By Cedric Rischitelli 4:49 pm PST

After leaving behind the Church of St. Louis of the French and the three Caravaggio’s masterpieces found there, we move on to our second destination in our itinerary of Rome. The next stop is The Basilica of St. Augustine in Campo Marzio, only two minutes away from the Church of St. Louis of the French. This church holds only one painting by Caravaggio. Yet, it is still interesting to see it for the humanity of the painted subjects and the story surrounding this artwork.

The Basilica of St. Augustine was one of the first Roman churches built during the Renaissance. It was first completed around 1420, replacing the previous church of St. Tryphon in Posterula. The Order of St. Agostine commissioned the Basilica’s construction in order to position their primary monastery near the Vatican City. However, the structure was deemed too small and vulnerable to floods. Therefore, under Cardinal Guillaume d’Estouteville’s orders, the Basilica was rebuilt bigger and on a higher ground level by Giacomo da Pietrasanta and Sebastiano da Firenze between 1479 and 1483. The result is the structure we see today. The majestic façade (inspired by the Church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence) was built by Giacomo da Pietrasanta using travertine salvaged from the Colosseum. Cardinal d’Estouteville’s coat of arms, sculpted above the main entrance, welcomes all visitors.

Inside, a vast array of artwork decorates the church. Among the most important are a 1512 fresco of the Prophet Isaiah by Raphael, a 1512 statue of Saint Anne and Virgin with Child by Andrea Sansovino, and a 1521 statue of Madonna del Parto by Jacopo Sansovino. Others who decorated the Basilica include Avanzino Nucci, Giovanni Lanfranco, Guercino, Melchiorre Cafà, Ercole Ferrata, and Pietro Gagliardi. Still, the main attraction of the Basilica of St. Agostino in Campo Marzio is Caravaggio’s painting, Madonna of Loreto (1604-06), also known as Pilgrim’s Madonna.

At the artistic level, Caravaggio once more demonstrates mastery of the chiaroscuro technique in creating a dramatic scene. The light enters the scene from the left, and the shadows empower the figures in the painting. The main subject is the Saint Mary, painted barefoot, holding a naked baby Jesus. Saint Mary is standing in the doorway of a modest house as two pilgrims (a man and a woman) come to kneel before her. The adoring commoners wear rags, and we can see the dirty bare feet of the man. From Saint Mary’s arms, the child looks at the pilgrims and brings forward his hand to bless them. As seen in The Calling of Saint Matthew, this is a scene of ordinary people meeting the divine. According to the writing of the time, when revealed, the painting created a great uproar (schiamazzo) among the commoners due to the shocking humanity of the painted figures. For a start, the pilgrims look humanly dirty and tired, something new in religious depictions. Even Saint Mary is humanized: only a feeble halo signals her saintly status, and more shockingly, we see her feet, which were associated with dirtiness. Again, Caravaggio juxtaposed the dirty truth of the common people with a depiction of sainthood.

Madonna di Loreto . Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. Date: 1603-1605 Medium: oil on canvas. Dimensions height: 260 cm (102.3 in); width: 150 cm (59 in). (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

In a deeper analysis, the Madonna of Loreto can teach us a lot about the life and character of Caravaggio. Confirming Caravaggio’s use of live models for his subjects, sources suggest that the model for Mary was Maddalena Antognetti, known as Lena. The use of Lena as the model for Saint Mary was scandalous, as she was possibly a prostitute or even Caravaggio’s lover. What is clear is that the model for Mary was personally close to Caravaggio, and Saint Mary’s realistic and sincere expression suggests this familiarity. This Lena is also linked to one of Caravaggio’s many episodes of violence. A notary named Mariano Pasquale also had his eyes on Lena, and in response, Caravaggio instigated a violent fight with the man, hurting him in Piazza Navona. On the run, Caravaggio asked for asylum in the Basilica of St. Agostine. Later, Caravaggio gifted his painting to the church as thanks for sheltering him, and that’s how the Madonna of Loreto ended up in the Basilica. Caravaggio often infused this violent side of his character into his art, as we already saw in The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew, and we will see it again as our itinerary moves forward.

The visit to the Basilica allows its visitors to not only see yet another of Caravaggio’s masterpieces but also to understand the man who was Caravaggio. On the surface, we see yet again Caravaggio’s impressive use of light and shadow. In the figures painted, we see the humanity that allowed Caravaggio to go beyond Christian art by painting commoners without filters or shame. Finally, by examining Saint Mary’s face and by digging a bit deeper, we can learn about Caravaggio as a person. We discover his relationships and his models. We quickly realize that behind such a peaceful and saintly painting is hidden a story of scandal, romantic intrigue, and violence that led the Madonna of Loreto on the walls of the Basilica of St Augustine in Campo Marzio.

The Basilica is open Monday to Saturday from 07:30-12:00 and 16:00-19:30, and on Sunday from 08:30-12:45 and 16:00-19:30. Admission to the Basilica is free. Phone number: +390668801962. Email: Website: