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Foundation of nunneryEdit
The convent here was originally founded in 1601 by a noble lady called Francesca Baglioni Orsini of Perugia. She was a daughter of Caterina de' Medici and a niece of Pope Clement VII, and had been married into the Orsini family before being widowed. Her intention at first was to target vocations from noble ladies of Rome who had fallen into poverty, and so she chose the monastic rule followed by the Visitation nuns founded by SS Francis of Sales and Jane Frances de Chantal. This was deliberately composed to be less severe than the rules of the older female monastic orders.
The convent was finished in 1613 (the identity of the architect seems to be unrecorded). In 1625 Francesca died, and left the convent an enormous legacy. As a result it became one of the richest nunneries in Rome, and also one of the most fashionable. This was especially since it restricted itself to noble vocations, and so attracted further patronage from the aristocracy -as well as generous dowries.
The dedication chosen was to the Assumption of Our Lady.
Expansion of nunneryEdit
A new church was built between 1641 and 1646 for the community, the architect being Paolo Marucelli. This did not replace the former church, which was kept as a convent choir chapel or oratory without any public access.
The nunnery expanded to take up the entire city block bounded by the Via dell'Umiltà, Vicolo del Monticello, Piazza della Pilotta and Via dell'Archetto. The church was in the north-east corner of the convent site, with a rather small cloister to the west having arcades on all four sides. A series of gardens occupied the Vicolo del Monticello frontage.
Major work was done on beautifying the interior by Francesco Cavallini from 1684 for about two years. Then, in 1703 Carlo Fontana built a superb façade (which was to be a grievous loss in the 19th century).
In 1756, there was a restoration under Clemente Orlandi (1694-1775), a native Roman architect whose masterpiece is San Paolo Primo Eremita.
The nunnery was suppressed in the Napoleonic period, and unusually was not re-opened after the papal government was restored. It was not part of a congregation that could have sponsored a re-founding, and obviously the local nobility had lost interest in it.
The freehold devolved to the Holy See, which entrusted the property to the College of Propaganda Fide. They in turn leased it to a community of Visitation nuns in 1814, since it had lost its former convent of Sant'Anna dei Falegnami in 1810.
In 1849, the nuns were brutally ejected without warning by anti-clerical radicals on the declaration of the Roman Republic. They did not return, but instead settled at the Villa Mills (now the museum) on the Palatine Hill in 1856. They are now at Madonna di Guadalupe e San Francesco di Sales in Collatino, since 1940.
North American CollegeEdit
The convent complex remained empty for ten years. Then, in 1859, it was given to the North American College by Pope Pius IX, after this seminary for United States candidates for the priesthood had been founded in that year.
The complex was immediately put in proper order, and the convent buildings modified. The church suffered an extremely unfortunate restoration by Andrea Busiri Vici, who mutilated the façade. The College then based itself here for almost a century.
Casa Santa MariaEdit
All seminaries for expatriate students in Rome were shut down for the duration of the Second World War. The North American College was re-opened in 1947, by which time the Church was experiencing a boom in vocations. As a result to old college premises were now inadequate, so a new set of college buildings was built on the Janiculum and opened in 1953.
The former convent was kept by the College, as a hall of residence for United States priests studying in Rome. It has performed this function ever since, as the Casa Santa Maria.
Layout and fabricEdit
This is a small church, on a simple rectangular plan with a little square apse and four side niches functioning as chapels, two on each side. The exterior is inserted into one wing of the convent, and so is invisible from the street.
There is a campanile, erected in 1655 over the right hand side wall. It is in the form of two little triumphal arches, one on top of the other; the lower has two archways, and the upper just one. Over the upper arch is a little triangular pediment. The three bells fit into the arches.
Façade by FontanaEdit
The façade was designed by Carlo Fontana in 1680, after a commission by Pope Innocent XI. A watercolour of it by Achille Pinelli, 1835 is here (as always with this artist, the architectural details and proportions are not entirely correct).
It had a single storey, dominated by two pairs of gigantic Corinthian pilasters on two shared high plinths, with the outer pilaster of each pair doubletted along its outer edge. These pilasters supported an entablature which was brought forward slightly over their capitals. This in turn supported two halves of a split semi-circular pediment, with the halves reversed so that the division faced outwards. This was a major design innovation by Fontana.
The ends of these pediment halves had curlicues. In between them was a vertical elliptical window, framed by curlicues and with a plinth finial on top bearing a cross. The pediment halves also had a pair of finials, these being flaming torches.
Over the single entrance was a large panel containing a bas-relief of The Assumption by Vincenzo Felici, which he finished in 1708. Over that was a rectangular window, with an acanthus leaf motif on sill and lintel. This fitted under the entablature.
Façade by Busiri ViciEdit
The intervention by Andrea Busiri Vici in 1853 resulted in the façade being now rather boring. He left the pilasters alone, but chopped off the pediment fragments and elliptical window to
replace them with a standard triangular pediment without finials. Also he enlarged the central rectangular window, removing the acanthus decorations and intruding it into the entablature. Thankfully, he did not disturb the Felici relief which is the only thing worth examining there now.
The writer has not visited the church recently, and available descriptions of the interior are limited. Unfortunately, some are also erroneous. Any resident priest reading this is welcome to correct the text as given here.
Even better, the College could put an illustrated description of the church on their rather disappointing website.
The interior has a rectangular layout, with a single nave and a small apse. The nave has a total of five bays of different length, three small ones starting from the entrance interspersed with two large ones. Each of the two small bays further in has a statue of a saint in an arched niche in each side wall, a total of four in all. These statues are over side doors.
Each of the large bays has an arched niche doing duty as a side chapel, with a grille into the nuns' galleries above.
The bays are separated by gigantic Ionic pilasters, supporting an entablature that runs round the church. The interior surfaces are richly covered in revetting done in polychrome marble, Sicilian jasper and alabaster and there is also much gilded stucco work. The effect of this work is very rich. It was initially effected by Fontana in 1710, completed by his pupil Alessandro Dori in 1737 and embellished by Orlandi in 1756.
The organ case is one of the most beautiful in Rome, and was designed by Dori. The organ itself was installed in 1868.
The apse has a triumphal arch with an archivolt embellished with festoons on its intrados, sandwiched between two gigantic Ionic pilasters with gilded capitals and revetted in alabaster. The archivolt and sanctuary barrel vault are gilded; the latter features the Dove of the Holy Spirit.
The high altar was designed by Martino Longhi the Younger in the period 1640 to 1646. It has two Composite columns in pink marble, supporting a split segemental pediment with modillions (little brackets). Into the pediment is intruded a painting of Our Lady during her Assumption, which is sheltered by a floating arc cornice (also with modillions) which is fitted into the curve of the barrel vault.
There are two altarpieces. Just above the altar table is a depiction of the Apostles at Our Lady's Empty Tomb, which pairs with the depiction of her in the pediment. This has a frame in yellow Siena marble. Above it is a vertical elliptical tondo flanked by a pair of stucco angels, and this contains a little 19th century icon of Our Lady of Humility. The icon is supported by gilded putti and is crowned by a gilded sunburst containing the Dove.
The icon is a subject of devotion on the part of the Casa residents, but looks oddly bleached out. Artistically it is of no interest.
The pair of oils making up the Assumption have an old but dubious ascription to Francesco Nappi.
The side walls of the sanctuary have statues of St Mary Magdalen and St Catherine of Alexandria by Francesco Cavallini. He was also responsible for the stucco angels in the altar, and decorative details elsewhere.
The first chapel on the right is the Cappella Colonna, paid for by the dowry of a nun from that wealthy family called Anna. The dedication is to the Crucifix. The architect was Pietro Vecchiarelli, 1685. The sumptuous stucco work was by Cavallini; note that one of the two angels is holding a column in honour of the family.
The second chapel on the right is dedicated to St Dominic. The altarpiece is a copy of the famous icon of the saint at Soriano Calabro. This and the other paintings are of the school of Francesco Allegrini da Gubbio. (Another version of the Soriano icon is at San Sisto Vecchio.)
The second chapel on the left is dedicated to St Michael the Archangel, and the altarpiece depicting him conquering the Devil is by Allegrini.
The writer forgets what the first chapel on the left is.
Access and liturgyEdit
The church is always closed to the general public. It is apparently possible to arrange a visit by applying to the North American College. Details are not advertised.
Masses here are private, celebrated by the priests in residence. However this is still a church, not a private chapel. It is worth asking if you can attend the solemn celebration of Mass on Sunday at 11:00.
"De Alvariis" gallery on Flickr (no photos of interior)
The following blogs have photos of the interior: