The Fake Dome of The Church of St. Ignatius

Dec 10, 2020 0 comments

One of Rome’s lesser-known attractions, the Church of St. Ignatius of Loyola (Chiesa di Sant'Ignazio di Loyola in Italian), lies just a block away from the Pantheon. This incredible 17th century baroque church has a towering façade that dominates the Piazza, and a lavishly decorated interior that’s considered one of the best in the entirety of Rome.

The first thing most visitors do when they step inside this church dedicated to the founder of the Jesuit order is look up at the sumptuous frescoes that decorate the huge ceiling. The grandiose fresco painted by Andrea Pozzo depicts the triumph of St. Ignatius and the apostolic goals of Jesuit missionaries, eager to expand the reach of Roman Catholicism across the world. The ceiling appears to be a high and vaulted decorated with statues and populated with flying figures. In reality the roof is flat. Pozzo gave the ceiling an illusion of height using anamorphic techniques. A marble disk set into the middle of the nave floor marks the ideal spot from which observers might fully experience the illusion.

fake dome of Church of St. Ignatius

The fake dome and vaulted ceiling of Church of St. Ignatius in Rome. Photo: Fabianodp/Shutterstock.com

Further up on the floor of the nave, is another marker. Standing on this, an observer can see a beautiful, ribbed cupola that doesn't exist. Like the rest of the ceiling, the decorated dome too is an illusion, painted by Andrea Pozzo to hide the fact that the Jesuits could not afford to build a dome.

The church was originally a simple chapel of the Roman College established by St. Ignatius in 1551, on land donated by Vittoria della Tolfa, an Italian noble women, to the Society of Jesus in memory of her late husband. Although the Jesuits got the marchesa's land, they did not have the money for building the church. Budgetary restraints compelled them to hire their own architect, and the Jesuit brothers themselves laboured in the construction of the church. The original church was completed in 1567, and was expanded in 1580, thanks to a generous contribution by Pope Gregory XIII.

Church of St. Ignatius

The Church of St. Ignatius. Photo: V_E/Shutterstock.com

By the beginning of the 17th century, the Roman Collage had grown to over 2,000 students and the old church became insufficient for holding mass. Pope Gregory XV, who was an old pupil of the college, suggested to his nephew, Cardinal Ludovico Ludovisi, that a new church dedicated to the founder of the Jesuits should be erected at the college itself. The young cardinal accepted the idea, and in 1626, four years after the canonization of Ignatius of Loyola, the foundation stone was laid. The old church was demolished to make way for the new Church of St. Ignatius of Loyola, which took up a quarter of the entire block when it was completed in 1650.

When the Church of St. Ignatius was consecrated, it had bare ceilings. Originally, a dome was planned, but dispute with the original donors, the Ludovisi, had prevented the completion of the planned dome. Andrea Pozzo, who was hired to decorate the ceilings, proposed to resolve this by creating the illusion of a dome, when viewed from inside. Completed in 1895, the trompe-l'œil frescoes are emblematic of the dramatic conceits of High Roman Baroque, and for several generations, they set the standard for the decoration of Late Baroque ceiling frescos throughout Catholic Europe.

fake dome of Church of St. Ignatius

The “dome” when viewed from directly underneath. Photo: Jean-Christophe BENOIST/Wikimedia Commons

Pozzo pulled the trick again in Vienna, a few years later, when he was commissioned to paint the ceilings of the Jesuit Church. There too, he painted a fake dome along with other illusionistic effects which makes the ceiling seems to open up into a heavenly realm filled with Olympian gods.

Church of St. Ignatius

The interiors and architectural details of the Church of St. Ignatius. Photo: Isogood_patrick / Shutterstock.com

Church of St. Ignatius

The interiors and architectural details of the Church of St. Ignatius. Photo: Isogood_patrick / Shutterstock.com

Church of St. Ignatius

Frescos on the apse depicting the life and apotheosis of St Ignatius, by Andrea Pozzo. Photo: Anna Pakutina/Shutterstock.com

Church of St. Ignatius

The Apotheosis of S. Ignatius. The masterpiece of Andrea Pozzo on the ceiling of the nave of the Church of St. Ignatius. Photo: Lawrence OP/Flickr

Jesuit Church Vienna

The trompe-l'œil  ceiling of the Jesuit Church Vienna with its fake dome. Photo: Alberto Fernandez Fernandez/Wikimedia Commons

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