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Santa Maria del Sole was the dedication of the small round 1st century BC temple in the Bocca della Verità neighbourhood, when it served as a devotional church. This is in the rione Ripa. Picture of the edifice on Wikimedia Commons here. There is an English Wikipedia article on the building as a temple, here.
The dedication was to the Blessed Virgin Mary, "of the sun".
The original temple dates to about 100 BC, and was originally dedicated to Hercules Victor (the traditional name of “Temple of Vesta” was an ignorant guess by Renaissance antiquarians). This dedication was confirmed by the discovery of part of the inscribed base of the cult statue it contained, which named the deity as Hercules Olivarius and the sculptor of the statue as Scopas Minor (a Greek).
The founder was a merchant called Marcus Octavius Herrenus, who probably dealt in olive oil since the deity was the patron of those who dealt in this commodity. He would have been able to make a fortune in the trade, since the oil was used for lamps as well as in food.
The temple was certainly of high status for its time. It was built of Greek marble and in a pure Greek style, with twenty Corinthian columns around a circular cella where the image of the deity was kept ( a temple such as this one which has a colonnaded portico on all sides is called peripteral). The large doorway faced east. This was the first marble building in Rome to have mostly survived. It was heavily restored in the reign of the emperor Tiberius, perhaps after a serious flood in AD 15.
Church of San StefanoEdit
As the church of San Stefano Rotondo, it is first mentioned in a Papal bull of 1140 issued by Pope Innocent II. It must have been converted only a short time beforehand, and according to tradition this was done by the Savelli family. (The question remains unanswerable as to how the temple had survived until then.)
The possibility of the name causing confusion with the more famous San Stefano Rotondo al Celio is obvious, but the latter church was then known as San Stefano in Celio.
To effect the conversion, the roof and entablature were demolished and the material used to wall up the spaces between the columns. The removal of the entablature was an odd thing to do structurally, but presumably the frieze bore a pagan dedicatory inscription which would have been offensive to Christians.
One column on the north side was also removed at some stage. This was possibly either to make way for an entrance to a proposed side chapel, or because some other church needed a column to make up a set (if so, it has never been traced).
The cella, however, was not demolished. So, the layout was a central circular space of very cramped dimensions, surrounded by a circular passage formed by the blocking walls between the columns. This was a very odd arrangement, and looks as if it was intended as a pilgrimage shrine rather than as a church for a congregation. If so, something holy would have been kept in the cella, and pilgrims could then walk around it in the passage and presumably look at whatever it was through holes made in the cella walls.
In the 16th century the church was renamed San Stefano delle Carrozze (of the coachmen), and in the 17th century rededicated as Santa Maria del Sole.
Early illustrations, such as Piranesi's engraving of 1748, show a small campanile or bell-cote perched on the conical roof, with a round-headed space for one bell and a crowning pediment. The entrance had another triangular pediment over the molded doorcase, surmounted in turn by a dedicatory tablet, a large rectangular window and a coat-of-arms in stucco relief which reached the roofline.
Church of Santa MariaEdit
The dedication to Santa Maria del Sole derives from a miraculous icon story which allegedly took place in 1560.
According to this, a very old lady called Geronima Latini had a brother who was rowing in a boat across the Tiber when he found a paper icon of Our Lady floating on the water. He rescued this, let it dry out and gave it to his sister who had taken private vows as a virgin. A few days later she had a vision in which the icon shone as brightly as the sun, and informed other people of this. As a result of popular devotion the icon was enshrined in this church.
The building was re-converted to an approximation of its original appearance during the French occupation by demolishing the blocking walls, substituting iron railings and removing the bell-cote. The entablature was not re-created, giving the building a degraded appearance which would have seriously offended the original builders. The building after this restoration is depicted in an engraving of 1817 by Luigi Rossini.
As a church it continued in use, until deconsecration between 1870 and 1890. The miraculous icon was then removed to the Oratorio del Santissimo Crocifisso, where it remains.
There was another restoration in 1935, which entailed the removal of any Christian fittings except some fresco fragments and an epigraph.
The original ribbed Corinthian columns were imported from Greece They are in Pentelic marble, and the capitals are Greek in style. Some of the latter have lost their upper halves.
The AD 15 restoration is evidenced from the fact that nine columns of the original twenty and eleven capitals are not of the original Greek marble, but are of Luna marble from Tuscany. The flood must have smashed the temple.
The columns stand on a stepped crepidoma on a foundation of Grotta Oscura tufo.
Despite the secularising restoration, the now empty interior preserves a marble dedicatory plaque. Also, fragments of 14th century frescoes survive showing God the Father, Jesus Christ, Our Lady and unidentified martyrs.
Coarello, P: Rome and Environs, An Archeological Guide, English trans. UCP 2007