Sant'Alessandro is a palaeo-Christian complex containing two churches, often confused, and a set of catacombs. The 20th century parish church is at Via Nomentana 1291, which is in the zone of Tor San Giovanni and is a rural location on the other side of the Grande Raccordo Anulare (Circonvallazione Orientale). The locality is also called Sant'Alessandro. The rebuilt early 5th century basilica is across the road, at number 1294. A picture of the modern church on Wikimedia Commons is here, and of the ancient basilica here.
The set of catacombs here is one of the Catacombs of Rome.
The dedication of the modern church is to St Alexander of Bergamo. However, there has been serious confusion in the past over which St Alexander is commemorated here. The palaeo-Christian basilica is now regarded as dedicated to SS Eventius, Alexander and Theodolus.
The Martyrology of Jerome, thought to incorporate a 6th century liturgical calendar of the Church of Rome, lists SS Eventius, Alexander and Theodolus (in that order) on 3 May. The location specified is the seventh milestone on the Via Nomentana. The revised Roman martyrology has reproduced this listing since 2001, and it is considered that these three martyrs were the original ones venerated here.
However, Pope Alexander I (died about the year 115) was also venerated here as a saint from the early Middle Ages. This was as a result of a completely fictional legend concocted about him, which conflated him with the martyr and which also led to his being identified with the St Alexander mentioned in the Roman Canon of the Mass. (The real St Alexander thus referred to is thought to have been a martyr buried in the Catacombe dei Giordani and commemorated with several other Roman martyrs on 10 July).
The complex as a pilgrimage destination was identified with Pope Alexander until the 20th century, but he was deleted from the Roman martyrology in 2001 owing to the fictitious nature of his legend. Thus, the Roman Catholic Church no longer venerates him as a saint. (Devotees to the Extraordinary Form might note that the prayers for SS Alexander and companions on 3 May do not describe him as a pope.)
Local shrine Edit
It is clear that the catacombs had their origins in a pagan burial place belonging to the to the ancient town of Ficulea nearby. This became Christian perhaps in the 3rd century, and it entirely possible that pagan and Christian townsfolk shared the facility. Ficulea is known in ancient sources, but its actual location is a little uncertain. An old farmstead called Casaletti due north of the catacombs has been suggested (this now has something to do with the army).
It is thought that the martyrs were also locals, killed in the Great Persecution of Diocletian and buried here in the early 4th century. The first church was built over their tomb later in that century, a so-called basilica ad corpus erected in response to their popular veneration. This seems to have been a local initiative, not linked with the clergy of the city. At the start of the 5th century the basilica was remodelled and extended by one Ursus, bishop of the nearby town of Nomentum (now called Mentana). He has left a surviving epigraph in the basilica, and is thought to have been the bishop here during the reign of Pope Innocent I (401-17).
Epitaphs in the basilica date from the 5th and 6th centuries, and the complex is also mentioned in the pilgrim itineraries of the 8th century. So, by then the cult of the martyrs here had been taken up by the Church of Rome. This seems to have been one of the most remote destination offered to pilgrims at Rome back then.
Together with most suburban shrines, the one here was abandoned in the 9th century. The three martyrs are now enshrined at Santa Sabina, having apparently been brought there by Pope Eugene II in 824. The ruins were to remain apparently undisturbed for over a thousand years -although archaeologists have noted what looks like mediaeval walling. If they are right, then something was going on here in the 13th century.
Antonio Bosio identified the location from documentary sources at the start of the 17th century, but nothing was done in the way of exploration.
In 1854 the Congregation for the Propagation of Faith (Propaganda Fide) initiated excavations on this spot, where ruins were still visible. The Congregation had inherited ownership of a sheep-farming estate called the Tenuta di Capobianco in 1807, which had belonged to Cardinal Henry Benedict Stuart, Duke of York. In previous centuries it had belonged to Sant'Agnese fuori le Mura. The location of the ruins was near the south-eastern boundary of this and so is sometimes described as being in the neighbouring estate called Fondi di Coazzo, with the ruins themselves apparently being called Petra Aurea ("Golden Stone").
The catacombs were cleared out and the shell of the basilica cleaned up by the antiquarian put in charge, one Giambattista Guidi. Fortunately some care was taken as to surveying the result, and a plan by one Pietro Rosa was published in 1857. This is extensively reproduced in modern descriptions. Also, the many epigraphs uncovered were collated and published (the total number was to reach over seventy, with a final complete edition of transcriptions arriving in the 1960's).
Pope Pius IX took an immediate interest in the discovery of the substantially intact shrine of the martyrs, visited the site in 1855 and approved a scheme to rebuild the basilica which was drawn up by Luigi Boldrini in 1857. The latter proposed a large new basilical church with a central nave and side aisles, but objections were raised about the amount of damage that building this would inflict on the ancient remains. So, all that was done was that that the part of the ruined basilica containing the shrine of the martyrs was covered by a tiled roof canopy open at the sides. The pope had Pope Alexander mentioned in a new epigraph put on the Porta Pia in 1869 with a statue, and a tablet put up by the road entrance saying Scavi del Papa S. Alessandro.
After this was done, on the yearly feast-day of the martyrs (3 May) a festival was celebrated here. A canopy was erected for a cardinal to say Mass, and everybody could enjoy a spring day in the countryside. Back then the Campagna was mostly an overgrazed sheep-walk with no trees and few buildings, so the vast view to the surrounding hills was uninterrupted and, on a fine day, the surroundings would have been full of skylarks.
In 1883 a detailed drawing and reconstruction of the shrine was published by Rohault de Fleury, and in 1886 Louis Duchesne demonstrated the falsity of the legend of Pope Alexander.
Towards the end of the 19th century the set of catacombs were apparently not regarded as part of the normal pilgrimage circuit. A round trip of fourteen miles to visit them was too long. Scholarly interest was strong, however, and alarm was raised about the lack of care and supervision at the site. The archaeological establishment centred on Giovanni Battista de Rossi (who had done work on transcribing the epigraphs) warned that having the ruins open to the elements was causing damage, and that items were being plundered from the catacombs. Further, the locals were using the roofed part of the basilica as a convenient place to put sheep.
Partly in response, a small church was built on the other side of the road from the basilica in 1918, with a priest's house attached. This became a parochial church in 1928, when a parish was established for the still sparsely populated area and entrusted to the congregation of the Giuseppini del Murialdo. This would have improved the supervision of the site, but weather damage was still a problem.
So Cardinal Pietro Fumasoni Biondi sponsored a project to rebuild the ancient basilica using the surviving fabric and, amazingly, obtained the requisite funding. The expensive scheme was entrusted to Clemente Busiri Vici, who completed a one-storey pilgrimage complex by 1937. This is on a cross plan, and contains the ancillary chambers found as well as the basilica itself. A little cloister was included on the west side, entered via a pathway from the roadside gateway. The rebuilding included a comprehensive archaeological excavation.
Recent times Edit
A rather shapeless suburb called Sant'Alessandro grew up east of the complex after the Second World War, but the actual locality of the complex is still surrounded by fields.
The buildings above ground (excluding the parish church and its appurtenances) was handed over in perpetuity to Opus Dei in 1968. This left the site with three custodians, as the catacombs remained in the care of the Pontificia Commissione di Archaeologia Sacra. They supervised restoration work to the frescoes there towards the end of the 20th century.
In 1982 the Giuseppini gave up the parish, and this has since been served by diocesan clergy.
At present, the basilica complex is closed and is reported as being seriously in need of conservation again. On inspection (2010), the gateway was found apparently permanently locked, so it is not clear as to what Opus Dei is actually doing here. The complex is not listed on the Opus Dei web-page on the Diocesan website.
Exterior of the Ancient BasilicaEdit
The basilical complex as rebuilt by Busiri Vici has a plan based on a Latin cross, with the major axis running south to north. The centre of the cross consists of the ancient aula or meeting-place. The short southern end houses the shrine of SS Eventius and Alexander, the eastern arm has the shrine of St Theodulus and the long northern arm is the actual basilical church. All these elements are under a single main roof, tiled and with four gabled double pitches. This gives a false impression of the ancient ground-plan, which is actually much more irregular.
The exterior of the single-storey complex is not easily visible, as it is walled off and shrubs have been allowed to grow up. There is an old photo here. Busiri Vici used a neo-Romanesque style, in brick with fenestration in round and cross-shaped windows as well as round-headed ones with little roof-gables above them.
The low semi-circular apse of the basilica can be inspected, as it abuts on the road. The curved wall is decorated with large blind arches in shallow relief. There is a pair of large round ventilation grilles, with red brick surrounds. The air-holes are pierced in discs of stone (called transennae), in a geometric pattern involving small circles surrounding two intersecting ellipses. One of these grilles is completely obscured by ivy, demonstrating the neglect of this site. (The above was written in 2010; in 2014, the ivy has taken over the entire apse.)
The little entrance gateway has an arch with a pair of columns, and is next to the bus-stop.
Interior of the Ancient BasilicaEdit
Layout and fabric Edit
The interior layout is complex, and the differing styles and dates of the various sections of walling more so. It is obvious that there had been much patching and alterations carried on during the original lifetime of the edifice, before it was abandoned. The modern work has been neatly added to the old fabric.
Unfortunately there seems to be no plan available online.
If you ever manage to visit, once through the gateway mentioned you go up a path to a little cloister tucked into the south-western inner angle of the cross-plan. Here is the entrance to the basilica, down a set of broad steps which is original 4th century and is perpendicular to the major axis of the basilica. The floor level is below that of the ground.
The layout is described "bottom to top, left and right" along this axis, as for a church.
At the foot of these stairs is the rectangular crossing of the complex, called aula A by the archaeologists. The bottom of the major axis is occupied by a continuation of this rectangular space, called M, which houses the free-standing original shrine of SS Evodius and Alexander and is itself continued by a trapezoidal annexe called M1.
To the left of M is a sort of side aisle, called V, separated from M by a low wall broken by a single rectangular supporting pier (now supporting nothing). This has two niches in its outer wall, containing the original entrances to the catacombs. Access to V was directly from the stairs, there being no access from the shrine area. So, V was a catacomb vestibule.
Another catacomb entrance is at the bottom right hand corner of M.
The right hand side of M has a shallow vestibule, leading into a large side chamber called T (for Teodolo). There is a pair of thin re-erected Corinthian columns at the entrance of this chamber. Within M, in front of this vestibule, is a low free-standing stone wall which turns in a right-angle at the top end of M to end in a pair of little rectangular niches and a passageway allowing access to M from A. Two decorated column bases survive on the right hand section of this wall, and this part of the structure is interpreted as a possible seat for the celebrants. This free-standing wall acts as a screen, giving an intimate sense to the heart of the complex which is the shrine-altar. Also, it channelled pilgrims into what looks like a one-way system. You went in through the short passageway mentioned, round the back of the shrine, into T via the right hand side of its vestibule, then to the shrine of St Theodolus, then out by the left hand side of the vestibule of T and so back into the main circulating area of A. M1 might have been where a congregation could stand.
T has a little side-chamber at its far left hand end, separated from the main room by the shrine of St Theodolus. In the far right hand corner of T is an arcosolium containing a fine ancient marble sarcophagus, with strigillate decoration, a tondo relief portrait of the deceased and a pair of weepers with inverted torches at the corners.
Opening off the right hand side of A are two side chambers, D and C. The former is a mausoleum, with arcosolia. The latter is a vestibule for a detached portion of the catacombs, although it also contains tombs.
The far end of A (to your left when you come down the stairs) is the basilica proper. The nave has a square plan, slightly wider than A on the left hand side and separated from it by a pair of re-erected monolithic Corinthian columns accompanied by a short flight of steps. The sanctuary is narrower on the right hand side, and is accessed by another short flight of steps ending in a portal in a low screen wall. It is trapezoidal, the right hand wall being at an outward-facing angle, and ends in a semi-circular apse with a little square niche in its back. This last feature is interpreted as a place for a bishop's throne.
The are many sepulchral inscriptions in the floor, which is in re-used broken marble slabs. Several of the epigraphs are pagan ones, giving witness to the original nature of the burial complex here.
Shrine of SS Evodius and Alexander Edit
The present shrine is a restoration from fragments found by the archaeologists, and the accuracy of this is not entirely certain.
When found the arrangement formed a pit in the floor, flanked by two broken-down side walls having the lower parts of what were interpreted as two fenestellae or rectangular apertures to allow pilgrims to view the relics. In front of the pit was a group of fragments of a pierced marble screen, the piercings being fan-shaped (flabellate). When fitted together these framed a third fenestella, and the resulting restored screen or transenna was re-erected to face up the basilica. Also found were remnants of two columns with block bases, debatably interpreted as fragments of a canopy (if so, no sign of the other pair was found).
The shrine is at an angle skewed from the major axis, and this is taken as evidence that the basilica was originally built around a pre-existing rock-cut surface grave that contained the bodies of the martyrs.
The 19th century reconstruction has the ancient marble screen at the front, which bears part of an epigraph that runs across the top and down the right hand side. It reads: ....et Alexandro delicatus, votum posuit dedicante Urso episcopo ("To [Evodius?] and Alexander [this?] delightful [shrine?], he made a vow, Ursus the bishop dedicating it.") Hence, this shrine was erected (at the start of the 5th century) by somebody whose name is lost and consecrated by bishop Ursus. The two block canopy piers above also have epigraphs, one reading Iunia Sabina, c[larissima] f[emina] eius fecerunt ("Junia Sabina, famous woman, made his") and the other, sanctorum ornavit ("he embellished [that] of the saints").
The restorers provided a modern altar mensa for the top of the shrine, and put the column remnants with their two bases on top of this. Round the back, a modern pierced marble transenna matching the old one was inserted as the fourth side of the shrine -there was no archaeological evidence for this.
Shrine of St Theodolus Edit
The shrine of St Theodolus, in the chamber labelled T, is much less well preserved. It is a rock-cut grave, built up with low walls which form a box with a column base at each corner. One column has been found and re-erected, with a waterleaf capital. A small fragment of a marble transenna was found here bearing the word ...artiri ("martyr"?), but nothing else.
The small set of catacombs is all on one level. It is obvious that the building of the basilica and the shrines of the martyrs caused the destruction of the original focus of the system, so that separate galleries run from the vestibule called C which are not accessible from the main system to the south of the basilica. The latter has two original entrance stairways from vestibule V to the right of the main entrance stairs, and a third entrance in the bottom right hand corner of the shrine area M. The basic layout is a gallery that runs round three sides of a quadrilateral to join these two ingresses, with blind galleries leading off. There are only a few cubicula or chambers, the largest being an apsidal one next to the top end of T.
Especially in the detached C part of the system, many of the loculi are undisturbed. This is very valuable, because they have tiled closures with epitaphs scratched into the sealing mortar. Such writings were invariably destroyed if loculi were smashed open, as has usually happened in catacombs. There are a few marble epitaph tablets surviving.
The C galleries have two frescoes apparently by the same artist, the first showing flower sprays and belonging to one Savianus ("Saviane, spiritus tus in bono"), and the other to Agasus who was possibly a farmer since a man and horse ploughing are depicted.
The catacombs are closed to the public. The Vatican's Rules Regarding Visits to the Catacombs Closed to the Public apply. The scheme is discretionary, and there is no right of access.
The basilical complex itself seems to be completely sealed off from the outside world, and the writer has not been able to find any details as to what is going on here, or how to visit.
The Modern ChurchEdit
The modern parish church is rather small, which is appropriate to the size of the population that it serves. It was built in 1918, so the style is predictably simplified neo-Romanesque with a hint of Gothic. There is a single rectangular nave of four bays without aisles, and a tiny segmental apse. Another tiny apse, with an external half-dome in lead or some other metal, is attached to the lower right hand side of the nave. This is the baptistery.
Behind the apse, just to the left, is a tower campanile and attached to the far left hand side of the nave and the left hand side of this campanile is a two-storey presbytery or priest's house containing parish offices. This has a lower elevation than the church itself.
The exterior walls of the church are rendered in a very light brownish yellow. The nave side walls have double-light round-headed windows edged in brick, placed high up. The lights are pointed (this is the Gothic hint), and separated by a colonnette.
The roof is pitched and tiled. The presbytery has its own roof, which is hipped at its outer end.
The campanile has two storeys above the roofline of the nave side walls. The top storey, containing the bells, has a large round-headed soundhole on each face, and red brick reinforcing at the corners. There is a tall pyramidal tiled cap.
The entrance façade has an arched porch in red brick with a gable roof, with a tympanum above the church door bearing a mural showing the martyrdom of the saints across the road. Above the porch is a large and spectacular wheel window in an otherwise blank wall, having a red brick surround with four blocks of white stone set into the cardinal points to give the window the appearance of being superimposed on a Greek cross. There are eight radial pillar mullions, and coved triangular inserts between these on the rim to give the effect of arrrowheads pointing inwards.
The facade has red brick reinforcing at the corners, and the gabled roofline is decorated with a frieze of pendant arches in red brick, set on little stone corbels.
There is apparently a good fresco of the martyrdom on the curved wall of the apse, showing a landscape of the Campagna as it used to be.
The parish Mass schedule varies, especially in summer. The default schedule:
Weekdays 18:00; Sundays and Solemnities 10:00, 11:30, 18:00.
The parish has a dependent chapel at San Giuseppe al Casale Cesarina, with Mass celebrated there at 8:30 on Sundays and Solemnities only.
The Solemnity of St Alexander of Bergamo is celebrated on 26 August.