Day 1- Santa Maria del Popolo and the Chigi Chapel
In ancient times, travelers arrived to Rome on the Via Flaminia, a road dating back to 220 BC. We will start there as well–at the northern gate, now called the Porta del Popolo.
The Piazza, a large open public square, lies inside the gate, centered by an Egyptian obelisk. The obelisk is the second oldest and one of the tallest in Rome (118 feet including its plinth). The column was brought to Rome in 10 BC by order of Augustus and originally set up in the Circus Maximus. Pope Sixtus V had it re-erected in the Piazza del Popolo in 1589, as part of his urban plan. In 1818, fountains in the form of Egyptian-style lions were added around the base of the obelisk.
Now, imagine we are standing at the fountain and slowly turning around. We see twin churches to the south, another church near the gate, three roads fanning outward and a plethora of symbolism all around. Clues of Illuminati significance from the Dan Brown story can be seen on the gate. Look for the pyramid of rocks with a star shining above (the light), and also at the top of the obelisk.
The Twin churches of Santa Maria dei Miracoli (1681) and Santa Maria in Montesanto (1679), were begun by Carlo Rainaldi and completed by Bernini and Carlo Fontana. The churches are not true copies, but close enough to create symmetrical balance, something that was important to Bernini, whose works feature prominently in the book.
Lead characters Professor Langdon and Vittoria Vetra sneak into the ancient church of Santa Maria del Popolo,the church near the gate. While inside they make their the first major discovery.
Before we enter, take a moment to study the church exterior which was modified by (guess who) Bernini. The stone and stucco facade is simple, with a small central door and one circular window on the upper level. From the rather plain appearance on the outside, you would not expect to find the graceful, intricate splendor of the interior. Walk in and find pink marble columns, golden inlay, statues, bas reliefs and paintings filling every niche.
The church’s history dates back to 1099, beginning when Pope Paschal II built a chapel over a tomb of the Domitia family. Tradition says the site was haunted by Nero’s ghost or demons in the form of black crows; therefore the pope chopped down the tree sheltering the crows and built a church in its place. The name del Popolo (“of the people”) probably derives from the source of the funds-the people of Rome, but some say it comes from the Latin word populus, meaning “poplar” and referring to a tree located nearby. I prefer the tree story.
Either way, the chapel became a church in the 13th century and was given to the Augustinians, a monastic order, who still oversee it. When you enter your eyes are drawn up by the numerous arches and domes in the ceiling. Angels seem to hover about the delicately embossed walls. To me the church feels serene but also displays a sense of wealth and power.
Recessed along each side of the magnificent nave are eight chapels. The Chigi Chapel, named after the prosperous banker Agostini Chigi who funded construction, was designed by Raphael, a famous artist commonly known by his first name.
In the novel, Langdon and Vittoria are searching for Santi’s earthly tomb. They discover that Raphael was also an architect and the son of Giovanni Santi. Thus, Raphael Santi designed the space; so here is where they find what’s hidden in Santi’s earthly tomb.
Beyond the symbolic pyramids on the tombs of the Chigi brothers and astrological signs, the chapel radiates awesome beauty. Above, a cupola is decorated with a mosaic also designed by Raphael: Creation of the World. The inspiration came from Michelangelo‘s work in the Sistine Chapel. (Raphael and Michelangelo both lived and worked in Rome at the same time, sometimes competing against each other.)
The chapel walls are chestnut marble and gradually curve to form the central altar. On either side, two white marble statues dominate their alcoves. The decorative marble floor includes the signs of the zodiac leading to the central “demon’s hole” covered by an ornate circular inlay. The design is of a collapsed, angular skeleton bearing a shield emblazoned with Illuminati symbols. Below the skeleton rests a tomb, the demon’s hole. This centerpiece seems incongruous with the otherwise sedate surroundings.
Finally, but not to be missed within this fantastic building, but not mentioned in the book, is the Cerasi Chapel. That sanctuary boasts two priceless paintings by Caravaggio. Pause to study his Crucifixion of St Peter, as the art will become important as our Angels & Demons hunt continues…
Below is an exquisite video of the church along with lovely vocals, thanks to rododoro15 on YouTube.
Tour of Santa Maria del Popolo (click this link to see video)
Mimi (Debi Lander) did not, nor is she now, receiving any compensation from Dan Brown, Sony Pictures or the Angels & Demons tour company. She paid her own travels and tour expenses.
Images by Debi Lander or courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.