Chigi family crest

The Domination of the Symbol of the Chigi Family in Rome through Pope Alexander VII

Spencer Cohen
[student, Rome Sketchbook course, Autumn 2013]

Throughout the city of Rome there are numerous symbols, many related in some way to the Roman Catholic Church. Each symbol, whether placed on a public work, within a work of art, or even hidden among bricks denotes a specific meaning. The symbol may be a crest of a pope, the Papal coat of arms, presenting to all those who view the structure or work as clearly produced under his rule. The symbol may present the achievements of a particular individual, most likely the saint the said church is dedicated to.
Upon studying the symbols throughout Rome, particularly those associated with the Christian tradition, the common thematic strand discovered dealt with the three to six mountains and star. From a place upon the gate in Piazza del Popolo to placement upon Bernini’s elephant and obelisk, the presentation and iterations of this symbol in the city of Rome is varied and unparalleled. The one symbol that may trump this in representation throughout Rome is that of the generic papal seal of crossed key and crown, with a seal of the pope placed below. This, however, is too generic and common to speak of in a succinct and fluid manner.

Della Rovere family crest incorporating that of the Chigi family

To understand the mountains and star, one must understand the House of Chigi. With the first known date of existence in the 13th century, the Chigi family eventually became the most powerful family in Sienna. The crest of the Chigi Family is seven mountains with a eight-pointed star on top. With Agostino Chigi as the most notable member during the Renaissance, the first pope of the family was that of Cardinal Fabio Chigi. Upon his election he assumed the name of Pope Alexander VII. This was, indeed, a reference some historians argue, to Alexander the Great. Due to this seeming lust for power, Pope Alexander VII built numerous public works and placed some iterations of his coat of arms upon each work. He also undertook numerous projects of restoration and placed his crest on the works upon completion.
The crest of Pope Alexander VII is a combination of that of his ancestral Chigi Family, the mountains, and an oak tree of the Della Rovere family. There are four spaces within the crest, with the mountains and star repeated twice and the tree twice as well.

Santa Maria Maggiore, facade

Bernini undertook substantial works under Pope Alexander VII, with the most notable and profound being the Piazza of San Pietro. From 1656 to 1667 this piazza was meticulously designed and crafted by Bernini under Pope Alexander’s direction. As such, the crest of the pope is currently present in the square no less than six times.

Piazza della Minerva with Bernini's Elephant statue
The second major work undertaken by Pope Alexander was that of Piazza del Popolo. In the pope’s restoration of the gate, he yet again utilized the craftsmanship of Bernini in his restoration. Upon the top of the gate are the six hills with the star atop. Taken together, these two leave little doubt of the dominance of Pope Alexander VII. With the utilization of Bernini he was able to transform Rome into a modern city defined by his major public works. However, in my drawings I show many of the lesser known use of this symbol—such as on Bernini’s elephant and obelisk—to show the breadth and depth of its use in Rome.