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SANT’AGOSTINO IN CAMPO MARZIO – Caravaggio’s memories

admin / January 3, 2020

– Anastasios

I am quite sure that all tourists are familiar with Piazza Navona, one of the most famous squares in Rome. It is one of the most famous tourist attractions of the city, together with Saint Peter’s Basilica and the Coliseum.

Maybe not everyone knows that a short distance from Piazza Navona there is a magnificent Basilica, Sant’Agostino in Campo Marzio. The name “Campo Marzio” is referred to this area of Rome from ancient times. It means “the field of Mars” and the name has remained until this day.

In the 14th century, the Augustinians were in charge of another church in this area,  San Trifone in Posterula. But the friars decided that they needed another building for their exigencies and so they built a new church, which was completed in 1420. But still, the church was too little for their needs and so they built another one that was finished around 1483.

This church is full of works of art and has had a very important artistic and musical tradition. Among the artists that have worked here, let us particularly remember Michelangelo Merisi, known as Caravaggio (1571-1610). In a description of the church available online we read, “The first chapel of the left nave is the Chapel of the Madonna di Loreto, famous for hosting one of the greatest masterpieces by Michelangelo Merisi known as Caravaggio, the ‘Madonna dei Pellegrini.’ The figures surrounded by darkness stand out in their fullness and drama; at the feet of a young mother leaning against the jamb of a poor house, two pilgrims humbly kneel dressed in rags with folded hands as a sign of adoration and joy in seeing the two sweet figures. The boy with his back turned on by the light looks at them as his mother and holds out his hand as a sign of blessing” (romasegreta.it).

But Caravaggio, as it is well known, was certainly not an easy character.  “According to some scholars, the work caused a sensation because Caravaggio used Maddalena Antognetti called Lena as a model for the Madonna, who various sources indicate as a prostitute, others as a lover of Caravaggio himself. Lena is linked to one of the various violent episodes related to the great artist, it seems, in fact, that Lena had posed for Caravaggio against the will of the notary Mariano Pasqualone, suitor of the woman, and that he had insulted Lena’s mother for having sold her ‘to an excommunicated and cursed.’ The quarrelsome and violent nature of the artist was not denied even in this circumstance, so much so that in Piazza Navona he attacked Pasqualone with an ax, which forced him first to seek asylum, for some time, right in the church of S Agostino and then to flee to Genoa. Probably it was not the presence of Lena in the painting that caused a sensation, but the ‘humble pilgrims,’ depicted with wrinkled skin, worn-out clothes, wounded and messy feet for the arduous journey, as well as the woman’s cap, also dirty and ruined that went against the canons, not only of the art of the time but especially of those deriving from the Council of Trent” (romasegreta.it).

Very close to the church is the Biblioteca Angelica, one of the most important libraries in Rome. It was open to the public at the beginning of the 17th century: “The Biblioteca Angelica owes its name to the Augustinian Bishop Angelo Rocca (1546-1620), an erudite writer and a keen collector of rare editions. He was in charge of the Vatican Printing House during the pontificate of Pope Sixtus V.

Bishop Angelo Rocca entrusted his collection of some 20,000 volumes to the friars at the convent of St Augustine in Rome at the end of the sixteenth century. Over the previous centuries, the Augustinian collection had acquired valuable manuscripts donated by Roman nobles, and codices transcribed by or belonging to the friars themselves who left them to the monastery when they died. Angelo Rocca provided the new library with a suitable building, an annuity and a set of regulations. He wished the library to be open to everyone regardless of their income or social standing. The novelty of this institution gave rise to an ever-increasing interest by the general public and soon the library’s fame spread to scholars all over the world” (bibliotecaangelica.beniculturali.it).