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Santa Caterina dei Funari

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Santa Caterina dei Funari is a 16th century confraternity and former convent church located on the Via dei Funari, which is in the rione Sant'Angelo. Pictures of the church at Wikimedia Commons are here. There is an English Wikipedia page here.

The dedication is to St Catherine of Alexandria.


Crypta BalbiEdit

The church occupies the middle of the southern ambulatory of what was, in ancient times, a colonnaded quadriporticus attached to a small theatre founded by one Lucius Cornelius Balbus the Younger in 13 BC. This was excavated in the 1980's and is now in the basement of a branch of the National Museum of Rome -the Crypta Balbi.

The important point about this is that older writers thought that the church stood on part of the Circus Flaminius. This is incorrect, but the error is being perpetuated online. The ancient topography of the area became unclear to people early in the Middle Ages, hence a muddle arose and people thought that the semi-circular outline of the theatre was the curved far end of the circus.

In reality, the circus was located to the south of the Portico of Octavia. It used to stretch from the later Theatre of Marcellus (built on part of it after it fell into disuse) to the present Via Arenula through the Ghetto.

Sancta Maria Dominae RosaeEdit

The earliest reference to a church on the site is in a papal bull of Celestine III of 1192, which gives a useful outline of its history. According to this, a group of nobles named Gratian, Gregory, Lady Rose (Domina Rosa) and Imilla had founded a nunnery here at the start of the 11th century. A quotation is given from a lost bull of John XIX (1024-33) granting the monastery some property on the Via Portuense.

nobilissima femina called Rosa made a donation to the abbey of Subiaco in 967, and Mittarelli in the 18th century guessed that this was the same person as the Rosa in the founding group. If so, the nunnery was founded in the latter part of the 10th century, but the connection cannot now be proved.

Some rather confused comments in modern publications are based on the idea that this nunnery was founded on the site of an earlier church, rebuilt in the 9th century. It would be useful to have references to the documentary sources (if any) for these assertions.

The nunnery would  have been Benedictine from its foundation, and seems to have been a rather minor one with a small church.


Another name for the church that is used in the sources is Castrum Aureum. This literally means "Golden Fort", hinting that somebody building a fortified town house nearby in the Middle Ages managed to uncover a treasure in the process.

The modern name Funari literally means "ropemakers", and it is easy to conclude that the locality accommodated these in the Middle Ages. However, there is some doubt that this is the origin of the name; it might have belonged to a landowning family instead. It occurs also in older names of two nearby demolished churches -Sante Orsola e Caterina and Sant’Andrea in Vincis.

The documentation raises questions about the dedication. Gregorio Terribilini, writing in the first half of the 18th century, claimed to have traced evidence from a papal bull of 1422  that the dedication was to St Lawrence. This was recently supported archaeologically during the Crypta Balba excavations, when an epigraph mentioning that saint was uncovered. Fioravante Martinelli, writing in the 17th century, claimed that the dedication was to Our Lady and St Stephen.

15th and 16th century catalogues list a Cappella di San Saturnino here.

St Ignatius, and the rebuildingEdit

The nunnery had failed by the 16th century. Pope Paul III  granted the complex to St Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, in 1536. The saint wished to open a shelter here for fanciulle povere, who were described as the still virgin daughters of prostitutes, and this was one of several initiatives on the part of St Ignatius to help women involved in the city's sex industry. (The former church of Santa Marta al Collegio Romano is witness to another one.) The institution here was a conservatorio or a sort of boarding school, where the girls would (hopefully) learn a trade and so be able to support themselves without recourse to offering sex in exchange for cash. Given the expectations of contemporary society, the ultimate hope would have been marriage or entry into a convent. 

The original nunnery buildings cannot have been satisfactory, for in 1560 a complete rebuilding of the complex was undertaken. The cost was underwritten by Cardinal Federico Cesi, a friend of St Ignatius, and the architect was Guidetto Guidetti, one of Michelangelo's apprentices. The work was completed in 1564, resulting in an attractive late Renaissance (tardo rinascimento) church with hints of the future Baroque style. It was dedicated to St Catherine of Alexandria.


The helpers of St Ignatius in the conservatorio here were organized into a confraternity early on, at an uncertain date because they were not at first granted a charter. The year was 1536 or 1549. This was the Confraternita delle Vergini Misearbili di Santa Caterina della Rosa -interestingly, the old nickname of the church was kept. The Virgini Miserabili were the prostitutes' daughters they were setting out to "rescue". Pope Pius IV approved their constitutions in 1560, together with the foundation of an adjacent nunnery. This became an Augustinian convent occupying premises on the site of the present Crypta Balba museum, and presumably was the destination of some of the vergini

Things did not work out very well, and in 1604 the confraternity was reduced to a lay sodality under the authority of a council of appointed clerics who were also in charge of the nunnery. This Conservatirio Santa Caterina della Rosa survives to the present day, as a public charity interested in disadvantaged young people, and it is still in charge of the church.

Modern timesEdit

There have been few serious additions or restorations to the church since its erection, which makes it a valuable example of the style and artistic ambience of its period. It retains its original colouring and decorative layout, apart from the repainting of the main altarpiece, flanking paintings and lunette above in the 18th century.

The attached Augustinian nunnery was not so fortunate. It was suppressed after 1870, and was demolished in the idiotic campaign of clearances in the Centro Storico indulged in by the Fascist government. This was one of the latest, in 1940. The site was then left derelict until the archaeological campaign in the 1980's which uncovered the Crypta Balbi. 

Some restoration and conservation work has been done in the church recently.


Layout and fabricEdit

The church is structurally a nave of three bays with narrow aisles, but the latter have thick blocking walls inserted so as to create six large self-contained side niches. Five of these are chapels, but the middle one on the left is the vestibule of a side entrance. The presbyterium is a deep rectangular apse.

The fabric is pink brick, but the façade is travertine limestone which has preserved very well. The brick is visible up the side street to the left, where you can see three large blind arches separated by Corinthian pilasters. Above, you can see that the central nave walls are clad in travertine. The roofs of the nave and presbyterium are separate, the latter being lower than the former, and both are pitched and tiled.


The bell tower is located at the far right hand corner of the nave, and is not easy to see from the street. It is in a different style from the rest of the church, and indeed from any in Rome, since it was based on a medieval tower. There are fives storeys, rendered in a creamy white.

2011 Caterina dei Funari

The campanile is not easy to see from the front of the church.

On top of the stump of the mediaeval tower, which doesn't reach the gutter of the nave roof, is the second storey in the shape of an inverted pyramid with three very long arched niches on each face reminiscent of machicolations. The third storey is in the form of a kiosk, and contains the bells. It has a triangular pediment on each side, over a rusticated Doric arch within a rectangular frame. Above the pediments the storey continues as an attic in the form of a chamfered square, with eight squat finials in the form of column bases.

The fourth and fifth storeys are octagonal. The fourth has a narrow recessed round-headed on each face, while the fifth has a small rectangular opening between Doric pilasters on the corners. Finally, there is a hemispherical stone cupola with a finial in the form of the crest of the Cesi family, similar to that of the Chigi family which is a set of stylized mountains.

The campanile houses bells brought from Germany by St Ignatius.


The façade had been attributed to Giacomo della Porta, but is more likely to have been by Guidetti. It is an attractive and effective two-storey composition, and (unlike several other Roman churches) is honest in that the gable corresponds with the roof behind instead of protruding.

The first storey has six Corinthian pilasters in shallow relief, and in between these are four empty round-headed niches with molded surrounds. Above and below each niche is a framed sunken horizontal rectangular niche, almost square, and each niche contains a blank tablet in shallow relief with the sides away from the corners indented. This design feature has an effect reminiscent of the future Baroque.

In between the inner pilasters is the large single entrance, in the form of a prothyrium in pavonazetto marble with a pair of ribbed Corinthian columns supporting an entablature and a dentillated triangular pediment with a blank tympanum. The frieze of the entablature has a simple dedicatory inscription: Divae Catharinae, virg[ini] et mart[yri].

In between the capitals of the pilasters are swags of fruit embellished with ribbons, and above the ones at the side are roses recalling the old name of the church, and Catherine wheels (the instrument of torture, not the firework). The double swag over the doorway has crossed swords and palm branches instead, and in the middle an oval curlicued tablet with another simple dedicatory inscription: Divae Catherinae martyri.

The pilasters support an entablature with a molded architrave, dentillated cornice and a frieze with an inscription commemorating the Cardinal Cesi who paid for the church: Federic Caesius Epis[copus] Cardinalis Portuen[sis] fecit, MDLXIIII. He was the suburbican bishop of Porto. 

The second storey corresponds with the central nave frontage. It has four pilasters in the same style, supporting an entablature with a blank frieze and a dentillated triangular pediment with a blank tympanum. In the centre is a gigantic oculus or round window, with a molded and dished surround. This is placed within a square panel in shallow relief, with relief edges, a rosette in each corner and inset sides containing thin double curlicues. Above is a vertical oval tablet set at an angle, itself containing an oval shield within a curlicued frame from which hang a pair of swags. Two ribbons in shallow relief billow out from the sides. The shield used to contain the Cesi arms, six stylized mountains (3, 2, 1) with a tree on top, but these have weathered away.

In between each pair of pilasters is a round-headed niche like those in the first storey, above which is a sunken and framed tablet device which is not quite the same as those in that storey. The observant may notice that this pair of tablets has arc-chamfered corners instead of indented sides.

In between the pilaster capitals is a pair of blank convex oval tablets with very ornate surrounds, curlicued and scrolled, and each tablet is embellished with a bead necklace in two swoops at its top. A further pair of these tablets is over the Cesi arms.

There are four candlestick finials on top of the pediment, but the central finial up there is the Cesi crest again.


The convent buildings occupied the east side of the present Via Michelangelo Caetani. Next to the church apse, north of the left hand wall of the nave, is a nondescript block still belonging to the Conservatorio which has a bronze plaque on its wall commemorating Aldo Moro. His body was found here after his murder. Further along the street on the right hand side is a surviving ruined section of the frontage of the convent with a jagged hole in it; this used to be the main entrance of the convent, but the decorative doorcase was ripped out during the demolition. The entrance used to open into a passage which led through the main wing to a rather large rectangular cloister with arcades on all four sides.


Layout and fabricEdit

The interior is a single nave with a large rectangular apse as a presbyterium. Off each side of the nave are three identical large arched alcoves; the ones on the right are chapels, but the middle one on the left leads out to the Via Michelangelo Caetani. The side chapels are in the form of apses with conchs, and are architecturally identical although differently decorated.

In between each pair of side arches is a Corinthian pilaster in shallow relief, and these support an entablature which runs round the entire church including the presbyterium. The architrave of this is molded and the cornice dentillated, which echoes a design feature of the façade. Above the entablature on each side are three blind lunettes containing a small round-headed window each, and then comes the cross-vaulted ceiling which has no ribs or decoration of any kind.

The triumphal arch of the presbyterium is supported by a pair of doubletted Corinthian pilasters, and its archivolt is placed above the entablature thus echoing the side wall lunettes.

Apart from the presbyterium and chapels, which are frescoed and have polychrome marbelling, the paintwork in the church is very restrained and is in white, cream and light grey.

The decoration of the chapels began in 1564, and continued until 1614. Five noble families sponsored them, while the presbyterium was paid for by the Cesi family. The balustrades in front of the chapels bear the crests of the families concerned.

The chapels are described below starting from the bottom right hand side near the entrance, and proceeding anticlockwise.


The decoration here was paid for by Cardinal Federico Cesi, hence his crest occurs on the balustrade together with that of the Conservatory. Some of the pictures were repainted in the 18th century.

The architect was Guidetti, and the low balustraded marble screen at the sanctuary steps is part of his design. It has the cardinal's coat of arms, and the Catherine Wheel.

The altar has an odd design. Two Corinthian columns in verde antico marble support a pair of plinths on which angels sit, and these plinths are decoratively part of an entablature which runs across the back of the apse and which has a verde antico frieze. In between the angels is a large grated horizontal rectangular window looking into the second storey of the former convent behind, and over this is a triangular pediment.

The altarpiece shows The Apotheosis of Saint Catherine, and according to the Conservatorio (which should be in a position to know) was painted by Giovanni Sorbi in 1760 to replace an original altarpiece by Livio Agresti da Forlì (d. 1580). Many published descriptions seem to be unaware of this. The lunette above the altar was also originally by Agresti, and was also repainted. It now shows The Assumption of St Catherine, and is by a Neapolitan painter called Alessandro d'Elia who finished it in 1772.

The two paintings on either side of the altar are also by d'Elia. They depict St Augustine of Hippo and St Monica, and recall the community of Augustinian nuns here. The grated window over the altar is another reminder, and presumably looked onto the nuns' choir. Since the nuns had an enclosure, they did not normally enter the church so heard Mass by this means. Near the altar is a hatch through which they could receive Communion during Mass (if permitted by their confessor, as was usual in those days). 

The monochrome panels of putti above these two side paintings are original, and are by Raffaellino Motta da Reggio (1550-1578). He also executed SS Saturninus and Sisinnius with Putti in the same style on the right hand side wall, and SS Romanus and Augustine with Putti on the left hand side wall.

The frescoes higher up on the side walls are by Federico Zuccari (d. 1609). The left hand one depicts St Catherine Arguing with the Philosophers at Alexandria, a charming work although slightly decayed with age. The right hand one shows The Martyrdom of St Catherine.

Cappella BombasiEdit

The first chapel on the right is dedicated to St Margaret of Antioch, and was patronized by Gabriele Bombasi who was a famous author and art collector who died in 1602. The altarpiece of the saint is by Annibale Carracci (1560-1609), and is arguably the most important artwork in the church. A photo of it is here. [3]

The small altar is in the form of an entirely gilded aedicule, with a pair of Ionic columns. The triangular pediment has a dropped cornice, and in the enlarged tympanum thus created is a little painting of The Coronation of Our Lady by the same artist. Otherwise the decoration here is in white and very simple, which contrasts with that of the other chapels.

The large tablet on the right hand side of the altar detail a Mass foundation set up for Bombasi by the Confraternita; he was not buried here, but left a large sum of money as a legacy to pay for Masses to be said here for his soul. The shield displays his coat-of-arms. (A Mass foundation is an agreement entered into by a religious institution to have Masses said on a regular basis for a person or persons. This can be perpetual, or limited by time or number of Masses said, and is usually established by a sum of money changing hands. In mediaeval England it was called a chantry.) The corresponding left hand tablet mentions his connection with the Farnese family.

Cappella RuizEdit

The second chapel on the right is the Cappella Ruiz, and is dedicated to Our Lady of Sorrows. The design is attributed to Vignola on stylistic grounds (documentary evidence seems to be lacking), and most of the pictures were painted by Girolamo Muziano (1528-1592). The patron was Filippo Ruiz, described by the Conservatorio as a Spanish abbot from Valencia who might have been related to the Ferrante Ruiz who was a remote founder of the present church of Santi Bartolomeo ed Alessandro dei Bergamaschi. He paid for the decoration in exchange for a Mass foundation, and his memorial tablet is here.

In contrast to the previous chapel, the decoration here is rich and includes a pair of gilded stucco angels in the arch spandrels.

The altar has a pair of Corinthian columns supporting a triangular pediment, and the columns and frieze are in what is described as giallo antico (not -Sienese yellow?) marble. The altarpiece shows The Deposition of Christ, and Muziano obviously enjoyed using a varied palette of colours for the various items of clothing depicted. The two side paintings by him show The Healing of the Blind Man and The Healing of the Centurion's Servant. He also painted St Matthew and St John the Evangelist above these, scenes from the life of Christ in the lower vault, three prophets in the upper vault and St Francis, St Jerome and God the Father on the arch archivolt. However, the paintings on the pilasters are by Zuccari. They are: St Mark, St Luke, Ecce Homo and Christ Carrying the Cross.

Cappella Solano della VeteraEdit

The third altar on the right is dedicated to the Assumption of Our Lady. The design is attributed to Ottaviano Mascarino on the basis of a document in the archives of the Accademia di San Luca. From the same is obtained the hypothetical name of the chapel, and the possibility that it was patronized by the Vetera family whose crest was a radiant sun (the argument for this as presented by the Conservatorio seems somewhat thin, especially since the Roman Heraldry Institution thinks that this family's crest is nine stars).

The altar has a pair of Corinthian columns in a dark grey pavonazetto type marble with violet hints. The altarpiece depicts the Assumption by Scipione Pulzone, and was apparently unfinished when he died young. The work depicts the apostles looking into an empty sarcopagus ("Where's the body?"), while Our Lady ascends into heaven accompanied by angels playing a lute and cello.

To the left of the altar is St Catherine, and to the right St Luke. The vault is frescoed by Giovanni Zanna, who also did the stucco work. It shows The Coronation of Our Lady in the middle, the Immaculate Conception to the left and Pentecost to the right. On the archivolt of the arch are putti with a mirror and a gate, symbols of Our Lady, and on the pilasters are prophets and two more Marian symbols: a wll and a fountain.

Cappella De TorresEdit

The second chapel on the left is dedicated to St John the Baptist , and was the funerary chapel of the De Torres family. The original patron was Cardinal Ludovico de Torres, whose tomb-slab is in the floor together with those of two relatives. The architect was Tiberio Calcagni.

The stucco decoration in this chapel is especially rich. The altar has a pair of deriviative Ionic columns in verde antico with swagged capitals, and the altarpiece is framed in an arch made from a flesh-pink marble. The triangular pediment above is coved (concave) with a pair of allegorical figures sitting on it, and contains a segmental pediment with a winged head in the tympanum.

The altarpiece of the saint is by Marcello Venusti, who also executed the frescoes. To the left is The Beheading of St John the Baptist, and to the right The Baptism of Christ. In the vault there are depictions of the birth and preaching of the saint, as well as of the Visitation, and above these towards the apex of the conch are panels showing prophets.

On either side of the pediment is a tondo with a portrait, the right hand one being Ludovico and the left hand one his father, also called Ludovico.

Cappella CanutoEdit

The first chapel on the left is dedicated to the Annunciation to Our Lady. The patron was Andrea Canuto, bishop of Oppido Mamertina who died in 1610, and his tomb-slab is in the floor. 

The altar has a pair of Corinthian columns in a veined dark green marble (not verde antico, as this is brecciated. Compare the stone here with that in the previous chapel, which is the real thing.) The altarpiece is a copy of a work by Venusti; to the left is depicted St Augustine, and to the left St Andrew in memory of the bishop. His portrait is in the little tondo above

The other paintings here depicting scenes from the life of Our Lady are by Girolamo Nanni. In the superbly decorated vault they are: Coronation, Birth, Visitation and Annunciation. On the archivolt are Marriage to Joseph (with a figure of Moses) and Assumption (with King David), with God the Father at the top.


Until recently the church was not easy to find open, and seems now to be permanently shut on Sundays. According to the Conservatorio, it is open on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays for liturgical activities from 11:00 to 17:00 (a closure for lunch is not mentioned, but can be presumed).

The Conservatorio website offers the opportunity to apply for permission to visit. The details are here: [4]

Apparently the routine administration of the church is in the hands of a group called the Cooperativa Società Artisti Moderni Onlus, the Internet profile of which is poor. Presumably the works of art to been seen displayed for sale outside the church come from members of this group.

However, in 2013 the church was being found open in the late afternoon on weekdays (after 16:00), with a custodian present and guide leaflets available.


Sabatine, Barbara J., The church of Santa Caterina dei Funari and the Vergini Miserabili of Rome. PhD thesis, University of California-Los Angeles, 1992.

Smith, Mary, The sixteenth-century church of Santa Caterina dei Funari, Rome: architectural expression and religious focus of the Charitable Institution of the Compagnia delle Vergini Miserabili di Santa Caterina della Rosa. MA thesis, University of London, 1994.

Lazar, Lance, "E Faucibus Daemonis": Daughters of Prostitutes, the First Jesuits, and the Compagnia Delle Vergini Miserabili Di Santa Caterina Della Rosa. Pp. 259-279 in: Confraternities and the Visual Arts in Renaissance Italy : Ritual, Spectacle, Image. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Bross, Louise Smith, "She is Among All Virgins the Worthy a Patron...for Maidens to Copy": Livio Agresti, Cardinal Federico Cesi, and the Compagnia Delle Vergini Miserabili Di Santa Caterina Della Rosa. Pp. 280-297 in: Confraternities and the Visual Arts in Renaissance Italy : Ritual, Spectacle, Image. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2000.

External linksEdit

Official diocesan web-page

Italian Wikipedia page

Website of Conservatory

Site Map of above, detailing locations of pages on church

Virtual Tour on Conservatory website

Nolli map (look for 1003)

"De Alvariis" gallery on Flickr

Flickr search gallery

"Romeartlover" web-page

"Roma Segreta" web-page

Info.roma web-page

Roma SPQR web-page with gallery

"Romafelix" web-page

ALOA gallery of guided tour

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