Barocchetto Romano and the Cappella Monte di Pieta: We throw around names of styles when we talk about Roman design and architecture, but do we really know what they mean and where they came from? Baroque originally meant irregular or imperfect and perhaps was etymologically linked to the Portuguese "barroco" used to describe imperfect or doubled pearls. The descriptive, "baroque", distinguished the recurved and broken lines of baroque architecture from the straight and continuous lines and regularly (sometimes fractally) linked circles and polygons of Vitruvian (Augustan Roman) architecture that had been revivedPalladio (1508-80) and others during the renaissance. In fact, "baroque" and "broken" may have the same etymological progenitors.

Take baroque architecture, already ornate, and cover it with profuse and small-scale surface ornaments, and you have rococo. From the very beginning, "rococo" (sometimes spelled "roccoco") appears to have been intended as a derogatory description. The word may well have been a humorous alteration of "rocaille" = shell-work or pebble-work (from Middle French "roche" = rock, in turn from vulgar Latan "rocca" = stone). The reference was to the excessive use of shell and pebble designs in this lavish style. Rococo and "rocky" have the linked etymologies, and, as we can see, "rocky" was, at first, an apt description for rococo surfaces. (If you want to see rococo in this original meaning, see the fountain in the entrance court of the Palazzo Altemps, just north of Palazzo Navona, now one of the venues of the National Museum. But very soon "rococo" had achieved its more general meaning of "tastelessly florid or ornate".

Thankfully, rococo never really caught on in Rome: the Romans proudly resisted modification of their "grande barocco" just as they had earlier refused to change when most of the rest of Europe (including a lot of Italy) moved from Romanesque to Gothic in the Middle Ages and again, later, in the 19th century Gothic revival. There are no recognized rococo palaces or churches in Rome.

But a few projects exist under another name: contemporary critics, not wanting to tar their rich powerful perpetrators with the "rococo" epithet, called the exceptions "barocchetto Romano". "Barocchetto" in most contexts means "somewhere between baroque and rococo", but "barocchetto Romano" is always decisively closer to the rococo end of that spectrum.

One of the most rococo things you can see here, apart from a few courtyard fountains like the one in Palazzo Altemps, is the Chapel in the Palazzo Monte di Pieta, which dominates the piazza to which it gave its name, southeast of the Campo di Fiori. The chapel is built into a large room at the northern corner of the Palazzo, and from the outside, there is no clue that it is even there aside from the two larger arched windows, one on each side of that corner of the building. To enter the chapel, you have to enter the Palazzo through the right hand door in the front of the building, pass the guard post, and turn right. (It's necessary to call in advance for permission -- the Palazzo now is part of the Banco di Roma, and the chapel is not opened without advance booking.)

As soon as you pass the tall iron doors, you can see that the ground-floor chapel is on the rococo edge of barocchetto. There is a short vestibule leading to a flattened octagonal room -- it has less depth than width. The chapel was built into a pre-existing rectangular room, and was given its octagonal shape for structural as well as stylistic reasons -- an octagon is eminently suitable to support a dome. And, despite the fact that the whole of the chapel is internal to the palazzo, there is a cupola or dome. It rises into the floor above the chapel. There is no lantern at the top, but rather a large oval depiction of the dove of the Holy Spirit surrounded by seraphim executed by Michele Maglia in white stucco. There are white stucco medallions, almost as large as the centerpiece, in the four major webs of the octagon ("webs" are the parts between the "ribs" that rise in the angles of the octagonal cupola, the ribs, in this case, being doubles). The medallions are above four large arched "windows". (The "windows" are in quotes, because only the two of them that mentioned above as being visible from the outside, bring in light -- the other two appear to be blank.) All the major and minor webs are embellished symmetrically with pairs of cupids and, in case you might miss the rococo connection, with large stucco scallop shells, a rococo hallmark. Those in the major webs are white stucco, and those in the minor are covered in gold leaf. Gold leaf, of course, is another marker of the rococo, and this cupola doesn't disappoint. Everything that is not part of the stucco decorations not already mentioned is part of a golden a riot of acanthus, vines, palms, wriggles, loops, and swirls.

The design of the whole cupola assemblage is by Carlo Francesco Bizzacheri and dates from 1696, replacing a previous decorative scheme that was only fifteen years old: it was necessary to reflect, with more grandeur, the increased power and economic influence of the Confraternity of the Monte di Pieta. Bizzacheri assembled a team of sculptors -- the aforementioned Maglia, Lorenzo Ottoni, and Simone Giorgini for the major elements, and two "stuccatori" (stucco guys) Andrea Berettoni and the similarly named Andrea Bertoni for all the gold stucco ornamentation. All were the best artists in their specialties.

In 1704, the rest of the chapel (everything but the dome/cupola) was also redone. There are seven major sculptural works, all of them very high reliefs in white marble. Four are in the shorter wall segments, three representing the cardinal virtues -- faith, hope, and charity -- and the fourth representing alms-giving, which was one of the major functions of the Confraternity.

The largest sculpture is behind the main altar in a shallow rectangular apse. By Domenico Guidi, it is, as might be expected, a "pieta", but it is not just the normal pieta duet of "Sorrowful Mother" and dead Jesus. This composition is crowded, and it has an almost unique spiral pattern. At the bottom is the Magdalene, and, spiraling upward and inward, are Jesus in the arms of his mother, archangels, God the Father, the Dove of the Holy Spirit, Joseph of Aramathea with the implements of the passion of Jesus and, at the center, Cherubs. The two reliefs at the ends of the longer axis of the flattened octagon show old testament scenes of food distribution and alms-giving and are by two of the most famous French sculptors of the period, Pierre Le Gros and Jean Baptiste Theodon. To one side of the vestibule is a fine bust of Charles Borromeo, who was the most famous of the "Cardinal Protectors" of the Monte di Pieta.

Every surface of the chapel walls that is not occupied by the relief sculptures is covered with rare marbles: giallo (amber/old-ivory/yellow), verde (green), and rosso (red) anticos, and, around the sculptures, some elements of nero (black) antico and diaspro verde (Egyptian green jasper). There are no paintings or frescoes -- such decorations were rare in private chapels because they were deemed to be too perishable. Stone, on the other hand, is for the ages and would forever glorify the individual, the family, or, in this instance, the confraternity.

Ottavio Mascherino, who also built the Quirinale Palace, originally built the Palazzo for Cardinal Prospero Santacroce Publicola. The building passed through other hands before its purchase by the Confraternity of the Monte di Pieta of Rome in 1603. The Confraternity itself had moved through several sets of always-larger quarters as its charitable financial base grew. In 1619 a new façade and an expansion of the palazzo were undertaken by Carlo Maderno, and there were additional projects by Maderno and his nephew Francesco Borromini and others that would eventually double the size of he structure. In 1762 an overhead passageway was built to the adjoining Palazzo Barberini (which by then also belonged to the Monte), and the street under the passageway was then renamed as Via Arco del Monte. In addition to the chapel, which was built into the Palazzo by Francesco Peperelli between 1639 and 1642, the Palazzo also houses the research archives of the Monte and of the Banco di Roma, which, in modern times, absorbed the Monte. There is a small museum, which is usually open to casual visitors, in which are displayed documents related to the foundation of the Monte and some items left in surety against loans.

And loans were the main purpose of the Monte di Pieta di Roma and of other Montes Pietatis. The first of these "Pious Funds" were actually outside of Italy, although Italian legend persists in incorrectly maintaining that they were an Italian Franciscan invention. There were several starts in France in the middle of the 14th century, although they did not require the pawning of objects as surety for their loans. In 1631 Bishop Michael Northburg established a lending bank in London, which loaned, with no interest, against pawned items. Since expenses were drawn against the original endowment, the capital was eventually spent and the doors closed.

Franciscans, Barnabo da Terni and Fortunato Coppoli, in Perugia founded the first Italian institution in 1463, and soon there were similar Franciscan Montes throughout Italy. Their purpose was to provide loans to individuals undergoing financial crises. At first, they charged small rates of interest, in order to avoid the fate of the Northburg bank, but eventually interest was often foregone in favor of municipal and/or ecclesiastical taxes or voluntary donations collected to replenish the capital fund. In some cases The voluntary donors formed charitable confraternities to keep a fund solvent, and that was the way the Roman "Monte di Pieta" was funded from its inception.

The proximate cause of the foundation of the Roman Monte was the need for low/no interest small loans after the sack of Rome of 1527. Loan money was available immediately after the sack but only at high interest: Shakespeare's "Merchant of Venice" wouldn't be written until 1596, but Italian urbanites would surely have recognized Shylock, and they knew, as well, the even more usurious Christian Piedmontese "coarsini" and Lombard lenders. Eventually, interest burdens became so heavy that local economies were becoming paralyzed.

The Roman Monte was organized in 1539 to remedy just such a situation. The actual founder of the Roman Monte was, as usual, a Franciscan, Giovanni Maltei da Calvi. But he was the Commissario of the Roman Curia, and he founded the Roman Monte with Pope Paul 3's authorization. With that kind of backing, it's easy to understand why the Roman Monte was well endowed from the beginning, due both to the presence in Rome of many still very rich potential noble and ecclesiastic donors and to their early recognition of both the needs of the people and of their own self-interest in succumbing to papal pressure to meet those needs. (There were people who opposed the Roman and other Montes -- previous lenders who were to loose their usury-generated incomes and anti-liberals who said that such charitable programs would encourage indigence. The "object in pawn" aspect was designed to prevent the latter, since subjective value to the borrower was a major consideration in addition to intrinsic value of the object.)

What does "monte" mean? A "monte" is any "heap" or "mound" or "amount" of money with a purpose. There were "Montes secularis" and, later, "Montes pietatis": funds were set aside or "piled up" for secular or for "pious" purposes. Some of the "Montes" were endowed, some were supported by governments (either by taxes or from general funds), and some by organizations (e.g., guilds, fraternities, or confraternities.)

Fraternities, by the way, were set up to benefit their own members, while confraternities were membership organizations that were supposed to benefit persons other than the members.) Modern guilds, labor unions, various "benevolent associations", and, yes, college fraternities all have aspects of both fraternities and confraternities.

In gambling, the monte was the total that all players had "piled up" in the middle of the table. A player could bet against part of the "monte" or against "tutti il monte". You could also bet your own whole monte (your own pile) against an equivalent amount that was already on the table. Risking everything was therefore known as "going the full monty", and hence the title of that wonderful movie.

Similar terminology was involved in the governance of tontines, some of which provided for division of the "monte" among survivors after a certain number of years, others for making decisions on whether to divide after a specified number of years had elapsed, and some which continued until only one of the contracting members survived to receive "tutti il monte".

Monte, monty, mountain, mound, amount (in Latin it is "ad montis") are, of course, all cognates. The origin of the etymological connection between the Latin words <mons, Montes = mound, mounds> and <moneta, monetae = money, mint, mints> is vague, but it was accepted as valid already in ancient Roman times.

Further information and Internet links:

A thirty page Italian language booklet on the Chapel is available at the Palazzo. A bibliography of publications about the Roman Monte and the chapel -- actually a list of the Banco di Roma's own archival holdings, mostly in Italian and a few in French -- is at

The broader Banco di Roma Archive site, whose pages offer some info and pictures of the Palazzo and the chapel:

The Catholic Encyclopedia on "Montes pietatis":

Go to for other articles.

P.S.: Portugal, pearls, and barroco: by the time of the baroque period (ca. 1585 onward), the Portuguese had firm control of the European pearl market, having explored and fortified the "Pearl Coast", the western shore of the Persian Gulf, around what are now Bahrain and Qatar. Round pearls were available and quite expensive, but they were also considered to be somewhat plain. The "natural pearls" of the Pearl Coast, with complex curves, undulations and lines, were more popular -- they're certainly prettier in natural light and in the open-flame artificial light of the time. The descriptive terminology of the pearl trade would have been perfectly familiar in circles that could afford to patronize architects. They knew exactly what was meant by an architectural style called baroque: complex, curvy, and interesting. Baroque period pearls were sometimes later incorrectly described as "fresh-water" pearls, but that was a 20th century anachronism, from a time when Japanese cultured pearls dominated the salt-sea pearl market and when most folks had forgotten the irregular pearls of the Persian Gulf Pearl Coast. Natural pearls again became popular in the late 20th century for the same reason as they had been popular in earlier times. They are more "interesting" than plain round pearls.