Saint Philip Neri and Santa Maria in Vallicella

by Joseph Connors, appearing in Volume 40

The “twin” façades: Santa Maria in Vallicella on the right and Borromini’s oratory façade to the left. Credit: David Lown,

Thomas Gordon Smith was a practicing architect who rose to become dean of the University of Notre Dame School of Architecture. He was what one might call a “creative classicist.” In his built work, imagination is in dialogue with tradition.

This was the basis of our shared love of Francesco Borromini (1599-1667), the architect of seventeenth-century Rome who pioneered the new Baroque style. Though he was ever alert to the architecture of antiquity he could also boast, “I would never have entered this profession only to become a copyist.”

Thomas and I often looked admiringly together at Borromini’s celebrated early work, the oratory of the Filippini (followers of Saint Philip Neri). For this tribute, however, I am moving back a generation from the oratory in the full Baroque style to the church of Santa Maria in Vallicella next to it, a monument of the Counter-Reformation.

The star of the narrative is not an architect but a charismatic saint. Vibrant Catholic that he was, Thomas would have been delighted that readers of Sacred Architecture are spending time with this loveliest of all the Renaissance and Baroque churches in Rome.

The “Twin” Façades

A piazza on the Corso Vittorio Emanuele II, the busy modern thoroughfare that swerves through the Campus Martius on its way to the Vatican, allows a generous view of the “twin” façades of the oratory and the church. The situation was not always so spacious. For the first decades of its existence the church was hemmed in by older houses.

Eventually it was surrounded by the enormous residence of the Filippini. This casa included a smaller liturgical space called an oratory, built from 1637-1641. The architect, Borromini, decided that the oratory deserved a façade of its own. We see it to the left of the church. Subtly curved and enriched with imaginative detail, this creates the impression of a double or twin façade. The juxtaposition between the two is like a conversation across generations.

Here, however, I would like to dwell on the senior interlocutor, the church. I see it as an expression of the piety of the future saint, the devotion of his followers, and the taste of the patrons he was able to attract.

The Saint

Philip Neri was born in 1515 into a Florentine family with noble roots but in straitened circumstances. His father was a follower of the Dominican firebrand, Girolamo Savonarola. Philip would inherit this allegiance, although his spirituality would be gentler and more humane.

He arrived in Rome as a pious young man and took to praying alone at night in the catacombs, then still unexplored and ghostly. A mystical experience there in 1544 aroused such fervor that his heart was expanded. This was confirmed years later in an autopsy. After his canonization in 1622 (he had died in 1595), the flaming heart combined with the stars of his night vision and the lilies of his legendary chastity would become his emblems.

In a few years Philip turned to a more urban apostolate. He labored with the confraternity of the Trinità dei Pellegrini to accommodate the influx of pilgrims arriving for the Holy Year of 1550. He was ordained in 1551 at the age of thirty-six. He moved to San Girolamo della Carità on the Via Monserrato, then an abandoned monastery and not yet the handsome Baroque church it is today.

As “the magnet that draws iron,” Philip attracted young men from the courts of the cardinals’ palaces in the area. To fill their idle afternoons he began the devotional practice that eventually became known as the Oratory. This consisted of sermons delivered by his young followers in an informal style, often on church history. Scholastic theology and high-flown rhetoric were forbidden. The language was simple and direct, timed to the half-hour by the glass. The devotion might conclude with the singing of a simple laude in the Savonarola tradition, where song was a form of prayer and tears a sign of inner conversion.

Though the devotion started small, a gala Sunday version eventually drew large crowds including women and children. Foreigners noted that the purity of language made this a good place to learn Italian.

Scholarship and Music

In 1563-1564 Philip was named rector of San Giovanni dei Fiorentini on the Via Giulia. Although the church itself would not be finished for another century, as the seat of the Florentine community in Rome its rectorship carried great prestige. Philip’s circle of followers now included men like Francesco Maria Tarugi, scion of a noble family from Montepulciano in Tuscany and eventually a cardinal.

Cesare Baronio, a humorless, deeply pious young man from Sora in the Kingdom of Naples, began research into the origins of the Roman Church. Philip imposed domestic duties on Baronio to teach him humility. Graffiti found in the residence mention “Baronio the perpetual cook.”

But his work would eventually blossom into the greatest scholarly enterprise of the Catholic Reformation, the Annales Ecclesiastici, published in twelve folio volumes from 1588 to 1607. He was made a cardinal and appointed Vatican librarian in 1596. He would be a major force in shaping the church.

During carnival, the oratory became a competitor to the operas staged in palaces and a substitute for them in Lent. Solo singers alternated with a chorus of four to six voices to supplement the short sermons. Singers were often recruited from the Cappella Sistina, the pope’s own choir. The music approached a professional level and the accompaniment could include violins, horns, lutes, harps, and a portable organ.

Among his friends Philip numbered the great composer, Giovanni Pierluigi Palestrina. Though not a musician himself, Philip deserves his reputation as the musical saint of the Counter-Reformation.

The Icon

Santa Maria in Vallicella went through many changes in patron, architect, and plan on its way to grandeur. In 1575, Pope Gregory XIII gave the fledgling community around Philip an ancient church in the heart of the Campus Martius. Its double dedication was to the Virgin and Pope Saint Gregory. The structure was dilapidated and the neighborhood chancy.

As the name “vallicella” (“little valley”) suggests, the church occupied a depression in ground level. The church floor, set lower still, was easily submerged by Tiber flooding. A stufa or bathhouse stood behind the apse. In an age when cleanliness did not stand next to godliness the stufa stank of ill-repute.

A fifteenth-century fresco of the Virgin and Child painted on a wall in a narrow alley here came to life in 1535 when struck by a desperate man. Drops of blood appeared on her face, crowds gathered, and the miracle culminated in the lynching of the offender. The image was detached along with a slab of wall and installed in the old church.

When Philip and his followers took over the church forty years later, they made the image their emblem. Baronio attached a copper crescent moon below the Madonna, turning it from a hodogetria, a Byzantine type meaning “She who points the way,” into an Immaculate Conception.

The miraculous fresco of the Virgin and Child with a copper crescent moon added by Cesare Baronio. Credit: Congregation of the Oratory at Santa Maria in Vallicella

Typical Church

The typical Counter-Reformation church is an assembly of parts: façade, nave with side chapels, transepts, crossing with cupola, apse. All could be built in separate campaigns and paid for by separate patrons. Changes of architect and design often happened, but seldom with as much improvisation as at the Vallicella.

In 1575, the builders laid the foundation of the right side of the new church over the foundations of the right side of the old. When deciding where to place the foundations on the left side, however, Philip’s ambition grew. “Make it wider” (“Allargate più”), he said to the surveyor three times. The trench eventually dug along this last line hit a massive Roman wall that could serve as the foundation for an extremely wide nave.

This gift from the ancient world was considered a sign of divine favor. The nave as finished in 1577 was a huge box closed in front by a brick wall, in back by wooden planks, and on top with a wood ceiling. There were two chapels on each side, eventually increased to five.

From 1586-1591, the architect Martino Longhi the Elder enlarged the side chapels, gave the nave a barrel vault, and built the transept and apse. One gets the impression of a space under constant pressure from within, forcing tribune, transepts and chapels further out into a dense, doomed neighborhood.

Other new religious orders took care to orient their churches to major thoroughfares. The Jesuits built the Gesù facing a busy intersection. The Theatines built Sant’Andrea della Valle on a piazza facing the Via Papale. Modern visitors to Rome note how easy it is to find these churches. On the other hand, Philip thought of his new church as a re-incarnation of the medieval basilica. Hence, it was destined to face not a major artery but the backwater of the “little valley.”

Hemmed in by older houses,  it was an uphill struggle to give the church a strong urban presence. Yet this was exactly the ambition of a pair of wealthy brothers from a clan close to Philip Neri.

The Façade

Cardinal Pier Donato Cesi patronized the grand expansion of the church from 1578 to 1586 and planned a façade. Although he died in 1586 before it could be begun he transmitted the obligation to build it to his younger brother, Angelo Cesi, the Bishop of Todi.

As readers of the Bible, the brothers knew of the Old Testament rule (Deuteronomy 25:5-10) that obliged a younger brother to marry the widow of his deceased older brother if she were still childless. This practice, called by anthropologists the levirate, might seem obscure to us but it was widely known in the Renaissance. Henry Tudor of England, for example, felt obliged to take the widow of his older brother, Arthur, as his wife since that is what the Bible seemed to dictate. When he became Henry the Eighth she became Queen Catherine.

Angelo Cesi was initially reluctant to take on the financial burden of the façade, but when he accepted it in 1593 he cited this Old Testament rule. He imposed his own architect, however, a minor figure called Fausto Rughesi. He ordered drawings and a wood model that still exists. This helped Saint Philip visualize the façade before he died in 1595.

The façade was finally built between 1604 and 1605. If Longhi had found the church not wide or long enough, Rughesi found it not high enough. His façade towers over the nave, a champion in the wave of façadism that swept over Rome in these years.

Typically, the great façades of Rome exhibit the coat of arms of their main benefactor. Many of these were sadly defaced in a wave of iconoclasm that swept over Rome during the Jacobin Republic of 1798 to 1799, when the French Revolution reached Rome. The visitor to Rome who looks at façades with binoculars will find dozens of examples of family arms with their surfaces chipped into illegibility, even when they are high up and defacing them involved considerable effort.

Detail of the façade with the Madonna della Vallicella and inscriptions above the entrances. Credit: J. Connors

The Cesi arms occupy the pediment of the Vallicella. The shield, now chiseled smooth, once had six peaks (monti) surmounted by a verdant tree, such as we find inside the church. The special hat of the higher clergy with six tassels hanging on each side, called a galero, has not been entirely chipped away.

These were always color-coded, red for cardinals and green for bishops. Since the hat on the façade was carved from white marble it could be creatively ambiguous, standing for either Cardinal Pier Donato Cesi or Bishop Angelo Cesi, or better, for Angelo as bishop for the moment but also as cardinal, should the pope choose to elevate him to that rank (which never happened).

The widow, as one might think of the façade, was proud of both her husbands. Of course, as the one who finished the façade, it was Angelo Cesi, “EPISC[OPUS] TUDERTINUS” (Bishop of Todi), who got to put his name on it in large letters along with the date 1605.

Cesare Baronio, now a cardinal, had the satisfaction of seeing the façade finished before his death in 1607. It was a worthy frontispiece to the great book of devotion that opened up inside the church. It featured statues of the Latin Fathers closest to his heart, Jerome and Gregory the Great. Jerome was an early explorer of the catacombs and Gregory not only the dedicatee of the earlier church but also the hero of the second book of the Annales.

An inscription over the main door, “DEIPARAE VIRGINI,” reflects the cardinal’s (and Saint Philip’s) devotion to the Theotokos. Those over the side doors, “TOTA PULCHRA ES AMICA MEA” and “ET MACULA NON EST IN TE (Canticles 4:7-8) reflect an emphasis on the Immaculate Conception.

All this is summed up in the huge, three-dimensional icon in the center. Here, the Madonna della Vallicella floats on cherub-filled clouds while reverenced by a pair of angels. The green copper aureole around the Madonna was probably gilt.

By way of comparison, the Jesuits expended much gold on the aureole (now gone) around their shield with IHS on the façade of the Gesù. This was a theological abstraction, far less personal than the Virgin and Child that glinted in the afternoon sun at the Vallicella.

The Icon at the High Altar

Inside the church, the chapels were given to private patrons with the stipulation that the altarpieces were to follow a predetermined program. Each would show a mystery of a (somewhat abbreviated) rosary.

The plan was to start with the Nativity of the Virgin over the high altar. Then, proceeding counter-clockwise, they would continue down the chapels on the gospel side with the Presentation of the Virgin in the left transept (the Cesi family chapel), followed by the Annunciation, Visitation, Nativity, Three Kings and—for the moment—the icon of the Vallicella installed in the chapel closest to the façade.

The series would continue on the epistle side with the Crucifixion, Deposition, Ascension, Pentecost, and Assumption, ending with the Coronation of the Virgin in the right transept.

This neat scheme was disrupted by two powerful forces: relics and money. A friend of the Congregation, Cardinal Agostino Cusano, found the relics of five martyrs under the floor of his titular church, Sant’Adriano on the Roman Forum. Two were legionaries martyred under Diocletian (AD 284-305), Papianus and Maurus. The other three consisted of Flavia Domitilla, a princess of the Flavian period (AD 69-96), and her servants Nereus and Achilleus.

Cardinal Baronio conceived the idea of packaging all five together with Pope Saint Gregory as the high altarpiece. Somehow the venerable old icon of the Madonna della Vallicella would be included among them. This made for a strange sacra conversazione (holy colloquy) of saints from the first, third, and sixth centuries. Bookish scholar that he was, Baronio conceived of the altarpiece as a spectacular title page and rather liked these leaps across the centuries.

Rubens’ Opportunity

Then the money arrived. Out of the blue a wealthy Genoese financier, Giacomo Serra, agreed to pay for the altarpiece, provided that it was done by his young Flemish protégé, Peter Paul Rubens. Rubens was technically in the service of the Duke of Mantua, but was allowed generous periods of study in Rome.

He put all six characters together in a wonderful painting on canvas. He claimed that it was the best he had ever done. It was delivered in the summer of 1607, while the artist was away in Genoa. But the painting was never to be installed in the Vallicella.

“It did not please” was the explanation that went about. Scholars have jumped to the conclusion that this was a rejection by the Oratorians, similar to Caravaggio’s rejections by a number of his patrons. On the contrary, the party that the first painting did not please was Rubens himself.

Back in Rome that autumn, he saw an opportunity. While he was away in Genoa Baronio had died. With this authoritarian figure no longer looking over his shoulder, Rubens felt liberated. He was freed from the concept of a colored title page. With the somewhat flimsy excuse that the light in the apse was unfavorable for a painting on canvas, he took his first painting back and proposed a new altarpiece on slate, as though on a giant blackboard.

In the end Rubens produced three paintings on slate. Those at the sides accommodated the five martyrs plus Saint Gregory. That in the center was reserved for the icon of the Vallicella adored by choirs of angels. On ordinary days the faithful would see a Rubens copy of the icon on tin. But on special feasts the copy would be lowered behind the slate by a special apparatus of ropes and pulleys. The original miraculous icon would suddenly appear.

The main altarpiece of Santa Maria in Vallicella with a copy of the miraculous Madonna covering the original. Credit: J. Connors

Wonderfully, the Madonna had returned to the spot that she had originally occupied on a house wall near the stufa. On these rare occasions pilgrims, and we too if we arrive on the right day, stand in awe at the apotheosis of a humble image. Primitive by the sophisticated standards of Baroque Rome, it nevertheless exerts a totemic power that no work of modern art, however elegant, could match.

Sacred Theater

Through all the vicissitudes that came with the arrival of a new secular power, the Kingdom of Italy, in 1870, Oratorians remain at Santa Maria in Vallicella. Their gracious house, the casa dei Filippini, was subject to expropriation and is now given over to civic functions like the Capitoline archive, two public libraries, and a learned society.

The padri occupy a small wing behind the apse of the church. They still officiate in the Vallicella with their famous dedication to liturgical purity.

On festive days they can offer a rare experience to the visitor by opening the central door in Cesi’s great façade. Through it the faithful in the street can glimpse the Rubens altarpiece in the distance.

The mechanism for revealing the old icon can offer a moment of sacred theater. These occasions are rare. Day and night, however, the great sculptural icon at the center of the façade presides over the little valley that was the Madonna’s neighborhood for many years before she welcomed Saint Philip and his followers to it.

Interior of Santa Maria in Vallicella. Credit: