St. Thomas of Villanova Church
Castel Gandolfo, Rome, Italy
Architect: Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598–1680); interior stucco decoration: Bernini’s Lombardian pupil Antonio Raggi (1624–85); painting: Pietro da Cortona (1596–1669), Giacinto Gimignani (1611–81) and Guglielmo Cortese (1628–79)
Religious architecture, church
Alexander VII Chigi (1655–67)
St. Thomas of Villanova Church was previously the parish church of San Nicola. Rebuilt by Bernini during the restoration of the apostolic palace from the beginning of 1658, soon after the canonisation of the Spaniard Tommaso da Villanova (1486–1555) on 1 November 1658, Pope Alexander VII decided to dedicate the church to the new saint as a symbol of active charity, where unlike the Lutheran approach, salvation was achieved not through faith only, but also through works. Thereafter the original dedication to Saint Nicola was reserved for the lower church near the lake.
The intentional simplicity of the façade, punctuated by pilaster strips and the papal coat of arms and characterised by a high ribbed cupola, contrasts with the elegance of the interior – a Greek cross – in which Raggi’s rich and detailed decorative stuccowork in white and gold cover the high altar. Pairs of angels on the window-displays hold up eight medallions with miraculous episodes of Saint Thomas of Villanova, and on the pendentives, the Four Evangelists. These medallions, which also symbolise monetary value as well as being the instrument used by Saint Thomas in his charitable work, are merely the transposition into an architectural and decorative structure of the ephemeral device specially prepared for the canonisation in Saint Peter Basilica in 1658. This canonisation is attributable both to purely religious reasons, in response to the Lutheran Reformation, and historical and political reasons on account of the important role played by Spain in the delicate international balance of that period. The church also contains, in among partially gilded classical architecture, paintings by the greatest painters in Rome at the time, making a fascinating and harmonious whole, attributable to a unitary project by an artist-director such as Bernini, in which the different arts blend naturally: on the high altar, between a stucco medallion supported by angels and crowned by the Almighty, the Crucifixion (1661) by Pietro da Cortona in which the dramatic tension of the subject is hardly lessened by the playful motif of the putto leaning out the frame to watch. On the right-hand altar is the painting by Giacinto Gimignani, Glory of St. Thomas dating from 1661–2, which is considered the brief assumption and the representative complement of what is shown in the cupola as the charitable activity in the life of the Saint, symbolically expressed by the coin jar at the centre, constituting the antecedent that has allowed the performance of miracles included summarily in the painting, and for which the Church canonised Thomas of Villanova. On the left-hand altar, finally, the Assumption of the Virgin by Guglielmo Cortese, also from 1661, happily combines classical sobriety and Baroque sensibilityView Short Description
The intentional simplicity of the façade, punctuated by pilaster strips and the papal coat of arms, and characterised by a high ribbed cupola, contrasts with the elegance of the interior – a Greek cross – in which rich and detailed stucco decoration in white and gold covers the high altar, the cupola and the pendentives. Among the partially gilded classical architecture of the interior, in a harmonious and attractive whole arising from the unitary scheme of an artist-director such as Bernini, are found paintings by Rome’s greatest painters at the time.
Contardi, B., “L’immagine monetale come forma simbolica di valore: la chiesa di San Tommaso di Villanova”, Storia dell’Arte, 32, 1978, pp. 83–90.
Lo Bianco, A., “La decorazione delle fabbriche religiose di Castelgandolfo …,” L’arte per i papi e per i principi nella campagna romana, II, Rome 1990, pp. 115–147.
Indrio, L., “Chiesa di S. Tommaso da Villanova”, I Principi della Chiesa, Milan 1998, pp. 205–6.
Fagiolo Dell’Arco, M., “Un modello di cantiere berniniano. La fabbrica di San Tommaso da Villanova a Castel Gandolfo” in Bernini a Montecitorio, (M. G. Bernardini, ed.), Rome 2001, pp. 9–29 (with bibliography).
Laura Indrio "St. Thomas of Villanova Church" in "Discover Baroque Art", Museum With No Frontiers, 2019. http://www.discoverbaroqueart.org/database_item.php?id=monument;BAR;it;Mon13;25;en
Prepared by: Laura Indrio
Translation by: Laurence Nunny
Translation copyedited by: Mandi Gomez
MWNF Working Number: IT1 25
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Discover Baroque Art Exhibition(s)Languages of Baroque | Models and ornaments; materials and techniques Devotion and Pilgrimage | Places of worship
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