Santa Maria Liberatrice al Foro Romano was a 17th century Baroque convent church that was built on top of the Palaeochristian church of Santa Maria Antiqua in the Roman Forum. This is in the rione Campitelli.
The dedication was to the Blessed Virgin Mary, under her title of Our Lady, Liberator from the Pains of Hell.
Santa Maria Antiqua had been ruined by a major earthquake in 847, the same earthquake that possibly caused the ruination of the Forum in general. A new church, known as Santa Maria Nova (now Santa Francesca Romana) was built near the Arch of Titus as a replacement.
The old church is thought to have been completely buried in 1084, when nearby buildings collapsed during the fire started by the Normans who sacked Rome that year. However, this is a surmise and archaeological evidence is wanting.
In the thirteenth century a new church was built on top of the ruin, in the same way that the present basilica of San Clemente is on top of the original one. However, the two churches were not on the same alignment which indicates that the ground level of the Forum had already risen to hide the ruins of the old church by then.
By this time a curious legend had grown up, which involved Pope Sylvester I (314-35) chaining up a dragon which had been living in the Forum and terrorizing the city. So, the locality was called “Liberatrice” (the Liberation from the dragon), and the church was initially called Santa Maria Libera nos a Poenis Inferni, or "St Mary Free us from the Pains of Hell", which became Santa Maria Liberatrice or "St Mary Liberator". (It was also called San Silvestro in Lago in the 16th century, but this was an invention.)
In about 1300 a convent was established here by Mother Santuccia Terrebotti, who had founded a reformed congregation of Benedictine nuns located at what later became Sant'Anna dei Falegnami. The nuns remained until 1550, when they moved to join their sisters at the mother house. This was probably owing to the difficulties experienced after the Sack of Rome in 1527.
After the departure of these nuns, the complex was taken over by the Olivetan Benedictine oblate nuns at Santa Maria Annunziata a Tor de’Specchi as a small daughter convent. This was appropriate, since the nearby Santa Francesca Romana was a major monastery of Olivetan monks. They remained in possession until the end.
The church was restored and mostly rebuilt in the Baroque style to a design by Onorio Longhi the Elder in 1617. He was also responsible for San Carlo al Corso, and at Santa Maria Liberatrice was inspired to create a scaled-down version of the great façade of the Gesù by Giacomo della Porta.
In 1749 the interior was beautified with stucco decorations by Francesco Ferrari, who also commissioned neo-Classical paintings by Sebastiano Ceccarini and Lorenzo Gramiccia.
This important building survived until 1900, as the ancient ruins of the Forum were uncovered around it. Owing to an ideological and nationalistic interest in ancient Rome on the part of both the Italian government and the archaeological establishments, rather than as a result of any archaeological need, the church was ordered to be demolished in that year. This took two years, as the edifice proved so well constructed that high explosive had to be used by the “archaeologist” Giacomo Boni. No proper survey was done before or during the work, and it is on record that early mediaeval frescoes were discarded in the rubble.
Paradoxically, the uncovering of the remains of Santa Maria Antiqua in this way led to the steady deterioration of its frescoes, as they were left exposed to the open air. This has necessitated their recent prolonged and expensive restoration, together with the provision of a purpose-built shelter. The tragedy was that the remains of the older church could have been excavated under the newer one without need of demolition, as in San Clemente, and they would have been better preserved subsequently.
Much of the decoration and many works of religious art were transferred to the new church of Santa Maria Liberatrice a Monte Testaccio, which is regarded as the lineal descendent of the old church. These include an old venerated icon of the same name. The oblate nuns of Tor de' Specchi retained their connection, and put up much of the funds needed to build the new church.
The church was not on the same footprint as the excavated remains of Santa Maria Antiqua, but slightly to the north. To mark the location of the façade, take the line given by the statue bases south of the pool in the House of the Vestal Virgins. Extend this westwards, and take another line from the middle of the Temple of Vesta so as to form a right angle with it. This point marks the north-east or right hand corner of the church's façade.
The church was oriented north to south, but the major axis was slightly east of north. This meant that the church was aligned with the older Santa Maria Antiqua, showing that the original builders were aware of the latter and wished to respect its plan.
The plan of the church was that of a Latin cross. Structurally it had a short nave with aisles separated by arcades with three pillars on each side. However, the aisles were divided by blocking walls into three chapels each. Then came a transept with a dome over the crossing, and finally a shallow rectangular apse which was almost square. This last was the only part of the church over the old Santa Maria Antiqua.
The dome was squat, with a low octagonal drum having blank walls and the dome itself being formed out of eight tiled pitches. There was a tall lantern (actually taller than the dome and drum combined) formed from a ring of little pillars crowned with an ogee cupola. There was no proper campanile, but only a bellcote with a pair of arched openings over the left hand side of the transept.
The façade had three pairs of Doric pilasters flanking the door, over which was an inscription tablet sheltered by an unsupported segmental arc. There were empty round-headed niches between the first two pairs. The pilasters supported a plain entablature, and above this was the upper storey of the façade. This had two pairs of Composite pilasters flanking a large window itself having a frame of two small pilasters supporting a segmental pediment. In between the two pairs of large pilasters were empty round-headed niches. The whole was crowned by an empty triangular pediment, and either side was a pair of sweeping curves ending in volutes at their bases.
Watkin, D: The Roman Forum, Profile 2009, pp114-6.