San Lorenzo in Piscibus is a titular and former conventual church hidden away on the Borgo Santo Spirito, in the rione Borgo near St Peter's. The postal address is Via Padre Pancrazio Pfeiffer 24. Pictures of the church at Wikimedia Commons are here.
The dedication is to St Lawrence, a deacon and one of the most famous Roman martyrs.
The church is sometimes referred to as San Lorenzo in Borgo or San Lorenzino (Little St Lawrence's).
The legendary foundation of the church is by St Galla in the 6th century, but this is undocumented. However, an early origin is hinted at by the way the church does not fit into the mediaeval street plan of the Borgo. The south side of the Via della Conciliazione marks the route of the former Borgo Vecchio, but the church has alway stood well back from this and has had domestic buildings in between its entrance frontage and the street. This implies that there was once an entrance atrium or courtyard, a feature of early basilicas. A further surmise is that it was originally a monastery church, but there is no record of this.
The church is first recorded in 1143 in a book which is called Ordine di Benedetto Canonico in the bibliographies (which has caused a confusion -the reference is not to "Benedictine Canons", which have never existed). In this, it is called in Porticu Majore or "in the great porch (of St Peter's?)".
The appellation in piscibus (literally "in fishes") appears in 1205, and possibly comes from a nearby fish market although there is no independent evidence for this. Back then, the church was administered by the Chapter of St Peter's although it seems to have been transferred to the Lateran before the end of the century. Even at this early period there seems to have been some doubt as to what to do with the church.
Convent and confraternityEdit
It was attached to a convent of Poor Clares founded here at the start of the 16th century, but they were not there for long. In 1513, Pope Leo X granted the church to a lay confraternity associated with the nearby church of Santo Spirito in Sassia. This outfit did not stay here for very long either, and is now based at Santa Maria Annunziata in Borgo.
Around the same time, Francesco Cardinal Armellini (died 1528) allegedly restored the church and the adjacent palace . Because of this, the church was for a period known as San Lorenzo dell'Armellini. However, the Armellini reference is actually to a fictitious "English cardinal Tommaso Armellini". A tentative hypothesis is that this might have been Cardinal Thomas Langley (1363-1437), but there seems to be no evidence that he was ever in Rome.
In 1659 the church was remodelled in the Baroque style by the Cesi family, and functioned more or less as their private church. The family's Villa Cesi, with extensive grounds, was immediately to the south of Bernini's colonnade. However, in the same year the liturgical administration was entrusted to the Brothers of the Christian Schools or Piarists. They oversaw a redecoration later in the century.
In 1733 the Piarists were able to buy three adjacent houses to form a convent, and commissioned Domenico Navone to provide a façade on the Borgo Vecchio together with a long connecting entrance passage. The church was also restored.
The Brothers had their noviciate here.
20th century troublesEdit
The church had two very narrow escapes in the 20th century. Firstly, in the 1930's it was going to be demolished as part of the clearances for the Via della Conciliazione. In the event it was preserved, but the Navone entrance portico was destroyed in 1940 and the Piarists moved away. The church was then very closely constrained by tall new office blocks on three sides, leaving just enough space for somebody to walk around.
A severe restoration followed, by the architects Galeazzi e Prandi. The Baroque fittings were apparently in a bad condition, and it was decided to destroy them all. This left the church as it is now, in a very stark Romanesque style.
The second narrow escape was after the Second World War. In 1950 the church was declared redundant and deconsecrated. At first it was used as a storage unit, and then as a lecture hall for the Scuola Pontificia Pio IX before becoming a studio for the famous sculptor Pericle Fazzini in the 1970's.
In November 2007 the church was made titular for the first time in its history. The first cardinal deacon of the church was Paul Josef Cardinal Cordes, the President of the Pontifical Council "Cor Unum".
The church is listed as a chiesa rettoria of the parish of Santa Maria in Traspontina.
It is a small basilica with aisles, entirely in red brick, and has a semi-circular windowless apse facing the street looking rather like part of a factory chimney. Above this apse is a blank pediment with dentillating in brick on the edges, including the cornice. This cornice runs all round the church, and is part of an identical pediment over the entrance. An identically styled string course runs along the aisle rooflines.
Before the 20th century restorations, this end of the church had a rectangular apse with a large central lunette window and two identical entrances with raised triangular pediments. To the outer side of each pediment was a rectangular window, and over this were two round-headed windows. There was a little two-storey Baroque cupola over the high altar, having an octagonal drum supporting a squat urn-shaped top storey supported by volutes and with smaller volutes clustering to the ball finial.
The campanile is from the 13th century, and is just visible from the street if you peer down the alley to the right of the church. It sits over the entrance end of the left hand aisle, and has a tall first storey reaching as far as the abovementioned cornice, which runs round it as well. Above this are two storeys with a pair of arched apertures on each face. The lower storey has these arches separate, but the upper one has them paired with a central stone column supporting an impost.
The nave clerestory has arched windows, and the entrance façade has two small arched windows above a large single one. There is no decoration here whatsoever.
Former entrance façadeEdit
The former entrance façade, designed by Domenico Navone, was on the Borgo Vecchio. It was erected in 1735, and connected to the entrance of the church via a corridor. It featured a pair of gigantic Corinthian pilasters, each triply clustered, supporting a raised triangular pediment with the central section recessed. Unusually, a pentagonal window was fitted into this pediment. The doorway was flanked by a pair of swagged Ionic columns supporting an entablature over a dedicatory inscription, and above the entablature was a large rectangular tablet bearing a double spray of feathers in relief. Above this in turn was a little balustrade, then a large round-headed window. This window was framed in an arch, but its head had a shallower curve than the arch which created a crescent moon effect.
The interior is divided into a nave and side aisles by arcades with twelve ancient marble columns, six on each side. These columns have no proper capitals, only cylindrical limestone extensions supporting imposts -unusual in an old Roman church (but see Sante Rufina e Seconda). Here, it seems that the capitals were chiselled back by the Baroque restorers and given stucco embellishments, which were then stupidly removed by the 20th century restorers.
The columns are as follows: One in grey granite, two in white marble with spiral fluting, eight in bigio antico which is a grey marble, and one in marmo imezio which is white with dark grey flecks.
The interior has been absolutely gutted. The walls have all been stripped and are bare brick, and the modern wooden truss roof has no ceiling.
There are no side chapels now, and no artworks of much interest apart from the main altar and tabernacle.
The altar is cylindrical, of pink granite, and has strigilate decoration which derives from Ancient Roman sarcophagi. The set of vertical curves which makes the decoration is meant to resemble an ancient Roman razor -strigil in Latin.
The altarpiece hanging in the apse is a very boring and familiar reproduction of the Crucifix of San Damiano. However, the tabernacle on a bracket below it is an interesting modern piece of metalwork in the form of a church.
The wooden statue of St Lawrence in the left hand aisle, holding an iron roasting grid, is worth a glance. It is next to the three church bells, taken out of the campanile and left here in a row.
There is a little wooden statue of the Madonna and Child on a corbel to the left of the apse, and a good modern Byzantine icon of them to the right.
What was lostEdit
All of what follows was lost when the interior was gutted in the mid 20th century.
There used to be two little external side chapels on the left, and one on the right. At the ends of the aisles were two further chapels, flanking the sanctuary.
The church used to have extensive fresco work by Michelangelo Ricciolini, executed in the later 17th century and counting perhaps as the most important of this artist. Its destruction was shameful.
The nave side walls had scenes from the life of St Lawrence. Above the apse was The Annunciation, and in the apse flanking the altar were The Nativity and The Adoration of the Magi. In the conch were The Dream of St Joseph and The Death of St Joseph. All of these works were by Ricciolini.
The former altarpiece, however, was by Niccolò Berrettoni, and showed the The Marriage of Our Lady and St Joseph. It seems that the Piarists had this main altar dedicated to the Holy Family, with St Lawrence commemorated in the chapel to the right.
The former side chapels and altars are described anticlockwise, beginning to the right of the entrance.
The external chapel on the right was dedicated to St Anne, with an altarpiece of her by Pietro Nelli. He also executed a picture to the right, while that to the left and the vault fresco were by Giovanni Battista Calandrucci.
There followed an altar dedicated to St Joseph Calasanz, the founder of the Piarists. The anonymous altarpiece depicting him was 18th century.
The chapel at the end of the right hand aisle was dedicated to St Lawrence, and the altarpiece of him was by Giacinto Brandi. This was flanked by paintings of SS Sebastian and John the Baptist by Nelli again.
The chapel at the end of the left hand aisle was dedicated to St Nicholas, and was decorated by Ricciolini.
The second external chapel on the left was dedicated to the Crucifix, and flanking the altar were two paintings by Nelli showing The Flagellation and The Crowning with Thorns.
The first external chapel on the left was dedicated to Our Lady, and contained an "old image" of her. This was flanked by depictions of two saintly bishops by Scipione Cordieri.
The Centre's website advises that the church is open:
Monday to Friday, 11:00 to 19:00. It is closed on weekends, including Sundays.
The postal address is Via Padre Pancrazio Pfeiffer 24, but this is the street running off the Via della Conciliazione to the east of the church. You might be able to get to the church when it is open through the building at this address, but the receptionist advised the writer that this is usually not the case.
Alternatively, go to the end of the street, and just before the junction with the Borgo Santo Spirito you will find a passage to the right running round the apse of the church to a doorway.
Note that visitors have to be properly dressed.
Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament takes place from 17:00 to 18:00, during which Confession is available.
From Monday to Thursday Mass is then celebrated at 18:00. However, on Fridays "International Mass" is celebrated at 18:30, followed by a social gathering at about 19:30.
The feast of St Lawrence is celebrated with solemnity on 10 August.
Farnedi, Guida alle Chiese di Roma, 1999
Hülsen, Chiese di Roma nel Medio Evo 1927 (L28)
- ↑ 1 Hülsen attributes the restoration to an English cardinal, Tommaso Armellini, in 1417. I have found no information about a cardinal of that name. If anyone can shed any light on this, I would be grateful.
(Reply): Mariano Armellini ascribes this to a mistake by the 15th century chronicler known as Il Panciroli. There was no cardinal named Tommaso Armellini.