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San Pietro in Borgo

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San Pietro in Borgo is a small mediaeval (11th century?) church by the south-east corner of Vatican City, just west of the Piazza del Sant'Uffizio in the rione Borgo. The postal address is 9/A. Despite appearances, it is in Italy not the Vatican City -although this area is extra-territorial. A picture of the church on Wikimedia Commons is here.

Name Edit

The modern dedication is to St Peter the Apostle . The church is also referred to as San Salvatore in Torrione, which is a historical name containing an error, and as San Salvatore de Ossibus which relies on a scholarly surmise which cannot be proved.

The present name is owing to the church having been re-dedicated as the school chapel of the Pontificio Oratorio San Pietro in 1924 after three centuries of deconsecration.


Schola Francorum? Edit

A scholarly surmise is that this church was founded for the Schola Francorum in the the late 8th century. This was a hospice complex for expatriates from the Frankish Kingdom as it mutated into the Carolingian Empire , and it has been suggested that the church originally served its cemetery.

The Schola was founded by Charlemagne and Pope Leo III in 799 (the actual year is subject to scholarly debate), and primarily served as a hospice for pilgrims and expatriates. A reasonable surmise is that a cemetery was established for those who died at Rome, but not on the site of the present one at Santa Maria della Pietà in Camposanto nearby. So it is thought that the present church of San Pietro in Borgo originally served the Schola as its mortuary chapel, with the name Sancti Salvatoris in Ossibus.

The original site of the Schola was certainly south of St Peter's, but its layout cannot now be securely traced. The main buildings were fairly certainly where the present Palazzo del Sant'Uffizio stands. West of the Schola was probably the Palatium Caroli or emperor's residence, and south-west of that was the Balneum Leoni built by Pope Leo. This latter building was about where the church of Santa Maria della Pietà is now.

Unfortunately the surmise that the cemetery was where the present church stands cannot be proved, and it has been argued that the Ossibus church was actually on a different site.

San Salvatore Edit

The first surviving documentary reference to the church is in a bull of Pope Leo IX dated 1053, which refers to it as Sancti Salvatoris super Terrionem. The Catalogue of Cencio Camerario of 1192 has Terrionis, that of Paris c1230 has Terionis, and that of Turin of about the same date has Turrionis.

After then, the church was known as San Salvatore in Torrione and was allegedly named after the towers of the adjacent Porta Cavallegeri. However, it is obvious from the sources that this was a bad etymology based on a lack of understanding of the meaning of the original name Terrio. This word remains obscure.

The church was probably originally parochial, perhaps one of many founded in the 10th century to serve the population of the built-up area within the city walls at the time. The locality here was brought within the Leonine Walls in 852, and this alternative theory of the church's foundation does not involve the Schola Francorum at all.

The fabric of the present edifice looks 11th century.

Renaissance Edit

The church was restored about 1450, under the authority of Pope Nicholas V. The surviving fresco work on the interior walls dates from this restoration -although it is undocumented, the pope's heraldry allegedly occurs in it. The parish still existed then.

However, the edifice was subsequently abandoned as a church. This seems to link to the construction of the adjacent Palazzo di Sant’Uffizio to house the Holy Office (now the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith), which was proposed in 1511 but only actually finished in 1567. It is on record that the western end of the church was demolished in the process, which indicates that the mediaeval church used to have an entrance portico or narthex. Formal deconsecration took place in 1611.

The edifice was then part of the appurtenances of the Holy Office for over three centuries.

Phoenix Edit

The old building was restored and re-consecrated as a church in 1924, under the authority of Pope Pius XI. This was part of a large re-modelling project for the Palazzo, which was completed in the following year. The supervising architect was Pietro Guidi, and the work on the church was paid for by the Knights of Columbus.

The restored church functioned as the chapel of the Pontificio Oratorio San Pietro, a school for the Vatican City. However, the building erected for this did not reach its half-century as it was demolished to make way for the Paul VI Audience Hall in the 1970's. The school moved to new premises at Via di Santa Maria Mediatrice 24, where it remains. The church was left without a function for the rest of the century.

Missionaries of Charity Edit

At present the church is being used as a chapel by the Missionaries of Charity of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, who have a convent adjacent at Piazza Sant'Uffizio 9/A. This is called the Casa Dono di Maria, and incorporates a shelter and soup kitchen for derelict and homeless people.

There was a restoration of the interior in 2011, sponsored by the "Ohio Chapter of the Patrons of the Arts in the Vatican Museums".


Layout and fabric Edit

The edifice is a simple nave of two bays, with a pitched and tiled roof. An external chapel is attached to the left hand side wall, squeezed into the narrow space between the church and the palazzo.

There is an external semi-circular apse, which can be seen from the street. This has intricate dentillated brickwork forming the roofline cornice, repeated on the main gable. A small round window with fenestration in the form of a six-petalled flower is over the apse. The rendering used to be in yellow ochre, but has recently been re-done in grey.

The rest of the church is inaccessible to ordinary visitors, but if the gateway to the left is open you may be able to see the left hand side wall. This wall has two large round-headed windows with two lights each separated by ring-and colonnette mullions, and two large pilaster buttresses with pitched and tiled tops. The rendering of the exterior away from the apse end is in light grey also.

Façade Edit

The restored façade is very straightforward, being a blank wall with a little round window over the single entrance door. The window has a cross-shaped fenestration formed of four three-quarter circles, and amounts to the only decoration. The doorway is approached by a flight of steps, and has a blank semi-circular tympanum over it. It looks as if there might be a crypt.

Interior Edit

Nave Edit

The nave has two bays, with a cross-vaulted ceiling lacking ribs. This springs from four pilasters in the corners, and two pilasters midway down the nave. These have Doric imposts but no capitals.

The walls and vault have fifteenth-century fresco decoration restored in 1924, which is illusionistic or trompe d'oeil. It gives the trick impression that the interior has Classical decorative architectural elements, when it has none. Here is one of the best examples of this in a Roman church, and the trick was to be popular in later Baroque decorative schemes where the budget would not stretch to actual stucco. In the description below, elements within "quotation marks" are all flat surfaces!

The nave walls below the pilaster capitals are divided into three horizontal registers of fresco. The lowest depicts large "framed panels of stone slabs" in red, green and yellow partly concealed by "red curtains hanging from a horizontal rail" (both fresco motifs were popular in palaeochristian churches). The second register is blank -the background colour might have been creamy white, a long time ago. The third is in several shades of grey, and consists of ten strips of "decorative molding" in a wide band dominated by a central "molding" involving a cylindrical bundle of oak leaves tied with ribbons. This impressive third register is "supported" on painted brackets.

The third register is broken by the two large round-headed windows to the right, which themselves are painted so as to seem to have wide frames of several "moldings" springing from "molded sills". The glass is from 1924, and contains two identical pairs of heraldic shields. One of the pair is of Pope Pius XI, and the other is of the Knights of Columbus.

The ceiling vault has two painted "molded archivolts" where it meets the wall on each side. Where the sectors of the cross-vault meet are two representations of the Keys of Peter within a wreath with ribbons. In between these is a fresco of Christ Returning as Judge (surrounded by flames), and by the one nearest the altar are winged angels' heads.

The 15th century fresco work continues across the counterfaçade, disproving the published remark that part of the actual church was demolished in the 16th century (this must have involved a portico). The entrance is painted so that it seems to have a "molded cornice" supported by a pair of "ribbed Corinthian columns". The round window sheltered by the curve of the vault is given a "molded frame" including a wreath, and to each side are more perished frescoes of angels.

The floor of polished brown marble tiles is also from 1924.

Sanctuary Edit

The sanctuary is in the semi-circular apse. The impression of a triumphal arch is give by the same style of grey fresco work as is in the nave, depicting a wide "molded archivolt" springing from a pair of "wide ribbed Doric pilasters". Above, the round window has a "molded frame" bounded by a gigantic "oak-leaf festoon tied with ribbon".

The capitals of the fresco pilasters are joined by a string course around the apse curve, below which are three of the panels in red, yellow and red. The conch has the text Laudate pueri Dominum ("Praise, servants, the Lord") within a wreath tied with ribbon.

The altarpiece in front of the yellow panel depicts The Holy Family, described as 16th century although it looks later. The altar slab is supported on two little columns and shelters a cippus or limestone box bearing a relief of the Cross. This was installed in 1924. The Blessed Sacrament is now reserved on this altar.

Chapel of the Sacred Heart Edit

In the near end of the left hand wall is a doorway leading into the church's only side chapel, fitted out in 1924. This is dedicated to the Sacred Heart, and has a tiny separate rectangular sanctuary entered through a completely plain triumphal arch. This contains an altar which is a marble slab perched on top of an ancient cippus with a defaced inscription. A round-headed portrait of the Sacred Heart in an ornate frame hangs on the wall above. The frame is worth inspecting, since it is an impressive neo-Baroque item with lots of gilded grotesque decoration on a (rather overwhelmed) ultramarine background.

Opposite the entrance door in this chapel is the church's shrine to Our Lady, which is also the memorial of Cardinal Francesco Borgongini Duca 1954. It is an attractive work, within an arched niche outlined by yellow marble. A mosaic of the Immaculate Conception is above a large epitaph tablet in pinkish-red marble, which in turn is above a plinth in purplish-brown marble. On this are bronze figures of the Cardinal, a young woman, a boy and a girl. The Cardinal's heraldry is on the front of the plinth.

Here also is a memorial to Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani 1979. An epigraph within a Baroque frame in alabaster and yellow marble reads: Christum et Ecclesiam vehementer dilexit, semper idem ("He passionately loved Christ and the Church, always the same"). Above is his bust in bronze, within a round-headed niche edged with more purplish-brown marble and above this in turn is his heraldry in polychrome marble inlay.

Access and liturgy Edit

The church now functions as a private chapel for the Missionaries of Charity, and has no public function. Special permission, obtained in advance, is needed to visit it and the word is that this is not easy to obtain.

Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, the foundress of the Missionaries, has her feast-day on 5 September and the sisters celebrate this with solemnity. The celebration may (or may not) be public.

External linksEdit

Official diocesan web-page (of the Casa, there is none of the church.)

Italian Wikipedia page

"Romasparita" photo

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