San Luigi dei Francesi Travel Guide
IntroductionThe Church of St. Louis of the French (San Luigi dei Francesi) is a Roman Catholic church that is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, St. Denis the Areopagite, and to St. Louis IX, king of France. It was originally commissioned as a church for the local French community by Cardinal Giulio di Giuliano de’ Medici, and was designed by the famous Italian architect and sculptor Giacomo della Porta who is also credited for working on many important buildings in Rome, including St. Peter’s Basilica.
The church is built on the ancient site of the Baths of Agrippa, and the Baths of Nero. This land was acquired by the powerful Medici family in the 1500s, and was later donated by Catherine de’Medici to the church. Its construction began in 1518 and was overseen by the Renaissance engineer Domenico Fontana. Despite a halt in the project in 1527 due to the sacking of Rome, the church finally saw completion in 1589 thanks to the direct intervention of the Medicis.
The plan of the church resembles a basilica in that it is of a rectangular shape without a transept, and its lavish decorations were made possible by the combined wealth of the Medicis and the French kings. The result was the rich interior in gold and marble that we have today, as well as the plethora of breathtaking artwork that was contributed by a good number of famous artists over the centuries. In particular, the works of the Baroque master Caravaggio are considered as the most notable pieces of art in the church’s collection. Inside the church can be found a repeating motif of French lilies, as well as what is considered as one of the most ornate and richest coffered ceilings in any structure in Rome.
These days, the San Luigi dei Francesi remains as an active place of worship, especially for the French community in Rome.
What to SeeThe Exterior
Upon arriving at the church, one of the first sights to greet visitors would be the façade. It is the work of Giacomo della Porta, the designer of the church, who created it as a decorative structure that is independent from the church building itself. Made from travertine marble, it is adorned with carvings and statues by other artists such as Nicolo Pippi and Jean de Chenevières. These statues are of the French saints and historical figures Charlemagne, St. Louis, the fifth century queen of the Franks St. Clothilde, and the daughter of Louis XI, St. Jeanne of Valois. There are also carvings at the lower level, found at the feet of the statues, which bears salamanders that symbolize King Francois I of France as well enduring faith. At the peak of the façade is the Valois family’s coat of arms.
The Golden Interiors
Funded mostly by Catherine de’Medici, the church’s nave is a riot of Baroque decorations, featuring marble sculptures and gilded stucco in almost every inch. Coupled with the highly ornate ceilings and elaborate carvings, the result is a truly magnificent and awe-inspiring space.
The church’s most famous pieces of art are housed in the Contarelli Chapel. Within it can be found a set of three large paintings by the famous Italian artist Caravaggio which depict major events in the life of Saint Matthew the Evangelist. These paintings are The Calling of St. Matthew, The Inspiration of St. Matthew, and The Martyrdom of St. Matthew. These paintings were his first major church commission and are what cemented his reputation as a painter.
Other Famous Frescoes and Artwork
As mentioned previously, the San Luigi dei Francesi has one of the most ornate and richest coffered ceilings in any structure in Rome. These coffered ceilings are also adorned with a beautiful fresco painted by the French artist Charles Joseph Natoire whose work can also be found in the Versailles palace. His work features a scene of San Luigi ascending into heaven. Meanwhile, at the Polet Chapel, to the right of the altar, can be found what are considered as the most successful works of the Italian Baroque artist Domenichino who created a set of frescos that feature scenes from the life of St. Cecilia. Other artists whose works can be found at the church are Cavalier D’Arpino, Francesco Bassano il Giovane, Muziano, Giovanni Baglione, Siciolante da Sermoneta, Jacopino del Conte, Tibaldi and Antoine Derizet.
Tips and Advice
- The church is open for public viewing from 10am to 12:30pm, and again at 3pm to 7pm, every day except Thursdays.
- For groups, it is possible to request for a private tour on Thursdays. This can be arranged either directly with the church administration or via your tour operator. It is also possible to ask a local priest to show you around the premises, if they are available.
- For pilgrims, the church has a reception center where you can get both practical and religious information for your trip. It is open from Mondays to Fridays, from 10am to 12:30pm, and again at 2pm to 5pm.
- For those who wish to attend mass, it is celebrated on Sundays at 10:30am, on Saturdays at 12:30pm, and on Mondays to Fridays at 7pm.
- Because this is a popular attraction, expect a crowd and try to arrive early.
- Lighting conditions are low, so use the appropriate camera equipment or settings if you are planning to take photos. However, take note that it is prohibited to use flash photography.
- Some of the most notable paintings in the church have light fixtures beside them that can be activated by placing one euro in a coin box. It lasts a few minutes, allowing you to have a good look at the artwork on display. Because there are most likely a lot of people touring the church as well, though, it is possible that the lights will already be on when you get there. Just in case, however, keep a few one-euro coins in your pocket.
- Keep in mind that it is a place of worship, and hence, proper attire and behavior is required. Church staff members are authorized to turn away visitors who are not dressed appropriately or who are disturbing worshipers. Cover those shoulders, take off your hats, avoid very short skirts or pants, avoid low necklines, and try to keep your voice down. You can bring a shawl or extra shirt to cover yourself up with during the duration of the tour, and then just take it off when you leave.