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Santa Maria in Monticelli is a 12th century conventual church, very heavily restored, at Via di Santa Maria in Monticelli 28 in the rione Regola. Pictures of the church at Wikimedia Commons are here. There is an English Wikipedia page here.
The dedication is to the Blessed Virgin Mary.
The first documentary reference to the church is in the Liber Pontificalis for 1101, describing it as being consecrated by Pope Paschal II (1099-1118). This is thought to be a late date for the foundation of a new church so an earlier building is surmised, but there is no historic evidence for it.
However, there is a hint in the entry, which reads:
Hic [id est, papa] consecravit ecclesiam Sanctae Mariae positam in regione Areolae, in loco qui vocatur in Monticelli.
The origin of the place name Monticelli is unknown. Attempts to give it a topographical referent are rather forced (a mound of ruins won't do). So it seems to be a personal name, but if so the unknown possessor attached it to the locality before the consecration by the pope. Hence, we have just a hint at an earlier church.
It was consecrated again on 6 May 1143 by Pope Innocent II, as a surviving epigraph transcribed by Armellini describes:
Sanctificans aulam Pater Innocentius istam, nec cum servisset sic, libera iussit ut esset qui tunc praesentes laudarunt pontifices tres: Conradus, Stephanus, Albericus, cum foret annus ternus millenus deciesq[ue] quaterque decenus et quartus decimus patris huius pontificatus, et sextum solem Aprilis revocaret in orbem.
Either somebody spent serious money on the church in order for it to need reconsecration after such a short time, or something horrible happened like a serious fire.
Pope Urban III (1185-87) transferred the alleged relics of martyrs named Nympha, Maximilian, Eustace and Quodvultdeus to here from Porto. The ones of Maximilian were later believed to be of a bishop of Palermo in Sicily of the same name, so the saints have been referred to as the Martyrs of Palermo.
This was a rather important parish church, with a college of priests attached to it.
In his Theatrum Urbis Romae, Pompeo Ugonio (died 1614) gave a short description of the old church and mentioned that the schola cantorum or choir was embellished with Cosmatesque work dated 1227.
In 1710, Pope Clement XI initiated a project to remodel the church in Baroque style. The architect was Matteo Sassi (1647-1723), assisted by Giuseppe Sardi who is much better known. They finished the structural work in 1716, and the last details in 1720.
The layout of the church was changed. Previously, the nave had five bays with side aisles and the campanile at the bottom of the right hand aisle. The remodelling chopped off the first two bays of the nave and aisles, and replaced them with a portico and an entrance bay without aisles but flanked by convent edifices. Fortunately, the campanile was left alone but is now not attached to the church itself.
In 1725, the church was given into the care of the Fathers of Christian Doctrine (Dottrinari), a congregation of priests devoted to catechesis. This originated in France, and had been founded by Bl César de Bus in 1592. The original base was at Avignon, but the convent attached to this church became the congregation's headquarters.
The Dottrinari have been here ever since, and remain in charge. However, the parishes in the Centro Storico were re-organized in 1823 and the one here was suppressed.
In 1860, another major restoration was undertaken under the supervision of Francesco Azzurri, followed by work on the sanctuary and in the Chapel of the Nazarene in 1900.
A campaign of repair and restoration has been completed recently on the church and convent.
Layout and fabricEdit
The church is basilical in plan. There is an internal entrance loggia, then a nave of four bays. The first bay is for the entrance, and the other three have side aisles which are divided into chapels although without partition walls. These chapels have lantern skylights in flat aisle roofs. The sanctuary has two bays, and a semi-circular apse.
The external fabric, apart from the façade and campanile, is hemmed in by convent buildings except for a blank wall along the right hand side.
The campanile is from the 12th century. It used to stand at the bottom of the right hand aisle of the mediaeval church, but is now separated from the church by an 18th century convent
It is in red brick, with five storeys. These storeys are separated by cornices with modillions (little corbels), except the first one which is plain. The first storey is about twice the height of the others, and has a pair of round-headed openings towards its top on each of the two exposed sides. These have a single border of recessed molding. The second and third storeys also have pairs of openings, but with double recessed frames and also a molded string course connecting the archivolt springers. All these openings are now blocked up. The last two storeys, the actual bellchambers, have three openings on each side, the lower one with brick piers and the upper one with stone columns bearing imposts. There is a tiled pyramidal cap.
The façade was rebuilt in the Baroque style in the 18th century remodelling. It has two storeys, the lower one opening into an entrance loggia and the upper one incorporated into convent accummodation. The overall effect of combining a church frontage with a wing of the convent is
The first storey has three vertical zones separated by four pilasters. The capitals of the outer pair of these are Ionic, with flower swags between the volutes and little sunflowers above, and very unusually the volutes themselves are embellished with what look like bees. The pilasters support an entablature with a triply molded architrave and strongly projecting cornice.
The inner pair of pilasters have unadorned capitals, and this is because in front of them is a pair of free-standing Ionic columns supporting posts in the entablature. The latter in between the posts is slightly bowed (concave), and runs over the large entrance portal. This portal has another column in the same style at each side. In between each pair of pilasters to the sides is an empty lunette niche high up, with a curlicued arc cornice.
The second storey fronts convent accommodation. It has a single zone, with a pair of free-standing Composite columns, matching the ones below and standing on attic plinths. These support a segmental pediment with its side corners brought forward. The entablature of this pediment is supported by four Ionic pilasters, the outer pair hiding behind the columns. In between is a large arched window with another pair of columns and a curlicued archivolt. It also has a low balustrade matching the curve of the entablature below.
The portal has an iron railing gate, protecting a vaulted loggia with cross-ribs springing from Ionic pilasters. The actual doorway of the church has a molded marble Baroque doorcase, on which are two posts in shallow relief flanking a dedicatory inscription mentioning Pope Benedict XIII who approved the 18th century restoration.
Layout and fabricEdit
The nave has four bays, with side chapels off the furthermost three (six in total). The sanctuary has two bays, and then a semi-circular apse with conch. A seventh chapel flanks the sanctuary on its left hand side.
The fresco work thoughout the church is 19th century, and had become rather damaged in places by decay by the start of the 21st century. Hopefully it is now secure.
This entrance bay is single, with no aisles. It has its own short barrel vault, with frescoes of arboreal and astronomical symbols.
The lunette counterfaçade wall enclosed by this has a small window, surrounded by two frescoes depicting Moses and the Burning Bush, and The Dream of Jacob at Shiloh. The organ gallery is cantilevered in a semicircle over the entrance, and its solid balustrade bears a charming monochrome fresco featuring St Cecilia and a large band of angelic musicians. The cartoon for this was by Tommaso Minardi, and the actual execution was by a pupil of his called Cesare Mariani. The latter also did the lunette frescoes.
The side walls of this bay have a pair of Evangelists, SS John and Luke. The other two are in the sanctuary. They are by Carlo Ruspi.
To the left is a little niche with a railing gate, which is the baptistry. This has a lunette fresco of The Baptism of Christ.
The arcades of the nave are supported by rectangular piers, which bear shallow composite pilasters on their inner surfaces which are extended upwards to support an entablature which runs over the archivolts and around the interior. These pilasters are done up in what looks like purple and white marble. The rest of each pier, below the Doric imposts from which the molded archivolts spring, are in what looks like red granite with a sunken panel on each side face in what looks like white marble with brown veins.
The four piers at the ends of the arcades have much deeper pilasters, which support the sanctuary triumphal arch and the matching arch dividing the entrance bay from the main nave.
The piers allegedly encase the original ancient columns re-used in the arcades of the mediaeval church.
The main nave ceiling is divided into three sections by transverse archivolts springing from above the pilasters. Each section has a pair of triangular lunettes over windows, a central rosette, a pair of trapezoidal flanking panels in blue and very attractive flower-and-frond fresco work in natural colours running in wide borders around these.
The sanctuary has two bays, separated by monumental arches. The first arch replicates that separating the entrance bay from the nave proper, and this bay of the sanctuary also has a matching vault. Frescoes of the other two Evangelists, SS Matthew and Mark, are on the walls here. This first bay contains the altar pro populo, and used to be part of the nave.
The second arch is supported by a pair of Corinthian columns in red marble, and two other columns in the same style support the apse arch beyond. The vault in between has a lantern oculus, flanked by a pair of fresco angels on a blue background. The lantern itself contains the Dove of the Holy Spirit.
The original sanctuary balustrade encloses this bay.
The walls in this second bay have a pair of pictures by Mariani, Christ Disputing with the Scribes and Christ Blessing the Children.
The altar aedicule has a pair of Corinthian columns in brown and white marble, supporting an entablature with its frieze in alabaster and a segmental pediment. The altarpiece shows The Presentation of Our Lady, with the artist being given as A. Bea, 1900. Flanking the aedicule are frescoes of SS Peter and Paul by Ruspi, below which are putti holding the heraldic shields of Popes Clement XI and Pius IX (the latter pope having overseen the 19th century restoration).
The apse conch contains a 12th century fragment of mosaic depicting the face of Christ the Redeemer; this is thought to have been provided for the church at its consecration by Pope Paschal II. It is set within a 19th century design showing a scrolled vine sprouting from a pot with the Cross. The arch enclosing the conch has the text Fundamenta eius in montibus sanctis, a reference to the name of the church (this is the first line of Psalm 87).
Side chapel designEdit
The side chapels are of one design, and each occupies one bay of a side aisle. Each has an elliptical cupola with a large central oculus containing a skylight window. Some of these are also elliptical, but others are Saturn-shaped. (The fresco decorations of these cupolas also differ.) The cupolas rest on pendentives formed by the entrance arch, and two side arches leading into the neighbouring chapels. (The four aisle ends have a blank arch containing a doorway, over which is an anonymous 18th century picture restored by Ruspi.) The fourth pendentive arch is for a shallow recess containing a round-headed altarpiece.
The pendentives have blue tondi containing texts referring to the dedication, and another text is on the archivolt of the altar arch. The latter design feature matches the sanctuary apse arch.
There are no altar aedicules. The polychrome stone altar frontals differ in design.
The chapels are described in anticlockwise order, beginning to the right of the entrance.
Chapel of GethsemaneEdit
There is a little wooden statue of St Anthony of Padua on the altar.
Chapel of the Flagellation by CarracciEdit
The second chapel on the right now displays The Flagellation of Christ as its altarpiece. The church has now two chapels with this identical theme, but the altarpiece now here was discovered in 1860 under the 18th century one (it obviously does not fit the frame). The work is by Antonio Carracci.
The vault frescoes by Ruspi have been destroyed by damp.
The 19th century tabernacle on the altar features a picture of the Lamb of God.
Chapel of St NymphaEdit
The third chapel on the right is dedicated to St Nympha (Italian Ninfa), an obscure martyr. The altarpiece is by Giovanni Battista Puccetti, showing the saint refusing to attend a pagan sacrifice.
The left hand side picture shows Our Lady with the Martyrs of Palermo, anonymous 18th century.
Chapel of Christ the NazareneEdit
The chapel to the left of the sanctuary is a separate rectangular room, which was re-fitted in 1900. The frescoes are by Eugenio Cisterna, in a neo-Byzantine style.
The altarpiece shows Jesus the Nazarene wearing the Crown of Thorns, and according to the notice here was brought from Meknes in Morocco in 1681. It is a venerated item, because it was attested to have miraculously moved its eyes in 1854.
The walls have frescoes of saints standing in arcades on a blue background. The four Evangelists flank the altar, while the side walls have the apostles.
A 15th century tomb-slab with effigy is kept here.
Chapel of St John the BaptistEdit
The third chapel on the left is dedicated to St John the Baptist, and the altarpiece is by Puccetti. The picture on the right of Our Lady with saints is by Sebastiano Conca. St Francis is in the foreground, with his stigmata.
Chapel of the CrucifixEdit
The second chapel on the left is dedicated to the Crucifix. The example here is from the 14th century, and is a venerated item. Some sources claim that it's from the 11th century, but this seems too early a date. St Bridget of Sweden (c. 1303-1373) is known to have prayed before this crucifix on several occasions.
The icon of Our Lady on the altar is the Madonna in Monticelli, and has been crowned. It used to be on the high altar, apparently. The type is that of Our Lady, Help of Christians.
Chapel of the Flagellation by Van LooEdit
The first chapel on the left has a Flagellation by Jean-Baptiste van Loo, which apparently was the 18th century altarpiece covering the Carracci Flagellation in the chapel on the right hand side. (This picture has also been described as being by Puccetti.)
The picture on the left hand side looks as if it depicts The Martyrdom of St Erasmus.
The statue on the altar is of St Roch.
The church is open:
Daily, 7:00 to 12:00, and 17:00 to 19:45.
Mass is celebrated:
Daily at 19:00.
There is Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament:
Daily 17:30 to 18:50, ending with Vespers.
A priest is on duty while the church is open, and is available to hear confessions.
Visitors are specially requested to be reverent during the period of Adoration, and not to wander about or take photos.