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Sant'Urbano alla Caffarella is an isolated early mediaeval church converted from an ancient building in the Parco della Caffarella near the Via Appia Antica . This is in the Appio Latino quarter. Pictures of the church on Wikimedia Commons are here. There is an English Wikipedia page here.
Triopion of Herodes AtticusEdit
The building was originally a pagan temple or shrine, probably constructed on the orders of the 2nd century Athenian philosopher Herodes Atticus. He was very rich, a well-known orator and an exponent of a cultural movement known as the Second Sophistic. He moved to Rome, became a consul in the year 143 and married the patrician Annia Regilla. However, she was kicked to death by one of his former slaves and he was charged with incitement to murder. After being acquitted, he indulged in public shows of grief and converted his villa estate on the Via Appia to a landscape sacred to the gods of the underworld and to the memory of his dead wife. This was the so-called Triopion, named after a sanctuary of Demeter at Cnidus. The centre of the complex was a villa which was later supplanted by the Villa and Circus of Maxentius.
Temple of Ceres and FaustinaEdit
One of the buildings in the Triopion landscape was the present church. Originally, it was a small prostyle (that is, with columns only at the front) and tetrastyle (four columns at the front) temple standing on a podium that is now completely buried. This had seven steps up to the entrance. The main body of the edifice is constructed of opus latericium, which involves a cement core faced both sides with brick. However, the columns and architrave are of Pentelic marble from quarries in Greece which Herodes owned. The dedication to Ceres and Faustina the Elder, the deified wife of Emperor Antoninus Pius , is suggested by a later inscription but it may not have been the original one. Another guess is that it was dedicated to Bacchus, but there is no epigraphic evidence for this apart from on a small altar found in the building.
Conversion into a churchEdit
The actual date that this structure was converted into a church is unknown. The present consensus is that it was in the 9th or perhaps the early 10th century, although a date in the 6th century is sometimes still quoted. An attempt to fix the date in the reign of Pope Paschal I has not found favour. Another obscure point is as regards the identity of the original Urban. It was thought that the dedication to Pope St Urban was either because he used the building as a church, or because he was buried in a tomb at the fourth milestone on the Via Appia. Both of these assertions are unhistorical, and it is suspected that the original patron saint was an obscure martyr and not the pope. If so, the identification with the pope was in place by the 11th century.
A problem with a late date of conversion is what was being done with the building beforehand. It must have been kept in good condition, because ancient stucco interior decoration remains to the present day.
Also unknown is why the conversion happened at all, in such an isolated country location. There is no evidence at all that a monastery was once attached, which would be a plausible motivation at the time. A further puzzle is the lateness of the conversion, at a time when the city was having serious difficulties maintaining other suburban churches in the face of attacks by marauders.
A surviving fresco of the 9th century is in the crypt, which was dug into the temple podium either during the conversion or shortly after.
There was a major restoration in the 11th or early 12th century, when all four internal walls were covered with a major fresco cycle of first importance in art history. Unfortunately, the existing inscription dating this to 1011 was repainted in the 17th century and is dubious on stylistic grounds.
The church was abandoned in the later Middle Ages, and the Catalogue of Turin of 1320 lists it as having no priest. However, whatever use it was put to involved somebody keeping the fabric watertight. There seems to be no evidence of conversion into a dwelling house, so presumably it was used as a storage barn.
Restoration in the 17th centuryEdit
At the start of the 17th century, the edifice was apparently damaged by an earthquake and was on the point of collapse. However, in 1634 Pope Urban VIII and Cardinal Francesco Barberini undertook a massive restoration which ended with a re-consecration by the pope. The frescoes had been damaged and were re-painted in places, but the cardinal had the foresight to order a series of drawings of the originals before restoration. These drawings survive in the Vatican Library.
The structural feature of the restoration was that blocking walls were inserted between the columns, which hence are now embedded in the façade.
The isolated position of the church has left it vulnerable to vandalism through the centuries, and so it has been subsequently restored several times. An engraving of 1756 shows the podium apparently still above ground level, and one of 1796 shows the side and back walls of the church decorated with Corinthian pilasters. These went in the 19th century, when sloping buttresses were provided to support the side walls. These were in place by 1825. However, in 1896 a photo of the church shows it in indifferent condition; this was rectified by the 1930's when its appearance and surroundings were neat.
There seems to have been a final abandonment after the Second World War, with rumours of misuse by Satanists and general vandalism and desecration. In 1962 a villa was built illegally next door, on the site of a small farmhouse which had existed in the 18th century but had vanished in the 19th. This is one of many such villas constructed along the Via Appia Antica in the period as a result of organized crime. The "owner" of this property tried to expropriate the derelict church, and in the process blocked access and intimidated those trying to visit. As a result of many complaints, in 2002 the church was confiscated by the municipality and was originally to be added to the Appia Antica Regional Park (Parco Regionale dell'Appia Antica). However, it was given back into the administration of the Diocese instead, and in 2005 was re-consecrated. It is now attached to the parish of San Sebastiano, but has its own priest. At present this is Msgr Antonio Interguglielmi, and the church is also used by an Associazione Onlus.
As at 2011, the villa is still privately occupied but a separate path with noticeboard has been provided to the church from the Vicolo di Sant'Urbano by the authorities of the Caffarella Park.
The church is now surrounded by pine trees, making it rather difficult to see. This is a modern development. The area probably has more trees now than it has had for thousands of years, and up to the mid 19th century had very few trees at all. Old photos survive showing the church on its little hill, with extensive views in all directions over the vast sheep range that was the old Roman Campagna.
The cella (interior space) of the temple was almost square in plan behind the portico. With the addition of the latter to the internal area when walls were added between the columns in 1634, the plan is now a short rectangle with an enclosed atrium.
The four columns now embedded in the façade are high-quality, fluted in the Corinthian style and of Pentelic
marble. They support an architrave of the same stone, which runs round the side of the former portico as well. There is no proper entablature. You can see that the right hand columns have fractured across.
The blocking walls between the columns have a very simple doorcase and two square windows, formed of heavy slabs of limestone. A row of three other square windows used to be above these, but they were blocked in the mid 20th century and their frames removed. Above the architrave can be seen a small rectangular window which is now blocked, but which is part of the ancient temple. There was a pair of very small square windows flanking this, also now blocked. The roofline either side has a dentillate cornice in brick, and this is continued across the front to form a pediment containing a small oculus. You can also see how the façade has fractured in two places across the pediment, with the central section bulging out rather alarmingly. The blocking walls either side of the doorway have a slope or batter.
There is a bellcote on the right hand side, just behind the pediment. It has two open arches and a triangular top, but has not had any bells in it for a long time. Around the back there are three small windows in a row high up, the middle one being round. and the other two arched. These are part of the ancient design, too.
The former portico is now an enclosed entrance vestibule. The main internal area is almost a cube, and has the same ancient arrangement of three windows over the internal entrance door as it has opposite, over the altar. That is, a central round one flanked by a pair of arched ones which lit the parvise of the portico. There is an ancient barrel-vaulted ceiling.
The interior walls are divided horizontally into three zones. The first, to just above the level of the entrance door, is completely plain, but traces of rusting indicate that votive objects may have been hung here on hooks when the edifice was a temple. There are also some fragments of frescoes dating from perhaps the 9th century, like the one in the crypt. This zone is separated from the next by a moulded cornice over a blank frieze which projects slightly. The second zone contains the thirty-four mediaeval frescoes, which are on large rectangular tablets separated by Corinthinan pilasters. This is separated from the third zone by another blank frieze and cornice. The last zone is narrow, at present also blank but showing traces of its original stucco decoration.
The impressive barrel-vaulted ceiling had a line of relief decoration along its springing on each side wall, featuring weaponry and imperial triumphal motifs. Some of this is extant on the right hand side. The ceiling itself has a coffered decoration of tesselated octagons and squares, and in the octagons were also stucco reliefs. One of these survives to an appreciable extent, and shows two figures which are interpreted to represent Herodius on the left facing Annia Regilla on the right.
The very important series of 11th century fresco panels occupy all four walls of the church. They were retouched in the 17th century restoration, but the work of the restorers is usually obvious even to the untrained eye. The subjects are as follows:
Christ Pantocrator (giving a blessing). Annunciation. Nativity. Revelation of the Nativity to the Shepherds (it shows a lute of a style which did not exist at the start of the 11th century, hence the suspicion that the dating inscription's year of 1011 is false). Journey of the Magi. Adoration of the Magi. Dream of Joseph (hardly any retouching here). Flight into Egypt. Massacre of the Innocents. Resurrection of Lazarus. Entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. Washing of the Feet. Last Supper. Jesus Being Flogged before Pilate. Arrest of Jesus at Gethsemane (oddly the Cross features in this scene). Crucifixion. Deposition from the Cross. Descent into the Underworld by Jesus. The Women at the Tomb. Jesus Shows Himself to Mary Magdalene. Martyrdom of St Lawrence. An Unidentified Martyrdom. Martyrdom of SS Sixtus and Companions (?). Another Unidentified Martyrdom. Conversion and Baptism of Valerian, Husband of St Cecila. Conversion of Tibericius, Brother-in-law of St Cecilia. Interrogation of St Cecilia. Death of St Cecilia. Burial of St Cecilia. Interrogation of St Urban. St Urban is Flogged. St Urban Overthrows an Idol, and Converts his Jailer. Martyrdom of St Urban and his Companions.
In the very small crypt is preserved a 9th century fresco in a shallow niche, which shows Our Lady with the Christ Child. She is holding him upright, and he appears as a small adult, which is a motif of the Byzantine style. They are flanked by SS Urban on the left, with a beard, and John the Evangelist on the right, without one. The figures are represented stiffly and rather naïvely on a blue background, and have never been restored or overpainted.
The church is at the end of the Vicolo di Sant'Urbano, which is off the Via Appia Pignatelli and due east of the Basilica of San Sebastiano. Note that there is a one-way system just to the west, and to get to the church from the city by car you go up the Via della Basilica from the Via Appia Antica and turn right at the Via Appia Pignatelli. Returning, keep to the Via Appia Pignatelli until it joins the Via Appia Antica.The access road has a dead end at the entrance to the rich squatter's villa, where it is possible to park, but a path carries on to the gate into the churchyard.
There is an informative notice board in English and Italian, but the churchyard is surrounded by a high chain link fence and also contains several pine trees and bushes. As a result, there is not a very good view of the exterior from outside.
As of 2012, opening times are still not being advertised. The church's website has a page for these, but the only info on it is an invitation to send an e-mail. See "external links" below. It's worth a try.
If you take the bridle path called the Via della Caffarella to the east of the church, you may notice an inviting footpath going up the little hill on which the church is situated. This brings you to the east side of the churchyard, but there is no way through the vegetation to the gate on the west side. You have to retrace your steps, and take a path round the bottom of the hill from the bridle path. While up there, you may notice that some enterprising and agile people have managed to climb over the high chain link fence in one place.