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Santa Susanna

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Santa Susanna is the national church of the United States of America, as well as being an early 17th century monastic and titular church. It is on the Piazza San Bernardo, which is on the Via XX Settembre just north-west of the Piazza della Repubblica and its metro station. The postal address for the church is Via XX Settembre 15 for the church, and 14 for the monastery. These are in the rione Trevi. Pictures of the church on Wikimedia Commons are here. There is an English Wikipedia page here.

The dedication is to St Susanna, and the full official title is Santa Susanna alle Terme di Diocleziano. 



Titulus Gaii?Edit

The first Christian place of worship here possibly dated to the end of the 3rd century, and if so would have been a domus ecclessiae or a private house where a congregation assembled. The Christians of the period refrained from leaving any decorative or moveable elements identifying with their religion, so there has been no positive archaeological identification of such an institution in Rome.  However a house of this period was excavated under the present church in the 19th century, and suggestively it aligns with the walls of the church above.

One tradition is that this was the titulus of Pope Caius (283296). The tituli were the first parish churches in Rome, and this one was listed in a synod of 499 (the identification of this Caius with the pope is not entirely certain). An alternative tradition locates this titulus at the (now lost) church of San Caio nearby. 

Titulus Sanctae SusannaeEdit

The Martyrology of Jerome, deriving from the end of the 6th century, has in its entry for 11 August: Romae, ad duas domos iuxta dioclecianas, natale Sce. Susanne. ("At Rome, at the two houses near the [Baths] of Diocletian, the martyrdom of St Susanna.") The name hints that the original place of worship was created from two private houses, and that Susanna might have been the proprietor or the patron of the worshipping community. 

However the tradition grew up that she was a Roman virgin martyr, and a legend was written for her in the 6th century. This is romantic fiction, but in it Caius is mentioned as her uncle as well as Gabinus as her father. These references may be recalling the original householders. The church is claimed in the legend as the site of her martyrdom, and has been the centre of her veneration ever since.

The first mention of the titulus Sanctae Susannae is in a later synod of 595, when the titulus Gaii was not listed. This encourages the unprovable guess that the two were identical, but the existence of two separate tituli is entirely possible given the evidence.

First basilicaEdit

By tradition (lacking documentation), the first basilical church was built on the site in 330, under the emperor Constantine. A date later in that century seems reasonable.

The Liber Pontificalis mentioned that Pope Sergius I embellished it, and that Pope Adrian I restored it between 772 and 795. 

Second basilicaEdit

Pope Leo III (795-816) had the church entirely rebuilt. It used to be thought that his work was a mere restoration, but recent archaeological investigations have proved otherwise.

The result was a T-shaped basilica, with a transept and an aisled nave with twelve columns in each arcade. Above the arcades were galleries for women, and behind the altar was an apse. This had a mosaic in its conch, showing the pope with the emperor Charlemagne and the epigraph: Dudum haec beatae Susannae martyris aula coangusto et tetro existens loco marmorato, quam Dominus Leo Papa Tertius a fundamentis erigens, et condens corpus Beatae Felicitatis martyris, compte aedificans ornavit atque dedicavit. 

The Felicity mentioned is St Felicity of Rome, and there is a fresco concerning her in the sanctuary. The pope brought her relics here from her former basilica over the Catacombe di Massimo when those catacombs were abandoned.

The figures of pope and emperor had square haloes, indicating that they were alive when the work was executed.

Middle agesEdit

After the 8th century, the city of Rome abandoned its hills which became mostly vineyards. The church was the only original building left on the Quirinal Hill, in a location so isolated as to be dangerous because of bandits.

It is mentioned in the Catalogue of Turin in c1320 as a titular church for a presbyterial cardinal, and was served by six clerics at the time. They almost certainly did not live there.

There was another rebuilding under Sixtus IV (1471-1484). The church was drastically cut down, with the aisles being demolished and the arcades walled up. The same thing was done to the nearby basilica of San Vitale, similarly lost in the countryside with little justification for its existence.

Cistercian nunsEdit

In 1587, Pope Sixtus V gave the church and an adjacent building to a new Cistercian community of nuns. This had been founded only the previous year by a Confraternity of St Bernard, attached to the church which is now Santissimo Nome di Maria al Foro Traiano.

Cardinal Girolamo Rusticucci had the church rebuilt yet again for them between 1593 and 1603. The architect was Carlo Maderno, and this commission established his career. The present building is the result.

The nunnery was so successful that it was able to found a daughter community at Nepi in 1618.

Modern timesEdit

The nuns were expelled by the French under Napoleon between 1811 and 1814. They were again dispossessed by the Italian government after 1870, but were allowed to occupy a small portion of their original monastery.

In 1921, Pope Benedict XV authorized the setting up of the church as the national one for the United States of America. This was achieved in 1922 de facto (formally since 1924), and the Paulist Fathers were given the pastoral responsibility for this new function. Their official name is "Missionary Society of St Paul the Apostle", and they were founded in New York City.

In 1924, Cardinal Oreste Giorgi started a legal challenge against the government, claiming that the church and monastery originally belonged to the cardinalate and not the monastic community and hence that the seizure after 1870 was illegal. This challenge was successful, and full transfer of the property to the nuns was granted by Cardinal Richard Cushing in 1968.

Archaeological investigations at the end of the 19th century and in the 1930's were supplemented by interesting discoveries made in 1991. 

The community of Cistercian nuns in the convent attached to the church is now only few in number, and in fact nowadays (2015) the Diocese only lists one resident. She is Sr Maria Assunta Cappiotti, described as Superiora e Legale Rappresentante.

Problems Edit

The joint use of the church by the nuns and the Paulist Fathers has not worked well. Complaints by the former surfaced in the later 20th century, concerning the level of noise and activity generated by the pastoral work of the latter for American expatriates and visitors. There was a serious breakdown of relationships in 1985, when the church was ordered closed because of a sag in the ceiling and because the electrical wiring was judged dangerous. The Paulists refused to vacate their accommodation attached to the closed church, and were actually ejected by the nuns in 1989. The latter prevailed because they are in the position of actually owning the property.

A personal intervention by Pope St John Paul II was needed before the Paulists were allowed to resume work in 1993, which is when the church re-opened. Part of the agreement was that the Americans would not enter the convent and cloisters, and that the sacristy would be divided. The church was to be used on a time-share basis.

Another major restoration of the church was announced in 2013, and the church closed again. There is no immediate expectation that it will re-open. It seems that relationships have broken down once more, although information on exactly what is going on is not easy to come by.


The present titular of the church is Bernard Francis Law. Among earlier titulars, five became popes: St Conon (686-687), St Sergius I (687-701), St Leo III (796-816), Nicholas V (1447-1455) and Clement XII (1730-1740).


Layout and fabricEdit

This church is short in length, with an unaisled nave of three bays, two large side-chapels flanking the triumphal arch and an almost square sanctuary with a semi-circular apse. There is no proper transept.

Behind the apse is the choir of the nuns, a separate although conjoined building not on the same major axis as the church. To the left of the apse is the campanile, which has a large arched sound-hole on each face and is crowned by a low onion-domed cupola.

Apart from the façade, the church is surrounded by other buildings but a good view of the exterior (including the campanile) can be had from the modern sculpture in the Largo Santa Susanna just to the north-east. This view also reveals that the façade is false, being much higher than the nave behind.

The convent was rather irregularly laid out, and never had a proper cloister. There is a garden between the church and an arcaded block running parallel to it to the west, but the main edifice is on the street to the left of the façade. This has a frontage in yellow brick.


This early and influential Baroque façade is by Carlo Maderno and was completed in 1603, five years before he started on the façade of San Pietro in Vaticano. It is considered his masterpiece.

It is in travertine and has two storeys, the lower with five vertical zones and the upper having three. These elements are arranged so that they point to the centre, this being done by their being slightly set back in turn. In other words, the façade is stepped vertically. The first storey has six attached Corinthian columns, four paired either side of the entrance where the façade sets back and the other two on the corner where it sets back again. The actual outer corners of the storey are marked by a pair of Corinthinan pilasters.

These columns and pilasters support an entablature the frieze of which has a Latin inscription: HIER[ONYMUS] EPIS[COPUS] PORT[UENSIS] CARD[INALIS] RUSTICUCIUS PAPAE VICAR[IUS] AD MDCIII ("Girolamo Rusticucci, Cardinal, Bishop of Porto and Papal Vicar, AD 1603"). This commemorates the cardinal of the church who oversaw the beginning of the building project, although he died in 1597 before the façade was begun.

The large entrance has a finely decorated doorcase, with a raised segmental pediment having a winged putto's head in its tympanum. This pediment is surrounded by volutes, swags of flowers and two more heads of putti and above the entablature is a second, triangular pediment. Beyond the paired columns on either side is a pair of statues in arched niches having their own triangular pediments; St Susanna is to the left, and St Felicity of Rome to the right. These statues are possibly by Stefano Maderno, although this is uncertain as is his relationship to the architect (traditionally they were brothers). The conchs of the niches have scallop-shell decoration.

The upper storey has six Composite pilasters corresponding to the columns below, and these support a blank entablature with a dentillate cornice and a crowning triangular pediment with a fine coat-of-arms in its tympanum. Unusually, the pediment gable is balustraded. In the centre of this upper storey is an arched balcony also with a balustrade. The arch of this has a tympanum with a sunrise motif, and is framed by a pair of swagged Ionic columns supporting a segmental pediment.

There is another pair of statues in this storey, above the pair mentioned, depicting St Caius and St Genesius. They are by Giovanni Antonio Paracca, nicknamed Il Valsoldo. Their niches are richly decorated with swags and putto's heads, and a playful detail is that their segmental pediments are broken and have tiny triangular pediments inserted.

This façade is one of the finest early examples of a fully developed Baroque style, demonstrating that the transition from Renaissance design via Mannerism to the new style was now complete.



The interior is also by Carlo Maderno, and is decorated in a bright late-Mannerist style. All the walls are covered by fresco paintings. The contrast with Maderno's Baroque work at Santa Maria della Vittoria, across the street to the east, is immense. 

The unaisled nave has three bays, with a pair of large side chapels opening off the third one. The sanctuary is on an almost square plan, with a triumphal arch, and has an apse with a conch enclosed by its own arch.

The nuns' choir is behind the apse, but is invisible and inaccessible to visitors.


The nave has four Doric pilasters supporting statues on plinths, which depict the Major Prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel. These are by Giovanni Antonio ParaccaIl Valsoldo

The six paintings concerning the Old Testament Susanna on the side walls are by Baldassare Croce. According to the story she was a Jewish woman who was a victim of false charges of impurity, but who was saved by the prophet Daniel

The flat wooden ceiling of the nave is attributed also to Baldassare Croce. It is finely carved, coffered and gilded and features Our Lady with the Rusticucci coat-of-arms. The design is thought to have been by Maderno.


The sanctuary is raised above a confessio or devotional crypt, the entrance to which is protected by a D-shaped balustrade with the semi-circular portion intruding into the nave. The frescoes in the apse depicting scenes from the legendary life of St Susanna are by Cesare Nebbia. To the left she is being accosted by Maximian the son of the emperor Diocletian, with an angel intervening, and to the right she is refusing to sacrifice to idols. The four panels in the apse show her Apotheosis; she is in the middle, angels with period 16th century instruments flank her and Christ holding a crown is waiting at the top.

The stucco decoration was by Matteo Zoccolini, who was a Theatine priest. It involves garlands, fruit, scrollwork and little putti all gilded. Flanking the pilasters of the apse arch are two statues by Paracca, of SS Peter and Paul, with doors beneath leading into the nuns' choir

The aedicule of the altar is against the far wall of the apse. It has two Ionic columns of green marble supporting a split triangular pediment the fragments of which enclose two angels holding a cross. The altarpiece depicts the Decapitation of St Susanna, and is by Tommaso Laureti. Below it you can see a grille, and this is here so that the nuns could attend to Mass being said on the altar.

The left wall of the presbyterium has a large fresco of the Martyrdom of St Gabinius by Croce, and the corresponding one on the right wall shows the Martyrdom of St Felicity and her Seven Sons which is by Paris Nogari.

Chapel of St LawrenceEdit

The Chapel of St Lawrence is the one on the left. It is also known as the Cappella Peretti.

It was designed by Domenico Fontana, and frescoed by Giovan Battista Pozzo; the altarpiece showing the Martyrdom of St Lawrence is by Nebbia.

In the chapel to the left are enshrined the relics of St Genesius of Arles, also known as Genesius the Comedian, who was a martyr and is the patron saint of actors. The picture of the Baptism of St Genesius is by Croce again. To the right is a shrine to Pope St Eleutherius (175-189) . His body was moved from San Giovanni della Pigna by Camilla Peretti, Pope Sixtus V's sister, in 1591 after she commissioned the chapel. The fresco depicting him is by Pozzo. It shows the pope being dragged by horses and burned over a grill while Emperor Commodus watches.

St Felicity and one of her seven martyred sons are also enshrined here, under the altar. Their relics were brought to safety from the Catacombs of Maximus on the Via Salaria by Pope Leo when he rebuilt the church. These catacombs were also named after her, and are somewhere around the junction of the Via Salaria and the Via Metauro.

Chapel of Our Lady of GracesEdit

The chapel to the right is dedicated to Our Lady of Graces, and has two modern frescoes depicting St Benedict and St Bernard as patrons of the Cistercian order. These replaced two pictures by Avanzino Nucci now in the choir.

The icon is one of several copies in Roman churches of an ancient original which used to be at Santa Maria della Consolazione before it was stolen.


The nuns' choir, which was built with the church in 1597, is behind the main altar. It is an ample rectangular room with a flat coffered wooden ceiling of the period, bearing the coat-of-arms of Cardinal Rusticucci. The choir stalls were provided by Pope Pius V, and the ensemble is considered one of the best surviving conventual choirs in Rome.

The wall-frescoes by Francesco Mezzetti (1676-1702) depict scenes from the Old Testament. Also here are four depictions by Nucci of SS Benedict, Bernard, Susanna and Scholastica (the first two already mentioned above). 

Fresco in a sarcophagusEdit

Excavations took place under the nuns' sacristy in 1991, in an area corresponding to the left hand nave aisle of the Leonine basilica. The most important discovery was a 2nd century sarcophagus containing the skeleton of a man, on which layers of detached fresco painting had been carefully placed. The style dates the work to the late 8th century, hence it would have been executed during the restoration ordered by Pope Adrian I. Why it was treated in the way that it was after the Leonine restoration is a mystery.

The restoration of this has been prolonged, but the result is viewable in the sacristy (before the church was  closed this was open on application 9:30-11:30 and 16:00 to 16:45, although this will probably change since it depends on a nun being free to supervise).

The main scene is pentagonal, with a gable. It depicts the Madonna and Child flanked by two female saints, identified as Agatha and possibly Susanna. The top side corners contain SS John the Baptist and John the Evangelist, and the gable has the Lamb of God flanked by two Gospel quotations in Latin on a blue background: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God" (St John the Evangelist), and "Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world" (St John the Baptist). 

Fragments of four other portraits of saints were also recovered.

The excavation, with the sarcophagus in situ, has been left open and is protected by a glass floor.



Beforehand, it was open:

9:00 to 12:00, 16:00 to 19:00. 

Guided tours were given beforehand after the 10:30 Mass on Sundays, and on weekday evenings by appointment.

The church has its own website, and there is a lending library with English-language books.


The church has two functions, as a monastic church and as a national church.

As the church of the Cistercian nuns, there was Mass with Gregorian chant at:

Weekdays 7:00, Sundays 17:00.

At 18:00 on Sundays there was Vespers, followed by Exposition and Benediction.

This is the national church for Catholics from the USA, and Mass was therefore also celebrated in English:

Weekdays 18:00, Sundays 9:00 and 10:30.

The Paulist Fathers have published a very helpful online leaflet here detailing where Mass is being celebrated during the church's closure.

External linksEdit

Official diocesan web-page

Italian Wikipedia page

Nolli map (look for 206)

Church's website

Convent's website

"De Alvariis" gallery on Flickr

Info.roma web-page

"Romeartlover" web-page

Roma SPQR web-page with gallery

Good photo of interior

"Roma in Camper" web-page

Lecture in Italian

Youtube video

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