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The dedication is to the Blessed Virgin Mary.
The church is often described as monastic. It is not (although it used to be) and neither, strictly speaking, is it a convent church. This is because the owners, the Sovereign Order of Malta, is a chivalric order and not a religious congregation, because its members make promises instead of taking vows.
The headquarters of the order is not here, but at Palazzo Malta at Via dei Condotti 68. The institution on the Aventine is often called the Villa del Priorato di Malta, a relic of the times when the Order had a Grand Prior (its head is now called the Grand Master).
The Order claims sovereignty in international law (before the 19th century it was the government of Malta), and so some people argue that these two properties are not part of Italy. The question has generated much published legal analysis.
The premises are usually referred to in English as the Priory.
Foundation of monasteryEdit
The first monastery was founded here in 939, when Alberic II, Duke of Spoleto and warlord-ruler of Rome, gave his fortress palace to St Odo of Cluny. This was during the so-called Pornocracy, one of the lowest points in the city's history, so Alberic had a lot on his conscience. The dedication of the new abbey was to St Basil.
Odo was the abbot of Cluny, a powerful Benedictine abbey in France which was the centre of a massive reform of monastic life in western Europe at the time. Their establishment in Rome marked the historical arrival of the Benedictines in the city -although they were to falsely pretend later that they had been there for four hundred years already. The order was to found twenty abbeys in Rome, and the abbots of these had a high status at the papal court. The abbot of this abbey of St Basil on the Aventine was one of these.
The most famous alleged member of the monastic community was Hildebrand, better known as Pope St Gregory VII. According to Benedictine hagiography, he studied and took his first monastic vows here as a young man because the abbot was his uncle. He certainly studied at Rome, but his link with the abbey is not well documented and there is doubt as to whether he was ever a Benedictine monk at all.
The monastery failed by the end of the 11th century, which was earlier than the total breakdown of Benedictine monastic life in the city a century later. The circumstances seem to be unrecorded, but by the year 1138 the complex was the Roman praeceptory (convent) of the Knights Templar.
This chivalric order had been founded in the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem in 1120, after the First Crusade conquered the city in 1099, and it took over the Haram al-Sharif from the Muslims. This was the site of the former Temple, hence the name. (Incidentally, many Templar churches in Europe were round, in imitation of the Dome of the Rock which the order converted into their main church.)
The Templars maintained the convent as their Rome headquarters until they were suppressed in 1312 by Pope Clement V.
As with many of their other properties, the convent was donated by the pope to the Knights Hospitaller of St John of Jerusalem, the direct ancestors of the present Knights of Malta. This was founded in Jerusalem in 1113, but the pilgrim hospice which was the original focus of its activities had already been founded by Italian merchants in 1023. It was built on the site of an old monastery dedicated to St John the Baptist, hence the full name of the order.
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. This is when they became a sovereign order.
About the same time as they obtained the Aventine property in 1312, the Hospitallers established a casa or hospice complex at San Giovanni Battista dei Cavalieri di Rodi near the Forum. This was their original Roman headquarters, which they had restored in 1466.
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.
The headquarters of the knights was moved was moved from San Giovanni Battista to here in 1566, and in response the complex was restored again in 1568. The former headquarters were given up (although the Knights returned to it in the mid 20th century). What was left after the two restorations was the church, plus an L-shaped wing adjacent to the church's right and a separate block attached to the far left hand side of the church.
In 1765, the entire property was remodelled on the orders of Giovanni Battista Rezzonico, who had become Grand Master of the order in 1762 and was later to be a cardinal. He was related to Pope Clement XII. Famously, he entrusted the project to Giovanni Battista Piranesi, who designed and built the church, the little convent block adjacent, the monumental entrance piazza and the gardens (although the Nolli map of 1748 shows the gardens as very similar in layout to those there now). This is Piranesi's only church, and he was proud enough of it to have himself buried there in 1778.
As an early example of the neo-Classical style on the part of a famous artist, the design of the edifice was internationally influential at the time.
When it was built, the establishment functioned in effect as the embassy of the government of Malta at Rome. However, the knights were humiliatingly expelled from Malta by Napoleon in 1798, and after the emperor's dowfall the islanders made it very clear that they preferred to be ruled by Britain.
The dispersed knights made Rome their definitive headquarters in 1834. They had to find a new rôle, and did so by undertaking humanitarian and hospital work of a sort that was later much more systematically attended to by the Red Cross. This remains their justification for existence to the present day.
Layout of premisesEdit
The Priory occupies a corner of the Aventine Hill, and has steep and inaccessible slopes on two sides. The only access is from Piazza dei Cavaliere di Malta, which was laid out by Piranesi as part of his overall design. There is a monumental entrance gateway on this, but the portal only leads into the gardens. The actual entrance is down a vicolo or alleyway from the corner of the piazza, which turns right through a gate to the front of the church. This has always been the way in historically.
Piranesi kept the old layout, but extended the buildings a little. There is a rectangular block sharing the far left hand side wall of the church, and the separate L-shaped block shares most of the right hand side wall. Piranesi extended this a little towards the entrance.
There are three separate garden areas. One is a straight garden pathway from the monumental entrance, leading to a terrace overlooking the river valley. This path is edged by high hedges, and next to it is a large pavilion or summer house. A small formal garden, not perfectly square in layout, fits into the L-shaped block and marks the site of the old abbey cloister. To the south of this is a larger, main garden.
That is all.
The monumental piazza was an innovation by Piranesi, as no piazza was here before. It has screen walls on three sides, the way in to the Priory at top right and the garden gateway to the right.
The far wall has a tablet commemorating the work commissioned by Cardinal Rezzonico. This is part of a stele set into the wall with a segmental pediment, embellished by a pair of ball finials. This structure is flanked by obelisks, and two pairs of ball finials are on top of the wall on either side. The epigraph reads: Ioannes Baptista Rezzonico, SS Domini nostris Clementis PP XIII fratris filius ac magnus prior, ut locum maiestatem augeret, aream hanc laxandam curavit APGN MDCCLXV.
The left hand wall has two steles with segmental pediments, similarly set into the wall. These are also flanked by obelisks, and are on either side of a monumental and tall round-headed stele on top of the wall. The three feature shields bearing the cross emblem of the Order, fantistically embellished (note that the two side stelas have different decorations). The side stelas features the familar Maltese cross, but the central stela features the earlier Greek cross used by the Knights of Rhodes. The change in the symbol occurred in the 15th century.
The garden entrance features an armilustrium, which was a ritual cleaning and storage of weapons of war in ancient Roman times. The theme is taken up in the decoration of the church.
The portico is a horizontal rectangular composition, with an entablature running along the top. Above the arched entrance portal is a triangular pediment, and the frontage below this is brought forward slightly as are vertical strips at the outer corners. Eight tasselled pendant block posts are attached to the entablature, with narrow panels below those at the outer corners and flanking the portal so as to give the impression of pilasters. These four posts have the Maltese cross embellished with ribbons below them.
Flanking the portal are four recessed blank tablets with frames in relief. Above these are two horizontal rectangular panels featuring the armilustrum, and also the double-headed eagle within a wreath (the eagle derives from the Rezzonico coat-of-arms). Between these panels and the four below are four shields with the Rhodes cross. Over the portal is a relief of a ship with flags.
The left hand armilustrum panel features a snake, which occurs also on the church façade. Some people find this sinister, but it derives from the caduceus which is a symbol of the medical profession.
The keyhole of the door of the monumental gateway is famous, and is now on the main tourist trail in Rome. This is because, if you look through it and the weather permits, you'll see that the dome of St Peter's is perfectly and symmetrically framed by the two tall hedges either side of the garden path. The keyhole was deliberately located here, as part of Piranesi's excellent design.
The keyhole has predictably attracted urban legends. One, certainly false and probably malicious modern one alleges that the author Dan Brown urinated through the keyhole into the eye of a Dutch woman tourist while on a visit to the Priory. This is a recent recesion of a legend that goes back decades, if not centuries. Another modern one, which proves that the people who invent such things keep up with the times, alleges that a woman tourist had hysterics after finding herself viewing a pornographic video on somebody's mobile phone. The knights and the organizers of visits apparently know nothing of any of this, and claim that visitors to the Priory would be too cultured and well-behaved to do such things (as if).
This is a rather small church. It is on a rectangular plan, with a nave of four bays, a sanctuary of a single bay and a segmental apse. The side walls are invisible, being enclosed by the two wings of the domestic quarters.
It is unclear how much of the older church survived in the Piranesi reconstruction. The church is usually described as 18th century, but earlier fabric is probably lurking beneath the stucco.
The church apse faces the gardens, and so is decorated. Facing it, the right hand side is embedded in the building adjacent. There is a large rectangular window, flanked by two pairs of blind pilasters supporting a roofline entablature. Above the window is a heraldic device extolling the Rezzonico family again; a Rhodes cross with festoons and ribbons accompanies the double-headed eagle, and also two medallions with a tower and bends sinister which come from the family shield.
Above the apse, the gable of the roof is formed into a pediment with a slightly oval window in the tympanum forcing the cornice to loop over it. There are two towers flanking the window, and a cross over it. The right hand end of the pediment also vanishes into the building adjacent.
The basic design of the façade is very straightforward, but the detailing is fantastic. It has a single storey, with four gigantic ribbed pilasters supporting an entablature with a triangular pediment. The molded doorcase has its own triangular pediment, raised on curlicued brackets. Above the entrance pediment is a large oculus or circular window. There is a complete absence of any epigraphs.
The pilasters have very odd capitals, comprising a pair of sphinxes facing a Rezzonico tower. They also have each a panel bearing a device resembling the standard of a Roman legion. A pair of larger and more complex versions of these flank the entrance. The crowning entablature has no architrave, a dentillated cornice and a frieze decorated with a pattern called the Greek meander.
The pediment tympanum has a complex device featuring the Rhodes cross over flags and shields, all embellished with a stole.
The oculus has very compex decoration. It is surrounded by a wreath tied with ribbon, itself surrounded by a ring of scales of armour. Above is a long, narrow blank tablet inserted over the entablature frieze. To the sides are panels of curving decoration again recalling ancient Roman armour (this decoration has been described as strigillate, as on some ancient sarcophagi). This in turn is flanked by a pair of snakes, companions to the one on the garden portico which you've already seen.
The interior is entirely in white -there is almost no colour, except from the heraldic banners that might be displayed. Scholars from the Renaissance onwards were deluded into thinking that Classical buildings and statuary were all in white -utterly false, but a very convenient falsehood nevertheless.
The often fantastic stucco decorations were all designed by Piranesi.
The counterfaçade records repairs done to the church after it was hit by French artillery during the suppression of the Roman Republic in 1849.
Each of the side walls of the nave has an arcade of four arches, separated by ribbed Ionic pilasters which support an entablature that runs around the church. The frieze of the entablature has rosettes and acanthus leaves.
The barrel-vaulted ceiling springs from this entablature, and is cut by four triangular window lunettes on each side. The window lunettes contain tondi showing relief portraits of the Apostles, embellished with garlands. The central ceiling panel has a very intricate stucco panel showing an armilustrum in glory.
Some people find this church creepy, and this is because there is a serious lack of devotional imagery. In any normal Roman church, the arcade arches would contain side chapels or altars. Here they do not, but the arched niches contain various sepulchral monuments with Piranesi stucco ornaments above. Some of these memorials are mediaeval, but have been given 17th or 18th century fittings. They are described anticlockwise, beginning from the right of the entrance.
The first niche on the right contains a memorial to bishop Baldassare Spinelli, 15th century. It has a re-used 3rd century ancient Roman sarcophagus, with a high relief frontal showing Minerva and the Muses.
The second niche on the right is the tomb of Piranesi, buried here. His statue depicts him as a Roman patrician in his toga, and is by Giuseppe Angelini 1780.
The third niche on the right has a memorial to Grand Master Galeas von Thun und Hohenstein, 1931 with a bust. He takes much of the credit for organizing the Order's modern charitable activities. The monument uses carved marble pluteus slabs which look 10th century.
The fourth niche on the right is the tomb of Monsignor Bartolomeo Carafa, who died in 1405. The memorial was executed by Paolo Romano, with a prone effigy. Very few works by this Roman sculptor have been preserved.
The fourth niche on the left contains a lush Baroque monument to Cardinal Joaquín Fernández de Portocarrero, 1760 by Luigi Salmeni. The work is based on a grey marble obelisk panel, and features a portrait of the deceased being played with by putti. The portrait is one of the few spots of colour in the church.
The third niche on the left has a monument to Riccardo Caracciolo, re-using another ancient Roman sarcophagus with panelled decoration. It is 15th century, with a recumbent effigy.
The second niche on the left contains an interesting cubical piece of carved stonework which is claimed to be a Byzantine ciborium or altar of the 12th century. Note the peacocks on the front.
The first niche on the left has a memorial to Sergio Serpando 1465 with another recumbent effigy.
The sanctuary bay has its own vault, focusing on an oculus surrounded by stucco decoration which includes eight medallions depicting scenes from the life of Our Lady. The oculus throws natural light on to the altar.
The spectacular high altar, made of stucco, has a statue group depicting The Glory of St Basil. It is by Tommaso Righi, to a design by Bernini. The altar itself has strigilate decoration surrounding an oval aperture, as if some saint was enshrined here (who?). The sculpture is based on a sarcophagus, into which is inserted a globe on which St Basil is sitting, accompanied by angels and putti. Below there is a medallion showing a relief of Our Lady accompanied by the Christ-Child and the infant St John the Baptist.
Each side wall of the sanctuary has a pair of ribbed Ionic columns, flanking a doorway into the convent. Above this is a relief of an ornately decorated sarcophagus, and then a tablet with an epigraph extolling the patronage of Cardinal Rezzonico on the one hand, and Pope Clement on the other. Inserted into the apex of the lunette is another tondo depicing an apostle.
The apse behind the altar contains the throne of the Grand Master. The apse wall has more Corinthian columns supporting an entablature on which the conch rests. Below the latter are the final two apostles, making a total of twelve. The conch is treated so that it looks as if an enormous scallop shell has been laid over a coffered vault in octagons with rosettes. The scallop contains the full coat-of-arms of Cardinal Rezzonico.
In the floor there are surviving mediaval tomb-slabs, one with an effigy.
The church is not open to casual visitors, not even for an entrance fee. There are two ways to get in:
Join a guided tour. These are available online, so do a search for "Maria del Priorato" "visita guidate" for details. Be warned that these can be expensive. You have to pay for the tour, and also for the admission that the Knights levy. Certain of the tours are by organizations which require a membership fee on top of that (!).
Apply to the Knights at their headquarters at Via dei Condotti 68. Contact details are here. This has to be done in advance; in the past, visits could be arranged on Saturday mornings and cost nothing, but both of these points are obviously liable to change.
If you are visiting Rome on a trip or holiday, you need to sort the details of your visit out beforehand, in good time, in order to avoid disappointment.
Nolli map (look for 1075) (Before Piranesi.)