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Sant'Angelo in Pescheria is a 16th century conventual, former parish and titular church containing 8th century fabric, in the rione Sant'Angelo which is named after it. The postal address is Via della Tribune di Campitelli 6, but this is the little convent at the back of the church. The front faces Via del Portico d'Ottavia, and the entrance in routine use is on Via Sant'Angelo in Pescheria on the left hand side. Pictures of the church at Wikimedia Commons are here. There is an English Wikipedia page here.
The dedication is to St Michael the Archangel.
Portico of OctaviaEdit
The church is famous for having a ruined propylaeum or gateway of the Portico of Octavia as its narthex. (Beware of an unavoidable confusion in words; porticus is Latin for a gateway or a colonnade. Nowadays the word "portico" is used both for the entire ancient complex, and for the gateway under consideration which was only a small part of it.)
The Porticus Octaviae was built by the emperor Augustus in honour of his sister, Octavia the Younger, sometime between 33 and 23 BC and replacing a smaller forerunner. Rather than being a simple colonnade as the name implies, it was a temenos enclosure containing two temples and other public institutions, surrounded by colonnaded walks on all four sides and located next to theTheater of Marcellus. The dimensions were 132 by 119 metres. The temples of Jupiter Stator and Juno Regina stood side by side within, honouring the alpha male and female in ancient Rome's god-crew. The complex was burned in 80 AD and was restored, probably by Domitian, and rebuilt again after a second fire in 203 AD by Septimius Severus and Caracalla. The present ruin dates from this latter restoration.
The propylaeum in front of the church was one of two identical entrances in the middles of two opposite sides of the enclosure.
The buildings were adorned with coloured marbles and contained many famous works of art, enumerated in Pliny's Natural History. The latter ended up being recycled for their metal content or burned for lime if carved from marble, and some of the former are most probably in the city's churches and palazzi. This looting would have been well under way by the time the church was built, because its construction blocking one of the two entrances indicates that the complex had been abandoned.
Symphorosa and her basilicaEdit
The foundation legend alleges that the church was founded by Pope Boniface II in 530, but this is too early. It is now consdiered that the Portico would still have been a functioning public complex at that date.
The church contains the relics of a set of obscure martyrs, St Symphorosa and her companions. These were associated with the palaeochristian site of Santa Sinforosa on the Via Tiburtina at km 17.4 near Setteville, which is just outside the present municipal boundary. Neglected ruins of a basilica called Santa Sinforosa still stand there, in a small wood on the south side of the road just east of the Via Tenuta del Cavaliere junction. The sanctuary and apse are still roofed, but are derelict and covered in ivy. The edifice is just visible from the main road where it meets the first farm track east of the junction. (There is no official public access; a casual visit is best made on a scooter that can be hidden in the bushes, very early on a weekend morning in summer. The snakes won't be glad to see you, but the insects will.)
The legend attached to these martyrs is entirely fictional, and is a re-writing of the martyrdom of the mother and seven sons in the Second Book of Maccabees. According to it, the group consisted of Symphorosa and her seven sons, Crescens, Julian, Nemesius, Primitivus, Justin, Stacteus and Eugenius, who were martyred together at Tivoli in the reign of Hadrian and buried at San Sinforosa. Associated with them were two other earlier martyrs, Zoticus as her husband and Amantius as her brother-in-law. In history, the last two belonged in the catacombs at San Zotico, and the eight were unrelated martyrs of around the year 400 who were buried at the Santa Sinforosa catacombs.
The relics of these latter martyrs were taken to Sant'Angelo when the basilica was abandoned, which was part of the abandonment of the countryside around Rome to the mercy of various marauders especially from the 8th century. These relics were rediscovered in a buried casket in 1610, bearing a lead plate with the inscription: Hic requiescunt corpora S[anctorum] Martyrum Simforosae, viri sui Zotici et filiorum ejus a Stephano Papa translata. This was transcribed by Cardinal Baronius before being lost. The problem is obviously that there is no date, nor an indication as to which Pope Stephen was meant.
Epigraph of TheodotusEdit
On the wall on the right hand side of the entrance is a long epigraph on a marble slab, listing a substantial collection of relics held in the church. At the end of the list is this appendix, in rather oddly spelled Latin: Est enim dedicatio ecclesie istius at nomen beati apostoli Pauli calen[dae] iunias per indictione octaba, anno ab initio mundi sex milia ducentos sexxaginta tres, temporibus domn[i] Stephani Junioris Papae, Theodotus holim dux nunc primicerius sance sedis apostolice et pater huius, ben[edictam?] diac[oniam?] a solo edificavit, per intercessionem anime sue et remedium omnium peccatorum.
This reads: "The dedication of this church to the name of the blessed apostle Paul on the first day of June, in the eighth indiction, in the year from the beginning of the world 6263, during the time of Pope Stephen the Junior, Theodotus once a duke now a primicerius of the holy apostolic see and its father, built the blessed diaconia from the foundations, to the intercession for his soul and the forgiveness of all sins."
(Beware of the published transcription by Armellini, who got Theodotus's name wrong.)
The inscription uses the Byzantine Calendar, which placed the Creation of the World in the year 5509 BC. The reference to the Eighth Indiction confirms this, as the two together fix the year of the inscription at 755.
Hence, we have here the foundation of a church with a diaconia in the mid 8th century, at a time when what was left of the population of the city was abandoning the hills in order to live on the flood-plain of the river. This was because the failure of the aqueducts made the supply of water on the hills problematic. A diaconia was a Church institution for the practice of practical charity, such as giving food to hungry people or the provision of medical services. It is tempting to view the foundation of this one as evidence for the colonization of the Portico of Octavia by squatters, turning it into the densely-packed neighbourhood that it was in the Middle Ages and which the church then served parochially.
The epigraph reveals a problem. Traditionally, the Pope Stephen who transferred the relics of SS Symphorosa and companions was regarded as Stephen II. But Symphorosa doesn't appear in the list of relics. The pope concerned must have been one of the subsequent ones called Stephen, in the later 8th century or in the 9th.
Layout of 8th century church Edit
Fabric of the original 8th century church survives in the crypt, and also in the sacristy accommodation flanking the present sanctuary. It is clear that the original church had three apses, the central one being larger. This layout is thought to have derived from the Holy Land originally, and this is the earliest example known in Rome.
As the epigraph just quoted shows, the original dedication of the church was to St Paul. However, it was quickly re-dedicated to St Michael because this is how it is listed in the Itinerary of Einsiedeln, which is a pilgrim's guide written at the end of the 8th century.
The appellation in Pescheria (Latin in Foro Piscium) was added by the 12th century, as it occurs in the Catalogus Camerarii of 1192. This refers to the fish market, which was possibly first established in the gateway but which spread down the street to the west (theVecchia Pescheria, now the north side of Via del Portico d'Ottavia). The market was the major one in fish for the city (there were others), and survived until 1888. Old depictions show the fish being displayed on sloping marble slabs, which were originally revetment slabs torn from the walls of ancient buildings. They most likely came from the Portico. Old descriptions mention that some were of cipollino, which is a rare white marble with pale green and grey streaks from the island of Euboea in Greece.
Something strange was done to the street frontage of the gateway before the 13th century. There used to be four columns holding up the pediment, but two were removed and replaced with a carefully built brick arch aligning with the entrance of the church. This was very odd, since it left the gateway looking ugly. No satisfactory explanation seems forthcoming for this, although perhaps a powerful person or institution wanted to rob a pair of columns for use elsewhere and was prepared to preserve the gateway instead of demolishing it.
The church was rebuilt some time in the high Middle Ages, around the 13th century, as can be deduced from the evidence of the crypt.
In the late 13th century, a Romanesque campanile was built. The church's largest bell had a date on it of 1291, so this is the latest possible date for the work. The campanile collapsed some time in the 16th century, and was not replaced.
In the Catalogue of Turin of 1320 the church is listed as a cardinalate with a diaconal title, having a college of eight secular clerics. By then it was parochial, and an important church pastorally.
In 1347, Cola di Rienzo gathered his forces here before setting off to seize power in Rome and proclaim a republic. His place of birth was close to the church, so he was a parishioner.
In 1555, Pope Paul IV founded the Roman Ghetto. This was, in effect, a small walled town with (originally) three gates, in which all the Jews of Rome were forced to live. Conversely, no Christian was allowed to live there and this resulted in a serious reduction in size of the church's parish.
Later in the same century, Pope Gregory XIII (1572-85) issued a decree that forced the Jewish population of the ghetto to hear Christian sermons outside the church on Saturdays. One of the ghetto's gates was immediately opposite the portico. The motivation for this apparent act of spite was the assertion of St Paul in his Letter to the Romans, that the Second Coming of Christ would only occur after all the Jews had been converted. The so-called prediche coatte continued for about 300 years, until Pope Pius IX put a stop to them when he abolished the ghetto laws in the 1860's. Latterly, they were being given outside Santa Maria della Pietà down the road, and at Santa Maria del Carmine e del Monte Libano rather than at this church. Perhaps the fish market got in the way.
Rebuilding, and the fishmongersEdit
The church was mostly rebuilt in a major restoration by Cardinal Andrea Peretti, titular of the church, in the reign of Pope Pius IV (1560-65). The work entailed demolition of most of the old church, but the lower courses of the three apse were kept in the crypt (some of their fabric also exists in the sacristy walls). The side apses were removed altogether in the main body of the church, and the main apse rebuilt further back.
Then the Confraternity of Fishmongers (Università dei Pescivendoli) adopted the church as their headquarters, and appointed Martino Longhi to reconstruct the right hand aisle for their use in 1583. The result was the Chapel of St Andrew, since that fisherman apostle was their patron. It may be noted that these pescivendoli were not the actual fishermen (most of the fish came out of the river), nor the smelly fishwives in the market (who stank because they carried the fish about in wicker baskets on their heads, and so got covered in the juices). Rather they were the wholesalers in between, who became extremely wealthy through screwing both groups.
Later, the fishmongers became dissatisified with the cramped nature of their chapel and built their own oratory next door, Sant'Andrea dei Pescivendoli. This amounted to a church in its own right, which is now deconsecrated (the interior decoration survives).
In 1867, Pope Pius IX commissioned Alessandro Batocchi to effect a thorough restoration of the church. The pope expected that, since he had just allowed the Jews to live anywhere in Rome, the Ghetto would cease to be wholly Jewish and would become dominated by Christians as the Jews moved out. Actually, this did not happen until the Jews were sent to the gas chambers in the Second World War.
This restoration involved the provision of a new campanile, as well as the rebuilding of the apse. Both tasks involved the reconstruction of the priests' house, now the convent.
In 1909, the parish was finally suppressed and the church was given to the Clerics Minor Regular, known as the Caracciolini, who moved here from San Lorenzo in Lucina. They remain in charge, hence the church has only been conventual for just over a century in its long history.
In the 20th century, many of the surrounding buildings were demolished to expose the ancient Roman remains. This also involved digging out the ground in front of the church in order to reveal the ancient ground level, which has left the front door hanging in mid-air (a staircase has now been provided).
The demolitions reduced the church's catchment population to the point where it struggles to justify itself pastorally. It is now used by the Communità Maria, a charismatic Marian lay worshipping community.
Layout and fabricEdit
The plan is that of a small basilica, with a nave and aisles, and is typical of a mediaeval Roman parish church. After the main entrance there is a single unaisled bay, then three bays with aisles having arcades with two pillars on each side. Then comes a half-bay with side exits, a narrower presbyterium of one shallow bay, and finally an external apse with conch. At the bottom of the right hand aisle is a small room which used to be the baptistry, and which has its own entrance between the ancient gateway and Sant'Andrea dei Pescivendoli.
The site of the mediaeval campanile was just to the left of the entrance bay, at the start of the left hand aisle.
The front door is not in the centre of the gateway, but off to the right. Also, the major axis of the church is not that of the portico, but angles to the right. The latter oddity especially hints that a street plan had already been laid out in the ruined Portico of Octavia when the church was built in the 8th century.
The fabric of the ancient gateway hides the frontage of the church. The only part visible from the street is the left hand side wall on the Via Sant'Angelo in Pescheria. The presbyterium and apse are part of the fabric of the convent, which is on the Via della Tribuna di Campitelli. On the roof of this by the far right hand corner of the church is the 19th century campanile, which in outline is in the form of a miniature church façade with two bell-arches in the first storey and one in the second, and a tiny triangular pediment on top.
As mentioned, the ancient propylaeum or gateway into the Portico was preserved as the approach to the church.
Originally, the gateway was a timber-roofed building with four sides and a flat ceiling. The throughfare sides were identical, and each had four large ribbed Corinthian columns assembled from drum sections. At the outer corners are a pair of brick Corinthian pilasters (the technical name for pilasters flanking an entranceway is antae). All these support a deep entablature topped by a large triangular pediment. The entablature of the outer side still displays an inscription recording the 203 restoration, and if you look on the inner face of this entabature and the pediment you can tell that the work was done using masonry scavenged from elsewhere (the ancients could not have known, because the ceiling would have hidden the evidence). The side walls are in brick, each with a large archway each which originally gave access to the colonnades running round the Portico. The brickwork was originally revetted with marble; the ancient Romans never thought that naked brickwork in architecture was acceptable (unlike some 20th century church restorers in Rome).
The mysterious mediaeval brick archway, replacing two columns, is well constructed and has a pair of imposts scavenged from Doric pilasters. There are faint traces of frescoes showing coats-of-arms of cardinals on the brickwork of this. Also, in the tympanum of the pediment are remains of 13th century frescoes of St Michael, the Blessed Virgin and St Paul (?).
The carved imposts of the side arches are modern replacements.
The inner frontage of the propylaeum is incorporated into the church fabric, which is joined to the right hand side. One of the four pillars here has been removed to make way for the entrance.
By the entrance, there is a plaque on the wall. It explains that the head, and the body up to the pectoral fin, of any fish longer than the plaque was to be given to the city magistrates. The fishes so collected were probably used in the soup kitchens providing food for the poor. This "tax" was in place until 1798.
Layout and fabricEdit
Modern guidebooks have described the church interior as "dull". This is a libel.
The aisles of the nave are narrower than the nave itself. The aisle arcades have two large pillars each, and each of these has an Ionic pilaster in (fake?) grey marble with a rather naïve Ionic capital. Above the entablatures which these support are narrow walkways which run down the sides of the church. The arch imposts are Doric, and their pilasters are in the same sort of grey except for the Chapel of St Andrew in the far right hand corner.
The pilasters of the triumphal arch are in the same style. Tucked away in the corner on each side of these are two exits, to the sacristy and convent. The upper nave walls have four round-headed windows each, three over the arcade and the fourth over the exit. The walls in between them have 19th century paintwork in heraldic motifs surrounded by fake marbling. There is no ceiling; the trussed and planked roof is open.
The counterfaçade has a gallery bearing what is apparently the original organ installed in the 18th century restoration; it is not now playable, as can be seen from the state of the pipes. Below, to one side of the entrance door, is the Epigraph of Theodotus. Above, the odd bit of carved masonry sticking out of the wall is part of the ancient gateway.
The high altar is brought forward to the sanctuary step, and has no canopy. It covers an allegedly palaeochristian marble sarcophagus installed in the 19th century restoration, which has two flying angels in relief holding onto a pierced wreath containing a chi-rho symbol. The piercing allows you to see inside, where some relics of the martyrs Cyrus and John of Alexandria are enshrined. These were originally brought to Rome and enshrined in the suburban church of Santa Passera, but were kept in this church from the 14th century until 1600 when they were taken to Naples. It is believed (how?) that the relics here, brought back in 1867 are of Cyrus rather than of John.
Near the altar is a little grated loculus which contains the relics of SS Symphorosa and companions, already mentioned.
The apse is 19th century, with fake painted hexagonal coffering containing rosettes in the conch. Behind, a set of wooden choir stalls runs round the apse and above it is a large picture of St Michael Defeating the Devil in the style (if not the school) of the Cavaliere d'Arpino.
On the presbyterium walls flanking the altar are two 19th century paintings of St Francis Carraciolo, founder of the Clerics.
Chapel of St AndrewEdit
The treasure of the church is the Baroque Chapel of St Andrew at the far end of the right hand aisle, the one which belonged to the fishmongers. It is richly decorated in gilded stucco with frescoed panels by Innocenzo Tacconi, and this treatment is extended to the intrados and pilasters of the arcade arch. The panels on the ceiling vault show events in the life of St Andrew. There are fishes on the arch intrados, including a flying fish. The panels flanking the altar show St Francis of Assisi (left), and St Frances of Rome (right). The work dates certainly to just after 1598, which is when the artist arrived at Rome.
The altar has two Ionic columns in black and white veined marble supporting a triangular pediment. The altarpiece shows the Crucifixion of St Andrew, and is by Giorgio Vasari. The painting on the right hand side wall shows The Vocation of St Andrew, and is by Bernardino Cesari.
The floor of the chapel is a glorious piece of opus sectile work in polychrome marble, and shows the shield of the confraternity. On it is a pair of geese, a deer and a large fish which is a sturgeon. It would be interesting to know when one of these was last caught in the Tiber.
Chapel of St JosephEdit
This is in the first bay of the right hand aisle, and used to be dedicated to the Holy Trinity. The altar frontal is intricately scrolled polychrome marble work, and the altarpiece shows the Holy Trinity with SS Lawrence and Cyrus by Giovanni Battista Brugel. There is no other decoration.
In the next bay of the aisle is a memorial to Giacomo Ricchebacchi, 1841, who had been a priest here and was noted as an astronomer and mathematician.
Chapel of the CrucifixEdit
This is at the beginning of the left hand aisle, just the the right of the side entrance. It is a result of the 1599 restoration, and is a Baroque work in gilded, painted and glazed stucco made to resemble majolica. The side panels are in red, white and blue with little figures of angels, while the central round-headed niche contains an 18th century Calvary with statues of Our Lady and St John taken off a contemporary shop shelf.
Chapel of St Francis CaraccioloEdit
This is at the end of the left hand aisle, and used to be dedicated to Our Lady of Graces (Madonna delle Grazie). The altar has a pair of Ionic columns in black marble veined in white. The altarpiece was a Virgin and Child by Pietro di Belizo of the 16th century, but this was stolen in the late 20th century. Now, there is a modern crucifix in the blank frame and a picture of the saint on the altar itself. The crucifix is a little bronze sculpture of some merit.
Fresco of Our LadyEdit
There is now no altar dedicated to Our Lady in the church. However, on the wall to the right of the above chapel is a detached fresco of her with angels by Benozzo Gozzoli, executed 1447-1450. This superb work used to be on the outside wall of the present convent, but was moved here in order to protect it from the elements.
The church has a crypt, a fact little known because the only access is by a trapdoor. It is under the sanctuary, and dates in its present form to about the 13th century.
The main chamber is semi-circular in plan, with a cross-vault and two white marble Ionic columns. The layout approximates to that of the original 8th century apse, with two blocked side corridors which originally allowed pilgrims to file through from stairs flanking the sanctuary. In the nave side wall is the entrance to a rectangular chamber which used to be the shrine containing the relics of the martyrs venerated here.
The left hand corridor now passes through into a third chamber the curved wall of which is the lower part of the left hand side apse of the first church. There are fresco fragments still (at least recently) visible, which are also from the 8th or 9th century and hence belonging to that church.
Access and liturgyEdit
The front door is rarely open. For access from the Via del Portico dell'Ottavia, look for a little gateway in a mediaeval house immediately to the left of the portico. This passes through to the Via Sant'Angelo in Pescheria, a dead-end street, and the usual entrance to the church is on the right.
The church is normally only open for liturgical activities. On Saturday at 17:30 there is charismatic prayer and Mass, and on Wednesday at 18:00 there is Exposition and Mass. On every third Monday of the month there is prayer and Mass for sick people.
Those Catholic visitors who perhaps are unfamiliar with the practice of charismatic prayer need to familiarize themselves with what it entails before attending a liturgy here.
The church is closed in August.