San Lorenzo in Panisperna is a 16th century conventual, titular and station church on earlier foundations, located at Via Panisperna 90 in the rione Monti.
The saint, and his legend Edit
In the Church of the patristic era, before the 8th century, St Laurence was probably the most famous of the Roman martyrs, as is evidenced by the writings of SS Ambrose, Leo the Great, Augustine and Prudentius. His martyrdom must have deeply impressed the contemporary Roman Christians. The legend of his martyrdom unreliable, however, having been written at least a century after his death. It claims that he was one of the seven deacons of Pope St Sixtus II when that pope was beheaded, and was himself martyred three days later by being roasted alive on a gridiron. It is more likely that he was beheaded as well.
The status of deacon was much higher in the ancient church than it was to be in a later centuries, when the diaconate became basically a step to the priesthood. Back in the 3rd century, the pope and the deacons made up the administrative body of the Roman church, and were responsible for its property. It is thought that St Lawrence was not beheaded immediately in the persecution ordered by the emperor Valerian as his pope and fellow deacons were, but was kept for torture in order to force him to reveal the locations of the church's assets. The legend describes him as having distributed the moveable wealth to needy people beforehand, and this rings true.
The church stands on the traditional site of St Lawrence's actual martyrdom. The place of his imprisonment is pointed out as being at San Lorenzo in Fonte nearby, that of his condemnation at San Lorenzo in Miranda in the Forum and his burial at San Lorenzo fuori le Mura. Part of the gridiron on which he was traditionally tortured used to be venerated in a crypt chapel in this church, although another part is more well-known as being at San Lorenzo in Lucina.
Ancient times Edit
The church stands on the Viminal Hill, a prestigious residential area two millennia ago, and contains ancient remains. Coarelli in his Rome and Environs, an Archaeological Guide 2007 has this to say: "Here [in this church] various items spanning several periods were discovered, including the remains of walls in opus reticulatum and brick, as well as mosaic and marble floors. These can be seen behind the altar of the church, in the choir of the Poor Clares".
The present Via Panisperna is not an ancient street, but the nearby Via Urbana is -the original name was the Vicus Patricius. A fragment of the Severan Marble Plan which has been recently put in its proper context shows the north side of this street as having been occupied by large high-status private houses at the start of the 3rd century. Behind these, and immediately to the east of the church, was a very large raised and colonnaded platform seventy metres long and accessed by a processional stairway. This was later embellished with a central round building (not on the plan), and the ruins of the podium and rotunda survived until the 18th century. In the Middle Ages the complex was identified as the Palatium Decii (the palace of the emperor Decius) and the location of the martyrdom. A modern identification suggests that this was the Area Candidi mentioned in the Regionary Catalogues, but this is a guess.
Actually, no-one really knows what this high-status complex was for, or how it related (if at all) to the later church. Two statues were found here of Posidippus and Asclepiades, Greek epigrammatic poets, which hints at some sort of studium.
Tradition claims that the first church here was built during the reign of Emperor Constantine, but this is undocumented and the origins are actually completely unknown. The first clear reference is in the Liber Pontificalis for Pope Adrian I (772-95), where it is listed as one of the many churches that this pope restored and embellished. A reasonable hypothesis is that the original foundation was by refugee monks from the Iconoclast persecutions in the Byzantine Empire and from the conquests of Islam, who arrived in numbers in Rome in the 7th century and founded many monasteries where they worshipped in the Eastern rites.
Pope Leo II (795-816) also effected a restoration.
The original name was San Lorenzo in Formoso, and the church is listed under this name in the later mediaeval catalogues. As a result it has been claimed that Pope Formosus (891-896) rebuilt the church here, but this does not necessarily follow. The word formosus means "beautiful", and is also the Latin cognate of the Greek name Kallistos. Alternative unprovable etymologies can be derived from either fact.
A reference to this church in the 6th century writings of St Gregory of Tours has been claimed. The actual text refers to "the church where St Lawrence was burned", so the reference is inconclusive. Another late 6th century reference to Sancti Laurentii ad Craticulam has also been claimed for this church, but might refer to San Lorenzo in Lucina.
Whatever the makeup of the monastery here in the earlier Dark Ages, by the later 10th century it would have become Benedictine. As such it was one of the twenty Benedictine abbeys of the city, the abbots of which together had a prestigious rôle in Papal ceremonies in the 11th century.
In the 12th century, the influential abbey of La Cava near Salerno was accumulating a congregation of dependent abbeys as a means of propagating reform of the monastic life in Italy. As a result, Pope Eugene III (1145-53) granted the abbey here to the congregatio Cavensis and so it became that congregation's Rome headquarters.
Benedictine religious life collapsed in disgrace in the 13th century, and all the male monasteries except one (San Paolo fuori le Mura) were suppressed or abandoned. The major problem was that the abbeys were landholders, and so the monks could claim noble status. Unfortunately they took to aping the way of life of the secular nobility, and ended up causing very serious scandal. Most of the abbeys were handed over to the new mendicant orders, especially the Franciscans, but this one became a community of Benedictine nuns.
The sisters ended up not much better. Religious life for women in Rome was being seriously abused by the local nobility who were disposing of their unwanted daughters by putting them in convents instead of going to the nuisance of having them married. The behaviour of well-connected nuns with no religious vocation destroyed the observance of the nunneries in which they obtained influence. The Papal government was not so worried about nuns who were technical virgins, but was seriously concerned by reports of illegitimate babies being killed and especially by rumours of black magic. The nunnery here was listed as having eighteen nuns at the beginning of the 14th century (in the Anonymous Catalogue of Turin), but was also noted as having "no regular life". It had already been suppressed when the list was drawn up.
Poor Clares Edit
In 1300 Pope Boniface VIII re-consecrated the restored church, which the nuns had apparently allowed to fall into ruins. Modern sources claim that the restoration amounted to a rebuilding, and that the floor was raised to create the extant crypt.
Then the complex was handed over to a community of Poor Clares who had been living in a convent on the site of what is now Santa Maria dei Monti since 1223 (if this year is correct, they would be one of the oldest Poor Clare communities in existence). They moved in in 1308, under the sponsorship of Cardinal Giacomo Colonna, and were to be in residence for the next 570 years.
This community had an association with the Poor Clares at San Silvestro in Capite, in that both subscribed to the observance of St Isabelle of France. Poor Clares were popular in Rome because of the strictness of their life and their adherence to genuine poverty (at least early on they banned the reception of dowries). Another large early convent was at San Cosimato in Trastevere, and others were founded later.
The nuns were very friendly with St Brigid of Sweden, and she used to sit by the convent gate with other poor people in order to beg for funds for the pilgrims in her Swedish hospice. She had a guest cell in the convent for her use. When she died in 1373 her body was brought here at her previous request, and so the funeral and internment was in this church. Her body was taken back to Sweden in the following year, but the nuns kept her prayer book, cloak and one of her arms (!). Her daughter St Catherine of Sweden came to Rome in 1376 in order to continue St Brigid's work in founding the Bridgettines, and stayed in the same cell as her mother. St Catherine of Siena visited her here.
The hospice is now the convent at Santa Brigida a Campo de'Fiori.
According to Armellini writing in 1891, the appellation Panisperna is first recorded from the 14th century in a lost but transcribed epitaph.
The armchair etymologists have come up with several contrived theories as to what it means, but the truth is that nobody knows. The most obvious theory is that the name is comprised of two Latin words -panis (bread) and perna (leg of pig for eating, pork or ham). From that, the conclusion is drawn that the name derived from the Poor Clares handing out ham sandwiches (or the mediaeval equivalent) to poor people at the convent gate. This is frankly silly -or, at least, the ham bit is. So, the theory has been tweaked by suggesting that the nuns handed out the meat to poor people on August 10th, the feast day of St Lawrence. The would have been done in remembrance of St Lawrence, distributing the funds of the Church to poor people before his martyrdom. This still doesn't ring true -Poor Clares are vegetarians by tradition, and the handouts of food at the convent gate was a regular practice for them anyway.
The church was made titular in 1517 by Pope Leo X.
The present church and convent is the result of a complete rebuilding begun in 1565, authorized by Pope Gregory XIII and sponsored by Guglielmo Sirleto who was the titular priest. The nuns were lucky to have such a famous and influential scholar as their patron. The project was a major one, and was only finished in 1574 with the completion of the façade. The architect is unknown, but Francesco da Volterra has been suggested.
Apparently, the old church was basilical and had a central nave with side aisles. The new church was given a simple single nave, and an enclosed choir behind the high altar. The Poor Clares take the principle of enclosure seriously, hence there was no need of a large church for liturgical events.
The convent had very extensive gardens and grounds including vineyards, reaching almost as far as the present Via Agostino Depretis. (The Ministry of the Interior now occupies much of their former extent.) As well as the cloister ranges, the complex had a garden range to the north which incorporated a very impressive incurved colonnade on the plan of a shallow arc, which faced onto the nuns' flower and herb gardens east of the church. This was an unusual architectural feature, and antiquarians of the 18th century speculated that it was built on ancient foundations. It and the garden wing were demolished in the late 19th century.
Pope Sixtus V (1585-90) built the Via Panisperna in order to provide a decent route between the city centre and Santa Maria Maggiore. Hence, the street is named after the church and not vice versa. Before the former existed, access to the church and monastery was via a drive running up the hill from the Via Urbana. The new street obliterated this.
A monumental gateway on the Via Panisperna was added in 1754, when the church interior was also heavily restored.
The convent was sequestered by the Italian government in 1873. The sisters managed to find a new home in part of the convent of Santa Lucia in Selci in 1878. Meanwhile the convent was handed over to the Sapienza University, which established its physics department here.
The area was very quickly built over from the late 19th century, and the present Via Milano and Via Cesare Balbo were cut through the convent grounds. The garden wing, colonnade and nuns' flower garden were lost but a fragment of open space survives to the north-west of the convent, where a modern formal garden surrounded by trees is laid out around a fountain. The present Ministero dell'Interno was erected on the eastern vineyards of the convent in 1925.
These road works entailed the lowering of the level of the Via Panisperna in front of the convent. As a result, the gateway was renovated and provided with a new access stairway by Pope Leo XIII in 1893 (he had received his episcopal consecration in the church in 1843, and the work began in his jubilee year of 1888). The entrance door of the church was also renewed.
Ragazzi di Via Panisperna Edit
As the department of theoretical physics of the Sapienza, the old convent had its most important moment in history when a group of young physicists nicknamed the "Via Panisperna boys" began the epoch-making series of discoveries which led to the development of nuclear power and weapons. They were led by Enrico Fermi, who also did important theoretical work leading to the standard model of particle physics. The group flourished until it broke up in 1938 when Fermi emigrated in response to anti-Semitic legislation enacted by the Fascists.
The physics department moved elsewhere long ago (you cannot do modern science in a nun's cell) and the convent is now part of the complex of the Ministero dell'Interno, but it is hoped to establish a physics museum here to commemorate the ragazzi.
The nuns nowadays Edit
The Poor Clares have remained in the western part of the old Augustinian convent of Santa Lucia in Selci, at Via in Selci 82/A. They have a plain entrance door on the street, with a plaque announcing the existence of the convent.
Recent years have not been kind to the nuns. A lack of vocations has meant that the community has shrunk substantially, and the rather cramped accommodation has been a handicap. Until 2012 the centuries-old practice of providing food for poor people at the door of the convent was kept up, but in that year the nuns had to desist. Now (2015) the Diocese lists the community as the Abbess Chiara-Rosa Jolloso who is a Filipina, and Suore Maria Quattrociocchi who is eighty-seven.
The church nowadays Edit
Before its expropriation the old convent had been served by Franciscan priests, and apparently they continued to administer the church until recently. It is now in the charge of diocesan clergy.
At the beginning of the 21st century, a group of expatriate Chinese Catholics worshipped here for a while.
It is not obvious what, if any, pastoral function the church is performing now.
Before the Via Panisperna was cut through diagonally in about 1585, the convent had a rectangular piazza or mustering-ground outside its main entrance. You can still see the ghost of this in the street layout in front of the present portico, which is accessed by stairs because of the lowering of the street level in the late 19th century.
The portico leads into a yard, with the church at the far end, the main convent block to the left and a mediaeval range to the right. The main block had four ranges around a rectangular cloister with colonnaded walkways on all four sides, and a further large garden wing at right-angles to the north cloister range. This latter wing abutted on the famous arc-shaped colonnade facing the garden, but it and the colonnade have been demolished. The convent block has been substantially altered, and now has flat roofs. The central cloister garth has also been roofed over.
The church does not abut onto the cloister, but is parallel to the east range. The main convent entrance is to the left of the façade, with a short passage through this range into the cloister. The church itself has a central nave with structural side aisles, but the aisles are divided by internal blocking walls into three chapels on each side. There is a rectangular sanctuary as wide as the nave, and this is under the same pitched and tiled roof as the nave.
The large private choir chapel of the nuns is under a separate, slightly lower roof beyond the sanctuary. The tower campanile is attached to the far right hand corner of this.
Outer portico EditThe outer portico, dating in its present form from 1754, was restored in 1893 by Pope Leo XIII (1878-1903) in memory of his episcopal ordination in the church in 1843. He added the symmetrical pair of transverse flights of stairs which meet at a little patio in front of the entrance, and which have a pin balustrade with six ball finials. The revetment wall below the patio has a device of two crossed palms under a crown, which allude to the martyrdom of St Lawrence.
The portal is in a blank screen wall rendered in a pale orange, with a cornice in limestone. It bears four heraldic shields of cardinals, two on each side. The entrance has a large molded Baroque doorcase, doubletted along its outer sides and with a short dedicatory epigraph inserted into its lintel. Flanking this inscription is a pair of square posts in shallow relief, also doubletted, which also have the palm-and-crown motif. These support a triangular pediment with a cornice broken for a large relief coat-of-arms of Pope Leo XIII embellished with a pair of leafy sprays containing fruit. To each side is a large curlicued volute which is supported by a blind pilaster in the wall. A pair of matching pilasters with ball finials terminate the screen wall on each side.
The iron railing gate is worth looking at. It features the palm fronds and crown again.
This gate leads into the old extern courtyard of the monastery. This was outside the enclosure, and was where the community interacted with tradesmen and visitors (this was done by the so-called "extern sisters", not the choir nuns who had to stay within the enclosure). It is now neatly laid out with some trees and shrubs, and is a quiet spot.
On the right hand side of the courtyard is a mediaeval range which is the oldest part of the convent. It is possibly 14th century, and includes a house with an exterior staircase leading to an upper storey. This is one of the few such houses that has been preserved in Rome. This row of vernacular buildings runs up the side of the church to join the sacristy to the right of the sanctuary, leaving a narrow alleyway. It was used by the nuns as the extern range, where the chaplains were lodged and where any male guests or employees could stay or be met.
The 16th century campanile is on the far side of the choir chapel behind the high altar, and is not easy to see. You have to go down the alleyway just mentioned to glimpse the top of it.
It is a plain square red brick tower with a bell-chamber separated by a stone cornice. There are two round-headed soundholes on each face, separated by a stone pillar with a thin slab impost. The crowning cornice protrudes, and above it is the unusual feature of a dumpy spire in pyramidal form with a bronze ball and cross finial. Compare the campanile at Santa Maria del Popolo.
Façade EditThe restrained façade is dated 1675, and is raised above the level of the courtyard (thus reminding you that the church stands on a crypt). The access arrangements are from the 1893 restoration, and comprise a pair of transverse staircases leading up to the ends of an entrance patio. The latter is continued in an L-shape to access the main entrance of the convent, and is railed with attractive curlicued wrought-iron work with the palm-branch-and-crown motif again. Flowering pot plants are presently being used to embellish these entrance arrangements in a rather winsome way.
The actual façade used to be in pale blue with architectural details in white, but the blue has faded badly. The composition is of two storeys, and fronts only the central nave. The first storey has four Doric pilasters supporting the dividing entablature, and a large entrance with a molded doorcase. This is bounded by thin pilaster strips which support fronded strap corbels themselves supporting a segmental pediment. Each of the corbels has a little relief of what looks like an angel, and the tympanum of the pediment has a winged putto's head with swags and ribbons. The frieze in between the lintel and the pediment has a pair of fruit swags with tassels in between a pair of bulls-eyes.
The impressive wooden door, which has panels containing carvings, is thought to be from a design by Carlo Rainaldi. However, the two middle panels in the top row are not original but are 18th century works inserted in 1893. They depict SS Lawrence and Francis.
The second storey has four Ionic pilasters, which stand on plinths and which have their molded bases connected by a plain string course. They support a crowning entablature, which has a little triangular pediment over the inner pair only. There are four flaming torch finial as well as the traditional cross finial on the tip of the pediment.
This storey has a simple round window or oculus with a narrow molded frame, and over this is a tablet also with a molded frame with a dedicatory inscription which reads: Divi Laurentii M[arty]ris aedes inpanis perna MDLXXIIII.
The church has a short single nave with three chapels on each side, followed by a square sanctuary with the main sacristy to its right.
The appearance of the interior is 18th century, being restored in 1754. The side chapels are separated by wide piers each of which has an applied shallow Corinthian pilaster in yellow and grey marble (or what looks like it), flanked by revetting strips in white marble horizontally striped in grey. These pilasters support an interior entablature with a frieze in red, in which are grilles opening into corridors used by the enclosed nuns. The chapel arches have molded archivolts springing from Doric impost pilasters each revetted with a panel in a red and white patterned stone. Thin slices from a single piece of rock have been sawn off and arranged to make the stone veining symmetric.
The elliptically curved barrel-vaulted ceiling springs from the entablature, and has a semi-circular window lunette over each chapel. There is a large capsule-shaped central fresco panel depicting The Apotheosis of St Lawrence by Antonio Bicchierai (1688-1766) who executed this about 1700, and the rest of the vault is in white and light grey.
The hidden corridors behind the side entablatures lead to a large nuns' gallery over the entrance, installed in 1757. This impressive late Baroque affair is supported on six corbels each with a winged putto's head, and has a diapered mesh screen over an intricately carved and gilded scrollwork base. The front has sections bowed and coved (a hint of Borromini), and also has six little Ionic pilasters supporting a crowning entablature with six posts. On the two inner posts are the two halves of a split and separated segmental pediment with curlicued breaks, and on these in turn are two putti holding a flower swag. The other four posts support flaming urn finials.
The underside of this gallery has a pair of crossed palm branches within a crown and tied with ribbon, executed in gilded stucco. Over the entrance is an epigraph recording the 18th century restoration: In elegantiore forma redactum, anno D[omi]ni MDCCLVII.
The semi-circular triumphal arch touches the elliptical vault, leaving spandrels on either side between the two curves. On the keystone are two stucco angels holding a Baroque tablet proclaiming the triumph of St Lawrence to be greater than that of other martyrs. The piers of the arch are polygonal, and each has three applied Corinthian pilasters with chamfers in between revetted with the red and white stone symmetrically applied.
By the right hand pier is a large crucifix which is from the 14th century. This is one of several crucifixes in Rome's churches in front of which St Brigid prayed, and is claimed to be one of those which spoke to her in a vision.
The sanctuary has a square plan, and is roofed by a cross-vault in gilded stucco. It has four large angels in white, supporting a central gilded relief depicting The Glory of St Lawrence. This is thought to be by Bicchierai.
The enormous Mannerist fresco behind the high altar is by Pasquale Cati, one of Michelangelo's pupils, who executed it from 1585 to 1591. Cati was probably not one of the master's best pupils, and art critics have been sniffy about the work through the centuries. It is, however, a spectacular accomplishment and depicts the Martyrdom of St Lawrence in dramatic style. The work was commissioned by Wilhelm V, Duke of Bavaria, and on the side panels framing the painting you will see roundels containing the heraldry of the Wittelsbach family which ruled Bavaria for almost a thousand years until 1919.
The altar itself has a frontal in red and white stone, with green hints, which is assembled from thin slices to give a symmetric pattern of veining as with the arcade impost pilasters. This feature amounts to an interior design theme for the church.
Each of the side walls has a further nuns' gallery, above a sacristy door. In between is a painting, which to the right is St Michael the Archangel by Riccio Bianchini 1602. The one on the left is St Raphael with Tobias, by Bicchierai. The identity of the subject is certain -Tobias is carrying his fish. See the biblical Book of Tobit for the story.
The side chapels are described anticlockwise, beginning to the right of the entrance.
Chapel of St Clare Edit
The first chapel on the right side is dedicated to St Clare, the foundress of the Poor Clares. It has an altarpiece painting of The Miracle of St Clare by Antonio Nessi (1739-73), executed in 1756. The story behind the depiction is that the convent of the saint was in danger of being plundered by brigands, but that she drove them away in confusion by exposing the Blessed Sacrament to them. On the altar itself is a small copy of the famous icon of Our Lady of Pompei.
On the right hand side wall is the attractive wall memorial of Cardinal Guglielmo Sirleto, the rebuilder of the church who died in 1585. The excellent portrait bust shows him looking sideways at you standing outside in the chapel, hoping that you will say a prayer for his soul. This outstanding scholar deserves to be remembered.
Chapel of SS Crispin and Crispinian Edit
The second chapel on the right is dedicated to the 3rd century twin brother martyrs SS Crispin and Crispinian, who are the patrons of shoemakers. Their relics used to be enshrined here, but were taken to a new shrine in the Adriatic town of Porto Sant'Elpidio in 2008.
The altarpiece depicting them receiving the crowns of martyrdom from angels is allegedly by "Giovanni Francesco Romano, and finished by his nephew Pietro Paolo". Who? This attribution was first made by Filippo Titi, writing in 1763, and has been steadily regurgitated since.
Chapel of the Immaculate Conception Edit
In the last chapel on the right side is an altarpiece painting of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception by Giuseppe Ranucci 1757. The little painting on the altar is of St Joseph with the Christ-child.
The main sacristy is to the right of the sanctuary. It has a marble aumbry (cupboard) for holy oils, donated by one of the nuns called Deodata Zeffiri in 1625.
The choir chapel of the nuns is behind the high altar, and is invisible as well as unvisitable. It contains an altar with an 18th century altarpiece depicting The Annunciation. The present stalls are apparently from San Bartolomeo all'Isola, and were moved to here in 1948.
Chapel of the Crucifix Edit
The last chapel on the left has an 18th century altarpiece painting of the Roman school, depicting The Calvary.
Chapel of St Bridget Edit
The Chapel of St Bridget of Sweden is the second on the left. She was very friendly with the nuns here and wished to be buried in their church, but her body was removed a year after her funeral in 1373 and enshrined in the main convent of the Bridgettines, the religious order which she had founded. This was at Vadstena in Sweden. She had used to beg for alms for poor Swedish pilgrims outside the church, and prayed before the crucifix which is now by the triumphal arch of the sanctuary.
Now a martyr named St Victoria is enshrined underneath the altar, the frontal of which shows her reclining on one elbow. She was brought here when the chapel was renovated in 1584. The altarpiece painting of St Bridget Praying before a Crucifix is by Giuseppe Montesanti, and was executed in 1757. He was of the school of Masucci.
On the wall is preserved the carved frontal of an ancient sarcophagus in which St Bridget had been buried. It shows four winged boys representing the seasons, under an arcade on spirally fluted columns.
Chapel of St Francis Edit
The first chapel on the left is dedicated to St Francis of Assisi, and has an altarpiece painting of The Stigmata of St Francis by Niccolò Lapiccola. The little picture on the altar is of St Lucy, holding a vessel with her gouged-out eyes.
Forno di San Lorenzo Edit
The crypt of the church is a shrine chapel venerated as the actual place where St Lawrence was roasted alive. Hence it has the nickname of "Oven of St Lawrence". It contains a memorial slab to Niccolò di Culm 1410, who had been chaplain here for forty-four years.
The chapel is accessed from a door in the exterior side wall of the church. It is not open to ordinary visitors, but guided tours have taken place in recent years (for which a charge is made).
Access and liturgyEdit
The church only seems to be open for liturgical events.
Mass is celebrated on weekdays at 7:45, on Saturdays and eves of Solemnities at 18:00 and on Sundays at 11:00 and 18:00.
The feast of St Lawrence is celebrated as a Solemnity on 10 August.
This is the Station Church for the Thursday in the first week of Lent.
Annas Rom web-page (excellent, in Danish)