Sant'Isidoro a Capo le Case is a 17th century convent church at Via degli Artisti 41 in the modern rione Ludovisi (the historic rione Colonna). Pictures of the church at Wikimedia Commons are here. There is an English Wikipedia page here, but the German page here is better.
The church and convent were founded by Spanish "Reformed Observant" Franciscans in 1622, the same year that St Isidore was canonized.
There is a complicated history to the various contemporary efforts among the Spanish Franciscans to live according to a more rigorous obedience to their Rule. The group that tried to found a hospice and convent in Rome seem to have been of the "Discalced Franciscans" who were disciples of Juan de Guadalupe, or Guadalupense. This group included St Peter of Alcántara, who in turn founded his own reform which had its base in Rome at Santi Quaranta e San Pasquale Baylon.
However, things must have gone badly wrong because the brethren went back to Spain only two years later and left the project abandoned. Money seems to have been a problem.
The unfinished complex, and the debts attached to it, devolved to the central curia of the Franciscan order at Santa Maria in Aracoeli. Resident at that time in the convent of San Pietro in Montorio was a famous Irish Franciscan friar and theologian called Luke Wadding, a voluminous writer and a very forceful personality. He had the idea of founding a house of studies for Irisn Franciscans, and the Franciscan order handed over the complex to him. The new convent was ratified by a bull from Pope Urban VIII in 1625, with Wadding as superior.
In the same year and by a bull of the same pope, the Pontifical Irish College was founded as a college and seminary for Irish candidates for the priesthood. The major patron of this was Cardinal Ludovico Ludovisi, the founder of the nearby famous villa and gardens of the Villa Ludovisi. The first students took up residence in a house opposite the convent in 1628, under the supervision of Wadding, but the Jesuits took over in 1635. This was according to the will of the Cardinal, which Wadding tried and failed to overturn. The college was moved, and is now located at Via dei Santi Quattro 1 near the Lateran.
Casoni continued work on the church until 1634, when there was a pause. Domenico Castelli worked on the choir and portico in the years after 1640, but the façade was left unfinished. The church was finally consecrated in this state in 1684, with a secondary dedication to St Patrick.
The Irish Franciscan missionaries were very important to the Catholic Church in Ireland in ministering to the faith of the people. Despite the vast majority of the population being Catholic, all church property was confiscated by the British and handed over to Protestants. The Franciscan priests back home in Ireland often had to say Mass in sheds, or even in corners of fields, and were subject to harrassment and persecution. The convent was an important focus of Irish faith and culture in Rome, and a means whereby the interests of the Irish people could be kept in view at the papal court.
The convent was forcibly closed during the Napoleonic occupation, after 1798, because Ireland was then part of the United Kingdom.
In 1809 six students at the Vienna Academy, who had been influenced by the German Romantic movement, decided to found their own artistic school in order to (as they put it) further the expression of honesty and spirituality in religious art. Basically, they hated formulaic Neo-Classical posturing.
They called their group the Lukasbund or "Brotherhood of St Luke", but their detractors thought that they were Biblical posers and called them the Nazarenes. The latter name stuck. In 1810, four of them led by Johann Friedrich Overbeck moved to Rome and were allowed to live in the abandoned friary.
There they lived a semi-monastic existence, imagining that this is how the great artists in the Middle Ages had lived (actually, no). This colony attracted others, notably Joseph Anton Koch who became a sort of guru, and became very influential. They were especially important in instigating the revival of fresco painting on walls and ceilings.
The glory days of this artists' colony lasted about ten years, until the Franciscans received their convent back. Apart from Overbeck, the members went back to Germany and Austria and some had important later careers. They left a memorial in the name of the street on which the church stands -Via degli Artisti.
The Irish Franciscans here continued their missionary impulse after being re-founded, but the toleration of the Catholic Church in Ireland by the British occupiers in the 19th century meant that they could also focus their attention elsewhere. They played an important part in setting up the church in Australia, as well as in Britain itself after Catholic Emancipation.
Because of its status as a college, the convent was not expropriated by the Italian government in the 1870's.
However events in Ireland in the 20th century led to the Irish Franciscans withdrawing from the convent in 2008, as they lacked the personnel to continue religious life there.
After the independence of the greater part of Ireland in 1922, the Church enjoyed a high level of secular prestige within the romantic and historicist nationalism fostered by the new governing establishment, in greater part based on the thought of Éamon de Valera. Further, the fragile tax base of by the government fostered a policy of relying on Church institutions to provide much educational and social service work. Unfortunately a minority of priests and religious were completely unfit to associate with children and vulnerable adults, and the resulting abuse scandal beginning in the 1980's caused very severe damage to the prestige of the Church in Ireland. More to the point, it contributed to a collapse in vocations to the religious life -including to the Franciscans.
The convent was leased back to the Generalate of the Order of Friars Minor, which transferred the personnel and chattels of the convent of San Bonaventura in Grottaferrata to it. This includes a famous library. At present, the community is a mix of several nationalities although the intention is to try and maintain the Irish connection somehow.
The tangible result of this seems to be, that you can get married in the church if you are an Irish Catholic. However, most Irish expatriate and pilgrim activity in Rome focuses on San Patrizio nearby.
The Cappella de Sylva was restored in 2002.
Layout and fabricEdit
The church is an integral part of the convent, which is a single structure standing in a garden away from the street. Fortunately it has not been altered or added to much since its original construction, and is an important example of an unspoilt 17th century convent.
The church is at the south-east corner, and has an internal loggia with ancillary rooms over, having its own pitched and tiled roof. Then comes a small nave with four side chapels under its own roof, and then a transept with two chapels flanking the main altar. The latter is in a very shallow rectangular apse.
The fabric of the convent and church is in red brick, with the church façade in white stucco.
The main cloister, called the Wadding Cloister because built by him in 1630, is to the north-west of the church. It has arcades on all four sides, but these are interrupted by the far left hand corner of the church which intrudes slightly on the plan.
The two fresco cycles in the walks are by Fra Giovanni Antonio Sguary, a Franciscan artist, 1701. The main depictions are portraits of forty-nine Franciscan saints, while the thirty lunettes above depict scenes from the life of St Francis.
To the south of this, and to the west or left hand side of the church, is the tiny Spanish Cloister built for the original Spanish friars. This has to be a candidate for the smallest convent cloister in Rome. It has an old well in it.
The cloister walks have modern paintings of the Crucifix of San Damiano and St Francis Receiving the Stigmata, a copy of a 15th century work. Also here are older, anonymous works featuring Our Lady of Sorrows and The Resurrected Christ.
The tower campanile is inserted into the bottom left hand corner of the church, behind the entrance block. It has three storeys, the first two of which have an arched aperture on each face. The third is low, above a strongly projecting cornice, and is a little cuboidal kiosk with an arched cornice on each side. There used to be a clock in here, and the derelict clockface is still visible from in front of the church.
The late Baroque (tardobarocco) façade is by Carlo Francesco Bizzaccheri. The stucco work is by Andrea Bertoni. Because the church is on a crypt, the entrance is accessed by a pair of double transverse staircases with solid parapets. The wrought iron screen at the access to these is original (as are the garden gates that you might be looking through to see the church). In the revetment wall below the terrace is a rectangular niche with a good-quality coloured Spanish majolica relief of the Madonna and Child. A matching relief of St Francis is on the convent wall next to the façade on the left hand side.
There are two storeys, of equal width. The first one fronts the loggia, and has three arches of unequal size. The side ones are smaller, and have decorative panels above them. The central one reaches to the dividing entablature, which is supported by four Ionic pilasters with swagged capitals. The outer pilasters do not occupy the corners of the façade, but are slightly within.
There is another arch around the corner on each side.
The second storey has four corresponding Corinthian pilasters, the other pair of which are doubletted and flanked by a pair of curlicule sprays. The pilasters support a crowning triangular pediment with four flaming square-vase finials. In the tympanum is a Baroque tablet with a dedicatory inscription -D'[ivo]' Isidoro Agricolae dicatum- and the curved projecting cornice over this obscures the apex of the pediment.
The large central window has been reduced in size at some stage. It was originally round-headed, with a balustrade and a very complicated and curlicued pediment which hints at the architect's tendency to go rococo. Stucco flower chains hang down each side of the window. In between the pilasters are two statues, one of St Isidore and one of St Patrick -they are helpfully labelled.
The little nave has two chapels on each side, unusually not contiguous but separated by a large rectangular window on each side. The windows and chapel arches are separated by gigantic Composite pilasters which support a pair of entablatures running down the sides of the church but not across the apse or counterfaçade. On these is the barrel-vaulted ceiling, which has a central capsule-shaped panel containing a fresco depicting The Apotheosis of St Isidore by Charles-André van Loo , 1729.
The counterfaçade has a large lunette window looking into the room over the loggia.
The overall decor is in white on cream, which matches the dignified restraint of the understated Baroque stucco detailing.
Transept and sanctuaryEdit
There is a cupola over the crossing, which has a lantern and is divided into eight sectors by ribs with gilded stucco fronds. The sectors contain frescoes by Domenico Bartolini, 1856 which depict Our Lady, St Patrick and six Franciscan saints. The dome pendentives show the Evangelists, by Silvio Galimberti 1948.
The apse has its own short barrel vault, with the Dove of the Holy Spirit. The altar aedicule is against the far wall, and has a pair of Corintian columns in what looks like alabaster with gilded capitals. These support a split triangular pediment flanking a tablet with a garlanded winged putto's head, over which is a segmental pediment.
The altarpiece depicting The Vision of Our Lady to St Isidore is by Andrea Sacchi, 1622. The lunette above the aedicule depicts Christ in Gethsemane, by Bartolini again. Under the altar are enshrined the relics of SS Leontius and Florian, ancient Roman martyrs.
The side chapels are described anticlockwise, beginning to the right of the entrance. In contrast to the main body of the church, they are richly decorated.
Chapel of St JosephEdit
The first chapel on the right is dedicated to St Joseph. The paintings are all by Carlo Maratta. The altarpiece shows his marriage to Our Lady, the side walls have The Flight to Egypt and The Death of St Joseph, and the cupola shows The Apotheosis of St Joseph. (There has been some doubt expressed about the authorship of the side wall works.)
Here are memorials to Isabella Ball Sherlock, by Giovanni Maria Benzoni 1847, and Margaret Meigham Harris, 1846.
Chapel of St AnneEdit
The second chapel on the right is dedicated to St Anne, mother of Our Lady. The altarpiece of her with the Madonna and Child is by Pietro Paolo Naldini. He also executed the side wall frescoes showing The Birth of Our Lady and The Presentation of Our Lady at the Temple.
Chapel of St John NepomuceneEdit
Around the corner in the right hand end of the transepth is an altar dedicated to St John Nepomucene. The altarpiece is a copy of a work by Maratta. Here are memorials to Amelia Curran, 1838 and Alfonso Mazanedo de Quiñones, 1628.
Cappella De Sylva Edit
The Cappella De Sylva to the right of the sanctuary was designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini in 1663. It is tiny, but spectacular. The dedication is to the Immaculate Conception of Our Lady, and the elliptical altarpiece of her is by Maratta. It fits into the pendentive arch of the cupola, is supported by a pair of putti and has a backdrop of alabaster. The same stone is used in the altar frontal, to good effect (not the usual symmetrical revetting slabs).
The cupola, with its pendentives, is entirely gilded. This does not work very well artisitically, as it obscures the figurative detailing of the stucco reliefs which include putti. Bernini knew better than to suggest something like this, so presumably it was the client's fault.
The side walls and the left hand lunette have frescoes of putti; the right hand lunette is a window.
The side walls also have a pair of matching memorials of members of the De Sylva family, which are by Paolo Valentino Bernini who was a son of Gian Lorenzo. Each has a marble bas-relief of two family members, in a red jasper frame surrounded by a rumpled cloth of black marble (very Berniniesque). The right hand monument has a relief portrait in an oval tondo on top, and two white marble female allegorical virtues in the black marble wrap. Peace is on the left, with an olive branch, and Justice on the right, with fasces.
The best thing in the church is the monument on the left. It also has a bas-relief framed in red jasper and surrounded by a black marble cloth, but the tondo on top has a portrait bust not a relief. The two allegorical females are Charity to the left, and Truth to the right. Both are bare-breasted, and Charity is giving her own voluminous mammaries a squeeze while smiling. The Irish Franciscans had so much trouble with their more suggestible brethren over this pair of ladies that, in 1860, they gave the two of them tops in bronze to wear (really!). The bronze clothing was removed in 2002.
It is thought that the elder Bernini was responsible for the two girls.
Chapel of SS Francis and PatrickEdit
The chapel to the left of the sanctuary is dedicated to St Francis. The anonymous Spanish altarpiece of St Francis in Ecstasy is early 17th century. The side wall frescoes of St Patrick are by Galimberti, 1849 with St Francis in the lunettes. There is a large modern picture of St Patrick opposite the chapel entrance.
The impressive cupola is in gilded stucco, with the Dove of the Holy Spirit and putti in white -better artistically than the cupola in the previous chapel.
Here are memorials to Catherine Bryan Talbot, 1827 by Vincenzo Gajassi; to Pietro Pavoni, 1626, and to Antonio Barano, 1667 by Francesco De Rossi (not the famous painter).
Chapel of St Anthony of PaduaEdit
The second chapel on the left is dedicated to St Anthony of Padua, and was the Cappella Gaetani. It was re-fitted by Bizzaccheri in 1688.
The altarpiece showing the saint having a vision of the Christ-Child is by Giovanni Domenico Cerrini, 1655. The side wall frescoes show scenes from the saint's life, and are by Pietro Paoletti 1830. The lunettes are allegedly by Egidio Ale, from Liege in Belgium.
Chapel of the CrucifixEdit
The first chapel on the left is dedicated to the Crucifix. The bronze corpus on a wooden cross was donated by the Ludovisi family in 1835.
The cupola shows The Exaltation of the Cross by Carlo Maratta.
The church seems not to be regularly open on weekdays, apart presumably on major feast days. The Rome tourist website 060608 has this to say:
Cappella De Sylva -terminato il restauro, la cappella è visitabile su appuntamento dal lunedì al sabato dalle 10:00 alle 18:00, telefonando allo 064885359.
In other words, telephone for an appointment to visit the Da Silva Chapel on weekdays between the times given. The phone number is that of the convent.
There is a Mass in English on Sundays at 10:00, which is the only public Mass in the week and, apparently, the only time you can visit the church without an appointment.
If you wish to see the artworks before Mass, try arriving half an hour early and be discreet -the church is small, and it is easy to cause a disturbance.
The friars will now conduct weddings for Irish couples, and details are here. The cost of hiring the church (not including flowers etc) was four hundred euros in 2014, which was cheap for the Centro Storico.
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