San Silvestro al Quirinale is a 16th century convent church at Via Ventiquattro Maggio 10. This is in the rione Trevi. Pictures of the church at Wikimedia Commons are here. There is an English Wikipedia page here.
The dedication is to Pope St Sylvester.
The origins of this church are unknown, but a good guess that it was one of many churches resulting from a massive church-building programme in the city in the 10th and 11th centuries. This operated on a "small parish" policy, with a church for about a hundred families or less. This particular one was right on the edge of the built-up area in mediaeval times, and the area to the east stayed mostly open until the 19th century.
If the church is to be identified with Santo Stefano in Cavallo, which is by no means certain, then its first documentary reference is in 1039. The Cavallo is a reference to the ancient statues of the Dioscuri in the Piazza del Quirinale.
It more reliably emerges into history in the Catalogus of Cencio Camerario in 1192, where it is listed as San Silvestro de Biberatica. Later catalogues and papal bulls give an alternative name of San Silvestro in Arcione, which might have been a reference to the ruins of the Baths of Constantine which were nearby (and which have been completely cleared away since by plunderers).
The church became conventual when it was granted to the Dominicans of the Florentine Congregation of St Mark by Pope Julius II in 1507. They set about rebuilding it and adding a friary in 1524, and an epigraph inserted into the façade records this. However, things must have gone wrong. In 1540 the complex was given into the personal care of Cardinal Ascanio Sforza di Santa Fiora, so conventual life must have collapsed or the friars burdened with unpayable debts.
Church and convent were granted to the Theatine Order by Pope Paul IV in 1555. The Theatines rebuilt the presbyterium in1584, and also added the present spectacular ceiling. The new high altar was consecrated in that year by Bishop Thomas Goldwell of St Asaph in north Wales, the last Catholic bishop of the mediaeval hierarchy of England (which included Wales). He had been finally exiled after Queen Mary Tudor's reign, and was the superior of the convent here.
The church acquired its major claim to fame from 1592, when the popes started to reside at the Quirinal Palace and conclaves to elect a new pope could be held at the Capella Paolina there. The inaugural procession of the Cardinals attending these started from this church.
The Theatines used this convent as their noviciate, their main house being at Sant'Andrea della Valle.
In 1798, the French occupation resulted in the closure of the convent and an apparent loss of interest on the part of the Theatines.
As a result, in 1801 it was granted to a catechetical body called the Società della Fede di Gesù founded by Niccolò Paccanari. The Paccanaristi were a copy of the Jesuits, which had been suppressed in the previous century, and when the Society of Jesus was revived they voluntarily dissolved themselves.
So, in 1814, after the fall of Napoleon, the complex was granted to the Lazarists, otherwise known as the Congregazione della Missione or Missionaries of St Vincent de Paul. They have been in charge ever since.
In 1873 the convent was sequestered by the Italian government, and was used as a barracks for a time. The Lazarists were allowed to keep the church, but the authorities immediately announced that the street outside would be widened and the gradient eased. The road system in Rome was previously utterly inadequate, and several of the major thoroughfares of the modern city date from this period. Here, the new road was to be the main link to the Quirinal and to the government departments to be established on it.
If you look at the Nolli map of 1748 (see "External links"), you will see that the church façade used to angle out into the street and so create a pinch-point. Instead of simply demolishing the church to remove this, the authorities employed Andrea Busiri Vici to demolish the façade and first bay of the nave, and to build a new frontage. The work was finished in 1879.
The church was restored in 1946, and the adjoining cloister in 1962.
Layout and fabricEdit
The church occupies the south-east corner and south range of the convent, which is arranged around four sides of an almost square (slightly trapezoidal) cloister to the north. The fabric of the church is incorporated into that of the convent, which as a building is a unit.
The plan is that of a Latin cross, with a short nave of two bays (formerly three), a transept and a long presbyterium which includes the conventual choir. The nave has its own pitched and tiled roof, the transept its own slightly higher one (with the ridge longitudinal) and the presbyterium slightly higher again. The last roof continues over the rest of the south range of the convent, and turns the angle at the south-west corner.
The church stands on a crypt, about which there seems to be very little information.
The campanile is on top of the near right hand wall of the transept. It's only possible to see the top of this from the street. The Baroque design amounts to two little triumphal arches, the bottom one having two archways and the top one, just one. There is a small split segmental pediment, into which a ball finial on a plinth is inserted, and two other balls on plinths flank the double arch.
Oddly, the right hand side of the transept, next to the campanile, has a little roof terrace.
To the left of the transept is a large square external chapel, the Cappella Bandini, which has a drum with eight large rectangular windows and a semi-spherical dome on a projecting cornice. The dome is covered in fish-scale tiles, and has a cylindrical lantern with four windows and a lead cupola. You can see the dome from the street, if you put yourself in the right place.
The appearance of the original 16th century façade has been preserved in documentation. Because of the crypt, it was accessed by a pair of longitudinal staircases which met at a balustraded landing in front of the single entrance. The latter had a raised triangular pediment. The façade itself had four pairs of double Corinthian pilasters, supporting an attic with posts and a little triangular pediment over the inner pair of doublet pilasters only. In between the pilasters was a round-headed niche surmounted by a rectangular one. The centre of the façade was occupied by an oculus or round window sheltered by an archivolt.
When the street was widened in 1877, the 16th century façade was replaced with the current one. The former frontage had been of simpler style, while the replacement, by Andrea Busiri Vici, is both more decorated and taller. The latter feature was necessitated by the lowering of the street level.
It has two storeys, the second being much lower than the first. The latter has four Doric columns standing on tall wall plinths accommodated to the slope of the street, and which support an entablature with posts and a dentillated cornice. In between the pair of pilasters on each side is an empty round-headed niche, and above is a string course which runs behind the pilasters across the façade. Then comes a pair of large rosettes.
The entrance has an aeducule formed of a pair of Doric columns supporting a lintel with a simple dedicatory inscription topped by a triangular pediment (in Italian, often mistakenly called a tympanon although this correctly refers to the area enclosed by it). Over the string course above the entrance is a large tablet, bearing an epigraph recording the rebuilding of the church. It reads:
S[ancto] Silvestro Pont[ifici] Rom[ano], qui Constantino Caesari ad Christi cultum traducto maiestatem ecclesiasticam fundavit, sacrum hoc in Quirinali sub Clemente VII Pont[ifice] Opt[imo] Max[imo] sapientissime erectum, MDXXIV.
("[To the honour of] St Sylvester, Roman Pontiff, who established ecclesiastical glory by handing over the cult to Constantine Caesar, this sacred place on the Quirinal was wisely erected under Clement VII, Great Pontiff, 1524")
The epigraph alludes to the legend, completely false historically, that Pope Sylvester baptized Constantine -he was dead when it happened.
The second storey has four short blind pilasters supporting an entablature with a little triangular pediment like the one on the original façade. Cornice and pediment have modillions. The central panel has an oculus in a rectangular frame, while the two side panels have coats-of-arms in relief, also framed.
The very strange thing about this façade is, that the design amounts to a fraud. The impressive central doorway is not the entrance to the church, but leads into the crypt and so the door is never to be found open. To the left of the façade is a small doorway, leading to a staircase which takes you to an entrance into the left hand side of the church transept.
The cloister to the north of the church has a small garden in its garth, and a small arcade in its western range.
The interesting thing here is a 16th century oratory that was used in funerals. The pedimented Mannerist façade, which is decorated in stucco with four Doric pilasters, is original and is inserted into the cloister frontage. Over the entrance is a very good relief of The Entombment of Christ.
Layout and fabricEdit
The church originally had a Latin cross plan. When the street was widened in 1877 the two first chapels were demolished, so the plan is today something in between a Latin and a Greek cross. There is a single nave of two bays, with two chapels on each side, and a large presbyterium containing a choir behind the altar. Nave and altar are separated by a transept, with fifth chapel in the right hand end. The left hand end has the present church entrance, as well as the entrance to the spectacular Cappella Bandini.
The late Renaissance or Mannerist interior is almost completely covered with paintings, with polychrome marble work on the walls in between them.
The arcades leading into the chapels have two semi-circular arches on each side, and a pair of larger arches for the transept which reach the ceiling. The arches spring from piers with imposts, and on the piers are frescoes depicting St Francis, St Longinus,St John the Baptist and St Philip Neri . Above the chapel arches are large rectangular windows, flanked by three framed frescoes on each side by Stefano Pozzo.
The 16th century coffered wooden ceiling is richly decorated, with carvings in blue and gold with some red. The three main oval panels have wooden relief carvings of Christ Handing the Keys to St Peter and the Madonna and Child; the third carving was lost when the church was shortened in 1877. The original donor was Marco Antonio Fiorenzi, and there was a restoration in 1804. The woodcarver is recorded as Flaminio Boulanger. This ceiling extends into the transept as far as the triumphal arch.
The tomb slabs in the floor of the nave are worth a look.
The counterfaçade has a stucco relief featuring The Baptism of Christ, apparently from the lost chapel on the left hand side. Here there are monuments to Cardinal Federico Corner 1591 by Giovan Battista della Porta, and Prospero Farinacci 1618.
The sanctuary is a single bay between two matching transverse arches, the first being the triumphal arch and the second one leading into the choir. The spandrels of the first have angels with the coats-of-arms of Popes Pius V and Clement VIII, and these were executed in 1601 by Giovanni and Cherubino Alberti.
The vault of the sanctuary is a very shallow saucer dome with pendentives, and these are frescoed with putti and angels.
On the left hand wall is The Interrogation of Jesus by Biagio Betti (1545-1615), one of the Theatines, and on the right hand wall is Our Lady with St Cajetan by Lazzaro Baldi.
The altar itself is a stand-alone table in polychrome marble, without a canopy in order not to shut out the choir presumably. In other Roman convent churches, the choir is usually invisible behind the altar.
The choir beyond the sanctuary amounts to a rectangular apse. It also has a vault focusing on a shallow little saucer dome, but here there are six pendentives separated by two windows on each side -an interesting insectile design. The cupola has a fresco featuring The Divine Glory, and the pendentives feature the four evangelists and the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah. The work was by Gaspare Agellio da Sorrento.
The lunette at the top of the far wall features Constantine and Pope Sylvester on Monte Soratte. It was by Matteo Zaccolini, and was finished in 1604. Below this are three oils of the 18th century, showing St Vincent de Paul in the middle by one G. Baccari flanked by SS Peter and Paul, anonymous.
The side walls have other anonymous portraits, mostly of the 18th century. The right hand wall has St Catherine of Siena, St Sebastian (17th century) and St Joseph with the Christ-Child. The left hand wall has St Mary Magdalen, St Bartholomew and St John the Baptist.
The wooden stalls are 17th century. Here also is a monument to Cardinal Giovanni Panzirolo, 1652.
The chapels are described in anticlockwise order, beginning at the bottom right.
Chapel of St SylvesterEdit
The first chapel on the right hand side used to be dedicated to the Holy Spirit but, when the chapel of St Sylvester was destroyed in 1877 (it used to be the first on the right), this one was was refurbished and rededicated. The Ionic columns of the altar are in a black brecciated marble, with the side panels in intricate scrolled pietra dura work.
The altarpiece is by Avanzino Nucci, early 17th century, and depicts Pope St Sylvester Baptizing Emperor Constantine (which, in reality, he could only have done if he had got out of his grave beforehand). In the ceiling vault are three frescoes. God the Father is in the middle, also painted by Nucci in 1868, St Sylvester at an Episcopal Council is on the right and St Sylvester Receives the Keys of Rome from Constantine is on the left. The latter two were by Gicomo Beltrami.
The Donation of Constantine, a malicious mediaeval forgery, pretended that Emperor Constantine had given the sovereignty of Rome to the popes in the early 4th century. In reality the popes and people of Rome recognized the authority of the emperor in Constantinople until the 8th century, but the Donation was an important prop to the temporal rule of the papacy in the Middle Ages.
Cappella della Madonna della CatenaEdit
The second chapel on the right contains the venerated icon of Our Lady of the Chain, which is a work of the 13th century Roman school. It is inserted into a 1646 painting by Giacinto Gimignani which shows Pope Pius V and Cardinal Antonio Carafa venerating it. The side panels flanking the altar show St Cecilia on the right, and St Catherine of Alexandria on the left, executed at the end of the 16th century by the Roman school again.
The side walls have two pictures by Cesare Nebbia, the Birth of Our Lady on the right and the Presentation of Our Lady at the Temple on the left.
In the vault are Pentecost in the middle, Annunciation to the right and Visitation to the left, late 16th century.
Chapel of the Holy TheatinesEdit
The right hand side of the transept contains a chapel dedicated to the Theatines who have been raised to the altars. It was furnished and dedicated in the 1630's, with a large altarpiece by Antonio Alberti showing St Cajetan, the founder, and St Andrew Avellino venerating God the Father with a rather alarming swarm of putti.
The pictures on the side walls were executed by Pietro Angeletti in 1782. The right hand one features Blessed Giovanni Marinoni, and the left hand one Blessed Paolo Burali who is shown visiting Pope Pius V ill in bed.
The left hand side of the transept is, in effect, the vestibule of the Cappella Bandini, which is dedicated to the Assumption of Our Lady. It is a large domed external chapel on a square plan designed by Ottaviano Nonni (nicknamed Il Mascherino) in 1585, and sumptuously decorated. This is a very important work, and should not be missed.
The square of the plan is chamfered, creating an irregular octagon, and in the short sides are four niches containing stucco statues: The Magdalene and St John the Evangelist from 1628 by Allessandro Algardi, and St Joseph and St Martha which are now regarded as anonymous in the style of Francesco Mochi.
Above the statue niches is a projecting cornice which runs round the chapel and which truncates the pendentives. The latter has four tondi containing frescoes by by Domenichino, done in 1628. The scenes are: David Dances Before the Ark of the Covenant (he's the one with the harp), Judith Displays the Head of Holofernes, Esther Faints Before Emperor Ahasuerus and Solomon Enthrones Bathsheba as Queen Mother.
The altarpiece depicts the Assumption and is by Scipione Pulzone. To the right is the monument of Pier Antonio and Cassandra Bandini, and to the left that of Cardinal Ottavio Bandini, 1629. The bust of the latter is ascribed to Giuliano Finelli.
The dome itself had to be rebuilt in 1823 because it cracked. On the pendentives rests a ring entablature with a frieze in (fake?) pink and grey marble. The drum has eight large windows occupying its entire height, and separated by geometric designs in panels made up of what looks like green, yellow and pink marbles. The dome itself rests on a cornice, and has trompe-l'oeil paintwork done to look like square coffering converging in diminuendo on the lantern oculus.
Chapel of the CribEdit
In the second chapel on the left hand side is a painting depicting the Nativity of Mary, painted by Marcello Venusti in the 16th century. On the side walls are the Circumcision of Christ and Adoration of the Magi by Jacopo Zucchi, and on the vault are The Dream of St Joseph and The Slaughter of the Innocents by Raffaelino da Reggio flanking The Holy Spirit with Angels.
The latter artist was also responsible for the depictions of King David and the prophet Isaiah on the archivolt.
The first chapel on the left hand side is dedicated to St Catherine of Siena and St Mary Magdalene. The design was by Onorio Longhi, and the original patron was "Fra" Mariano Fetti , the self-styled "Prince of the Crazies".
The original wall decoration was by Polidoro da Caravaggio (who is probably responsible for the monochrome putti flanking the altar) and Maturino da Firenze. To them belong the figures of the two saints flanking the altarpiece, and the scenes from their lives on the side walls (Catherine on the left, Magdalene on the right).
The altarpiece, however, showing The Madonna and Child with SS Michael, John the Evangelist, Catherine and Mary Magdalene is an anonymous work of the late 16th century.
The sacristy is to the right of the sanctuary, and contains original 17th century fittings. Over the entrance is a painted terracotta of the Madonna and Child, around 1450.
Access and liturgyEdit
There seem to have been problems with access in recent years. Opening times used to be advertised as 10:00 to 12:00, but the church has been found closed on weekdays. The lack has been noted by cultural organizations, and guided tours have been held -try the Info.roma website in the first instance.
There is a Mass on Sunday at 11:00, and the church should be open for this at 10:00 or a bit later. Those who attend the Mass have an opportunity to look at the artworks after its end.
Note that the door in the façade is not the entrance to the church. The way in is to the left of the façade, and if the door here is closed then so is the church.
The feast of St Sylvester is celebrated on 31 December, and that of St Vincent de Paul on 27 September. Festa di San Silvestro is Italian for New Year's Eve.