Il Gesù

Rome, 1568-84

Body of Church by Jacopo Vignola

Façade and Dome by Giacomo della Porta




Home Church of Jesuit Order

Il Gesù in Rome was built as the home church of the Jesuit order, which was founded as the Society of Jesus in Spain by Ignatius Loyola in 1534.  The Order was approved in Italy in 1540 by Pope Paul III, who ceded the land for a church and monastery at that time.


Model for Other Jesuit Churches

Il Gesù's plan was used as a model for many of the churches built by the Jesuits during their expansion in the seventeenth century.


Pilgrimage Site

The church is also a pilgrimage site because the transept arms contain the tombs of Ignatius Loyola, the Jesuit Order's founder, and Francis Xavier, the Order's first secretary and a leader in establishing missions in the far East.  They were the first two members of the Jesuit order to be canonized as saints.





Patronage Agreement

In 1568, Cardinal Alessandro Farnese agreed to fund the Church if certain conditions were met:  he would be the sole patron, and within the general design that had been agreed upon between the Jesuits and himself, he would have the right to select the architect and specific features of the design.  The agreed-upon design included short transept arms and three chapels on each side of the nave, features that were included in the final version.


Cardinal Farnese was an astute judge of architecture, and as one of the richest men in Italy, he was able to afford whatever he liked.


Choice of Architects

Cardinal Farnese selected Jacopo Vignola, who had been working on the Farnese Palace since the death of Michelangelo.


Although pleased with Vignola's design for the church body, the Cardinal rejected his design for the façade, and instead, chose one by Michelangelo's follower Giacomo della Porta.


The construction was supervised by Giovanni Tristano, a Jesuit Father.


References to the Farnese Name

Cardinal Farnese, who was buried in a slab tomb within the Church, announced his contribution by a large emblem of the Farnese arms and a prominent inscription in the frieze.  The name "Farnesius," a Latinized version of Farnese, is located directly above the entrance.


Features Insisted on by the Patron

Cardinal Farnese insisted on a number of features concerning the church's design.  The motivation for many of these was his desire for ostentatious display, which would enhance his own prestige as patron.


Immense size. Il Gesù was the largest church begun in Rome since the Sack of Rome in 1527.      


Large piazza. The block in front of the Church was cleared for a piazza.  


Barrel-vaulted nave. The building of a barrel vault for the nave ceiling was a particular point of contention because such an ostentatious feature ran counter to the Order's desire for modesty and plainness. 





1540:  Land Grant. The Jesuit Order was approved in Italy, and land was ceded to them for a monastery and home church.


1554-6:  Consulting Michelangelo. In 1554 Ignatius Loyola consulted Michelangelo, who was a friend, about the design of a home church for the Order.  Although Michelangelo was willing to design it without pay, a lack of funding and Loyola's death in 1556 prevented further developments.


1568:  Beginning of Construction. After Cardinal Alessandro Farnese agreed to fund the building in 1568, construction according to Vignola's design was begun under the supervision of Giovanni Tristano, a Jesuit priest.


1571:  Selection of Façade by Giacomo della Porta. Vignola's design for the façade was rejected, and a design by Giacomo della Porta was selected.


1573:  Death of Vignola and Appointment of della Porta. Vignola died and Giacomo della Porta was appointed to complete the construction of the body of the Church as well as the façade.  Construction had not been completed past the entablature when Vignola died, and the horizontal band between the cornice and the vaulting was probably designed by della Porta.


1577:  Completion of Façade and Main Vault. The tunnel vault and façade were completed.


1584:  Consecration of Church. Il Gesù was consecrated.


17th century:  Decoration of Interior. Much of the present ensemble of decoration was added in the 17th century.  The dominant feature is the ceiling, which is a masterpiece of the Baroque fusion of the arts of painting, sculpture, and architecture.


19th century:  Addition of Marble Facing. A facing of marble was applied to the original travertine trim.





New Aims in Church Design

The design of Il Gesù was influenced by the Counter-Reformation climate of the late sixteenth century.  It was commissioned by an order that was founded to bring about reform, and it was designed to accord with the recommendations of the movement's ecumenical voice, the Council of Trent.


The changes recommended by the Council were aimed at making the services a compelling means of communicating religious doctrine and inspiring reverence.


Combining Useful Features

Although many of the individual features that satisfied the new recommendations for church design from the Council of Trent had already been used at other churches, Il Gesù was the first to unite them into a cohesive whole.  The creation of a unified interior helped focus attention on the altar.


Compact Shape

Because Il Gesù's transept arms are short and nearly aligned with the side chapels, its plan is rectangular except for the semicircular projection of the apse.  This compactness makes it ideal for urban sites and exemplifies the new trend of merging aspects of axial and central plans in order to gain both the functionality of the former and the unity of the latter.


Vignola's oval-based Roman churches of Sant' Andrea (1550-53) in the Via Flaminia and Santa Anna dei Palafrenieri in the Via di Porta Angelica (1565-74) also illustrate this.


Room-Like Appearance of Nave

To give the nave the appearance of a large, self-contained room, Vignola belted the perimeter with a continuous entablature and made the nave arcade look more wall-like by widening the piers and minimizing the size of the arched openings of the side chapels.  Consequently the nave arcades give the impression of being walls pierced by arched openings rather than being arcades on piers, which would have been less effective at preventing distractions from the outer areas.





Providing an Unobstructed View of Altar

Of the many features of Il Gesù's design that were aimed at increasing the effectiveness of the worshippers' experience, providing an unobstructed view of the high altar was one of the most important.


Placing altar in apse. The altar was placed within the embracing shape of the apse. (In many churches, it was located in the crossing or choir.) 


Elevating apse floor level. The floor level of the apse was several steps higher than the nave. 


Not using tall features in front of altar. No obtrusive features such as chancel screens or monumental tombs were allowed to stand between the altar and the nave.  Useful features like railings were kept low and unobtrusive.  Before the Council of Trent's recommendations, large screens were commonly used to separate the laity from the clergy. 


Not using side aisles. Because views of the altar from the side aisles would be obstructed by the nave supports, as illustrated by Brunelleschi's Santo Spirito, side aisles were not used.  Instead, the spaces flanking the nave were used for individual chapels, whose use instead of side aisles has several antecedents.  


Accommodating Large Crowds

The capacity to hold large crowds was important for the Jesuits because preaching played an important part in Jesuit services.  Traditional Roman Catholic services were focused on performing holy rites such as saying Mass in Latin rather than delivering sermons in Italian.


Using wide nave. To compensate for the loss of side-aisle area, the nave was made sixty feet wide, which could accommodate large congregations.  


Using galleries. Because of the relatively low height of the chapel ceilings, there was enough room above them to include galleries.  


Improving Acoustics

Because of the importance of preaching, it was important that sounds be audible and clear.


Using barrel vault over nave. Because of its superior acoustical qualities in reflecting the sound downward, a barrel vault was used for the nave ceiling. 


Using wall-like supports at sides of nave. The barrel vault's supporting system of arcades carried by wide piers is wall-like rather than open, which helps retain sound in the nave. 


Using saucer domes over individual chapels. To isolate sounds from the chapels so that they would not disturb services in the nave, the ceilings of the individual chapels were made relatively low and formed of saucer domes.


Focusing Attention on the Altar

Il Gesù was designed not only to enable worshippers to see and hear the services clearly, but also, to attract their attention so that they want to see and hear them.


Using lighting to focus attention. The worshippers' attention is drawn toward the apse end of the church by a flood of light in the dome and the apse, which enters through windows in the drum and the apse vault.  To heighten the sense of brightness, the final nave bay before the crossing was made darker by giving it a narrower window, which was in scale with its shorter length.  Because the light admitted through windows in the bases of the nave vault is dimmer than at the crossing, worshippers are inclined to look toward the brightness in the crossing and apse.  The side chapels offer little visual distraction because they are more dimly lighted than the nave.


Providing routes to tombs in transept arms. To minimize the distraction of people visiting the tombs in the transept arms, access was provided by both the interconnecting side chapels and the lateral entrances.





Overall Intent and Execution Span

An elaborate scheme of decoration was designed to engage the worshippers' attention.  Although execution of the decoration extended over several centuries, the basic program, a fusion of the arts of painting, sculpture, and architecture, was conceived from the beginning.


Opening-in-Ceiling Illusion

The formerly plain nave vault was covered by a combination of gilded stucco and fresco by Giovanni Battista Gaulli, who is also known as Baciccio, a Genovese nickname for "Giovanni Battista."  His work on the ceiling of the Gesù was carried out in a trompe l'oeil manner to create the illusion of airborne figures in a celestial realm beyond an opening in a gilded coffered ceiling.


In several places, frescoed masses of figures on clouds seem to descend through the fictive architectural opening.  The illusion of shadows on the vault was achieved by applying dark glazes over the gilding.


Sculpture in Window Niches

The sides of the nave vault are punctuated by vaulted window niches containing white stucco figures by Antonio Raggi and Leonardo Reti.  Allegorical figures flank the windows, and overhead, putti hold objects such as crowns and coats of arms.


Leading Worshipper's Eye

The program was designed so that the parts function as elements of a larger design of dominant and subordinate parts.  The eye picks out the white stucco figures against the rich gold background of fictive architecture and is led upward from the allegorical figures beside the windows, to the putti cavorting above the window frames, to the larger stucco angels who seem to support the frame around the central fresco, and finally to the glory of bright light behind an emblem of the name of Jesus Christ.  The emblem acts as a magnet in drawing believers while letting non-believers fall downward into the earthly realm, thus illustrating the painting's name, The Triumph of the Sacred Name of Jesus Christ.





Common Features

There are several major similarities between Il Gesù and Sant' Andrea, Alberti's church in Mantua, which was begun a century earlier.


Barrel-vaulted naves. The naves of both churches are roofed by barrel vaults instead of groined vaults or trusses decorated by coffers.


Chapels instead of side aisles. Both churches have chapels instead of side aisles. 


Piers instead of columns. Both churches use piers instead of columns to support the nave arcade.  In the 15th century, columns rather than piers typically carried nave arcades, but in the 16th century, piers became standard. 


Lighting focused on the altar. Both churches use lighting to focus attention on the apse end. 



Compared to the similarities, the differences between Sant' Andrea and Il Gesù are relatively minor and many concern proportions.


Proportionate size of nave piers. The nave piers of Alberti's church are proportionately wider than those of Vignola's church, where part of the barrel vault's thrust is countered by fin-like buttresses that rise above the roof level at each transverse arch.  


Use of chapels inside nave piers. Because of the extra width of Alberti's nave piers, there was space inside them for small secondary chapels. Because Vignola's nave piers are triangular rather than rectangular, there is no space within them for secondary chapels. 


Spacing of pilasters. The distance between the pilasters trimming the edges of the piers is greater at Alberti's church because of the extra width of piers in proportion to the pilasters than at Vignola's church, where the pilasters stand so close together that they form pairs. 


Height of arches. The height of the arched entrances to the chapels is proportionately greater at Alberti's church, where their trim touches the entablature, than at Vignola's church, where there is space for a sculptural frieze and a gallery between the arches and the entablature.  


Surfaces of pilasters. The pilasters themselves are different at the two churches.  Vignola's pilasters, which are defined by fluting and detailed Corinthian capitals, assert themselves as exemplars of the order whereas Alberti's pilasters, which are covered by painted grotesques, allow their identity to be absorbed within fields of pattern covering the piers. 





History of the Commission

Cardinal Farnese rejected not only Vignola's original façade design, which included giant-order pilasters, but also his second proposal, which utilized a two-story arrangement of the orders. Vignola's second design (1570), however, became the core of the design by Giacomo della Porta that was selected by the Cardinal in 1571.


Comparison of Competing Façade Designs

Both Vignola's and della Porta's façades emphasize the center by using larger, more abundantly ornamented openings.  Della Porta achieved further accentuation of the portal by doubling its pediments and upright members to create a rhythmic reverberation.  He also eliminated ornamental features like niches and freestanding sculpture from the outer bays.


Della Porta's façade was also proportionately taller.  His transition from the high central roof to the lower side roofs follows a double-curve whereas Vignola's follows a concave curve.


Similarities to Santa Maria Novella

Della Porta's façade followed a type that was first used by Alberti at Santa Maria Novella.  Its key features are a pediment at the top, the orders on two stories, an attic between the stories, and a scroll to bridge the drop in roofline height between the nave and outer aisles/chapels.


Michelangelo's Influence

In using projecting and receding planes and trims that create an interplay of contrasting shapes, Il Gesù shows the influence of della Porta's mentor and predecessor as supervisor of construction at St. Peter's and the Campidoglio, Michelangelo, who also exploited contrasts in planes and the shapes formed by trims.  Della Porta assisted Michelangelo until the latter's death, when he succeeded him


The Façade's Influence

Della Porta's façade anticipated the direction taken by church façades in the Baroque period by its use of scrolling devices and the rhythmic spacing of verticals that build toward a crescendo at the center.


The façade's influence can be seen on such churches as Santa Susanna by Carlo Maderno (1556-1629).


See more about Axial-Plan Churches.


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Vignola 3 of 4




Design of Il Gesù by Jacopo Vignola



Façade of Il Gesù by Giacomo della Porta