San Giovanni Battista a Cesano is a heavily remodelled 14th century (?) subsidiary parish church at Piazza Francesco Caraffa 24 in the suburban zone of Cesano. A picture of the church on Wikimedia Commons is here.
The dedication is to St John the Baptist.
The church is in the old town of Cesano, also called variously Cesano di Roma, Cesano Borgo or Borgo di Cesano.
Cesano as a settlement dates back to the early Middle Ages (attempts to demonstrate an ancient foundation are inconclusive, although it is suggested that the place was Cesarianum). The first church or chapel on the site is thought to have been founded in the 9th century. It was dedicated to Christ the Saviour, and the first documentary reference dates to 1078 when a priest called Ruppo sold an interest in it to the monastery of Santi Cosma e Damiano in Rome.
A rebuilding possibly took place at the start of the 14th century. The intention (only) to do so by Emperor Henry VII was recorded in 1314 -he had died the previous year. However, the putative rebuilding is evidenced by the fabric -in the Twenties, a blocked narrow round-headed window in tufo was noted in the nave, a metre high and fifteen centimetres wide. Recent restoration revealed a niche in the right hand wall of the first nave bay, with traces of fresco work of this date. The sanctuary exterior is perhaps dateable to the period, too. It has a very odd narrow doorway, now blocked.
In 1508 the first recorded procession took place involving a miraculous crucifix still venerated in the church.
In 1563, a parish of San Giovanni Battista was erected. This gave the town two parishes -the other being that of San Nicola di Bari which is the junior church in foundation. The churches are at either end of the town.
The church was substantially rebuilt in 1650 by Eduardo Chigi of the famous Roman Chigi family, who had come into possession of the town. This seems to have been in response to the dereliction of San Nicola, making San Giovanni Battista the main church of the settlement. However, in 1686 San Nicola was also restored. It was to transpire that the town would struggle to support two churches.
There was another major restoration of San Giovanni Battista under Cardinal Carlo Rezzonico when he was bishop of Porto Santa Rufina from 1776 to 1779. This included the present façade. However, in the next century the church was neglected in favour of San Nicolo and in the later 19th century it was allegedly being used to stable animals. It was finally left derelict in 1888.
The priest in charge of the parish, Giuseppe Morotti, intervened and had the building put in some sort of order in 1892. This was because San Nicolo was also in a bad state, and in turn was abandoned in the following year. He then began another thorough restoration of San Giuseppe Battista in 1897, and this was completed in the early years of the 20th century. (San Nicolo was also restored.)
Apparently some of the artwork caused offence, and another restoration taking place in 1939 got rid of it.
Meanwhile, in 1916 the train station of Cesano was opened. A messy suburb grew up along the road from this to the old town, and the most important result of this was that the centre of population shifted. Also, in 1925 the locality was annexed by the city of Rome.
In response to population growth, the new parish church of San Sebastiano a Cesano was opened in 1998, in the so-called Cesano Scalo. This became, and remains, the main parish church although the parish kept its old dedication of San Giovanni Battista.
Fortunately, a thorough restoration beginning in 2006 was recently completed and the church is again the main one of the old town. San Nicola had been deconsecrated and handed over to the secular authorities as an ancient monument in 1992, but second thoughts prevailed and it was reconsecrated in 2007. However, it is not in regular liturgical use.
Layout and fabric Edit
The church has the plan of a single nave with three bays, and a very shallow little rectangular apse. There are no external side chapels.
The fabric is in brick, now rendered in a shade of cream with the architectural details in a darker colour. There is a domestic building abutting the church on the left, and the sacristy with priest's house to the right. As a result, the side walls are blank except for one rectangular window just below the roofline on each side of each bay (the far right hand one is blocked).
Sanctuary and scivolone Edit
The Via della Chiesa runs down the side of the priest's house to the Borgo di Sotto, where you can view the sanctuary back wall. This is is raised above the street level, and has a forbidding blank appearance. The wall below the sanctuary has a batter or slope, and is of random rubble over a few courses of roughly laid tufo blocks. Behind this wall is a crypt, which was traced in 2006 but is inaccessible (there used to be stairs from the interior until the 18th century restoration).
To the right of the vertical sanctuary wall, rather difficult to see from the street below, is a blocked narrow round-headed doorway next to a corbel which supports the corner of the sanctuary. This is locally called the scivolone owing to a tradition that corpses were dropped down out of it after funerals, to be buried in a graveyard on the slope of the town's hill.
The tower campanile attaches to the left hand side of the sanctuary, and has been neatly rendered in white in the 2006 restoration. It is a plain square tower, with a round-headed sound-hole in each face of the bell-chamber which is set within a recessed frame. There is a tiled pyramidal cap.
The façade is dated to the later 18th century, although there seems to be some doubt about this.
It is a simple composition, with two pairs of gigantic blind pilasters either side of the door, running the full height of the frontage and with no capitals. A small triangular pediment only occupies the length of the horizontal roofline between the two inner pilasters. There is a Baroque stone-framed rectangular window above the door topped by a coat of arms, and a blank tondo in the pediment. The doorcase of the entrance is vaguely Baroque also, with a wavy top to the lintel.
The interior after the recent restoration is now neat, and is decorated in pastel shades. The walls are in pale blue below their cornice with architectural details in pale yellow, and the ceiling surfaces above the cornice are in cream shades echoing the façade.
The three nave bays are separated by two pairs of square engaged Doric pilasters with incut corners, which support shallowly curved transverse archivolts which divide the very shallow barrel-vaulted ceiling into three zones. The capitals of the pilasters are continued around the interior as a cornice. There are four shallow pilasters in the same style in the nave corners, and these eight pilasters overall support lunette arches which curve over the cornice. Each of these contains a window, although the far right hand one is false. This lunette and the one opposite have traces of old frescoes uncovered in 2006, apparently.
Each ceiling vault is decorated with simple strap-work stucco decoration forming a central square with incut corners, two halves of such a square to each side and two semi-circles at front and back. These forms are connected by straps. The central panel in the central vault has an octagon instead of a square, with a fresco of The Lamb of God. This was added in the early 20th century restoration. The panel used to be accompanied by snakes, an allusion to the Bronze Serpent, but the parishioners thought that these were creepy and they were unfortunately painted out in 1939.
The sanctuary now occupies the last bay of the nave, being raised on one step. The old altar has been left in place with its tabernacle, and this has a polychrome stone inlay frontal. The altar fits tightly into the very small round-headed apse, most of the rest of which is taken up by the altarpiece. This shows The Birth of St John the Baptist, and is by Sebastiano Conca.
The triumphal arch of the sanctuary looks like an altar aedicule. It has a pair of Doric pilasters done to look like yellow Siena marble, and these support a shallow segmental pediment with a fresco of God the Father in the tympanum. The spandrels between the pilasters and the apse are done to look like green marble. The capitals of the pilasters are joined by a molded sub-frieze, and this has an epigraph announcing that the altar is privileged (this means that visiting pilgrims could obtain an indulgence by praying at it).
There used to be more snakes above the arch, now also painted out.
Side altars Edit
The side altars are described anticlockwise, beginning from the right of the entrance.
The first altar is dedicated to St Anthony, and is a shallow shelf in front of a round-headed niche containing a statue of him. The niche is framed in a sort of aedicule formed of two shallow little Doric pilasters supporting a length of entablature. The niche is thought to be mediaeval.
The second altar is dedicated to Our Lady, and has a polychrome statue of the Mother and Child in a rectangular niche with a molded frame. The Baroque aedicule has two Composite columns in onyx (?), supporting an entablature with a red marble (?) frieze and with two posts facing outwards diagonally. These support two fragments of a split and separated segmental pediment. In the gap is a pedestal supporting a cross finial. Over the niche is a relief of the Dove of the Holy Spirit, topped by a pair of little cornucopias.
The right hand side of the last nave bay has no altar, because the doorway to the sacristy is here. On the wall is an anonymous 18th century painting of The Preaching of St John the Baptist. This is said to have come from the ruined church of San Nicola a Galeria Antica.
The sacristy contains a holy water stoup in the form of a hand holding a hemispherical bowl with beading below its rim. This item dates from around 1400, and is the best artwork in the church.
The second altar on the left hand side (there are two) is dedicated to St Gregory the Great and the Souls in Purgatory. The aedicule is similar to that of Our Lady, except that the columns are Solomonic (helical), there is a large round-headed altarpiece and a large vertical elliptical panel is inserted in between the pediment fragments. This has a depiction of The Risen Christ. The 17th century altarpiece shows the saint (with the Dove of the Holy Spirit whispering in his ear) interceding for souls in flames. Some are being taken into heaven by angels, where the Father, Son, Holy Spirit (the dove again) and Our Lady are waiting.
The first altar on the left is dedicated to the Miraculous Crucifix, which is first mentioned in 1508. It is a rather naïve work in painted wood, and looks about 14th century. It is housed in a rectangular niche, backed by a gilded glory. The aedicule is again similar to that of Our Lady, except that the columns are in what looks like green marble. Over the niche is a stucco cloud containing putti, and above this two more putti holding a crown. The altar frontal is a very impressive polychrome stone pietra dura work, including a depiction of St Francis of Assisi receiving the stigmata. This is 16th century, but restored in 1893.
The left hand side of the first nave bay used to have an altar, but this was removed in 1893 (it was apparently derelict and falling down). However, the altarpiece was left and was covered by the Preaching of St John already mentioned. When this was removed in 2006, the original altarpiece was discovered. It has now been restored, and shows the Madonna and Child being venerated by four saints: Francis of Assisi, Lucy, Blaise and Anthony of Egypt.
Here also is a fine 17th century Baroque wooden confessional.
As at September 2016 Mass was being celebrated on Sundays and Solemnities at 9:00 and 18:00, but no weekday Masses were being advertised.
On the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, 14 September, the Miraculous Crucifix is taken out on procession. This has been going on in the town for over half a millennium.