The Church of Sant’Andrea della Valle is a magnificent Baroque church occupying an ancient site that became vital in the changes between late Republican and early Imperial Rome during the time of Augustus 2,000 years ago. Fittingly, the church is set in Puccini’s opera during a time pitting new Bonapartist Republican sentiments against imperial powers. Its location places the church in the very heart of modern Rome, between the Vatican, the Capitoline Hill, the Tiber River, and the Pantheon.
Some of the greatest Baroque architects and artists either worked on the exterior of the church building or decorated its interior. Architects Carlo Maderno, Carlo Rainaldi, and Carlo Fontana either helped build the church or contributed to its great façade between 1656 and 1665. The noted artists who painted the interior include Giovanni Lanfranco (1582–1647), who painted the wonderfully illusionistic Glory of the Virgin on the dome interior, and Domenichino (1581–1641), who painted the well-known martyrdom and execution of St. Andrew on the ornate church ceiling. Both Lanfranco and Domenichino—often called the Raphael of the seventeenth century—were assistants to one of the greatest Baroque masters, Annibale Carracci (1560–1609).
The same dramatic pathos and emotional turmoil paralleled in Puccini’s opera are easily evident in the famous Baroque paintings of one of Rome’s most important Baroque churches. That a painting of the Magdalene is being painted by Cavaradossi inside this church in Act I is not surprising: Mary Magdalene was the veritable saint of the Baroque and commensurately appropriate for the implied Romanticism of the dramatic date, 1800. Domenichino’s popular depiction of St. Andrew’s life and martyrdom in the church is symbolically answered in the opera’s finale by Cavaradossi’s “martyrdom.” Puccini’s use of a famous church to slyly evoke false piety in a revolutionary time is perfect: none of the title characters behave exactly appropriately inside the Church of Sant’Andrea della Valle, where the escaped but doomed Angelotti finds temporary sanctuary—an old mandate of mercy that churches traditionally offered. Interestingly, there is an old Roman statue outside the church that became known as Abbot Luigi because it resembled a sacristan of the Sant’Andrea della Valle church. His head has been lost and replaced countless times in various Roman political upheavals.
The Farnese Palace is one of Rome’s most storied buildings, but with a checkered past. It occupies a large city block near the Tiber River along the Lungo dei Tibaldi. Originally begun in 1514 by the distinguished architect Antonio da Sangallo with work by no less than Michelangelo from 1546 onward, it was completed in 1574. The most significant decoration of the palace interior was masterminded by the Baroque artist Annibale Carracci, the Galleria Farnese that illustrated the mythology of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, created from 1595 onward. Carracci was assisted by Lanfranco and Domenichino, also in Sant’Andrea della Valle as already noted, thus adding some Baroque artistic symmetry to the locations employed in the opera for the cognoscenti who knew Rome.
The Farnese Palace was passed back and forth between various ruling factions. It was inherited by the Infante Charles, son of Philip V of Spain (great-grandson of France’s Bourbon King Louis XV) and Elizabeth Farnese in 1734, and afterwards became the residence of the Neapolitan Bourbon stronghold to the time of napoleon and the setting of the opera. During the Bourbon period, with battles over who would control Rome, the Farnese Palace was an unpleasant symbol of foreign occupation, whether by Republicans or Neapolitans. Placing Scarpia’s office at the Farnese Palace is a deft touch spelling out police abuse of power in a palace administration riddled with nepotism and corruption. The Farnese Palace became the French embassy in 1871, leased for one lira every ninety-nine years. As the symbol of Bourbon absolutism, the Farnese Palace serves as the perfect setting for Scarpia’s machinations.
That the massive Castel Sant’ Angelo stands as one of Rome’s most easily recognized landmarks along the north bank of the Tiber, just east of the Vatican, is less important for the opera than its incredibly long history as funerary monument, fortress, and prison. Originally constructed as the Roman emperor Hadrian’s mausoleum and completed around AD 139, the core of the structure remains while its exterior has seen immense changes. It was an artificial mausoleum mountain designed to be over 160-feet high, serving as the repository of the ashes of Hadrian and, ultimately, as the resting place of the emperor Caracalla in AD 217. The ancient historian Procopius recorded in horror around AD 537 how the later Romans, who began converting it into a fortress, hurled its colossal bronze and marble statuary off its ramparts at the invading Goths.
Castel Sant’Angelo became a medieval symbol of refuge for Rome with Saint Michael the Archangel as civic protector. Castel Sant’Angelo was a stronghold of popes, including Benedict IX (1032–48) and the infamous philistine pope Alexander VI Borgia (1492–1503)—father of Lucrezia. With the conflated patchwork of other popes who built and strengthened the Passetta (passageway) to connect it to the Vatican in times of trouble, Castel Sant’Angelo became the ultimate focus of countless sieges up to and beyond the Sack of Rome by Charles V and his Spanish troops in 1527. At that instant, along with thirteen cardinals and up to 3,000 religious fugitives, Pope Clement VII himself was holed up for weeks. By his own bravo account, the goldsmith and sculptor Benvenuto Cellini was anecdotally credited with firing the unreliable new cannons from the fortress at the mercenary troops of Charles V, even pushing the cannons over the parapet onto the besiegers when ammunition ran out.
Continuing its looming presence as a prison, Castel Sant’Angelo was reused as a fortress for torture exactly as Puccini reinvigorates its age-old funerary associations. In fact the opera’s plot mirrors the multifaceted use of this historical building in that the final climax occurs back at Castel Sant’Angelo, from which Angelotti escaped at the beginning of the drama. even Dan Brown’s book Angels and Demons, which sensationalizes Castel Sant’Angelo as a potboiler climax of Illuminati intrigue, can hardly be far off the historical mark. Floria Tosca’s tragic leap from the high parapet of this embattled monument towering over Rome is an echo of real life—many real people either leapt or were hurled from its heights over the eternal City.
While none of these historical and artistic details about the Roman monuments are necessary to the plot of the opera, they are nonetheless accessory to the drama of Rome itself as the eternal City and the opera’s setting therein. Like many other artists and literati inspired by the City of Rome through the millennia, Victorien Sardou and Giacomo Puccini chose famous Roman settings that would rightly display their dramatic visions. Although George Bernard Shaw lampooned Sardou’s bourgeois dramas as “Sardoodledom,” Puccini’s music—with a succinct libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa—makes the best use of the history of these three illustrious Roman monuments. When Tosca premiered on January 14, 1900 in Rome in Teatro Constanzi, the storied fame and notoriety of these monuments would hardly be lost on that Roman audience.
Patrick Hunt is a classical archaeologist and professor at Stanford University. His book, Ten Discoveries that Rewrote History, was published in 2007.