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The Artist’s Church
The current basilica of Santa Maria in Montesanto, dedicated to Our Lady of Mount Carmel, replaces an earlier church of the same name which was located between via del Babuino and via del Corso.
From a manuscript from that time* we know that on 13 March 1640, the Holy See eliminated all opposition to the construction promoted by the Carmelites known as from the Primo Istituto or Monte Santo in Sicily.
On 15 July 1662, the first stone of the new church was blessed and laid by Mons. Girolamo Castaldi. Pope Alexander VII went there on 22 October to see the work, which he had entrusted to Carlo Rainaldi but which unfortunately stopped with the windows of the dome on his death. The work was resumed a few years later and completed thanks to the generosity of Castaldi – who had become a Cardinal – by Carlo Fontana and Mattia de Rossi under the supervision of Gian Lorenzo Bernini. As noted in the above-mentioned manuscript, the Carmelites spent more than 23,000 ecu for the construction of the basilica, “a sum very much higher than that spent by Cardinal Castaldi”.
On the high altar stands the image of Our Lady of Mount Carmel of Monte Santo, with a scroll which reads In Monte Sancto ejus Carmelo steterunt pedes ejus. The tablet, originating from the ancient church, was decorated with golden crowns from the Vatican chapter in 1659, around twenty years before it was transferred to the present basilica. According to a pious legend, it is the work of a fifteen-year-old girl who was not able to paint the colour of the Virgin’s face and was seized with such despair that she fell asleep, and then awoke to find that the picture had been miraculously completed.
The anonymous author of Roma sacra antica e moderna (1687) noted that the July feasts in Santa Maria in Montesanto were celebrated “with very great devotion and involvement of the people” who poured out from all over the city to worship the “devout and miraculous image of the Blessed Virgin of Mount Carmel”. Before her paused in prayer the popes Clement XIII (1761), Leo XII (18 February 1825), the future Pius XII who on 24 August 1884 redressed the Scapular, and John XXIII (1 April 1962). On the request of Pope Leo XII, with the notary brief* of 3 June 1825, the Carmelites entrusted the church to the chapter of canons of the basilica of Santa Maria Regina Coeli, then officiating in Santa Lucia della Tinta. With that same act, the same pontiff raised the church to the status of minor basilica with the name of “Santa Maria Regina Coeli in Monte Santo”.
Following the subversive laws of the Italian state in 1873, the chapter was deleted and the prebendary canons were replaced with honorary canons, who passed definitively to the church of San Nicola in Carcere in 1972.
In 1974, the Curacy of Rome entrusted the basilica to Monsignor Ennio Francia, a Vatican Secretary of State official and canon, who was to be appointed Rector in 1981 by Acting Cardinal Ugo Poletti.
by Francesco d’Alfonso
The basilica of Santa Maria in Montesanto in Piazza del Popolo is in the Roman Baroque architectural tradition.
From the artistic-historical point of view, its importance is linked to the names of some of the most famous of 17th century architects, who were asked to design its structure in the Rome of the great papal commissions. It owes its fame to the creative genius of the composer George Fredrick Handel who in 1707, commissioned by Cardinal Carlo Colonna, composed psalms, motets and antiphons which were performed for Vespers for the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel.
On the other hand, the cultural importance of the basilica is linked to the name of Monsignor Ennio Francia (1904-1995), a personality of great culture, who in 1953 made it the seat of the Artists’ Mass which he had established in 1941.
The celebration of Sunday Mass, which has involved many famous representatives of the art world, has over time given the basilica a second name – that of the Church of the Artists. It recalls and continues the successful collaboration of the art historian Giulio Carlo Argan, the artists of the Piazza del Popolo School, and musicians of the calibre of Goffredo Petrassi.
The enlightened project has had the merit of making this holy place open to discussion and dialogue, thus creating an unusual but fruitful relationship with creativity and culture. The ellipses of the plan, which describes and surrounds the holy area, convey the idea of a universe in motion which radiates into the city through the streets that branch off from it.
So the Church of the Artists, by continuing this natural architectural predisposition, forms a place linking nature and sacredness, putting itself forward as a catalyst of revealing knowledge. In a sublime communion of artistic experiences it offers new awareness to the completeness of being.
By Fracesco d’Alfonso, Silvia Marsano, Marilena Borriello