San Bernardino da Siena ai Monti is a 17th century former convent church at Via Panisperna 256 in the rione Monti. An alternative name is San Bernardino in Panisperna, and this is preferred by the Diocese. Picture of the church at Wikipedia Commons are here.
The dedication is to St Bernardine of Siena, a 15th century Franciscan.
Two assertions have been made about the site before the convent was built. The first is that the church was built on the foundations of an ancient circular building. There seems to be no archaeological evidence for this.
The second derives from Mariano Armellini, who wrote that it was erected on the ruins of an ancient monastery and oratory dedicated to St Venera (or Veneranda). He got this from Fioravante Martinelli, writing in the 17th century, who stated that there was a hospice (ospizio) here before the early 14th century, which belonged to the Benedictine monastery at San Lorenzo in Panisperna nearby.
A community of Franciscan Tertiary nuns were established at the ancient basilica of Sant'Eupemia at the end of the 16th century, at a site on or near the present Bambin Gesù all'Esquilino. Their church was demolished for some reason then (perhaps it fell down), and so the nuns needed a new home. Construction was started here in the early 16th century under Pope Clement VIII, and the church was consecrated in 1623.
The difference between Franciscan Tertiary and Franciscan Poor Clare nuns was that the former made perpetual promises, not vows. The distinction might seem semantic, but until fairly recently for a nun to make vows she had to be a physical virgin. This also required her to live in a strict enclosure, which was not strictly necessary for tertiaries (although often imposed).
The church was restored for the nuns on the orders of Pope Pius VII in 1823. They had to abandon their convent when it was sequestered by the Italian government just after 1870, and it was replaced by a girl's school.
Various orders apparently used the church until 1910. From then on it was served by diocesan clergy, but was allowed to fall into a bad state as it had no pastoral justification.
In 1967 it was finally restored properly, as the church of the Centro Giovanile di San Bernardino (Youth Centre of St Bernardine). There was another restoration on the façade in 1992, and some more work done on the side elevation in the early 21st century. The responsibility for the church belonged to the clergy of the parish of Santa Maria ai Monti.
The youth centre now seems to have been defunct for some years..
In 1999 a native Taiwanese priest called Fr Giovanni Chiu (Chiu Tsorng-jye), belonging to the Franciscan Conventuals, began a ministry to expatriate Chinese people in Rome. In 2003 the church was made available for this outreach, presumably after the youth centre had closed. According to the "Baobab" website on expatriate worshipping communities in Rome (see "External links"), he was saying Mass in Chinese here at 16:00 on Sundays as well as arranging Marian devotions and catechetical and language classes. The website reported that there were only about 250 Catholic Chinese in the city, out of a total expatriate population of about 7000.
Something went wrong. The entry for the Chinese expatriate community (Comunità Cinesa) at this church was deleted in the latest revision of the Diocesan website in 2012. Some odd things had been going on here, apparently -see the blog featuring dancing in the "External links". Fr Chiu is still in Rome, but based at the Conventual friary at Santi Apostoli.
The priest in charge is now listed as Fr Michael Goh (Goh Lye-Heng), who is a Chinese Malaysian. He is a member of the "Congregation of St John the Baptist" (CSJB -also known as "Little Brothers of St John the Baptist"). This religious order was founded in China in 1928, and Fr Michael is its representative in Rome.
Layout and fabricEdit
From the outside, the church is just a plain box on a square plan and with a high elevation for its footprint. It has a pitched and tiled roof, and on the far right hand corner there is perched a small campanile which is invisble from the street.
The convent was large, with frontages on the Via Panisperna, Via di Sant'Agata dei Goti and (apparently) on the Via dei Serpenti. The main entrance was about where the door to the girls' school building now is, to the east on the Via Panisperna. This led via a short passage to an arcaded passage running from the church along the back of the Via Panisperna block as far as the Via dei Serpenti corner. South of this passage was a series of gardens, some formal and some for growing things, and these have mostly been built over.
The convent buildings have been replaced by early 20th century structures. The girls's school abuts the church, as does the former youth centre on the Via di Sant'Agata dei Goti to the south.
The original 17th century façade, restored 1991-1992, is very simple. This is allegedly because the nuns wanted to express their Franciscan poverty, but perhaps they just did not have the money to complete it (real poverty, instead of posed).
There are two storeys separated by a simple cornice with frieze rather than a proper entablature. The central zone of the façade is brought forward slightly, which is a hint that the original design did envisage decorative elements being added.
The first storey has a pair of pilasters without capitals at the corners. The entrance has an unmolded Baroque doorcase with two little curlicues on the sides. Over this is a simple dedicatory inscription: In honorem S[ancti] Bernardini Senensis. In the centre of the storey is a rectangular window with a molded Baroque frame, and this intrudes into the dividing frieze.
The second storey is about two-thirds of the height of the first, not counting the crowning triangular pediment with blank tympanum. Here there is another pair of blank corner pilasters, and a narrower rectangular central window with no frame.
The façade has been rendered in ochre yellow with architectural details in white.
Layout and fabricEdit
The interior is a complete surprise. It is on an elliptical plan with a dome, and is richly decorated. The ellipse is on the major axis, and is almost a circle.
Who was the architect?
The dome is false, since it is covered by a pitched roof, and has no lantern or drum. Four windows are cut into it, which provide most of the natural light in the church. The fresco on the empyrean model is by Bernardino Gagliardi, and depicts the Glory of St Bernardino; a riot of angels, putti and other Franciscan saints are around Christ as he welcomes the saint into heaven. A very silly little oculus contains the Holy Spirit as a scraggy pigeon.
There are four side chapels on the diagonals, in large arched niches. Above the arches of these are coretti, basically opera boxes covered with gilded grilles for the use of the nuns.
Over the door to the sacristy is a painting by Giovanni Baglione showing what has been described as SS Francis, Clare and Agatha. De Alvariis in his Flickr gallery (see below) points out that this is incorrect. The male friar is St Anthony of Padua, holding the lily which is his attribute, and the nun is St Elizabeth of Hungary whom the Franciscans claimed (dubiously) to have been a tertiary. Here she is wearing shoes; St Clare is always shown with bare feet (she never wore sandals, but is often depicted with them).
The sanctuary is a large apse with a conch. The triumphal arch of this reaches up to touch the entablature of the dome, and is flanked by a pair of gigantic ribbed Ionic pilasters with swagged and gilded capitals, in what looks like white marble veined in red.
Behind the high altar are two frescoes flanking the altar. On the right is the Preaching of St Bernardine and on the left the Death of St Bernardino, both by Clemente Maioli (also spelt Majoli). He also executed the figures around the main paintings. Unfortunately, there has been damp penetration which has caused damage.
In the centre the altarpiece is St Bernardine in Glory with Angels and Cherubs, by Antonio Amorosi. A cross is being held up by a pair of stucco angels sitting on the segmental pediment surmounting this.
The conch of the apse has another fresco by Maioli, depicting the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin.
The first chapel on the right is dedicated to St Francis of Assisi, and the decoration is by Giovanni de' Vecchi. The altarpiece shows St Francis Receiving the Stigmata. Other fresco panels on the side walls, some damaged by damp, show scenes from his life.
The second chapel on the right has an altarpiece showing Christ Carrying His Cross with the Madonna, St John and St Veronica. St Bridget of Sweden is said to have venerated this picture before it was brought here. The paintwork of the chapel is showing damp penetration, which hopefully the latest restoration has cured.
On the left side, the first chapel is dedicated to St Verdiana. It has an anonymous altarpiece of this rather obscure Italian saintly hermit, who is venerated here because the Franciscans claimed her as a tertiary. The altar has a pair of Ionic columns in what looks like red and white marble, as well as other polychrome marbles -are they real? In the lunette above the altar the saint is shown being taken into heaven while being hugged by a gang of putti.
The second chapel on the left is dedicated to the Immaculate Conception, and the altarpiece of the Madonna and Child is by Biagio Puccini who also executed the frescoes on the walls and intrados. The tablet that the pair of angels are holding over the altarpiece reads O quam pulcra es, amica mea ("O how beautiful you are, my girlfriend"), which is a quotation from the Song of Songs.
A Mass in Chinese for the Chinese community was being celebrated at 16:00 on Sundays, before Fr Chiu was relieved of his responsibility. Information on the present liturgical situation is hard to come by.
The feast of St Bernardino of Siena is celebrated with great solemnity on 20 May.
When the youth centre was still open, before 2003, the opening times were advertised thus: "Normally open 07.30-09.15 (on schooldays); on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation also 16.30-19.30; on major feasts also 11.00-12.30."
This information is out of date. The church will possibly be found open late on Saturday afternoon, or Sunday morning or afternoon. Again, up-to-date details are lacking. Beware of online opening hours posted, relying on the above quotation.