San Dionigi Areopagita was a 17th century convent church, now demolished, and was at Via delle Quattro Fontane, on the west side just north of the junction with Via San Vitale. This is in the rione Monti.
The dedication was to St Denis of Paris.
It was founded as a convent church in 1619 by the French branch of the Discalced reform of the Trinitarian order, which was in competition with the Spanish branch at San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, just to the north. It is unusual for nationalist rivalries to lead to two separate convents of the same religious order operating side by side.
The dedication is a reminder of very old French nationalist ambitions. As it stands, it commemorates a disciple of St Paul at Athens called Dionysius the Areopagite, mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles (17:34). In the 9th century an abbot of the monastery of St Denis near Paris maliciously forged a document identifying this Dionysius with St Denis of Paris, the city’s first bishop who was martyred in c250. This was to try and give the French church apostolic foundations, and hence the possibility of a patriarchate at Paris independent of Rome.
The friars had difficulty raising funds for the church, and it was incomplete until the end of the 17th century when the façade was finally constructed.
The friary was suppressed by the French, but was restored in 1815 and granted to an order of nuns called the Apostoline di San Basilio, which ran a school for girls. This congregation should not be confused with the present order of Apostoline. Those irritated by the restricted opening hours of several important churches in Rome may take comfort in the fact that this is not a recent affliction; these sisters only let the public into their church for an hour or half-hour at 18:00 daily at the start of the 20th century.
The convent was suppressed in 1873, but the church survived until demolished in 1939 for the Ufficio Italiano dei Cambi. Hence, it was one of the last historical churches in Rome to be demolished.
The site of the convent is occupied by an ugly modern building, number 123, now occupied by the Banca d'Italia. The church was where the first storey of this recesses away from the streetfront, the void being guarded by a set of metal railings.
The convent was small, with its main range along the street to the right of the church. There was a tiny arcaded cloister adjacent to the church to its left, with its own street entrance which led into its northern corner. The arcades had four corner pillars, with a smaller pillar between each giving two arches in each arcade. This must have been a charming location. This was one of the more striking examples in Rome of a small and insignificant church hiding behind a grand façade. The plan was a dimimutive narrow rectangle with two side chapels forming a Latin cross, and another side chapel nearer the entrance on the right hand side.
To the south of the cloister was a fairly large garden, which at the end of the 16th century had been famous as one of the first botanical gardens in Italy, being known as the Orto del Greco after the Greek owner who brought exotic plants from the Levant and further afield.
The grand façade was obviously modelled on that of San Luigi dei Francesi. It features in a watercolour of 1833 by Achille Pinelli (see De Alvariis gallery in "External links"), where the interesting habit worn by the nuns is also shown. The entrance to the cloister mentioned above is also depicted, to the left of the façade.
The architect was Giovanni Antonio Macci.
There were two storeys. The first storey had four tripletted Doric pilasters on plinths, supporting an entablature with the sections over the capitals brought forward. The architrave of this entablature was dropped to the same level as the pilaster capitals, and its molding imitated them. The frieze of the entablature displayed triglyphs (appropriate to the Doric order) interspersed with the Trinitarian cross and fleurs-de-lys. The cornice was strongly projecting, with dentillation between it and the frieze.
The doorcase had a rectangular tablet over it (the painting shows it blank), and this was protected by a floating cornice. In between the pilasters was a pair of empty round-headed niches, and below the architrave ran an inscription which read:
In honorem Santi Dionisium [sic], Galliarum Ap[o]stoli ("In honour of St Dionysius, apostle of the French"; as given, the Latin is seriously corrupt which might have been the artist's fault.)
The second storey had four matching tripletted Ionic pilasters, supporting an entablature the frieze of which showed crosses and fleurs-de-lys only. This had a single molding only as an architrave. The cornice was in a similar style to that below, except with an extra order of molding, and on the top was a small triangular pediment that only occupied the space between the two inner pilasters. This had a Calvary in relief in its tympanum. This second storey had a large rectangular window in a sumptuous setting; two pilasters with strapwork capitals supported a molded archivolt on inverted plinths which enclosed a blank tympanum. In between tympanum and window the cross and fleur-de-lys motif was repeated. On the archivolt was a large scuptural work in stucco, showing what looks like an angel appearing to two crouching slaves. Between the storey's pilasters on either side was a round-headed niche with a rectangular tablet below; this pair of niches contained statues of Trinitarian saints. Below the rectangular tablets were two rectangular windows, and above the statues were two oval ones.
The ornate campanile or tall lantern features in a 1771 etching by Vasi; see the "Romeartlover" web-page in the "External links". This was a fine piece of architecture, having a hexagonal plan with a large arched window or sound-hole on each face. The corners had six Corinthian pilasters supporting an entablature, above which was a plinth itself supporting an onion cupola in lead. The finial was a ball-and-cross, and the corners of the cupola plinth supported fleur-de-lys finials -proclaiming the church's French origins yet again.
Despite being small and meanly proportioned, the church's interior was highly decorated and contained important works of art.
The main altar had an altarpiece showing the Immaculate Conception by Carlo Cesi (not "Cesio"), who was also responsible for the frescoes in the apse. The church also had a painting of the Ecce Homo by Luca Giordano, paintings of St Denis of Paris and St Louis, King of France by one Le Brun and a sumptuous shrine to an obscure martyr called St Cornola.
The left hand side chapel had a miraculous icon of Our Lady known as Nostra Signora del Buon Rimedio, which allegedly was venerated by Pope St Gregory the Great.
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