Santa Maria dell'Archetto is a 19th century devotional church at Via di San Marcello 41, in the rione Trevi. Picture of the church on Wikimedia Commons are here. There is an English Wikipedia page here.
The official name is actually Santa Maria Causa Nostrae Laetitiae (note that this is a combination of Italian and Latin), but the Diocese recognizes Madonna dell'Archetto as an alternative. This is unusual, because the Diocese apparently disapproves of the use of the word Madonna in church names.
This is certainly the Smallest Church in Rome. Its status as a church is official -this is not a chapel or oratory. (Sorry, info.roma -you are wrong.)
This church was built to commemorate a miraculous event associated with one of the many street icons of Our Lady in Rome called Madonnelle.
Famously, for centuries the streets of the Centro Storicio have been embellished with icons of Our Lady set above the first storeys of the domestic edifices fronting onto them. In 1853 Alessandro Rufini listed 2739 of these, but in 1994 Sissi Aslan counted only 639.
The major motivation for their provision was, of course, popular piety and it is noticeable that the grander buildings tend to lack them. However, another consideration derived from the fact that Rome lacked any sewerage system until the late 19th century. People habitually urinated and defecated in the streets, and one effective way that property owners could protect the fabric of their buildings was to provide a Madonnella. Nobody would dare to perform a nuisance under one of these, because of the fear that Our Lady would do something horrible to the bodily organ being thus employed.
Before the mid 19th century, there was a very narrow alleyway or vicolo called the Vicolo dell'Archetto, which ran between the Via di San Marcello and the Via dell'Archetto. To the south was the Palazzo Muti, which occupied the entire city block. This building (not to be confused with the Palazzo Muti Papazzurri) is also called the Palazzo Balestra, because that is the name carved over the entrance. Balestra is Italian for "crossbow", and the suggestion is made that this is where archetto ("little bow") comes from. Perhaps.
The vicolo had an archway about three-quarters of the way along from the west, which is on the Nolli map of 1748 and which seems to have carried a walkway from the Palazzo Muti to the building to the north of the alley.
In 1690 Alessandra Mellini the Marchesa (Marchioness) Muti Papuzzuri-Savorelli, who lived at the palace, commissioned an icon from Domenico Maria Muratori. He painted this in oils on a big tile (tegolone), 58 by 50 centimetres; the work has been described as maiolica (white tin-glazed earthenware decorated with metallic colours), but is not. It depicts a head-and-shoulders view of Our Lady as a teenager, without the Christ-Child.
Muratori copied a painting executed by someone described as a Capuchiness nun of the Barberine called Ersilia Millini. This is confused; the Capuchinesses were at Santa Maria della Concezione delle Cappuccine (the Farnesiane), but the Barberine were at Incarnazione del Verbo Divino and were Carmelites.
The icon was not apparently originally in the Vicolo dell'Archetto archway. But it must have been somewhere public, because in 1696 it was seen to move its eyes. Then the Marchioness had it moved to the archway, where it became the focus of popular devotion and many pilgrims came to venerate it including St Benedict Joseph Labre. In 1751, gates were erected at either end of the vicolo to protect the ex-voto offerings left for Our Lady. The image was by then known as Maria Santissima Causa Nostrae Laetitiae.
On 9 July 1796, the most famous miracle took place. One Antonio Ambrosini, described as maestro di cappello, saw the image close its eyes, and then open them again. Others with him saw the same. Several other icons in the city (allegedly twenty-five or so) were reported as also having blinked, and this was taken as a warning that something bad was about to happen. The French occupied the city two years later.
Foundation of churchEdit
In the mid 19th century, it was decided to build a proper shrine. This took the form of a tiny church fitted into the alleyway, designed by Virginio Vespagniani in a purist Neo-Classical style. The sponsors were Caterina and Alessandro Muti Papuzzuri-Savorelli, descendents of the original patron of the icon, and the project was completed in 1851. The church was inaugurated on 31 May in that year, but for some reason was not opened to the public until 1859.
In 1870, the sanctuary was given into the care of the Primaria Associazione Cattolica Promotrice di Buone Opere in Roma ("Principal Catholic Association for the Promotion of Good Works in Rome"), founded by Domenico Maria Jacobini with others and approved Pope Pius IX in the following year. The shrine remains the association's headquarters, and their major work is in administering it.
In 1946, the icon was solemnly crowned. This involved fixing a jewelled plate to it in the form of a crown, and was a ceremony performed on many famous Roman icons of Our Lady until the mid 20th century. Since then, the practice has fallen completely out of favour and most such crowns have been removed -including the one here. However, Our Lady has been allowed to keep her little golden pectoral cross and chain.
The icon's popularity has meant that several of the city's Madonnelle are copies of it. Further, a modern parish church is dedicated to it -Santa Maria Causa Nostrae Laetitiae.
The church is incorporated into a larger building, and only has an exterior identity at the entrance.
The alley has high walls on either side, and the little façade is fitted in between these. A pair of Doric pilasters, cut by the side walls, supports an entablature fragment with modillions (little brackets) on its cornice. Into the rectangle thus created is inserted an arch springing from Doric imposts, and with its tympanum embellished with wrought iron work displaying the monogram AM for Ave Maria.
Above the entablature is a tablet with an epigraph composed by the Jesuit archaeologist Giuseppe Marchi, which reads:
Mariae Dominae Nostrae, Alexander Mutius, de Pappaciurris March[esus], antea Savorellius Comes, cellula ampliata, tholo superstructo, a fund[amentis] refecit, exornavit an[no] a[ctionis] p[artus] V[irginis] MDCCCLI.
"To Mary our Lady, Alexander Muti, Marquis of Pappazzurri formerly Count Savorelli, the little shrine having been extended and a dome built on top, restored and decorated it from the foundations in the year since the Virgin gave birth 1851."
(Beware of Armellini's published transcription of 1891. It's wrong. The above is correct, as it was copied in situ.)
The church's campanile is absolute minimalism, since the bells are simply hung from the cornice.
The church has a little single nave, of four bays. The two middle bays are consolidated, and here are two wide arched side niches, one on each side. The entrance and far bays each have a pair of statues in arched niches in their side walls, depicting caryatids holding flower vases. These, and the others in the sanctuary, were executed by Luigi Simonetti.
The ceiling is barrel-vaulted, in three sections with the wider central one over the double bays. It has gilded stucco decorations, with angels, putti and symbols of the Blessed Virgin as well as the coat-of-arms of the Savorelli family.
The floor is laid in polychrome marble.
The sanctuary is a little circular space, with a crowning dome on four diagonal piers each of which contains a niche with another caryatid statue by Simonetti. The polychrome floor here is very good.
The dome by Constantino Brumidi is interesting, historically, architecturally and because of its images of the Blessed Virgin. The frescoes on the pendentives depict allegories of the virtues of Our Lady: Prudence, Wisdom, Strength and Innocence. The coffered interior of the dome has eight sectors, with four oculi (circular windows, two of them blind) in the larger sectors and beautiful small frescoes of winged angels in the others. In the centre is an image of the Immaculate Conception.
Brumidi is obscure in Italy, but in the USA he is well-known for the fresco work that he executed in the Capitol at Washington DC. Amazingly, he executed the work in this church while awaiting trial for looting church property during the Roman Republic. The republic had been set up when Pope Pius IX had been overthrown as temporal ruler in Rome in 1848, and was suppressed by the French in 1850. Apparently Brumidi avoided prosecution on the understanding that he emigrate, so he went to the USA and spent the rest of his life frescoing the Capitol then under construction (he died in 1880, with the work incomplete).
The fresco panels in the nave vault and the side arch intradoses are also by him. He used a wax encaustic technique, which unfortunately has not endured well in places -as the visitor can see.
The altar is in a little apse, with a further two caryatids in side niches. It has two Doric columns in alabaster, on the capitals of which are a pair of posts with exaggerated cornices supporting a semi-circular molded archivolt. This shelters a gilded arched shrine containing the icon, the tympanum of which has the Ave Maria monogram in a glory.
The church is open from 18:00 to 20:00 daily.
The only access to the church is from the Via di San Marcello, not from the Via dell'Archetto. Look for an alley on the east side, with an iron railing gate which is kept locked when the church is closed. The church is at the end of the alley.
In the Via dell'Archetto, you will find a gap in the street frontage guarded by some wrought iron railings erected when the church was built.
The evening opening of the church is for the recitation of the Rosary on ordinary days, but there is Mass at 19:00 on Sundays and Solemnities.
A feast celebrating the miracle is celebrated on the second Sunday in July. Another important feast in the church is the Birth of Our Lady on 8 September.
Nolli map (Palazzo Muti is 289) (You can just make out the archway.)