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Roma 2005: Santa Maria del Popolo

After St. Peter's (see my Good Friday post), on this gorgeous day, we had a few hours free after a long lunch, so a friend and I walked toward the Villa Borghese garden, stopping to see the Ara Pacis and the Piazza del Popolo. As you can see in this photograph, which I took standing on the wall at the edge of the Tiber, the Romans are building a new museum around the Ara Pacis, at its location in the Campus Martius. The building has been designed by American architect Richard Meier, who designed the extraordinary building for the Getty in Los Angeles, but I couldn't make out much yet what his plan is for the building. This picture shows a lot of glass.

The Piazza del Popolo is the far more pleasant alternative—less tourist-infested than the Spanish Steps area, for example—as a place to have a drink, sit outdoors, and watch people. It was here that the Via Flaminia was made to enter Rome, back in the 3rd century, connecting the city to the Adriatic coast. Nanni di Baccio Bigio, commissioned by Pope Pius IV in 1562, built the gate you see behind the obelisk. When Queen Christina renounced the throne of Sweden, because she wanted to remain a Catholic, she moved to Rome in 1655, and in her honor Pope Alexander VII had Bernini provide new relief sculptures for the arch. Augustus first brought the obelisk from Heliopolis, to have it put up in the Circus Maximus. Pope Sixtus V had it moved here in 1589. The piazza's oval layout was fixed in the 19th century when walls were added to mark off the space. Now The Via del Corso, one of the great roads in Rome, begins here.

The church shown here, Santa Maria del Popolo, is only the most famous of several on the piazza. It was built in the 15th century, by Andrea Bregno, but the façade (shown here) is only one part of the building altered in the 1650s by Bernini, at the command of Alexander VII. It was ceded to a monastery of Augustinian monks, who in the early 16th century happened to have hosted a monk from Germany whose name was Martin Luther. He had, they tell me, quite an experience in Rome, which he never forgot. The church is full of exquisite art work, including sculptures by Bernini, Lorenzetto (based on Raphael's designs), a medieval icon of the Madonna del Popolo (in the choir/apse area, redesigned by Bramante), and lots of paintings and mosaics. I was there especially to see the Cerasi chapel (shown here), to the left of the main altar, where there is a painting of The Assumption done by Carracci. That painting is framed by two extraordinary paintings by Caravaggio (shown below), the Crucifixion of St. Peter (left) and the Conversion of St. Paul (right), both done in 1601 to 1602, at about the same time as the Carracci. The dome (shown below) has a beautiful example of trompe-l'œil painting.

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