|Santa Francesca Romana|
|English name:||St Frances of Rome at the Roman Forum (St Mary the New)|
|Dedication:||Frances of Rome, Blessed Virgin Mary|
|Address:||Piazza di Santa Francesca Romana 4|
Santa Francesca Romana nel Foro Romano (official name: Santa Maria Nova) is an ancient titular church and minor basilica at Piazza di Santa Francesca Romana 4, on the north side of the Via Sacra of the Roman Forum on top of the ruins of Hadrian's Temple of Venus and Rome, and on the summit of a little hill anciently known as the Velian.
To get to its entrance, either go up the so-called Clivo di Venere Felice, a ramp from the Colosseum, or use the stairs to the east of the Basilica of Maxentius. At the top of these, follow the path round to the right of the church to the entrance façade. There is no access from the Via Sacra. Pictures of the church on Wikimedia Commons. 
The origin of the church was an oratory dedicated to SS Peter and Paul, and founded by Pope Paul I in the mid 8th century. This was in the then surviving portico of the great ancient temple dedicated to Venus and Rome, founded by the emperor Hadrian in the year 135. When the church of Santa Maria Antiqua nearby fell into disrepair in the early 9th century, probably as a result of a severe earthquake which smashed the remaining structures in the Forum, its cardinalate title was moved to the oratory in 847. The old church was abandoned, and the oratory was rededicated as Santa Maria Nova (which remains the title). It was enlarged by building into the western cella of the temple, and was provided with a campanile and the surviving apse mosaic before re-consecration in 1161. It was damaged by fire at some time before or during the pontificate of Honorius III (1216-1227), and was restored by that pope.
At the beginning of the 14th century a monastery of the Olivetan Benedictine monks was founded here, and survived until sequestration by the Italian state in 1873. The Olivetans, named after Monte Oliveto near Florence, was a late reform of the Benedictine monastic life, started by St Bernard Tolomei and some companions from the mercantile aristocracy of Florence who abandoned secular life to live as hermits in the woods outside the city. A very similar movement at Siena nearby in the same period led to the foundation of the Servite friars. A complaint was made about them to Pope John XXII that they were living according to no official rule and were probably heretics, so the pope told the city's archbishop to provide them with one. Unexpectedly, he chose the Benedictine rule and the first monastery of the new congregation was established on Monte Oliveto in 1319. Other monasteries of the new, strict and penitential congregation were quickly founded, including the one at Rome before the death of St Bernard in 1348. The Roman monastery took over more of the temple, incorporating its remains into its domestic buildings.
St Frances of Rome or Santa Francesca Romana, full name Francesca Bussa de' Leoni (1384-1440), was a married noblewoman of the city, who founded an enclosed house of Benedictine oblate nuns at Santa Maria Annunziata a Tor de’Specchi near the Campodoglio. The nunnery has never been suppressed, and still survives. They are "oblate" rather than "regular" nuns because they make promises rather than take vows. (Back in the 15th century, one had to be a physical virgin to become a regular nun.) The "oblations" had to be made to the superior of a male monastery or a bishop, and St Frances as a widow and her original companions chose to make theirs to the Olivetian prior at Santa Maria Nuova. When she died she was initially buried at her nunnery but she was canonized in 1608 and as a result the monastery claimed her body (as was their right through her oblation) and enshrined it in their church in 1638. As a result, the church gained its alternative dedication and is nowadays referred to by either name. Meanwhile, the entrance façade to the design of Carlo Lombardi was added in 1615. The crypt containing her shrine was re-modelled in 1858.
The monastery was suppressed by the Italian government in 1873, although Olivetan monk-priests based at their surviving monastery at San Gregorio Magno al Celio continue to serve the church. There was pressure from nationalist "archaeologists" wishing to "cleanse" the Forum from post-Imperial accretions to have the church and monastery demolished, but the popularity of Santa Francesca Romana among ordinary Roman believers ensured that this could not happen even under Mussolini. Instead, the monastery houses the Forum excavation offices and the "Antiquarium" or antica which is a collection of small finds discovered in the course of the excavations (apparently, this museum is now seriously neglected).
The current titular priest of this church is H.E. Angelo Cardinal Sodano, who is also titular Bishop of Albano.
ExteriorEditThe entrance façade and campanile are best viewed from the Via Sacra in the Forum, although this means a separate visit from that to the interior. Here, one can immediately appreciate that the façade has been added on as a separate architectural unit, forming an extra bay of the nave with a roof appreciably higher than the rest. The church itself is actually quite short, a simple rectangle with no proper transepts or apse.
The Romanesque campanile was erected around the end of the 11th century. It is attached to the church just left of the altar, and is in brick with five storeys above the roofline. The storeys are separated by projecting cornices in stone. The first two storeys have a double arch on each face, blocked except for a vertical slit. The top three have a pair of double arches on each face instead, each doublet being separated by a recessed round pilaster, and are decorated with crosses in a dark red stone and roundels in various colours.The façade is in travertine, while the exterior walls of the rest of the nave are rendered in light orange. A pair of gigantic rectangular Composite pilasters with very high plinths is on each side of the arched main entrance, and support a full entablature and triangular pediment. There is a dedicatory inscription to St Frances on the frieze. Above the entrance arch is a tablet with inscription, then a large rectangular window framed by a pair of half-round Doric pilasters supporting an entablature and segmental pediment. There is a balustrade in front of the window. The entrance arch opens into a loggia, and there are two smaller arches corresponding to the aisle entrances on either side. These are crowned with inscription tablets as well. The loggia terminates round the exterior corners in two other archways the same size as the central one, and the aisle frontages have triplet Doric pilasters at their outer corners. These support entablatures with the friezes decorated with Papal motifs. There are gigantic volutes either side of the upper nave frontage, three statues on the pediment and two more on the outer corners.
The richly decorated but restrained Baroque interior features a nave with side chapels, a flat wooden coffered ceiling and a small shallow apse with conch. There are no nave arcades, but the side chapels are entered through large arches with rectangular windows above and separated by double Ionic pilasters. The carved ceiling is tricked out in red, blue and gold and has a relief image of St Frances over the main altar. The altar is raised, and has staircases either side of it to access an ambulatory just in front of the apse. Another pair of staircases lead to the little crypt below.
The relics of St Frances in the crypt can be visited by going down the staircase at the extreme right after ascending the steps to the sanctuary. Her skeleton vested in the habit of her Oblate Sisters, is on display and it is edifying that the Olivetans have never made up her relics to look like a living person as is the case with several other saints enshrined in Rome. A prayer book lies open in her hands, at Psalm 72 (73 in the Hebrew numbering), because legend has it that she was saying the Office of Our Lady one day, but as her husband called for her four times she never managed to complete this psalm. When she finally got back to her prayers, she found the verse miraculously inscribed in letters of gold: "You have taken me by the right hand, and by your will you have led me, and with glory you have received me (Tenuisti manum dexteram meam, et in voluntate tua deduxisti me, et cum gloria suscipisti me)." The bas-relief of St Frances with her guardian angel, whom she had the privilege of being able to see, is 17th century. The confessio, an early work by Bernini, has a 1866 marble sculpture of the same subject. Please note that if you enter just before Mass is to be celebrated, you will not be able to leave the crypt without disturbing the celebration.
The relics of St Lucilla are also preserved here, enshrined in the church by Pope Gregory V (996-999). On the entrance wall are two paintings: "Madonna Enthroned between St Benedict and St Francesca Romana" by Girolamo da Cremona and "Madonna Enthroned with Saints" by Sinibaldo Ibi (1545). In the conch of the apse there is a 12th century (probably completed in 1161) mosaic of the Blessed Virgin with Child between the apostles James, John, Peter and Andrew, and on either side are angels of the school of Bernini. Another 12th century piece, an icon of the Madonna and Child, can be seen in the apse above the altar. As late as 1950, examination during restoration revealed that this had been painted over an earlier version of the Madonna with Child, which is probably from the 6th century, and may have come from Santa Maria Antiqua. It is one of the most ancient icons in existence, and is of the style known as "Glycophilousa" from the Greek for "sweet affection". The two paintings have been detached from one another, and the older one is now kept in the sacristy. It is kept in the sacristy, and can be seen by appointment (contact details on the diocesan web-page).
Also in the sacristy are fragments of mediaeval frescoes, an early 16th century painting of Pope Paul III with Cardinal Reginald Pole of England (the last pre-Reformation English cardinal) attributed to Perino del Vaga and and a painting of the Miracle of St Benedict by Pierre Subleyras.
To the right of the sanctuary is the tomb of pope Gregory XI, who returned the papal seat to Rome after the exile in Avignon. It was made by Pier Paolo Olivieri, and set up here in 1585. On the monument, St Catherine of Siena can be seen close to the returning pope. She was instrumental in persuading him to return. To the left can be seen a 15th century holy oil aumbry in renaissance style, and the pavement in the raised east end is restored Cosmatesque.
Standing in the nave by the confessio, one can sees a painting on the right-hand side of St Andrew welcoming his cross of martyrdom.
Two flagstones in the south wall of the church are said to bear the imprints of the knees of Sts Peter and Paul. According to legend, the magician Simon Magus wanted to prove that his powers were superior to those of the Apostles. To do this, he levitated himself above the Forum. The two Apostles fell to their knees and prayed that God would humble Simon Magus, which He did with a vengeance - Simon immediately fell to his death. These stones were originally venerated in situ by the Via Sacra, and later brought into the church for safe-keeping.
In the vestibule of the side entrance are two tombs. The monument of Marino Cardinal Vulcanini (died 1394; also known as Bulcani) was made in the 15th century by Paolo Romano. The other tomb is that of Antonio da Rio (Rido), castellan of Castel Sant'Angelo, made c. 1450.
On March 9th, Roman drivers park their cars as close as possible to the church to have their vehicles blessed, since St Frances is the patron of motorists as well as of Benedictine oblates. The inevitable chaos can be quite entertaining.
Her feast-day on this date is celebrated as a solemnity in this church and in Olivetan monasteries, and as a feast locally in Rome. She has an obligatory memoria in the General Calendar of the Catholic church, but this is only celebrated outside Lent. This can only happen when Easter is as late as it can be, on April 25th, which happens about once a century. The next year when this happens is 2038, which makes this the rarest liturgical celebration in the Church's general calendar, even rarer than a Holy Jubilee.
Like many churches in the Centro Storico, this church is popular for weddings which may make it inconvenient for visitors at week-ends. On the other hand, the revenue helps pay for continually needed repairs. If you have both the money and the class, you could get married here -you don't need to be Italian (although you do need to be a Catholic).
This church has never been parochial. It should not be confused with the parish church of Santa Francesca Romana all'Ardeatino, which the diocese usually refers to as "Santa Francesca Romana".