Discover Rome: Sant'Agnese in Agone
Sant'Agnese in Agone church: a far imperial past
One of the most appreciated beauties in Rome is the church of Sant'Agnese in Agone. A religious building with an extraordinary structure, where the incredible history of great artists, nobles, powerful popes and emperors is hidden. Originally, there was a stadium where the church is actually located.
We are talking about the first century AD, when the church of Sant'Agnese had the shape of the ancient arena of the Stadium of Domitian. At the time, it had an extraordinary importance as it was necessary not only to satisfy the whims of emperors and of the most powerful Roman noble families, but also for the people who wanted to spend some pleasant time. According to some historical documents, the ancient Domitian's Stadium used to host various types of games until the 5th century AD, so it means until the inexorable decline of the Roman Empire began, under the blows of barbarians from Northern Europe.
From the ruins of a stadium to a shrine where commemorating the saint martyr
History tells among the ruins of the old stadium, after a long process of reconstruction, the churches dedicated to the Saint Agnese and Saint Caterina were built. The reason why the church was consecrated in that specific location is her dramatic martyrdom did took place there. Over the centuries, the small church was enlarged until 1123, when it finally became a small basilica, by the will of Pope Callisto II.
The Pope also ordered structural changes by providing a main entrance now known as the way of the soul, while the apse was carved into the former "campus agonis", where the races in the old stadium used to take place.
The Church of Sant'Agnese in Agone: the rise of the Pamphilj family
The transformation and the history of the Church of Sant'Agnese doesn't stop with Pope Callisto II. During the middle ages, the Church was actually are very connected to the Pamphilj family. The noble family from Gubbio decided to leave the Umbrian town to move to Rome, in the fifteenth century, purchasing a small residence along the path of the soul. It has been expanded over the years to merge it with some neighboring buildings, in order to obtain a real noble palace.
Pope Innocenzo and the birth of the Church of Sant'Agnese in Agone
In 1644, a representative of the Pamphilj family became Pope by the name of Innocenzo X: in addition to the changes of the square and the built of a magnificent fountain in the middle, he decided to build a new church where he would have later be buried. A new religious structure was built where the old one was, making it next to the palace of the Pamphilj family.
For this work, Pope Innocenzo contacted several important architects and artists of the time to then entrust the architect Girolamo Rainaldi with all the project. The latter, after having realized a project on paper and having obtained the summary approval of the Pope, started the works on August 15th, in 1652, and after a few weeks - to be precise on September 3rd - the demolition of the old church of Sant'Agnese began. The plan of Rainaldi had a church with a Greek cross classic central plan, a dome without tambour and a vestibule with of great recesses in the pillars, while, on the facade, two lateral towers faced on the public square thanks to a long stairs.
The artworks by Rainaldi, Borromini, and... Bernini
The cooperation between the pope and architect Rainaldi lasted a few months, as in 1653, Pope Innocenzo decided to relieve him entrusting Francesco Borromini with the job. The clamorous decision obviously had some repercussions on the initial project by Rainaldi, quite modified by the removal of the vestibule and the addition of two bell towers on the sides of the facade to discover the view of the dome. The dome was also changed as Borromini decided to build also the tambour.
However, the events of the new church of Sant'Agnese construction are not just these. When Pope Innocenzo died, in January 1655, the new Pope Alessandro VII - not a bit approving Borromini's project - decided to establish a committee to investigate on possible mistakes by the artist. You can understand how the relationship between Borromini and the members of the Commission became so strained, so that they finally brought into an inevitable waiver by the artist himself. The consequence was the necessity of architect Rainaldi’s return, no longer able to take care of the work, so his son Carlo got entrusted with the job. As expected, further changes to the Borromini project were made, especially concerning the bell towers and the lantern.
A few years later, in 1667, the noble Donna Olimpia Maidalchini, related to the Pamphilj family - she had married the brother of Pope Innocenzo X - decided to take charge of finishing work of the facade and of the entire Church of Sant'Agnese in Agone. Obtained the authorization by the Pope, Donna Olimpia entrusted one of the greatest artists of the time, the Neapolitan Gian Lorenzo Bernini, who only took care of the finishing of the interior of the church. Concerning the bell towers and the stairs, Donna Olimpia entrusted other extraordinary artists of the time, such as Giovanni Maria Baratta and Giuseppe Baratta, finally giving the church of Sant'Agnese in Agone its current appearance.
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