Sant'Agata dei Goti is a palaeochristian basilica of uncertain date, as well as a conventual and titular church, in the rione Monti just off the Via Panisperna. The postal address is Via Mazzarino 16. Pictures of the church at Wikimedia Commons are here. There is an English Wikipedia article here.
The dedication is to the martyr St. Agatha.
There is controversy as to how old this church actually is.
It used to be thought that the originally so-called Basilica nella Subura was originally built by Ricimer for the Ostrogoths about the year 460, as witnessed by an ambiguous mosaic inscription that used to be in the apse. This is now lost, but a transcription survives. It reads: Fl[avius] Ricimer, v[ir] i[nlustris], magister utriusque militiae, patricius et ex cons[ule] ord[inario], pro voto suo adornavit. ("Flavius Ricimer, an illustrious man, leader of both armies, patrician and extraordinary consul, decorated [this] as a result of a vow"). He was the barbarian Suevic commander of the Imperial Roman army at the time (the "both armies" also refers to his fellow Germanic mercenaries).
However, analysis of the surviving fabric indicates that the first church here was built in the 4th century, and hence Ricimer would have overseen a restoration of an existing building instead (adornavit means "he adorned", not "he built"). This would have entailed the seizure of a Catholic church and its handover to the Goths. This was because they were Arian heretics, but when Arianism had been suppressed in Rome as a result of the Gothic Wars the building was taken over by the Catholic Church again, in 592 or 593, and reconsecrated by Pope St Gregory the Great. It is suggested that there was a period before this when the church was abandoned and disused.
It was then that the dedication to St Agatha was imposed, since she was credited with helping the Imperial forces in their defeat of the Goths. The single event that inspired the rededication might have been the capture of Catania, the city in Sicily from which she came. The previous dedication was probably to Christ the Saviour, since he featured in the lost apsidal mosaic installed by Ricimer.
This is the only possible Arian church that has been recorded in Rome, with the possible exception of the ruined Oratorio al Monte di Giustizia before that was buried under Termini station (which oratory is now thought to have been also re-dedicated to St Agatha as Sant'Agata in Esquilino, a title previously believed to belong to this church).
It should be noted that Ricimer's personal religious beliefs are entirely unknown.
The first recorded restoration was under Pope Leo II at the start of the 9th century, and again about fifty years later under Pope Leo IV. A monastery was founded next to it in this century, which became Benedictine in the 11th century. This survived until the 13th century, when it became a college of priests in circumstances that are obscure. Benedictine monastic observance in the city had suffered a serious collapse in this century which is poorly recorded.
In 1461 a Cosmatesque floor was laid. The church was parochial by this time.
There was a sustained campaign of restoration in the first thirty years of the 16th century, and in 1566 the entrance cloister was built. In 1567 the church was granted to the Umiliati, which entailed the suppression of the parish (the date of foundation of which is not known). This arrangement quickly proved unsatisfactory as did the behaviour of the brethren of the congregation which had to be suppressed in disgrace, and the complex was granted to the Benedictine congregation of Montevergine instead in 1579.
The apse of the church collapsed in 1589, and it was partially rebuilt in 1633, without major changes to the building itself apart from the new apse. In 1633 a ceiling was installed, and the nave walls frescoed with a cycle featuring the martyrdom of St Agatha. In 1729 the monks completely rebuilt the monastery, including the Baroque processional entrance.
The Napoleonic period saw the Congregation of Montevergine destroyed, and only the mother abbey of the same name survived. The complex at Sant'Agata lost its monks under the French occupation in 1809, and the complex was abandoned for a few years.
After the restoration of the Papal government in 1815 the Jesuits took over, and briefly ran a college here until they handed over to the Piarists in 1820. They in turn gave up in 1836, and the church passed to the Irish College. They did not really want it, and the church lacked a rôle until it was granted to the Stigmatines in 1926. Their Generalate (congregational headquarters) now occupies the structures on three sides of the cloister, but not the rest of the monastery which was demolished to make way for the Bank of Italy in 1925 to 1933. As a quid pro quo, the bank paid for a restoration of the church which involved stripping the stucco off the exterior walls, rebuilding the baldacchino and relaying the floor.
Layout and fabricEdit
The church is separated from the Via Panisperna by a row of domestic buildings, and from the Via Mazzarino by a cloister. The existence of the latter indicates that the original layout involved a colonnaded atrium between the entrance to the church and the street, as was the case with many other palaeochristian basilicas. The cloister means that the church displays no entrance façade; its place is taken by the processional entrance on the Via Mazzarino which leads into the cloister.
One important and mysterious feature of this church is that its fabric was originally laid out not using the Roman foot as a unit of measurement (0.296 metres), but the Byzantine foot instead (0.315 metres). This is circumstantial evidence for the church having originally been built by and for the expatriate Greek community, and is another good indication that Ricimer was not responsible for its foundation. Another church in Rome with this peculiarity is San Giovanni a Porta Latina.
The nave has aisles on both side for its entire length, with seven bays, and there is no separate presbyterium. There is one pitched and tiled roof. Originally, the aisles had a window for each nave bay but some of these are now blocked and altered. The clerestory has four rectangular windows on each side.
The exterior walls are in brick. In the 17th century these were covered with stucco, but in the 1930's this was picked off again. The exterior wall of the semi-circular apse is interesting, as most of it survived the collapse at the end of the 16th century which destroyed the conch and its mosaic. It has sloping buttresses, and visible are the outlines of two round-headed windows which were blocked at an early period. It is evident that the stability of the structure was causing concern even when the church was still relatively new.
What is left of the 12th century Romanesque campanile is tucked into the corner between the cloister and the bottom of the left hand aisle of the church. It is now a stump with a tiled pyramidal cap, having only one storey above aisle roof level with two narrow sound-holes on each face. It can be viewed from the Via dei Serpenti; look to the right of the church from there.
Processional entrance and cloistersEdit
The processional entrance façade was rebuilt by Francesco Ferrari in 1729 (not the same personage as the more famous Baroque painter, who died in 1708). As mentioned, this work is not part of the church but was intended as the public entrance to the cloisters. You are very unlikely to find it open, unless there is an important event occurring in the church.
The composition is one-storeyed, although the buildings on either side are three storeys high. Two pairs of gigantic Composite pilasters flank the entrance, the inner pair being doubled in relief. They support an entablature the frieze of which has a short dedicatory inscription to the saint ([Dedicata] S[anctae] Agatha v[irgini] e[t] m[artiri]), and above this is a triangular pediment which only occupies the width of the inner pair of pilasters. Charmingly, the entablature beyond this is curved up and over to touch the pediment on each side with a little volute.
The pilasters are in stone, but the rest of the façade is mostly rendered in pale yellow. The stucco relief above the door is within a wreathed tondo with its own arched cornice, accompanied by two heads of putti in the round and with wings resting. It shows St Agatha holding the palm of martyrdom and her severed breast on a plate. The romantic, rather horrible and certainly unreliable legend describes how her torturers firstly severed her pendulous breasts when she refused to renounce her faith in Christ, only for St Peter to visit her in her prison cell the following night in order to re-attach them. (The Church in the 1970 revision of its liturgy saw fit to delete the references to this story from the Divine Office.)
Above the tondo is a relief of two crossed sprays of lilies surmounted by a crown. This is a symbol of virginity triumphant. In the tympanum of the pediment is a putto's head with six wings, symbolizing a cherub.
If you manage to enter from the Via Mazzarino you will find yourself in the cloisters, rebuilt with the façade and the monastery in 1729. It is very small, a cool and peaceful spot with what survives of the monastery buildings towering on three sides and the church on the fourth. There are three arches to the arcades on each side, separated by pillars decorated with Ionic pilaster strips. In the centre is a well, thought to date from 1530 with two marble pillars supporting the winding gear. It is now nothing better than a flower-pot, with the pillars shrounded in a creeper. Although documentation is lacking, traditionally it commemorates a visit by Pope Clement VII.
Layout and fabricEdit
Although the basilica was redecorated in the Baroque style and has some 19th century additions, it is still possible to appreciate the 5th century plan, which was a basilica with three naves. The nave arcades have six columns on each side, although the first pair have been walled in to create two entrance vestibules. You probably entered through the right hand one, and the left hand one leads to the monastery. Also, the far pair of columns have been included in two walls enclosing the chapels at the ends of the aisles.
The granite columns separating the naves are ancient, and seem to be a set pillaged from some local building such as a small temple. They have their original Ionic capitals, and these support arcades with decorative imposts.
The restrained modern floor, of the 1930's, contains remains of the original mediaeval Cosmatesque pavement. It is 15th century, a very late example of the style. In the middle of the nave it has an unusual, but very neat, design. The relaying of the floor allowed for some archaeological inspection of the foundations, when it was noticed that the arcade columns stand on brick foundation plinths in the same sort of brickwork as the surviving old walls.
The triumphal arch is supported by a pair of gigantic Ionic pilasters, and these and the walls of the apse are in stucco falsely coloured in the 19th century to resemble polychrome marble. The effect is not wearing well with time, but the restorers of the 1930's decided to leave it alone.
There is a 12th century baldacchino above the altar, reassembled and erected here in 1933 after the disassembled pieces had languished in the portico for three centuries. It has four supporting columns of pavonazzetto marble, roundel decorations of Cosmatesque mosaic in the spandrels, and a pyramidal canopy supported by little columns. The former canopy was destroyed in 1589, and fragments can be seen in the ceiling of the main chapel on the left-hand side. The original altar frontal, with the emblem of the Barberini family (the famous bees), remains in the portico.
Beneath the altar are enshrined the relics of four Greek martyrs named Hippolytus, Adria, Neon and Martia. These were re-interred in 1933. It is not known where in Greece they came from, but their relics were originally brought from there and enhrined in the catacombs of Callistus by the time of Pope Damasus, who mentioned them in an epitaph. Originally they numbered nine, and their companions were listed as: Paulina, Martha, Valeria, Eusebius and Marcellus.
Above the arches of the arcades are a set of tondi depicting Irish saints, a memento of the Irish College . They were executed in 1863. Above these, the rectangular clerestory windows were installed in the 17th century at the request of the Cardinals Francesco and Antonio Barberini. In between them is a 17th century cycle of frescoes depicting the legendary martyrdom of St Agatha, recently restored and attributed toPaolo Perugino. They start from the top right hand side, and show: Agatha among the Daughters of Aphrodisia, Agatha Refusing to Worship Idols, Agatha Having a Breast Amputated, St Peter Appearing to Agatha, Agatha on a Pyre and Agatha on her Deathbed.
The following description is clockwise, starting from the bottom left hand corner:
The organ by the monastery entrance dates from 1703 and was given by Cardinal Carlo Bichi, whose stucco monument at the start of the left hand aisle is by Carlo de Dominicis. Further along the aisle is the modern monument to Cardinal Enrico Dante, died 1967, which is by Angelo Fattinnanzi.
The chapel at the end of the left aisle is dedicated to St Gaspar Bertoni, founder of the Stigmatines, and is the funerary chapel of the noble Antonelli family. The altar frontal has a marble relief representing the Nativity.
The fresco in the apse shows the Glory of St Agatha, executed probably by Perugino in the 17th century (Gian Domenico Cerrini has also been claimed as the artist). This is the third known work of art in this location. Ricimer had a mosaic installed, but this was unfortunately destroyed in 1589 when the apse collapsed. However, a drawing of it by Alfonso Chacón (in Italian, Ciacconio) survives. It showed Christ in majesty, enthroned very unusually on a globe and holding an open gospel book. The globe did not represent the Earth (as most people then believed that to be flat), but rather the entire Universe. After the destruction of this mosaic, a Martyrdom of St Agatha was painted by Giacomo Rocca in 1599 (?). This in turn fell off the wall.
At the end of the right aisle is the altar of St Agatha; it may seem odd to have a side chapel dedicated to the same saint as the church, but this is because the main altar is dedicated to the Greek martyrs. Here is enshrined the relics of a set of virgin martyrs, brought here from a set of catacombs in the 8th century. Their names were Paulina, Dominanda, Donata, Rogata, Serotina, Saturnina and Hilaria. The original catacombs were on the Via Salaria, where a long-lost basilica dedicated to St Alexander used to stand in what is now the south-eastern part of the Villa Ada park. The ruination of this church occasioned the transfer. The present altar dates from 1504.
By this altar of St Agatha is a large wooden statue of the saint, anonymous and dating from the 18th century, and just outside the chapel is a tapestry of the 1930's representing the Greek martyrs.
In the right aisle is the memorial of Cardinal Juan Francisco Marco y Catalán, and on the counterfaçade just by the church's side entrance is a memorial to the Greek humanist Janus Lascaris (died 1535) who was interred in the church.
The feast of the Greek martyrs whose relics are preserved here is on 2 December . It is usually celebrated with an evening Mass in the liturgy of the Byzantine Catholic rite.
The church is surrounded on all sides by taller buildings, except to the east, and so is not easy to find. The processional entrance on Via Mazzarino is rarely to be found open, so use the side entrance on Via Panisperna.
The church entrance here, up a little passageway, has recently been open on weekdays at least for an hour after 16:00 (it is wise to check before visiting). The uncertain opening hours, plus the discreet location, may mean that you have the church entirely to yourself. Fuller opening hours have been advertised, for example on the "Rometour" website (link below), but these may not correspond with reality (as the writer has discovered).
The best view from the street is of the apse, from the Via dei Serpenti. It is on the other side of a car park, the gates of which are usually open during working hours so you can examine the palaeochristian wall fabric at close quarters.
Sant’Agata dei Goti / edited by Roberto Spadea. Napoli : Electa Napoli, c1998. 30 pp.
S. Agata dei Goti / per C. Huelsen. Roma : P. Sansaini, 1924. 207 pp.
Alcune precisiazioni sulla intotitalazione a S. Agata della Ecclesia Gothorum alla Suburra, Atti del XIII Congresso internazionale di studi sull'Alto Medioevo, Spoleto 1993. By M. C. Cartocci.
Gli Atti del Martirio ed il culto di S. Agata, Studi sull'Oriente Cristiano issue 3, Rome 1999. Same author.
Congregation's website, page on church (The English-language version does not work.)