Summer Series: French Pious Establishments in Italy (2)

July 13, 2022
Facade of the Church of St. Louis of the French

The primary vocation of this institution, in accordance with the testamentary provisions of its numerous legatees, is to maintain the religious communities which serve its five churches (community of St. Louis, convent and rectorate of Trinité-des-Monts, the national chapel of France in Loreto).

The Church of St. Louis of the French

Famous for its ample facade, its profusion of marble and interior gilding, it is undoubtedly the paintings by Caravaggio in the chapel dedicated to St. Matthew which make the church of St. Louis of the French one of the most popular in Rome.

Dedicated to the Virgin Mary, St. Denis the Areopagite, and St. Louis IX King of France, the church is today the premier gathering place of the French Catholic community in Rome.

It is placed under the supervision of the French Embassy to the Holy See, within the Pious Establishments.

Under the pontificate of Sixtus IV, the French community in Rome took the initiative to erect one of the largest French churches in Rome. Until then, the French met near St. Peter’s Basilica, in the chapel of St. Petronilla.

On April 2, 1478, the bull of Sixtus IV formalized the birth of this new church in the heart of the Eternal City. Between Place Navona and the Pantheon, the church and the French confraternity taking the name of St. Louis IX, in reference to the King of France.

It was not until August 12, 1518 that Cardinal Julius de Medici – future Pope Clement VII – laid the first stone in the presence of Pope Leo X. The building and the facade are the result of the joint architectural work by Giacomo della Porta and Domenico Fontana.

The church was completed in 1589 thanks to the financial support of Cardinal Mathieu Cointerel, Henry II, Henry III, and Catherine de Medici. On the other hand, the interior decoration did not reach its final stage until 1764, after many architectural adventures.

The facade of Saint-Louis des Français

Responsible for the project, Giacomo della Porta entrusted his project manager Domenico Fontana and the stonemason Marcantonio Busi with the construction of the facade of Saint-Louis-des-Français.

Extended horizontally, ennobled with travertine and surmounted by a triangular pediment, the architecture of the facade draws its inspiration from Michelangelo: long bay window and a main portal.

Sculptural elements recall the French history of the church: the marble coat of arms of the Arms of France, the bas-reliefs of the Salamanders (insignia of Francis I), the statues in the four niches of St. Clothilde, St. Jean of Valois, Louis IX, and Charlemagne.

The Interior Decor of the Church

Designed by the Lyon architect Antoine Derizet, the interior lines are rather classic while the details are baroque. The church consists of three central naves without transept, five side chapels on either side of the naves, a choir, and a sacristy.

The mottled Sicilian marble cladding, the white and gold stucco coffered vault, the two majestic organs on the entrance wall and the fresco of the Apotheosis of Saint-Louis make the whole thing admirable.

The series of ten chapels is full of paintings, frescoes and other sumptuous decorations. Dedicated to St. Denis, St. Cécile, St. Jean Valois, St. Louis IX, St. Sebastian, to the Immaculate Conception and to the confraternity of Lorraine, many renowned artists participated in their creation, the most famous among them being Michelangelo Merisi known as Caravaggio.

Caravaggio and St. Matthew’s Chapel

The decoration of St. Matthew’s Chapel, the fifth in the left nave, went through many adventures before being the site of the famous Caravaggio paintings.

In 1599, the Congregation of St. Louis not seeing the work of this chapel succeed (the frescoes of the side walls of the Cavalier d'Arpin - remaining unfinished) called on the young Caravaggio to finish the execution.

Caravaggio then made the famous paintings “The Vocation” and “The Martyrdom of St. Matthew,” and “St. Matthew and the Angel.” There is no doubt that the year 1599 marks a turning point in the pictorial vocation of Caravaggio, who then turned to a painting of the Sacred where emotion and narration are combined.

The Vocation of St. Matthew, by Caravaggio