The symbolism of St Yves at La Sapienza

One of the jewels of Francesco Borromini in Rome

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Coronavirus still affects our freedom to visit the wanders of Rome, leading to the closure of museums and archaeological sites. But the Eternal City has so much to offer and considering that Rome is also considered an “outdoor museum“.. we can still tick a lot of things from our bucket list!

One of them is among the most beautiful and unusual churches of Rome: the church of St Yves at La Sapienza, built nonetheless by Francesco Borromini!

You can start your “tour” from Piazza Sant’Eustachio where you have a great view of the lantern, but to have a better idea of the building, you’ll have to walk all the way around it, and enter the complex through Corso del Rinascimento.

After you walked around the building, be ready because you’re going to have a WOW effect!

Yes, because from this very busy and chaotic street (Corso Rinascimento) you’re going to turn the corner and enter the door, to find yourselves in front of this.. ta dah!

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The church of St Yves at La Sapienza

This was the place where the first university of Rome, the university of La Sapienza, was founded in the year 1303.

This is where the students were coming to study at the university. The university was founded by the Pope Bonifacio VIII. Later on it was decided to add a church to this complex, but there was a problem: the space available was very limited.

There had been many projects, many ideas, which were not accomplished, until in the 1600s the project was commissioned to one of the geniuses of the Baroque, the master of building wanders in very tiny spaces: Francesco Borromini.

Maybe from here you don’t notice, but the space of this church is really really tiny.. look at this aerial view:

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The aerial view of the church and the university building

Something that Borromini always did which church facades was to give a concave line, almost to recall a hug; a hug to all people, everyone had to feel welcome to enter the church.

Also, what’s so special about Borromini, is that he used to include a lot of symbolism in his buildings: first of all, the church was completed under the Pope Alexander VII of the Chigi family, so he included the Chigi family sign which is the mountain with a star on top;

then also the lantern on the dome has a meaning: you see the spiral is going from the earth towards God, it represents the journey of man towards the light of God, towards heaven.

But the journey of man towards God is not an easy one, is not a straight line: you have to go all the way around the spiral with obstacles, it takes time, it is endless, indefinite, you don’t know how long it’s going to take.

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The spiral of the lantern of St Yves

The spiral ends up with a crown of flames, that’s the fire of knowledge, in Italian: la Sapienza. That is why this place was called the university of La Sapienza, and the church of St Yves at la Sapienza.

What about the materials? You might think this is white marble, but it is not! It is white stucco. Yes, because Borromini used very poor materials to make very precious pieces!

One of the best things you can do, is to come here at sunset because the sunlight on the lantern is orange/red and it almost seems the lantern is going on fire, and that the rays of that crown are real.

I love Borromini’s buildings because they have such a modern look, they are bright, airy, even though they are all quite small; unlike other baroque churches which are so full of heavy and dark marbles that you just don’t know where to look. When you enter this kind of churches you jaw drops and you say”wooow”, because it is impressive and overwhelming.

But when you enter a Borromini’s church, you look up and say nothing.. because your breath is taken away.

Please note: entering into this church had been quite challenging even before Coronavirus hit Italy, as it was generally only open for Mass on Sunday mornings and now not even that. This is due to the fact that the church is really small (told you!). But I’ll keep an eye on it and take some pics to share in a future blog post, promised! 😉

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Written by Federica

Creative director of Live Virtual Guide. Her favorite things are gelato, pizza and the hidden gems of Rome.

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