Parish Church of Santa Maria del Popolo – Rome, Italy - Atlas Obscura
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Rome, Italy

Parish Church of Santa Maria del Popolo

A treasure trove of Renaissance-era funerary art in a Roman church built on top of Nero's grave. 

Often overlooked by tourists, the medieval Roman Church of Santa Maria del Popolo touts a remarkable original collection of works by Renaissance and Baroque masters. The aisles are filled with funerary art, and there are many tombstones set in the floor of the church, though many are now illegible from centuries of being walked on.

Originally dating back to 1099, the church later became a popular burial site for members of the papal aristocracy, clergy, and literati during the Renaissance era. It boasts an impressive array of tombs and funerary monuments from between the 15th and 19th centuries. 

One of its most important monuments is the Chigi Chapel. Banker Agostino Chigi commissioned Italian Renaissance artist Raphael to complete the intricate mosaic in the chapel, “Creation of the World.” Raphael died the same year as Chigi, 1520, before the chapel was finished. Additional statues of Jonah and Elijah were carved by Italian Renaissance sculptor Lorenzetto.

The early history of the church remains relatively unknown, as very few of its documents from before 1500 survived. However, its origin story is told through bas-reliefs on the arch over the altar. A walnut tree had grown right above the tomb of the notorious Emperor Nero, who ruthlessly persecuted Christians. Locals feared the area, and considered it to be infested by demonic spirits evoked by Nero. Pope Pasquale II ordered the tree cut down to make room for a church in an attempt to override the area’s terrible history. The church was rebuilt in 1477 as part of of Pope Sixtus IV’s ambitious project to restore Rome.