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The Chigi Chapel (Italian: Cappella Chigi) is the second chapel on the left-hand side of the nave in the Church of Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome. It is the only religious building of Raphael which has been preserved in its near original form. The chapel is a treasure trove of Italian Renaissance and Baroque art and is considered among the most important monuments in the basilica.
In 1507 Julius II granted the right construct a burial chapel in the church to a wealthy Sienese banker Agostino Chigi. The work began around 1513 with Raphael as the architect. The chapel was dedicated to the Madonna di Loreto and its main iconographic theme was the Resurrection. In visual themes it represented a marriage between Christianity and antiquity.
Work on the unfinished chapel resumed in the 1550s when Salviati frescoed the drum and the lunettes but the chapel was only completed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini between 1652 and 1656, more than a century after Raphael's death. Bernini's patron was Fabio Chigi, who became Pope Alexander VII in 1655.
Raphael's centralized plan was inspired by the designs of Bramante for the new St. Peter's Basilica. Another source of inspiration was the Pantheon with its dome, marble revetments and Corinthian pilasters. The simple cube is surmounted by a hemispherical dome resting on a high drum which is penetrated by a row of windows that allow light into the chapel. The trapezoidal pendentives were the characteristics of Bramante but the whole conception of space, which requires the viewer to look at from several points of view to capture its splendor, is new and unique. The side walls are made up of round-headed arches, of which only the entrance arch is open, the others are blind; they are alternated with canted corners in which shell-headed niches are framed between Corinthian pilasters. The frieze is embellished with garlands and ascending eagles. The subtle use of coloured marbles emphasizes the individual elements of the classical architecture. The use coloured stone was without precedent that time but became fashionable in the age of Counter-Reformation.
The dome is decorated with mosaics executed by the Venetian Luigi da Pace after Raphael's cartoon (1516). The original cartoons were lost but some preparatory drawings, that confirm the originality of the work, survived in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford and Lille. The central roundel represents the Creation of the World. God, the Father is effectively foreshortened in an impetuous gesture, harking back to Michelangelo, which seems to give rise to the entire motion of the universe below. The eight other mosaic panels show the Sun, the starry sky and the six known planets as pagan deities depicted in half-length, each moved by an angel. The figures are accompanied by the signs of the zodiac. The Neoplatonist work is a rare example of High Renaissance mosaic art. The mosaic panels are surrounded by richly gilded stucco decoration.
The frescos of Francesco Salviati between the windows of the drum depict Scenes of the Creation and the Original Sin (c. 1550). The same artist created the tondos of the spandrels with the representations of the Seasons. The lunettes are filled with the paintings of Raffaello Vanni (oil on wood): Aaron and David (1653).
The main altar-piece was originally intended to be an Assumption of the Virgin by Raphael but the artist died before it was executed. The Birth of the Virgin was eventually begun by Sebastiano del Piombo using an unusual technique, oil on peperino stone blocks. The mural which was left unfinished by Sebastiano in 1534 was completed by Francesco Salviati around 1555. The upper part with the figure of the Holy Father and the angels is mainly Salviati's work.
The Chigi Chapel is replete with statues, bronze reliefs, paintings and marble revetments. The bronze bas-relief panel on the altar front is Christ and the Samaritan Woman, by Lorenzetto. The statue of Jonah and the whale, a prophet who prefigured the Resurrection, was carved by Lorenzetto (1520), to designs provided by Raphael. The statue of Elijah, whose words were accounted prophesies of Christ's coming, was created by Lorenzetto but it was finished by Raffaello da Montelupo in 1522.
In two other niches are sculptures by Bernini: Habakkuk and the Angel (1656–61) that took him by the hair and transported him to Babylon to succour Daniel, who is represented in the corresponding niche on the opposite wall together with a lion, sculpted by Bernini in 1655-57. On the side walls are the matching pyramidal wall tombs of Agostino Chigi (died 1520) and his brother Sigismondo (died 1526), each represented in a medallion, looking towards the altar. The monuments were probably designed by Raphael. Pyramidal tombs were a new invention inspired by antique sources because they recalled the tombs of the pharaohs and the funeral pyres of the Roman emperors. Agostino's tomb was originally decorated with the above-mentioned bronze relief of Christ and the Samaritan Woman (now on the altar-front). The funeral monuments were altered by Bernini.
There is an inlaid roundel at the center of the coloured stone pavement with the figure of a winged Death holding the full coat-of-arms of Fabio Chigi with a Latin inscription: Mors aD CaeLos. The capital letters add up the date of building in Roman numerals: MDCL = 1650. The pavement was designed by Bernini.
An attractive bronze lamp was made for the chapel by Francuccio Francucci in 1656. It forms a crown hanging on chains and held up by three putti. The entrance of the chapel is protected by a Baroque marble balustrade and carved wooden doors. The two big bronze candelabras are decorated with the Chigi symbols.
In popular culture
Christ and the Samaritan Woman, relief panel by Lorenzetto
- Marcia B. Hall, cit., pag. 131-132.
- Antonio Muñoz, cit., pag. 384.
- Marcia B. Hall, Rome (Artistic Centers of the Italian Renaissance), Cambridge University Press, 2005
- Antonio Muñoz, Nelle chiese di Roma. Ritrovamente e restauri. in: Bollettino d'Arte, 1912
- Touring Club Italiano (TCI), Roma e dintorni (Milan) 1965:183f.