Michelangelo offered to design it for free. Caravaggio got so mad when he was rejected for one of its altarpieces that he wound up in court. Bernini drew inspiration from the paintings and sermons he encountered there to create his own artistic revolution. When the church of the Gesù was begun in 1568, it was one of the most crucial events in the history of Renaissance Rome. The first new church of any size in the city for centuries, the Gesù (figures 1 and 2) would attract some of the best talents of the age in the more than 130 years it took to build and decorate. But the splendor of the paintings, stuccoes, and sculptures we see today also owes something to a more recent undertaking. If the Italian government had not carried out restoration work between 1993 and 1999, much of that grandeur might have been lost forever.
Although the Gesù restorations have not attracted as much press as those of the Sistine Chapel, they have been big news in Rome. I was especially keen to have a look, since I was just finishing a book on the original Gesù paintings and had not seen many of them for years. And what a spectacle. The magnificent ceiling frescoes (figure 4) that make the roof look like it has burst apart, revealing heavenly sunbursts, clouds, and angels. The extravagant tomb of Ignatius (figure 13), combining jewel-like brilliance with palatial grandeur. The colored marbles, gilding, and richly colored paintings of the side chapels. It is a vision that led French philosopher Hippolyte-Adolphe Taine (1823-1893) to compare the church to a magnificent banquet hall in a royal palace.
The Gesù was built with the financial assistance of Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, the richest art patron of his day and the nephew of Paul III, the pope who approved the Society of Jesus (figure 3). Farnese ended up lavishing 100,000 scudi on the project, an inconceivable fortune at the time, and hired the architects Jacopo Barozzi da Vignola and Giacomo della Porta to design the building. One of the largest churches in Rome when it was built, it was conceived as a single hall without aisles (figure 2) to allow for large congregations and provide good acoustics for preaching. It formed the model for countless churches, Jesuit and otherwise, in Italy and around the world.
Figure 5. In the four corners just below the unrestored dome are Old Testament subjects (clockwise from lower left) Moses, Samuel, Eli, and Gideon.
During the next few decades, the side chapels, transepts, cupola, and high altar area were decorated with precious colored marbles and with paintings by the leading artists of the day. The Jesuits hired men who had decorated the papal palace at the Vatican, the extravagant villas of the nobility in the hills around Rome, and the renovation projects of the greatest churches in the city, including St. John Lateran and St. Maria Maggiore.
But suddenly work stopped with Farnese's death in 1589, and the entire ceiling had to wait almost a century before it could be painted, between 1672 and 1685, by the Baroque artist Giovanni Battista Gaulli (Baciccio). It was he who turned the dome into a vision of heavenly splendor (figures 5, 6, 9-11, 14) and filled the apse (figure 7) with a throng of saints and angels. Baciccio also transformed the ceiling of the nave into a glorification of the name of Jesus, surrounded with gilding and stucco figures who look as if they are diving into the church (figure 4). Baciccio's paintings were the first major frescoes commissioned in Rome in almost twenty years. His brand of heavenly ceilings were copied throughout Italy and became one of the most characteristic features of Baroque church interiors.
Baciccio's ceilings and dome were not the only major change that took place in the church in the High Baroque era. It was also during these years that the two transepts were dedicated to Ignatius Loyola and Francis Xavier, the first two Jesuits to be canonized, in 1622. For the first time in history the Jesuits could openly celebrate the lives of their own heroes in art and architecture. Although Andrea Pozzo's figure of Ignatius (figure 13) is perhaps the most famous, the transept on the opposite side was no less impressive. Designed by the Baroque master Pietro da Cortona, its vaults were crowned by brilliant frescoes by Giovanni Andrea Carlone (1639-1697). The altarpiece by Carlo Maratti depicted the death of Xavier (figure 12, circa 1674), an important image since he was the first Jesuit missionary and helped commemorate the worldwide Jesuit mission enterprise. Baciccio made a very similar version of the scene for the Jesuit novitiate of S. Andrea al Quirinale, of which an oil sketch survives in the Vatican Museums.
But Baciccio's and Carlone's Gesù frescoes were in dire straits just ten years ago. Rainwater had soaked in from the roof, and greasy soot from centuries of candles had formed a murky skin over the pigments. Paint, gold leaf, and plaster had begun to peel and fall off in chunks, and a network of cracks and holes had formed throughout. Pieces of the sculptures were literally diving into the church. In 1993 the Italian government, led by Superintendent of Historical and Artistic Works Claudio Strinati, decided that the church required immediate attention.
Under the direction of M.P. D'Orazio, the team from the Ministry of Cultural Affairs attached protective nets under the frescoes in 1994 and erected scaffolding below them. Experts first cleaned and consolidated the frescoes and filled in the cracks with new plaster. Next, they retouched the frescoes where the original paint was gone. They also applied new gold leaf where necessary and filled in and whitewashed the broken sculptural work, reinforcing it with steel pins. When the scaffolding came down the Gesù was a new church. Thanks to these efforts, we can now see the interior of this dazzling building as its visitors saw it hundreds of years ago.