Della Porta’s Revolutionary Façade of the Gesù

JESUITS. ROME. ARCHITECTURE. Brambilla, Giovanni Ambrogio (act. 1575-1599), engraver; Aelst, Nicolas van (Brussels 1526–1613 Rome), publisher; Della Porta, Giacomo (1532-1602), architect


Rome: Nicolas van Aelst, 1589


Single sheet engraving. 47 x 38 cm.


Signed and dated in the plate. Single sheet, printed on laid paper with a watermark of a scale and star within a circle (Woodward 238-241).

Engraved by Ambrogio Brambilla for the publisher Nicolas van Aelst, with a dedication to Ranuccio Farnese, Prince of Parma and Piacenza. The 15-year printing privilege, granted by Pope Sixtus V, is engraved on the plate. Brambilla’s monogram AMBR appears at bottom right.

Giacomo Della Porta’s design for the façade of the church of the Gesù at Rome, the mother church of the Jesuit Order and a masterpiece of early (or “proto”-) Baroque architecture. The influence of the design, especially the façade, was great and long-lasting. It was adopted -with regional variations- for Jesuit mission churches worldwide, inspiring such divers projects as the Igreja de São Paulo in Macau, São Miguel das Missões, Brazil, and San Ignacio Mini in Argentina, an example of the Guaraní baroque. Closer to home, the building influenced the Gesù Nuovo built at Naples in 1584 by Giuseppe Valeriano (1542-1596).

The planning stages for the church began in 1550. Work on the church began in 1568, under the patronage of Cardinal Alessandro Farnese. The architect chosen for the project was Giacomo Barozzi da Vignola (1507-1573), who directed construction of the church until his death. Given that Cardinal Farnese was enthusiastically in favor of Vignola's design for the church (which the Jesuit Order had reluctantly accepted), his decision in 1571 to have the façade executed based on a design by Giacomo Della Porta must have aroused surprise.

Della Porta also took over as overseer of construction following Vignola's death, and was responsible for the church's barrel vault (both the façade and the vault were completed in 1577), and the ongoing construction until completion of the church in 1584. Della Porta made Il Gesù’s façade dramatic and lively by gradually increasing the number of architectural elements toward the center of his design, thus creating a sense of tension released by entrance into the building’s seemingly vast interior.

“The church of Il Gesù in Rome is the mother church of the Society of Jesus, the religious order founded by Ignatius of Loyola in 1540 in the charged religious and political climate of the incipient Counter-Reformation. This was a period when the Catholic Church undertook to reassert its authority and hegemony in the wake of grievous challenges posed by the Protestant Reformation in the north, the ongoing Turkish threat from the east, and the cataclysmic sack of Rome—the seat of papal authority—by rampaging Imperial troops in 1527. Rising in the very center of the city in the shadow of the ancient Forum and Capitoline Hill, its imposing profile dominating the surrounding urban landscape, the Gesù was intended as a formidable symbol of the Church resurgent, and a testament to the power and prestige of the new Jesuit order.

“The Gesù’s great benefactor was the immensely wealthy and powerful Cardinal Alessandro Farnese (1520-1589), grandson of Pope Paul III (r. 1534-1549), who funded its construction and, with a frequent disregard for the Jesuits’ expressed preferences, dictated many of its architectural features. His beneficence is recorded on the façade in the commemorative inscription that surmounts the shield with the IHS Christogram, symbol of the Society of Jesus, over the central portal (the name FARNESIVS, not accidentally, hovering directly above it). The Gesù was understood by contemporaries to be a Farnese “property”—the inscription on Brambilla’s engraving refers to it as the “Farnese Temple” and the Farnese heraldic fleur-de-lis is ubiquitous in the interior and exterior—and was regarded as such by Cardinal Farnese himself, who is buried before the high altar.” (Linda Wolk-Simon, Director and Chief Curator, Fairfield University Art Museum, "Art of the Gesù exhibition", 2018)

“The façade is as bold as the plan, although it has its earlier sources. The paired pilasters and broken architrave on the lower story are clearly derived from the colossal order on the exterior of St. Peter's, and with good reason, for it was Della Porta who completed Michelangelo's dome. In the upper story the same pattern recurs on a somewhat smaller scale, with four instead of six pairs of supports. The difference in width is bridged by two scroll-shaped buttresses. This novel device, also taken from Michelangelo, forms a graceful transition to the large pediment crowning the facade, which retains the classic proportions of Renaissance architecture (the height equals the width).

“What is fundamentally new here is the integration of all the parts into one whole. Della Porta, freed from classicistic scruples by his allegiance to Michelangelo, gave the same vertical rhythm to both stories of the facade. This rhythm is obeyed by all the horizontal members (note the broken entablature), but the horizontal divisions in turn determine the size of the vertical members (hence no colossal order). Equally important is the emphasis on the main portal: its double frame—two pediments resting on coupled pilasters and columns—projects beyond the rest of the facade and gives strong focus to the entire design. Not since Gothic architecture has the entrance to a church received such a dramatic concentration of features, attracting the attention of the beholder outside the building much as the concentrated light beneath the dome channels that of the worshiper inside.”(Britannica)

The publisher:

Nicolas van Aelst, Publisher and print dealer, was active in Rome (1585-1613), having been awarded printing privileges by Sixtus V. His studio was in the vicinity of Santa Maria della Pace. He stock of plates included a number purchased from the printers Facchetti, Orlandi, Salamanca, and Gherardi. He specialized in prints depicting monuments of ancient and modern Rome and ceremonies. He also published prints for Tempesta, Brambilla and Alberti.

This print is associated with the sprawling, decades-long “Speculum Romanae Magnificentiae” (The Mirror of Roman Magnificence) project, which originated with the Antonio Salamanca and Antonio Lafreri. During their Roman publishing career, the two foreign publishers - who worked together between 1553 and 1563 – produced a high number of engravings depicting Roman architecture (ancient and modern), statuary, inscriptions, views, and Roman ceremonies. The prints could be purchased individually by tourists and collectors, but were also bought in larger groups that were often brought together in bespoke albums. Sometime between 1573 and 1577, Lafreri commissioned a title page for the series, with the title "Speculum Romanae Magnificentiae". On Lafreri's death, two thirds of the existing copper plates went to the Duchetti family (Claudio and Stefano), while those making up the other third were distributed among different publishers.

Marigliani, Lo splendore di Roma nell’Arte incisoria del Cinquecento (2016), n. VI.39; W. Lotz, 2004, pp. 118-19; C. Witcombe, 2008, pp. 365-67. See Peter Parshall "Antonio' Lafreri's 'Speculum Romanae Magnificentiae'" Print Quarterly. 1, London, 2006