Church of Sant’Agnese in Agone
Sant’Agnese in Agone (also called Sant’Agnese in Piazza Navona) is a 17th-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. Construction began in 1652 under the architects Girolamo Rainaldi and his son Carlo Rainaldi. After numerous quarrels, the other main architect involved was Francesco Borromini.
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).
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 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 create frescoes for 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 dome’s frescoes with the Assumption of Mary was begun in 1670 by Ciro Ferri and finished after his death in 1689 by Sebastiano Corbellini. The pendentives were painted with the Cardinal Virtues by Bernini’s protégé, Giovanni Battista Gaulli from 1662-72.
There is a number of large scale sculptures in this church. The main altar, which should have depicted the Miracle of Saint Agnes, was originally commissioned from Alessandro Algardi who, however, died shortly afterwards. Algardi provided a small model while a full scale plaster model (now in the Oratorio dei Filippini) was made by his assistants Ercole Ferrata and Domenico Guidi. For some reason the project was dropped and instead Guidi created the high altar relief, depicting The Holy Family, to his own design from 1676.
All the other altars in the church are dedicated to martyrs with reliefs or statues depicting the circumstances of their deaths. There are four altars in the pillars with reliefs, highly unusually set in semi-circular niches: The Death of Saint Alexius by Giovanni Francesco Rossi, The Martyrdom of Saint Emerentiana by Ercole Ferrata (completed by Leonardo Reti who is responsible for the upper parts), The Death of Saint Cecilia by Antonio Raggi and The Martyrdom of Saint Eustace by Melchiorre Cafà who, due to his sudden early death, could only finish the figure of the saint while the remainder was completed by his teacher Ferrata and his workshop. The stucco decorations in the niches’ semi-domes with angels presenting the symbols of the respective saint are by Ferrata’s workshop.
Ferrata is also responsible for the side altar depicting Saint Agnes on the Pyre, one of his best works. The much later opposite side altar of Saint Sebastian by Paolo Campi dates from c.1717-1719 and also boasts two marble angels by his master Pierre Le Gros which might well be Le Gros’ very last works. Both, the statue of Saint Agnes and of Saint Sebastian, are placed in an illusionistic architecture of coloured marble.
The Tomb Monument of Pope Innocent X, originally planned on a grand scale, turned into a much more modest monument by Giovanni Battista Maini, and was erected in the church above the main entrance in 1729.
Inside the church is also a shrine for Saint Agnes, containing her skull.
Origin of name and legends
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.
Bernini‘s Fountain of the Four Rivers is situated in front of the church. It is often said that Bernini sculpted the figure of the “Nile” covering his eyes 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 the fact that 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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