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Santa Maria dell' Orto is a 16th century guild church with a fabulous Baroque interior at Via Anicia 10 in Trastevere. Pictures of the church on Wikimedia Commons are here. There is an English Wikipedia page here.
The dedication is to the Blessed Virgin Mary, under a special title of "Our Lady of the Garden".
This church is a late 15th century foundation, and began as a result of popular devotion to an icon of Our Lady.
The story is that a small-holder in Trastevere (not then completely built up within the city walls) was cured of a serious illness after making a private vow to her, and as a result put up an icon next to the gate into his land (orto means "garden", but also "smallholding" or a small farm). This was venerated by the locals and miracles were reported, which led to the construction of a small devotional chapel. The date of this is uncertain, but 1488 has been claimed as the foundation year (the first documentary reference to the chapel is 1494).
In 1492 Pope Alexander VI gave a charter to the new Fraternità di Santa Maria dell'Orto, which was a guild inviting membership from professional people working on smallholdings. As well as market gardeners, the membership included craftsmen and pork butchers; the latter could raise their own pigs for slaughter, and so counted as smallholders.
The brotherhood wished to build a full-sized church, and initiated the project in 1489. The original architect, who proposed a plan based on a Greek cross with a central dome, is unknown.
Work stopped in 1513, presumably because money ran out, but resumed a decade later and the church was finally consecrated (although not finished) in 1524. In this period the architect may have been Sebastiano da Como, who was paid for his services despite his lack of architectual experience.
Then there was another hiatus, during which Giulio Romano contributed designs, and finally the finishing period of building activity took place between 1542 and 1563. A student of Michelangelo called Guidetto Guidetti was the architect (also responsible for Santa Caterina dei Funari), and he recognised that the previous work was sub-standard for the purpose of providing a dome (always beware of amateur architects). So, he converted the plan to that of a Latin cross and inserted cross-vaulting instead of a dome.
The façade was begun by Giacomo Barozzi da Vignola, who received geometric assistance from Giovanni Giovannoni. It was completed by Francesco da Volterra in 1577. Final internal decorations were completed in 1579.
The building project was not realized by the confraternity alone, but was a joint effort with several guilds or Università of professional people in the retail and craft trades. Women were members as well, unusually. The traditional number of guilds was thirteen, invoking Christ and the twelve apostles obviously.
In 1588 the brotherhood was given the status of an Archconfraternity. This ran an hospital for its members, offered dowries for poor unmarried women (who had to be "honest" as well), and accumulated substantial property in the 17th century which was the time of its greatest prosperity.
The association of the church with the Catholics of Japan is an old one. Before the Japanese ruling establishment decided on a policy of destroying Christianity in the country (the first Japanese martyrs were in 1597), a delegation came to Rome in 1585. This was the so-called Tenshō Embassy, which consisted of four young noblemen.
As part of the reception, they were treated to a trip down the Tiber to the open sea. A storm put the party in serious danger, and they invoked Our Lady of the Garden because they had visited this church before embarking. The storm ceased, and this gave rise to the tradition of celebrating Mass with the Japanese expatriate community on 8 June, the anniversary of the event.
One of the delegation was Julian Nakaura (Nakaura Jurian), who was tortured to death as a Jesuit priest in 1633 and later beatified. An icon of him is in the church.
The prosperity of the archconfraternity allowed it to commission Baroque decorative elements in fresco and stucco work which make up the luscious sumptiousness of the interior today. The first stage of an ambitious makeover project for the interior were drawn up in 1699 by Luigi Barattone, and completed by 1706. This involved the apse, transept and side aisles. Then, Gabriele Valvassori continued work on the nave which was completed in 1730. Simone Giorgini and Leonardo Retti were responsible for the stucco figures, and Nicolangelo Aldini with Giuseppe Bilancioni were responsible for the garlands of fruit and flowers which are such a prominent feature of the church's interior.
The frescoes were added by Giuseppe Andrea Orazi, Giacinto Calandrucci, Andrea Procaccini and Giovanbattista Parodi. Valvassori was also responsible for the floor, laid in 1747 in a unified geometric pattern.
There was a restoration of the church in 1825, sponsored by the guild of millers (Università dei Molinari).
The Roman Republic of 1849 proved a disaster, since the hospital was closed and never re-opened. In 1852 the Papal government took over the empty hospital building for a tobacco factory, and used the original garden for an extension (tobacco was a government monopoly).
Most of Archconfraternity's remaining property was sequestered by the Italian government after the fall of the Papal government in 1870, but it managed to avoid suppression and remained in possession of the church.
It had to repair serious damage in 1891, caused by an explosion of 225 metric tons of gunpowder stored at a fort at Pozzo Pantaleo on the Via Portuense.
The 20th century saw a decline in the fortunes of the edifice, engendered by the Archconfraternity's loss of income. The surrounding area became dominated by industry and secular institutions, and in the 1950's the Archconfraternity closed the church except for occasional Masses. Serious damage was done to the fabric by nearby building operations, and the church was almost lost.
However, a restoration was begun in 1984 to prevent collapse. Work continued, with interruptions owing to funding problems, until the start of the new century. The building is now mostly in good condition, and has been regularly open since 2008.
It is justified pastorally by being used by the expatriate Japanese Catholic community, although it is not yet listed as a national church and no regular liturgical events in Japanese are advertised.
Layout and fabricEdit
The church has a plan of a Latin cross, and is a straightforward edifice of a nave of three bays with side aisles, followed by a transept and then a sanctuary of a single bay with a semi-circular apse. The ends of the transepts also have apses containing chapels, and there are three rectangular external chapels off each side aisle. Hence, there is a total of eight side chapels.
The fabric is in brick. The nave and transept are under the same pitched and tiled roof. The short presbyterium has a roof at a slightly lower level.
There is no campanile, but on the end of the left transept is an interesting bellcote designed like a miniature ancient Roman triumphal arch. There are three arches for the bells, two small ones and the central one larger, and four engaged derivative Corinthian columns on each side. The composition is crowned by a triangular pediment.
Unfortunately, the building of a large school opposite in the 19th century means that it is difficult to get a good view of the wide two-storey façade in its entirety.
The building material is red brick, with architectural details in travertine. The composition is
dominated by the entrance propylaeum, which has a pair of large stone Ionic columns in the round, supporting an entablature and a segmental pediment which intrudes into the upper storey. The propylaeum is brought forward from the plane of the façade, and within it is a recessed arch containing the actual doorway. The latter has plain moulding, and the former a pair of brick Doric pilasters fitting against the columns. The tympanum of the arch is empty (except for the standard coat of arms of the diocese), and the stone capitals of the pilasters are extended across the façade as a string course. The entablature of the propylaeum is also extended in the same way to provide the entablature of the first storey, and its frieze bears a dedicatory inscription. The cornice is denticulate.
To either side of the propylaeum are three Ionic brick pilasters, irregularly spaced. Between the first two on either side are the aisle doors, smaller with triangular pediments. Above these is a pair of lunette windows, and four blank round-headed niches complete the ensemble.
The second storey has four Corinthian brick pilasters supporting an architrave and cornice only, with an undersized triangular pediment over the inner two only. There is a large round-headed window in a rectangular frame, and above this is a clock face. These features are 19th century, and replace an oculus. A pair of blank round-headed niches are inserted between the pilasters.
On the roofline are several "obelisk" finials (actually elongated pyramids), probably added in 1762. There are three on each side over the first storey and five shorter ones on top of the second, making a total of eleven.
The church interior is incredibly lush, and has beautiful frescoes and stucco work as well as polychrome marble revetting. Most of the stucco is gilded. Garlands and swags are everywhere, recalling the church's dedication.
The interior has a social historical witness, as it demonstrates the existnce of a confident and wealthy middle-class in Rome at the time of its creation. There is a refreshing lack of the bombastic funerary memorials, heraldic totems and coats-of-arms that the Roman nobility liberally displayed in other churches.
The short nave has three bays with arcades. The arches are separated by gigantic Ionic pilasters with swagged capitals, which support an entablature which runs around the interior. The barrel-vaulted ceiling springs from this. There are three large rectangular windows in each nave side wall, the tops set into triangular lunettes in the vault.
The arcade archivolts spring from Doric imposts, have garlands on their intradoses and more vegetation in their spandrels. Over the central arch on each side are plaques proclaiming that "The Guild of Small Shopkeepers Did This" (Università dei Pizzicaroli fece fare).
The ornate ceiling has a central fresco panel showing an Assumption by Calandrucci of 1707. The impressive stucco work was executed by Gabriele Valvassori, and includes more plaques mentioning the shopkeepers.
Over the entrance is the organ gallery, the instrument itself dating from the middle of the 19th century. The case is spectacular, being in the form of an ancient triumphal arch with four Ionic semi-columns separating three archways (the central one larger). On top are two stucco angels playing trumpets. The solid gallery balustrade has a central panel with an epigraph proclaiming the restoration by the millers in 1825, and to the sides are two interesting landscapes of the Tiber waterfront dating from that restoration. Appropriately, they feature floating flour-mills driven by the river current.
The entrance doorcase in walnut was installed in 1784 by the millers.
The floor is worth examining. The entire church was paved in one design by Valvassori, and the high-quality white and grey marble geometric floor that resulted displays epigraphs from several of the guilds associated with the church. One of these, in the central nave, proclaims the guild of small shopkeepers yet again, with the year 1756. This is when the floor was finished; it was actually begun in 1747, and different guilds paid for various sections of it over the nine years that it took to raise the money. You can see the various years of completion of these sections in the other guild epigraphs elsewhere.
The triumphal arch of the transept has an exceptionally lush festoon on its archivolt. Above, there are two putti holding a ribbon that reads DeiparaTriumphanti "to the triumphant Mother of God". They are accompanied by two allegorical figures alluding to attributes of Our Lady. The one on the right holds the Rod of Aaron and has the sun-disc on her breast, while the one on the left holds a mandolin (a psalterium), and is accompanied by a lamb. The assemblage is by Leonardo Retti.
Above these figures is a large tablet proclaiming not only "the shopkeepers did this", but also "and they paid for it" -just to make sure you got the message after all.
The crossing of the transept has a shallow little saucer cupola on pendentives. The frescoes here were joint efforts in 1706 by Giuseppe and Andrea Orazi of 1706. The main cupola fresco shows The Immaculate Conception surrounded by stucco cherubs frolicking in the vegetation, and the pendentives show The Virtues of Our Lady. The design of the stucco work is by Barattone, and executed by Leonardo Reti and Simone Giorgini.
In the floor below is the best of the guild floor epigraphs. This one belonged to the guild of fruit-sellers (Università dei Fruttaroli) 1747, and is a spectacular piece of pietra dura work involving yellow Siena marble and a wreath containing the various fruits then on offer. There is quite a variety. The putti on the intrados of the sanctuary triumphal arch hold a ribbon also mentioning this guild, so presumably they paid for the decoration of the crossing.
The sanctuary has a single bay, with an apse and an arched recess in each side wall. The altar aedicule is against the far wall, and above it is a window in the conch with mostly clear glass but containing 18th century stained glass showing the Marian monogram made up of orange tree foliage and fruit.
The apse wall is divided into two registers by a cornice. The fresco scheme which completely covers it and the conch above is a joint effort by Federico Zuccari and Taddeo Zuccari, who were brothers. It dates from 1556. The wall panels show scenes from the life of Our Lady, with her marriage to Joseph and the Nativity to the left, and the Visitation and escape to Egypt to the right. The latter is unusual, for it features two angels bending tree branches down for the Christ-Child to play with. This is not part of the iconographic tradition for this event.
The conch has an Annunciation, with the two figures on either side of the window.
The side wall niches contain paintings by Giovanni Baglione, who also did those in the vault. To the left, the main painting shows The Annunciation to St Joseph, and the lunette above shows The Angel Warns St Joseph to Flee to Egypt. To the right, the main work is The Birth of Our Lady, and above is The Prophecy to SS Joachim and Anna (the latter were her parents, who were warned of the significance of her birth beforehand).
The vault has three panels, showing The Death of Our Lady, The Assumption and The Coronation of Our Lady in Heaven.
The aedicule has a pair of Corinthian columns in multi-coloured pavonazzetto marble, supporting an entablature and a broken and separated segmental pediment. In the gap are curlicues flanking a putto's head. The altar as a whole was designed by Valvassori, and finished in 1755. The frieze of the entablature ascribes the altar to the fruit-sellers.
On the pediment halves used to be stucco angels by Giorgini and Retti.
The altarpiece is the original 15th century fresco icon, in an elliptical tondo surrounded by a gilded glory with putti. It depicts the Madonna and Child, and has kept the jewelled crowns attached in 1657 (most venerated icons of Our Lady in the city crowned in such a way have had their crowns removed in restorations).
Because there is now an "altar pro populo" for Mass facing the congregation, the high altar is now the permanent home of an enormous Macchina delle Quarantore. This is a 213-candle candelabrum which is lit on Holy Thursday. It is a very interesting object, but obscures the altar.
The side aisles and chapels are described in an anti-clockwise order, beginning to the right of the entrance.
Right hand aisleEdit
The right hand aisle vault has three tondi, frescoed by Giuseppe and Andrea Orazi again 1708. They are, bottom to top, The Glory of Our Lady, The Glory of St Catherine and The Glory of St Bartholomew.
The counterfaçade here has a depiction of The Dream of Joseph by the same artists, 1706. The confessional dates to 1755, and has a water-mill on it as a reminder of the guild that donated it. A matching confessional is in the same place in the other aisle.
Chapel of the AnnunciationEdit
The first chapel on the right is dedicated to the Annunciation to Our Lady, and has an Annunciation of 1561 by Taddeo Zuccari as its altarpiece.
The chapel was restored in 1825 by one L. Buzzi. The two works on the side walls are by Virginio Monti, depicting St Joseph on the left (1878) and the archangel Gabriel on the right (1875). They are the result of this artist's first public commission.
Unfortunately, the fresco work in the vault has been destroyed by rain getting in.
The sponsors were the brokers (Università dei Sensali).
Chapel of St Catherine of AlexandriaEdit
The second chapel on the right is dedicated to St Catherine of Alexandria, and the altarpiece depicting her having a vision is by Filippo Zucchetti 1711. He also executed the side wall works, depicting SS Peter and Paul. The vault showing angels with symbols of martyrdom is by Tommaso Cardani, 1711.
The vault fresco has some engaging putti.
The sponsors were the pasta-makers (Università dei Vermicellai).
Chapel of SS James, Bartholomew and VictoriaEdit
The dedication of the third chapel is given as SS James, Bartholomew and Victoria. The altarpiece is a Madonna and Child with Saints by Giovanni Baglione of 1630, and on the altar itself is an icon of Bl Julian Nakaura.
He also executed The Martyrdom of St Andrew to the left, and The Martyrdom of a Deacon (it is not clear which saint this is) on the right.
The vault is 19th century, and presumably depicts St Victoria with angels because the female saint in the central tondo is holding the palm of martyrdom.
The sponsors were the vine-dressers (Università dei Vignaioli).
Chapel of the CrucifixEdit
The right hand end of the transept is the Chapel of the Crucifixion, with an altarpiece crucifix on the 17th century. The scenes from the Passion depicted in the apse are by Nicolò Trométta (Da Pesaro), 1595.
The vault fresco here is of the Resurrection, by Calandrucci 1703 who also did the angels holding the Instruments of the Passion on the arch intrados and in the conch. The tondo over the doorway in the far wall depicts Pentecost, by Andrea Procaccini with stucco angels by Retti.
The sponsors were the chicken-sellers (Università dei Pollaroli).
A curious part of the decoration is said to be a beautifully carved turkey. It was placed here in the 18th century by the Guild of Chicken-sellers, to commemorate the arrival of the first turkey from America.
Chapel of St Francis of AssisiEdit
The left hand end of the transept is a chapel dedicated to St Francis of Assisi. The altarpiece is a 17th century statue of him, and the frescoes showing scenes from his life are by Trométta again. The vault showing The Glory of St Francis is by Mario Garzi, early 17th century. The far wall tondo depicts SS Joachim and Anne, and is by Procaccini again with more angels by Retti.
The sponsors were the millers (Università dei Molinari).
Chapel of SS Ambrose and CharlesEdit
The third chapel on the left is dedicated to SS Ambrose and Charles Borromeo. This chapel was also restored by Buzzi in 1825. The altarpiece by Baglione depicts the two saints with the Madonna and Child, the third saint being St Bernardine. He also painted St Ambrose restraining a maddened horse on the right wall, and St Charles visiting plague sufferers on the left. These three works were executed in 1641.
God the Father is depicted in the vault.
The sponsors were the slipper-makers (Università dei Ciabattini).
Chapel of St John the BaptistEdit
The second chapel on the left is dedicated to St John the Baptist. The altarpiece depicts The Baptism of Christ, and is by Corrado Giaquinto 1750. The side wall paintings are by Giuseppe Ranucci 1750, and show the saint preaching to the right, and being beheaded to the left.
The sponsors were the shopkeepers (Università dei Pizzicaroli).
Chapel of St SebastianEdit
The first chapel on the left is dedicated to St Sebastian. The paintings are by Baglione, with the saint in the altarpiece, St Anthony of Padua to the right and St Bonaventure to the left. These were executed in 1624.
The sponsors were the gardeners (Università dei Hortolani).
Left hand aisleEdit
The right hand aisle vault has three tondi, frescoed by Giovanni Battista Parodi. They are, bottom to top, The Glory of St Sebastian, The Glory of St John the Baptist and The Glory of St Charles.
The counterfaçade here has a fresco of The Adoration of the Shepherds by Giuseppe and Andrea Orazi.
The carved marble holy water stoup here dates from the end of the 15th century, and has a representation of the Madonna and Child on the bowl. It is thought to have come from the original devotional chapel which this church replaced.
The church is a little tricky to find; the easiest way is to get the number 8 tram to Piazza Mastai, exit that piazza by the north-east corner (Via della Luce), then take the first right twice.
As at July 2014, the church's website illustrates a general problem with trying to find out when Rome's churches are open. The Italian and English versions have different opening times!
The church is open (EXCEPT July and August): Weekdays 9:00 to 13:00, Sundays 10:00 to 12:00. (Note that there is no afternoon opening advertised on the English version of the church's website.)
The church is open: Weekdays 9:30 to 12:30, 15:30 to 18:30. No mention of summer or Sundays.
The owner of the church is the Arciconfraternita di Santa Maria dell'Orto (Brotherhood of St. Mary of the Garden), which is responsible for all aspects of its administration. For further information and elucidation you can try e-mailing:
Mass is celebrated on Sundays at 11:00.
This is the last church in Rome to have a Macchina delle Quarantore on Holy Thursday, which is an enormous 213-candle candelabrum lit before the altar.
The feast-day of Our Lady of the Garden is the third Sunday in October. For the celebration the church is decked out with fruit and vegetables, and apples are blessed and distributed at the end of Mass.