By Federico Schiaffino
Rome’s skyline is characterized by its many cupolas, in fact, it is the city that boasts the largest number. That of St. Peter’s is the greatest in terms of size and meaning – its 42.65-meter diameter ranks second in size to the Pantheon’s hemispherical dome, which is actually not considered a cupola. The cupola is the universal symbol of Christianity and Rome, which with its 35 extraordinary cupolas of religious and artistic importance, is the world capital. Among these – not counting the large cupola by Michelangelo, which is a unique case incomparable to others – we have chosen the ten most significant cupolas that can be considered wonders of the Eternal City and absolute masterpieces by any standard. These treasures of faith are admired from below, from the inside of churches for which they are the resounding element – the crown that seals the formal perfection achieved by the artists.
The church of Sant’Agnese in Agone in Piazza Navona, one of the most important examples of Roman Baroque, was conceived by brilliant architect Francesco Borromini, who was asked to complete the building that Pope Innocent X had commissioned Girolamo Rainaldi to do in memory of martyr Saint Agnes. The dome is, to say the least, exceptional. Its exterior, thanks to a subtle optical illusion, seems to advance and impend over the façade (the cupola and the façade are in fact separated by quite a distance). Inside the church the cupola is supported by eight columns and frescoed with joyful subjects so light they recall the transparency of glass.
The San Giovanni dei Fiorentini Church, commissioned by Pope Leo X Medici for the Florentine community in Rome, is an example of harmony and beauty. The cupola was designed by Maderno.
The San Bernardo alle Terme Church is also known as “The church with no windows” because, just like in the Pantheon, light penetrates only through a central hole (impluvium) closed off by a lantern. It was commissioned by Caterina Sforza (who is buried within) and was built where part of the Baths of Diocletian, whose central hall can still be admired, once stood. The regal cupola (whose height and diameter are both 22 meters) is similar to the Pantheon with its octagonal-shaped lacunar ceilings
The Church of San Carlino is yet another inspired and ingenious masterpiece by Borromini. The church, which is the size of one of the four piers that support the dome of St. Peter’s, was created with a series of optical illusions (for instance, through architectural ploys the rectangular-shaped design of the cloister seems to be octagonal). The elliptical cupola is surprising due to it boldness and its cross, hexagonal and octagonal-shaped lacunars which stylize the lantern’s opening. The crypt of the church, where Borromini was to be buried, is empty since the artist committed suicide.
The cupola by Borromini in the church of Sant’Ivo is so original that it is probably the most easily spotted in the Roman skyline. It is also known as the “bee” since this insect was the Barberini family heraldic symbol and Pope Urban VIII, a Barberini, commissioned it. The dome, composed of six segments, captures your attention with the ascending vertical spiral of the lantern that culminates in a wrought-iron “flame.”
Santa Maria del Popolo was the first church the pilgrims stopped at when arriving in Rome. It has the oldest cupola in the city and curiously enough this octagonal-shaped dome has no lantern. The cupola of the Cappella Chigi is decorated with mosaics based on Raffaello’s sketches. The church is famous because Pope Alexander VI Borgia had his children, Cesare, Juan, Jofrè and Lucrezia, as well as his lover, Vannozza, buried here. It is full of masterpieces, such as The Crucifixion of Saint Peter and The Conversion of Saint Paul by Caravaggio. There is also a strange sacred image of a skeleton clinging to the bars of tomb, which is commonly known as “Death in Prison.”
The Church of San Carlo ai Catinari, dedicated to Saint Charles Borromeo, has a cupola created by Rosato Rosati of Macerata. This majestic work has a 12-pilaster base, while the paintings depicting the cardinal virtues on the four corbels are by Domenichino. This lesser known church has one of the most beautiful and delicate cupolas that echoes loud noise from outside.
The Gesù Church, a building typical of the Counter-Reformation (late 1500s), is richly decorated in Baroque style. The golden cupola, frescoed in exquisite colors by Baciccia, is enhanced by the reflections of light. The Jesuits’ church was designed by Vignola while the cupola is by Giacomo della Porta, who also created the façade. The globe held by the two angels above the altar has always been thought to be the largest block of lapis lazuli in the world, but it is actually a block of stucco covered with the semi-precious material.
Sant’Andrea della Valle, the church of Tosca, has one of the grandest and highest cupolas (almost 80 meters high and 16.1 in diameter) in Rome. This Baroque, luminous masterpiece by Carlo Maderno has a lantern by Borromini. Giovanni Lanfranco painted the fresco of the Glory of Paradise on the dome that shines like gold in the apse.
The cupola of the Church of Santi Ambrogio e Carlo al Corso, dedicated to Saint Ambrose, patron saint of Milan, and Saint Charles Borromeo, is considered one of the most beautiful of the Roman Baroque period. Light beams in through eight large windows and the support pillars are situated alongside decorative columns. The dome was designed by Pietro da Cortona while the frescoes, depicting the stories of the Evangelists, in the pendentives are by Giacinto Brandi.