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Santa Caterina a Magnanapoli is a 17th century former convent church on the Largo Magnanapoli in the rione Monti. The postal address is Salita del Grillo 37, on the street running down the side. Pictures of the church at Wikimedia Commons are here. There is an English Wikipedia page here.
This church is, in effect, the cathedral of the Military Ordinariate in Italy (Ordinariato Militare in Italia).
The dedication is to St Catherine of Siena, Doctor of the Church and a patron of Europe as well as a secondary patron of Rome. The Diocese prefers the full name of Santa Caterina da Siena a Magnanapoli, and this is often used in contemporary publications.
The name Magnanapoli belongs to the area in which the church is situated. Its origins are a puzzle, and three rather contrived etymologies to be found in the literature are summarized on the "Rome Art Lover" web-page (see "External links", below).
The apparent meaning in Latin is straightforward: Magna Neapolis means "Great Naples". However, those two words have not come together readily in the Roman mind since ancient times; terroni is one of the more polite adjectives that tend to be used nowadays. A further etymology suggested is that some Renaissance comedian wrote "Great Naples" on the door of a local cesso (toilet), and the name stuck.
However, the name seems to emerge into history in the Register of Subiaco of 938 as Banneo Neapolim, applied to a church dedicated to Our Lady on the site of the present Santi Domenico e Sisto. Subsequent scribes in the Middle Ages found the name a puzzle, as there are many different versions in the catalogues such as Balneanapolim, Baionapoli, Vanionapolis, Valneanapolis. Then it settled down as Magnanapoli in the early 16th century.
Foundation of nunneryEdit
The church was not an ancient foundation. Its remote origins lie with the female disciples of St Catherine of Siena, who died in 1380 in a house near the church of Santa Chiara. The fittings of the room where she died were later dismantled and taken to Santa Maria sopra Minerva where the saint is enshrined, and the void left was converted into the chapel of Santa Catarina da Siena in Transito. Her disciples formed a community of Dominican tertiary nuns, and continued to live here for almost two hundred years.
Tertiaries were an invention of the 13th century, and were originally laypeople or seculars who imitated some aspects of the lives of the new mendicant orders. They differed from the friars and nuns in not taking religious vows, and this aspect quickly proved useful to women interested in the religious life. Until recently in the Latin rite of the Catholic church, a woman was only allowed to take vows as a nun if she was a physical virgin and so widows, former prostitutes, abuse victims and those with a history of recreational sex were excluded. Tertiary nuns were those who made "promises" instead of vows and so could include these groups, but had the ability otherwise to live the monastic life of nuns in all its details. This is what happened with the Dominican tertiaries here.
The old premises were too cramped for the community to expand, and in the middle of the 16th century it launched an appeal to found a new monastery. The project was begun c. 1568, with the encouragement of Pope Pius V. Pope Gregory XIII gave a large donation, as did Porzia Massimo who was a Roman noble lady repenting of an indulgent youth. (She had been converted by St Philip Neri.)
With these donations and the proceeds from the sale of their former residence, the nuns were able to buy an old fortress palazzo of the Conti di Segni family from Giovan Battista Conti together with a neighbouring property down what is now the Salita del Grillo. This was next to the Torre dei Conti, which at the time was derelict and not included in the sale. The nuns moved in 1574, and at first must have used the private chapel of the palazzo.
Oddly there was another new Dominican nunnery very close by, at Santi Domenico e Sisto which was also founded by Pope Pius V. The nuns here, however, were "real" nuns (not tertiaries) since they were descendents of the disciples of St Dominic himself whom he had established at San Sisto Vecchio. This convent was larger than that at Santa Caterina.
Construction of churchEdit
Construction of a proper church started in 1608 to a design by Carlo Maderno, but was stopped in 1613. The work was meant to have been financed by Scipione Borghese who was involved in a massive and expensive campaign of church building and restoration at the time, and it is not immediately clear why this particular project was put on hold.
The nuns then set about expanding their monastery, which again had become cramped because of an increase in numbers. They acquired the ruin of the Torre dei Conti in 1619, and purchased a further neighbouring palazzo in 1620 from the Conti family. Very usefully for them, Pope Paul V agreed to use Papal revenues to restore the tower to a habitable condition.
When work on the church could finally be started again in 1628, it is likely that the intention was to continue according to Maderno's design. But he died the next year, and his disciple Giovanni Battista Soria was commissioned to complete the church. All the details of Maderno's design are not known, and Soria made at least some changes to this in the years 1631 to 1641 when the interior decoration was finished. The church was consecrated in 1640 by Cardinal Alessandro Cesarini (not to be confused with his more famous 16th century namesake).
Layout of conventEdit
This was a large nunnery, although not as large as its senior twin Dominican convent at Santi Domenico e Sisto just to the east. It occupied the ground along the west side of the present Salita del Grillo as far as the junction with the Via di Campo Carleo (although not the surviving buildings west of the archway), and as far west as the present western border of the museum premises on Via IV Novembre. The curve of Trajan's Market marked the south-western boundary, and much of the fabric of this edifice was incorporated into convent buildings.
The convent layout was rather irregular. The main entrance was up a cul-de-sac on the west side of the property, just west of the present museum entrance. There was a large block to the east of this, and then a large yard surrounded by further wings, with two wells just to the west of the Torre dei Conti. To the south of the latter was the tiny main cloister, with an arcade on its east side, the church to the north-east and a passage from the south-east corner leading to another, smaller yard surrounded by yet more buildings. The passage continued from the other side of the yard to a garden at the south end of the layout. This last was essential, since the nuns had adopted full enclosure and did not go out.
All of these buildings are now gone, except the Torre dei Conti, the church and a short range on the Salita del Grillo.
The nuns were dispossessed and expelled in 1872 by the Italian government, together with all other religious in the city who took vows. The oblate or tertiary nuns at Santa Maria Annunziata a Tor de’Specchi and Santa Maria dei Sette Dolori managed to keep their convents by arguing in court that they did not make religious vows, so the nuns here must have changed their original tertiary status to something more like the taking of solemn vows.
The convent was given over to the army, and was made into a military barracks. In 1874, the Via Nazionale had its gradients reduced along its length, and the work entailed the digging out of the ground in front of the church. This left the church with its crypt having level access to the new street, and its entrance needing a pair of new staircases.
The demolition of the convent buildings to free the ruins of the Market of Trajan began in 1913, and was completed in 1924. The Torre del Milizie was left intact, as was the wing to the south of the church which was briefly occupied by an elementary girls' school named after Princess Yolanda. The tower now belongs to the archaeological area Foro e Mercati di Traiano, and the entrance to this is in the Via IV Novembre.
There was a restoration in 1992, involving the façade which now looks in good condition.
When Italy was unified by the conquest of Rome in 1870, the government was anti-clerical and did not wish for its armed forces to be provided with chaplains except in a voluntary, ad-hoc way. This situation remained until 1915, when a formal agreement with the Church to supply priests as chaplains was finally entered into. In 1925 a military vicariate was set up, but the first episcopal vicar was only appointed in 1929 and was given this church as his base.
The present ordinariate was established in 1984, by agreement between the papacy and the government of Italy. The present ordinary is Vincenzo Pelvi, who has the personal dignity of archbishop.
Because the Ordinariate is not a territorial diocese, the church does not have the formal status of a cathedral but is a chiesa rettoria dependent on the parish church of Santi Apostoli. Apparently the parish clergy have been celebrating the Sunday Mass here on a routine basis.
Layout and fabricEdit
The church is structurally a central nave with aisles, but inside the aisles are divided by blocking walls to create three chapels on each side. There is an internal loggia leading into the nave, and this with the façade is architecturally separate from the body of the church. It is as wide as the nave with side chapels.
The nave roof is pitched and tiled, but the façade and loggia has a higher pitch of its own. This is because there is former convent accommodation above the loggia and behind the façade.
The presbyterium is a square area as wide as the central nave, and has a shallow saucer dome which is not visible from the outside. Instead, the lantern with eight rectangular windows and an octagonal lead cupola protrudes from a flat roofed area and is only as high as the nave roof.
The fabric is rendered brick, which on the façade is white on ochre yellow but elsewhere is yellow. The 20th century staircase and the foundation plinths of the walls are in travertine limestone.
The campanile is not attached to the church, but is on the south-east corner of the surviving convent block to the south. It is a cuboid with a round-headed soundhole on each face and a Baroque cupola in lead with a square plan and an ogee curve.
The façade has two and a half storeys and looks proportionally rather narrow, but this was not the intention of the architect. The lowest half storey, fronting the crypt with a double staircase leading to the loggia, was formed in the late 19th century when the Via Nazionale was laid out. The present stonework here is 20th century.
The original façade has two storeys, with different architectural orders and with the lower one containing an open loggia. It was built in a style recalling that of the late 16th century, despite being completed in 1641.
The loggia is now accessed by a double transverse staircase leading to a small patio, designed in a heavy and vague Fascist style with a solid balustrade and with ball finials at the bottom and top of the staircases. This loggia storey has three arches leading into the loggia, separated by a pair of tripletted Ionic pilasters with the capitals embellished with human heads. The outer corners have pilasters doubletted on the inner edges, and around the corners are a further pair of arches bounded by a pair of simple pilasters each. The pilasters support an entablature with a blank frieze and posts in shallow relief over the central capitals of the pilaster triplets.
The arches are provided with open metal screens, and the two side ones with balustrades (these are part of the original design). The archivolts spring from Doric imposts, and have straps on the keystones which connect with three blank tablets in Baroque frames inserted below the entablature.
In the loggia, there is a pair of gigantic stucco statues in niches flanking the single entrance. They are by Domenico De Rossi , and depict St Dominic and St Catherine.
The upper storey has a similar set of doubletted and tripletted pilasters, except these are in a derivative and simplified Corinthian style. They support an entablature which differs from the one below in that the posts above the pilaster capitals are doubletted and tripletted, not single. The entablature supports a crowning triangular pediment with a curlicued elliptical device in its tympanum, a pair of flaming urn finials at its outer corners and a metal cross on its tip as is traditional for Roman church façades.
In between the pilasters are three arches over small horizontal rectangular windows. The central arch contains a window, and is framed by a pair of pilasters with strap volutes bearing human heads at their tops. These support two fragments of a triangular pediment, and a raised segmental pediment crowning the arch is inserted between these. The two outer arches have empty niches with conchs, and are crowned with little triangular pediments.
Crypt of the FallenEdit
The stairs flank a door into the Crypt of the Fallen of the First World War, the result of a conversion of the nuns' burial crypt in 1934. This entrance is flanked by a pair of squat Doric pilasters, and has an idiotic and meaningless device (typical of Fascist architecture) in the form of an exaggerated keystone attached to the lintel. Above is a dedicatory inscription in the form of bronze lettering affixed to the stonework: Militibus nostris, qui strenue in acie occubuerunt, laus posteritatis et christiana quies. ("To our soldiers, who fell striving in battle, praise from posterity and Christian rest".)
Within is a bronze crucifix by Romano Romanelli. The crypt is dedicated to the memory of the Italian soldiers who were killed in both world wars, especially those priests who served as army chaplains and were killed on the Italian Front in the First World War. The total number of Italian casualties on that front was 650,000.
The church has a single nave of four bays. Firstly there is a narrow entrance bay, and then three bays with chapels on each side entered through large arcade arches. The entrance bay contains the organ, placed above the entrance, and a pair of cantoria or opera-boxes projecting on corbels on the side walls.
The gigantic Corinthian arcade pilasters support entablatures with strongly projecting cornices having modillions. Oddly, the friezes of the entablatures contains grilles. This is because behind them are gallery passages on each side of the church, leading from the nuns' choir behind the altar to the room above the loggia. The nuns were enclosed, and were not allowed into the body of the church.
The ceiling is barrel vaulted, and has three large windows inserted into lunettes on each side.
The lusciously ornate decorations are in the Baroque style, and are mainly from the 17th and 18th centuries. The arcade pilasters, and those supporting the arch imposts, are revetted with Sicilian jasper in red and white. The arch intradoses have gilded stucco coffering and little frescoes, and there are other frescoes on the spandrels. The ceiling has intricate gilded stucco detailing surrounding a large Rococo fresco by Luigi Garzi, painted 1713, depicting the Apotheosis of St Catherine.
Over the two sacristy doors just before the triumphal arch are frescoes featuring episodes from the life of St Catherine by Giuseppe Passeri.
The sanctuary is perhaps even more richly decorated. In the lantern of the rectangular saucer dome is the The Glory of the Eternal Father by Francesco Rosa. The oculus of this is surrounded by a palm wreath supported by stucco putto, and four gilded tondi show Doctors of the Church. To each side is a lunette window shedding natural light on to the altar. The archivolt of the triumphal arch is embellished with a sinuous flower garland held by putti.
The side walls of the presbyterium have two stucco reliefs, depicting St Rose of Lima and St Agnes of Montepulciano, and these were executed by Pietro Bracci. Both of these saints were Dominican religious.
The high altar was constructed in 1787 from a design by Carlo Marchionni, who had died the previous year. It has an unusual and spectacular two-storey design, and fits within the entire back wall of the presbyterium. Two conjoined pairs of black marble Corinthian columns flank the altarpiece, and support a coved entablature recessing diagonally to either side over two pairs of red jasper pilasters separated by bands of yellow Siena marble. The columns stand on a plinth faced with panels in pietro dura, and with a top band of alabaster.
The second storey continues the complex curved plan, but with a pair of three pilasters in yellow marble at the protruding corners, supporting a second entablature and flanking a large glory in a trapezoidal jasper frame. The latter focuses on the Dove of the Holy Spirit, and is bounded vertically by a pair of double curlicues looking rather like stylized sea-horses. Above, a crescent-shaped lunette fits into the gap under the dome and contains stucco reliefs of angels with a cross.
The tabernacle on the high altar, also by Marchionni, is made of agate and gilded bronze with four columns of lapis lazuli.
The altarpiece is a sculptural group in white marble on a polychrome background, and depicts the The Ecstasy of St Catherine. It is by Melchiorre Caffà. The artist found his inspiration mainly in the works of Bernini - he was one of Bernini's pupils and worked for him for a few years - and in this case it is obvious that he was inspired by The Ecstasy of St Teresa in Santa Maria della Vittoria. Unfortunately, he died young in an accident at St Peter's. The Holy Spirit in Glory above is also by him.
These are described anticlockwise, starting from the bottom right.
The second chapel on the right is dedicated to All Saints, and has an altarpiece by Garzi.
In the third chapel on the right is a painting of St Dominic Reviving a Child by Biagio Puccini.
In the third chapel on the left is the Madonna of the Rosary by Passeri. This is considered one of his best works.
The second chapel on the left has a painting of The Three Archangels by Passeri again. St Michael is shown as a young warrior, St Raphael as a young man with curly hair accompanied by a naked putto, and St Gabriel is portrayed as a rather epicene youth holding a lily, a symbol of Mary and the Annunciation.
The first chapel on the left is dedicated to St Nicholas, and has an altarpiece by Pietro Nelli. The saint is shown having a vision of Christ and Our Lady. One of the putti on the left is holding a box containing three golden balls, which are his symbol.
In the corridor leading to the sacristy are remains of frescoes by Antoniazzo and his students. They were originally executed for the room of St Catherine of Siena that was later dismantled and taken to the Minerva, and were themselves transferred to a now demolished oratory behind the church some time after 1637. Among the saints shown as St Bridget of Sweden and St Catherine of Alexandria.
This church is not often to be found open.
According to Rome Tour.org in 2011, it was in that year being opened at weekends only, 9:00 to 12:00.
There was a series of guided tours held on Saturday mornings and Sunday evenings (pre-booking necessary) in 2012, but these seem to have been celebrating an anniversary and did not seem to be available in 2013.
There is apparently a Mass on Sundays at 10:30 (the source of this information is not official).
The feast of St Catherine of Siena is celebrated with as a Solemnity on 29 April.
Bevilacqua, Mario: Santa Caterina da Siena a Magnanapoli, Arte e Storia di una Comunità Religiosa Romana nell'Età della Controriforma. Gangemi, 2009.
Church's web-page (Not very informative, they want you to buy the book mentioned above.)
Photos of interior in "Piloconduttore" gallery on Flickr (photos 7-12)