San Pancrazio alla Isola Farnese is 15th century (or earlier?) parish church at Via dell’Isola Farnese 252. This is in the suburban zone of Isola Farnese. Pictures of the Church on Wikimedia Commons are here.
This church is in the municipality of Rome, but belongs to the diocese of Porto Santa Rufina.
The Borgo di Isola Farnese is a mediaeval village, the descendent of the ancient city of Veii the ruins of which are just to the north. It should not be confused with the sprawling and messy 20th century suburb of the same name on the Via Trionfale to the west. The name Isola literally means "island", but here refers to an isolated piece of land surrounded on almost all sides by river gorges.
It has been claimed in the past that the church dates back to the 4th century, but on no evidence. There was no bishopric at Veii in ancient times.
The village is based on a castle which has its first historical reference in 1003, when it belonged to the monastery of Santi Cosma e Damiano. In 1110 the Chronicon casinense recorded that Pope Paschal II received hostages from Emperor Henry V during the Investiture Controversy, and these were held in the Castello dell'Isola.
The castle was built as a recognisably defensible fortress, on the northern European model with a keep and a walled bailey with drum towers (many Italian so-called "castles" are merely large houses witnessing in their design to some worries about security in past centuries).
The establishment was acquired by the Orsini family in 1286. To their credit, the family then built a full-sized church for the settlement that grew up outside the castle gate, on its market place which survives as a piazza. It has been considered that the present building went up in the 15th century, but the discovery of fresco fragments when the entrance arrangements and main roof were restored recently has led to some doubt. These are dated to the 14th century on stylistic grounds.
In 1567 the estate was sold to Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, the Farnese family gave the locality its present name -Isola Farnese. Given that the castle was militarily obsolete, the castle bailey was given over to the village and the original keep converted into the country villa that it still is.
In 1600 there was a restoration involving the rebuilding of the church's tower campanile. The mediaeval one, to the right of the church, was demolished and replaced with one over the left hand side of the façade. In 1649 the estate was deeded to the Apostolic Camera, which seems to have ordered some Baroque additions to the interior -although the campaign appears to have been abandoned unfinished.
In the nineteenth century, the village had an unfortunate time and was apparently mostly abandoned together with the castle. The latter was rescued late century by the Ferrioli family, and so is sometimes called the Castello Ferrioli. The family paid for some new fittings for the church.
The locality remains truly rural, but nearby suburban developments after the Second World War have given the church an active parochial ministry. Fortunately, the original building was generous enough to serve the purpose -most old places of worship in the Roman Campagna are little brick boxes, and have had to be replaced by modern parish churches.
A new set of doors with bronze relief panels was installed in 2013.
Layout and fabric Edit
The church has a basilical plan, comprising a central nave of four bays with lower side aisles. There is no transept, but a semi-circular sanctuary apse. The ends of the aisles have very shallow segmental apses, but these seem not to appear in the interior.
There are building abutting both sides of the church, but the near left hand aisle wall stands clear next to the piazza. The right hand aisle wall has two little apsidal chapels, although these are not obvious from the outside.
The fabric seems to be in brick, with all exposed surfaces rendered in a faded orange-pink. The roofs are pitched and tiled, with the aisle roofs being single-pitched.
Four very small and narrow round-headed windows are in each central nave side wall.
The façade is very simple, mostly in blank render but with a low stone dado plinth.
The single entrance doorway is approached by a flight of four steps. It has a stepped marble frame with a molded inner edge, and above it a floating cornice with an ogee rolled top. Above this in turn is a round window recessed within a molded stone frame, and the space between the two is occupied by a marble trapezoidal tablet curved to match. Oddly, the tablet is not quite symmetrical.
The doors are wood with bronze panels. Three square main panels features scenes from the life of St Pancras, and the four smaller rectangular ones show the symbols of the Evangelists. This work is by Pino Schiti and Sara Chirico, 2013.
The campanile of 1600 was added to the left side of the nave part of the façade, breaking the roofline, and the lower stage is one with the façade. This has a clock face on the aisle side. The bell stage has arched openings, and a tall pyramidal cap surrounded by a projecting cornice with a row of tiling on each side. The two storeys are separated by a molded cornice.
One of the bells is claimed to be 11th century.
An ancient Roman pagan tombstone is built into the lower left hand corner of the façade at ground level. It has the text L[ucio] Munatio Felici patri ("To Lucius Munitius Felix, father") on the front, and a relief of a libation jar on the visible side. The invisible side apparently has another relief, of a libation bowl.
There is a simple interior all in white except for the old frescoes, of four bays with arcades having massive longitudinal rectangular piers with simply molded projecting imposts. The arcade arches do not match. The right hand set of four have no embellishments, but the archivolts of the further three of the left hand set have beaded molding and have stucco relief coats-of-arms on their keystones. The far pair of arches spring from engaged pilasters, as does the near right hand one, but the near left one is smaller and simply melds with the support wall of the campanile.
It seems that the interior used to be entirely frescoed, and if so it must have been spectacular despite the low natural light level. There is only the round window in the counterfaçade, three very small round-headed windows in each central nave wall and an almost square window in the far side wall of the left hand aisle.
The main roof is open, with wooden trusses and battens stained dark. The panels in between the battens are in white.
The visible nave fresco is on the middle pier on the right. It shows Our Lady Suckling the Christ-Child, and is of the 15th century school of Melozzo da Forlì. So are the two apse frescoes.
Just inside the entrance is an unusual holy water stoup made up of two ancient Roman column capitals, the lower one upside down, sandwiching a marble block bearing an allegedly palaeo-Christian marble relief of two doves at a spring. This would be the oldest Christian artefact in the church, but unfortunately the drinking-dove motif does occur in ancient non-Christian decorative schemes.
The counterfaçade wall has three important old frescoes, one to the right of the actual entrance and the other two at the near ends of the side aisles. They were concealed in the remodelling at the start of the 17th century.
The fresco at the bottom of the right hand aisle shows St Bartholomew, SS Rufina and Secunda, St Julian and (above) The Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden. The latter scene is partly missing. This is the fresco that has prompted a revisionist view of the age of the church, as a later 14th century date has been postulated for it.
The fresco at the bottom of the left hand aisle is in two registers. The top one shows The Nativity with the Madonna and Child, St Joseph and the shepherds. The bottom one shows The Epiphany, with the Holy Family and the Magi. This fresco is of the Roman school, and has a useful dated dedicatory epigraph: Questa Capela ane fatto dipingere Gulio di Mastro Cola della Bordella abitante all’Isola Farnese per sua devozione. A.D. 1520 a dì XXIV maggio.
The confessionals were provided in the late 19th century by the Ferrioli family, and bear their heraldry.
The apse triumphal arch has a molded archivolt, but no supporting piers. Instead there are two deep entablature fragments, with a pair of painted trompe-l'oeil round-headed niches below them. The tabernacle fronts the one on the right, and a statue of Our Lady of Lourdes that on the left.
Above the entablatures, the spandrels of the arch are occupied by a damaged 15th century fresco discovered in the recent roof restoration. It depicts The Annunciation, and also a central figure above the archivolt which is almost gone.
The triumphal arch is quite deep, and on its intrados are fresco tondi containing saints' portraits. In the apse itself is a well-preserved fresco with two registers showing, below, the Dormition (death) of Our Lady and, above, the Crowning of Our Lady in heaven.
The side chapels are described anticlockwise, beginning to the right of the entrance.
The right hand aisle has two little apsidal chapels. The first is the baptistery, and contains a font which is a shallow marble bowl with sloping sides on a vase-shaped pedestal. It was provided by the Farnese family, as the heraldry indicates. There is a bronze cover.
The conch of the apse has early Baroque decoration, comprising three trapezoidal sector panels in stucco frames which meet at a semi-circular apical panel. The intrados of the arch has seven such panels, three rectangular and four square. The conch springs from a prominent entablature, which is supported by a pair of entrance pilasters bearing further framed panels. All of these panels once contained fresco work, now mostly perished, by Antonio Maria Panico. He was a painter favoured by the Farnese family
The otherwise blank apse wall has two fairly ornate Baroque frames, now containing modern pictures depicting Guardian Angels.
Chapel of St Teresa of Lisieux Edit
The next apsidal chapel now contains a statue of St Teresa of Lisieux. The original altarpiece has vanished, replaced by a crucifix, but it seems that the original dedication was to St Sebastian. This is because the side walls of the apse have two framed frescoes by Panico -not in good condition. One shows his execution near the Colosseum, and the other the rescue of his body from a sewer.
The intrados of the arch has ornate stucco decoration, more intricate than that of the previous chapel and this contains two rectangular and one elliptical fresco panels. Again, the frescoes have perished.
Further down the right hand aisle is a 15th century painted wooden crucifix.
Chapel of Our Lady of the Rosary Edit
The right hand aisle ends in an altar with a painting showing the Madonna and Child being venerated by SS Dominic and Catherine of Siena. The latter is being given a Rosary, and the altar is dedicated to Our Lady of the Rosary.
This altarpiece is perhaps by the Cavalier d’Arpino, and is dated 1639. Around it are fifteen tiles depicting the mysteries of the Rosary. Six of these have been stolen, and the replacements provided are by Luciano Maranzi.
Chapel of St Pancras Edit
The left hand aisle ends in an altar with a painting of St Pancras by Cristoforo Roncalli -Il Pomarancio. Since the primary dedication of the church was to Our Lady, the saint has a side altar here -despite now giving his name to the church as a whole.
The altarpiece is not within a proper aedicule, but has a very ornate frame with an arc cornice having stucco swags. The frontal is in polychrome stone inlay.
Chapel of St Anthony of Egypt Edit
The left hand aisle has no external chapels because of the presence of the village's piazza on the other side of the wall, but it has a side altar dedicated to St Anthony of Egypt. He is a patron of farm animals, hence the veneration here in a country village.
The very ornate and curlicued white stucco aedicule contains his symbol, the tau cross. It has a pair of Ionic pilasters set diagonally, and a little gilded canopy. This is the best stucco work in the church, but the altarpiece is anonymous 17th century. It shows the saint with an angel carrying his staff.
Santa Lucia alla Isola Farnese Edit
The village used to have two churches. The second was 17th century, and originally named Santa Maria in Castellana although it was later called Santa Lucia alla Isola Farnese. It was demolished in the early 19th century -it had gone by 1843, when its absence was noted.
What is left is apparently the back wall, with the remnants of a fresco showing the Madonna and Child between SS Peter and Lucy.
The writer has not been able to find out where exactly this is.
According to an unofficial source (2017), the church is open from 8:00 to 17:30.
Mass is celebrated:
Eves of Sundays and Solemnities 17:30;
Sundays and Solemnities 8:00, 10:00, 11:30.
The church is popular for weddings.