The dedication is to St Paul the Apostle.
The end of the Acts of the Apostles describes how St Paul was allowed to rent his own lodgings, and to hold assemblies where he instructed the first Christians at Rome, while waiting for the trial before the Emperor. Tradition claims that this church is built on the site where he lived and taught in this period, and it is believed that his room is preserved therein. In favour of this tradition, there is some evidence that tanners worked along the bank of the Tiber here, which would make it a logical place for a tentmaker to settle. Also, it is alleged in an apocryphal 2nd century Life of St Paul that he hired a granary for his meetings, and excavations behind the church conducted from 1978 to 1982 led to the conclusion that it was very likely that there was a granary at the site.
However, this tradition conflicts with another claiming that he lived at the site of Santa Maria in Via Lata.
The origins of the church are not documented. By tradition, it was founded by Pope Sylvester I in the 4th century next to the oratory which had been created out of St Paul's single-room residence. However, the first documentary evidence is only from 1186 when it was listed as one of the churches dependent on San Lorenzo in Damaso.
The listing meant that it was operating as a parish church by then.
The alternative to the received legend is that the church was patronized from early in its existence by leatherworkers and tanners living locally, whose patron St Paul is (there is archaeological evidence for their work). The point about this, is that the legend might have been invented to suit them.
The church functioned as the centre of a typical small centro storico parish in the Middle Ages. But there were too many of these in the locality, and especially after the Sack of Rome in 1527 many were suppressed because of the fall in population. The one here suffered this fate.
The church was given to a small community of Discalced Augustinians, who had a convent here before 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 Santo Stefano Rotondo al Celio and then here before moving on to San Nicola da Tolentino agli Orti Sallustiani in 1599.
Third Order FranciscansEdit
In 1619, the church was granted to the Sicilian branch of the Third Order Franciscans (Terz'Ordine Regolare di San Francesco or TOR) who were financed by the King of Spain. They immediately built a large convent and college, and set about rebuilding the church. This was begun in 1687 but only completed in 1728.
In the process another old church called San Cesario, which was adjacent, was demolished in order to make room for a more dignified building.
The original plans were drawn up by Giovanni Battista Borgonzoni, one of the brethren, revised by Giacomo Ciolli and completed by Giuseppe Sardi. The last-named was responsible for the façade.
The college survived until the sequestrations of the late 19th century, and the church remained in the administration of the TOR until the early 21st.
It is now run by members of the Sodalitium Christianae Vitae , a Society of Apostolic Life of pontifical right which originated in Peru, and was opened to the public again after restoration in 2008.
The TOR remain in legal possession.
The church was established as a cardinal deaconry in 1946 by Pope Pius XII. It has had three cardinal deacons since then: from 1958 until 1960 Cardinal Giuseppe Fietta held the title, and from 1962 until 1971 Cardinal Michael Browne, O.P. who was the Master General of the Order of Preachers (Dominicans).
The present incumbent is Francesco Monterisi, since 2010.
The nave is square, with four pillars supporting a false dome which is covered by a pitched and tiled roof through which the lantern protrudes. This is cylindrical, of a simple design involving four large windows interspersed with four window slits, and a tiled cupola incorporating a little ring frieze.
The façade fronts a shallow entrance bay, and on the other side of the nave is a long, narrow rectangular presbyterium with an internal semi-circular apse. To the left of this is the sacristy, and to the right is the Oratory of St Paul; these three elements are under the same pitched and tiled roof which is slightly lower than that of the nave.
The Oratory has a rectangular plan, and should not be confused with the Oratory of St James which was further down the Via del Conservatorio and which is now demolished.
The two-storey stucco façade on a stone plinth, which looks impressive after the restoration, is bowed in an ogee curve. It is now rendered in a cream colour.
The first storey has six derivative Corinthian pilasters, two pairs flanking the main door and a pair at the outer corners. They are doubletted along one edge. This storey gives the impression that the church has aisles, which is not the case. Two much smaller subsidiary doors are between the paired pilasters, and all three doors have plain doorcases. Above the main door is a floating arc cornice, and above the side doors are two vertical blank capsule-shaped panels. The outer sections of this storey have a pair of large blank rectangular panels with chamfered corners.
The pilasters support an entablature the frieze of which carries an inscription: Gentium doctori divo Paulo Apostolo Collegium Siculum Tert[ii] Ord[inis] S[ancti] Francisci ("The Sicilian college of the Third Order of St Francis, [dedicated] to Saint Paul the teacher of the Gentiles").
The second storey has four Corinthian pilasters in the same style, standing on high plinths and flanking a large rectangular recessed window having a balcony with a solid balustrade. These pilasters support an entablature, the central section of which is recessed as well. The inner pair of pilasters is twinned at an oblique angle, with the inner two faces on diagonals either side of the window. The outer pair is doubletted, and next to them are concave sweeps ending in little volutes. In between the pilasters are two empty round-headed niches with floating ogival cornices above wreaths.
Above the window is a relief of St Paul holding his sword of martyrdom inside an oval tondo, and above the entablature is an ogival pediment containing a recessed Franciscan coat of arms. Finally, there is a crowning pilaster finial supporting a wire cross.
Oratorio di San Giacomo dei CappellariEdit
The complex included a separate oratory used by the guild of cloak-makers (cappellari), which was slightly further down the Via del Conservatorio beyond the right hand side wall of the Oratory of St Paul. It was separated from the latter by a very narrow entrance passage, and was also aligned along the street. The two oratories were the same size and shape.
The dedication of this oratory was to St James the Great. It was demolished in the 20th century, and the site is now under a very large modern building.
Layout and fabricEdit
The attractive Baroque interior is designed around the central dome on its four piers. The nave has a Greek cross plan under the dome, with a main side chapel at each end of the transverse arm. The longitudinal arm of the cross comprises an entrance bay, and a far bay leading into the sanctuary. The inner corners of the cross are occupied by four further side chapels.
The dome piers are pentagonal in section, and the faces looking inwards to under the dome have long panels in what looks like red Sicilian jasper. Each pier also has a flanking pair of Composite pilasters with putto's heads in the capitals, and these support an entablature that runs round the interior. The bodies of the pilasters are panelled in a yellow marble edged in grey.
The four corner chapels are entered through two arches each, one longitudinal and one transverse. These arches spring from Doric imposts, and above them are sub-friezes fitted under the entablature which bear scrollowork decoration.
As is obvious, the decoration of the church was never finished. The dome and vaults above the entablature are simply rendered in a yellow and grey paint scheme. Instead of springing directly from the entablature, the vaults and dome pendentives spring from attic plinths instead.
The sanctuary has a triumphal arch fitting into the vault, springing from a pair of attic plinths above the entablature. It has two bays, and then the apse.
The wall of the apse behind the main altar is occupied by three large frescoes by Luigi Garzi depicting, left to right, St Paul preaching, being converted and being martyred. These works are separated by pilasters in the same style as those in the nave.
In the apse below these is a semi-circular set of 17th century choir stalls in walnut wood.
The altar itself is without an aedicule. It is decorated with polychrome stonework in alabaster and marble, and is flanked by a pair of identical doorways in florid Baroque style. Unusually, these have floating ogee cornices used as candle-stands.
The chapels are described in anticlockwise order, beginning to the right of the entrance.
Chapel of St RosaliaEdit
The first chapel on the right is dedicated to St Rosalia, and the altarpiece features her with SS Clare and Rose of Viterbo . The artist is not certainly known, although Cristoforo Creo has been suggested. The painting above of the martyrdom of St Erasmus is by Biagio Puccini (1675-1713) who was a native Roman artist.
Chapel of St FrancisEdit
The second chapel on the right is dedicated to St Francis of Assisi, and has an altarpiece of him receiving the stigmata by Michele Rocca (1666-1751). This work has been erroneously attributed to Il Parmigianino. It is in a very ornate gilded frame, with grotesque panels to each side.
Chapel of the CrucifixionEdit
The third chapel on the right is dedicated to the Crucifixion, and contains a bronze crucifix by Alessandro Algardi (1598-1654).
Oratory of St PaulEdit
The oratory described as the residence of St Paul is to the right of the sanctuary. Over its door is an oval painting by Puccini, showing St Bonaventure in ecstasy being watched by St Thomas Aquinas (those who know the history of the competition between the mendicant orders will marvel at a Franciscan being admired by a Dominican!).
The residence has an altar with a green marble cross, and above this is a modern mosaic by Eugenio Cisterna showing the apostle teaching in chains and with his soldier custodian. On the right side is an old inscription dating to 1096 listing a collection of relics then at San Cesario.
The sacristy is to the left of the sanctuary, and over its door is a painting of Our Lady with the Christ Child and St Clare by Puccini.
The sacristy itself, panelled in walnut, was completed in 1736 and has a fresco on the internal dome by the Bavarian Ignaz Stern (1679-1748).
Chapel of Our Lady of GracesEdit
The third chapel on the left is dedicated to Our Lady of Graces, and contains a venerated 14th century icon of her breastfeeding the Child Jesus. This was apparently originally in the church of San Cesario.
The icon has a spectacular Baroque glory involving angels, putti and an enormous crown above. The ex votos in the cases to the sides are from grateful supplicants.
Chapel of St AnneEdit
The second chapel is dedicated to St Anne, and the altarpiece by Giacinto Calandrucci shows her receiving the Child Jesus from Our Lady. The aedicule has a pair of very impressive Solomonic columns, helical or barley-sugar twisted, which imitate those of the baldacchino at St Peter's.
The vault of this chapel is frescoed by Salvatore Monosilio.
Chapel of St Anthony of PaduaEdit
The first chapel on the left is dedicated to St Anthony of Padua, and the altarpiece depicting the saint is by Calandrucci. The side painting showing A Miracle of St Anthony is by Giacomo Diol.
The excavations in the latter 20th century have left a very interesting set of ancient underground chambers and passages under this church, although they also extend under neighbouring properties. The main remains comprise an ancient Roman insula or city block.
There is an article in Italian on them on the "Roma Sotterranea" link below.
The church is expected to be open daily, 10:00 to 12:30 and 17:00 to 20:00. On Sundays, it opens an hour later in the mornings and closes an hour earlier in the evenings.
The underground archaeological area is only accessible by means of guided tours. See the Sovrintendenza web-page below in the first instance; tours are also being advertised directly online.
Mass is only in the evenings, 19:30 on weekdays and 18:00 on Sundays.
Church's website ("under construction" 2011; defunct 2014)