San Filippo Neri (1515-1595)
In his biography The Apostle of Rome Meriol Trevor writes that it was as if a mental earthquake had shaken the Roman population early in the morning, on 26 May 1595. The city’s most celebrated citizen, Filippo Neri, the Apostle of Rome, had died. Soon after Filippo’s death was announced cardinals wept around his body, ambassadors came to pay their respects. Later that day crowds filled Rome’s Chiesa Nuova where Filippo’s body lay before the high altar. Workmen, old women, mothers carrying their children gathered around him, telling each other of the cures Filippo had effected during his life. Within a few months the Pope, Clement VIII, who, as Ippolito Aldobrandini had been a personal friend of Filippo’s, gave orders for the legal testimonies for Filippo’s canonization to be opened.
Filippo Neri, born in Florence in 1515, was the founding father of the Congregation of the Oratory, a gathering of laymen who read and discussed the Scripture together every afternoon, without any preaching. Filippo Neri and his Oratorians were known for their charity work, they gave alms to the destitute, visited the sick in hospitals and prisoners, and provided dowries for poor girls to get married.
The Neri Family’s Relations with San Filippo
It was with Filippo Neri and his Oratorians that Claudio Neri’s family, the owners of the Via di Pallacorda tennis court, had a particularly close relationship. The family had frequented Filippo’s Vallicella church since the early 1580s, before it became known as Chiesa Nuova. The pater familiaswas cured in a miraculous way by Filippo on two occasions, before and soon after the Saint’s death in 1595. Claudio Neri’s delicate health deteriorated dramatically in late 1595, after which he died. His wife passed away in 1600. Two of their daughters were also miraculously cured. Filippo personally negotiated the admittance of one of the daughters to the Tor di Specchi convent. In 1591 he diplomatically reminded the Pope of his duty, but his Holiness failed to keep his promise to look after the girl. At Filippo’s request, Cardinal Alessandrino (Michele Bonelli) intervened to get the young girl eventually accepted at the convent. Claudio’s eldest son, Francesco, was a particularly trusted disciple of Filippo’s, visiting him as a personal friend. After Filippo’s death in 1595, he kept in close touch with some of his highest ranking followers, especially when he became an auditor of the Sacra Rota Romana. Francesco’s younger brother Alessandro probably moved from the Via di Pallacorda family ‘casa’ to the Oratory’s Chiesa Nuova when he was ordained as subdeacon of the Congregation by Cardinal Agostino Cusano in June 1604. We saw before how the two tennis professionals hired the house linked to the Pallacorda the same year that Claudio’s youngest son Alessandro Neri took up residence at the church.
Caravaggio Working on His Deposizione
In 1600 Caravaggio received one of his most prestigious commissions, a painting to be installed in the new altar of the Chiesa Nuova, the most celebrated and frequented church in Rome. His Deposizione di Cristo (Entombment of Christ) was to win universal admiration. It was for this picture that Caravaggio visited the church on a regular basis between 1600 and 1 September 1604, when the painting was installed in the chapel of Pietà. At the time, Francesco and Alessandro Neri served as ‘ministri’ during the religious feasts that were staged at the Chiesa Nuova. Francesco for the first time during the Pontifical High Mass that was organized in 1598, when he served as subdeacon. His younger brother Alessandro is listed numerous times in the Congregation’s Decreti, being accepted in January 1603 before he was eventually formally ordained as ‘soddiacono’ and orator of the Congregation in June 1604 (thanks for your help, Daniela Nori, of the Archivio della Congregazione dell’ Oratorio di San Filippo Neri in Rome). The layout and characteristics of tennis courts was a popular topic among players. No two courts were exactly of the same size or arrangement, so Caravaggio may well have tried to find out from the Neri brothers about the specific features of their court. Especially since it was located just around the corner, in the (now) Vicolo del Divino, where Caravaggio lived in 1604 with his pupil Cecco. It was here that the painter must have put the finishing touches to his Deposizione.
When studying the work I am immediately struck by certain analogies in theme and spirit with the Death of Hyacinth. Our painting certainly is religious in spirit; the way Hyacinth’s lifeless body is supported by Apollo is reminiscent of Christ’s deposition from the cross in Caravaggio’s monumental picture. I feel an irresistible urge to book a flight to Rome and visit Filippo Neri’s Chiesa Nuova without delay, admire the altar devoted to his sanctity, take a guided tour through his private apartments, if at all possible. It is not Caravaggio’s Deposizione that attracts me to the church, as it no longer decorates the altar. The painting was looted in 1797 by Napoleonic troops with the intention of adding it to the collection of the Musée Napoléon (the later Louvre) in Paris. It was returned to Rome in 1817, at which point it entered the Vatican Museum.