Santa Maria in Cappella is an 11th century hospice church, heavily restored, at Vicolo di Santa Maria in Cappella 6 in eastern Trastevere, just to the west of the Lungotevere Ripa. Picture of the church on Wikimedia Commons here.
The church was built about 1090, as witnessed by an epigraph preserved inside the entrance, and back then had the dedication of Santa Maria della Pigna (Our Lady of the Pine Tree). Armellini's transcription, which he published in 1891, reads:
+ Ann[o] D[omi]ni MillXC, Ind[icatione] III, Men[sis] Martius d[ie] XXV, dedicata e[st] h[a]ec eccl[esi]a S[an]c[ta]e Mari[a]e qu[a]e appella ad pinea, per ep[iscop]os Ubaldu[m] Savinen[sem] et Ioh[anne]m Tuculans[em] tem[pore] D[omi]ni Urbani II pap[a]e, in qua sunt reliq[uia]e ex vestimentis S[an]c[ta]e Mari[a]e Virg[inis], rel[iquiae] s[ancti] Pietro apli Cornelii P[a]p[ae] Calixst[i] P[a]p[ae] Felicis P[a]p[ae] Yppoliti Mart[yris], Anastasii Mar[tyris] Felix Marmeniei Martyris. Da Damaso vitam post mortem, XP Redemptor.
This seems to indicate that the founder was somebody called Damasus, who asks Christ for life after death after giving a list of relics put in the church. His patrons were two bishops, Ubald of Sabina and John of Tusculum. The relics included items from the clothes of Our Lady.
More details should arise concerning the church's early history when the archaeological investigations under it now in progress are (hopefully) written up.
The church is not well recorded in the Middle Ages, but was presumably used by the merchant community attached to the river port which was hereabouts. The Tiber sweeping round the Trastevere meander left an area of relatively quiet water for small boats to moor in, just to the south of the inner point of the meander by the church (which is why the Ripa Grande was built there later).
In 1391 the church was restored and attached to the Hospital of the Holy Saviour (Ospedale di Santissimo Salvatore), which was for poor people in the eastern part of Trastevere. It had been founded by one Andreozzo Ponzio, father-in-law of St Frances of Rome. The saint took an interest in this, and it was staffed by her disciples.
The hospital had a cemetery attached, which indicates that the church had been parochial beforehand.
Coopers, and the nameEdit
Then, in 1450 the hospital was shut down and the church taken over by the Guild of Coopers (Confraternita dei Bottaii), the makers of wooden barrels.
The name Cappella is a puzzle. It means "chapel" nowadays, and the simplest theory is that the church was founded on the site of one. But this seems much too vague -Rome has never been short of chapels. Also, the strong distinction between church and chapel only arose some time after this church was so named.
One alternative circumstantial theory is that the name is derived from the Latin word cupa meaning "cask" or "barrel" (it occurs only in the works of Cicero ) and hence referring to the guild of coopers just mentioned. Cupella would then be a small barrel, but the problem here is that this word is not in any Latin literature. It does occur in metallurgy, in the production of metal by smelting ore in a ceramic vessel, but only as a result of a neologism of the 17th century.
An alternative theory refers back to the original Latin word capella, which is a small female goat. This invokes the church as perhaps being named after an ancient carving of that animal. (How this word evolved to mean "chapel" in due course can be found in the page on the subject of Chapel).
Finally, Armellini thought that Cappella was a corruption of que appella in the dedication inscription -this seems contrived.
Garden, and care homeEdit
Later in the 16th century the church apparently became derelict, and changed hands several times. One owner was a guild of riverboatmen.
Then, a garden behind the church was turned into a riverside playground in the 17th century by Donna Olimpia Pamphilj (1591-1657), the sister-in-law of Pope Innocent X. The purchase of the property involved the Doria Pamphilj family also buying the freehold of the church in 1653. They seem to have restored with a Baroque façade.
In 1797, the church was leased to the Sodalizio dei Mariani di Ripa e Ripetta, which oversaw a restoration.
In 1860 the family decided that a nursing home for the elderly was more needed in the area than a garden, and so founded one. This was first such institution in Rome, and still functions as such today. It is administered by the Daughters of Charity of St Vincent de Paul, and is now known as the Casa di Riposo Francesca Romana.
The refounding of the hospice involved the drastic restoration of the church by Andrea Busiri Vici, which was completed structurally in 1875 although the dedicatory epigraph recording it gives the date 1892.
The garden survives, attached to the nursing home, and is one of the largest private gardens in the Centro Storico.
As from 2008, part of the complex is being operated as a student hall of residence. A much-needed restoration was begun in 2011, and is still in progress (2017). Work seems to be slow.
Layout and fabricEdit
There is a short nave with side aisles, under one pitched and tiled roof. The sanctuary is an apse with a conch.
The late 11th century brick campanile is attached to the church above the right hand side of the façade. There are three storeys, a blank one reaching the height of the nave roof and then two
more identical ones each of which has a pair of tall, narrow soundholes separated by a brick pilaster on each face.
The façade faces onto a large courtyard separated from the street by a wall and gate.
It is the result of the 19th century restoration, and is again starting to look rather shabby. It is simple, being mostly a blank wall covered by discoloured render (some of which has fallen off) and having a tall round-headed window. This window intrudes into the triangular pediment, which is decorated along the cornice and gable with modillions (little corbels).
Between the window and the entrance door is a tympanum surrounded by a raised and gabled shallow brick porch which is dentillated along the gable and rests on a pair of limestone brackets. The tympanum has a glazed terracotta relief of the Madonna and Child between two trees, an allusion to the former name of the church Santa Maria della Pigna.
Two vertical steel tie-bars insterted as a response to some structural problem do not improve the appearance of the façade.
Depictions survive of the church before the 19th century makeover. The previous Baroque façade had four Ionic pilasters supporting the pediment, in between which were two large frescoes depicting SS Frances of Rome and Gregory the Great. Over the entrance was no porch, but a circular tondo containing a fresco of Our Lady. This tondo and the tympanum of the pediment were embellished with curlicues.
The nave is separated from its aisles by five Corinthian columns on each side. There are no arcades, but instead the columns support trabeations or horizontal entablatures.
The interior decoration is entirely 19th century, with the walls striped in pink and dark grey. Over the entrance is a gallery with a solid stone balustrade and a wooden fretwork screen.
The central nave roof is open, but the side aisles are cross-vaulted.
Corsi, writing in 1833, listed four ancient columns in this church. Three he listed as being of marmo imezio, which is a white marble with dark grey flecks from what is now Turkey. The fourth one was of grey granite from Egypt. There are ten columns here now, so it would be interesting to know where the other six came from in the 19th century restoration.
A further interesting point is that the 1748 Nolli map shows the church as having a single nave, without aisles.
The sanctuary is a single bay, ending in an apse with a conch. The triumphal arch has two solid Doric pilasters, and these, the wall to either side and the archivolt are all striped in the pink and dark grey décor. The bay of the sanctuary is barrel-vaulted, in blue.
The altarpiece is a 19th century marble statue of Our Lady holding a globe and treading on a snake. This stands on top of a cylindrical aedicule in grey marble, with a cupola and a porch having four little grey marble Corinthian columns. This odd-looking item looks as if it is a tabernacle, but the actual tabernacle is below on the altar.
The apse wall has a high dado in fresco with a rosette pattern, and above this are two angels in fresco, holding ribbons stating Sine labe concepta, Dei Mater alma. Flanking the angels and the statue are four palm trees, and the statue itself is given a painted mandorla.
The conch of the apse depicts a jewelled cross, surrounded by ribbons bearing titles of the Gifts of the Holy Spirit: Sapientia, Intellectus, Fortitudo, Consilium, Scientia, Pietas and Timor Domini, the last under the cross as being the most important. The Dove of the Holy Spirit is above, and below are six sheep queuing up to drink from the Fountain of Life. The archivolt of the arch reads Virgo Potens, Ora pro Nobis.
There is a sanctuary balustrade screen extending into the nave, in white marble with some damaged geometric opus sectile inlay and with two panels having diapered fretwork carving.
There are two side chapels at the ends of the aisles. The left hand one is dedicated to the Passion of Christ, and the altarpiece is a 19th century Calvary. The other is dedicated to St Vincent de Paul, and the 19th century altarpiece shows him being carried into heaven on a cloud held by three female angels.
Before the 19th century restoration, the dedications were to the Nativity and to the Purification of Our Lady.
There is no formal access during the renovation, although certain visitors have found the workpeople tolerant.
The church is unfit for the celebration of Mass, and will need reconsecration after the work is finished.
Nolli map (look for 1116) (old church, pre-19th century restoration)