It’s no wonder that amid all the glitzy baroque settings of altars and sub-altars, Puccini chose Sant’Andrea della Valle Church as the setting for the first act of his opera “Tosca.” The entire church just calls out for fanfare and a stirring aria.
Wander the labyrinth of streets around the Campo de’ Fiori in Rome and you can’t help but come upon the massive 17th-century Sant’Andrea della Valle (St. Andrew in the Valley) Church. The busy Corso Vittorio Emanuele runs almost up to the church steps. The adjacent fountain (designed by Carlo Maderno in 1614) still shows some of its original eagles and dragons. An interesting aspect of the facade is the missing angel. Looking up, you see an angel with outspread wings on the left-hand side, but no corresponding angel on the right-hand side.
The interior baroque art rivals St. Peter’s. The church’s most striking feature is Maderno’s huge dome, the second-highest in Rome after St. Peter’s. Work was initially started around 1590 and finally completed in 1650. Talk about overtime!
The impressive baroque interior features frescoes by Mattia Preti, Domenichino and, in the dome, Giovanni Lanfranco. The church also contains a “Saint John the Baptist” by Pietro Bernini, Gianlorenzo Bernini’s father.
The martyrdom of St. Andrew the Apostle, for whom the church is named, is depicted in frescoes on the apse walls and ceiling. Natural light from the ceiling windows illuminates these surrounding frescoes.
Lanfranco was one of the first painters who was able to adapt a fresco to the curvature of a dome. At approximately the same time he was working on the dome of Sant’Andrea della Valle, Michelangelo was completing the Sistine Chapel ceiling across town.
Competition between these artists was fierce, and legend has it that Domenichino once took a saw to Lanfranco’s scaffolding, almost killing him in the process.
The side chapels also contain some impressive paintings and statues, but the most notable features of the interior are the tombs of two popes belonging to the Piccolomini family of Siena: Pope Pius II (Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini, d. 1464) is on the left, and his nephew, Pope Pius III (Francesco Todeschini Piccolomini, d. 1503), is on the right. The latter reigned as pope for less than a month. Both tombs were the work of Paolo Taccone and Andrea Bregno.
In addition, the body of St. Giuseppe Maria Tomasi is displayed on a right-hand side altar as you face the front of the church. It is incorrupt after 400 years.
The day before, I had viewed the body of Blessed Pope John XXIII at St. Peter’s in the same state of preservation.
Mundane Amid the Sublime
St. Giuseppe was a well-educated man, but his life was a simple one. He renounced all his first-born rights as a noble by giving up the life as the son of the duke of Palermo to become a priest. Even after becoming a cardinal, he continued his modest way of living. He died in January 1713, a week after contracting pneumonia. Reports of miracles granted through his intercession began to surface. He was beatified in 1803 and canonized by Pope John Paul II in 1986.
I caught up with Father Valentin, the pastor of Sant’Andrea’s, after he finished Mass. I was intensely curious: How was it that St. Giuseppe’s body was incorrupt? The priest told me that it was a sign of divine favor and holiness.
We walked a few steps from the saint’s altar into the main body of the church. In halting English, he gave me a quick four-century summary of the extraordinary art and how it has evolved through the centuries.
Then, Father Valentin was back at work. As the next Mass began, he became the behind-the-scenes man. He seated himself at the organ and, with great vigor, belted out the centuries-old music. Then, he became the vocal soloist before trotting over to one of the ornate confessionals to hear confessions.
His assistant was a middle-aged Chinese woman. One of her duties was to pass out shoulder cloths to any woman with bare arms.
Yet, amid all this baroque opulence are the mundane things that make up any parish; one side altar is dedicated to 21st-century children. There, Roman parents can post photographs of their children asking the Sacred Heart of Jesus for protection. Not far away is a notice for anyone interested in becoming Catholic and a schedule of Masses for the week.
And high-tech security cameras are tucked in among the masters’ works.
Winifred Crombie writes from Huntley, Illinois.
St. Andrew in the Valley Church
Piazza Vidoni, 6 Rome
Planning Your Visit
The church is open daily 7:30 a.m.-noon and 4:30-7:30 p.m.