Nero's ghostThe Basilica of Santa Maria del Popolo is located in one of the most ancient parts of Rome. It sits in the northern corner of the beautiful modern Piazza del Popolo, right beside the ancient Porta Flaminia (now called the Porta del Popolo), a gateway built into the Aurelian city walls.
The church began life as a small chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary in 1099. This was commissioned by Pope Paschal II to sit over the tomb of the Domitii Ahenobarbi, an old and notable genteel Roman family, to which the notorious Emperor Nero belonged. There is a tradition that Nero’s ghost haunted the site in the form of black crows and that this is why Pope Paschal had the chapel built.
The chapel was expanded into a church in 1235 by Pope Gregory IX, and given into the care of the Augustinian Friars. It remains in their care today. The epithet 'del Popolo' means 'of the people,' but the name originally derived from the poplar trees which were common to the area.
This Roman gem has had a number of design reconstructions, the most recent being designed by Bernini who is responsible for the Baroque façade we see today. The interior of the church also boasts an impressive roster of artists who contributed to the design and decoration. In the apse you will find the oldest stained-glass window in Rome, designed by Guillaume de Marcillat, as well as the tombs of Cardinals Ascanio Sforza and Girolamo Basso della Rovere which were designed by Andrea Sansovino; the Della Rovere Chapel displays a magnificent altarpiece created by Pinturicchio, who with his school contributed many works to the Basilica; the Chigi Chapel was designed and decorated by Raphael, and is a real treasure trove of Renaissance and Baroque statuary and mosaic work.