San Nicola da Tolentino agli Orti Sallustiani is a 17th century collegiate and former conventual church at Salita di San Nicola da Tolentino 17, which is in the rione Trevi. Pictures of the church at Wikimedia Commons are here. There is an English Wikipedia page here.
This is one of the two national churches of Armenia, the other being San Biagio della Pagnotta. It belongs to the Armenian Catholic Church, one of the Eastern Catholic Churches in communion with the Holy See. The Pontifical Armenian College, the Armenian seminary in Rome, is located next to the church and is in charge of it.
The church and convent were founded on a country site here by a group of Discalced Augustinians in 1599. This was originally a reform movement within the Augustinian friars, which wished to return to a stricter and more eremitic form of religious life (the title "discalced" means "without shoes" not "barefoot", because they wore sandals). The headquarters of the Augustinian friars in Rome was at Santa Maria del Popolo, but the 16th century enthusiasts for reform settled temporarily at San Stefano Rotondo al Celio and then at San Paolo alla Regola before establishing themselves here.
The community bought the property in 1604 and built a tiny chapel with two altars, one dedicated to St Nicholas of Tolentino and the other to Our Lady of the Rosary.
However, in 1610 the Discalced were established as a separate religious order and so in 1615 built a new central headquarters at Gesù e Maria. It was decided to make the convent here into the noviciate house, which was appropriate because of its (then) isolated country location.
A rebuilding project was begun in 1620, under Carlo Buzzi (whose name is also given as Buti). Enough construction was done for the church to be opened in 1624.
However, money was very short and work continued slowly until Camillo Pamphilj and his wife Olimpia Aldobrandini took an interest. She had been ill, and the money that they gave the friars was an ex voto offering to St Nicholas of Tolentino after her recovery. The prince selected Alessandro Algardi to supervise, although he was more of a sculptor than an architect. He was involved until going to Spain in 1650.
In that year, Martino Longhi the Younger did some work on the almost completed church, including on the sacristy, choir and decorative elements. Finally, in 1651, Giovanni Maria Baratta finished the structure, including the impressive façade.
Progress on the decoration of the interior slowed down, but Baratta continued with the assistance of Ercole Ferrata and Domenico Guidi. In 1670 Francesco Buzio from Milan altered the façade and high altar. The church was only consecrated in 1685.
A quiet placeEdit
The convent for the next hundred and fifty years was in a quiet location, east of the Palazzo Barberini but right on the edge of the built-up area until the latter part of the 19th century.
The munificence of the Pamphilj might have had an ulterior motive, in that the family were enemies of the Barberini. Camillo might have wished to make a display in their territory. His generosity made for an impressive church, but the convent was not so impressive and was arranged around a narrow little courtyard at the back with access via a long corridor to the left of the church.
As with churches belonging to friaries elsewhere in Rome, here the side chapels were patronized by noble families in return for funerary rights.
In 1775 the complex was granted to the Monache Battistine, also known as the Romite di San Giovanni Battista. This very penitential order of contemplative nuns was founded at Genoa by Giovanna Battista Solimani in 1730. The nuns took a formal fourth vow of seclusion.
The convent was requisitioned by the French military in 1798 for the duration of the Napoleonic period, but the nuns received it back afterwards. However, in 1883 they moved out and the complex was granted to the Armenians as a seminary college.
The nuns' community survived, and was lately at Grotte di Pastena but has now ceased owing to lack of vocations. The Battistine as a whole have two convents left, and eighteen nuns (2007).
They should not be confused with the Sisters of St John the Baptist (Suore di San Giovanni Battista), an active sisterhood based at Santa Maria Assunta delle Suore di San Giovanni Battista in the rione Prati.
In 1560 one of the rulers of Armenia, under attack by both Turks and Persians, sent an ambassador called Saphar Abgaro to Pope Pius IV in Rome. The Armenians have had an independent church since the beginning of the 4th century, using the Armenian rite, but an Armenian Catholic Church in communion with the Holy See has existed since the 13th century (this began in the Kingdom of Cilicia or Sis).
The pope granted the Catholic Armenians the church of San Lorenzo dei Cavallucci. This little church, a dependency of San Nicola in Carcere, was very near the north end of the Ponte Fabricio. However, when Pope Pius V enlarged the Jewish Ghetto this area was included, and the church was deconsecrated as were all the others in the Ghetto zone.
In compensation, the pope granted the Armenians the church of Santa Maria Egiziaca after suppressing its parish (which was taken over by Santa Maria in Cosmedin). A hospice for Armenian pilgrims run by Armenian monks was built next door. The work was undertaken in 1571, and overseen by Giulio Antonio Santori who was cardinal of San Bartolomeo all'Isola.
Pope Clement XI (1700-21) ordered a restoration, and the provision of a new hospice and convent. In 1883, Pope Leo XIII granted the Armenian community the convent of San Nicola da Tolentino for a new seminary college.
However, in 1921 the entire Armenian headquarters was sequestered by the government, as a result of lobbying by the archaeological establishment because Santa Maria Egiziaca was an ancient temple. The monks moved out in 1924, and the church was deconsecrated and converted back into a temple. The convent and hospice were completely demolished in 1930.
So the Armenians were left with their seminary church of San Nicola da Tolentino, to which they removed any artwork that could be transported. This has been their headquarters in Rome since then. The old convent was demolished in 1939 to make way for one of Mussolini's roads, the present Via Leonida Bissolati. The present college buildings are on the site of the former gardens.
Before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the students at the seminary college mostly came from the USA and served the Armenian diaspora there after ordination. Now Armenia is independent, proper links to the homeland are developing.
Layout and fabricEdit
This is a large and expensive church. It consists of a nave of three bays with structural side aisles, divided by blocking walls to form side chapels. Then comes a transept with a dome over the crossing, and then a shallow rectangular apse. The conventual choir is behind the apse.
The fabric is in brick with architectural details, including the entire façade, in travertine limestone. The tiled roof has separate pitches for the nave, ends of the transept and apse, and there is a separate, slightly lower roof for the choir. The side chapels have individual roofing arrangements.
The dome has an octagonal drum without windows, and is a segment of a sphere in lead. The octagonal lantern has a tall arched window on each face, and an ogee cupola in lead with a ball finial.
The campanile is very understated, being a pair of arches set side by side on the far roofline of hte right hand end of the transept.
The Baroque façade was designed by Baratta in 1670, and is approached by a flight of stairs because the church is on a crypt. It has two storeys and is in limestone, which is now dirty and in need of attention. There are two storeys, and three vertical zones because the side aisle frontages are slightly set back.
The first storey is dominated by a pair of free-standing Corinthan columns at the corners of the central zone, which are attached to the entablature dividing the storeys by a pair of deep posts above the capitals. The central section of the entablature thus delineated is supported by a pair of Corinthian pilasters in shallow relief, themselves flanking the single entrance. The door has a double molded doorcase with an inscription recording the founder on the upper lintel: Camillus Princeps Pamphilius. Above is a segmental pediment with a pair of small cornice wings.
The side aisle frontages are each bounded by a pair of Corinthian columns (making a total of six on the façade), and these frame an empty round-headed niche in a molded frame topped by a triangular prediment. In the spandrels of the frame you can see the emblem of the Pamphilj family -a dove with an olive twig in its beak.
The dividing entablature has a dedicatory inscription: In honorem D[ivi] Nicolai Tolentinatis (the right hand end is eroded, and gives the year of construction). Above the entablature is an attic plinth with a pair of flaming urn finials on its ends.
The second storey has a pair of free-standing Composite columns matching those flanking the entrance. These also have deep posts, and support the ends of a segmental pediment which is recessed in between. The tympanum of this contains a relief coat-of-arms, now badly eroded. The corners of this storey have another pair of Composite columns in front of simple arc sweeps, and these support posts projecting either side of the pediment. A pair of Composite pilasters flank the large rectangular central window, which has a Baroque frame, two vertical steps on each side and a crowning triangular pediment. Below this is a table with an epigraph which has now eroded away.
The entrance to the old convent, now the portal of the college, is worth a look. Above a segmental pediment is a vertical elliptical tondo in a wreath supported by putti, and this contains a relief of St Nicholas of Tolentino. The work is by Giovanni Francesco Rossi.
Layout and fabricEdit
The church has a Latin cross plan, with three chapels on each side of the nave, a transept with a central dome and a shallow rectangular apse. It is 35 metres long, 20 metres wide and 25 metres high at the cupola.
There is not much that shows that this is an Oriental Catholic church, apart from the curtain which is drawn across the sanctuary at certain times during Mass, serving a purpose similar to the iconostasis in the Byzantine liturgy.
In the dome, nave and left transept there are cracks, the result of an earth tremor in the early 20th century. The church has been thoroughly checked, and is considered completely safe despite the damage.
The decoration is lush, with lavish use of polychrome marble and gilded stucco.
The three bays of the nave are separated on each side by two pairs of Corinthian pilasters set close together, and these support an entablature with a dentillated cornice which runs around the interior. The near and far pairs of side chapels are entered through archways, but the middle two lack an arch.
The barrel vault is set on the entablature, and has three sections corresponding to the nave bays. Each of these is decorated with diapered coffering containing lilies, and a central panel with an allegorical scene in stucco relief. A window in a shallow lunette is at each end, with a scallop shell in the lunette. The sections are separated by double transverse archivolts embellished with rosettes and caterpillar garlands. Gilding is lavishly applied, so that the vault is more gold than white.
Above the entrance is a gallery bearing the organ in its original gilded case and supported by four marble columns. According to Corsi writing in 1833, the marble is fior di pesco which the ancient Romans sourced from the island of Euboea in Greece -this sample is probably from Lucca. Flanking the window above are two stucco allegorical figures by Francesco Baratta.
Several tombstones are set in the marble floor, which was laid in 1950. It replaced the original brick one.
The triumphal arch has a triple archivolt in the same style as the transverse arches of the nave ceiling, and these are supported by a pair of clustered Composite pilasters. The sanctuary and transept side chapel arches have single archivolts in the same style.
The pendentives of the dome are decorated with four female figures symbolizing the four fundamental virtues of the Augustinian Order: Chastity, Humility, Poverty and Obedience. They were executed by Pietro Paolo Ubaldini in 1643. There surface of the dome itself is completely covered by a fresco depicting The Apotheosis of St Nicholas of Tolentino by Giovanni Coli and Filippo Gherardi. The figure of the saint is a little difficult to spot amidst the host of heavenly beings, but he is the one holding a book which reads Praecepta patris mei servavi ("I have kept the commands of my father").
The high altar is by Alessandro Algardi, and has a towering Baroque aedicule. This features four fluted Corinthian columns in marmo bigio, in other words "grey marble". The original source for this stone is the island of Lesbos in Greece. The front pair stand on plinths embellished with coats-of-arms of the Pamphilj family executed in relief by Algardi.
The altarpiece sculpture group of the Madonna with Child, with SS Augustine and Monica, Offering Miraculous Bread to St Nicholas of Tolentino, is by two sculptors. Our Lady and SS Augustine and Monica are by Ercole Ferrata, but St Nicholas is by Domenico Guidi. The front columns support two fragments of a split segmental pediment, on which recline two angels by Baratta. Into this pediment is introduced a bas-relief panel of The Eternal Father by Ferrata, which has its own segmental pediment.
The conventual choir of the friars, and later the nuns, is behind the high altar. It is accessed by a pair of flanking doors with grated windows above them. The altarpiece of Our Lady was noted at the start of the 20th century as being of the school of Raphael; is this picture now in the left hand end of the transept?
The side chapels are described anticlockwise, beginning to the right of the entrance.
Chapel of St Nicholas of BariEdit
The first chapel on the right is the Cappella Monini, and is dedicated to St Nicholas of Bari. The altarpiece is a depiction of A Miracle of St Nicholas of Bari by Filippo Laurenzi, executed in 1710 as part of a re-fitting of the chapel. The Corinthian columns are in alabaster. The side walls have two pictures by Giovanni Ventura Borghesi, The Coronation of Our Lady on the left and The Birth of Our Lady on the right.
Chapel of St Gregory the IlluminatorEdit
The Chapel of St Gregory the Illuminator is the second on the right hand side. St Gregory was the Apostle of the Armenians in the 4th century, and this chapel was dedicated to him in 1908. Beforehand, it was dedicated to St Joseph and had an altarpiece of the Holy Family by Domenico Bassi.
The present altarpiece is by Giovanni Gagliardi, and shows the legendar meeting of St Gregory and Pope Sylvester I at Rome. The two background figures are the emperor Constantine to the left and King Tiridates I of Armenia to the right.
Cardinal Andon Bedros IX Hassoun, founder of the College who was the Patriarch of Cilicia of the Armenians until his death in 1884, has a memorial to the right. The best way to find the monument is to look for his cardinal's hat hanging from the vault. This is a tradition in the Catholic church - when a cardinal dies, his hat is hung by his tomb or in the church of his choice where it will hang until it has decayed so much that it falls down.
To the left is a memorial to Krikor Bedros IV Aghajanian, 1971. He also was a cardinal-patriarch of the Catholic Armenians.
Chapel of SS Lucretia and GertrudeEdit
The third chapel on the right hand side is dedicated to St Lucretia (a virgin martyr of Mérida in Spain) and St Gertrude the Great, an odd combination. It is the Cappella Lante delle Rovere, and was fitted out in 1648. The polychrome marble work, including the floor, is rich and the altar aedicule has two Corinthian columns of red, grey and white Camposanto marble.
The altarpiece is by Ubaldi, and shows the two saints (a helpful label is in between the halves of the split segmental pediment). The cupola fresco is also by him, and shows their Apotheosis.
To the left is the sepulchral monument of Cardinal Federico Lante delle Rovere.
Chapel of St John the BaptistEdit
In the right arm of the transept is the altar of St John the Baptist. It matches the one in the opposite arm, and the altar aedicule has a pair of fluted Corinthian marmor bigio columns supporting a segmental pediment with a recessed central section and on which two allegorical figures sit. Faith is on the right, and Abundance on the left.
The altarpiece depicting the saint is by Giovanni Battista Gaulli. The aedicule is flanked by a pair of matching memorials, to Giuseppe Oreggi, 1669 to the left and Cardinal Nicola Oreggi, 1672 to the right.
Chapel of Blessed Gomidas KeumurjianEdit
The altar in the left end of the transept is dedicated to the Blessed Gomidas Keumurjian, an Armenian priest who was martyred at Constantinople in 1707 for accepting the authority of the Pope. The altar aedicule matches the one opposite, and both were designed by Algardi.
This altar was formerly dedicated to St Agnes, with an altarpiece which was a copy of a work by Guercino.
There is a tiny chapel, known as the Cappella Buratti, through a door to the right of the above-mentioned altar. It was designed by Giovan Battista Mola, and is thought to be a survival of the original little church founded by the friars in 1604. The vault is frescoed by Ubaldi again, and the walls have scenes from the life of Our Lady by Romanelli.
Chapel of Our Lady of Good CounselEdit
The altarpiece is a copy of the miraculous icon enshrined at Genazzano, executed by Cristoph Unterberger (1732-98) and inserted into a gilded stucco glory. The artist was Flemish. To the left is an Annunciation by Raffaele Minossi (1732-1805), a Capuchin friar, and to the right is The Holy Family by Cades.
Chapel of Our Lady of MercyEdit
The second chapel on the left, the Cappella Gavotti, was designed by Pietro da Cortona and fitted out in 1668. He frescoed the cupola. The dedication is to Our Lady of Mercy, whose shrine is near Savona.
The aedicule has two large Corinthian columns in verde antico marble. The relief sculpture altarpiece is a depiction of the Apparition of the Blessed Virgin to Blessed Anthony Botta by Fancelli. Here also are statues of St Joseph by Ferrata, and St John the Baptist by Raggi.
The side walls have matching memorials to members of the Gavotti family. The one on the right is to Giovanni Battista Gavotti, 1661 and is by Fancelli, but the one on the left to Carlo Gavotti was a deliberate imitation executed in 1706. The giveaway seems to be that the pair of columns of the left hand one are not genuine verde antico, unlike in the monument opposite.
Chapel of St Philip NeriEdit
The first chapel on the left was fitted out in 1728 dedicated to St Philip Neri, with an altarpiece depicting the saint by Cristoforo Creo. However, it now contains the Easter Sepulchre brought from the church of Santa Maria Egiziaca when it was closed. This is of plaster, painted to resemble marble, and was made in 1679.
The gilded angels here used to be in the sacristy, and are thought to be part of a large candelabrum known to have been made in 1679 by Fra Cosimo, one of the friars here.
The church is only open for liturgical functions.
However, if you visit around 9:30 on Sundays you should find the church open in preparation for a choir practice at 10:00, and for the Eucharist an hour later. It is well worth making the effort to visit -and to attend the Eucharist.
The Eucharist is celebrated on Sundays at 11:00. (July 2018.)
This is the only regular liturgical function, but there are also celebrations on certain feast-days.
The liturgy is that of the Armenian rite, and the Armenian language is used. This rite is Antiochene in origin, but has been influenced by both the Byzantine and the Roman rites. Mass in the Roman rite is no longer celebrated regularly in the church, as used to be the case.
The Feast of St Nicholas of Tolentino is celebrated on 10 September.
College website (404, July 2018)
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