Sant’Agnese in Agone is a 17th-century Baroque church in the Piazza Navona in Rome. The church was built on the place where, according to tradition, Sant’Agnese was exposed naked to the pillory and was covered with her hair miraculously untied. The name of this church is unrelated to the ‘agony’ of the martyr: in agone was the ancient name of Piazza Navona (piazza in agone), and meant instead, from the Greek, ‘in the site of the competitions’, because Piazza Navona was built on the form of an ancient Roman stadium on the Greek model, with one flat end, and was used for footraces. From ‘in agone’, the popular use and pronunciation changed the name into ‘Navona’, but other roads in the area kept the original name.

Main altar with the relief of the The Holy Family by Domenico Guidi

In 1597, the Benedictines of Farfa gave up the patronage of the church, and it was transferred to the Minor Clerks Regular known as Caracciolini. They executed a major restoration. By this time, the Piazza Navona contained several palazzi of high-status families, and it is on record that they used the church as a location for their sepulchral monuments. However one family, the Pamphilj executed a successful takeover and turned the church into their private possession.

The present construction was started by Girolamo and Carlo Rainaldi in 1652, under the papacy of X, and completed by Borromini (1653-1657), who remarkably modified it. One owes to this super artist the concave façade with a single order of pilasters as well as the columns and the high couple. The twin bell-towers were carried out by Antonio del Grande and Giovanni Maria Baratta, according to a plan by Borromini. The inside, by Rainaldi, saves the Greek cross plan and hosts splendid golden and marbles works by Borromini. The dome, surmounted by eight columns, was frescoed by Ciro Ferri helped by Baciccia. In the underground one can admire the ruins of the Circo di Domiziano, the mosaic floors and splendid medieval works on the walls.

Saint Agnes on the Pyre

The cupola is frescoed with the Assumption of Mary, begun in 1670 by Ciro Ferri and finished after his death in 1689 by Sebastiano Corbellini. The pendentives of the dome were painted with the Cardinal Virtues (1662-1672) by Bernini’s protégé, Giovanni Battista Gaulli. In the sacristy, there is a canavas depicting the Glory of St Agnese by Paolo Gismondi. The near-circular interior, actually a Greek cross design, is circumferentially surrounded by marble sculptural masterpieces by Baroque, dedicated to individual martyred saints. There are four altars in the pillars with reliefs, unusually set in semi-circular niches.

Fountain legend

Many tourist guides in Rome will explain how Bernini made one of the personifications in his Fountain of the Four Rivers hold his hand as if protecting himself from the imminent collapse of the church’s façade after the alleged bodgery by Borromini. It is true that the relationship between Borromini and Bernini was tense (although they did work together at one time), but the fountain was completed before the façade so the apparent gesture was not intentional.

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