San Benedetto in Piscinula is an early 12th century (?) church, heavily restored, in the rione Trastevere, just south of the south end of the Ponte Cestio . The postal address is Piazza in Piscinula 40. Pictures of the church on Wikimedia Commons are here.
The dedication is to St Benedict of Nursia.
The name as given is the official one, used by the Diocese and the Municipality. There are many versions of Piscinula in the historical documents, such as Piscincola, Piscina, Pisciolis, Piscicolis, Pisciola, Piscicola. The first in the list is still often to be found. There is also a local nickname, San Benedettino or "Little St Benedict". The saint now has two other churches dedicated to him in Rome (there used to be more): Santi Benedetto e Scolastica all'Argentina and San Benedetto al Gazometro.
The Latin piscina means "fish pond" or "swimming pool"; the latter is the meaning in modern Italian, and the former the original meaning in Latin. So, piscinula seems to mean "small pond or pool". The two alternative guesses as to what this was are: Either the plunge-pool attached to a set of public baths, or a large tank in which to keep fish alive (and hence fresh) before their sale at a local fish-market. Both theories lack any archaeological confirmation, although ruins of baths were apparently recorded in the 18th century.
Beware of modern Romans trying to make fun of tourists over the name -it has nothing to do with urine (piscia in modern Italian).
The origin of the church is not documented at all. However, it has a traditional link to its patron saint derived ultimately from the Dialogues attributed to St Gregory the Great (the authorship is now disputed). According to this, St Benedict came to Rome as a young man to study, about the year 500, before going off to be a hermit at Subiaco. The site of the church is alleged to be where he stayed, and a further elaboration is that he was a member of the noble family of the Anicii who had a house here. This is pure fiction, invented in mediaeval times by Benedictine chroniclers wishing to add to the reputation of their religious order. The tiny room where he is meant to have slept and studied is still venerated within the church, which by tradition was founded in the year that he died -543 .
The first documentary reference to the church is in the Liber Censuum of 1192. However, parts of the fabric seem to date to the 8th century although this is no evidence for its use as a church. The consensus among scholars is that the edifice as a whole seems to have been built around the year 1100, or perhaps a little earlier. The tiny bell in the campanile is dated 1069, although again this is not conclusive (the bell may have come from elsewhere). The campanile, Cosmatesque floor and the frescoes of the nave walls were executed in the early 12th century.
A narthex was added in the late 13th century, and the Chapel of Our Lady was set up next to the alleged cell of St Benedict. During this period, in the year 1386, the parish was erected. It was one of many in medieval Trastevere, and as part of its status obtained the right to have a cemetery adjacent. This lasted until the French occupiers forbade any burials within the city walls at the end of the 18th century.
In 1412 the roof was replaced, and paid for by one Giovanni Castellani whose family owned a palace nearby. In the 16th century the apse was frescoed, and in 1678 a new façade was built. It seems that the entrance loggia was open to the street before this. At the same time a small accommodation block, the Collegio Sant'Anselmo, was provided next to the church for the use of Benedictine monks visiting Rome, and as part of the same project a small hospital was founded. This lasted until the nearby, larger hospital of San Gallicano opened in 1726.
A benefaction by the parish priest, Antonio Veraldi, allowed the façade to be stuccoed and decorated with frescoes in 1687. He also provided a grand new entrance into the narthex.
A new altar dedicated to St Anselm was provided in 1718, by a parish priest who had the name. Paintings by Paolo Morelli were also commissioned. In 1728 the church was reconsecrated after the roof apparently failed and had to be repaired, and the parish priest Antonio Piervenanzi then rebuilt the parish house.
The parish, always small and weak in a poor neighbourhood with several other churches close by, was suppressed in 1824 and the church abandoned. By that time, the Benedictine college was long defunct. The parish census in that year listed 501 persons in 119 families, which was by no means the smallest parish in Rome but hints at the massive overcrowding in this slum area. It is recorded that the sacred vessels for saying Mass were transferred to the church of Santa Maria della Pace, so presumably Mass had ceased to be said here.
The church has had several revivals in the last two centuries. Carlo Massimo had founded a school here in 1819, presumably in the defunct Benedictine college, and his family of local nobility took an interest in the church. The first attempt at restoration was in 1835, but in 1844 a more thorough project was carried through under the supervision of Pietro Camporese the Younger and paid for by the Massimo family. He provided an entirely new façade, but otherwise the restoration was sensitive and the church re-opened in 1855.
The Benedictine order was experiencing a revival at this time, after almost becoming extinct in the Napoleonic period. As a result many Benedictine monks had an interest in the future of the church, notably Pietro Casaretto, the founder of what is now the Subiaco Cassinese Congregation , who took a close interest in the work. So did Cardinal Antonio Tosti, who sponsored the restoration project at the Vatican.
Casaretto was able somehow to obtain from the church, during the restoration, a small part of an early mediaeval fresco allegedly showing Our Lady. He publicised it as the icon before which St Benedict prayed -a fantasy on his part, as the work dates from centuries after. Although the fragment showed only part of a head with a halo, he had it inserted into a new mediaeval-style painting of the Madonna and Child and had enshrined it at his headquarters at Sant'Ambrogio della Massima. Hence copies of this picture may be found in monasteries of the congregation. The original is still in the Chapel of Our Lady at Sant'Ambrogio, and the claim obviously conflicts with the identical tradition attached to the icon in the chapel here. There was obviously a pious fraud concerning it on the part of Casaretto.
The church seems to have been closed again in 1910, together with the attached school, as the Massimo family lost interest. Yet another revival came in 1929 when the Lancellotti family took over its upkeep, but they were only able to pay the bills until 1939 when they managed to persuade the Diocese to take over. The roof was restored in that year.
In 1941 the complex was leased to the "Institute of Our Lady of Mount Carmel", an active sisterhood which was part of the Carmelite tradition. Their motivation for moving here was to minister to the slum dwellers, but Trastevere was in the process of gentrification from the 1960's and the sisters had trouble attracting vocations. Unfortunately the church fell into disrepair and was targeted by vandals and thieves, before the elderly sisters finally gave up and moved out in 2002. The church was derelict, and artworks had been looted.
In the following year the church was granted to the Heralds of the Gospel, a new Brazilian religious order which has carried out another thorough, badly needed restoration. The church is now in good condition, and hopefully has a secure future after so many vicissitudes.
The former slum or rookery which the area used to be was arguably the worst in Rome, although not as foul as those in many 19th century European cities. It used to have seven small ancient churches, but only this one and Santa Maria della Luce have survived. Santa Bonosa and San Salvatore were demolished, Sant'Eligio dei Sellai simply fell down and Sant'Andrea dei Vascellari is deconsecrated. This church was fortunate.
LayoutEditThis is a small church, and is surrounded by buildings on three sides so that only the façade and campanile are visible. The plan is that of a basilica, with a nave and aisles. The façade is in front of a vestibule made up from the former narthex, and has the entrance to the convent on the right. To the left is what looks like a domestic building, but this contains the Chapel of Our Lady on the ground floor; there used to be a separate street entrance (now blocked) into this.
The Romanesque brick campanile, of the later 12th century, is over the bottom end of the left aisle. It is claimed to be the smallest such in Rome, which is not strictly correct as the one at San Biagio in Mercatello is smaller. However, it is the smallest still in use. It has two storeys, of which only the top one appears over the roofline. There are two arched soundholes on each face, separated by a small pillar with a trapezoidal impost. The storey is bounded at top and bottom with a crude dentillate cornice, and there is a tiled pyramidal cap sitting on several courses of brick above the top cornice. A string course identical to the cornices runs around the campanile at the level of the arch springers. There are interesting decorative features on the street side, best viewed through binoculars; above the soundhole is a cross in green stone, to the right of them is a T in red stone with a green rectangle at its bottom, and to the left is what looks like a capital I in green stone with a white stone block forming the upper horizontal stroke. Nobody seems to have commented on what these could mean.
The simple and restrained frontage is 19th century, and is very similar to that of San Pantaleo. The recent restoration has cleaned it up and repaired the stonework, which is now in white with recessed pointing. The entrance doorway has a raised cornice supprted by volutes, and above this an architrave runs across the breadth of the façade. On this is a large lunette window. The composition is crowned by a triangular pediment, and there is an acanthus leaf finial on top. The whole façade is joined onto domestic buildings on both sides.From the slope descending into the piazza from the bridge you can see the frontage of the nave of the church behind this façade, and this also has a lunette window.
The layout of the church is surprisingly irregular, with the side walls and arcades at angles to the major axis.
The present entrance of the chapel is in the left wall of the vestibule, which is a trapezoid with the left hand wall narrower than the right. This chapel also has an entrance from the main body of the church, at the bottom end of the left hand aisle. Next to this entrance, against the church's exterior wall, is the so-called "Cell of St Benedict".
The plan of the church itself is basilical, with a nave and aisles.The nave has six bays, the first of which has the base of the campanile on the left and the exit to the convent on the right. Then come arcades on each side, with four columns each. Both of these arcades are skewed to the left from the major axis, the left hand one noticeably so. The left hand side wall is skewed to the right, and this means that the left hand aisle narrows appreciably from its near end to its far end. This aisle contains two side altars. The right hand side wall has an angle in it, so that the far part is skewed to the left, and the aisle here contains one side altar.
There is a shallow sanctuary, with a segmental apse. A pair of sacristies occupy the far corners of the church, with entrances at the ends of the aisles, and these communicate via a corridor behind the apse.
On entering the church you will find yourself in the vestibule, which used to be the medieval atrium. To the left is the main entrance into the Chapel of Our Lady. The doorway here is medieval, and has two thin stone semi-columns with debased Corinthian capitals supporting a lintel and cornice, above which is a relieving arch in the wall. The lintel is decorated with a strip of Cosmatesque mosaic work, as is the doorcase although the latter has lost much of the inlay.
To the right of the chapel doorway is a fresco of the 14th century Roman school, showing the Madonna and Child with SS Peter and Paul. A fragment of another fresco can be seen on the wall to the left of the entrance into the church, and this is thought to depict Our Lady in Majesty with St Placid and the Prophet Elijah.
To the left of the chapel doorway is a stone plaque in Italian, recording the granting of indulgences to those praying before the icon in the chapel and dated 1854. Saying the Litany of Our Lady earns three hundred years less time in Purgatory, with an additional hundred days if three Hail Marys are said for the conversion of sinners.
In a floor slab to the right of the church entrance is scratched part of a layout of an ancient board game known as Nine Men's Morris in modern English; the Latin name is Merels (spellings vary).
Chapel of Our LadyEdit
The little chapel is vaulted, the vault resting on four columns with capitals thought to be of the 8th century. This is one detail hinting at an ancient foundation of the church, although the chapel itself is 13th century and has a Cosmatesque floor of that period. The venerated icon is over the altar, which was consecrated in 1604, and is enshrined within two Doric columns in grey veined marble supporting a triangular pediment. The altar frontal is a slab of porphyry.
The icon itself is a detached portion of a 14th century fresco of a type known as Our Lady of Mercy. Note that the Christ-Child is holding a little cross. The indulgence notice outside mentions the tradition that St Benedict prayed before this picture, which is anachronistic by about nine hundred years.
The icon was touched up in the 18th century. The crowns that are attached to the two figures are by Domenico de Angelis.
Cell of St BenedictEdit
This is a very narrow slot a metre wide, to the right of the chapel altar with side walls in Roman brick. It contains a little statue of the saint, with a prayer and a kneeler is provided at the entrance for veneration.
The nave has four assorted columns in the arcades on each side. They are of different stones, and have assorted ancient limestone capitals of assorted orders which date from the 1st to the 5th centuries. The builders of the church had to play mix-and-match between columns and capitals in order to get the tops level, and some of the capitals had their bottoms chopped off.
The columns are, in the left hand arcade: Pink granite, with Corinthian capital having rosettes. Grey granite, with an inverted column base having egg-and-dart moulding on it in lieu of a capital. Pink granite, with an Ionic capital. White marble with ribs, with a cut-down Composite capital having four volutes and its carving unfinished. The right hand arcade columns all have Corinthian capitals, and are of pink granite except the third which is of cipollino marble.
The open truss roof now lacks a ceiling. There used to be one, with a fresco depicting The Apotheosis of St Benedict, but this apparently collapsed at some stage in the 19th century.
The walls have mostly been stripped, revealing the brickwork, except for areas bearing fresco remnants.
The church is rightly proud of its Cosmatesque floor. There are many larger and grander ones in Rome, but this is the only one which has been conserved rather than restored. As a result, it looks shabby since the marble pieces have worn and cracked with time, and many of the inlay pieces are missing and have been replaced with cement. On the other hand, everything that you see is original and not replacement work of later centuries as most of the other such floors in the city are. Much of the detail is intricate.
The yellow marble bits in the floor are giallo antico from Tunisia, the purple bits are imperial porphyry from the Eastern Desert of Egypt and the dark green bits are serpentine from Sparta in Greece. The grey roundels, which look like concrete infill, are grey granite which the ancient Romans regarded as precious since its source was also in the desert east of the Nile in Egypt (the quarry was called Mons Claudianus).
The nave walls show fragments of 12th century frescoes which have been conserved in the last restoration; the right hand side shows scenes from the Old Testament, and the left hand side from the Last Judgment.
Left hand Side aisleEdit
In the near corner of the left hand aisle is a fragment of a 14th century fresco depicting St John the Baptist Pointing Out the Lamb of God.
The first altar in this aisle is dedicated to St Rita of Cascia. The statue was donated in 1939 by Elvira Iacomini Ranaldi. She is the patron of abused wives as well as hopeless causes. The fresco that used to be in the round-headed niche has perished. The statue is sometimes moved to the right hand side of the sanctuary.
The second altar in this aisle is dedicated to St Anselm, and the 19th century altarpiece comes from the art school at San Michele a Ripa. The statue on the altar is of St Anthony of Padua.
Right hand side aisleEdit
The altar in this aisle is dedicated to St Laurence, and has a 19th century altarpiece by Leopoldo Ansiglioni which depicts The Madonna and Child with SS Benedict and Lawrence. The statue of Our Lady of Fatima on the altar is a focus of special liturgical devotion, and has been blessed by Pope John Paul II.
On the wall to the right of this altar is a fresco of St Benedict dating from the end of the 13th century. It used to be in the vestibule, but was restored and moved to here recently.
The triumphal arch of the apse is very straightforward brickwork, without any imposts or architectural details. To the left of it is a monument to Antonio Piervenanzi, priest of the church from 1720 to 1730. To the right is another monument to Giovanni De Pretis di Taverna, of 1691. The sculptors of the busts seem to be unknown.
The side walls of the shallow presbyterium have a pair of old frescoes. To the left is one depicting St Helena, of about 1500 but restored by Francesco Giangiacomo in the early 19th century. To the right is a very interesting 15th century fragment showing St Anne holding Our Lady, who is in turn holding the Christ Child.
The conch of the apse contains a damaged fresco of the 16th century, in the Venetian style. It depicts Our Lady, Queen of Heaven with allegorical representations of the Trinity. The figures are flanked by a pair of angels, one with a lute and the other with a triangle (for percussion).
In the middle of the apse is displayed a mediaeval icon of St Benedict as a young man, which was restored by Luigi Galli in 1844. It was stolen during the latter part of the residence of the Carmelite sisters. The Heralds replaced it with a modern picture, but were able to recover the original after the police tracked it down. The book that he holds reads: Ausculta, o fili, precepta magistri, inclina aurem cordis tui ("Listen, son, to the precepts of the Master, and incline the ear of your heart"). It is the first line in his famous monastic rule.
Above this is a 14th century icon of Our Lady, unfortunately damaged, in a shallow niche with egg-and-dart carving on its vertical sides.
The easiest way to get to the church is across the Ponte Cestio from the Isola; cross the Lungotevere at the foot of the bridge, bear left and go straight on across the piazza.
The church used not to be open at all regularly under the Carmelite sisters, but the Heralds hope to have it open during standard hours for Rome churches (that is, with a lunch break).
At present (2017), opening times are advertised as:
8:00 to 12:00, 16:30 to 19:30 daily.
Mass is celebrated here on Sundays and weekdays, at 9:00 and 18:30. Confessions are heard for half an hour before the morning Mass, and there is Adoration for an hour after the evening one.