Mother Church of the Theatines: Sant’ Andrea della Valle
by Joseph Connors, appearing in Volume 42
In the Fall 2021 issue of Sacred Architecture, I looked at Santa Maria in Vallicella, the most innovative of the Counter-Reformation basilicas in artistic terms. Now I want to look at Sant’ Andrea della Valle, the grandest of this type in terms of architecture. It is the mother church of the Theatines, an austerely reformed order of preachers founded in 1524 by Gian Pietro Caraffa and Gaetano dei Conti di Thiene. Since Caraffa was Bishop of Chieti (in Roman times Theate) in the Abruzzi, the order took the name Theatini. This was the first of the new sixteenth-century religious orders to be founded and served as the model for many others.
Their goal of apostolic service made them search for homes in urban centers. Like the Jesuits, the order had global ambitions and one can find the imprint of Sant’ Andrea della Valle on churches as far as Sicily, Spain, Germany, and India.
Sant’ Andrea della Valle is free-standing on three sides, a rarity in this densely built-up quarter. From neighboring rooftops it looks like a great ship sailing above the city. Like many churches of the Counter-Reformation, Sant’ Andrea della Valle is a congeries of separable parts: façade, nave, transept, cupola, presbytery, apse.
A closer look at the exterior reveals much about the interior. The nave is flanked by chapels on each side, three to a side, each lit by a semi-circular window. The blank attic above them is at first puzzling until we realize that it hides the small cupolas over the chapels.
The buttresses that rise up between the chapels tell us that the nave is vaulted. The size of the buttresses tell us that the vault will be massive but the large windows between them tell us that the nave will be well lit. The transept is enormous. Each end is pierced by a generous window, looking east or west. The cupola is a masterpiece of Carlo Maderno, the architect who finished Saint Peter’s with a nave and façade a decade earlier. A great engineering feat, it is a reduced version of the cupola of Saint Peter’s. More than any other part of the church, it embodied what we might call the brand of the Theatines.
The interchangeable parts that make up the typical Counter-Reformation basilica are familiar standbys. Old Saint Peter’s had a huge transept, almost like a separate building. Many Roman churches imitate it. Side chapels are present in medieval mendicant churches, like the Franciscan basilica of Santa Maria in Aracoeli on the Capitoline Hill. Domes are a feature of fifteenth-century churches like Santa Maria della Pace or Santa Maria del Popolo, all willed into being by the builder of the Sistine Chapel, Pope Sixtus IV (ruled 1471-84). The travertine façade first makes an appearance in Rome under the same pope, when a wealthy French cardinal, Guillaume d’Estouteville, put an expensive two-story façade on his titular church, Sant’ Agostino.
The Counter-Reformation basilica, then, invents nothing new but puts familiar parts together in a new way. Plans of these churches resemble one another. They have the compactness of a printed circuit on a silicon chip. The first architect to use such a plan was the great Jacopo Barozzi da Vignola in the church of the Gesù. With some modifications, like deeper chapels or a higher nave, this is the plan of Sant’ Andrea della Valle as well.
What we have intuited by looking at the exterior can now be seen when we enter the church. The nave, a glorious space for preaching, is seamlessly melded with the transept and presbytery, where the higher liturgy takes place. Previous churches put single (or at the Gesù double) pilasters between the arches. Here pilasters are combined in bundles that rise up to the vault like graceful athletes. Chapels for private worship and family burials are both part of the nave and at the same time separate spaces. Diversity and unity find their ideal expression in such a plan.
How did all this come about? The Theatines already had a small church on the Quirinal hill but wanted to establish a foothold in the heart of old Rome. In their search for a site they were aided by a bequest not of cash but of property. Costanza Piccolomini d’Aragona, Duchess of Amalfi and the last member of the Roman branch of the Sienese family that had produced two popes, Pius II (ruled 1458-64) and Pius III (ruled just 26 days in 1503), left them the palace in her will.
The palace was pulled down in the late 1610s to make the crossing and presbytery of the new church. Luckily, a view-map of 1593 gives us a precious glimpse of it. Palazzo Piccolomini was a stately edifice, similar in its crenellations and croisée windows to the famous Palazzo Venezia.
When it came to naming their church, the Theatines paid their benefactress back by opting for Saint Andrew, the patron saint of Amalfi. The locator, della Valle, derives from the presence of the venerable Roman family of this name in the immediate neighborhood.
As so often in Rome, older buildings shaped the new. Palazzo Piccolomini fronted on the Piazza di Siena, a rare open space in this crowded district. When construction began in 1603 foundations were sunk in the empty space of the piazza. Before the expense of demolishing the older houses there was only room here for four chapels, two per side.
The plan by the Theatine architect Francesco Grimaldi, revised by the Roman architect Giacomo Della Porta, looks at first like a copy of the Gesù. But it is really a corrected Gesù. The nave is taller in relation to the width. The chapels too are wider, higher and better lit than the chapels of the Gesù. This appealed to wealthy families. As soon as the Theatines put the chapels on offer they were snapped up with a frenzy like the IPO of a hot tech stock.
The three families who took the first chapels were all Tuscan and were connected by ties of friendship. Orazio Rucellai bid first in 1603, Maffeo Barberini second in 1604, and Leone Strozzi third in 1605. As opposed to the strict control that the Jesuits and Oratorians exercised over the patrons of their chapels, the Theatines gave their patrons carte blanche. They simply had to guarantee to use abundant colored marble and not put the family arms outside the private space of the chapel. In return, they were free to choose their artists and their iconography. When it came to spending, they went to town.
Orazio Rucellai, the first to claim a chapel (second on the left), was enormously rich and could afford to spend 10,000 scudi on his jewel box. It remains one of the finest collections of precious marbles in Rome, which by definition meant ancient stones recycled from excavations. Rucellai set the tone for the Barberini, who followed him within the year. The Barberini brothers Carlo and Maffeo (the future Pope Urban VIII) resorted to a Jesuit advisor who promoted the Immaculate Conception, which became the overarching theme of stunning paintings by the Tuscan painter, Domenico Passignano. Maffeo Barberini picked sculptors close to the family, especially the Tuscans Francesco Mochi and Pietro Bernini, the father of the great Gianlorenzo Bernini, whose adolescent hand has been found in some of the putti.
Rucellai and Barberini embraced the ideal of the Gesamtkunstwerk, the total work of art, where all the media—canvas altarpiece, oil on wall, fresco, gilt stucco, sculpture in white marble, portraits in porphyry and various colored marbles—everywhere work in concert. Across the aisle, however, a still wealthier patron chose to leave pictorial media behind.
For Leone Strozzi neither frescoes nor an altarpiece on canvas would be expensive enough. Strozzi was immensely proud of his family connection with Michelangelo. After recovering from an illness in the house of Leone’s father, Roberto Strozzi, Michelangelo gave his host two Slaves from the Julius tomb (those now in the Louvre). Leone made the chapel an homage to Michelangelo. The only works of figurative art are bronze copies after the master: the Vatican Pietà and the Leah and Rachel of the tomb of Julius II in San Pietro in Vincoli. The black sarcophagi (copied from Michelangelo’s Medici Chapel in Florence), the patinated bronze and dark marbles make for a very dark chapel. Strozzi’s goal was not art for appreciation but art for eternity. There is nothing here that time could erode.
The New Patron: Cardinal Montalto
When I enter Sant’ Andrea della Valle I walk past the first two chapels on either side and then stop. Here I try to imagine the massive façade of Palazzo Piccolomini looming above me, as it did while the chapels were being built. Before they could demolish it the Theatines had to find a major donor. Fortunately, in 1608 the most promising patron possible came to their aid. Alessandro Damasceni Peretti, Cardinal Montalto (1571-1623), is one of the most interesting patrons of the period and probably the richest. Born in modest circumstances, he was fourteen when his grand-uncle was elected Pope Sixtus V in 1585, fifteen when made a cardinal and eighteen when promoted to vice-chancellor, the most lucrative post the curia had to offer.
Cardinal Montalto lived with his brother in the Cancelleria palace where they held something like a Renaissance court, famous for theatrical spectacles during carnival. He was also a patron of music. One of his contemporaries, the wealthy nobleman Vincenzo Giustiniani, describes him as a man of martial appearance and a scratchy voice (una voce da scrivere) who nevertheless sang and played with grace. The florid and sentimental style he introduced called for boys’ voices and castrati. We are in the world of Caravaggio’s concerts.
The cardinal inherited the famous villa of Sixtus V near Santa Maria Maggiore. Although the central casino was already built the cardinal expanded the grounds enormously and enriched the gardens. He built a sunken pool with water from Sixtus V’s aqueduct. When it was finished, he had the brilliant idea of asking the young Gianlorenzo Bernini to sculpt a statue of Neptune and Triton to stand over it. The figures seem to calm the angry waves. This was the first time Bernini looked beyond an individual sculpture group to the larger natural environment. Cardinal Montalto opened horizons that the young sculptor had not glimpsed before. Incidentally, Villa Montalto had pens for lions, living counterparts of the heraldic lions we see scattered throughout Sant’ Andrea della Valle.
Montalto’s fortune allowed Maderno to build the transept and crown it with a cupola in 1619-23. It is one of the magnificent ornaments of the Roman skyline. Saint Peter’s is of course the model, but with modifications. There are eight pairs of columns girding Maderno’s drum, not sixteen as in Saint Peter’s. Michelangelo’s cupola is made up of an inner and an outer shell, as anyone who has climbed it knows. Circular windows light the space between the shells. Maderno placed similar windows around the dome, but since the cupola consists of a single shell, they are blind. The illusion would have been more convincing when their plastered surface was painted to imitate glass.
During construction in 1623 Maderno had the assistance of a young relative from the Swiss lakes named Francesco Castelli. Though little more than twenty, he was already a superb draftsman and a daring designer. The drawings we have for Sant’ Andrea are mostly in his hand. When it came time to top off the cupola with a lantern Maderno turned the design over to this prodigy. The paired columns follow the lantern of Saint Peter’s but the capitals are quirky: a single cherub spreads its wings over both columns. This is the signature of a young man who was determined never to succumb to convention.
Castelli soon afterwards changed his name. As Francesco Borromini he would become one of the most original designers in the history of Italian architecture. His church of Sant’ Ivo alla Sapienza, begun twenty years after Sant’ Andrea, would be a refutation of every convention in Maderno’s dome. Nevertheless, Borromini would revere Maderno for the rest of his life as the grand old man who gave him a start.
As the cupola and lantern were being finished, Cardinal Montalto hired two rival artists to fresco its interior. Giovanni Lanfranco was given the commission for the dome. He turned it into a paradise of music-making angels populated by dozens of saintly figures, most conspicuously the Virgin but also Saint Andrew, the Theatine founder, and even Adam and Eve.
On the other hand, Lanfranco’s rival from Bologna, Domenico Zampieri, called Domenichino, frescoed the pendentives with figures of the four Evangelists. Modeled on Michelangelo’s prophets in the Sistine Chapel but if anything more colossal, they stretch their enormous limbs to fill the triangular spaces, accompanied by their attributes: an ox and icon for Luke, an eagle for John, an angel for Matthew, and a lion for Mark. Cardinal Peretti’s own heraldic lion, gold on a scarlet field, fills the huge coats of arms under the pendentives.
With Montalto’s generosity fueling Maderno’s architecture the project seemed to be hastening towards a happy conclusion. The pièce-de-résistance would have been a façade in homage to the generous cardinal. Then, in the twinkling of an eye, Montalto was carried off. He took ill of a sudden stomach ailment and died on June 2, 1623, aged fifty-two. He had given himself until fifty-seven to finish the façade, but had miscalculated by five years. He was buried in Santa Maria Maggiore but his heart was interred in Sant’ Andrea. All over Rome, shops and churches closed in mourning, and for years afterwards the hatters and goldsmiths near the Cancelleria draped their shops on the anniversary of his death. No grief was as plangent as that of the Theatine fathers, who had lost their generous patron.
The façade had risen only about a meter off the ground. Before the cardinal’s death Maderno and Borromini had prepared a print of the future façade. It shows Montalto’s heraldry, his lions and above all his name writ large in the cornice. A print like this tells a patron in a voice everyone could hear, “You won’t go back on your promise now, will you?” But with Montalto gone the search for a patron proved fruitless.
Maderno died in 1629 and the façade would not be finished until the reign of Pope Alexander VII (1655-67), on Maderno’s foundations but with a new design by Carlo Rainaldi.
Just as the Gesù would provide a model for Jesuit churches far from Rome, so Sant’ Andrea delle Valle would provide a model for the Theatines in their global expansion. In Palermo, the Theatine church of San Giuseppe was built immediately behind one of the famous Four Corners (Quattro Cantoni) at the center of the city. It lifts a version of Maderno’s cupola high over the skyline of the Sicilian capital. Incidentally the domes over the side chapels of Sant’ Andrea della Valle are copied here too. The brand of the Theatines was destined to spread farther still. In 1656-72, in the far-off Portuguese province of Goa the Theatines built the church of Nossa Senhora da Divina Providência. For the façade they copied Saint Peter’s but they modeled the cupola on Sant’ Andrea della Valle. Of course, given the distance from the archetype and the building technology available in Goa the dome is much simplified. Still, it shows how a Roman mother church could embody the spirit of a new religious order intent on encompassing the globe.