The dedication is to St Barbara, virgin martyr.
Some recent sources give the name as Santa Barbara dei Librari, and others as Santi Barbara e Tommaso since there is a subsidiary dedication to St Thomas Aquinas. Several other historical names are on record, detailed below.
This small church was founded at an unknown date in the ruins of the Theatre of Pompey. (It was in an annexe in the gardens of this theatre that Julius Caesar was assassinated). There is no documentary evidence for the foundation, but a small chapel, in part of the vaulting under the former spectator seating of the theatre, was probably opened in the early or mid 11th century. Many small churches were being estabished in the surviving built-up area of the city in this century.
A hint that the church was founded by re-using part of the structure of the old theatre lies in the fact that it does not fit into the mediaeval street plan. It has always been at the end of its own short, dead-end street (the present Largo dei Librari).
A surviving 11th century inscription mentions Giovanni de Crescenzio and his wife Rogata as patrons of the church, and this is the first documentary evidence. The next is the famous list of churches dependent on San Lorenzo in Damaso, dating from 1186.
The church was known simply as Santa Barbara in some of the catalogue lists in the later Middle Ages, but other names occur. One is Santa Barbara alla Regola, after an adjacent district; the boundary of the rione Regola is actually down the middle of the street running past the church, the Via dei Giubonnari. This street has given rise to another historical name, Santa Barbara dei Giubonnari. This name means literally "jacket makers", a reference to the shops that used to be here; an alternative is Santa Barbara dei Pelamantelli (coat-makers).
The church was, for some unknown reason, consecrated in 1306 (this was quoted by Giuseppe Vasi from a now lost document). This was almost certainly a re-consecration after an unrecorded rebuilding or refitting.
One erroneous name on record is Santa Barbara Anglicorum, which is allegedly because the English community in Rome used it as their meeting-place for a period. The allegation has only one source, Francesco Albertini who wrote in 1510. There is no other documentary evidence for this, and Hülsen considers reasonably that Albertini confused this church with San Tommaso di Canterbury.
Another recorded appellation is Santa Barbara in Satro, traditionally referring to two statues of satyrs (satiri) found in the area in the 14th century. The identification is a guess, and Satro is better regarded as a locality name of uncertain meaning.
Briefly titular and parochialEdit
Pope Julius III (1550-1555) made it a titular church, but this status was revoked in 1587 by Pope Sixtus V (1585-1590). It was assigned to three cardinals in the period 1551 to 1571: Giovanni Andrea Mercurio, Pierdonato Cesi (the senior) and Gaspar de Zúñiga y Avellaneda.
In 1594 it became parochial church in its own right. It had this status for only a short time too, until 1601.
In that year it was granted to the Università dei Librai, a guild of publishers, bookbinders, printers and booksellers. This guild or sodality had been founded in 1600, and this is recorded in an inscription in the church. Back then, these trades were not so firmly distinguished from one another as they would be later; one person could do all four jobs.
On acquiring the church the booksellers added their patron St Thomas Aquinas to the dedication so, strictly speaking, the church should be called Santi Barbara e Tommaso d'Aquino. They also restored the church as soon as they acquired it.
A fire in 1634 destroyed a building in front of the church, which was apparently only accessible via a narrow passage. The Confraternity took the opportunity to buy the plot that it stood on, and so created the extant little piazza
The existing building must have been found unsatisfactory, because it was rebuilt in 1680 in the Baroque style. According to Giovanni Bottari, writing in 1764, the architect was Giuseppe Passeri but there is a problem with this since Passari was a writer and painter rather than an architect. Bottari is the only source for this assertion, and there is a suspicion that he might have made a mistake. If Passeri was the architect, this church would be his only known architectural commission.
The information boards provided for the church names the architect of the rebuilding as one Gaetano Bonoli, with Passeri responsible for the façade.
The proportionately large side chapels were added in the rebuilding, which was financed by a native Florentine member of the Universitá named Zanobio Masotti. This is recorded in an inscription on the wall, placed here by the guild in 1688.
The Confraternita dei Librai (formerly the Università) had the church restored in 1858; the architect was called Etorre Bonoli. Apparently the roof was ready to collapse. The opportunity was taken to provide a private oratorio for the guild members, adjacent to the church.
The confraternity was wound up in 1878. The church seems to have been deconsecrated then, although it is mentioned in late 19th century guidebooks. It was being used as a warehouse in the early 20th century, which is why it doesn't appear on some maps of the centro storico. Some of the interior decoration shows damage resulting from this period of neglect. The moveable fittings had been removed to the parish church of San Carlo ai Catinari.
One unfortunate result of the abandonment was that the oratorio was apparently squatted by the owners of the adjacent property at the start of the 20th century, and thus lost to the church.
However, the church itself was rescued on the initiative of a group of young people who took an interest in it from 1974.As a result, it was well restored and reconsecrated and has been used as a church again since 1982. It now belongs to the Comunità di Santa Barbara which is a secular pious confraternity devoted especially to worship and catechesis. This was set up by Riccardo Fontana, then the priest in charge of the church and now archbishop of Arezzo. Oddly, it seems not to be formally constituted and is not listed by the Diocese.
The church is served by diocesan clergy, and is dependent on the parish church of San Carlo ai Catinari. At present, it can be found open for liturgical activities especially on weekend evenings, and is also a venue for music concerts arranged by the Comunità.
There are several historical churches in the centro storico now being kept open by the activities of lay confraternities such as this one. It seems to be working here, but where membership is based on personal enthusiasm rather than on any more objective criteria the danger is a loss of zeal.
Layout and fabricEdit
The church is constained by higher buildings on all sides except the front, so the exterior fabric is invisible. The plan is on a Latin cross, with a tiny nave flanked by a pair of side chapels, a transept with a chapel at each and and a rectangular apse.
The does not seem to be a campanile now.
The little façade, possibly by Passeri (1680), is squeezed between the taller buildings on each side. It has two storeys, and is rather alarmingly crooked with the second storey leaning slightly to the right.
The first storey has three vertical zones, with the two very narrow side zones being the street fronts of the nave side rooms. The single entrance has a doorcase with an interesting design of molding, and above its lintel is the inscription S[anctae] Barbarae, v[irgini] ma[rtyri] sacr[ae] ("To St Barbara, holy virgin martyr"). Over this in turn is a segmental pediment with a dentillated cornice and a winged putto's head in its tympanum.
The doorway is flanked by a pair of Composite columns supporting a protruding fragment of entablature which is stepped at the outer corners and has a strongly protruding cornice. The two narrow side zones each have two rectangular windows placed vertically, the lower pair touching the ground (the right hand one of this pair is blocked). The upper pair of windows is topped by a pair of large stucco scallop shells.
The second storey has an oculus window, now blocked, resting on the entrance entablature and flanked by a pair of horizontal curlicues looking rather like musical G-clefs on their sides. Above this is a round-headed niche containing a fine limestone statue of St Barbara by Ambrogio Parisi -a rare work by this obscure sculptor. A close-up photo of it is here. She is shown holding the palm of martyrdom, and standing before a fortified tower which is her attribute. This delectable round-faced ragazza is certainly not according to Classical canons.
The saint's fictional legend alleges that her pagan father kept her locked up in one before having her martyred, as a result of which she was struck by lightning. The stucco device between the statue and oculus is actually two little cannons back to back, shooting out fire and lightning bolts. She is patron of firefighters, and in fact her other church in Rome -Santa Barbara alle Capannelle- is the city firefighters' church.
The statue niche reaches into the crowning triangular pediment, and its archivolt is crowned by a cobra-hood finial topped by a little erupting volcano device tucked into the point of the pediment. Two large flaming torch finials continue the fire theme by occupying the outer corners of the pediment, while the top finial is a plinth with a mask in the form of a woman's face (only really visible with binoculars or a telephoto lens).
The pediment is supported by a pair of Doric pilasters, the body of each of which is formed by a recessed panel within a frame and containing a vertical drape of bellflower lilies ending in a rosette. Finally, the outer corners of this storey are bounded by a pair of elongated curlicues.
The church apparently did not acquire air rights when it was widened in the 17th century rebuilding. A domestic building on the left has been extended, probably in the 18th century, so that it sits above the left hand nave chapel and abuts onto the church nave. This looks seriously weird, especially since the structure is now in a bad state of repair. It looks as if the addition of this annexe distorted the façade, in which case it is fortunate it did not fall down.
An inscription below the right-hand window relates that the Università dei Librai bought a vacant building plot in 1638 for the sum of 400 scudi, thus creating the little piazza.
The church has a single nave with a pair of side chapels. It is richly decorated in the Baroque style, with a vaulted ceiling bearing a fresco depicting The Apotheosis of St Barbara. Wall frescoes depict scens from her life. These were originally executed by Luigi Garzi, but were retouched by Domenico Monacelli in the 19th century restoration.
Over the sacristy door is a fresco by Garzi depicting St Rita of Cascia.
The floor was re-laid in 1860 by Pietro Martinori, who fortunately re-used several old epitaph tablets.
Chapel of Our LadyEdit
In the first chapel on the right-hand side, the Chapel of Our Lady, is an antique wooden triptych of The Madonna with SS John the Baptist and Michael the Archangel. This is dated in a documentary sources to 1453, but is perhaps older. It was allegedly once in the Lateran basilica. The same source gives the artist as Leonardi di Roma, now unidentifiable.
The chapel once belonged to a pious lay confraternity called the "Society of the Most Holy Saviour of the Sancta Sanctorum", as is witnessed by the inscription on the right hand side wall.
Two additional epigraphs here record the foundation of the Università in 1600, and the financing by Mazotti of the rebuilding in 1680.
The Specchi Chapel is the nave chapel opposite, on the left hand side. It was founded by Francesco Orazio Specchi, son of Alessandro Specchi the famous engraver. A painting by Giovanni Battista Bruchi (or Brugi) depicts St Saba, and the chapel is dedicated to him because the family had connections with the church of San Saba. The artist was a pupil of Baciccio.
In the cross-vault of the transept, in front of the apse, are frescoes by Monacelli of the Evangelists and personifications of Faith, Hope, Charity and Divine Love. On the walls are frescoes by Garzi of four saints: Francis of Assisi, Anthony of Padua, Teresa of Avila and Philip Neri.
In the right hand side of the transept are two interesting inscriptions. The uppermost mentions Paolino Arnolfi of Lucca as responsible for the 1601 restoration. The second, dated to the 11th century, mentions the De Crescentio couple as patrons of the church and is the earliest evidence of the church's existence. There is actually a third inscription, which is less interesting to all but historians of Roman guilds, mentioning Antonio Gherardino (died 15 May 1685), who bequeathed his estate to the Universitá.
Chapel of the CrucifixEdit
The Chapel of the Crucifix is in the right arm of the transept. It has a wooden 14th century crucifix, and this is placed over a fresco with depictions of the Madonna and St John thus making up a Calvary. The fresco is by Luigi Garzi again, and has deteriorated badly.
Above the triumphal arch of the sanctuary apse is a lunette with a painting of the Martyrdom of St Barbara by Monacelli. In the apse itself is another lunette on the right-hand wall with a painting, also by Monacelli, of the Miraculous Escape of St Barbara. The story is that the saint was being chased by her homicidal father when a hill split open to form a cave in which she could hide. The father here is portrayed as a real black-bearded villain.
Below this work is a painting by Garzi of The Madonna and Child with SS Barbara and Thomas Aquinas. The other figures in the painting are early members of the Universitá dei Librai.
The altarpiece, by Garzi, depicts St Barbara Venerating the Holy Trinity. The high altar itself has a rich pietra dura frontal in which ivory, mother-of-pearl and agate are used. According to a now lost inscription transcribed by Rossini, this altar was made by a family firm of Giacomo, Giuseppe and Domenico Malagog.
On the left-hand wall is a lunette with a painting by Monacelli of St Stanislaus Kostka, showing him receiving Communion from an angel through the intercession of St Barbara.
The sanctuary vault has a depiction of the Trinity by Garzi.
An inscription from 1306 around a mosaic cross mentions relics kept in the chapel. Here also Zenobio Masotti, the patron of the church mentioned above, is interred under a marble monument with a bust. The monument was erected by his heir Nicola Inghirlano.
Chapel of SS Thomas Aquinas and John of GodEdit
The left hand arm of the transept has a chapel dedicated to SS Thomas Aquinas and John of God, the two patrons of the booksellers. The altarpiece is by Francesco Ragusa, and depicts The Madonna and Child with SS Joseph, Peter, Paul, Thomas Aquinas and John of God.
The church's organ is from c. 1600, and was given by an anonymous donor. It is on a gallery above the entrance and is quite small, but very interesting as a historical piece. There are twenty-one pipes, and the keyboard has 45 keys in boxwood and ebony.
In 2015, the church was advertised as being open 9:00 to 12:00 and 16:00 to 18:00, but the Comunita does not seem to have any online presence for this to be checked.
There was a Sunday Mass at 19:00 in 2015.
The feast of St Barbara is celebrated with solemnity on 4 December.
The Comunità di Santa Barbara has its secretariat at 85 Largo dei Librari, 00186 Roma, tel./fax 06 168 33 474. Enquiries about access and events can be made here.