Italian Architecture during the XVIth Century. The Church of the Gesù and the Apostolic Palace

The building grounds of St. Peter’s Basilica were the “school” for the Roman architects of the time. One of Michelangelo‘s disciples, Giacomo Barozzi da Vignola (1507-1573), wrote a treatise on architecture: Regola delli cinque ordini d’architettura (“Canon of the five orders of architecture”), published in 1562. Vignola was the architect of the Church of the Gesù (the mother church of the Society of Jesus, or Jesuits) in Rome. As in St. Peter’s Basilica, this Church of the Gesù also includes a dome and a single nave with side chapels, and thus represents the final development of the architectural idea started by Leon Battista Alberti in the Basilica of Sant’ Andrea in Mantua. In the Church of the Gesù, the wide transept is illuminated by the dome; the barrel vault is counteracted by large buttresses, while the spaces between them house the side chapels.

Interior view of the Church of the Gesù, designed by Giacomo Barozzi da Vignola, 1568-1575 (Rome). In the 1550s, da Vignola emerged as the leading architect in Rome after Michelangelo and was under the service of the Popes for over three decades. The church of Il Gesù was commissioned by Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, grandson of Pope Paul III, who had authorized the founding of the Society of Jesus. Cardinal Farnese wanted the church to have a single vaulted nave with side chapels. Giacomo was able to give cohesion to the church’s interior by lining it with paired Composite pilasters without pedestals and a continuous belt-like entablature. Giacomo directed the construction up to the height of the main entablature; the nave’s barrel vault and the dome were built later, and higher than he had intended, by Giacomo della Porta. This church has served as a model for numerous Jesuit churches all over the world, especially in the Americas.
Floor plan of the Church of the Gesù, designed by Giacomo Barozzi da Vignola. The church’s plan doesn’t have a narthex in which to linger; in consequence, the visitor enters immediately into the body of the church, a single nave without aisles, so that the congregation is assembled and attention is focused on the high altar. In place of aisles there are a series of identical interconnecting chapels behind arched openings, to which entrance is controlled by decorative balustrades with gates. Transepts are reduced to stubs that emphasize the altars of their end walls. At Il Gesù the elimination of side aisles allowed for enlarged lateral chapels and a broader nave that turns the cupola into a highly visible culminating element.

This interior of the church of the Gesù, begun in 1568, served as a model for thousands of Baroque churches distributed throughout Europe, a design whose functionality is rooted in the needs of the Catholic architecture of the Counter-Reformation (1545-1648). During the last period of the Renaissance this religious movement, led by the Jesuits, was in need of large spaces without columns, suitable for preaching. The decisive step marked by Vignola’s Church of the Gesù with respect to Alberti’s Sant’ Andrea in Mantua, is determined by the role of the dome as a light-distributing element, throughout which light falls in abundance to the interior of the church, in contrast to the moderate illumination of the areas of the nave and the presbitery. Thus, for the first time, this element that would be of capital importance in Baroque architecture appears in the organization of interior spaces: light.

The façade of the church of the Gesù was done later (in 1573) by Giacomo della Porta, who introduced some non-classical decoration details showing some progress towards Baroquism. Above the door there is a crest with some hanging garlands following a Michelangelesque style, although more complicated and twisted. The general arrangement of this façade closely follows that proposed by Leon Battista Alberti in the church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence, a model that was traditionally followed since the previous century: a lower zone, with an order of pilasters, and an upper one that ends in a pediment. As the lower zone is wider because runs along the width of the three naves (or the central nave and the chapels) and the upper one is no wider than the central nave, these two levels are joined at the sides by an undulating curve which ends in two corresponding giant scrolls. Thus, the narrower upper zone is cleverly widened to blend in with the wider lower zone. This solution, popularized by the treatises of the Renaissance, achieved singular popularity.

Façade of the Church of the Gesù, designed by Giacomo della Porta, 1571 (Rome). Giacomo della Porta’s design for the façade of il Gesù is a classic example of the façades for Counter-Reformation churches, with broad nave and flanking side chapels. For this façade, Della Porta conceived paired pilasters across the surface while columns frame, and thus accentuate, the central portal and the benediction loggia above it. This façade is considered “the first truly baroque façade”, introducing the baroque style into architecture. In his design, della Porta included two main sections. The lower section is divided by six pairs of pilasters (with a mix of columns and pilasters framing the main door). The upper section is divided with four pairs of pilasters and no statues. Upper and lower sections are joined by a volute on each side. The façade also shows the papal coat of arms and a shield with the initials SPQR*, tying this church closely to the people of Rome.

More than pious men, the Popes of the Renaissance were statesmen, like Julius II, or scholars and art amateurs and aficionados, like Leo X and Paul III. Their main concern was to restore Classical life in all its details, and this was reflected in the most social of all the arts: architecture. The first “residential” building that must be mentioned from this time is the Vatican palace itself, or as it is also known, the Apostolic Palace. This group of buildings is a complex construction in which each Pope has introduced new dependencies; but its overall plan can be reduced, in its essential elements, to the dependencies that surround the San Damaso courtyard and the two long parallel wings that join this nucleus of buildings to the Villa Belvedere, now housing the vast Vatican Museums and Vatican Library, characteristic accessories of the pontifical palace.

General plan of the Apostolic Palace in Vatican City: 1. St. Peter’s Basilica; 2. San Damaso Courtyard; 3. Dependencies of the Apostolic Palace; 4. Belvedere Courtyard.
View of the Courtyard of San Damaso, begun by Bramante and completed by Raphael, 1509-1520 (Apostolic Palace, Vatican City). Between 1503 and 1504, Pope Julius II asked Donato Bramante to rebuild the eastern façade of the Apostolic Palace by building loggias. After Bramante’s death in 1514, Raphael took his place. He directed the construction of these three loggias, a kind of superimposed galleries. Raphael probably worked personally only on the second floor, which communicates with the new papal apartments he was painting at the same time (the Raphael Rooms). This enclosed space, named Courtyard of San Damaso, is the main courtyard of the Apostolic Palace. Here the heads of state and government are welcomed, as well as ambassadors accredited to the Holy See, bishops, and more generally all those who are received in private audience by the Pope. It is also here that, on May 6, the new recruits of the Pontifical Swiss Guard solemnly swear service to the Pope.

The San Damaso courtyard, the work of Bramante and Raphael, has four floors with porticoes designed with a classic simplicity that recalls Roman monuments. It is curious that this palace originally had only three wings built, leaving the courtyard open to the side that faces Rome. On its ground floor are the offices of the Curia. The dependencies built around this courtyard include the Borgia apartments, the private rooms of the current Popes (Papal Apartments), and the halls for public audiences and large receptions. They also include the rooms of Julius II (the Stanze di Raffaello), decorated by Raphael, the chapel of Nicolas V (Niccoline Chapel) and the great room (or Sala Regia) of Paul III.

View one of the corridors of the Vatican loggias (also known asLogge di Raffaello“), by Raphael and workshop, 1519 (Apostolic Palace, Vatican City). Originally they were open to the elements on the arcade side, the one that opens to the Damaso courtyard (see picture before). These loggias were decorated in fresco by Raphael’s large workshop, with Giovanni da Udine the main artist involved. Since the grotesque mural paintings of the ancient Domus Aurea had recently been discovered, they were in vogue, and so this same style of mural decoration was applied to these loggias instead of large mural paintings.
View of the Sala Regia (“Regal Room”), designed by Antonio da Sangallo the Younger (Apostolic Palace, Vatican City). In 1538, Pope Paul III commissioned Antonio da Sangallo the Younger with the renovation of this room. The room was inaugurated 35 years later, on May 21, 1573, by Pope Gregory XIII. The barrel vault and the frame above the doors are sumptuously decorated with stuccoes by Perino del Vaga and Daniele da Volterra. The immense frescoes that cover the walls by Giorgio Vasari, Francesco Salviati and Federico Zuccari, enhance the supremacy of the sovereign pontiff over other sovereigns. This state hall is really an antechamber to the Sistine Chapel, and was originally used for the reception of princes and royal ambassadors, hence its name.

These are the services installed around the U shaped courtyard of San Damaso, opened at that time on the side facing the large St. Peter’s square. Vast communication galleries, or loggias, encircled each floor, beautifully decorated by Raphael and his disciples. This nucleus of rooms and dependencies around the San Damaso courtyard was at first separated from the Villa Belvedere located beyond the gardens and dominating the entire city from its small hill. It was also Bramante, commissioned by Julius II who, after having completed the decoration of the buildings surrounding the courtyard of San Damaso, reunited them with the Villa Belvedere by means of two 300 meter long wings that ended up enclosing an immense rectangular courtyard called the Cortile del Belvedere (Belvedere Courtyard). This courtyard is closed, on the Belvedere side, by a high niche which produces a grandiose perspective effect at one end of the great patio. This effect was even greater in Bramante’s original project as this long courtyard was later divided in two by a transversal building, in order to connect the two 300-meter wings half way through the length of the patio. In consequence, the large initial Cortile was divided in two: the side of the Belvedere is now known as Cortile della Pigna, and the opposite courtyard retains its original name of Cortile del Belvedere. The long lateral wings of this courtyard, as well as the newer transverse addition joining them, now house the Vatican Museums, archives and library, including the famous Gallery of Maps; indeed, no residence of any other sovereign in the world has granted these services such an extensive space. The group of buildings for residences and receptions surrounding the San Damaso courtyard is much smaller than the area occupied by the long wings enclosing the courtyard destined to house galleries for statues, deposit of precious manuscripts, tombstones and liturgical objects, all accumulated in the Vatican museums and library. The buildings are extremely sumptuous, even in their layout: the statues and paintings are placed with all the dignity that befits the great treasures of ancient Rome, so assiduously collected by the pontiffs of the Renaissance.

View of the Cortile del Belvedere (“Belvedere Courtyard”), designed by Donato Bramante, and built from 1505 onward (Vatican City). Bramante originally conceived the courtyard as a long single enclosed space, but between 1585 and 1590 Pope Sixtus V ordered to build a wing for the Vatican Library, which ultimately joined the long lateral wings and thus, divided the Belvedere Courtyard into two separate courtyards: the one closer to the Villa Belvedere (here at the top left of the picture), is called Cortile della Pigna and the one opposite (to the lower right of the picture) has retained the original name Cortile del Belvedere.
View of the nicchione (“great niche”) on the Villa Belvedere side of the old Belvedere Courtyard, now known as Cortile della Pigna due to the 1st-century Roman bronze Pigna (pinecone) that was placed in front of the niche. Bramante designed this architectural detail, but it was completed by Pirro Ligorio later in 1562-1565 after Bramante’s death in 1514.
View of the Gallery of Maps, located inside of the west wing of the Belvedere Courtyard (see picture before) (Vatican City). This gallery is name after the topographical maps of the whole of Italy that were painted on the walls by friar Ignazio Danti of Perugia, these were commissioned in 1580 by Pope Gregory XIII. It took Danti three years (1580–1583) to complete the 40 panels of the 120 m long gallery. The Gallery of Maps (“Galleria delle carte geografiche“) is still the world’s largest pictorial geographical study. These wall paintings map the entirety of the Italian peninsula in large-scale frescoes, each depicting a region as well as a perspective view of its most prominent city. The maps are said to be approximately 80% accurate. The impressive and elaborated vaulted ceiling decoration was done by a group of Mannerist artists including Cesare Nebbia and Girolamo Muziano.


S.P.Q.R.: Abbreviation for Senātus Populusque Rōmānus, a phrase from Classical Latin meaning: “The Senate and People of Rome”. This is an emblematic abbreviated phrase referring to the government of the ancient Roman Republic. It appeared on Roman currency, at the end of documents made public by an inscription in stone or metal, and in dedications of monuments and public and civil works.