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The dedication was the Annunciation to Our Lady, and because of its size the church was nicknamed Annunziatina or "Little Annunciation".
Temple of Mars Ultor Edit
The church was built on the site of an ancient temple, and that was the reason for its destruction. So a description of said temple might be of interest:
The temple occupied the back central position in the Forum of Augustus, almost touching the surviving temenos wall. It had a podium in ashlar blocks of Anio tufa (a soft stone) which is still there, revetted with slabs of Carrara marble (which are not). The approach staircase is in concrete with marble treads (still there), with an inset central altar and originally two fountains flanking it. Eight gigantic ribbed columns also of Carrara marble supported the pediment in front (this made the temple octostyle), and there were eight down each side (double-counting the two corner ones) with a back pilaster in the same style. The cella was set back from the entrance colonnade, with two further internal columns on each side before reaching the doorway. Inside, there were seven columns on each side very close to the side wall and a segmental apse in which the cult statues stood. These were of Mars, Venus and Julius Caesar as a god.
This temple was central to the Empire's war effort, allied to the cult of the Divine Emperor (the whole justification of the emperor in ancient Rome was as a war-lord). The Senate met here to discuss matters to do with waging warfare.
See the plan here for the layout of the Forum with the temple.
The remote ecclesiastical ancestor of the nunnery was an Early Middle Age monastery which was built in the ruins of the forum. This is surmised to have been founded by Byzantine-rite monks perhaps in the 7th century (there is no documentation). After the forum and temple were smashed by a massive earthquake in the 9th century, the monks occupied the podium of the temple and used it for the monastery church of Sancti Basilii Scala Mortuorum ("St Basil of the Ladder of the Dead") as well as for domestic quarters. The church was small, tucked in between the back wall of the temple cella and the the temenos wall of the Forum. It stood on the site of the segmental apse of the cella, where the cult statues used to be.
The reason why it is thought that the temple was destroyed by an earthquake is the odd survival of four columns on its east side, with a stretch of the wall of the cella and a corresponding fragment of ceiling. The collapse of the building in an earthquake shock could have left this portion standing while all the rest fell, so the monks could have simply cleared the rubble and incorporated the surviving fabric into their monastery.
The surviving temenos wall behind the temple is in massive blocks mostly of peperino ashlar (opus quadratum), although some is in Gabine or travertine. It served as the monastic precinct enclosure on its eastern side, and a hole was knocked through it to create a public entrance for the church (this survives). The site of the rest of the temple was buried under the convent block, with a street running from the present Arco dei Pantani down the right (south) side of the former temple. The Arco was an ancient gateway in the temenos wall of the Forum, just to the south of the monastery church, and the street was the Strada Bonella until it was destroyed in the 20th century.
St Basil the Great is regarded as the founder of Byzantine-rite branch of monasticism, hence the dedication. The Scala Mortuorum derives from the ascetic writings of St John Climacus, who presented the moral life of a monk as an ascent on a ladder (scala) -or a descent or falling off. The Mortuorum refers to the monks being dead to the world.
The first documentary mention is in a bull of Pope Agapetus II in 955 (beware, Armellini got the year wrong when he wrote in 1891). By then, it was one of the most important monasteries in Rome. The next definite mention is in 1088, but there is a possible one in the "Register of Subiaco" of 983 which hints that the monastery was Benedictine by then.
Benedictine monks Edit
It certainly was Benedictine by the start of the 12th century, when it was referred to as Sancti Basilii Arcus Nervae. This was corrupted in the vernacular to San Basilio Arco Noe, with a false reference to Noah. The original Arcus Nervae was the present Arco dei Pantani which was an ancient gateway in the temenos wall of the Forum just to the south of the monastery church. The locality had become seriously badly drained with the collapse of the ancient drainage system and was unhealthy owing to malaria. This led to the name of Pantaneo or "marsh" for the neighbourhood in the Middle Ages.
This small church of San Basilio was kept by the Benedictines, as was the main large convent block covering the temple podium to the east. However, they also provided a cloister to the north of this with an east wing butted against the temenos wall. A separate cloister entrance was provided through the wall. There used to be a ceremonial entrance into the Forum at this location with three arched portals, but because of the rise in ground level these were not convenient and so the monks heightened the northern one for their entrance and blocked the other two up. To the north of this was a second large convent block, the predecessor of the present Casa of the Knights.
The monks also built a fine Romanesque campanile in the 12th century, which was demolished in the early 19th century.
The cloister was arcaded on three sides, but not on the west where it faced onto the monastery gardens.
Knights of RhodesEdit
In the 13th century, Benedictine observance in the city suffered a complete collapse and the order lost most of its monasteries as a result. Here, the complex was granted to the Knights Hospitaller of St John of Jerusalem of Rhodes (the direct ancestors of the present Knights of Malta).
This military order was founded in Jerusalem in 1113, but the pilgrim hospice which was the original focus of its activities had already been founded in that city by Italian merchants in 1023. It was built on the site of an old Byzantine monastery dedicated to St John the Baptist, hence the full name of the order. Back then the city was still ruled by Muslims, but it was conquered in the First Crusade in 1099.
The Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem came to an end with the fall of Acre in 1291. After a pause, the knights conquered the island of Rhodes from the Byzantine Empire in 1310 and ruled it in their own right as a power-base. This is when they became a sovereign order, answerable to no-one except (theoretically) the Pope.
Apparently the Knights leased the north part of the monastery premises from the monks in the late 12th century.
It is uncertain as to when exactly the Order took over the old monastery in its entirety, but it must have been around the time that it also obtained another defunct monastery at Santa Maria del Priorato. This was in 1312, but it has been suggested that the takeover of San Basilio might have been in the late 13th century. The Knights established a casa or hospice complex here, which became their original Roman headquarters, and changed the dedication of the church to St John the Baptist their patron. In his honour they frescoed the apse of the church with scenes depicting him, and the stylistic evidence of the surviving fragments suggest that the work was done before 1300. Further, they burrowed through the temenos wall to give the church two Gothic windows which are still there even if the church is not.
The name of the church is then variously given in the sources as San Giovanni de Campo Turricano, San Giovanni del Palazzo di Nerva or San Giovanni in Capo ai Monti.
In 1466 the Grand Master of the Order, Giovanni Battista Orsini, allied with Marco Barbo, the Cardinal Protector, to renovate the convent in order to provide suitably prestigious accommodation for the Knights at Rome. This resulted in the present surviving casa of San Giovanni Battista dei Cavalieri di Rodi as the location for ceremonial functions, while the old convent block next to the Arco dei Pantani remained as a hospice. The old monastery garden became a famous herb garden attached to the hospice.
The knights were ejected from Rhodes by the Ottomans in 1522, and were granted the island of Malta by Emperor Charles V in 1530. It was then that they obtained their modern name. This moved led to a loss of influence at Rome, and the Knights were unable to protect their property from the attentions of Cardinal "Protectors". The result was that San Giovanni was alienated in 1566, and the Knights had to move to their present headquarters of Santa Maria del Priorato.
When they moved, the property was divided. The church, cloister and hospice became a convent of Dominican nuns. However the present casa of the Knights to the north was not included in this transfer, and was converted into domestic apartments and retail establishments.
The Dominican sisters were granted the property by Pope Pius V in 1568 as a centre for missionary activities among women Jews, and they restored the church. The surviving entrance doorway is a result of this restoration. The same pope ordered the drainage of the area to be improved in 1570, and the locality tidied up.
The sisters were not then regarded as nuns, because they did not stay within their enclosure, and were referred to as Domenicane Neofite (the Neofite were the putative Jewish converts). However, after the expectations of making Jewish converts dried up in the early 17th century the sisters accepted a more typically regular life within an enclosure, as was standard among nuns until the 20th century.
In 1642 there was a restoration of the interior, with fresco work on the ceiling and walls.
Convent layout Edit
At the start of the 19th century, the convent was arranged around the east and south sides of a fairly large cloister which had arcades on those two sides and also on the north side. However, to the north of the cloister the property (which survives) did not belong to the sisters. To the west the cloister had a wall with a gate, which led into the convent gardens.
The wing to the east of the cloister, between the church and the present Casa dei Cavalieri di Rodi, contained the convent entrance and was also the extern wing where the monastic community had its guest accommodation and interacted with the outside world. The main block of the convent was south of the cloister, and occupied the podium of the Temple of Mars Ultor to the west of the church. At the bottom right hand of the latter stood the mediaeval campanile. On the Strada Bonella was a sort of high porch formed by four of the ancient temple together with a bit of its roof, and this fragment of ancient glory was a popular tourist attraction from the Renaissance.
The convent was doomed as soon as the political establishment started to regard the ancient Roman remains as having ideological importance.
The first loss was in 1838, when the superb campanile was demolished (to be fair, apparently it was starting to crack). The church and convent were sequestered in 1873, but the nuns were allowed to occupy part of it in the early 20th century after taking refuge at Santa Lucia in Selci.
The Fascists then ordered a complete demolition in 1926, and all traces of the nunnery (no matter how old) were carefully removed from the remains of the Forum. However, the ancient temenos wall displays windows and doorways with modern blocking, and the church and monastery buildings have left ghostly traces on the ancient masonry.
Some fragments of Renaissance frescoes from the church are preserved in the Antiquarium at the Casa dei Cavalieri, but are not at present (2015) accessible to visitors.
The sisters moved permanently to a new home in the eastern part of the large covent of Santa Lucia in Selci. The nondescript block that they still occupy has its own address, Piazza San Martino ai Monti 142. They were allowed to take the altar and altarpiece from the old church with them, and these are now in the choir chapel of this convent.
The altarpiece seems to have been damaged in the process, and now has an odd upcurved bottom edge to its frame. The altar frontal is in alabaster with inlays in green and yellow marble.
The nuns have a silver reliquary containing an alleged arm-bone of St Basil, said to have been inherited from the original Byzantine-rite monks at the old monastery.
The church did not occupy the centre of the podium of the ancient temple, which was taken up by the main monastery building, but was placed longitudinally against the ancient temenos wall between that and the cella of the temple. It occupied the area between the angle in the wall north of the large archway (the Arco dei Pantani) by the surviving ancient temple columns, and the ancient entrance arcade (now below street level) on the other side of the podium. The alignment was north to south. See photo below.
Convent entrance Edit
The convent entrance was on the Via Tor de' Conti, north of the church. If you go there, you will see a row of five identical arches in the temenos wall, which have been dug out and unblocked. Anciently, the two northern arches led into a small chamber the function of which is unknown. The three southern arches comprised an entrance into the Forum of Augustus by the left hand side of the temple with the Arco dei Pantani having been the matching entrance to its right.
Because of the rise in ground level, when the nuns took over the northernmost of the three was heightened and the others blocked (this work was reversed in the mid 20th century). The heightened arch has a plaque giving the name of Pope St Pius V, the nuns' patron, on the keystone. Above this used to be the coat-of-arms of the pope, flanked by four fresco portraits of saints. Incredibly, the left hand one of these survives -just- and depicts St Dominic with a book and lily. Above the ancient block architrave in the wall is a large panel with a decorative border which used to contain a fresco of the Annunciation. This is long perished.
Church layout Edit
The church was small, with a simple rectangular nave and a shallow rectangular apse. There was only one side altar. Because it was aligned parallel to the street, it had no monumental façade.
The 12th century brick campanile used to be next to the bottom right hand side of the church before its demolition. This had four storeys above the roofline, the first being blank, the second having two arches on each side and the top two having an arcade of three arches on each side which displayed columns and imposts. There was a typical pyramidal tiled cap.
The church had its own entrance on the Via Tor de' Conti, which passed through the massive ancient wall backing onto the forum and has a surviving doorway which is a fine piece of work. The door is flanked by two columns with Ionic capitals having knotted ropes connecting their volutes -an amusing touch. These partly conceal a pair of pilasters in identical style, and support a broken triangular pediment with the central section missing to make way for a 17th century relief of the Annunciation. Above this entrance is a pair of two-light Gothic windows that used to light the church (they are now blocked), and these display the coat-of-arms of Pope Paul II (1464-71). They obviously date from the era of the Knights.
It is unclear whether these windows were pierced through the wall by the Knights, or merely embellished. The latter is more likely, as they gave the only natural light to the church interior.
Inside, there used to be frescoes by Marco Tullio Montagna (1584-1659). These comprised the side walls, the ceiling vault panel and two lunettes at each end, and were completed in 1642. These lunettes depicted The Annunciation over the altar, and The Birth of Our Lady over the entrance.
This church was high for its size, and had two entablatures running round its interior. The side wall frescoes were in large panels above the first, and the ceiling vault sprang from the second. This ceiling was barrel-vaulted in a semi-cylinder, with fake coffering in octagons and squares with rosettes.
The sanctuary was a small rectangular niche, with a triumphal arch which only reached as high as the first entablature and which had a Papal coat-of-arms in stucco on its keystone. The main altar had an altarpiece of the Annunciation by Gaetano Lapis, a copy of one by Guido Reni. The only side altar had SS Basil, John the Baptist and John the Evangelist by Cristoforo Casolani. The interesting combination of saints commemorated the church's previous dedications. This artist also decorated the private choir chapel of the nuns.
When the church was demolished, remnants of frescoes extolling St John the Baptist were discovered under the 17th century work. These were commissioned by the Knights in 1477.
Modern convent Edit
The modern convent at Piazza San Martino ai Monti 142 has no distinguishing external features.