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The church was part of the estate of the Villa Mellini on Monte Mario, which is now Rome’s Astronomical Museum. However it was not near the villa itself but was located next to the gateway at the bottom of the villa's driveway (now the Viale del Parco Mellini) where it joins the Via Trionfale. The location is known as Casali Mellini.
The actual church site is in between the driveway gate to the right, and the farm gate to the left. Remains of the staircase revetment are below the present late 19th century walling.
14th century foundation Edit
The received history is based on the description by Mariano Armellini in his Chiese di Roma 1891, but some care needs to be taken with the surviving evidence.
Armellini quotes the following 14th century epigraph, which in his time was on the left hand side wall on entering (but seems now to be lost):
Hoc oratorium fecit ex devotione D. Pnciu, episcopus urbevetanus alme urbis vicarius anno iubilei MCCCL et concessit cuilibet devote hic oranti de indulgentia XL dies.
("This oratory was built as a result of a kind vow by Dom Ponzio [Perotti], bishop of Orvietio and vicar at the city [of the pope] on the year of Jubilee 1350, and forty days' indulgence is granted to anyone praying devotedly here.")
The pope was residing at Avignon at the time, and Perotti was basically the Papal ruler at Rome then.
The practical motivation for the building of the church is not specified. One legend that grew up, but was known to be wrong even in the 14th century, was that the emperor Constantine had his vision of the Cross here before the Battle of the Milvian Bridge. Another assertion lacking evidence is that the location was chosen because this was where pilgrims arriving on the Via Trionfale had their first glimpse of St Peter's.
15th century rebuilding? Edit
Armellini also quotes a long epigraph carved in marble comprising an encomium to the Holy Cross, which he described as formerly being over the door of the oratory. The epigraph ends with Petrus et Marius Mellini fieri iusserunt MCCCLXX. He is actually quoting from a work by Francesco Maria Torrigio, Le Sacre Grotte Vaticane (page 546 in the Vitale Mascardi edition of 1639), which does not mention the church. So, this devotional epigraph might originally have been a simple act of piety rather than any evidence of a rebuilding of the church.
However, this is the first evidence of the Mellini family having an interest in the locality. Pietro Mellini was the father of Mario Mellini, and the family (which had a funerary chapel at Santa Maria del Popolo) owned the villa estate until 1778. A false etymology grew up that Monte Mario was named after Mario.
17th century Edit
During the reign of Pope Alexander VII, a devotional practice was started of holding a penitential procession to the church at times of public difficulty. The first one was apparently during a plague epidemic in 1656.
The family oversaw a restoration in 1696, as recorded by an epigraph over the sacristy door transcribed by Armellini. It read:
Sacellum hoc in monte, ubi ex antiqua traditione, Constantino Magno crux de coelo visa est, in honorem Sanctissimae Crucis et Dominicae Passionis memoriam, et Beatissimae Mariae Virginis devotionem a familia de Millinis antiquitus erectum, a Savo Cardinali Millino, Mario et Nicolao ex fratre Petro nepotibus ex devotione renovatum, et in hac meliorem formam redactum est, anno reparatae salutis MDCLXXXXVI.
("This little shrine on the hill, where by antique tradition a cross from heaven appeared to Constantine the Great -[which shrine] was erected in ancient days by the family of Mellini in honour of the Holy Cross, in memory of the Passion of the Lord and in devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary- was restored by a vow and put back to a better state by Cardinal Savio Mellini and his nephews Mario and Nicola, sons of his brother Peter, in the year of the establishment of salvation 1696").
The restoration involved the provision of Baroque decorations, including stucco work in the interior. Also, a set of human remains was brought from one of the catacombs and enshrined as "St Moderatus". This was a typical example of a false "catacomb martyr" being created, based on wishful thinking concerning the number and identifiability of "martyrs" in those catacombs newly explored at the time. The name was chosen arbitrarily.
If not done earlier, the floor of the church was also paved with inscriptions looted from the catacombs (Armellini transcribed several of them).
The chapel also contained an old crucifix, an object of veneration, and was in the charge of a priest (il cappellano) whose title indicates that he was a private employee of the family and hence that the church was private also. Initially there was also a "hermit" (eremita), who had the job of keeping the lamp in front of the crucifix permanently alight without burning the church down.
Later centuries Edit
In 1778, the Falconieri family inherited the estate, and continued patronising the church.
An apostolic visitation in 1825 revealed the church to be in good condition, apart from the campanile, but also pointed out that it was being kept closed except for Mass. The "hermit" (custodian) was no longer in evidence.
In 1874, the estate had fallen into the possession of a railway speculator called Luigi Maria Manzi who wished to break it up for suburban development. In this he was unsuccessful, because the Italian government wished to reserve the hill as the site of a defensive fortification. This, the Forte Monte Mario, was begun in 1877 and completed five years later.
The church is invariably described as having been demolished as a result of the construction of the fort. However, this needs to be questioned. The layout of the fort and its approach driveway did not impinge on the church. Further, only the church was demolished and not the adjacent farmstead -which would have taken place if concern was expressed about the field of fire.
Rather, it seems plausible that the motivation for demolishing the church was that nobody wanted the responsibility for it. Before the demolition, Manzi donated the venerated crucifix, the catacomb inscriptions and "St Moderatus" to "the ecclesiastical authorities" (presumably the Holy See).
In 1971, a survey of the farmstead suggested that the sacristy had survived the demolition and that remains of the church apse could be traced next to it.
This was a small building, having a rectangular plan with an apse. There was a tall campanile or bellcote on the far end of the right hand side wall, having an elongated round-headed aperture and a tiled trapezoidal cap bearing a cross finial.
The church stood well above the road, on top of a vertical revetment fronted by a double staircase. The latter contained a crypt entrance in its frontage.
The façade itself was straightforward. A pair of blind corner pilasters supported an entablature and a crowning triangular pediment with a cross finial. The Baroque doorcase had a round window above it, and beading outlined the two irregularly shaped wall surfaces between the pilasters and the door and window ensemble.
The façade was set off by a pair of identical screen walls connecting to the gates on either side. Each of these had a sloped coping running down from the level of the façade's entablature, and a pair of blind pilasters. The central of the three panels created by the pilasters contained a square window lighting ancillary premises behind, while the other two each had a blank vertical oval tablet with a raised frame.