~ Legendary Rome ~
- 6 -
A Demon With A Pope's Face

the revenge of a famous painter

At the bottom of the bustling via Veneto, next to piazza Barberini, stands a church originally dedicated to St.Mary of the Conception, but more popularly known in Rome as 'the church of the Capuchins', the friars whose cloak has a brown and white cowl, after which - would you believe it? - the popular cappuccino drink took its name.
Most locals and tourists alike know this church only because it houses the weirdest feature on display in Rome: the old cemetery below the building, a crypt consisting of a narrow corridor that connects a row of chapels, whose walls and vaults are literally covered with flamboyant decorations in Baroque style.

the 'church of the Capuchins'
Not plaster nor marble was used to obtain the pretty patterns, though, but the skulls, teeth, femurs, fingerbones, and any other part taken from over 4,000 skeletons, who once belonged to Capuchin friars. This form of decoration today may appear rather morbid, but time ago it was not rare for churches to embellish their crypts with the bones of members of the relevant order or congregation, who considered an honour to take part in such compositions with their own remains. In this case, besides loose bones, also a few skeletons have been put together, hung in different attitudes and dressed with the typical cloak of the Capuchin Order.
not a place for the squeamish

The finishing touch is the cemetery's tell-tale motto, a somewhat gloomy reminder that reads we were what you are, and what we are you will become.

Certainly a must for every thrill-seeker, the cemetery though distracts the visitors from the actual church above, where in the first chapel on the right hangs a beautiful painting by Guido Reni that almost nobody notices. It shows archangel Michael in the attitude of crushing Satan's head with his foot.

Together with Bernini and Borromini, Guido Reni was one of the most distinguished artists of the first half of the 17th century. Born in Bologna, he had come to Rome for completing his apprenticeship, and in this city he settled, and remained active for most of his life.
Reni is remembered not only for his painting skills, but also for his extravagant character.
He was handsome, very rich, he always wore very elegant clothes, yet he suffered from persecution complexes; in particular, he lived in the constant fear of being poisoned. He also believed in whitchcraft and sorcery. He was very keen on gambling, and often spent the whole night playing cards.

← archangel Michael crushing Satan

Guido Reni

In those years, two among Rome's most important and noble families were the Barberini and the Pamphilj; their social rank can be easily understood by considering that pope Urban VIII (Maffeo Barberini, 1568-1644) was a member of the former family, while among the cardinals was a member of the latter one, Giovanni Battista Pamphilj.
The two families were in rather bad relations, and the reason for such friction was their constant quest for temporal power.
Also the pope's brother, Antonio Barberini, was a cardinal, and he belonged to the Capuchin Order. In those days, the main church of the Capuchins in Rome was St.Nicholas' (now no longer extant), rather small and dating back to the Middle Ages. Therefore, soon after his election cardinal Barberini sponsored the making of a new, larger church for the Order he belonged to, and for one of its chapels a painting of archangel Michael was commissioned to Guido Reni.
the coats of arms of the two families:
Barberini (left) and Pamphilj

According to a legend, which might contain more than a speck of truth, Reni became aware that cardinal Giovanni Battista Pamphilj had slandered him, or had offended his reputation in some way.

pope Innocent X (G.B.Pamphilj)
So the touchy artist, taking advantage of the picture he was painting, decided to avenge himself by means of his own talent, at the same time pleasing his client, who belonged to the opposing family.

detail of Reni's painting
Cardinal Pamphilj had an elongated face, with thin hair, a scanty beard and a somewhat strange look in his eyes, that the artist judged perfect as a model for ...Satan! Undoubtly, the face that archangel Michael crushes under his foot looks almost identical to that of Giovanni Battista Pamphilj. This turned out even more embarassing a few years later, when in 1644 the cardinal was elected pope Innocent X.

When the painting was hung in the church, the cardinal obviously complained for such an outrage; the artist is said to have admitted the amazing resemblance, but to have justified himself, claiming that Satan had appeared to him in a vision, thus he knew well his face, and if cardinal Pamphilj was so unlucky to resemble him, the painter could not be blamed for this.
So Giovanni Battista Pamphilj had to endure the shame of appearing portrayed as Satan. And almost four centuries later, the painting is still there.