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San Giovanni Decollato is an early 16th century confraternity and titular church located at Via di San Giovanni Decollato 22, north of the Piazza Bocca della Verità in the rione Ripa. Pictures of the church at Wikimedia Commons are here. There is an English Wikipedia page here.
The dedication is to the Beheading of St John the Baptist.
The origins of the church on this site are completely unknown. The archives of Sant'Alessio all'Aventino contain a reference dating to 1395 of a Sanctae Mariae de Fovea, thought to be this church. In 1490, it was known as Santa Maria della Fossa or "Our Lady of the Ditch".
This church was not the same as a monastic church in the vicinity called Santa Maria in Petrocia, because a catalogue of 1492 lists them both (as noted by Hülsen, 1927).
The church was given to a Confraternita della Misericordia (Confraternity of Mercy) by Pope Innocent VIII in 1490. This was a pious union of Florentines, based at the old parish church of San Biagio della Pagnotta. The Florentine expatriate community was congregated at what was soon to be the top end of the Via Giula, not in existence then, and were yet to construct their own church of San Giovanni dei Fiorentini (opened 1508).
The confraternity's aim was that of ministering to condemned criminals and of giving them a Christian burial after their execution, and it chose St John the Baptist as its patron because he is one of the patrons of Florence. However, their original name survives in the little side-street to the right of the church called Via della Misericordia.
The confraternity was allowed to bury the bodies of such criminals in their courtyard, which hints that the church that they took over was parochial with burial rights.
As well as the old church, the confraternity was granted the eastern half of the city block on which it stood. So, it built a new church, a private oratory and a headquarters around a central cortile or courtyard (as has been pointed out, this is not a chiostro or cloister because the complex has never been a convent).
The church, with its dedication changed, was fit for worship in 1504 but the interior decoration was only completed in 1580 or 1588. The adjacent buildings were finished in 1600, with funds provided by Pope Clement VIII.
The confraternity has been in charge ever since.
There was a restoration of the church, involving a reconsecration, by Pope Benedict XIII in 1727, and another restoration in 1888.
Nowadays the confraternity's original intention is still carried on, as the confraternity funds are used for the benefit of the family and dependents of prisoners.
The church used to be served by Franciscan Tertiaries, but this is no longer the case and it has no pastoral outlet now. The Diocese still lists it as a Chiese Rettoria, which means that a priest should be appointed to it -but one is not being listed.
The Diocese lists the Arciconfraternita as having one Dottore Antonio Puccelli as its head, but he is not resident at Rome and seems to be a surgeon and professor at a university at Genoa.
The confraternity has no online presence.
The church was made titular in 1969, the first cardinal deacon being Mario Nasalli Rocca di Corneliano. He died in 1988 and has not had any successor, so the title has been vacant for over twenty years. This is another hint that there is something not quite right about the administration of the church.
Layout and fabricEdit
The church is a rectangular single-naved structure, with four bays, and runs east to west. The sanctuary has a further bay, with a very small rectangular apse.
The cortile is to the south of the church, and is arcaded on all four sides. It is entered via a main entrance to the right of the church façade. This has a molded doorcase with a floating horizontal cornice, and above this is the Confraternity's emblem in a tondo. This is the Baptist's head in a dish.
The east side of the cortile is occupied by the private oratory, and its blank wall containing three round-headed windows faces the street to the south of the entrance.
It has a single storey, in brick which used to be rendered in yellow ochre. The rendering has mostly fallen off -the effect is tatty. Two gigantic Doric pilasters in shallow relief occupy the corners, and two more flank the doorway. These four pilasters support an entablature with a projecting cornice, and above that is a triangular pediment containing an arched niche. Above the doorway is a raised triangular pediment, and above that a large lunette window. There is a pair of large plain arched niches without conchs flanking the latter, in between the pilasters. These seem originally to have contained a pair of statues.
The courtyard is to the south of the church. It is small and almost square, with arcade walkways on all four sides. The arcade arches spring from thin Doric columns.
The bodies of executed criminals were buried in this courtyard, where there are seven manholes made for the purpose. One of the holes was set aside for women. There are several funerary monuments here. Nowadays, the garden is a pleasant spot with orange trees.
Unusually, there are altars in two corners. The original altarpieces have been taken into the church and away from the weather, and one of the altars has been provided with a 16th century statue of St Sebastian.
Also here are kept a pair of 14th century column bases in the form of lions.
The church has a single nave with side altars, three on each side. These are in arched niches, and are rather a tight fit. The niches are separated by gigantic Doric pilasters with grotesque (in the original meaning of the word) decoration, and these support an entablature on which the flat wooden ceiling sits.
This ceiling is in coffered squares, and is in blue and gold with rich stucco decoration.
The nave walls have frescoes of saints by Tuscan artists, some of which have been damaged by rising damp. This is especially obvious to the left of the triumphal arch. Over the doorway into the cloister is a Preaching of St John the Baptist by Giovanni Balducci, Il Cosci.
The triumphal arch is in between two of the nave pilasters, and springs from a pair of Doric imposts on pilasters. Between the pilasters and the corners are frescoes of saints, three on each side arranged vertically with the bottom two destroyed by damp. The arch spandrels have an Annunciation to Our Lady. The work is by Il Cosci.
The sanctuary has a single transverse rectangular bay, with a ceiling in the same style as the nave. The rectangular apse has its own triumphal arch, with pilasters.
The aedicule of the high altar has a pair of green marble Composite columns supporting a segmental pediment defaced by a stucco sculpture of the Holy Spirit in glory. The altar was restored by Antonio Muñoz in 1950.
The altarpiece is a painting by Giorgio Vasari of the Beheading of St John, executed in 1553. It is rather gruesome, as the executioner has just cut off the head and is placing it on a dish that Salome is holding.
The wall frescoes are by Francesco de' Rossi.
Above a doorway is a painting of The Baptism of Christ by the Florentine artist Monanno Monanni (1602-63).
The nave side chapels are described in anti-clockwise order, beginning to the right of the entrance.
The first chapel on the right-hand side has an altarpiece depicting The Birth of St John the Baptist, 1585 by Jacopo Zucchi, another Florentine.
In the second chapel on the right is an altarpiece showing The Doubt of St Thomas by the school of Giorgio Vasari (or by the master himself), and frescoes of the apostles Jude and Bartholomew.
In the third chapel on the right the altarpiece depicts The Visitation and is by Cristoforo Roncalli, Il Pomarancio, who also executed the depictions of the apostles Simon and Matthew.
The last chapel on the left is dedicated to the Crucifix.
The altarpiece of the second chapel on the left depicts The Martyrdom of St John the Evangelist. Here also are frescoes of St James the Greater and St Matthew by Giovan Battista Naldini.
The first chapel on the left has a fresco fragment of the Madonna of Mercy with the Holy Child, from the 15th century. On one side is a painting of Our Lady of the Assumption with St John the Evangelist and the Apostle James the Lesser, by Francesco Zucchi. Here are depictions of the apostles Peter and Andrew.
The Confraternity Oratory has its entrance opening off the passage to the cortile on the left side of the church façade, and is not much smaller than the church. It has choir stalls down the side walls, and an altar aedicule with two red marble Corinthian columns supporting a horizontal entablature without a pediment.
For art lovers, seeing the Confraternity Oratory is well worth the effort.
The altarpiece is a Deposition by Jacopino Del Conte. The frescoes flanking the altar depict the apostles Andrew and Bartholomew, and have been attributed to Francesco Salviati. However, a recent argument is that they are by Del Conte, too.
The side walls above the stalls have a beatiful series of Mannerist frescoes. Taking them clockwise from the right of the altar, you have a pictorial representation of the life of St John:
Third right: The Annunciation to St Zechariah by Del Conte 1535.
Second right: The Visitation by Francesco de' Rossi 1538.
First right: The Birth of St John the Baptist by Del Conte, 1551.
First left: The Preaching of St John the Baptist, by Del Conte 1538.
Second left: The Dance of Salome by Pirro Ligorio, 1544.
Third left: The Beheading of St John the Baptist by Del Conte, 1553.
Camera Storica Edit
The confraternity has a Camera Storica , which is a little museum of artefacts relating to their work. This may be visited on application only, as it is rarely open to the public. (In recent years on 24 June only, allegedly.)
The church is not open to the public.
If you wish to see it, try calling between 11 and 12 on a weekday and ask permission to visit.
If your are in Rome for only a few days, try not to leave it until your last day there as you may have to wait a day or two. Unfortunately, no online contact details are available so a personal visit to obtain permission seems necessary.
There are guided tours being advertised online, which are easily joined but will cost money.
The Birth of St John the Baptist is celebrated on 24 June, and the Beheading (Martyrdom) on 29 August.