The amount of art in Rome is completely overwhelming. Where does one even begin when trying to plan a trip on what to see. Much to the horror of my art historian sister, on my first few visits to Rome, I completely skipped the Vatican Museums and the Borghese Gallery. Instead, I opted for the free art in Rome that blankets the city. I love to sprinkle my Roman day with masterpieces by the likes of Michelangelo, Raphael, Bernini and many others. This is a fabulous option if you are lover of art, but also a lover of the dolce vita. Why? Because there are no lines, no reservations, no tickets. You can stop for an aperitivo and take a stroll down the street to see some of the most priceless works of art for free.
I have categorized these works by major artists, but below I have also included a list of churches.
Curious to know where these works are? Just keep on reading.
I will start with one of the most famous artists of all time. Michelangelo’s work can be found all over Rome right there in plain sight. Maybe you never ever knew you were passing right under some structure he designed. In addition to architecture, there are also his sculptures. Here are a few below.
Piazza del Campidoglio was commissioned by Pope Paul III. This large, hill-top city square was supposed to capture the renewed greatness of Rome. In fact, the civic center faces away from the Forum and looks towards the Vatican.
Moses – San Pietro in Vincoli
Moses can be found in the church of San Pietro in Vincoli. Michelangelo had a special connection with this piece and felt it was his most lifelike creation. He supposedly hit the right knee of the sculpture demanding Moses speak. The “scar” on his knee is thought to be that of Michelangelo’s hammer.
Pieta‘- St. Peter’s
The Pieta’, is probably the only place you will have to wait in line because this piece is found in St. Peter’s. It is also encased in a protective glass due to an attack In 1972 by Laszlo Toth who broke off the Virgin Mary’s left forearm and chipped her neck, head and veil.
Michelangelo designed this gate, part of the Aurelian Walls, commissioned by Pope Pius IV. It was actually completed after his death. The outer facing façade was completed in 1869 by Vespignani.
Risen Christ – Santa Maria Sopra Minerva
In this Gothic church, you will find Michelangelo’s sculpture of the Risen Christ. On a side note, there are also by frescoes by Filippino Lippi in this church as well as Bernini’s Elephant Obelisk outside.
Bernini was a Baroque artist. His work is to Rome what Starbucks is to the United States: one on every corner. His architecture, fountains and sensual sculptures are all over the city. With his sculptures, he was able to portray events and characters in extraordinary emotional states. Just the titles and descriptions of the pieces alone should give you an idea as to his style: “rapture, ecstasy, rhapsody.” He, himself lead a rather passionate life as well, having an affair with a married woman who was also having an affair with his brother at the same time. He actually sent his assistant to disfigure his mistress after discovering her relationship with his brother. Eventually, he went on to marry a woman 20 years younger than himself and had 11 children. Below are SOME of his works that can be found throughout the city.
The Ecstasy of Blessed Ludovica Albertoni – San Francesco A Ripa
In this church, you will find the provocative sculpture, The Ecstasy of Blessed Ludovica Albertoni. The subject of the sculpture is of Ludovica Albertoni and the moment of her spiritual union with God.
Ecstasy of Saint Teresa – Santa Maria della Vittoria
Yet another moment of rapture, this time it is the Ecstasy of Saint Teresa depicting Spanish Saint Teresa Ávila. This happens to be one of my art historian sister’s favorite pieces. Also, Saint Teresa has recently been restored as well. Have a look at this article discussing her new sparkly look.
Elephant and Obelisk – Santa Maria Sopra Minerva
As already mentioned above, not only will you find Michelangelo’s and Lippi’s work here, but in the piazza outside this church, you will find Bernini’s elephant carrying an obelisk on its back. This work was completed in 1667.
Again, I have listed some of Bernini’s works here, but other pieces include: The boat fountain (Baraccia) at the bottom of the Spanish Steps, the statues that line the bridge of Sant’Angelo, the Fountains of the Four Rivers in Piazza Navona, Fontana del Tritone in Piazza Barberini the Baldacchino, as well as other works in St. Peters and the Colonnades in St. Peter’s Square.
Another Baroque artist, Caravaggio was similar to Bernini in his ability to capture aspects of human emotion – but in paintings. He is also known for his use of the chiaroscuro technique. (Chiaroscuro meaning light and dark.) This technique gave his work that dramatic, three-dimensional look.
Speaking of dramatic, Caravaggio himself lived a pretty crazy life, even killing a man and living on the run until his death. But during his time in Rome, he was commissioned for works in various churches around the city that can be seen for free. Have a look.
The Conversion on the Road to Damascus
Crucifixion of St. Peter
Basilica of Santa Maria del Popolo
Remember the must-see church with designs by Bernini? Well, there are also paintings by Caravaggio here. Check out the Cerasi Chapel. It is the chapel to the left of the altar and here you will find emotion evoking paintings The Conversion on the Road to Damascus and Crucifixion of St. Peter.
Madonna of Loreto – Church of Sant’Agostino
This church also has artwork by other important artists such a Raphael Bernini, Borromini (architect) and Sansovino. Caravaggio’s piece caused a big stir because the feet of the shepherds are dirty which kind of makes me laugh a little because dirty feet are still scandalous in Italy today (no going around the house barefoot, no matter how clean your floors are, dirty feet are inevitable.)
The Calling of Saint Matthew, The Inspiration of Saint Matthew, The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew. San Luigi dei Francesi
I guess it is pretty obvious that this trio of paintings relates to Saint Matthew. These canvases can be found in the Contarelli Chapel of the church.
Most people know Raphael as a painter, but he was also an architect, a skilled draftsman and dabbled in printmaking in collaboration with other artists. He died at only 37 years old, and according to art historian,Giorgio Vasari, the cause of death was “a night of excessive sex with Luti, after which he fell into a fever and, not telling his doctors that this was its cause, was given the wrong cure, which killed him.” Ha, ha, ha….ummm….ok. Anyway, he died young but worked a lot during his short life. Below are the places you can see his work for free in Rome.
The Sibyls – Santa Maria della Pace
Not far from Piazza Navona is the Santa Maria Della Pace church where Raphael painted this fresco on the arch above the Chigi Chapel in 1514. Raphael was commissioned by Antonio Chigi, “the richest man in Rome,” for other works as well.
The Chigi Chapel in Santa Maria Del Popolo
Antonio Chigi also commissioned Raphael to design a funerary chapel for him. Raphael took inspiration from St. Peter’s and also the Pantheon. This chapel was later completed by works from Bernini and other important artists of the time.
The Prophet Isaiah – Church of Sant’Agostino
You might recall that this church also contains a Caravaggio. Raphael’s subject for this fresco is Isaiah and the style was influenced by the Sistine Chapel and painted in 1512.
Recap by Church
Below I have listed the locations discussed in this post by church as opposed to artists to help you organize your visit since many of these churches have numerous works of art. Also, I have tried to include the most important works that are contained in these churches. I have also included a map to give a general idea as to where these churches can be found. Piazza Navona is a hot-spot for free art!
St. Peter’s Basilica
Architects: Michelangelo, Bramante and Bernini
Artists: Michelangelo, Canova, Bernini, Donatello among others
San Pietro in Vincoli
San Francesco A Ripa
Santa Maria Sopra Minerva
Bernini, Michelangelo and Lippi
Santa Maria della Vittoria
Basilica of Santa Maria del Popolo
Architects: Bramante, Bernini
Artists: Sansovino, Raphael, Bernini, Caravaggio and Algardi, Pinturicchio
Church of Sant’Agostino
San Luigi dei Francesi
Santa Maria della Pace
There are numerous other artists work on display in Rome for free, the list seems endless and I have just covered a few – still Michelangelo, Bernini, Caravaggio and Raphael – yes, they are a good start I think.