|English name:||St Sabina at the Aventine|
|Titular church||Jozef Tomko|
|Address:||1 Piazza Pietro d'Illiria|
Santa Sabina all'Aventino is a palaeo-Christian church on the Aventine hill. It is attached to the General Curia or headquarters of the Dominican order, and has the dignity of a minor basilica. The postal address is Piazza Pietro d'Illiria 1, and it is in the rione Aventino (the historic rione Ripa). Pictures of the church at Wikimedia Commons are here. There is an English Wikipedia article here.
The dedication is to St Sabina, a legendary 2nd century martyr.
The church was built in the 5th century, possibly, although unprovably, on the site of the original Titulus Sabinae. The tituli were the first parish churches in Rome, and most of them were originally private residences in which Christian congregations met (the so-called house-churches). In the 1st century the Aventine hill was an affluent neighbourhood with several important temples and homes of patricians (rather like its status nowadays). It is thought that Sabina was a wealthy Christian with a house in the most exclusive part of the neigbourhood, on the crest of the hill overlooking the river. It is known that there was a temple of Juno very close by.
In the early Middle Ages a fictional legend was concocted which described St Sabina as having been martyred in the year 114 at a place in Umbria called Vindena, which is now Rocca San Zenone. She was allegedly denounced by one of her slaves called Serapia, and her relics brought to the new basilica in the 5th century which was on the site of her town house at Rome. This story must refer to a completely different person, so the revised Roman martyrology has rejected it and describes St Sabina merely as the original founder of the church. However, the first dedication of the basilica was to SS Sabina and Serapia, and the latter may have been associated with the early house church also.
The year of the erection of the basilica is believed to be 425, and it is known that it was founded by an Illyrian priest named Peter (Illyria corresponded roughly to the former Yugoslavia). We are fortunate in having the original foundation epigraph in mosaic on the counterfaçade above the entrance door, which reads:
CULMEN APOSTOLICUM CUM COELESTINUS HABERET, PRIMUS ET IN TOTO FULGERET EPISCOPUS ORBE, HAEC QUAE MIRARIS FUNDAVIT PRESBYTER URBIS ILLYRICA DE GENTE PETRUS, VIR NOMINE TANTO DIGNUS AD EXORTU CHRISTI, NUTRITUS IN AULA PAUPERIBUS LOCUPLES SIBI PAUPER QUI BONA VITAE PRAESENTIS FUGIENS MERUIT SPERARE FUTURAM.
("When Celestine had the apostolic summit, and shone out in the whole world as the first bishop, Peter a priest of the city, from the people of Illyria, founded this [church] which you admire, a man worthy of the name at the [second] coming of Christ, who nourished poor people at [his] house [and hence obtained spiritual] riches for himself a poor man, who fleeing the good things of this present life deserved to hope for the future.")
Unfortunately, there is no date. The reference to Illyria has led to rather unconvincing attempts to discern Illyrian influence in the basilica's architecture and decoration. The Celestine referred to is Pope Celestine I. The building took eight years to complete, and was consecrated under Pope Sixtus III about the year 432. The Liber Pontificalis mentions that a baptistery was also constructed next to the basilica. This was in use until the 13th century, but has now completely disappeared.
The first recorded restoration was under Pope Leo III (795-816) at the end of the 8th century, and this was continued by Pope Eugene II (824-7) about a quarter of a century later. This work involved providing a schola cantorum, an iconostasis and a pair of ambones or pulpits. The latter pope also donated a tabernacle or ciborium of silver, which survived in the church until tragically looted in the Sack of Rome in 1527.
About the time of this restoration the depopulation of the city had taken place, and the Aventine was abandoned as a residential area. The basilica was taken over by Alberic II of Spoleto, one of the vicious group of nobles who controlled Rome and the papacy during the so-called Pornocracy, and who incorporated into a castle or fort guarding the access by river to the city. This occurred during his tenure of power, 930-54. The work involved transferring the main entrance from the west end to the south aisle.
Later in the Middle Ages this stronghold fell into the possession of a noble family known as the Crescenzi, who were succeeded by the Savelli. The latter restored the basilica in 1216, when they built a more up-to-date palazzo for themselves. This was next to the church on the east side, where the park now is; remains of it can be seen from the Clivo di Rocca Savella.
However, in 1218 the church was given to the Dominican friars by Pope Honorius III, who had approved the foundation of the order and who belonged to the Savelli family. They built a friary to the west, and also provided a Romanesque campanile for the church. The friars have served the church ever since; they now have their headquarters there, although since 1370 Santa Maria sopra Minerva has been their main church in Rome.
St Dominic himself lived in the adjacent friary for a period soon before his death in 1221. Among other famous residents of the monastery were St Thomas Aquinas, Pope St Pius V and St Hyacinth who made his vows here.
By the end of the Middle Ages the Aventine was entirely rural, occupied by farms, vineyards and hay-fields for fodder for the horses of the nobility. The only substantial buildings were the six great fortress-monasteries which dominated any views of the hill; apart from Santa Sabina, these were Sant'Alessio all'Aventino just to the west, Santa Maria del Priorato further along, Santa Prisca down the slope and San Saba and Santa Balbina on the Little Aventine to the south-east. This state of affairs continued until the late 19th century.
Mannerist and BaroqueEdit
In 1586, Pope Sixtus V commissioned Domenico Fontana to bring the interior of the church up to date. Guidebooks and art histories tend to be very hostile about the result ("it was disfigured"), and certainly Fontana was ruthless in destroying the basilica's mediaeval fittings. Bits of these he re-used as building materials in his Mannerist scheme, however. The schola cantorum, ambones and iconostasis were demolished, the mosaic in the apse was removed (apparently this was already falling off), the ceiling was ripped out and most of the nave windows blocked up. The last two alterations indicate that Fontana was either worried about the church's stability or planned to insert a vault. If the latter was the case, no work was ever done on it. He also removed 13th century Cosmatesque decoration from the south entrance.
The main altar was reconstructed with a baldacchino, and several side chapels were added.
After the conquest of Rome by the Kingdom of Italy in 1870, the Dominicans were expelled from their friary and the buildings turned into an isolation hospital for infectious diseases. This is an indication of how rural the location of the basilica still was at so late a date, but suburban development was swift and left the hospital badly situated. As a result, the Dominicans were able to recover possession of part of the friary in the early 20th century. They did this by exchanging their former headquarters at San Sebastianello, which became a Fascist police headquarters.
In the 20th century, most of these post-mediaeval alterations and additions were removed to restore the church back to what was believed to be its original state. The radical restoration took place in two phases: 1914-1919, and 1936-1938. The former phase was led by Antonio Muñoz and the latter by P. Berthier; the work was not altogether without controversy. Apart from the Elci Chapel, high-quality Baroque fittings and artworks were treated with contempt. Excavations and archeological investigations produced fragments of mediaeval fittings which were skilfully used by Muñoz to replace the nave windows and build the present presbyterium. The overall result looks convincing, but it should be remembered that the present interior aspect is a modern work.
The current titular of the church is H.E. Cardinal Jozef Tomko.
At present, the church is a popular part of the Centro Storico marriage circuit. As a result, there may be problems with visiting on weekends.
The church has never been parochial, and now belongs in the parish of Santa Prisca.
The original route to the church from the city is a historical monument in itself, and makes a beautiful romantic walk away from the crowds. From the Bocca della Verità, go south past the church of San Vincenzo de’Paoli all'Aventino on the other side of Via del Circo Massimo and take the first left into Clivo di Rocca Savella. This was the mediaeval driveway for the monastery and Savelli palace, and guarding the entrance used to be the chapel and hermitage of Sant’Anna a Ripa. The lane is very steep and cobbled, and has not changed in centuries. A spectacular view in the direction of the Ghetto opens up, and remains of the palace can be seen at the bend to the left. Unfortunately, it is entirely unsuitable for the infirm and disabled and can be risky in bad weather. Wheeled vehicles are not permitted.
Layout and fabricEdit
The church looks much from the outside as it did when it was built in the 5th century and is a classic aisled basilica without a separate presbyterium or transept. The alignment is south-west to north-east, and there is a piazza between it and the street running parallel to the south. This piazza is named Piazza Pietro d'Illiria after the original founder. The street (Via di Santa Sabina) runs parallel to the church's major axis, which hints that the church respected the original ancient steet plan when it was first built. The large external apse is prominent; it is only slightly lower and narrower than the main nave.
At preent, there are only two working external side chapels. The one on the right hand or south side, on the piazza, is on a square plan.
However, on this side you can see two other chapels which are now disused. Firstly, there is a little semi-circular chapel which occupies the end of the right hand aisle. This now has no access from the interior, as it was walled off in the 20th century restoration but not demolished.
In between the surviving chapel and the entrance loggia is a small square edifice with a vertical elliptical window and a lantern having a tiny conical tiled cupola. This building looks as if it is standing in the footprint of a lost larger edifice; there used to be an entrance range of half the height and with a single pitched roof standing in front of it, but this is now demolished. This addition post-dated the Nolli map of 1748.
To the right of the working chapel used to be another little external chapel with a similar entrance range, now demolished. However, if you look under the roofline here you can see a linear fragment of carved stonework marking its attachment. Next to the aisle to the east of this used to be a rectangular edifice with an entrance from the orange grove to the east (now a public park). These architectural details are on the Nolli map.
The left hand, north side has always had just the one external chapel, an architecturally separate octagonal structure.
The right hand aisle has a side entrance from the piazza, and this is protected by an external loggia or porch occupying the space between the side chapel and the monastery. This side loggia has two tall Corinthian granite columns supporting an arcade of three arches; the outer pilasters in brick also have Corinthian capitals. This structure was built in the 15th century.
Unusually for Roman churches, the basilica has no monumental façade or triumphal entrance. This is because the friary, which now has two cloisters north to south, is built right up against what would be the façade and continues down the side of the piazza to the street. The frontage of the friary facing the piazza has an open loggia, and this continues as a large vaulted passage or narthex along the front of the basilica. It is the main entrance to the monastery, and the original front door of the church can be found by walking along it. It is possible to enter from the side porch, but I recommend going through the front door. The right hand aisle has its own door as well, but the left hand one has not because the passage ends in stairs there.
In a corner of the narthex is a short spirally ribbed stone column with a strange polished black stone on top shaped like a round loaf of bread. This is the lapis diaboli, and by tradition the Devil threw it at St Dominic while he was at prayer in the church and smashed the paving slab on which he was kneeling. Was it a meteorite originally? The present stone is not, but looks like an ancient Roman scale-weight examples of which have survived in other Roman churches.
This narthex is the surviving range of the quadriporticus (a square courtyard surrounded by colonnaded porticoes) which the original mediaeval fortress supplanted. There are eight surviving ancient columns of this in the narthex, four of them plain and four spirally fluted.
The Baroque campanile is attached to the near left hand corner of the nave, and is not easy to see. It replaced the Romanesque campanile provided in the 13th century, which either fell down or was demolished in the 17th.
The replacement is a narrow rectangular slab of four storeys with two open arches in each storey (those in the second are blocked). The structure is topped by a little triumphal arch flanked by a pair of Doric pilasters on each face supporting a low pyramidal tiled cap with a damaged finial. The sides of this triumphal arch have sweeping curves leading to a pair of baluster finials.
Fabric of the churchEdit
The exterior walls are brick throughout, and there is a pitched and tiled roof covering the entire nave.
The external apse reaches almost as high as the nave roofline, and has its own pitched roof as does the little right hand aisle chapel. The aisle windows that survive are narrow arched slits, but the clerestory and apse windows are unusually large. It has been claimed that this demonstrates an Illyrian style of architecture rather than a Roman one, but the real reason is that the builders of the period were still skilled enough to provide such windows, and also walls without buttresses, without endangering the structure's stability. Compare the basilicas at Ravenna, which resemble this one.
The window fenestrations are modern, courtesy of Muñoz, and the geometrically patterned transennae or glazing bars are based on fragments that he found. The panes of the are of selenite, not glass. There are thirteen of these windows on each side of the nave, three in the apse and five in a row above the entrance. These last five are only visible from the outside by looking from the rooms on the other side of the monastery's south cloister.
This dates from between 420 and 450, and is made of cypress wood. About 10 of the original 28 panels are missing, but any wooden object from this period is a rare sight. In one of the panels with scenes from the life of Moses, God the Father is depicted as a hand extended from a cloud, the earliest way of representing Him in Christian art. The crucifixion scene in the top left-hand panel may be the earliest preserved representation of Christ crucified between two thieves in Western art.
The panels are recognizably the work of two collaborating artists, but the decorative surrounding of vines and bunches of grapes is later. The present arrangement of the panels is confused, and may be the result of a known restoration that took place in 1836. The restorer then allegedly re-carved the face of the drowning Pharaoh to represent Napoleon.
The eighteen surviving panels have the following representations, left to right and top to bottom:
The Women at the Empty Tomb after the Resurrection.
Adoration of the Magi.
Christ with Peter and Paul, holding the Pearl of Great Price.
Christ raising Lazarus, multiplying loaves and turning water into wine.
Moses in the Desert, the Quails, the Manna and Moses striking the rock to produce water.
Ascension of Christ.
Second Coming or Triumph of Christ (meaning uncertain).
Christ appears to his disciples after the Resurrection.
Christ appears to the women after the Resurrection.
Christ predicting Peter's denial.
Prophet Habakkuk and the angel taking him to feed those in the lion's den.
Moses receiving the Law, removing his sandals, at the Burning Bush and with the sheep.
Acclamation of an important person (uncertain meaning).
Exodus of Israelites with pillar of fire, Pharaoh drowning in the Red Sea and Aaron's rod turning into a snake.
Elijah ascending into heaven and Elisha catching his cloak.
Peter washing his hands.
Christ before Caiaphas.
The original friary was attached to the bottom left hand corner of the church, and comprised three blocks arranged around an arcaded cloister. The north side of the cloister had an arcaded walkway but no building, so the rooms in the upper storeys of the south range had a spectacular view across the river. There was a completely separate block attached to the top left hand corner of the church, running north-westwards with an annexe running north-east into the orange grove. The latter is now gone.
Originally, south of the monastery there was a large garden which occupied the space between it and the street. When the isolation hospital was opened here after 1870, this was converted into a second cloister by building an L-shaped block to the south and west. The friars do not have possession of this part of the complex, which is now an art school. Also, another block was built on the north side of the old cloister.
Opposite the ancient door in the narthex, there is a hole in the wall. If you look through it, you can see an orange tree which is descended from one planted by St Dominic and which is growing in the newer cloister.
The friary also contains his room, which has been converted into a chapel. It is possible to see this, and the room of Pope St Pius V, on application at the friary.
Men can also apply to visit the early 13th century Romanesque main cloister, and the chapter house where St Celsus and St Hyacinth, apostles of Hungary and Bohemia, made their vows as Dominicans. The cloister has 103 columns, and has recently been restored.
The first impression that you get when you enter the basilica is one of a huge empty space, dominated by the superb colonnaded arcades and the light flooding through the windows.
The church's interior is different from most other early churches as we see them today, because of way the large windows let so much light through. This was common in ancient and early medieval churches, but we more seldom experience it today because the openings have often been walled up or the windows reduced in size. The traditional reason for this was that mediaeval people believed that less light would give better conditions for prayer and meditation. However, the real motivation was usually worries about the stability of ancient buildings. Smaller windows meant stronger walls, especially needed if an old church had its wooden ceiling or open truss roof replaced by a vault.
As mentioned, the geometric glazing bars in the windows are modern but the idea for them came from original fragments found in excavation. These are now kept in the narthex, so you can compare them with what Muñoz provided in the 1930's.
The twenty-four ribbed Proconnesian marble Corinthian columns are ancient, of the 2nd century, and are a single set. The carved capitals are of exceptional quality. A good guess is that they were taken from one of the buildings on the Aventine that had fallen into disuse by the mid 5th century. The neighbourhood was probably already depopulating by the time of the Sack of Rome by the Visigoths in 410. Specifically, Emperor Theodosius the Great had closed all the pagan temples in 395 and these columns may have come from such a redundant temple as that of Juno very near by. However the columns show little signs of re-use, and a theory has been suggested that they came unused from an imperial builders' store.
The colonnades support arcades rather than trabeations or straight architraves, and this is one of the earliest example of such a construction in Rome. The proportions of the church are based on Hellenistic principles, as described by Vitruvius. For instance, the height of the columns equal 9 1/2 times their diameter, and the space between columns equal 5 times their diameter; this is just as Vitruvius describes it.
The flat coffered wooden ceiling is a simple one, decorated with stars in gilt, and it was provided in 1938. The original basilica may not have had a ceiling at all, as was the case at San Paolo fuori le Mura before the 19th century fire there. There was a ceiling here in the Middle Ages, however.
There is no apse mosaic, which is unusual in Rome for a church of this date. The apse was originally so decorated, as was its triumphal arch, but the mosaics have been lost. Seventeenth century descriptions indicate that much more mosaic survived then, and when the basilica was new the nave walls may have had mosaic decoration too. It is certain that Old and New Testament scenes used to be depicted above the arcades.
The surviving panel of mosaic is on the counterfaçade over the main entrance doors, which shows two female figues with the dedicatory inscription mentioned above between them. They are allegories of ecclesia ex circumcisione (The Church from the Circumcision) and ecclesia ex gentibus, (The Church from the Nations). Some believe that these represents the Old and New Testaments, but it seems more likely that they are intended to represent the Christians of Jewish origins and the Christians who were converts from pagan religions. Between the two figures is the text recording the building of the church by Peter the Illyrian, who is described as a Roman priest leading an ascetic life. The first line contains an assertion of the Pope's supreme and universal authority, and is an early example of such a text.
Documentary evidence of lost mosaics indicates that above the windows here used to be the symbols of the four Evangelists, and either side of the windows were representations of SS Peter and Paul.
The arcades are decorated with decorative polychrome stonework in opus sectile. The background and the intradoses of the arches have stone tiles arranged to look like ashlar stonework. Above each column is a large motif in porphyry and green serpentine, looking just like a large face-mirror on a stand. Some of these are elliptical, and some round. Centuries of scholarship have failed to provide a satisfactory theory as to just what this decorative scheme means. One theory is that they represent Illyrian battle standards, but the problem with this is that there is no historical evidence for such objects. Alternatively, they might be stylized representations of the Host and Chalice at the Mass. Or they might actually have been intended as mirrors, leaving the problem as to what iconographic significance a mirror might have had in the early church. The mystery remains. Above these representations is a polychrome frieze of alternate squares, roundels and lozenges.
The lost apse mosaic was replaced by a fresco by Taddeo Zuccari, painted in the Mannerist style in 1560, and was allegedly executed from (now lost) contemporary drawings of the original mosaic. This was repainted by Vincenzo Camuccini in 1836, and was left alone by the 20th century restorers because of its alleged provenance. It shows Christ enthroned in glory, above the River of Life from which sheep are drinking, and surrounded by apostles and saints. SS Peter and Paul are in front (note the papal tiara on the former), and SS Sabina and Serapia are on the left. The head of Christ is surrounded by winged putto's heads, definitely not a palaeo-Christian motif and indicating that Zuccari's interpretation of the original mosaic design was very free.
The triumphal arch is decorated with seventeen tondi, fifteen of them with saints' busts executed in sepia fresco and two left blank. These were executed by Eugenio Cisterna in 1920, and are based on a 17th century description of original mosaics. To left and right are stylized buildings representing Jerusalem and Bethlehem, and along the roofline are flying doves.
Scanty traces of 5th century frescoes can be found at the far end of the left aisle. These were only discovered in 1961, and are not very clear. You can make out depictions of brocaded hangings, and also of vine scrolls.
The stone choir furniture, comprising high altar, bishop's throne, two ambones or pulpits and a schola cantorum or choir enclosure, is modern and dates to the 20th century restoration. However, ninth century fragments recovered in the restoration (mostly from the flooring) are incorporated. These came from the presbyteral furnishings supplied by Pope Eugene II in 824, and notable are the flat marble slabs or transennae in the screen. The reliefs on these are carved with crosses decorated with curlicues and intertwined knots, and are allegedly inspired by a Persian style. They also look somewhat Celtic.
Beneath the high altar, which has a porphyry frontal, are enshrined the relics of St Sabina and and three obscure martyrs called Eventius, Alexander and Theodolus. These were brought in by Pope Eugene in his re-ordering of the sanctuary, having been originally venerated at a suburban shrine at Sant'Alessandro.
In the right aisle is a niche containing an ancient column, which traditionally came from the original house owned by St Sabina. Also in the right aisle is the late 15th century tomb of the Spanish Cardinal Auxias di Poggio (died 1484). The artist is unknown, but it is likely that he belonged to the school of Andrea Bregno . The inscription says: Ut moriens viveret, vixit ut moriturus ("To live after death, he lived as one who was going to die").
The floor, relaid in the 20th century restoration, has several mediaeval tomb-slabs. The most important is that in the middle of the nave floor, which depicts a Master General of the Dominicans, probably Muñoz de Zamora, who died in 1300. Very unusually the effigy is in mosaic (the only one left in Rome) which has been dated to c. 1300 on stylistic grounds, so it seems likely that the identification is correct. The artist is thought to have been Iacopo Torriti. Another interesting floor-slab shows the effigy of Perna Savelli who died in 1215, showing the family crest in mosaic.
There are now two external side-chapels, amounting to separate buildings.
Off the right-hand aisle is the Chapel of St Hyacinth (Giacinto in Italian). It is on a square plan, and was added in 1600 after the saint had been canonized. The wall frescoes by Federico Zuccariare charmingly realistic, depicting people dressed in fashions of the time and allegedly based on real persons. The altar has four alabaster columns, and an altarpiece by Lavinia Fontana depicting Our Lady with St Hyacinth.
The Cappella d'Elci is off the left aisle at the middle of the length of the nave. It is a lavish, sumptuous and ornate Baroque work dedicated to the famous Dominican mystic St Catherine of Siena, and has an octagonal plan. The architect was Giovanni Battista Contini, and the patrons were a family of Tuscan nobles called the Elci.
The dome here is lit by eight oeil-de-boeuf windows in gilt framing, and features a fresco by Giovanni Odazzi of the patron saint being presented to Christ by Our Lady with the heavenly host looking on. The altarpiece is a painting of Our Lady of the Rosary by Giovanni Battista Salvi da Sassoferrato in which she is shown flanked by St Dominic and St Catherine. This was not the original altarpiece, which featured the latter saint and which was by an artist called Morandi. The altar has four Corinthian columns in a red, yellow and white breccia.
The Elci coat-of-arms is spectacularly rendered on the floor in opus sectile, featuring the double-headed eagle.
Below a grating in the floor is visible an excavated room of an ancient Roman house. This might have been the original Christian "house-church" at the site, the Titulus Sabinae. On the other hand, the orginal titulus may have been elsewhere nearby, as such a move certainly happened at Santa Prassede and possibly at other ancient churches.
The archaeological remains under the basilica and round about are complex. The Servian Wall was just north of the church, and among other assorted buildings under the basilica was a small temple dating back to the 3rd century BC and possibly to be identified with one recorded in the neighbourhood dedicated to Jupiter Liber. It was too small to have been that dedicated to Juno. Also, evidence of the use of part of the site by devotees of the cult of Isis has turned up.
Interior before MuñozEdit
If you had visited the church before 1914, the first thing that would have struck you would have been the lack of light as compared to nowadays. There were only three windows in each nave wall above the colonnades, and none in the apse. In the latter, the area now occupied by windows formerly displayed a large altarpiece depicting The Martyrdom of St Sabina by Giovanni Silvgani (1790-1853) flanked by frescoes of saints, two on each side.
The schola cantorum did not exist, but instead the floor ran to a flight of three steps just beyond the third pair of columns from the end. This ran across the width of the nave, but was interrupted by a small confessio in front of the high altar. Here, a gate in a balustrade led down into a little crypt containing the shrine of the relics of the martyrs. The main altar itself had lost its 16th century baldacchino at some stage before the late 19th century.
There was no ceiling, but instead the roof was open except for horizontal truss beams. The spandrels of the triumphal arch were decorated with Baroque rosettes and curlicues in stucco.
The lapis diaboli on its little column, now in the narthex, was in the middle of the nave floor.
There were several side chapels. The near end of the right hand aisle had an internal chapel formed by inserting blocking walls into the first bay of the aisle. Off the same aisle were entrances to three external chapels; the middle one survives. At the end of the right hand aisle was the apsidal chapel of St Dominic, now walled off, which used to contain the Sassoferrato altarpiece now in the Cappella d'Elci. This was stolen in 1901, and when it was eventually recovered it was installed in the new location.
At the end of the left hand aisle, the last four bays of the aisle had been converted into the chapel of Our Lady of the Rosary in the 16th century restoration. This had its own little antechamber, which led through a doorway into the chapel proper which had a small apse matching that of the chapel of St Dominic on the other side of the church.
The loss of this chapel in the 20th century restoration has left the church with no altar dedicated to Our Lady -a very unusual state of affairs in a Roman church.
The advertised opening hours are 06:30 to 12:45 and 15:30 to 19:00 (as always with Roman churches, these are liable to change). If you go early in the morning, you will probably have the basilica entirely to yourself. On the other hand, if you go on a Saturday you will most likely find a wedding going on. Guided tours for tourists regularly visit during the season.
If you do go early, be aware that the neighbouring basilica of Sant'Alessio all'Aventino opens much later, around 09:00 or thereabouts, so you will not be able to visit both churches.
This is not an easy place to get to for those in a hurry. Buses do not run anywhere very near, and the quickest way is to get one of the many that go along the Via del Circo Massimo, get off at the Piazzale Ugo le Malfa and walk up the Via di Valle Murcia. Alternatively, from the Via Marmorata take the Via Asino Pollione from the Largo Manlio Gelsomini, keep left and bear right at the top. There is no access of any kind to the church from the Lungotevere Aventino and Via Marmorata between this route and the Clivo di Rocca Savella near the Bocca della Verità.
The lack of a bus route is the result of a bus falling into a previously unknown void beneath the road when the ground collapsed towards the end of the 20th century.
There is a shop in the friary that sells postcards, including cards showing the panels in the front door, and religious objects and literature. It is of special interest to those interested in Dominican spirituality.
Santa Sabina is the Lenten station church on Ash Wednesday. Since the time of Pope John XXIII, it is custom for the Holy Father to assist in person in the afternoon Mass on that day, when ashes are distributed to little childrens' homes.
The feast-day of St Sabina is 29 August, which is celebrated here with liturgical solemnity.