Pieter Saenredam, who is best known for his paintings of church interiors, had broad humanistic interests, ranging from the history and development of the Netherlands to the literature of antiquity. A prized source of information about Rome was a sketchbook of antiquities made in the 1530s by Maerten van Heemskerck (1498–1574), which Saenredam would eventually acquire.
This painting is based on one of the images in Heemskerck’s sketchbook. The ancient, circular chapel of Santa Maria della Febbre in the foreground was originally built as a mausoleum in the second century. After 1506 the chapel was converted into the sacristy of the new Saint Peter’s basilica, which was then under construction behind it. The massive piers of the crossing that would eventually support the famous dome designed by Michelangelo are clearly visible in Saenredam’s painting. When Saenredam painted the scene in 1629, the dome had already been completed, and the Egyptian obelisk in the foreground, quarried in the thirteenth century BC and taken to Rome in the first century AD, had been moved to a different location on Saint Peter’s Square, some 275 yards away.
Interestingly, Saenredam portrayed Saint Peter’s as though it were an abandoned ruin overgrown with weeds. He created a sense of depth in the landscape by overlapping layers of contrasting tone, moving from a dark foreground through the buildings’ pinkish yellow to the bright blues and greens of low-lying distant hills. It is probable that the cardinal in his horse-drawn carriage and the other figures in the landscape were painted by Saenredam’s colleague Pieter Post (1608–1669).