A tour of Spanish Rome


Flagellation of Christ by Sebastiano del Piombo, 1516–24

Earlier this month, the staff and award-holders of the BSR were extremely fortunate to have been given a guided tour of the sites of sixteenth-century Spanish Rome in the company of BSR former award-holder, and expert on High Renaissance art and architecture in Rome, Dr Piers Baker-Bates (Rome Scholar 2002-3).

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Saint James by Jacopo Sansovino in Santa Maria di Monserrato, 1520

As we set off for Piazza Navona early in the morning, the heavy rain dampened no one’s enthusiasm and appetite to learn about the sites and commissions of Spanish power in Rome. Our first site of interest for the morning was San Giacomo degli Spagnoli. Behind an unassuming façade — which we learnt was really the back of the church — San Giacomo from the late-fifteenth century became the centre of the Spanish presence in Rome, functioning both as a place of worship for the Castilian and Aragonese communities, as well as an important meeting place for their political and commercial affairs. Under the Borgia and Aragonese Pope Alexander VI, the church was further renovated and a piazza was cleared in front of it to accommodate its increasingly important role as the heart of the Spanish community in Rome.

By the early-sixteenth century the church had become the church of the Castillian crown in Rome. With an elegantly refurbished interior by Antonio Sangallo the Younger, and Choir by Pietro Torrigiano, Piers showed us some of the church’s real architectural gems, despite being stripped of many of its greatest artistic treasures. Many of its fine Renaissance works of art were removed when under Mussolini a section of the church, including its façade, was demolished for the opening of the Corso del Rinascimento.

Gian Lorenzo Bernini's Bust of Monsignor Pedro de Foix Montoya c.1621

Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s bust of Monsignor Pedro de Foix Montoya c.1621

Our next stop was to Santa Maria di Monserrato, the Church of the Catalans, and now home to many of the former treasures of San Giacomo, including Jacopo Sansovino’s statue of St James of Compostela. Following a series of protracted negotiations by Piers and Assistant Director Stefania Gerevini with the church custodians, the BSR party were admitted into the sacristy to admire its spectacular collection of late-fifteenth and early-sixteenth century Spanish tombs as well as the spectacular Gian Lorenzo Bernini bust of the emaciated Spanish papal jurist Monsignor Pedro de Foix Montoya.

For the second half of the morning’s itinerary we made our way across the Tiber and ascended the Janiculum, to see one of the finest treasures associated with the Spanish presence in Rome: the church of San Pietro Montorio and, the revolutionary Tempietto by Bramante unassumingly hidden in the adjacent courtyard. The church’s reconstruction in the late-fifteenth century was financed by Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella of Castile, and consecrated by Alexander VI. Inside, we marvelled at Sebastiano del Piombo’s fresco the Flagellation of Christ (Piers’ forthcoming book will explore his Roman career, and the fortune of his artworks among Spanish patrons).

Il tempietto di San Pietro in Montorio (the so-called Tempietto del Bramante)

Bramante’s Tempietto in the courtyard of the Chiesa San Pietro in Montorio

The tour provided a suitable prelude to the enjoyable presentation of Piers’ edited volume, The Spanish Presence in Sixteenth-Century Italy: Images of Iberia, co-edited with Miles Pattenden (Ralegh Radford Rome Scholar 2006-7). Other BSR contributors included Stephen Cummins (Rome Awardee 2012-3), Nicholas Davidson (Rome Scholar 1977), Simon Ditchfield (Rome Scholar 1988-9), and Catherine Fletcher (Rome Fellow 2009-10).

Images and text by Giorgio Lizzul (Rome Awardee 2014-15)