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Santi Domenico e Sisto is an early 17th century convent, university and titular church at Largo Angelicum 1, which is a dead-end street off the Salita del Grillo in the rione Monti. Pictures of the church at Wikimedia Commons are here. There is an English Wikipedia page here.
The church which this one replaced dated from at least the 10th century, although its origins are wholly obscure. It emerges into history in the Register of Subiaco of 938 with the very odd name of Banneo Neapolim. This is the probable origin of the modern name of the locality which is Magnanapoli, although there seems to be some lingering doubt about this (see Santa Caterina a Magnanapoli).
The name has been read as "baths of Paul", without any corroborating evidence. Subsequent scribes in the Middle Ages found it a puzzle, as there are many different versions in the catalogues such as Balneanapolim, Baionapoli, Vanionapolis, Valneanapolis. The dedication was to Our Lady.
Foundation of nunneryEdit
This convent was the oldest Dominican nunnery in the city and one of the first to be established anywhere, since it was established by St Dominic himself in the 1210's (the exact year is uncertain). However, by the 16th century the buldings and the locality were judged to be unsatisfactory and so the construction of an entirely new nunnery nearer the built-up area was ordered by Pope St Pius V (himself a Dominican).
Construction started in 1569, with the acquisition of the site and demolition of the old church. However, the project took a very long time to complete. Enough of the convent was ready by 1575 for the sisters to move in, but the church was not completed until 1663. Part of the reason for this was that Pope Gregory XIII (1572-85) viewed the project with disapproval, and wished the old convent to be restored instead. Pope Paul V, on the other hand, gave positive approval to the scheme.
Initially the new convent and church was called San Sisto Nuovo, until it was noticed that St Dominic had no church dedicated to him in the city.
The Dominican friars took possession of the old convent (although there have been Dominican sisters back in residence since 1893).
Building the churchEdit
Given the length of time the church took to build, eight architects were involved in its construction and their respective contributions are still a matter of controversy.
The original plan seems to have been the work of an architect called Domenico di Mezzana, who would have laid out the foundations and started work on the monastic choir. This is behind the high altar, and was where the sisters worshipped since they kept an enclosure. It was important to finish this first. Giacomo della Porta was certainly in charge from 1587 to 1593, and is thought to have finished the sanctuary and campanile and to have started the nave. Then there was a pause in the work, and Porta was not able to resume because he died in 1602.
Nicola Torriani was in charge from 1603 to 1636. He is known to have designed the lower part of the church nave, and he may also have designed the upper part. He must have overseen the beginning the façade, since Carlo Maderno was involved for a year from 1628 and was responsible for the lower pair of the statues on this façade. Nicola's brother Orazio Torriani helped from 1633, and took over the oversight from 1636 to 1641 after Nicola died. The monumental entrance staircases, arguably the best part of the church, are attributed to him but this is controversial.
Then Giovanni Battista Soria took over, from 1651 to 1651. His artistic contribution is unclear, although the overall design of the façade is attributed to him. This is again controversial, since Vincenzo della Greca certainly worked on the upper part of the façade from 1651 to 1661. In the latter year Vincenzo died, and it was left to his son Felice finally to finish the work in 1663. The two Grecas are alternatively credited with the entrance staircases.
Fate of nunneryEdit
The Dominican nuns were able to inhabit their new convent for just under three hundred years. In 1860 the interior of the church was restored, and embellished with stucco work and gilding.
However, in 1873 the nuns were dispossessed by the Italian government together with all other communities of consecrated religious in Rome. The ostensible motivation was that the new national capital (the papal government had only been overthrown in Rome in 1870) needed immediate accommodation for civil servants and other government employees. However the sequestration was in reality an anti-clerical act, in that it was applied without discretion and many religious communities were evicted from their homes for no useful reason. This can be discerned from the way in which the government struggled to find uses for some empty convents.
This particular convent was used as a secular school for fifty years after 1873.
In 1874 the Via Nazionale had its gradients reduced along its length, and the work entailed the substantial reduction in the ground level of the Largo Magnanapoli. The knock-on effects were the lowering of the Via Panisperna to the left of the church, leaving an impressive revetting wall, and the substantial lengthening of the entrance stairways. Hence the lower part of the latter is late 19th century -a fact that needs to be remembered.
The dispossessed community eventually found a new home at Santa Maria del Rosario a Monte Mario, where it remains.
History of the AngelicumEdit
What is now the Pontifical University of Saint Thomas Aquinas, nicknamed the Angelicum after the title of Doctor Angelicus given to Aquinas, began its long life in 1222 as a house of studies attached to the Dominican friary of Santa Sabina. This was supplanted as the Studium Generale of the Roman province of the Dominican order in 1426 by the friary at Santa Maria sopra Minerva, which remained the headquarters of Dominican studies in the city until 1873.
The Minerva friary was also suppressed by the Italian government in 1873, and the studium spent fifty years functioning in several separate buildings. Paradoxically, in this time its status and importance improved substantially as a result of the publication of the encyclical Aeterni Patris by Pope Leo XIII in 1879. This gave massive encouragement to the revival of interest in the theology and philosophy of St Thomas Aquinas within the Church (the so-called neo-Thomist movement), and the studium as a Roman Dominican house of studies was well placed to exploit this. As a result, it became the Pontificium Collegium Divi Thomae de Urbe in 1906, and the Pontificium Institutum Internationale Angelicum in 1926.
In 1928, the Angelicum negotiated a purchase of the old convent of Santi Domenico e Sisto, with its church, from the Fascist government for the sum of nine million lire. This gave it the long-needed central location for its operations. Conversion of the convent buildings to function as a house of studies was a major project, and classes only started at the new complex in 1932.
The Angelicum was raised to its present status of a university (Pontificia Studiorum Universitas a Sancto Thoma Aquinate in Urbe) by Pope John XXIII in 1963. It has boasted a number of distinguished alumni in recent times, perhaps the most notable being Archbishop Fulton Sheen and Pope St John Paul II.
The university website now asserts that the faculty has 150 teachers from thirty countries, and an enrolment of between 1200 and 1400 students from almost 100 nationalities.
Until recently about seventy-five Dominican friars could be found living in the convent during the academic year, located above the university offices in the complex. The institution is now shy of disclosing just how many friars are resident during semesters, but claims that two-thirds of the teaching is by Dominicans (both friars and sisters).
The Diocese lists 113 Dominican friars in total as presently or recently resident in Rome and so, like most other religious orders, the Dominicans are trying to manage their affairs with a continuing decline in numbers.
The church was made a titular diaconate on 21 October 2003. The first titular remains the only one, and was Cardinal Georges Marie Martin Cottier O.P., created cardinal on the same day. He was promoted to cardinal priest pro hac vice in 2014, but died in 2016.
Layout and fabricEdit
The new church must have been built on the footprint of the old Santa Maria in Balneanapoli, right against the Via Panisperna. This is evident from the location of the convent claustral ranges, which are not adjacent to the church but located just to the south and at a slightly different alignment.
The church is on a rectangular plan, having a single three-bay nave without side aisles. However, there are blind arcades leading into three side chapels on each side. Nave and chapels are all under a single pitched and tiled roof, which extends to cover the convent choir behind the barrel-vaulted rectangular apse (the choir is invisible from the church interior).
The fabric is in brick, with architectural details in travertine limestone.
There is a crypt, as you can see from the doorway under the main entrance.
If you go up the Via Panisperna you can see a fresco high up on the side wall, which shows Our Lady in between SS Dominic and Sixtus. This was executed in the 17th century, and is in a molded frame with a segmental pediment. Unfortunately the work is flaking off, but restoration would mean closing the street and erecting high scaffolding
It is not easy to get a good view of the campanile. It's located over the right side of the apse, where the church joins onto the choir, and is a tower incorporated into the fabric.
The upper storey is just above the roofline, and has a tall and proportionally narrow arched and molded soundhole on each face. The top has a triangular pediment with modillions on each side, then comes a low square plinth followed by an octagonal one with an oculus (round opening) on each face. Finally there is the cupola, which is ogee-curved in lead with a ball and cross finial.
The stairs leading to the main entrance is considered significant in architectural history, as allegedly being the first sweeping curved double entrance staircase in Rome. So, it's a pity that the architect responsible for the original design cannot be conclusively named.
When appreciating this work, you need to ignore the first, single flight of stairs. This is late 19th century, added when the ground level in the street was lowered for road works, and arguably spoils the composition. The original ground level was where the double flight starts.
These curve round in two quarter-circles to reach a patio running the width of the façade. The balustrades have balusters of a form based on an octahedron, and ball finials on plinths. In the middle of the patio is a semi-circular stage over the crypt entrance, which is flanked by a pair of wide pilasters with caryatids and has a winged putto's head over the door.
The third, straight staircase leading down from the right hand end of the patio is also original.
The Baroque façade, entirely in travertine, took about 35 years to construct. See the section "Building the Church" above for details on the controversial issue as to those who might have been responsible for the design and erection.
There are two storeys. The design details are superb, although a criticism levelled at the overall effect is that the façade is cliff-like. Baroque architects were often careful to avoid this fault by the use of curved zones and recessed planes, but not here.
The first storey has four pairs of Corinthian pilasters in shallow relief. These support an entablature with a cornice which has both modillions (little corbels) and dentillation. The frieze of this has an inscription dedicating the church to St Dominic as founder of his order and the nunnery: B[eato] P[atri] Domin[ico] Ord[inis] Praed[icatorum] Fu[n]dat[ori] et monialium parenti, d[icata].
In between the two pairs of pilasters on each side are two blank tablets in Baroque frames, the lower plain but the upper embellished with swags, ribbons and a winged putto's head in a little segmental pediment. These tablets are above and below two statues by Carlo Maderno, of St Thomas Aquinas and St Peter Martyr (1205-1252, Dominican priest and martyr, and a patron of the Dominicans)
The single entrance has an elaborate prothyrium (entrance gateway) which has a pair of Ionic columns with swagged capitals, supporting two posts which in turn supports a broken segmental pediment. Into the break is inserted an oval tondo containing a statue of Our Lady of the Rosary by Marcantonio Canini which is surrounded by elaborate flower sprays. In between the doorcase and the pediment is a tablet bearing a relief of a dog. This is a pun on the Latin name of the Dominicans -Domini Canes or "dogs of the Lord". The lintel itself has another winged putto's head, the doorcase has rolled molding in high relief and there is a pair of pilasters to either side of the columns in shallow relief and in the same style.
The upper storey begins with an attic plinth, which has four Baroque tablets bearing symbols of the patron saints. To the left are the crown and crossed palms of martyrdom as well as the tiara -St Sixtus, and to the right are a dog and a star -St Dominic. The latter is from a legend that his grandmother saw a star on his forehead during his baptism as a baby.
On the attic are a further four pairs of Corinthian pilasters, but here each pair is separated by narrow vertical panels with rosettes and half-rosettes. The pilasters support an entablature and a triangular pediment with modillions, the tympanum of which contains an aperture in the shape of half an ellipse. This aperture is surrounded by a fantastic curlicue device (rather like a mutant octopus) and is presided over by an angel.
In between the pilaster pairs are two statues by Marcantonio Canini, of St Dominic and St Sixtus. These are in rectangular niches with molded frames, topped by winged putto's heads and raised segmental pediments. In between the pilaster capitals above them are two swags of roses.
In the centre of this storey is a round-headed window framed by two thin pilasters with strap capitals, supporting a triangular pediment with a scallop shell in its tympanum. The window has a balustrade where it intrudes into the attic.
The gable of the pediment has six flaming urn finials, which are prominent in skyline views of the city. The central finial is the metal cross traditional on Roman churches, but this example is unusually elaborate.
Layout and fabricEdit
The interior is a single nave, with a rectangular apse. There is a blind arcade of three arches on each side, and each arch leads into a side chapel amounting to an enormous niche. The decoration of these is very rich.
The arches are separated by double Corinthian pilasters revetted in what looks like red and white marble and with gilded capitals. These support an entablature with modillions supporting its cornice, which runs round the entire church interior. The stucco angels in the spandrels of the arches are 19th century.
The large central panel in the barrel-vaulted nave ceiling was painted by Domenico Maria Canuti in 1674, and depicts the Apotheosis of St Dominic. The trompe l'oeil framing is by Enrico Haffner, although the figurative bits incorporated into the overall design are by Canuti as well. Three windows on each side are inserted into lunettes in the vault, which is set unusually high for the width of the nave.
The rectangular nave has a short tunnel vault, an extension of the triumphal arch which is placed above the entablature mentioned above. The vault has a fresco which continues onto the back wall of the apse, and depicts The Heavenly Patronage of the Dominican Order. It is by Canuti again.
The high altar, placed against the back wall of the apse, is by Bernini. It has two pairs of ribbed Corinthian columns in red and white Portasanta marble (see the interior of Sant'Andrea al Quirinale for more of these by him), and these support two fragments of a split and separated segmental pediment. Into the gap between the halves is inserted a tablet bearing a relief of God the Father, and this has its own little triangular pediment nested within a segmental one.
In between the pairs of columns a little 15th century coloured terracotta plaque depicting the Madonna and Child is enshrined in a little recess with a glass front and a frame supported by stucco putti..
The altar itself has a tabernacle with a monstrance throne above it for Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. Behind this you can see a grille, which conceals a sarcophagus containing the relics of Blessed Hyacinth Mary Cormier OP , who was beatified in 1994.
The doors on either side of the altar lead into the choir chapel. Above them are six paintings, three on each side, depicting scenes from the life of Our Lady. These are by Louis Cousin, a French painter who used the name Luigi Gentili when working in Rome. He also executed the St Dominic Burning Heretical Books on the left hand side wall of the apse. The corresponding picture of St Dominic in Battle on the right hand side wall is by Pietro Paolo Baldini.
The first chapel on the right was designed by Bernini, the result of a commission by Maria Allealeona who was superior of the convent. It is typical Berniniesque theatre, using several of his design motifs to create a strong impression on first viewing:
The design of the altar is based on two curves. Overall, it is bowed (convex), but the backdrop to the sculptural group (which is the altarpiece) is coved (concave).
The altar is fabricated from polychrome marbles. The bowed frontal is in a purplish-red marble, and incorporates a design feature like an ancient bath-tub. Yellow Siena and green verde antico marbles are used in bands above and below this, as well as to the sides of the aedicule above, and below the altarpiece is a band of alabaster. All this polychromy, especially the deep red, focuses attention on the sculptures which are in white marble and so stand out.
A pair of red marble Corinthian columns flank the sculptures to create the aedicule, and these support two halves of a split and separated segmental pediment. These halves are twisted outward, again focusing attention on the sculptures.
Finally, the gap between the pediment fragments is backlighted by a large lunette window. In the light from this stands an angel holding a cross, and below him are two putti holding the crown of thorns and the veil of Veronica.
The two sculptured figures, depicting Noli Me Tangere (St Mary Magdalen meeting the risen Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane, and receiving the instruction "Don't touch me"), were also designed by Bernini. However the sculptural work itself was executed by one of his pupils, Antonio Raggi, in 1649. The backdrop has a fresco of the empty tomb in its garden.
Chapel of St Peter MartyrEdit
The second chapel on the right is dedicated to St Peter Martyr, and the altarpiece depicting The Martyrdom of St Peter is an anonymous work in the style of Titian. It shows him being ambushed on a journey. The fresco panels are by Baldini.
The third chapel on the right is dedicated to St Dominic. The altarpiece depicts St Dominic's Vision at Soriano, and was painted by Pier Francesco Mola in 1648.
Chapel of the CrucifixEdit
The third chapel on the left used to be dedicated to the Crucifixion, and had an altarpiece which was a copy of a work by Lanfranco. Now, the altarpiece is a fresco fragment from 1460 depicting the Madonna and Child with St Paul by Antoniazzo Romano. Only a hand of St Paul is left, holding a book.
The original dedication of the chapel can be discerned from the frescoes on the side walls, which show The Agony in the Garden and The Flagellation.
Chapel of St Catherine of SienaEdit
The second chapel on the left is dedicated to St Catherine of Siena. The altarpiece depicts The Mystical Marriage of St Catherine, and was painted by Francesco Allegrini. He also executed the frescoes showing scenes from her life.
Chapel of Our Lady of the RosaryEdit
The choir chapel is not accessible to visitors directly from the church, although it is immediately behind the high altar. On the other side of the far wall of the church apse is the chapel's altar, which shares possession of the shrine of Bl Hyacinth Mary Cornier. The altar is in polychrome marble, and the aedicule has a pair of Composite columns in black and white marble flanking a small icon of Our Lady in a Baroque glory. There are two separated fragments of a segmental pediment on which a pair of stucco angels sit. These venerate a Crucifixion, which is within an ornate frame at the top of the composition.
The side walls of the chapel have a series of large modern paintings showing scenes from the life of Christ.
Overall the decorative scheme in here is rather muted, in white overall with wall panels in duck-egg blue.
The church is usually closed from July to September, since the faculty and students of the Angelicum are on vacation then.
Frequently it is possible to find the church open on Saturdays before or after weddings, since it has become one of the more popular ones on the Centro Storico wedding circuit.
Otherwise, the church is not regularly open to the public. You should telephone to make an appointment during the periods of semesters, or ask at the porter's lodge (portineria) at the top of the stairs to the right of the church. The cloister of the old convent is also worth seeing.
It is also apparently possible, on application, to visit the choir chapel where the Dominican friars pray the Divine Office and which is located on the other side of the wall behind the high altar in the church. Access is through the cloister - ask at the portineria for directions.
The feast of St Thomas Aquinas (patron of the university) is celebrated with great solemnity by the students and faculty on 28 January.
The feast days of the patron saints of the church both fall in August.
Bl Hyacinth Mary Cornier is celebrated on 21 May.