Santa Maria dei Cerchi was a little 17th century devotional church which used to stand about halfway along the Via dei Cerchi on the north side of the Circus Maximus. It was in the rione Campitelli. The postal number of the adjacent building is 125.
The dedication was to the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Santa Maria de ManuEdit
The opinion that the church was on the same site as the mediaeval Santa Maria de Manu was expressed by Christian Hülsen, and has won wide acceptance despite the lack of a historical chain of evidence.
This mediaeval church was first recorded in 1215 as being below the slope of the Palatine, on the north-side of the former Circus Maximus. The ruined circus had accumulated enough soil by then to have become worth cultivating, and a drainage ditch (the Acqua Crabra Marrana) had been dug through it in the previous century. The land was probably used as a hayfield back then, since the damp valley bottom would have encouraged a good growth of grass.
The trackway along its northern border was a major route from the mediaeval Tiber quays to the Lateran via the Clivo di Scauro, so even if the locality had become rural it was not isolated. It is thought that the farmstead at the present number 125 was already established, and that the church served it in the way that small churches served hamlets and farms in the Campagna. The nearby monastery of San Gregorio Magno al Celio was in charge.
The name Manu referred to a gigantic marble pointing hand, broken off a colossal statue, which was lying about in the vicinity and which had acquired the name "Hand of Cicero" - la mano di Cicerone. The fate of this sculpture seems to be unknown. However, the Baroque building at the Bocca della Verità end of the road, near Sant'Anastasia, has a stucco copy of the hand on its decorative parapet. (This was part of the layout of the Farnese Gardens above on the Palatine.)
After the Sack, the Circus Maximus became more intensively cultivated and was divided up into market gardens with different owners. In 1587 the last of the visible ruins of the Circus were tidied away, as Pope Sixtus V improved the road in 1587 in order to remove two obelisks that used to stand on the spina.
The later church was built after a miracle associated with a depiction of Our Lady on a wall of the farmstead in the 17th century - one of the famous streetside Madonnas of Rome. Apparently some Jews were behaving badly on the road, and one of them struck the icon which proceeded to bleed. The resultant devotion led to the icon being enshrined over the altar of the new church (which some sources describe as only a chapel or a sacellum which indicates that there was no priest in charge).
In the 18th century, the church was a popular destination for short devotional walks from the city. The biography of St John-Baptist de Rossi mentions his veneration for the icon, and his encouragement of visitors to the Madonna dei Cerchi.
The Nolli map of 1748 shows that the Circus was then being carefully cultivated. Some of it was vineyards, but most of it seems to have been used for vegetables (the Romans then were fond of broccoli, which French visitors noted with disgust was usually eaten merely boiled - like English cabbage).
In 1831 a small campanile was built, indicating that Mass was being regularly celebrated here. Before then there used to be a courtyard with a screen wall to the right of the church, but this was replaced with an ancillary building. The campanile was on the roof of this, in the form of a triumphal arch with a single arched housing for one bell and a triangular pediment on top.
The church was described by Diego Angeli as having been "abandoned" in 1870. Perhaps this means that Mass celebrations had ceased. In 1880 a confraternity was founded in honour of the icon, called the Confraternita della Madonna dei Cerchi e di Gesù Nazareno. They obtained the permission of the nobleman owning the church, one Marchese Sampieri, to transfer the icon to the church of Santa Maria in Vincis. Presumably this was because the original church was either too small for them or because it was in a bad state of repair. The transfer doomed the little building, because it was left without a function. It was deconsecrated in 1885, and turned into a blacksmith's shop.
There is some confusion as to when it was demolished, with the end of the 19th century being alleged. However, it was still standing in 1903 according to Angeli. The actual building seems to have been demolished in 1939, when the Fascist government widened the roads on both sides of the Circus, planted the avenues of trees and demolished most of the buildings under the Palatine. The Circus has been one of the bleakest, scruffiest and most useless major open spaces in Rome ever since.
The location of the church is easily found, as the ghost of the apse is to the right of number 125.
This was a tiny church, on a simple rectangular plan with a very shallow round-headed apse cut into the rock of the Palatine. The miraculous icon was enshrined in this.
The simple yet effective façade had a vertical elliptical oeil-de-boeuf window below a triangular pediment. On either side of the entrance door was another, smaller horizontal elliptical window.
Angeli wrote in 1903 that traces of old frescoes were visible in the deconsecrated building (nell'interno si scorgono appena le traccie delle antiche decorazioni a fresco). The surviving apse recess contains brickwork which is thought to be mediaeval, although of course this does not prove that this was the site of Santa Maria de Manu.