Sant'Agnese in Agone

Sant'Agnese in Agone is a seventeenth century Baroque church in Rome, Italy. It faces onto the Piazza Navona, one of the main urban spaces in the historic centre of the city and the site where the Early Christian Saint Agnes was martyred in the ancient Stadium of Domitian.

The rebuilding of the church was begun in 1652 at the instigation of Pope Innocent X whose family palace, the Palazzo Pamphili, faced onto the piazza and was adjacent to the site of the new church. The church was to be effectively a family chapel annexed to their residence (for example, an opening was formed in the drum of the dome so the family could participate in the religious services from their palace).

A number of architects were involved in the construction of the church, including Girolamo Rainaldi and his son Carlo Rainaldi, and two of the foremost Baroque architects of the day; Francesco Borromini and the sculptor Gianlorenzo Bernini

The name of this church is unrelated to the ‘agony’ of the martyr: in agone was the ancient name of Piazza Navona (piazza in agone), and meant instead, from the Greek, ‘in the site of the competitions’, because Piazza Navona was built on the form of an ancient Roman stadium on the Greek model, with one flat end, and was used for footraces. From ‘in agone’, the popular use and pronunciation changed the name into ‘Navona’, but other roads in the area kept the original name.

The current Cardinal Priest pro hac vice of the Titulus S. Agnetis in Agone is Lorenzo Antonetti.

History

The first designs for a centralised Greek Cross church were prepared by the Pamphili family architect, Girolamo Rainaldi, and his son Carlo Rainaldi in 1652. They were commissioned by Pope Innocent X, whose funerary monument was later housed within the church. They reorientated the main entrance to the church from the Via Santa Maria dell’Anima, a street set one urban block away from the piazza, to the Piazza Navona, a large urban space that Innocent was transforming into a showcase associated with his family. It had been the intention to build the new church over the old church which would become the crypt; this meant the new church was to be raised well above piazza level, but this idea was abandoned once construction started. The original drawings are lost but it is thought that the Piazza Navona facade design included a narthex between two towers and broad stairs descending to the piazza.

Harsh criticism was made of the design, including the steps down to the piazza which were thought to project excessively, so Carlo Rainaldi eliminated the narthex idea and substituted a concave facade so that the steps would not be so intrusive. . The idea of the twin towers framing a central dome may be indebted to Bernini's bell towers on the facade of Saint Peter's basilica. Nonetheless, Rainaldi's design of a concave facade and a central dome framed by twin towers was influential on subsequent church design in Northern Europe . In 1653, the Rainaldis were replaced by Borromini.

Borromini had to work with the Rainaldi ground plan but made adjustments; on the interior for instance, he positioned columns towards the edges of the dome piers which had the effect of creating a broad base to the dome pendentives instead of the pointed base which was the usual Roman solution. . His drawings show that on the façade to Piazza Navona, he designed curved steps descending to the piazza, the convex curvature of which play against the concave curvature of the façade to form an oval landing in front of the main entrance. His façade was to have eight columns and a broken pediment over the entrance. He designed the flanking towers as single storey above which there was to be a complex arrangement of columns and convex bays with balustrades.

By the time of Innocent's death in 1655, the façade had reached the top of the lower order. Innocent’s nephew, Camillo Pamphili, failed to take interest in the church and Borromini became disheartened, eventually leading to his resignation in 1657.

Carlo Rainaldi was reappointed and made a number of modifications to Borromini’s design including an additional storey to the flanking towers and simplifying their uppermost parts. On the death of Camillo, his wife Olympia (Aldobrandini), commissioned Bernini to take over. He was responsible for the straightforward pediment above the main entrance and for the emphatic entablature in the interior.

In 1668, Olympia’s son, Camillo, took over responsibility for the church. He reinstated Carlo Rainaldi as architect and engaged Ciro Ferri to fresco the interior of the dome. Further decorations were added; there were large scale sculptures and polychrome marble effects. None of these are likely to have been intended by Borromini.

The interior of the dome has paintings portraying the Assumption (begun 1670) by Ciro Ferri was unfinished on his death in 1689 and completed by Sebastiano Corbellini. The pendentives were painted with the cardinal virtues by Bernini’s protégée, Giovanni Battista Gaulli from 1662-72.

Other interior decorations

There are a number of large scale sculptures in this church, including the marble relief in the main altar, placed in a setting installed by Carlo Rainaldi and Ciro Ferri, that depicts the Miracle of Saint Agnes, initially commissioned from Alessandro Algardi and completed by Ercole Ferrata and Domenico Guidi in 1688, under constraints that their product must remain in conformity with the original Algardi design. The Sacred Family altarpiece (third to the right) is also by Domenico Guidi.

The altar dedicated to Saint Alexius, depicting his death, was completed by Giovanni Francesco Rossi. The stucco decoration of angels by Ferrata with the symbols of the Saint: pilgrim’s staff and flower crown. The altar depicting the Martyrdom of Sant’Emerenziana is by Ercole Ferrata. He also completed Sant’Agnese and the flame, Leonardo Retti completed the superior portions. The altar depicting the Death of Santa Cecilia was executed by Antonio Raggi. Stucco angel decorations (with musical instruments) by Ercole Ferrata with fresco designs by Ciro Ferri. The altarpiece of the Martyrdom of St. Eustace was commissioned to Melchiorre Caffà, but generally completed after Caffà's early death by Ferrata and Giovanni Francesco Rossi. The statue of Saint Stephen Martyr is by Pietro Paolo Campi

Origin of name and legends

Bernini's Fountain of the Four Rivers lies in front of the church. It is often said that Bernini sculpted the figure of the "Rio de la Plata" cowering as if he thought the facade designed by his rival Borromini could crumble atop him. This story, like many urban legends, persists because it has a ring of authenticity, despite Bernini's fountain predates the facade by some years.

Borromini and Bernini became rivals, and more, for architectural commissions. Most prominently, during the Pamphili papacy, an official commission was established to study defects that had arisen in the foundations of the belltowers (built under Bernini's guidance) in the facade of Saint Peter's Basilica. In testimony before the commission, Borromini was one of many harsh critics that assailed the project's engineering. Ultimately, in a severe blow to Bernini's prestige as an architect, the facade bell-towers were torn down, and never rebuilt.

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