One of the least known landmarks in Rome, Church of St. Ignatius Loyola (Chiesa di Sant'Ignazio di Loyola), located just a block from the Pantheon. This incredible 17th century Baroque church has a high façade overlooking the square and an ornate interior that is considered one of the finest in all of Rome. But the most important thing is hidden under the dome of this unique medieval building. The church was built in honor of the founder of the Jesuit order. The first thing most visitors do when they enter this building is to look up. The magnificent frescoes that adorn the huge domed ceiling appear before your eyes.
The grandiose frescoes by Andrea Pozzo depict the triumph of Saint Ignatius. Also, the artist reflected all the apostolic goals of Jesuit missionaries seeking to expand the influence of Roman Catholicism around the world. The ceiling appears to be high and vaulted. It is decorated with statues and images of cherubs.
The most interesting thing is that this voluminous roof is actually a flat roof! The brilliant painter Pozzo, using anamorphic techniques, gave the ceiling the illusion of height. A marble disc set in the middle of the nave floor marks the ideal spot from where observers can enjoy this stunning optical illusion in full.
There is another marker on the floor of the nave a little way off. Standing on it, the observer sees an incomparably beautiful ribbed vault, which does not exist in reality. Like the rest of the ceiling, the ornate dome is also an illusion painted by Andrea Pozzo. This was done in order to hide the fact that the Jesuits simply could not afford to build all this luxury.
The church was originally a simple chapel of the College of Rome. The educational institution was founded by Saint Ignatius in 1551. A wealthy Italian noble lady, Vittoria della Tolfa, donated a piece of land to the Society of Jesus in memory of her late husband. There the monks decided to build a chapel. Although the Jesuits received the land of the Marquis for free, they did not have the money to build the church. Budgetary constraints forced them to find an architect in their ranks, while other Jesuit brothers themselves worked on the construction of the church. The original church building was completed in 1567. In 1580 the complex was expanded thanks to the generous contribution of Pope Gregory XIII.
By the early 17th century, the Roman college had grown to over 2,000 students. The old church became too small to hold mass there. Pope Gregory XV, who was a graduate of this educational institution, proposed to his nephew, Cardinal Ludovico Ludovisi, to build a new, much larger church. The building was dedicated to the founder of the Jesuits. The young cardinal gladly accepted the idea. In 1626, four years after the canonization of Ignatius of Loyola, the foundation stone of the building was laid. The old church was demolished to make way for a new one. It occupied a quarter of the entire block when it was completed in 1650.
When the church of St. Ignatius was consecrated, it had bare ceilings.It was originally planned to build a dome, but a dispute with the original sponsors, Ludovisi, prevented the completion of the planned vaulted curtain. Andrea Pozzo, who was hired to decorate the roof, proposed to solve this problem by creating a stunning optical illusion of the dome when viewed from the inside. The trompe-l'œil frescoes, completed in 1895, are a symbol of dramatic design in the Roman Baroque style. These frescoes have been the true standard for late Baroque vault decoration throughout Catholic Europe for generations.
Pozzo did the trick again in Vienna a few years later, when he was commissioned to paint the ceilings of a Jesuit church. There, he also painted a fake dome, along with other illusionist effects, which make the ceiling appear to open directly into the kingdom of heaven.
If you are interested in history and medieval architecture, read our article on how the medieval tower ended up in the center of the modern port and why it became a silent reproach to people.
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