Sant'Agnese in Agone
Sant'Agnese in Agone is a seventeenth century Baroque
The Baroque is a period and the style that used exaggerated motion and clear, easily interpreted detail to produce drama, tension, exuberance, and grandeur in sculpture, painting, literature, dance, and music...

 church in Rome, Italy. It faces onto the Piazza Navona
Piazza Navona
Piazza Navona is a city square in Rome, Italy. It is built on the site of the Stadium of Domitian, built in 1st century AD, and follows the form of the open space of the stadium. The ancient Romans came there to watch the agones , and hence it was known as 'Circus Agonalis'...

, one of the main urban spaces in the historic centre of the city and the site where the Early Christian Saint Agnes
Saint Agnes
Agnes of Rome is a virgin–martyr, venerated as a saint in the Roman Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodox Church, the Anglican Communion, and Lutheranism. She is one of seven women, excluding the Blessed Virgin, commemorated by name in the Canon of the Mass...

 was martyred in the ancient Stadium of Domitian
Stadium of Domitian
The Stadium of Domitian , also known as the Circus Agonalis, was located to the north of the Campus Martius in Rome, Italy. The Stadium was commissioned around 80 AD by the Emperor Titus Flavius Domitianus as a gift to the people of Rome, and was used mostly for athletic contests.- Construction and...


The rebuilding of the church was begun in 1652 at the instigation of Pope Innocent X
Pope Innocent X
Pope Innocent X , born Giovanni Battista Pamphilj , was Pope from 1644 to 1655. Born in Rome of a family from Gubbio in Umbria who had come to Rome during the pontificate of Pope Innocent IX, he graduated from the Collegio Romano and followed a conventional cursus honorum, following his uncle...

 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).

A number of architects were involved in the construction of the church, including Girolamo Rainaldi
Girolamo Rainaldi
Girolamo Rainaldi was an Italian architect who worked on the whole in a conservative Mannerist style, often with collaborating architects, yet was a successful competitor of Bernini...

 and his son Carlo Rainaldi
Carlo Rainaldi
Carlo Rainaldi was an Italian architect of the Baroque period.Born in Rome, Rainaldi was one of the leading architects of 17th century Rome, known for a certain grandeur in his designs. He worked at first with his father, Girolamo Rainaldi, a late Mannerist architect in Rome. After his father's...

, and two of the foremost Baroque architects of the day; Francesco Borromini
Francesco Borromini
Francesco Borromini, byname of Francesco Castelli was an architect from Ticino who, with his contemporaries, Gian Lorenzo Bernini and Pietro da Cortona, was a leading figure in the emergence of Roman Baroque architecture.A keen student of the architecture of Michelangelo and the ruins of...

 and the sculptor Gianlorenzo Bernini

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.

The current Cardinal Priest pro hac vice
Pro hac vice
Pro hac vice , Latin: "for this occasion" or "for this event", is a legal term usually referring to a lawyer who has not been admitted to practice in a certain jurisdiction but has been allowed to participate in a particular case in that jurisdiction.The right to appear pro hac vice is not...

 of the Titulus S. Agnetis in Agone is Lorenzo Antonetti.


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 were commissioned by Pope Innocent X, whose funerary monument was later housed within the church. 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
The narthex of a church is the entrance or lobby area, located at the end of the nave, at the far end from the church's main altar. Traditionally the narthex was a part of the church building, but was not considered part of the church proper...

 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
Ciro Ferri
Ciro Ferri was an Italian Baroque sculptor and painter, the chief pupil and successor of Pietro da Cortona.He was born in Rome, where he began working under Cortona and with a team of artists in the extensive fresco decorations of the Quirinal Palace...

 to fresco 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 interior of the dome has paintings portraying the Assumption
Assumption of Mary
According to the belief of Christians of the Roman Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodoxy, Oriental Orthodoxy, and parts of the Anglican Communion and Continuing Anglicanism, the Assumption of Mary was the bodily taking up of the Virgin Mary into Heaven at the end of her life...

 (begun 1670) by Ciro Ferri was unfinished on his death in 1689 and completed by Sebastiano Corbellini. The pendentives were painted with the cardinal virtues by Bernini's protégée, Giovanni Battista Gaulli
Giovanni Battista Gaulli
Giovanni Battista Gaulli , also known as Baciccio, Il Baciccio or Baciccia , was a painter of the Italian High Baroque verging onto that of the Rococo...

 from 1662-72.

Other interior decorations

There are a number of large scale sculptures in this church, including the marble relief in the main altar, placed in a setting installed by Carlo Rainaldi and Ciro Ferri, that depicts the Miracle of Saint Agnes, initially commissioned from Alessandro Algardi
Alessandro Algardi
Alessandro Algardi was an Italian high-Baroque sculptor active almost exclusively in Rome, where for the latter decades of his life, he was the major rival of Gian Lorenzo Bernini.-Early years:...

 and completed by Ercole Ferrata
Ercole Ferrata
Ercole Ferrata was an Italian sculptor of the Roman Baroque.-Biography:A native of Pellio Inferiore, near Como, Ferrata initially apprenticed with Alessandro Algardi, and became one of his prime assistants...

 and Domenico Guidi
Domenico Guidi
Domenico Guidi was a prominent Italian Baroque sculptor.Born in Carrara, Guidi followed his uncle, the prominent sculptor, Giuliano Finelli to Naples. As the nephew of a sculptor noted for his feud with Bernini, it is not surprising that Guidi was never employed by the eminent master...

 in 1688, under constraints that their product must remain in conformity with the original Algardi design. The Sacred Family altarpiece (third to the right) is also by Domenico Guidi.

The altar dedicated to Saint Alexius
Saint Alexius
Saint Alexius or Alexis of Rome or Alexis von Edessa was an Eastern saint whose veneration was later transplanted to Rome, a process facilitated by the fact that, according to the earlier Syriac legend that a "Man of God" of Edessa, Mesopotamia who during the episcopate of Bishop Rabbula lived by...

, depicting his death, was completed by Giovanni Francesco Rossi. The stucco decoration of angels by Ferrata with the symbols of the Saint: pilgrim's staff and flower crown. The altar depicting the Martyrdom of Sant’Emerenziana is by Ercole Ferrata. He also completed Sant’Agnese and the flame, Leonardo Retti completed the superior portions. The altar depicting the Death of Santa Cecilia
Santa Cecilia
Santa Cecilia is a municipality located in the province of Burgos, Castile and León, Spain. According to the 2004 census , the municipality has a population of 118 inhabitants....

 was executed by Antonio Raggi
Antonio Raggi
Antonio Raggi , also called Antonio Lombardo, was a sculptor of the Roman Baroque, originating from Ticino.-Biography:He was born in Vico Morcote on the Lake Lugano. His mentor in Rome for nearly three decades was Gianlorenzo Bernini...

. Stucco angel decorations (with musical instruments) by Ercole Ferrata with fresco designs by Ciro Ferri. The altarpiece of the Martyrdom of St. Eustace was commissioned to Melchiorre Caffà
Melchiorre Caffà
Melchiorre Cafà was a sculptor from Malta. Cafà began a promising career in Baroque Rome but this was cut short by his premature death following a work accident.- Biography :...

, but generally completed after Caffà's early death by Ferrata and Giovanni Francesco Rossi. The statue of Saint Stephen
Saint Stephen
Saint Stephen The Protomartyr , the protomartyr of Christianity, is venerated as a saint in the Roman Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, Oriental Orthodox and Eastern Orthodox Churches....

 Martyr is by Pietro Paolo Campi.

Origin of name and legends

Bernini's Fountain of the Four Rivers lies in front of the church. It is often said that Bernini sculpted the figure of the "Rio de la Plata" cowering 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 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.

External links

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