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San Nicola di Bari a Cesano is a very heavily restored 11th century parish church at Via Borgo di Sopra 40 in the old town and district of Cesano. Pictures of the church on Wikimedia Commons are here.
The dedication is to St Nicholas of Bari.
This church is in the municipality of Rome, but belongs to the diocese of Porto Santa Rufina.
The church is in the old town of Cesano, also called variously Cesano di Roma, Cesano Borgo or Borgo di Cesano.
Cesano as a settlement dates back to the early Middle Ages (attempts to demonstrate an ancient foundation are inconclusive, although it is suggested that the place was Cesarianum). The first church or chapel on the site is thought to have been founded in the 9th century. It was dedicated to Christ the Saviour, and the first documentary reference dates to 1078 when a priest called Ruppo sold an interest in it to the monastery of Santi Cosma e Damiano in Rome. This church is the ancestor of the present San Giovanni Battista a Cesano.
San Nicola was founded in the 11th century, and is opposite the Palazzo so it seems that the local nobility wanted their own church outside the control of a monastery in Rome. Hence, this church is the junior in foundation of the two in the town. However, if the sources are right it is the senior parish church, as San Giovanni only became parochial in 1563.
In the last quarter of the 14th century, fresco work was executed in the interior fragments of which survive. In 1490 a more substantially surviving fresco cycle was completed (it bears a dated epigraph).
In 1600, what seems to have been a side chapel to the right was demolished and replaced by a two-storey priest's house.
In 1650, the right side of the façade collapsed. The Chigi family, who were the local landowners at the time, decided to rebuild San Giovanni Battista instead of repairing San Nicola. This seems to have been unpopular with the local residents, who restored San Nicola in 1686 and left a marble epigraph saying so. However, the single parish of San Giovanni Battista was established for the town.
The town's two churches survived until the later 19th century, when both of them were found to be in very bad repair. San Giovanni Battista was abandoned as derelict in 1888, but had to be reopened in 1892 because San Nicola proved to be in a worse state and was itself abandoned. However, a restoration of both churches was put in hand and was completed at San Nicola in 1900. In the process the mediaeval frescoes, which had been painted over, were rediscovered.
In 1951 a large statue of St Nicholas was provided for the church, replacing a small polychrome one installed in the restoration.
In 1975 a picture depicting The Apparition of Christ and Our Lady to St Nicholas was stolen. This had come from the ruined church of San Nicola a Galeria Antica. In 1981, the roof was repaired through the generosity of Renato and Teresa Bornigia.
Towards the end of the 20th century it was decided to build a new church in the separate built-up area near the railway station, and so San Sebastiano a Cesano was opened in 1998 as the main church of the parish of San Giovanni Battista. As a quid pro quo, it was decided to abandon San Nicola as a place of worship and hand it over to the city of Rome as an ancient monument. This was done in 1992, and the fabric was well restored. However, the move proved unpopular and so the church reopened for liturgical activities in 2006.
At present (2016), however, Mass is not celebrated regularly here as San Giovanni Battista is the Mass centre for the old town.
Layout and fabric Edit
The church guards the main access to this attractive little town, where the road from the train station becomes the Borgo di Sopra. The road has a very narrow squeeze down the left hand side of the church, which is aligned parallel to it, and this indicates that the church was actually originally built on land taken from the right of way.
It has a simple rectangular nave with a pitched and tiled roof, and a separate semi-cylindrical apse with its own tiled roof appreciably lower than the side rooflines of the nave. The walls are rendered in light grey, but both nave and apse stand on a plinth of rough-cut tufo stone blocks. Oddly, there are no windows apart from those in the façade.
A two-storey priest's house is attached to the right hand side of the nave, with its own roof having a ridge level with the roofline of the nave wall.
The entrance is approached via a cobbled ramp with shallow steps, ending in three cobbled steps to the entrance
The simple façade dates from 1686. It has a deep archivolt in large bricks inset above the entrance, which encloses a tympanum now blank. Two small square windows flank the door. Above the door is an octagonal window with a molded frame. There is a simple molded entablature, slightly below the line which would have made a triangular pediment out of the gable. This entablature is supported by thin and shallow pilasters at the corners, and above these is a pair of posts supporting small horizontal sections of the roofline either side of the gable. In the gable there is a round window, also with a molded frame. It is thought that the octagonal window replaced a mediaeval rose window.
To the right of the façade is an external staircase leading to the second storey of the priest's house -this edifice used to house the town's school. The campanile or bell-cote is placed transversely on the near right hand side nave roof, and peeps over the gable. It has a triangular tympanum, cut into by the tall single round-headed aperture.
Layout and fabric Edit
The structurally very simple little interior has a single nave and an apse with conch. However, to the right there are two large blind arches which indicate that there was once an aisle or large side chapel. This was demolished in 1600 when the priest's house was built. The arches spring from a grey marble column, now embedded in the wall, which has an interesting capital featuring a ring of incised squares.
Apart from the frescoes, the wall surfaces are all in bright white. The roof is open, and is trussed.
By the door is a large 16th century free-standing holy water stoup, in marble with a hemispherical bowl having a rolled rim and standing on a vase-shaped pedestal. This looks as if it was once a font.
The counterfaçade has a marble tablet recording the townsfolk's restoration of the church in 1686:
Comunitas Caesani hanc s[an]ctam ecclesiam, divo Nicolao dicatam, fere funditus collapsam, aere proprio reaedificavit anno Do[mi]ni MDCLXXXVI
("The community of Cesano rebuilt this holy church, dedicated to the divine Nicholas and almost collapsed to the foundations, with their own money AD 1686.")
The wording hints that the townspeople were not happy at the decision of the ruling nobility to restore San Giovanni Battista instead of this church.
Over the altar is a seated mid 20th century statue of the saint, installed in 1951 and unfortunately obscuring the fresco behind.
The blind arcade to the right displays two 14th century frescoes on the archivolts, cut through by the blocking walls. The nearer one shows Christ in Majesty, and the further one Our Lady Nursing the Christ-Child.
The left hand wall and apse have frescoes of the 15th century, tentatively ascribed on stylistic grounds to the school of Antoniazzo Romano.
First on the left are two stucco wall aedicules featuring similar icons of the Madonna and Child. Christ is shown naked, in a standing position and embracing his mother. It looks as if the two icons are by the same artist. The first, larger aedicule actually cuts through the second one, so this looks like a mind-change on the part of a patron who was dissatisfied with the earlier work and had it plastered over and replaced.
The first aedicule is actually the remains of the church's Marian altar (now removed), and features two shallow downwardly tapering Doric pilaster flanking the icon in a molded frame. At the top in between the pilaster capitals is an archivolt on which is a curlicued tablet and which shelters a decorative knot. The paint scheme is in bright blue, with the capitals in yellow and the pilaster plinths in red.
The second aedicule, which has its left edge erased by the first, is smaller and the icon has a curved top. It is flanked by a pair of blind pilasters with grotesque decoration, and this supports a length of entablature with a very deep frieze having more grotesquery including vine-scrolls.
There follows on the left hand wall a row of rectangular panels in painted frames, showing various holy personages. The first two are in a double frame, and depict SS Anthony of Egypt and Pachomius. The next frame contains three panels, depicting St Nicholas, Christ and an unknown (this panel has been almost completely destroyed). There follows a frame containing a depiction of the Madonna and Child similar in style to the two aedicule icons just mentioned. Finally, two frames contain a saintly bishop of uncertain identity and The Martyrdom of St Sebastian.
The conch of the apse depicts Christ in Glory, accompanied by hosts of angels. Below, the apse wall has three panels. The central one shows the Mother and Child enthroned, the left hand one is of St John the Baptist and the right hand one, St Nicholas. Narrow panels displaying grotesque decoration separate these three panels, and flank the apse. In between the three panels and the conch is an entablature with a matching frieze.
Below the three panels is a dedicatory epigraph in Italian, reading: Questa tribuna e dipinta al epo[ca?] de intenta Ede... Mat... di Cesano, ano MCCCCLXXXX. This dates the work to 1490.
Access and liturgy Edit
No regular liturgical events seem to be advertised here, but there should be a celebration of Mass on 6 December which is the Solemnity of St Nicholas. He is also the patron of the town.
If you plan to visit by car, be aware that parking in the town is a problem. It is better to park near the train station and catch the 024 bus, which starts from there.