|English name:||St Vitalis|
|Dedication:||St Vitalis and his family|
|Type:||Titular church, Minor basilica|
|Titular church||Cardinal Maida|
|Built:||ca. 400, rebuilt and renovated several times|
|Address:|| 197/b Via Nazionale|
|Phone:||06 78 23 338|
San Vitale is a minor basilica, as well as a parish and titular church, dedicated to the legendary martyrs St Vitalis, his wife St Valeria and his sons SS Gervase and Protase. It is located at Via Nazionale 194/B, in the rione Monti, and amounts to a fragment of an early 5th century basilica.
The full name of the church is Santi Vitale, Valeria, Gervasio e Protasio or, alternatively, Santi Vitale e Compagni Martiri in Fovea which is its official name. Pictures of the church at Wikimedia Commons.
The church used to stand on the ancient Roman street known as the Vicus Longus, which ran between the Forum of Augustus and the Baths of Diocletian. It arrived at the latter establishment just where the church of San Bernardo alle Terme now stands, and ran down the valley between the Quirinal and Viminal hills. There were two tituli on it, this church and San Ciriaco which was near the baths.
In the Middle Ages, the area became completely depopulated and amounted to a pocket of countryside right up to the late 19th century. The Vicus Longus became the Via di San Vitale, which only ran from Via Mazzarino near Sant'Agata dei Goti to Via delle Quattro Fontane and on which the church was the only building. However, when the Via Nazionale was built this street was mostly destroyed. A short length survives at the eastern end, and also towards the west where it is known as Vicolo dei Serpenti.
The original dedication was to SS Gervase and Protase, alleged martyrs of Milan. In the 4th century there were no martyrs recorded as having suffered in that city in the time of persecution, and this caused a problem when it became the standard practice to consecrate the altar of a new church over the relics of a martyr or martyrs. St Ambrose, the famous bishop of Milan, claimed to have had a dream in the year 386 informing him of the existence of these two early martyrs, and two skeletons were dug up in the locality indicated in the dream. According to a letter that the saint wrote, there was "much blood" on the bones, and this has led to the suggestion that what was found was a Palaeolithic burial dressed in red ochre. The existence of the martyrs rests entirely on St Ambrose's dream and on subsequent miracles, and they are now listed in the revised Roman martyrology as martyrs of an uncertain date venerated from early times.
After the discovery of the bones, a completely unhistorical legend was fabricated to give the martyrs a biography. According to it, their parents were SS Vitalis and Valeria. The former was actually a martyr of Ravenna, where the Basilica of San Vitale commemorates him, and the latter was a very obscure martyr of the 4th century who may have been a virgin and whose place of martyrdom is unknown.
It seems that a small church was built on the site at the end of the 4th century, perhaps for Milanese expatriates (the city was the western capital of the Roman Empire at the time). As a result of a benefaction by a lady called Vestina, who gave her name to the titulus, it was rebuilt about 400 as a basilica with nave and aisles. This was consecrated by Pope Innocent I in 402. The dedication to St Vitalis was first recorded in 499, when it was referred to as titulus Sancti Vitalis.
The church has been restored several times. The first restoration on record was that of Pope Leo III, about 800, during which he donated many precious items to the basilica.
The most comprehensive rebuilding was that of Pope Sixtus IV before the 1475 Jubilee. The aisles of the nave were demolished and the arcades walled up, to create the rather elongated single-nave church which exists now. The apse was left untouched, but the ancient narthex was also enclosed and converted into a vestibule. After this the church was then granted to the Theatines after they were founded in 1525. However, it was then transferred to the Jesuits in 1598 by Pope Clement VIII. They carried out a complete restoration, and used it mainly an a subsidiary church for their noviciate based at Sant'Andrea al Quirinale. It is clear that the church lacked a pastoral function at the time.
It was restored again in 1859, and has been served by diocesan clergy since 1873. After the construction of the Via Nazionale, the previous very quiet area became rapidly and completely built-up and, as a result, the church was made parochial by Pope Leo XIII in 1884. The new road was actually the result of a proposal by Pope Pius IX in response to the obvious need for proper access to the city centre from the train station, but the Italian government after 1870 mutated this into a typical straight and level 19th century civic boulevard. As a result the church in its valley was left well below the new road level, and is now accessed by a rather alarming flight of steps.
The first cardinal priest of the church was Gennaro Cardinal Celio, appointed in 494 by Pope St Gelasius I. St John Cardinal Fisher, who was martyred by Henry VIII of England during the Reformation, was the titular of St Vitale in 1535. The current titular is H.E. Adam Joseph Cardinal Maida, Archbishop of Detroit in the USA.
The portico or narthex is the most ancient part of the church, possibly dating back to the 5th century. It was altered at the end of the 16th century, but restored to its presumed original condition in 1938. The inscription over the entrance, with the arms of Pope Sixtus IV was, however, preserved.
The façade is very simple. The narthex is of brick, and has solid walls at the sides and corners. In front there are five arches with voussoirs of tiles on edge, and these are separated by four marble columns. These have debased Composite capitals carved in travertine when the narthex was built, and above these are imposts. The two outer arches have imposts only where they meet the walls, which looks odd. The roof of the narthex is pitched and tiled, and slopes up to the absolutely plain nave frontage which contains a rectangular window the sill of which is in line with the upper roofline of the narthex. This window was apparently once an oculus.
The finely carved wooden entrance doors have two relief panels depicting the martyrdoms of SS Cosmas and Damian, one on each door.
The church has a single nave with no arcades, but with two pilasters without capitals near the triumphal arch. There are two side-altars either side of the nave, which are not recessed into chapels but are enclosed in aedicules formed of a pair of marble Corinthian columns supporting an entablature and triangular pediment. The modern ceiling is flat and of varnished wood, and was inserted in 1938.
The apse has been preserved from the original building. The painting it contains depicts The Ascent to Calvary, and was executed by Andrea Commodi. To the left St Vitalis is depicted being racked, and to the right he is being buried alive. These frescoes are by Agostino Ciampelli.
The high altar is decorated with the arms of the Della Rovere family, and a painting of the saints to whom the church is dedicated. In front of this is the modern altar used for Masses facing the people, a high-quality sculptural work depicting the Triumph of the Lamb of God.
The walls are painted with scenes of martyrdoms painted in the 17th century, which when you first see them appear to be merely bucolic landscapes with views and trees. The scenes are separated by trompe-l'oeil columns painted on the flat wall. There are inscriptions on each scene, explaining whose martyrdom is depicted. An amusing anachronism can be seen in the Martyrdom of St Ignatius of Antioch - he faces the lions in a meadow, with the Colosseum in ruins in the background. This cycle of frescoes is by Tarquinio Ligustri and Andrea Comodo.
The feast is St Agnes is celebrated on 21 January, with a triduum starting on 19 January. St Vitalis and Companions are celebrated on 28 April. St Giuseppe Cottolengo is celebrated on 30 April - the new Calendar places his feast on 29 April but, since that would mean celebrating two major feasts in a row, the old date is used.