Santa Maria della Vittoria is a 17th century baroque church located at Via XX Settembre 17 just north-west of the Repubblica metro station, in the rione Sallustiano. It is titular and conventual, but is not listed as a minor basilica. There are two other important churches very close by: Santa Susanna and San Bernardo alle Terme. Pictures of the church at Wikimedia Commons are here. There is an English Wikipedia page here.
The dedication is to the Blessed Virgin Mary, under her title of Our Lady of Victory.
The present church is on the site of a very small but ancient chapel dedicated to St Paul, which had a hermitage attached for one hermit in the early 16th century. He justified his social existence by helping travelers caught out by darkness, bad weather and the threat of robbery. Back then, the area was entirely rural to the point where the Roman nobility used to go hunting and shooting birds hereabouts, especially in the deserted and overgrown ruins of the Baths of Diocletian nearby (now the church of Santa Maria degli Angeli). The built-up area only started to the west of the Quirinal.
A surviving example in Rome of an old traveler's refuge with chapel attached, such as this one, is at San Giovanni Battista all’Osteria del Curato.
In the reign of Pope Paul V, however, the little chapel was demolished and replaced with a bigger edifice called San Paolo alla Fontana Felice (St Paul of Felix's Fountain), after a new acqueduct which had its terminus at the fountain across the road. See Fontana dell'Acqua Felice.
Foundation of the conventEdit
The present church was built by the Discalced Carmelite Friars, who purchased the church and some land adjacent in 1607 for 1600 scudi. The initial scheme was that this new convent would be the Novitiate for the Order, or alternatively a missionary seminary.
Initially they financed the work themselves, but when clearing the foundations discovered a superb pagan statue which is now called the Borghese Hermaphrodite. Cardinal Scipione Borghese made a deal with them, whereby he obtained the statue in exchange for paying for the work. Construction by the friars started in 1608, under the direction of Carlo Maderno, but the Cardinal's architect Giovanni Battista Soria was also involved after 1624 and it was he who designed the façade.
The new convent was not the noviciate for long, as it was decided to go for the seminary option. It was at first named San Paolo after the older chapel. The convent opened in 1612, but the church was only finished in 1626.
At the battle of the White Mountain at Prague in 1620, the Imperial Austrian forces destroyed a Czech Protestant army and hence saved Bohemia for the Catholic Church. The Carmelite chaplain of the imperial army had carried an icon of the Nativity around his neck. The image was brought to Prague , and from there to Rome. It was at first taken to Santa Maria Maggiore, and from there carried in procession to San Paolo, which was still unfinished. It was then decided to dedicate the church to the Blessed Virgin, in gratitude for the victory -hence Santa Maria della Vittoria. This was done formally by Pope Innocent X.
Convent life and the seminary proved incompatible, and the latter moved out in 1662.
The 18th century saw the church decorated extremely sumptuously, with lots of gilded stucco and polychrome marble so that hardly any of the interior wall surfaces are left naked. This was especially because some of the richest of Rome's noble families sponsored the side chapels. The opus sectile work on floors and altar frontals is amazing.
During the French occupation after 1798, the convent was occupied by French troops who caused serious damage and stole anything movable of value. Worse was to follow, as on 29 June 1833 the church was very seriously damaged by a fire that started in the sanctuary. The apse frescoes were lost, and tragically the original miraculous icon was also incinerated. The friars replaced it with another German icon which they had on a wall in their convent, and this is the image to be seen now.
The surrounding suburbs grew up after 1870. In 1873 the convent was confiscated by the Italian government, and it is at present the headquarters of the national geographic survey. In 1927 the friars returned to occupy a small part of their former convent behind the church choir, and they remain in charge of the church. This has never been parochial and is at present in the parish of San Camillo de Lellis.
In the 1990's there were extensive restorations to both the interior and the exterior of the church, which is hence now in a good state of repair.
The church was made titular in 1810.
Layout and fabricEdit
This is not a large church. Its plan is based on a Latin cross, with a short nave, central dome, transepts and an apse. There is a monastic choir behind the apse, which is not accessible to visitors. Also there is a crypt, which means that the main entrance is accessible by a flight of stairs.
The edifice is on a corner site, and is hemmed in by buildings on the other two sides. The choir is invisible from the street. The side facing the Largo Santa Susanna, the left-hand side of the church, is merely rendered walling with no attempt at architectural display and is rather ugly. However, you can see here how the stone foundation plinth has shallow steps to accommodate the slope of the street. A pepperpot turret belonging to one of the nave chapels is visible, as is the squat octagonal dome. The latter has no windows in its drum, and has a pitched and tiled roof in eight sectors meeting at a lantern in the style of a little circular temple, with a lead cupola and no capitals to the pillars. There is no campanile, merely a plain bellcote with arches for two bells which is attached to the top of the left transept.
The façade is by Giovanni Battista Soria, who designed it in 1626 and extolled his patron Cardinal Scipione Borghese in the process. He was influenced by Maderno's façade on Santa Susanna, to the left across the road from this church, and it is worthwhile comparing the two.
The work is in travertine or white limestone throughout, and is in two stories. The first storey has six Ionic pilasters, two pairs either side of the entrance and a pair on the outer corners. The latter are doubled around the sides, where there is another pair where the façade meets the nave walls. The capitals of these pilasters are swagged with flowers, and above each is either a dragon or an eagle. These two creatures occur on the arms of the Borghese family. To either side of the inner pairs of pilasters is an empty round-headed niche with sunburst decoration in its conch and with a little trangular pediment above. Note that these pediments have the central parts of their lower edges recessed; this is a motif of the design, as six of the total of seven pediments on the façade share the feature. Above these niches is a pair of large flower-swags crowned by another eagle and dragon.
The main pilasters support an entablature with a rather bombastic inscription on its frieze, saying that Cardinal Scipione did this. Above the cornice of the entablature is not the second storey, but its plinth instead.
There is only one entrance, but this is unusually tall and is approached via a formal flight of steps. The lintel of the doorcase has a winged putto's head, and above this is a raised segmental pediment. This is broken in order to insert a relief copy of the original (now destroyed) icon of the Nativity. This has its own triangular pediment. The entrance as a whole has a shallow propylaeum, formed by putting two identically styled pilasters in front of the inner pair of the façade (you can see the latter peeping out from behind), bringing forward the relevant section of the entablature with its portion of the inscription and adding a large segmental pediment on top which intrudes into the second storey. The tympanum of the latter is decorated with a curlicued strap having cloth swags.
In contrast with the lower storey's propylaeum, which brings forward the central part of the façade there, the second storey's central portion is recessed. It contains a large round-headed window flanked by a pair of Doric pilasters decorated with tassels, and supporting a segmental pediment. This storey has four Corinthian pilasters supporting a blank entablature and crowning triangular pediment, the tympanum of which has the Borghese coat-of-arms. The inner pair of these pilasters is doubled in relief, to match those below.
The second storey is bound by a pair of gigantic volutes with their sweeps topped by Corinthian capitals. Rather winsomely, these volutes have a cute little dragon and an eagle sitting on them.
The crowning pediment is echoed by a gable above and behind, with balustrading having capsule-shaped apertures. The crowing finial is a wire cross, but there are two flaming torches on the outer corners and a pair of flaming urns behind these.
The nave of three bays is short, and hence feels wide. It has aisles on either side, and these contain three chapels each. Beyond is the transept, with a dome over the crossing and a large chapel at each end. The sanctuary is a large apse with a conch. Further on again beyond the apse is the friars' choir, although this is hidden away from view.
The general design is reminiscent of Maderno's earlier work at Sant'Andrea della Valle. The Baroque style was used to decorated the church later, partly through the example of Bernini's Cappella Cornaro in the left transept (see below).
The interior decoration is a good example of the Baroque style taken to its extremes, with a very good result. It is fascinating that this church is by the same architect as Santa Susanna across the road, which is in a very different style.
The nave arcade arches are separated by gigantic Corinthian pilasters with gilded capitals, and these support an entablature with an exaggerated dentillate cornice.
The ceiling barrel vault is shallow, with lunette windows. The painting in the vault depicts Mary in heaven among the angels, and the fall from heaven of the evil angels led by Lucifer. The composition is allegorical of the victorious battle in Bohemia, and is by Giovanni Domenico Cerrini. It was painted c. 1663, but the superb stucco angels and putti flitting about underneath are early 18th century. Symbolically they demonstrate the immanence of heaven to those present in the church, since they are three-dimensional and yet are part of the empyrean containing Our Lady and the angels with her.
On the counterfaçade (the interior wall above the entrance) is the organ and cantoria by Mattia de' Rossi, who worked with Bernini. A cantoria is a balcony for solo singers, and this one is shaped like a drum flanked by trapezoids. There are more angels holding it aloft, and rich scrollwork above and below the balustrade. Yet another pair of angels are seriously enjoying themselves either side of the organ, and above the latter you can just about see the stained glass window which occupies the centre of the second storey of the façade outside. Unfortunately the organ obscures it, but it is another depiction of the Nativity.
The dome fresco continues the theme of the empyrean as featured in the nave ceiling, and has the viewer staring into heaven at a host of heavenly beings. The fresco work is by Cerrini. The angels in the pendentives are later, and look faded albeit still very lush.
The miraculous icon of the Nativity was destroyed in the fire in 1833, but a copy that the friars had in their convent was brought out and is now enshrined above the high altar. It is framed by a typical gilt bronze Baroque gloria, although this was part of the 19th century restoration and was a personal gift of Prince Alexander Torlonia. It has a radiating pattern, reminiscent of a sunburst breaking through clouds.
The altar has no aedicule, and this gloria is merely backed by alabaster revetting.
The decoration of the apse walls is also 19th century, and includes a pair of very ornate foliated bronze screens covering apertures into the friars' choir behind. The two doors into this are on either side of the apse.
In the conch of the apse above the high altar is a painting of the Entrance of the Image of the Madonna into Prague, also executed in the 19th century restoration after the fire. It replaced a lost fresco by Cerrini.
The 18th century Nolli map shows that the apse used to have a square end before the 19th century restoration, not semi-circular as now.
The conventual choir is a square room behind the apse. It has a depiction of St Paul with Putti by Gherardo Olandese, a reminder of the original dedication of the church.
There is a collection of captured Ottoman Turkish battle standards in the sacristy , as well as one taken from the Moroccans by King Philip V of Spain at the Battle of Ceuta in 1415. Some of those captured at the Battle of Vienna in 1683 are here, as well as one from the Battle of Timisoara in 1662 and one from a galley captured by the Knights of Malta.
There used to be another Domenichino in here, the Madonna della Rosa.
The chapels are described anti-clockwise, beginning to the right of the entrance.
Chapel of St Teresa of LisieuxEdit
The near right hand nave chapel is now dedicated to St Teresa of Lisieux, and has an altarpiece showing her which was executed by Giorgio Szoldaticz in 1926. (This artist is more famous for his realistic female nudes.) The Corinthian columns of the aedicule are in what looks like red and white Sicilian jasper, spirally wrapped with bronze fronds.
She is the other Carmelite nun who is a Doctor of the Church, together with St Teresa of Avila.
The vault is decorated with scenes from the life of St Mary Magdalen by Giovanni Battista Mercati, of the early 16th century. The chapel was dedicated to her before 1925, and the altarpiece was by a Capuchin friar called Padre Raffaele.
Giovanni Giustiniani, who was killed during the Siege of La Rochelle in France in 1638, has a memorial to the right. The event was another occasion when Catholic military forces (here the Kingdom of France) defeated Protestant rebels (here the Huguenots ).
To the left is a monument to Enrico di Montmorency, who was a noted Huguenot rebel leader until he switched sides and became the Constable of France at the end of the 16th century.
Chapel of St FrancisEdit
The middle right hand nave chapel is dedicated to St Francis of Assisi and has paintings by Domenichino. The altarpiece has Our Lady Offering the Christ Child to St Francis, and the side walls show the Ecstasy of St Francis and St Francis Receiving the Stigmata.
Chapel of Our Lady of Mount CarmelEdit
The far right hand nave chapel is the Cappella Vidoni, and is dedicated to Our Lady of Mount Carmel.
The present marble relief altarpiece features Simon Stock, whom the Carmelites venerate as a saint although the Roman martyrology lists him only as a beatus. He is shown receiving the brown scapular from Our Lady, a mythical event created by a Carmelite forger of documents in the late Middle Ages. The sculpture is by Alfonso Balzico, 1860, and is possibly his best work.
This piece replaced a bas-relief of the Assumption with SS Jerome and John, which is now in the private oratory of the convent. It was by Pompeo Ferrucci, who also executed the monuments in here of Cardinal Girolamo Vidoni and Giovanni Vidoni (their Christian names explain the two saints in the sculpture).
Chapel of St JosephEdit
The right hand transept chapel, opposite the Ecstasy, is dedicated to St Joseph. It has a marble sculpture by Domenico Guidi, which shows the angel revealing Mary's virginal conception to St Joseph -a rather unusual subject for a sculptural group. The whole altar is inspired by the chapel opposite, and has four Corinthian columns in verde antico supporting a bowed triangular pediment with a recessed central section. The gilded rays from a hidden window is the most obvious homage to Bernini.
The bas-relief panels on either side depicting the Adoration by the Shepherds and the Flight into Egypt are by Étienne Monnot.
Under the altar is a wax effigy, containing the relics of an obscure catacomb martyr called Santa Vittoria.
Chapel of St Teresa of AvilaEdit
He was out of favour with the Papal court at the time, and was patronized here by the Cornaro family who paid for the work. They were Venetians, and hence were not very worried about what Pope Innocent X thought about Bernini. The initial patron was Cardinal Federico Cornaro, Patriarch of Venice, who wished to establish a funerary chapel for the family and paid Bernini 12000 scudi for the work -an enormous sum. The latter himself considered it his best work.
Bernini made magisterial use of the shallow transept available to him. Instead of trying for an enclosed chapel, which would not have worked, he presented the composition as a theatre facing out into the presbyterium. The altar is surmounted by a bowed propylaeum with two pairs of Corinthian columns in black and white breccia, supporting an ornate pediment with the central section recessed. This structure frames the famous sculpture, which is cleverly lit by a window hidden by the pediment. The altar frontal is a depiction of the Last Supper in gilt bronze.
On the flanking walls are two opera-boxes containing sculptured representations of members of the Cornaro family (not all by Bernini himself; some are of his school). The one on the right features the Cardinal Patriarch watching the saint having her ecstasy, while his three companions are ignoring her for their own conversation (that is how Italians behaved at the opera back then). The one on the left has a half-hidden figure to its left, and this is reputed to be a self-portrait by Bernini.
The vault of the chapel has a trompe-l'oeil fresco showing cherubs in the open sky, with the Holy Spirit descending as a dove. It is by Guid'Ubaldo Abatini. The walls are revetted with precious marbles; the pair of pilasters immediately flanking the sculpture are of verde antico.
Ecstasy of St TeresaEdit
The most famous work of art in the church can be seen in this chapel: Bernini's Ecstasy of St Teresa of Avila, executed with the rest of the chapel in 1646. It is considered one of the best Baroque sculptures in Rome, and is one of Bernini's most accomplished and well-known works. He certainly thought so himself. There is an English Wikipedia page on it. .
It is carved from a single block of Carrara marble, and is highlighted by rays of gilded stucco radiating from the window. The saint, the Spanish founder of the Discalced Carmelite nuns and a Doctor of the Church in her own right, is depicted as seated on clouds as on a bed. She is caught during an ecstasy that she described in her mystical autobiography, when she experienced an angel piercing her heart with a dart of divine love. Here she is shown as if on the point of getting out of bed, caught in her rumpled coverlet and with one bare foot on the way to the floor. The angel is standing over her, with a rather ambiguous smile and holding a gilt bronze stabbing-spear as if to pierce her again.
The rumpled cloth in which she is swathed is rather odd symbolically, but Baroque sculptors liked to demonstrate their mastery of their medium by carving folded fabric and Bernini was extremely talented at this.
Bernini was a devout Roman Catholic, and so this work demonstrates truths of the faith. The meaning behind the original vision was probably a re-enactment of the piercing of the heart of Christ by the soldier's lance as he hung on the Cross, as this was traditionally regarded as the Birth of the Church. The shedding of blood and water from the heart of Christ was taken to be the moment when the redemptive sacrifice of the Passion was completed, and hence the saint's ecstasy was an experience of joy and wonderment at this mystery of redemption.
Further, the Baroque style deliberately expressed the Catholic doctrine that mystical and spiritual aspects of religion may be experienced through all the senses, and by means of all created realities as derived from God the Creator. This was obviously a reaction to the Protestant (and especially Calvinist) wish to confine religious experience to the use of words, a position which contemporary Italians such as Bernini regarded as a mental health problem rather than a theological one. Hence, the lush sensuousness of Baroque art as expressed by this sculpture.
Protestant reactions to this work have been mostly uncomprehending and hostile, and this is only to be expected. However, even Catholics have had problems with its interpretation ever since its unveiling. The jibe that it shows an ignorant and frustrated virgin having a spontaneous orgasm, while not knowing what is happening to her, seems to have originated with 18th century French visitors and has had a long history. This opinion is simply crass, as the saint was a capable and intelligent woman who founded and administered a string of new convents and was also a spiritual director of note. She knew all about the reality of the human condition, as her writings testify.
It is instructive that several famous 19th century devotional guides for pilgrims to Rome, such as Pilgrim-Walks in Rome, a Guide to its Holy Places by P. J. Chandlery SJ (1903), describe the church without mentioning this sculpture at all.
A more substantial criticism is that Bernini made no attempt at portraiture. The saint was a short, sallow Spanish brunette with prominent cheekbones and small mouth and chin, and what she actually looked like can be seen here: . It is possible that Bernini used a male model, as Michelangelo certainly did for his female figures.
The prominent bare foot has inspired an interesting misunderstanding. The saint founded the Discalced Carmelite nuns, and the word "discalced" is often translated "barefoot" (in Italian, scalzo actually does mean this). This is wrong, as the original Latin discalceatus means "without shoes", and includes the wearing of sandals. St Teresa put her nuns in (then) cheap straw sandals known as alpargatas, and forbade them either to wear shoes or to go barefoot. She thought that the latter could be vainglorious ("Uriah Heep humility") in winter, and dangerously pleasurable in hot weather.
Chapel of the Holy TrinityEdit
The far left hand nave chapel is dedicated to the Holy Trinity , and has a painting by Guercino on the subject as its altarpiece. The fresco work are by Giovanni Francesco Grimaldi -Il Bolognese, and the polychrome stonework is especially rich.
Chapel of St John of the CrossEdit
The middle left hand nave chapel is dedicated to St John of the Cross, the male Carmelite Doctor of the Church and colleague of St Teresa in founding the Discalced Carmelite friars.
The paintings here are by Nicolas de Bar, who was from Lorraine in France but did extensive work in Rome. He has the nickname Nicolò Lorense in the city. The altarpiece shows Christ appearing to the saint, and the side walls have two depictions of scenes from his life.
The Corinthian columns and pediment of the aedicule are in red and white Sicilian jasper, a stone also used in revetting the walls. The angels on the pediment are by Giuseppe Mazzoli.
Chapel of St AndrewEdit
The near left hand nave chapel is the Cappella Maraldo and is dedicated to St Andrew. The altarpiece shows him venerating the X-shaped cross on which he was martyred. This is by the Capuchin friar called Padre Raffaele, already met with in the chapel opposite.
Here are monuments to Luca Angelo Maraldo, 1636, Blandina Verzaghi, 1862 and Marco Aurelio Maraldo, 1635.
As a result of the fame of the Bernini sculpture of St Teresa, the church is now a popular tourist destination and is on tour circuits. A serious visit is best done early.
The church is open 08:30 to 12:00, and 15:30 to 18:00.
This is according to the tourist information website 060608, in 2012. The church's own website has differing times, but has not been updated since 2008.
According to 060608 again, Mass is celebrated:
Weekdays 7:00, 8:00, 18:30.
Sundays 9:00, 10:30, 12:00, 18:30.