Sant'Alessio all'Aventino is a heavily remodelled early 13th century monastic and titular church on the Aventine, having the dignity of a minor basilica. The postal address is Piazza Sant'Alessio 23. Picture of the church at Wikimedia Commons are here. There is an English Wikipedia page here.
The foundation of the church is not documented, and the legends attached to its origin are not reliable. However, scholarly consensus posits a date in the 4th century. There are two stories, one for each of the saints, which hint at a common origin.
Alexis was allegedly the son of a Roman senator, who as a teenager left home in humility to become a desitute beggar. As such he returned later, to live unrecognized by his parents in a toolshed under a wooden exterior staircase at the family home on the Aventine near or under the present church. He died before they did, and they found a paper revealing his identity on the body. The plot has been attached to the names of other early saints, and the story seems to derive ultimately from Edessa (now Urfa in Turkey). He is listed in the revised Roman martyrology, which makes it clear that the story is traditional not historical.
The story of St Boniface was allegedly obtained from a Greek source in the 7th century. According to it, he was a native Roman slave who had a sexual relationship with his owner, a rich expatriate Greek lady called Aglaë who had a house on the site of the church. They repented of their behaviour, and she suggested that he go off to the Middle East to help persecuted Christians. He was martyred in Tarsus (now in Turkey), she had his remains brought back and then converted her house into a church in the early 4th century as a shrine for them.
It is now thought that this story is a forgery, and that the saint never existed. Unusually for a saint with a Roman church dedicated to him, he has been deleted from the Roman martyrology.
The first hint at the existence of a monastic church dedicated to St Boniface lies in the biography of St Boniface of Crediton, the Apostle of the Germans. He was originally a Saxon from England called Winfrith, but when he went to Rome as a missionary monk the pope ordained him bishop in 717 and, importantly, renamed him Boniface. There is no other information than this, but in itself it seems conclusive.
The monastery emerges into history when it was given by Pope Benedict VII in 977 to a Greek archbishop called Sergius, who had been exiled from Damascus in a Muslim persecution. He established a community of both Latin and Byzantine rite monks, and the monastery very quickly became famous as a missionary centre for some of the most important evangelizers at that time. The most famous missionary monk to be based here was St Adalbert of Prague, who set out from this church on his mission to the Slavs.
However, in the early 10th century the breakdown of relations between Eastern and Western churches led to the Byzantine-rite monks leaving. They were replaced by Benedictines from Cluny Abbey, which also provided communities for other monasteries notably San Paolo fuori le Mura and Santa Maria in Aracoeli. This was in the context of the Cluniac Reform of monastic life in Western Europe, but in Rome at least the monks became corrupt in their lifestyle in the 13th century. The Catalogue of Turin, c. 1320, mentions only five monks in the monastery which was too few to maintain monastic life. As a result, they were dispossessed and replaced by Premonstratensian canons in 1231. By this time, the Aventine was totally depopulated except for the inhabitants of the fortress-monasteries, and most of the land was taken up by vineyards and hay fields.
Meanwhile, the complex was reconstructed and St Alexis was added to the church's dedication by Pope Honorius III in 1217, after the saint's legend became very popular. The church was described at the time as a basilica with nave and aisles, and with eight arcade columns on each side. It is actually uncertain as to whether the pope completely rebuilt the church, or whether older fabric survived -there is no discernible evidence of any now.
In 1426 the Premonstratensians made way in their turn for the "Hermits of St Jerome of the Observance", otherwise known as the Hieronymites of Lombardy who had been founded as a reform of their Order two years previously. They undertook some modifications at the end of the century (it is not clear what these were).
To celebrate the Holy Year of 1750, the Hieronymite brethren embarked on a huge project of restoration which turned the church into the Baroque edifice that it now is. The plan was by Giovanni Battista Nolli, the execution by Tommaso de Marchis and the one who paid for it was Cardinal Angelo Maria Querini.
The later 18th century was a disaster for the Hieronymites, and the last of their monasteries in Spain were suppressed in 1835 (although the Order has been re-founded there).
So in 1846 the Somaschi Fathers were installed in the church, and as a result further alterations were carried out in 1860. Unfortunately, they lost the main part of the monastery when this was confiscated by the government in 1873.
In the latter part of the 19th century the Somaschini were running a school for blind children here, which was opened in 1864. This was a major success, and became internationally pioneering in its efforts to raise blind children as worthwhile members of society instead of marginal dependents as was the tradition of centuries.
However, the congregation was taking little interest in the church which was reported as being rarely open. This had to change in 1929, when the Somaschini lost their Roman headquarters after the Fascists confiscated and demolished their convent and church at San Nicola dei Cesarini. As a result the headquarters was moved to here, where it remains.
The school for blind children moved into palatial new premises in the Aventino quarter in 1940. See Cappella dell'Istituto dei Ciechi Sant'Alessio.
The church and monastery occupy the crest of the hill overlooking the Tiber, with a spectacular view over Trastevere in the direction of the Vatican. The complex is just west of the larger one of Santa Sabina, and is adjacent with a boundary wall separating the two properties.
The church stands back from the road, and is oriented south to north. Santa Sabina is at exactly ninety degrees, west to east, and the two churches demonstrate that the traditional insistence of orienting churches to the east does not hold in Rome. To the west, on the church's left hand side, is the monastery occupying four sides of a cloister which has its arcaded walkways under the ranges. In between the church and the street is an entrance court, with another wing of the monastery to the west and a further one to the south along the street, with the outer gateway passing underneath. The east side of the court is the boundary wall with Santa Sabina.
It is a fair surmise that this entrance court occupies the site of a colonnaded atrium built with the original basilica.
The church is a T-shaped basilica, with a nave and aisles and a transeptal presbyterium forming the crossbar of the T. There is an external segmental apse. The nave and transept are separately roofed, being each pitched and tiled. In front of the nave is an entrance loggia with a flat-roofed parvise above, and this occupies the entire width of the church.
A fine brick campanile of five storeys from the 13th century rebuilding was preserved in the Baroque re-ordering. It is
over the near end of the right hand aisle, and has a tall blank lower storey. The second storey has two arches on three faces, the fourth being blocked by the nave roof, but the subsequent three storeys have two pairs of arches on each face. Each pair is separated by a stone column with impost, and a string course runs around each storey at the level of the arch springers. A dentillate cornice separates each storey, and tops off the final one.
The 17th century narthex has a range of rooms above, and hence is a two-storey composition. It is claimed to have been inspired by that at Santi Apostoli. There are five open arches to the loggia, the central one being slightly larger and crowned with a triangular pediment. Above the arches is a plain entablature with a projecting tiled cornice, and the pillars between the arches as well as the outer corners are decorated with Doric semi-columns in a dark yellow limestone. Inverted plinths connect the capitals of these columns with the cornice, and this is a design feature of the façade.
The second storey has five rectangular windows, and five Corinthian pilasters each of which is triply clustered. These support a cornice in the same style as the storey below. The roofline is balustraded, and has five finials in the form of flaming funerary urns with lions' masks.
The nave frontage peeps over the façade, and shows a triangular pediment with a small oculus in its recessed tympanum. The cross finial on the apex does not look like much, but is apparently a 9th century survival.
Artworks in the narthexEdit
In the right hand side of the portico there is a gypsum statue of Pope Benedict XIII, erected by Cardinal Querini in 1752 to celebrate the completion of the Baroque re-ordering.
The main entrance door has Cosmatesque work from the mediaeval church. (The original aisle entrances were blocked up to create chapels.) Flanking the entrance, on the wall, is a pair of candle-holders in the form of statues of deacons. These are thought to come from a lost memorial to Pope Honorius IV, and to be of the school of Arnolfo di Cambio.
The former monastery of the Somaschi can be accessed outside the church. It has been taken over by the State, and is used as a centre for Roman studies. To visit the cloister, ring the bell at the first door past the main church entrance going west.
The monastery has ranges around the four sides of the slightly rectangular cloister, and a fifth on the west side of the atrium. The back wall of the east side of the cloister is the west side wall of the church. There are arcades on all four sides, with rooms above, and a well in the garth. The arcades contain 28 ancient granite columns, and on the walls are some important epigraphs. The one to bishop Sergius of Damascus dates to 981, and the one to Leone dei Massimi is of 1012 and is the earliest historical evidence of this family (which used to like to pretend that it went back to the ancient Republic). The epigraph to one Crescentius is of 996, although he died twelve years earlier.
In the atrium courtyard, there is a porter's lodge where postcards of the church are sold.
The nave has five pillars to the arcade on each side. The first pair is small, where two side chapels are; the left hand one is dedicated to St Alexis. Then come three pairs of massive pillars, decorated with two Composite pilasters each supporting an entablature that runs round the entire church. The last pair is angled to include the double Composite pillars supporting the triumphal arch. The arcade arch springers are supported by Ionic pilasters with swagged Ionic capitals. Above the entablature is a barrel-vaulted ceiling with four inset lunette windows on each side.
The nave decoration is 19th century, by Michele Ottaviani. The entablature, lunettes and vault are in white, blue and gold; the vault has square coffers in blue with rosettes in gold, which have different designs. The lunettes have octagons surrounding a star, and the entablature frieze has blue squares showing alternate crosses and rosettes.
There is beautiful mediaeval Cosmatesque work in strip-panels on the nave floor, which was restored in the 18th century.
The presbyterium is raised over the crypt, and hence is accessed by stairs. The decoration of the apse and transept vaults is also 19th century, by Carlo Gavardini. Over the crossing is a small saucer dome. The apse contains the choir stalls of the Hieronymite monks.
The crypt is Romanesque, from the 10th century; it is the only crypt in that style in Rome. It's closed to the public most of the year but at Christmas a crib, one of the most popular in Rome, is set up here. Relics said to be of St Thomas Becket of Canterbury are preserved under the altar here, and there is a 12th century fresco of the Agnus Dei with the symbols of the Evengelists.
Right hand aisleEdit
The following description is anti-clockwise, starting with the beginning of the right hand aisle:
At the near end of the right hand aisle is the memorial to Cardinal Metello Bichi, who died in 1619, and in the third bay of the aisle is that to Antonio Mancini. He was a famous Italian Impressionist painter, and his memorial was designed by Antonio Muñoz, the famous (or notorious) restorer of Roman churches, in 1935.
The Chapel of the Crucifix in the fourth bay of the aisle has an anonymous altarpiece painted in Rome in the 18th century, and in the next bay is the memorial to Princess Eleonora Boncompagni Borghese, about 1700 and by Giovan Battista Contini. It was moved here in 1936 from the demolished church of Santa Lucia alle Botteghe Oscure. It has an engaging gang of putti as well as her bust in a very Classicizing style.
Just before the right hand steps up to the presbyterium is a 17th century Roman devotional painting of St Alexis.
Blessed Sacrament ChapelEdit
Up these steps, to the right is the entrance to a small external chapel, of the Blessed Sacrament. It was built in 1674, re-modelled with the rest of the church in the 18th century and restored by Muñoz in 1935. The tabernacle is a Renaissance work, and above it is a bronze glory holding a Byzantine icon of Our Lady. This is a genuine example of the genre, from Constantinople and either 12th or 13th century (opinions differ). It is not 10th century, as has been claimed. It seems to have been retouched in the 17th century, but was carefully restored in 1952. It is highly venerated, under the title of Our Lady of Intercession because she is not holding the Christ-Child but is in a position of supplication. This hints that the icon was originally on the right hand side of an iconostasis, and was not painted in isolation.
The high altar is covered by a richly decorated baldacchino with a hemispherical dome having eight ribs. It is 16th century, but the altar itself is 18th century. The latter has a grating, through which can be seen the shrine of the two patron saints of the church.
There are four tomb-stones behind the high altar. From right to left, they are: Pietro Savelli, a deacon, of 1288; the Savelli family had their palace east of Santa Sabina at the time. Gian Vincenzo Gonzaga, the first cardinal of the church, of 1591. Lupo de Olmedo, of 1433, who was the founder of the reformed Hieronymites of the Observance. Ottavio Pallavicini, of 1611, a cardinal of the church and its benefactor.
In the centre of the choir in the apse is an inscription in honour of St Alexis that dates from before the 13th century. It is flanked by a pair of little marble columns with incredibly intricate Cosmatesque decoration On one of the columns there is an inscription naming the artist as Giacomo di Lorenzo. There used to be nineteen of them, and they were originally in the basilica of San Bartolomeo all'Isola. When the choir was re-ordered in 1638 they were brought here, but the fathers in the church say that the seventeen missing columns were carried off by Napoleon. If so, they should be somewhere in France; has anybody tried to trace them?
Chapel of St Jerome EmilianiEdit
This opens off the left hand side of the transept. It used to be the early 17th century mortuary chapel of the Guidi di Bagno family, and was renovated in the 18th century by Carlo Murena. The Somaschi re-dedicated it to their founder, St Jerome Emiliani, in about 1850. The decoration is by Michele Ottaviani, of that period, and the altarpiece of St Jerome Emiliani Presenting an Orphan to Our Lady is by Carlo Gavardini.
Left hand aisleEdit
In the fifth bay of the left hand aisle is a painting of St Jerome Emiliani Praying to Our Lady, a copy of one by Pietro Gagliardi. The fourth bay of the aisle has the chapel of St Jerome the Doctor of the Church, and the altarpiece shows him with St Marcella. The work is Roman, of the 18th century. The third bay has another painting showing St Jerome Emiliani with orphans and Our Lady; this one is by an expatriate Frenchman in Rome, Jean-Francois de Troy . The duplication in subject matter is because this work originally belonged in the demolished church of San Nicola dei Cesarini, which also belonged to the Somaschi.
Chapel of St AlexisEdit
The chapel at the near end of the right hand aisle is dedicated to St Alexis (a reminder that the main altar is dedicated to St Boniface), and contains what is traditionally claimed to be the wooden staircase under which he died. Below this is a gypsum statue of the dying saint above the altar. It shows him in pilgrim's clothes, clasping the letter which revealed his identity after death. The statue is by Andrea Bergondi, and was made in the late 18th century. He was a famous Roman sculptor of the period. The staircase is in a large reliquary of glass and gilded wood, placed diagonally between four granite columns with derivative Corinthian capitals which look rather ancient Egyptian.
The church is open, according to its website:
Daily 8:30 to 12:30, and 15:30 to 18:30 (20:00 in summer).
Public Masses are not celebrated here to a timetable, but the church is popular for marriages.
"Studio reportage" gallery (Includes photo of spike-heeled sandals on the Cosmatesque floor! Ouch!)