religious references: at that time Italian upper classes were very remote from religious thoughts. The monument is decorated with candelabra (chandeliers), the name given to details of ornamental paintings uncovered in those years inside Domus Aurea and with symbols of Bregno's trade (compasses, plumb-lines).
The monument to Giovanni Vigevano is a very early work by Bernini together with that to Giovan Battista Santoni at S. Prassede. The dead was portrayed as the ancient Romans did with a hand outside the cloak (see Sepolcro dei Rabirii for a comparison). You may wish to see the monument to Maria Raggi, a later work by Bernini in this church.
Antonio Raggi (from Como) was among the many sculptors who worked for Bernini. He is regarded as one of the most talented followers of his style.
(left) Monument to Carlo Emanuele Vizzani by Domenico Guidi; (centre) monument to Alessandro Valtrini, school of Bernini; (right) monument to Fabio and Ippolito de' Amicis designed by Pietro da Cortona
Domenico Guidi was not a member of Bernini's inner circle, but rather a competitor. He began his career in the workshop of Alessandro Algardi and the lower part of the monument to Carlo Emanuele Vizzani recalls that to Alessandro Santarelli by Algardi at S. Maria Maggiore. The upper part is characterized by a rather gruesome skeleton embracing the portrait of the dead; many baroque monuments had such references to death (see a page on Memento Mori - Representation of Death in Baroque Monuments).
The use of coloured marbles was very much in fashion during the XVIIth century and in several monuments Bernini and his scholars mitigated the impact of skulls and bones with the liveliness of precious stones (see a page with other examples of this tendency and the monument to Ottaviano Ubaldini della Gherardesca by Giovan Battista Calandra in S. Maria sopra Minerva) .
Pietro da Cortona was a great painter of the XVIIth century and also an architect, but he was rarely involved in designing funerary monuments.
In other pages you can see the organ of the church, a detail of the portal and the monument to Cardinal Matteo Orsini, a patron of the church. The 1588 Guide to Rome showed also a statue (it opens in another window) initiated by Michelangelo and poorly completed by one of his assistants.
(left) Side of the cloister adjoining the church (early XVIIth century); (centre) detail of a painting portraying St. Thomas Aquinas (late XVIIth century); (right-above) portrait of a member of the Dominican order on the ceiling; (right-below) the two palms at the centre of the cloister
The monastery which housed the headquarters of the Dominican Order was a very huge building. It bordered on the "Jesuit block" (i.e. Collegio Romano, S. Ignazio and Seminario Romano) so that these two very influential (and somewhat competing) orders lived side by side.
In 1870 the Dominican monastery was confiscated by the Italian Government and eventually the Dominicans moved their headquarters to S. Sabina. In 1930 a small part of the monastery including its Renaissance cloister was returned to the Dominicans. The cloister has a very richly painted decoration with portraits of prominent members of the order inside rather frivolous frames. In addition it has two very tall palms (red dot in the image - it opens in another window) which can be noticed from Terrazza delle Quadrighe.
(left) The obelisk and behind it Palazzo Fonseca; (right) elephant by Ercole Ferrata (with a mysterious mask)
In 1665 a small obelisk belonging to Iseo Campense was found in the cloister of the Dominican monastery. The obelisk was originally erected at Sais, a town in Lower Egypt, by Apries, a pharaoh of the VIth century BC who is remembered for having lost all the wars he waged.
Bernini was asked by Pope Alexander VII to submit projects for its erection in the square in front of the church. The Pope preferred not to endorse an idea by Bernini to place the obelisk in an askew position (it opens in another window) and eventually the approved project had a rather traditional design. The choice of placing it on top of an elephant is explained in one of the two inscriptions on the pedestal: it roughly says that in the same way that the obelisk, a symbol of Egyptian wisdom, is supported by an elephant, the strongest of all animals, a robust mind is required to achieve wisdom. You may wish to see all the obelisks of Rome in one page.
Palazzo Fonseca is a XVIth century building which was modified in the XIXth century and turned into a hotel.
The image used as background for this page shows the back of the elephant. The fact that the elephant turned its back towards the entrance to the monastery was interpreted as a mockery of the Dominican Order. In the XVIIIth century Monsignor Ludovico Sergardi wrote this satiric sentence: Vertit terga Elephas, versaque proboscide clamat: Kiriaci fratres hic ego vos habeo (The Elephant turns its back and screams by its proboscis: I have enough of you, Dominican brothers).
(left) XIXth century fašade; (right) XVIIIth century window
The palace opposite S. Maria sopra Minerva housed Accademia Ecclesiastica, an institution which provided high level education to the children of the richest families. It still belongs to the Holy See, but the fašade shows a XIXth century face-lift. The XVIIIth century decoration survives in two windows on the side of the building opposite the Pantheon.
Excerpts from Giuseppe Vasi 1761 Itinerary related to this page:
Nella strada a destra del Panteon corrisponde questa chiesa colla sua piazza, nella quale si vede un
piccolo obelisco egizio trovato nel giardino del convento, ed era uno di quelli del suddetto tempio di Iside.
Dal Bernini fu alzato sul dorso di un elefante per ordine di Alessandro VII. l'anno 1667. alludendo
alla prudenza della ss. Vergine. Questa chiesa porta un tal nome, perchŔ edificata sopra il tempio di Minerva, e fu posseduta insieme con il convento, benchŔ in forma assai pi¨ piccola, dalle Monache, come dicemmo, venute dalla Grecia, subito che capitarono in Roma; ma poi passate in quella di campo Marzio, circa l'anno 1370. la cederono ai frati Domenicani, i quali coll'elemosine de' benefattori la riedificarono con magnificenza, benchŔ alla gotica. Sono bensý in questa delle pitture, e sculture di somma considerazione, e per˛ se non rincresce al gentilissimo mio Lettore vorrei farne una ricerca particolare. Nella prima cappella a destra il s. Lodovico Domenicano Ŕ del Baciccio; la cappella, che siegue di s. Rosa, Ŕ tutta dipinta da Lazzaro Baldi, ed il s. Pietro mart. Ŕ di Ventura Lambert; le pitture laterali per˛ sono di Batista Franco, e le superiori del Muziano. La cappella passata la porticella, dedicata alla ss. Nunziata Ŕ tutta dipinta da Cesare Nebbia; la statua per˛ di Urbano VII. Ŕ di Ambrosio Malvicino, la cappella, che siegue dell'Aldobrandini tutta ornata di marmi, e statue, Ŕ disegno di Giacomo
della Porta: il quadro sull'altare Ŕ l'ultima opera fatta da Federigo Baroccio; le pitture sulla volta sono
di Cherubino Alberti; la statua del Papa colla giustizia, ed il s. Pietro, ed il s. Paolo sono d'Ippolito
Bazio; la statua della Religione ed un putto assai bello sono di Stefano Mariani; li due Angioli sull'altare,
del Malvicino; le sculture nell'altro deposito sono di Stefano Maderno, e gli altri d'altri.