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San Giuseppe dei Falegnami

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San Giuseppe dei Falegnami is an early 17th century confraternity and titular church in the Roman Forum, at Clivo Argentario 1 and very close to Santi Luca e Martina. This is in the rione Campitelli (the boundary between the rioni Campitelli and Monti runs between the two churches). Pictures of the church at Wikimedia Commons are here. There is an English Wikipedia page here.

The dedication is to St Joseph the Patriarch, foster-father of Our Lord Jesus Christ and here venerated as a carpenter under the title of "St Joseph the Worker".

The complex includes the Mamertine Prison, but this has its own entrance arrangements and is no longer primarily a place of worship. It should be noted that San Giuseppe dei Falegnami and San Pietro in Carcere are not two separate churches.


Ancient times Edit

The area here used to be the Comitium, the political centre of the ancient city from the earliest times and functioning as such since at least the 7th century BC. It was an open-air meeting-place, and might well have been a neutral location for debate between the Bronze age villages on the surrounding hills in the second millennium BC.

The developed Roman tradition (recorded by Livy) was that a king of Rome called Ancus Marcius (642-617 BC) founded a prison here for condemned enemies of the State, and it remained in use for this purpose during the lifetime of the Roman Empire. It was known as the Carcer (the name Mamertino is mediaeval), and the innermost and most secure section was known as the Tullianum. There were other cells, now lost, dug out of the hillside of the Capitoline.

It may be noted that ancient Rome did not regard prisons as part of any penal system. They were usually simply secure store-places for wrongdoers awaiting their fate, which in this particular case was by default a public death. Famous known prisoners are Vercingetorix the Gaul and Simon bar Giora, the Jewish rebel who defended Jerusalem against Titus. Also, hostages from enemy societies which the Romans did not regard very highly would be kept in prison -although not in this one.

St Peter's imprisonment Edit

It is the Tullianum which has survived, because the mediaeval legend grew up that St Peter was imprisoned here before he was martyred at the Circus of Nero to the south of St Peter's.

The developed legend occurs as the Acts of SS Processus and Martinian, which is early mediaeval romantic fiction. According to it, SS Peter and Paul were imprisoned together in the Mamertine, where the former baptized their converted prison guards using water that began flowing as a miraculous spring in their cell. The apostles also allegedly converted forty-seven other prisoners, and the total of forty-nine converts were martyred in the pogrom ordered by the emperor Nero (the Protomartyrs of Rome) together with the apostles. SS Processus and Martinian have an altar in St Peter's.

The major objection to this is that the Imperial government back then regarded Christians as mere vermin infesting the lower orders, and the Carcer was for important malefactors only. It was only in later centuries that Christians could argue that St Peter, as the first Pope, must have been an important personage in Roman society at the time. There are hints of rival traditions involving the places of imprisonment of SS Peter and Paul -see Santa Maria in Via Lata, San Paolo alla Regola and San Pietro in Vincoli. Since St Paul was a Roman citizen and St Peter was not, it is virtually certain that they were not imprisoned together and the tradition that they were so treated derives from their common liturgical celebration.

San Pietro in Carcere Edit

According to tradition, the prison was converted into a church of San Pietro in Carcere by Pope Sylvester I in the 4th century. This, again, is part of a mediaeval legend which falsely assumed that the emperor Constantine donated the property of the imperial government in Rome to the Church after the year 313. The Donation of Constantine was a malicious mediaeval forgery. In reality, the government of the Empire in Constantinople was still recognized as being in possession of public properties in Rome in the early 7th century. The historian Ammianus Marcellinus wrote a comment in 368 which shows that the prison was still in use then.

The prison would conceivably continue as a place of incarceration for public enemies for as long as an imperial Exarch resided on the Palatine. The final breakdown of imperial authority in Rome occurred in very obscure circumstances, but was after the reign of Pope Gregory the Great who is also credited with having founded or restored a chapel here dedicated to the Holy Cross. The miraculous crucifix that this contained was much later known as the Santissimo Crocifisso di Campo Vaccino.

The first possible documentary reference to the prison as a shrine is in the entry in the Liber Pontificalis for Pope Gregory III (731-41), which is matched by one in the Itinerarium Einsiedeln which is a pilgrim itinerary for Rome written at about the same time. There used to be a suspicion that these references were to a "prison of the apostles" elsewhere, such as on the Janiculum near the Vatican -but this view has recently been successfully challenged. An unambiguous reference to the oratory of San Pietro in Carcere at the Mamertine has to wait until the 14th century. However archaeological investigations in 2010 discovered remains of frescoes, which show that the prison was a pilgrimage shrine by the 8th century at the latest, and possibly by the 7th.

Oddly, however, no proper church was built here in the Middle Ages.

Carpenters Edit

The complex was was rented by the Confraternita dei Falegnami or "Confraternity of Carpenters" in 1540, during the reign of Pope Paul III. The name falegnami means "wood-joiners" or "wood-workers", from the original Latin facere ligno, and the confraternity had been formed in the previous year by a schism in the Confraternita dei Muratori (at San Gregorio dei Muratori). Obviously the carpenters and masons did not get on.

The confraternity built a proper church in 1546, apparently of wood. This was obviously a temporary arrangement, and it was replaced by a permanent structure half a century later. Included in the latter project was a private oratory, an ancillary administration block for the confraternity and a crypt above the actual prison (which itself has two levels).

Construction of this Baroque edifice started in 1597. It was begun by Giovanni Battista Montano, although older sources cite Giacomo della Porta as the first architect employed. The project took a long time to complete. Montano finished the façade in 1602, and when he died in 1621 his pupil Giovan Battista Soria took over. Completion was only achieved in 1663 by Antonio del Grande.

Modern times Edit

There was a restoration in 1836 when the organ was installed, and another major one in 1863 when a new apse was constructed for the church.

The Confraternity was disbanded at the start of the 20th century, and the property reverted to the Diocese. However, it was re-established later in the century and now remains in charge of the church and ancillary accommodation. The prison was left in the administration of the Diocese, however.

In the 1930's a new outside entrance stairway was provided so as to allow easier access to the Mamertine. The older layout can be seen in the Vasi engraving here, where you can see that the prison was accessed from the street via a pair of doors under the entrance patio. The new arrangement provided a foyer for the prison.

For the next eighty years, the prison was a pilgrimage site freely accessible to visitors, without payment (donations were welcome). However, at the start of the 21st century a restoration and archaeological investigation was entered into which was completed in 2010. The prison was then put under the authority of the Opera Romana Pellegrinaggi (ORP) which is a department of the diocesan curia dedicated to pilgrimages. Admission is now by ticket, and there is a charge.

The church is now subsidiary to the parish of San Marco. The confraternity still exists and is based here, but has no online presence and seems not to amount to much nowadays.

Cardinalate Edit

The church was made titular for the first time in its history in 2012. The cardinal deacon is Francesco Coccopalmerio.


Layout and fabric Edit

The complex has four levels. Firstly, the church. This is is on top of a crypt-chapel, the Chapel of the Crucifix, which in turn is on top of the antechamber of the Mamertine Prison. Below that is the dungeon.

Giuseppe dei Falignami

The church itself is accessed by a flight of stairs to the right, leading to a narrow terrace. Before the 1930's, there used to be two elegant balustraded transverse staircases in front of the terrace, meeting at a projecting landing by the right of the church façade. Below the stairs were two doorways leading into a porch, from which the prison was accessed. The Fascist government wished to excavate the ancient road surface in the Clivo, and hence demolished this. The Mamertine was then made accessible by turning the terrace into a porch, with large square openings separated by pillars.

The church has a rectangular nave, an attached presbyterium which is both lower and narrower, and finally a semi-circular apse which is lower still. The roofs are pitched and tiled. The side walls of the church are rendered in a dull pink, with three square windows under the eaves on each side, but the two-storey façade is in white travertine with stucco ornamentation. To the right of the church is attached the confraternity's private oratory (which is almost as big as the church), and in front of this is the confraternity's office wing which faces onto the street to the right of the façade.

Façade Edit

The loss of the entrance stairways has meant a rather ugly juxtaposition between the Baroque façade and the prison loggia below it. However, do look at the balustrade above the central portal of the prison. It has a delightful relief carving of the two apostles peering through their prison bars.

The first storey has four Ionic pilasters with their capitals embellished with putto's heads and the volutes reversed, and these support an entablature. Between each pair is a framed panel containing a badly faded fresco of a saint, above which is a charming little winged cherub holding carpenters' instruments and inserted between curlicues. The entrance is monumentally treated, with columns in the round having capitals in the same style, supporting a triangular pediment by means of posts insterted into the entablature above the capitals. There is a putto (with no wings) hiding in this pediment, and above the door is another panel with a faded fresco.

The second storey has a horizontal oeil-de-boeuf window above the entrance pediment, framed by curlicues and with two more cherubs sitting on it. This is flanked by two short pilasters with un-Classical strapwork capitals decorated with garlands, and these support a crowning pediment containing a pair of gigantic curlicues. The outer zones of the second storey are occupied by a pair of round-headed panels with another two faded frescoes, and these have wide frames flanked by double volutes and crowned by little triangular pediments of their own. Overall, a humourous and enjoyable composition.

Interior of the ChurchEdit

Layout and fabric Edit

The short nave of three bays has a side altar in each corner. The narrower sanctuary is square, and has a semi-circular apse. The interior is richly decorated and gilded, much of the work belonging to the 19th century restoration. Beware of descriptions reproduced online which actually describe the interior before this restoration.

Nave Edit

The side altars are in shallow arched niches in the side walls near the corners. In between the two arches in each side wall are two twinned pairs of ribbed Corinthian pilasters in what looks like red marble, each pair sharing a post in the entablature that they support. This entablature runs around the interior, being broken by the triumphal arch, and has gilded scrollwork on its frieze as well as a strongly projecting cornice. On each side wall above the entablature are three windows, and each window is flanked by a pair of 19th century frescoes of saints. In between the windows are two further pairs of blind pilasters supporting the ceiling cornice, and these have sunken panels with grotesque decoration. Four further pilasters are folded into the corners, and two flank the triumphal arch -although they are not structurally part of it.

The archivolt of the arch merely springs from the ends of the entablature inside these pilasters. Between it and the far corners are two more saints' frescoes, and between the pilasters and the corners are two statues in round-headed niches. These are of SS Peter and Paul. The molded archivolt has above it two large stucco angels bearing a plaque saying Ite ad Ioseph ("Go to Joseph"), which is a quotation from Genesis 41:55.

In between the two pairs of pilasters in each side wall is a choir-balcony or cantoria. Below this is a doorway, the right hand one leading into the oratory and the left hand one into the sacristy. The cantorie have solid balustrades, with three panels separated by pilasters bearing winged putto's heads in gilded relief. The two side panels of each are square and bear pictures of saints, while the central one, which projects, bear rectangular panels which show The Adoration of the Shepherds and The Escape into Egypt.

The counterfaçade has a large wooden bow-fronted organ gallery, which is corbelled out and occupies the entire width of the nave. The actual organ case is a spectacularly intricate piece of Baroque design featuring carved angels blowing trumpets. Just above the pipes is a fresco of an angelic musical trio. Two further frescoes of saints are on the wall to either side of the organ, and under the gallery is the year 1836 which refers to a restoration.

The flat, coffered wooden nave ceiling is beautiful, and is perhaps the best thing in the church. The coffering has a fairly complex pattern, with much gilding. The large central panel displays a carving of The Nativity, with side panels showing St Joseph and the Christ-Child and SS Peter and Paul. The rest of the coffering is taken up with angels and scrollwork, with four square coffers in the corners showing the Confraternity's device of a pair of dividers within a crown.

Artists originally involved in the nave are given as Antonio Viviani and Giuseppe Puglia Il Bastaro. Cesare Maccari painted the 19th century frescoes of saints with the assistance of Angelo Maccaroni.

Sanctuary Edit

The sanctuary is of one narrow bay, and then comes an apse with a conch. The bay has a semi-circular barrel vault which is coffered in rosettes and four-petalled flowers with a central panel containing the Dove of the Holy Spirit in glory. Then comes a second triumphal arch leading into the apse, which has a very deep archivolt almost amounting to a half-bay, with two parallel flower swags on its intrados.

The conch of the apse has three sectors separated by ribs which meet at a semi-circular fanlight. There are also three large rectangular windows with volute frames, above which are three gilded heraldic shields on a blue and gold background.

The 19th century altar aedicule, in pink marble, has a triangular pediment over a very large apsidal niche lined in yellow marble with a scallop-shell conch. This contains a statue of St Joseph with the Christ-child, and is flanked by a pair of ribbed Corinthian columns in red marble. These support posts on which stand a pair of white marble angels. On the altar itself are four reliquary busts of saints in bronze, two male and two female.

The apse wall either side of the aedicule is revetted in alabaster panels with yellow and black marble edgings. The side walls of the sanctuary bay have two paintings by Cesare Maccari, depicting Joseph and Mary Arrive at the Inn in Bethlehem and The Holy Family in the Carpentry Workshop.

Side altars Edit

The altarpieces of the side altars are, on the left: The Nativity by Carlo Maratta 1661 and The Marriage of Mary and Joseph by Orazio Bianchi (which used to be the altarpiece of the high altar, and has replaced The Assumption of Our Lady by Giovanni Battista Leonardi). To the right are The Death of St Joseph by Bartolomeo Colombo, and The Holy Family with St Anne by Giuseppe Ghezzi 1695.

The Baroque side altar aedicules are similar in style, comprising a frontal with fine polychrome marble inlay work and a pair of Corinthian columns in red marble supporting a split segmental pediment into which is inserted a tablet with its own triangular pediment. Three of the pairs of columns are ribbed with their lower parts gilded, but the Nativity pair are unribbed.

Oratory Edit

The Carpenters' Guild private oratory is a rectangular room almost as large as the nave of the church. If you see the door in the right hand side wall open while visiting, do look in.

It has frescoes featuring St Joseph, now in need of restoration. There are two large panels on the side walls, one depicting The Finding of the Boy Jesus in the Temple, and the other The Adoration of the Shepherds. Flanking the altar are two scenes of him in his workshop, and on the walls below the ceiling above these main panels and to each side are frescoes of sibyls, prophets and kings of Israel. This fresco cycle is by Marco Tullio Montagna and was finished in 1637.

The altar aedicule is a superb Baroque composition by Giuseppe Calcagni. The plinth and curlicued frontal are in verde antico edged with yellow Siena marble, and above are four Corinthian columns in red Sicilian jasper arranged so that the inner pair is diagonally in front of the outer. These support an ogee-curved entablature with its frieze also in verde antico, and the apex of its architrave in a double curlicue over the vertically ovoid altarpiece. Above the entablature are two fragments of a split, separated and turned-outwards segmental pediment, which frame a gilded glory containing the Dove of the Holy Spirit. This in turn is sheltered by a floating ogee cornice. The whole thing is great fun. The altarpiece shows The Assumption of Our Lady with SS Joachim and Joseph, and is by Pier Leone Ghezzi.

Sacristy Edit

Apparently the sacristy ceiling has a fresco of The Apotheosis of St Joseph by Montagna, but the writer has not been in to check.

The Chapel of the CrucifixEdit

Below the church is a little 20th century crypt chapel where a 16th century crucifix is venerated. The chapel was excavated between the floor of the church and the Mamertine Prison, and hence has a low barrel-vaulted ceiling which is coffered in squares and has a shallow curve. It is entirely in white, and the squares contain foliage decoration.

This vault springs from two horizontal side cornices supported by yellow marble columns without capitals but with circular imposts instead. There are little side aisles, making the plan of the chapel basilical, but no separate sanctuary. The Baroque altar frontal has intricate marble polychrome inlay work, and the large wooden crucifix is flanked by a pair of Doric pilasters revetted in yellow marble. These support a pair of posts which in turn support a gable, giving the impression of a pediment.

Carcere Mamertino - the Mamertine Prison Edit

There is a Wikipedia page in English here.

The surviving travertine limestone façade is from the early 1st century AD, since it bears the names of two consuls, Caius Vibius Rufinus and Marcus Cocceius Nerva, who held office between AD 39 and 42.

Behind this add-on frontage is an older façade of Grotta Oscura tufa. A doorway that is probably post-imperial leads into a trapezoidal antechamber constructed of tufa blocks in the second half of the 2nd century BC (the quarries at Monteverde and Anio were only open then, so this date is certain). The original entrance was probably a small walled-up door visible to the right of the present entrance. There is a barrel vault, and in the floor is a circular opening which seems to have been the only access to the secure dungeon or Tullianum below. The stairs down to the dungeon are a later addition, and prisoners were apparently lowered down into the cell through this aperture. Subsequently extracting them when the time for their execution had come must have been a problem.

The antechamber has a polychrome marble altar, above which are busts of SS Peter and Paul behind a diapered gilded bronze grating.

At the top of the stairs to the Tullianum is a stone with a cavity, traditionally caused by St Peter's head being banged into it while he was being manhandled.

The Tullianum has been turned into a chapel dedicated to St Peter, being re-consecrated in 1726 by Pope Benedict XIII (1724-1730). It is a circular room, built from blocks of peperino limestone without mortar. The dampness is obvious, which has led to the theory that it was originally a cistern, but it seems that it was a dungeon from the beginning. The damp would have removed the necessity for providing the inmates with drink. In the floor is a raised anulus marking the location of the spring that legend says that St Peter brought forth in the cell, using the water to baptize two of the guards, SS Processus and Martinianus.

The present altar was made by Jean Bonassieu (allegedly) in 1842. It is decorated with a bas-relief depicting the baptism of these guards, and also with an upside-down cross on its bright red marble frontal. This is a reminder that St Peter was traditionally crucified upside-down. To the left of the altar is a short column protected by railings, to which he was by tradition chained.


Church Edit

The church is normally open only on Sundays for Mass at 11:00, but it is also used for weddings. Before and after any wedding ceremony, discreet individual visitors are usually tolerated -as long as they do not stand on the carpet in front of the altar!

Prison Edit

The Mamertine prison is usually open every day at 9:00. In summer it closes at 19:00 and in winter at 17:00, with the last entry forty minutes beforehand.

The default method of entry is by means of a multimedia tour, which occurs every twenty minutes and last about half an hour. Each tour has a maximum of twenty-five people, and if groups of more than ten wish to participate then the leader has to make a telephone booking beforehand (+39 06 69924652). The media are available in Italian, English, Spanish, French and German.

However, you can ask for a single, individual ticket if you wish to be left to yourself (this option does not seem to be available to groups).

Prices: Five euros per person for the tour, three euros for individual entry without.

Liturgy Edit

The Sunday Mass at 11:00 is the only regular liturgical event advertised at the church.

St Joseph has two feast-days, celebrated here with solemnity. His main one, as Patriarch and Patron of the Universal Church, is on 19 March which is always in Lent but is a Solemnity in the General Calendar. His other one venerates him as "St Joseph the Worker", and is on 1 May. Under this title he is the patron of those who earn a living through manual work (the tradition that he was a carpenter is a familiar one, but the Bible merely refers to him as a craftsman). It is this second feast-day which is the dedication feast of this church, and so is also a Solemnity here.

External linksEdit

Official diocesan web-page

Italian Wikipedia page

Italian Wikipedia page on the Mamertine

Nolli map (look for 921)

ORP web-page

"De Alvariis" gallery on Flickr -church

"De Alvariis" gallery on Flickr -Mamertine Prison

Parish web-page

"Tesori di Roma" web-page with photos

Claudio Berrettoni's web-page (about halfway down)

"Romeartlover" web-page

"Sacred Destinations" web-page on the Mamertine

"Tour of Rome" web-page on the Mamertine

Youtube video of church

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