S. Andrea Della Valle

[San Clemente] [Santa Susanna]

Browse unique lodgings, hand-picked for you by In Italy Online

Families And Fervor For An Operatic Church
An "Operatic" Basilica

It is not at all difficult to understand why Giacomo Puccini set the first act of his opera Tosca in Sant'Andrea della Valle (in the Barberini Chapel). In fact, it would be hard to imagine a more "theatrical" church! The airy majesty of the great white marble hall (one wide nave with barrel vault and Latin cross), glittering with gold and awash with bold paintings, seems to call for some kind of orchestral accompaniment. The drama unfolds as soon as one enters the church. Mattia Preti's enormous paintings (1650-51), spreading the story of St. Andrew's martyrdom across the curving apse, have an almost unbearable impact. The three frescoes, St. Andrew Raised on the Cross, St. Andrew's Crucifixion, and St. Andrew's Burial, are both uplifting (lofty classical architecture and spacious landscapes) and tragic (the saint's fearful expression and mocking crowds). Above the apse, Domenichino's frescoes (1624-27), less dramatic but much more beautiful, also depict episodes from the life of the saint, including the famous St. Andrew Brings Peter to Jesus and Jesus' Call to the Fishermen Andrew and Peter.
Click on the picture
to see it enlarged


Three powerful pontifical families contributed (and even more unusual for their era, cooperated) to produce Rome's most theatrical basilica - Sant'Andrea della Valle (St. Andrew of the Valley).

Our story begins with the Piccolomini, of noble and ancient Sienese origins, who had already given the Church one of its most important Renaissance Popes, Pius II (1405-64). This family had a beautiful palace in the heart of Rome, located - appropriately - in the Piazza di Siena. In 1582 the devout and widowed Donna Costanza Piccolomini, Duchess of Amalfi and the last heir of the Roman family branch, was rumbling around by herself in the huge edifice, and decided to retire to a convent in Naples. She bequeathed to her favorite new order of Theatine Fathers (see below) her palazzo, property, and the adjacent crumbling church of St. Sebastian. Costanza stipulated only that a much larger basilica be constructed on the site, and dedicated to the patron of Amalfi, St. Andrew.

At this point a second family intervenes in the destiny of the basilica. The Peretti Montalto house was of quite different stock. Their first Pope, Sixtus V (1520-90), had been the humble farm worker's son, Felice Peretti, from Italy's Montalto area. Sixtus officially earmarked papal funds for Sant'Andrea, but later, infected by the urban renewal frenzy which characterized his pontificate, decided to broaden the papal itinerary by passing Sant' Andrea, and banished the Theatines to a different area. After Sixtus' death, construction resumed under the sponsorship of Naples' Archbishop Cardinal Alfonso Gesualdi. A few years after Gesualdi's death (1603), Cardinal Alessandro Peretti Montalto, grandson beneficiary of Sixtus V's nepotism, arrived on the scene (1608) with an injection of personal dedication and private wealth. The Cardinal emptied his own coffers to secure the services of Rome's premier architect of the day, Carlo Maderno (1556-1629).

At that time the scion of another powerful family had ascended the papal throne. Pope Paul V Borghese (1552-1621) was zealously finishing up the new St. Peter's Basilica, when his enlargement projects led him to the demolition of the St. Andrew chapel, with the tombs of two Piccolomini popes, Pius II (Pope 1458-64) and Pius III (reigned just 26 days in 1503). The P iccolominis rejoiced when Paul V agreed to transport (1614) their pontiffs' remains to Sant'Andrea to repose above the former family homestead. Little did contemporaries know that Pius II had conferred the first aristocratic title (count) on the Borghese family! The above tale was narrated by Dott.ssa. Erina Russo de Caro on a warm June 1995 evening in the church of Sant'Andrea della Valle, crowded with the last of the lineages and with astonished Romans accustomed to tales of Renaissance family rivalry and malice.

A Papal Humanist
On the same evening, Dott.ssa Grazia Stanisci, pointing out the tombs of Pius II and Pius III Piccolomini (high in the walls of the nave, to the right and left before the transept; bas-reliefs on four levels; executed in the late 1400's by the school of Andrea Bregno), related Pius II's remarkable life story. "The first great European humanist," noble but impoverished Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini was born in 1403 in the Tuscan village of Corsignano. He began his career as a passionate student of the classics in Siena and Florence. His learning and brilliance were noticed early, and he became secretary and diplomat (traveling far and wide) to important noblemen, cardinals, and even the Emperor Frederick III (who made him poet laureate). After a serious illness in 1445, Aeneas Silvius abandoned his amorous and high-spirited life (his rivals never let him forget his authorship of an erotic novel and "racy" play), and was ordained a priest in 1446.

Click on the picture
to see it enlarged
Already a renowned negotiator, poet, orator, and conversationalist, Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini then advanced rapidly in the Church, becoming Bishop of Trieste (only two years after taking Holy Orders), Bishop of Siena, Cardinal, and then Pope. In his memoirs, he wrote: "I do not deny my past. I have been a great wanderer from what is right, but at least I know it and hope the knowledge has not come too late." As Pope Pius II, his obsession was to launch a great crusade to wrest Constantinople from the Ottoman Turks. He died disconsolate in Ancona, where only a few Venetian ships had arrived to take up the call. Pius II was a generous patron of classical learning and art. A painting series depicting his life in Siena's Piccolomini Library (Bernadino Pinturicchio, 1454-1513) is one of the finest masterpieces of the early Renaissance.

Ardent devotion was another factor in the creation of the Basilica of Sant'Andrea della Valle. The site was originally occupied by the tiny but famous Church of Saint Sebastian. Legend has it that the pious matron Luciana found the body of the martyred saint in a drain on this very spot. According to the fifth-century Acts of the Saints, Sebastian was an exceptionally brave and handsome Roman soldier who was made captain of the Praetorian Guards by Diocletian (c.283). A Christian, he assisted martyrs in prison, was reproached by the Emperor for his ingratitude, and ordered to be shot to death by arrows. One account has the young saint recovering, rebuking the Emperor, then being clubbed and thrown into the Cloaca Massima. His small church existed since the fourth century and was an immensely popular pilgrimage site. A rather dingy altar painting of Saint Sebastian by Giovanni De Vecchi (1614) may be seen in Sant'Andrea's third chapel on the left.

And then there is the basilica's patron, St. Andrew. Anyone who enters the church will be moved by the drama and heroism of this saint's martyrdom, as depicted in splendid frescoes on the apse walls and ceiling. The fisherman Andrew (d. c.60) from Capernaum was a disciple of John the Baptist before becoming one of Christ's first apostles. He was the brother of Simon Peter, and in fact, introduced Peter to Jesus. Andrew preached the Gospel in Greece, and according to tradition also founded the Churches in Scotland and Constantinople. He supposedly died in Patras, crucified on an X-shaped cross. After the fall of Constantinople (1204), the crusaders took his body to Amalfi, and the Pope obtained his head in 1461. The latter was considered one of the Vatican's greatest treasures until it was returned to the Patriarch of Constantinople by Pope Paul VI. Andrew is the major patron of the Eastern Churches, on a par with St. Peter in the West. For that reason, it is interesting that the basilica's cupola (Carlo Maderno, 1622, with the assistance of his nephew Francesco Borromini) is Rome's second largest after St. Peter's, and second in evidence on Rome's skyline.

Here a word about the Theatine Fathers for whom Sant'Andrea was founded, and who administer the basilica to this day. The Congregation of Regular Clerks, known as the Theatines because the first Superior General was the Bishop of Theate (and later Pope Paul IV), was one of the new religious orders of the Italian Counter Reformation. Established in 1523 to instill virtue in the laity and to reform the clergy, the Theatines made Sant'Andrea della Valle their center of oratory and catechesis. (Two other new Counter Reformation orders, the Oratorians and the Jesuits founded by St. Philip Neri and St. Ignatius Loyola respectively, had their centers, the Chiesa Nuova and Il Gesù, in the same area). A chapel in Sant'Andrea's left transept is dedicated to the Theatine founder, St. Cajetan of Tiene (1480-1547), while the chapel directly across in the right transept honors another Theatine, Andrew of Avellino (and has a horrible painting of the saint suffering an attack of apoplexy). The two saints, along with Sts. Andrew and Sebastian, are also represented by statues on the church façade.

Baroque Art

Many other impressive works and monuments ornament Sant' Andrea della Valle. The Ginetti Chapel (first on right) was designed by Carlo Fontana (1670) and has Antonio Raggi's very graceful white marble relief of The Angel Tells the Holy Family to Flee to Egypt.

The angel is pure Bernini; in fact, Bernini was Raggi's teacher. Across the nave, in the Barberini Chapel (first on left) stands a moving statue of St. John the Baptist, sculpted by Pietro Bernini (with the help of his son Gian Lorenzo) for Cardinal Maffeo Barberini, who later became Pope Urban VIII (1623-1644). The Strozzi Chapel (second on right) is full of somber bronze plagiarisms of Michelangelo's Pieta, Lea, and Rachel. Giovanni Lanfranco's dome fresco, The Glory of Paradise (1625-1628), is a whirl of golden clouds and swirling angels.

White ribbing and gold stucco work (1650-1652) between the apse paintings is by Alessandro Algardi. Carlo Rainaldi (1611-1691) completed Sant'Andrea's façade, slightly altering Carlo Maderno's original design.

Note: There are two explanations for the appellation della Valle in the basilica's name. According to one, "of the Valley" referred to the area where the Church was built. The other points out that Cardinal Andrea della Valle had palazzi and property across from those of the Piccolomini, and gave his name to the piazza and church. There are about nine other churches dedicated to Sant'Andrea in Rome.

by June Hager

Reprinted by kind permission of June Hager and the magazine "Inside the Vatican," published in Rome.

Browse unique lodgings, hand-picked for you by In Italy Online

[San Clemente] [Santa Susanna]