Santi Quattro Coronati is an early 12th century conventual and titular church, incorporating much earlier fabric, at Via dei Santi Quattro 20 in the rione Celio (the historic rione Campitelli). It has the dignity of a minor basilica. Pictures of the church at Wikimedia Commons are here. An English Wikipedia page is here.
The dedication is to the Four Crowned Martyrs. The confusions surrounding their identities have exercised scholars for centuries, but the revised Roman Martyrology (2001) comes to this conclusion in its entry for them on 8 November:
"The commemoration of SS Simpronian, Claudius, Nicostratus, Castorius and Simplicius, martyrs who, by tradition, were sculptors in marble at Sirmium in Pannonia. When they refused to carve a statue of the god Aesculapius because of the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, the emperor Diocletian ordered them to be thrown into the river and so, by the grace of God, they were crowned with martyrdom. Their veneration has flourished in Rome since ancient times under the title of the Four Crowned Ones in a basilica on the Caelian HIll". The year given is 306.
The major confusion has been with a second putative group, named in their legend as Severus (or Secundius), Severian, Carpophorus and Victorinus, who were martyred at Castra Albana. According to the legend of St Sebastian, the four saints were soldiers (specifically cornicularii or clerks in charge of written records) who refused to sacrifice to Aesculapius, and therefore were killed by order of the emperor Diocletian (284-305), two years after the death of the five sculptors. The bodies were then buried in the catacomb of Santi Marcellino e Pietro ad Duas Lauros, on the fourth milestone of the Via Labicana, by Pope St Miltiades and later brought to the basilica on the Caelian.
The scholarly consensus is that the story of the second group is fictional, based perhaps on the veneration of a group of four martyrs at Santi Marcellino e Pietro. There is a historical possibility that these were soldiers, and that they had been executed at Castra Albana (a military camp), but alternatively the soldiers might have been the echo of a third martyrdom.
This church is the descendent of one of the tituli or ancient parish churches in Rome. According to tradition the first church was built in the 4th century by Pope St Miltiades (311-314), but this depends of the Acta of St Sebastian which are not now regarded as historical. The first documentary reference is in the minutes of a synod held in 595, but the titulus Quattuor Coronatorum listed there is thought (unprovably) to be the same as the titulus Aemilianae listed in an earlier synod in 499. This was probably named after the foundress.
The fabric of the church incorporates an original unaisled apsidal basilica in brick, dating from the 4th century and identified in a restoration in 1957. Substantial amounts of its fabric are incorporated into the present apse of the church, and a sectional drawing identifying this is here. In earlier times the temptation would have been to label this edifice as the titulus, but the present scholarly consensus is that this was a secular meeting hall perhaps attached to one of the palatial private residences on the Caelian. There is a complete lack of evidence for dedicated Christian places of worship before the building programme launched by the emperor Constantine in the early 4th century, and it is now thought that Roman Christians before then rented premises such as this one for their public liturgies.
Modern scholars have also abandoned the previous serene confidence that the sites of the tituli were identical with those of the churches that inherited their names. So, the existence of a titulus Quattuor Coronatorum is no longer regarded as proof that there was a church here at the start of the 6th century.
The Liber Pontificalis records restorations by Pope Honorius I (625-638), Pope Adrian I (772-795) and Leo III (795-816). No clear evidence of these interventions can be found in the present complex. One revisionist opinion is that it was Pope Honorius who converted the old basilical hall into the first church on the site, but others claim that this was done at some unknown earlier date. If Honorius was responsible, the church would have been monastic from its beginnings. Either way, it would have been served by a monastery of monks of one of the Eastern rites from later in the 7th century although documentary evidence is lacking in this particular instance.
This 4th century hall's floorplan comprised that of the present church including its apse, and the inner court as far as its entrance from the outer court.
Leonine basilica Edit
Pope St Leo IV (847-855) rebuilt the hall as an aisled basilica (the Liber reads in splendidiorem pulchrioremque statum perduxit a fundamentis). This was a large building (95 by 50 metres) of which the present church is only a part. The side walls of the hall were demolished, leaving the apse, and the foundations used for colonnaded arcades separating the central nave from the side aisles. The nave had fourteen bays without a transept, and thirteen Ionic columns in the colonnade on either side (five on each side of these survive embedded in the side walls of the present church).
A confessio or devotional crypt was provided, semi-annular in form and with a shrine-chamber which survives intact. Also, the basilica had three external chapels. That dedicated to St Barbara was off the left hand aisle (this survives as a detached chapel off the cloister), that to St Nicholas off the right hand aisle (fabric belonging to this survives in the north block of the convent, behind the enclosure). That dedicated to Pope St Sixtus is lost, and its location is uncertain.
It is thought that the basilica had an atrium with arcaded walkways on the site of the present first court, similar to that surviving at the nearby San Clemente. Over the main entrance portico to this was built a campanile, which survives (although its present appearance is modern). This tower was part of an extern or service wing over the entrance. The main convent buildings were on the north side of the basilica between the Chapel of St Nicholas and the atrium, and were not large. So it seems that the church was not monastic at the time.
Paschaline basilica Edit
The complex was burned in the Norman sack of Rome in 1084, and the basilica left ruinous. Pope Paschal II (1099-1118) ordered a rebuilding, which was to a much smaller scale. The aisles of the old basilica were sequestered for domestic accommodation, and the first four bays of the nave turned into what is now the second courtyard. The next one and a half bays became a loggia, with a gallery over it (often called a matroneum, as the nuns used it much later). The last seven and half bays of the central nave were turned into the new church by the simple expedient of walling up the colonnades on each side. This is the building that we now have.
The new church was consecrated on 20 January 1116.
The complex was occupied by two institutions. To the south of the church and the inner court was a small monastery, which took care of the choir functions. To the north of the church and the inner court, as well as occupying the entirety of the outer court, was the so-called "Cardinal's Palace" which was the residence of the titular priest. This arrangement was a miniature version of what pertained at San Giovanni in Laterano, which also had the papal palace to the north and the monastery of the canons to the south.
Middle ages Edit
The monastery was Benedictine from the time of its foundation by Pope Paschal, but did not stay independent for long. In 1138 it was granted to the abbey of Sassovivo in Umbria, which built a new monastery block to the south of the church apse. This was extended at the beginning of the 13th century by the addition of the present cloister.
The Cardinal's Palace was enlarged and fortified in 1246 by Cardinal Stefano Conti, a nephew of Pope Innocent III, during the reign of Pope Innocent IV. Apparently part of the motivation was for the complex to be a bolt-hole available to the pope, since the Lateran Palace was not defensible against attack by hostile troops. The papacy was in conflict with the Hohenstaufen emperors at the time over the Kingdom of Sicily.
In 1246, the Cappella di San Silvestro, on the ground floor of the palace next to the inner court, was consecrated. This has always been architecturally and historically distinct from the church, and in fact for much of its history it has been regarded as a separate church in its own right. It contains propagandizing (in the secular sense) frescoes depicting the unhistorical legend of Pope Sylvester I and Emperor Constantine I, including the fictional baptism of the emperor by the pope and (importantly) a depiction of the Donation of Constantine which was based on a maliciously forged document. This fresco cycle was painted in the context of the confrontation between Pope Innocent IV and the newly excommunicated Holy Roman emperor Frederick II, and was intended to illustrate the alleged sovereignty of the Church (Pope Sylvester) over the Empire (Constantine).
Celestines and Camaldolese Edit
The priory survived for longer than most Benedictine monasteries in the city, but the Avignon Captivity of the papacy from 1307 to 1377 left the Cardinal's Palace disused and it fell into decay. The monastery meanwhile remained the possession of Sassovivo Abbey, which had become the mother-house of a congregation of several abbeys and priories (Congregzione di Sassovivo). However this fell into serious disorder and lack of religious observance, and in 1467 it was suppressed and its institutions re-allocated to various other congregations and religious orders. The abbey of Sassovivo itself passed to the Olivetans.
However, the monastery here had already left the congregation, when in 1417 it was granted to the Celestine reformed Benedictine congregation by the abbot of Sassovivo. The main monastery in Rome of this congregation was at Sant'Eusebio all'Esquilino, but they ran the monastery here for over a century before giving it up. Soon after they took possession, Cardinal Alonso Carrillo de Albornoz effected a restoration which is commemorated in an inscription in the first courtyard over the exit to the outside.
In 1521 it was passed on to the Camaldolese, but this arrangement did not work. The monks complained that the atmosphere in the monastery was bad, and so it was left unoccupied except for a custodian. (This details concurs with the experience of the nuns at the end of the 20th century. The drainage system of the monastery was then found to be seriously inadequate.)
Foundation of orphanage Edit
The remote origins of the present community of Augustinian nuns lies in an initiative of St Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, to help orphan children in the city. The saint founded a confraternity for both men and women at the church of Santa Maria in Aquiro, and named it the Confraternita di Santa Maria della Visitazione degli Orfani after the dedication of that church. Pope Paul III gave his approval and the possession of the church in 1541, and the confraternity (quickly raised to the dignity of an arciconfraternita) soon included many noblemen and prelates. It established an orphanage (orfanotrofio) next door for the boys, but realized it needed a separate institution for the girls. In 1562 the complex of Santi Quattro Coronati was granted for the purpose by Pope Pius IV.
The buildings needed alterations and repairs to make them fit for purpose, so initially the old cardinal's palace was renovated in 1570 for the orphan girls. The larger halls were converted to dormitories, and some smaller rooms knocked through for this purpose too. Mediaeval frescoes were whitewashed (paradoxically preserving them), and windows re-located higher up in the walls to remove views into the outside. The sorority in charge were to lodge in the old monastery block, to the south of the church apse.
This sorority administering the new institution was largely made up of former orphan girls looked after at Santa Maria in Aquiro since 1541. The original intention was to prepare these girls either for marriage or for entry into already established convents, but in 1548 a group of them petitioned to form their own sorority under the authority of the confraternity, and to live by the Rule of St Augustine. Their work was initially to teach and care for the little girls at Santa Maria in Aquiro, but they transferred with them to Santi Quattro Coronati. This was the origin of the present community of nuns. They moved in on 12 March, 1564.
Further work to convert the complex to its new function was done in 1580 and 1588. The former intervention involved the provision of carved wooden ceilings for the church, sponsored by the future King Henry I of Portugal when he was cardinal here.
The orphanage had no use for the Cappella di San Silvestro, and in 1570 it was granted to the Università dei Marmorari. This was a guild for workers in marble (including sculptors), which had been founded in 1406. The interest of the sculptors in the chapel here arose because their patrons were the Four Crowned Martyrs as having been sculptors themselves.
The guild fitted out a small sanctuary in a former side room, and had it frescoed by Raffaellino. Unfortunately they also installed choir-stalls for themselves on the nave side walls, which damaged the frescoes. There was a restoration in 1728, when a new altar was consecrated, and another one in 1794.
The Università has retained possession ever since, through many vicissitudes, although their main base used to be in the church of Sant’Andrea in Vincis before its demolition in 1929.
Expansion of orphanage Edit
The orphanage was a great success in the 17th century, and in response the confraternity built a new dormitory as a second storey on the north side of the church in 1616. Also, the sister were provided with a gallery above the entrance loggia of the church, and open loggias over the cloister walks. The latter work required the walks to be vaulted -these had open roofs in mediaeval times.
In 1672 a new orphanage wing was built on the south side of the first courtyard.
Contraction of orphanage Edit
The orphanage began its decline when Rome's papal government founded the enormous social care complex of the Ospizio Apostolico di San Michele on the Ripa Grande, which was begun in the late 17th century. Msgr Tommaso Odescalchi, nephew of Pope Innocent XI (1676-89), had founded the original hospice there on family property in order to look after orphaned and abandoned children and to teach them a trade. This was a private venture, one of many such at the time, but the pope took a decisive step in 1686 to concentrate the city's outreaches to orphans as well as other welfare initiatives on one single site. He chose the Ripa Grande.
Older institutions looking after orphans were generally left alone rather than being consolidated, but obviously the numbers of orphan girls began to dwindle sharply. Hence, through the 18th and early 19th centuries the institution at Santi Quattro Coronati evolved from being a busy orphanage served by Augustinian sisters, to being an Augustinian nunnery looking after a few orphans.
Modern times Edit
The orphanage was finally closed in 1872, when the Italian government sequestered the property together with almost all the other convents of the city. Fortunately, an agreement was reached in 1879 whereby the nuns leased the part of the complex north and south of the church (including the cloister) and so could continue conventual life -this time as a contemplative community.
In the year after 1913 the city supervised a thorough restoration of the church and monastery by Antonio Muñoz. His work has been regarded as very well done, although he followed contemporary fashion in destroying later architectural features in order to return parts of the fabric to a "pristine" mediaeval appearance. This especially applies to the campanile.
In 1957 there was a restoration of the church and some archaeological investigation. The columns on view in the second courtyard were revealed then.
The edifices around the first forecourt initially functioned as a hospital annexe, but in 1910 this part of the complex was leased to the Daughters of Our Lady of Mount Calvary, who opened a school for deaf and dumb children here (they had their main convent at Santa Maria Addolorata all’Esquilino). More specialist professional institutions took over this work, however, and the school closed by 1946. The property was then bought by the Holy See, and in 1995 was occupied by a community of the Petites Soeurs de l'Agneau (Piccole Sorelle dell'Agnello). Hence, there are two religious communities here.
Towards the end of the 20th century, serious problems arose concerning the ingress of damp into the fabric of the complex. This was especially noticeable in the cloister, where the stonework was rotting as a result. The ultimate cause of this was that the drainage system depended on downpipes and drains funnelling rainwater into an ancient Roman cistern under the cloister garth, from which it had to soak away as best it could. After an initial lack of interest from both the secular and religious authorities, the nuns were successful in lobbying for help with the vital assistance of the church's cardinal, Roger Mahony the archbishop of Los Angeles. As a result, in 2000, the World Monuments Fund listed the cloister as "at risk" and sufficient funds were promised for a restoration of the cloister to begin immediately. Part of this work was that the garth garden was returned to what was thought to be its original layout. This part of the campaign was finished in 2003.
Restoration work on the rest of the complex is expected to be ongoing, with scaffolding going up on the western frontage including the church apse in 2014.
This was apparently the first church in Rome to have a non-Italian titular. Theodoric or Dietrich, archbishop of Trier was appointed titular in 975 by Pope Benedict VII. In 1914, Giacomo della Chiesa was appointed cardinal but in the same year he was elected pope, and took the name of Benedict XV.
Despite being an ancient title, the consecutive listing of cardinals here only begins in 1338.
The current titular of the church is H.E. Roger Michael Mahony, Archbishop of Los Angeles.
Street frontages Edit
The complex looks almost like a fortress, towering above the streets to the north and west.
The western side faces the Via dei Querceti, and here is the impressive church apse. It is obvious that its red brick fabric was erected at different times, and in fact the rougher lower courses are 4th century. This old work extends upwards at the right to touch the central window. The neater upper work, with put-log holes for scaffolding (wooden before modern times) is from the rebuilding by Pope Paschal in the 12th century, except for a small area to the right of the central window which dates back to Pope Paschal in the 9th. The two visible windows (there were three, but one was obscured when the monastery next door was built) are now rectangular but you can tell that they once had round tops.
To the left of the apse, the rough walling is the end of the right hand side aisle of Pope Leo's basilica. The domestic accommodation incorporated into this was added by the orphanage in 1616.
The monastery block to the right of the apse was originally put up in the 12th century, but has been massively altered since. The odd diagonally-placed tower-like edifice to the far right is at the south-west corner of the cloister.
The street frontage to the left of the apse and around the corner into the Via dei Santi Quattro is occupied by boring 19th century commercial buildings, but then comes the towering and grim frontage of the old Cardinal's Palace, a result of its 1246 rebuilding. You can see how the orphanage blocked up many of the old windows in order that the orphan girls couldn't see out, and left the stone frames in the walls.
The street here is interesting in itself. It is a relic of the times before the 19th century when the surroundings were all countryside, and the narrow country lanes squeezed between walled vineyards. It is thought to be on an ancient street route (the Via Tuscalana), but was just a donkey track in the Middle Ages.
Gateway façade Edit
If you are walking, you go up a flight of steps from the steeply sloping street to reach the monastery's piazza which is itself an ancient monument. This has a mediaeval revetting wall creating a level platform, and was provided in the 12th century as a mustering ground. Men bearing arms were not allowed into monasteries in the early Middle Ages.
The nuns in the convent have had a long-standing practice of dispensing charity to poor people from their entrance, a tradition that goes back several centuries. For this reason, you may find beggars around here who might ask you for money.
The gateway façade of the monastery is again grim, originally 9th century but altered several times up to the 17th century. The appearance is not helped by the ochre-coloured render falling off in patches, leaving the brickwork exposed. The ongoing restoration should get round to here eventually, but meanwhile you can see how some of the brickwork incorporates scavenged stone blocks. The entrance itself is through an unadorned archway with a large tympanum, which is now bare but had a fresco of the four martyrs being crowned by an angel in the early 19th century.
Campanile EditThe squat 9th century brick campanile above is claimed to be the oldest surviving in Rome, although its present appearance dates from 1914. It is in red brick, with a projecting cornice having stone modillions (little brackets). The south face is obscured by a convent building butting against it, but the other three each have an arcade of four arched sound-holes, with double brick archivolts and with the outer pair slightly larger than the inner two.
Before the restoration by Muñoz in 1914, these apertures were blocked up. The tower contained the convent clock, with dials on the western and eastern faces each under a floating arc cornice with little incurved curlicues at its ends. Muñoz got rid of the clock and the Baroque details, re-opened the arcades and provided them with separating piers in marble. These are in the form of baluster pins having a square cross-section, and are his own invention.
First courtyard Edit
Once through the entrance, you traverse a passageway through the gateway block of the convent. The egress portal is, interestingly, in the form of a pointed Gothic arch which does not align with the campanile above it.
If you look at the wall over it, you will see the coat-of-arms of a cardinal, and a inscription in Gothic lettering. The cardinal was Alonso Carrillo de Albornoz, titular here from 1423 to 1434 under Pope Martin V. The inscription reads: Haec quaecumque vides veteri prostrata ruina, obruta verbenis hederis dumisque iacebant, non tulit Hispanus Carillo Alphonsus, honore cardineo fulgens, sed opus licet occupat ingens, sic animus magno reparatque palatia sumptu dum sedet extincto Martinus schismate quintus. ("Whatever you see was fallen and ruined by age, broken and brought down by boughs of ivy and thorn bushes. The Spaniard Alfonso Carillo, radiant with the honour of the cardinalate, did not accept this but carefully took in hand the proper work and, thus inspired, repaired the great palace in the time of the reign of Pope Martin V, the schism having been ended".)
The first courtyard is on the site of the atrium of the Leonine basilica. Much of it now has a 17th century appearance owing to building work for the orphanage, and has arcades on the north and west sides. These have Doric pilasters and imposts. The west arcade opens onto a vaulted loggia and the way through to the second courtyard, while the north side has five arches opening into what used to be the main entrance loggia (also vaulted) of the orphanage proper. The far (western) arch of this latter loggia is blind, because behind it is the Cappella di San Silvestro. The old public entrance to the chapel is in the far right hand end of the western loggia (see separate description of the chapel below), and has a simple molded doorcase with a triangular pediment supported on posts bearing triglyphs. In between the posts is an epigraph: Statuariorum et lapicidarum corpus, anno MDLXX ("The body of statue-carvers and stone-workers, 1570").
This western loggia has frescoes painted in 1588. Over the chapel entrance is one depicting the Four Crowned Martyrs holding palms. The far wall has a pair of large frescoes separated by depictions of twisted Solomonic columns, the left hand one showing The Nativity and the smaller right hand one The Visitation.
The south side is fairly featureless architecturally, and has a little staircase in the south-east corner leading to the entrance to the convent of the Little Sisters of the Lamb. (They are not the nuns responsible for the church!)
You may notice that the courtyard is trapezoidal, with the right hand block at an angle to the major axis. The western loggia's far wall, the one with the two frescoes mentioned, is actually on the foundations of the façade of the Leonine basilica so the door here into the second courtyard is on the site of the main entrance to the 9th century church.
Second courtyard Edit
The second courtyard occupies what used to be the near end of the central nave of the Leonine basilica. It has the entrance to the present church on the far side, and to the left are three ancient columns embedded in the wall of the convent of the Augustinian nuns (their main entrance is here).
These columns are a survival of the colonnades that separated the central nave of the old basilica from its side aisles. They have ancient bases and Ionic capitals, which do not match. One is in white marble and is fluted (this has no base), and the other two are in grey marble (bigio antico). The columns support an arcade of brick archivolts, and on the intrados of one of these was found traces of original 9th century decoration consisting of acanthus scrolls in red on a white background.
The church has a loggia, entered through three open arches springing from two ancient marble Corinthian columns. This loggia is two bays deep, and behind the arcade columns are two more columns, these ones Ionic, which are embedded in piers. Above the loggia is a 17th century enclosed gallery connecting the convent premises north and south of the church, and this column-and-pier arrangement indicates that the 16th century work was a rebuilding of a previously existing loggia dating from the 12th century. The gallery frontage is very simple, with three rectangular windows having sober Baroque frames.
Over the actual church entrance is a late 16th century fresco showing the sisters and orphan girls venerating the Four Crowned Martyrs.
Church fabric Edit
The actual church fabric is invisible from inside the convent complex, except for the south end of the transept which you can see from the cloister. The gallery mentioned above has a flat roof, and behind that is a third-storey church frontage with three rectangular windows which cannot be seen from the courtyard.
The church itself has three pitched and tiled roofs, one for the nave which has a hip at the entrance end, one for the transept with a hip at both ends and one for the apse which has six sectors.
The church is actually quite small, and is dominated by the proportionally very large apse (the disproportion being because it belonged to the much larger Leonine basilica). The nave has five bays with side aisles, and then comes a transept which is now the choir of the nuns. The sanctuary apse follows. The church itself has no attached side chapels. There is a confessio or devotional crypt under the sanctuary.
The nave is separated from the narrow side aisles by arcades with five Corinthian columns each. Above the aisles are galleries or matronea, each having two arcades of three arches each separated by Ionic columns and with a pier in between the two. The nave walls above the arcades are undecorated, as is the completely simple triumphal arch leading into the transept.
These matronea would have been for the sisters and orphan girls, but the nuns now worship in their choir in front of the high altar.
The nave ceiling is in carved and varnished but unpainted wood, and bears the coat-of-arms of the future King Henry I of Portugal when he was cardinal here. He had the ceiling installed in 1580. The ceiling has dentillated coffers, the central one with the heraldry being oval and two other focal ones being octagonal and containing the cross. If you are familiar with the flag of Portugal, you may notice that the heraldry on the shield here is the same as that on the flag.
The floor is Cosmatesque, laid in 1084 by Magister Paulus, is unlike most others in the city as it was unrestored in the later centuries. However, it has been patched with fragments of early funerary epitaphs which have their own interest. It looks as if the repairers were looting a local cemetery or catacomb for building materials.
The counterfaçade has three storeys. The second one has grilled apertures looking into the connecting gallery above the entrance loggia, and the third one has three windows which give much of the natural light in the church.
The two piers of the transept's triumphal arch are graced with a pair of side altars. The one on the right has a rather poor anonymous 17th century fresco of the Crucifixion, showing Our Lady with SS John the Evangelist and Mary Magdalen, together with a Doctor of the Church holding a book and sporting a monk's tonsure (St Augustine?) and a holy bishop (St Thomas of Villanova?). The altar frontal now has Cosmatesque inlay, the visibility (or the placement) of which dates from the 20th century. Beforehand, both pier altars had matching frontals featuring gilded vine-scroll patterning springing from a central oval starburst tondo, on a white background.
The left hand pier altar has a fine 15th century marble tabernacle in the form of a pedimented aedicule, with the actual home for the Blessed Sacrament being venerated by a four standing angels. The door is in gilded bronze, with a relief of Jesus the Nazarene with his cross and column of flagellation. The Grotesque relief detailing is gilded. The work is ascribed to Luigi Capponi or Antonio Bregno.
This tabernacle was re-located here in the early 17th century, and provided with flanking frescoes of SS Peter and Paul. God the Father is depicted above, being infested by a swarm of putti.
As mentioned the transept now contains the choir of the nuns, and so has been sequestered by rather ugly modern steel railings. It is entered through an unadorned triumphal arch, springing from a pair of equally unadorned piers which are actually set at a slight angle to the major axis.
There is a separate ceiling provided at the end of the 16th century by Cardinal Giovanni Antonio Facchinetti de Nuce, in the same style as that of the nave but with the central coffer showing the Four Crowned Martyrs.
There is also a separate Cosmatesque floor, separated from the nave one by an area of scavenged marble slabs.
At either end of the transept is a staircase down to the confessio. The side walls here show fabric from the arcades of the Leonine basilica, and also display some old epigraphs including a 4th century one from the catacombs of Sant'Ermete on the Via Salaria.
The left hand staircase has over it a little 17th century shrine to Our Lady of Sorrows, with a fresco of her in an arched niche. This is flanked by a pair of mediaeval epigraphs, one giving a list of relics provided by Pope Leo IV and the other recording the rebuilding by Pope Paschal II in 1111. Below the fresco is a slab of marble which used to belong to the high altar consecrated by Pope Paschal, as the inscription on it points out: Vetus hic lapis in ara maxima, sanctorum corporibus frat[rum] impositus ("This old stone was put in place on the bodies of the holy brethren in the great altar").
The sanctuary comprises the apse, and is slightly raised above the main floor level by two steps. It is sequestered by a 17th century marble balustrade either side of the free-standing high altar, having a gap in each side for ingress and also some polychrome marble panelling.The altar itself faces down the church, and has two storeys. The lower, 17th century, also has simple polychrome marble panelling around an ovoid fenestra confessionis or aperture looking into a little shaft connecting with the shrine of the martyrs in the confessio below. The upper part is modern, in grey-streaked white marble with a red cross. The altar used to sport a tabernacle and had a canopy suspended from the apse triumphal arch, but both of these were removed in the 20th century.
The apse itself is richly decorated with frescoes and stucco work, the latter being gold on white. The pilasters of the triumphal arch have exaggerated imposts bearing fronded modillions over dentillation and egg-and-dart molding, and these decorative features are continued below the apse conch as a defective entablature (no frieze). This entablature is supported by six ribbed Corinthian pilasters. The curved apse wall has frescoes in two registers, seven panels at the bottom and four at the top which depict scenes from the legend of the martyrdom of the Four Crowned Martyrs. The top register contains three large rectangular windows, with curtains to obscure the fact that the left hand one is blocked by the adjacent monastery block.
The apse conch is wholly taken up by a large fresco of The Glory of Heaven. The Trinity (Father, Son and the Dove of the Holy Spirit) is at the top, being venerated in the first instance by Our Lady and St John the Baptist. These are surrounded by a host of angels, and below is a large crowd of saints many of whom are identifiable by the attributes (symbols) with them.
The angels have been called Il coro delle angiolesse in the past, because many of them are obviously female. This was obviously a gesture on the part of the artist to the little girls in the orphanage, but caused great controversy at the time. The doctrinal point was that angels are sexless, hence should be depicted without any identifying sexual markers (in other words, as epicene youths).
All this fresco work was executed in 1630 by Giovanni da San Giovanni, who also provided depictions of the Four Crowned Martyrs on the outward faces of the pilasters and two female allegories (Religion to the left and Fortitude to the right) on the triumphal arch spandrels. The sides of the pilasters have stucco angels, of high quality.
The confessio is a semi-annular (U-shaped) passage running round the curve of the apse from one staircase to another. At the far end of its curve is a little chapel, and over the altar of this is an aperture with a diapered grating. Through this you can see another little chamber leading into a low barrel-vaulted niche with four allegedly ancient capsule-shaped sarcophagi containing the relics of the martyrs. There are remnants of 17th century frescoes, including leafy branches on the vault in front of the niche.
The fabric is 9th century, belonging to the Leonine basilica.
In years past the nuns would show interested visitors the confessio, but this courtesy is not generally available nowadays.
Right hand aisle Edit
The aisles have cross-vaults, and are floored with scavenged marble slabs.
In the right hand aisle you can see several columns of the arcade of the Leonine basilica, embedded in the church wall in the rebuilding by Pope Paschal but revealed by Muñoz in 1913 when he removed some of the concealing fabric.
Also here are some frescoes dating to about 1400: St Anthony the Great (?) between two unidentifiable saints near the entrance, then two sets of heraldry (not identified). An early form of the Pietà between SS Peter and Paul is next; Christ is depicted at the point of being taken down from the cross, not being held by Our Lady. The next panel shows St Bartholomew holding his flayed skin and accompanied by an unidentified bishop, and then comes St Bernard (?) being venerated by a monk and accompanied by St Basil (?), and finally the holy deacons SS Stephen and Lawrence. The former has his gridiron, and the latter stones about to strike his head. These frescoes would have been overseen by the Benedictine community if the dating is right, so it is odd that St Bernard and the monk venerating him are both in white cowls as if the latter was a Cistercian monk as well. Perhaps the original donor was one.
This aisle has a side-altar dedicated to the Nativity, with an anonymous 16th century altarpiece showing The Adoration of the Shepherds. There is no proper aedicule, but the painting has a very elaborate Baroque marble frame with an incut pediment and several winged putto's heads in the carving. This is now the Blessed Sacrament altar, and on the altar itself is a free-standing patinated bronze tabernacle. This interesting modern work is cylindrical with nail-head decoration, a little fish-scale cupola and a relief of The Last Supper. It is the best modern work of art in the church.
Near the transept is a fine Baroque memorial to Luigi D'Aquino 1679. It is in polychrome stonework, with a backing in red marble, an epitaph in black framed in yellow Siena marble and with a funerary urn in a pink and black brecciated marble over this. Two chilled-out lions are slumped on the urn, and at the top is a good portrait bust in an oval tondo.
Left hand side aisle Edit
The bottom left hand corner of the church has more 14th century frescoes: On the arcade pier is a saintly pope (St Leo?) being venerated by two monks, one in a white habit (Cistercian?) and one in black (Benedictine?); the latter is given the name Magister Rainaldus. Then comes St Augustine of Hippo (?), then three seated saints on the other side of a small round-headed window. The central one is an early monastic. Then comes a pope and two saints in a sailing boat on water full of fish, which is a depiction of the Barque of St Peter. Finally there is another unidentifiable bishop. One fragmentary scene survives of a lower register, which looks like a martyrdom with a sword.
The left hand aisle has two altars. The first, unusually with a very small polygonal mensa, has a painting by Giovanni da San Giovanni of The Annunciation in an elaborate gilded Baroque wall-frame over a grille. The idea here is that a private Mass could be said for a small number of nuns in the chamber on the other side. To the right of the altar is an access door (now permanently closed), over which is a 17th century fresco of two putti.
The next altar on the left-hand side is dedicated to St Sebastian, and the relic of his skull is venerated here. Two thin and tapered red marble Ionic columns support a split and separated triangular pediment, and flank an altarpiece by Giovanni Baglione depicting SS Irene and Lucina Tend the Wounds of St Sebastian. Below this is a diapered grating flanked by curlicues and black marble, through which you can see the little Baroque shrine containing the skull. In between the grille and the altarpiece is an epigraph describing the enshrinement in 1632.
There follows the exit to the cloisters (see below). Near the transept is a pair of monumental epitaphs, one above the other, to Cardinal Pietro Respighi 1913 and his nephew Carlo. The cardinal sponsored the restoration by Muñoz. Standing on the floor below these is a short marble column with a crude Corinthian capital, thought to have come from the altar screen of the 9th century Leonine basilica.
The cloisters are accessed through a door in the left hand aisle. It used to be that you had to accost the church custodian or one of the nuns to unlock this door for you. Hopefully, since the recent restoration, the door will be found left open when the church is open to visitors (but see note in section on "Access").
This is often called one of the quietest and most peaceful locations in Rome. Visitors should reciprocate and be quiet themselves, as the cloisters are part of a working nunnery. If the behaviour of visitors becomes a problem, access arrangements might change (for example, to restricted guided tours).
This set of cloisters were constructed in the early 13th century by (it is thought) the Cosmati for the Benedictine community in residence. There is an obvious dependence in design on the cloisters at the mother abbey of Sassovivo, which are known to have been finished by 1239 and which were designed by one Pietro de Maria. He was probably the architect in charge here, too.
The plan is rectangular, with ambulatories (walkways) on all four sides. There is a central garden measuring ten by fifteen metres, which together with the fabric has been very well restored recently. In the ambulatories are to be found many pieces of carved stonework of various dates, ancient and mediaeval, most of which were found by Muñoz in his restoration and collected here.
The short sides, north and south, have two runs of six arches each, separated by a central pillar. The long sides each have two runs of eight arches each, separated by a slightly larger arch flanked by a pair of piers in the Doric style and with incut corners, which serves as a garden entrance. These arcade arches spring from slab imposts each supported by a pair of small columns with liliform bell capitals. The corner and garden entrance piers, as well as the pillars in the short sides, each have a pair of applied ribbed pilasters as springers for the arches at their sides.
The intradoses of the arches have original geometric fresco decoration, showing tessellated triangles in black and white, and teardrops in red and green on a white background. The arch archivolts each have a single incut fillet, and these join at the bottoms of the archivolts on little corbels above the imposts to give a pleasant undulating pendant effect.
The walkways used to have tiled roofs, until the new orphanage built second storeys over all four sides. Two sides, the north and the east, have open loggias with very simple pillars between the openings. These two loggias connect with the gallery over the entrance loggia of the church, and so enable the nuns to get around their convent without having to cross an open courtyard. When this work was carried out, the walkways were vaulted. The original mediaeval roofline cornices were, however preserved. These feature brick dentillations either side of a row of marble modlillions or little brackets, and in between the modillions are mosaic panels in the Cosmatesque style featuring stars, crosses and squares.
In the centre of the garden is a 12th century fountain or cantaro, now in a pool in the shape of the cross-section of one of the garth entrance piers, but which was once in the second courtyard.
From the garden you can see the grim brick frontage of the south end of the church's transept, with round-headed windows and putlog holes for scaffolding.
Cappella di Santa Barbara Edit
From the cloisters you reach the Cappella di Santa Barbara. It is now a separate edifice, but was originally part of the 9th century Leonine basilica and had an entrance off its (now demolished) left hand aisle. The Paschaline rebuilding in the 12th century left it isolated, until it was joined to the cloisters when they were built.
The chapel has its own Italian Wikipedia page here.
The plan of the chapel is approximately square, although the walls are of slightly different lengths. The north wall (to the left on entering) used to contain the entrance from the church, and now abuts onto a chamber once used by the nuns to hear private Masses said on the Annunciation altar in the church. The other three walls contain narrow, tall apses with conchs, and the western one has had the cloister entrance knocked through it. All the interior walling is in brick.
There is a cross-vault, supported by deep square marble corbels with several bands of intricately decorated moldings. These are possibly 4th or 5th century.
The walls used to be entirely frescoed, but the work has deteriorated seriously and is now only in fragments. Traces of original 9th century work survive over the south apse. The rest is 14th century. The vault shows the four symbols of the Evangelists, the eastern apse contains a Madonna and Child with saints above and the northern wall has a fragment depicting a bishop. The other panels show scenes from the legend of St Barbara.
The rectangular window over the eastern apse preserves its originally pierced marble screen or transenna. The corresponding window over the entrance apse has been provided with a copy. On the walls have been placed fragments of 9th century marble screen-slabs or plutei from the Leonine basilica.
Cardinal's Palace Edit
The former palace of the cardinals, north of the church, has several rooms of architectural and artistic interest but these are within the enclosure of the nunnery and so are not readily visitable.
The Cappella di San Nicola was a chapel on the right hand side of the Leonine basilica which matched the chapel of St Barbara described above. It has left its fabric in the present edifice.
The refectory or dining-hall of the nuns occupies the right hand aisle of the Leonine basilica. Recent restoration work has revealed remains of the colonnade on this side, also the original 9th century floor which is a polychrome opus sectile work featuring stylized flowers.
Apparently fragments of sculpture from the lost Arch of Augustus in the Roman Forum are to be found in the kitchen!
The main entrance to the Augustinian nunnery is to the right in the second courtyard. The chamber beyond the door is the so-called Stanza del Calendario, because of a liturgical calendar or ordo recitandi painted as fresco for the use of the monks in the second half of the 13th century.
Aula Gotica Edit
In 1996, a room which the nuns were using for their ironing was found to have spectacular 13th century frescoes on the walls under whitewash applied when the palace became part of the orphanage in the 16th century. These were restored by 2006, but for several years were not viewable by the public because the location is inside the enclosure of the nunnery. However, this policy has been changed and from May 2015 you can visit by joining a guided tour. Details of how to do this are here.
This chamber is considered to have functioned as the primary reception room of the palace, and was also the location of a court of law. As such, it was a highly prestigious location. It has two bays, with cross-vaults springing from corbels, and both the vaulting and walls were frescoed. The work is tentatively ascribed to the so-called Third Master of Anagni, and to be of the 1240's (SS Francis and Dominic are depicted as saints, recently canonized). The southern bay has three registers showing allegories the Earthly Life: the mediaeval university course of studies (Trivium and Quadrivium), the Seasons month by month and the Vices. In the northern bay is the Spiritual Life, featuring allegorical Virtues, figures from both Old and New Testaments and also saints. The central depiction seems to be King Solomon dispensing justice, an allusion to one of the functions of the chamber in the Middle Ages.
Cappella di San Silvestro Edit
Location and access Edit
The 13th century Cappella di San Silvestro is a rectangular room located in what was the eastern end of the north aisle of the old Leonine basilica. This is now the north-east corner of the second cloister. The main entrance is off the Stanza del Calendario or entrance foyer of the convent mentioned above, while there is a side entrance in the right hand (north) end of the loggia at the far end of the first courtyard. This latter used to be the public entrance when the chapel functioned as a church before the latter part of the 19th century. The chapel has a sanctuary on a square plan at its east end, which was refitted in the 16th century.
Up to very recently, the means of gaining access was by ringing the bell at the convent entrance, to the right in the second courtyard. The nun on door-keeping duty would then pass the key through the so-called "turn", a cylindrical rotating cupboard designed to prevent personal contact between the nun and visitors. You would then be trusted to return the key with a donation.
The nuns have been rather determined to maintain this tradition deriving from more trusting and gracious times, in the face of mounting criticism. Insurance assessors take a very dim view of this sort of unsupervised access, and would prefer the chapel to be left unlocked with a custodian on watch. At present (May 2015) the word is that you still ask at the convent entrance, but the charge is now one euro. Access might change to supervised guided tours in the near future.
The chapel is simple architecturally. The nave is rectangular and is basically in the form of a tunnel, having a barrel vault incorporated into the side walls with smooth curves. There is one round-headed window near the main entrance on the right, with an embrasure which cuts into the vault, and a side entrance further down on the same side. This exits into the loggia opposite the entrance to the convent complex in the first courtyard.
The central part of the nave floor is high-quality original Cosmatesque work. However, the side zones by the walls are in geometric tiling in black, white and grey marble and look 18th century. The choir-stalls of the confraternity of marble-carvers would have occupied these locations when the chapel was re-fitted by them in the 16th century. There is one grave-slab, to Matteo Anno a carver from Como 1577. His son who provided the monument, Giuseppe Pietro Anno, has a wall monument of his own to the left 1594.
The sanctuary is entered through an unadorned arch, which is displaced to the right from the major axis, and has a square plan. There is a cross-vault, two round-headed windows in the far wall flanking the altarpiece and a round window (oculus) above. These three windows are in deep embrasures. A fourth round window is in the right hand wall.
The ceiling vault is frescoed in white, with a regular pattern of crosses in red and eight-pointed stars in grey. However, do not miss the unusual central feature which comprises five inset majolica pottery bowls of Islamic provenance, arranged in the form of a cross.
The chapel is famous for its fresco cycle painted around 1246, the year it was consecrated as the private chapel of the Cardinal's Palace. This cycle is political propaganda (in the secular sense), and depicts the unhistorical legend of Pope Sylvester I and Emperor Constantine I, including the fictional baptism of the emperor by the pope and (importantly) a depiction of the Donation of Constantine which was based on a maliciously forged mediaeval document. The work was painted in the context of the confrontation between Pope Innocent IV and the newly excommunicated Holy Roman emperor Frederick II, and was intended to illustrate the alleged sovereignty of the Church (Pope Sylvester) over the Empire (Constantine).
The three panels on the right hand wall depict scenes from other legends concerning the pope, including a very odd one that the pope got rid of a dragon inhabiting the Roman Forum which was being a nuisance to the citizens.
The cycle starts on the entrance wall. In the vault lunette is a Deesis, featuring Christ in majesty with Our Lady, St John the Baptist and the Apostles. Below, left to right: The Emperor Constantine Refuses to Bathe in Children's Blood to Cure Leprosy; The Emperor Dreams of SS Peter and Paul Advising Him to Contact Pope St Sylvester in Exile and The Envoys of the Emperor Ride Out to the Pope on Mount Soratte.
Left wall: The Envoys Ascend Mount Soratte to the Pope; The Pope Returns to Rome and Shows the Emperor an Icon of SS Peter and Paul; The Pope Baptizes the Emperor; The Emperor Grants Temporal Sovereignty to the Pope Enthroned; The Pope in Procession Accompanied by the Emperor.
The fresco panels are framed in brightly coloured vegetative decoration, and below them is another register comprising tondi depicting prophets and patriarchs. Unfortunately, these have been damaged by the former installation of choir stalls in the 16th century.
In the upper strip of vegetation on the right hand side is the odd detail of a fluted white pottery vase inserted into the wall in place of one of the roundels.
The attractive little sanctuary preserves its 16th century fresco work by Raffaellino. This is overshadowed by the mediaeval frescoes, but is interesting in its own right. The floor is Cosmatesque like that of the nave, and is accessed by three steps.
The altar is late Baroque, 1728 as its inscription will tell you, and has a polychrome marble frontal. The anonymous altarpiece is about 1700, and depicts Calvary. There is no aedicule, but instead a molded marble frame topped by an epigraph Regnavit a ligno Deus, and a segmental pediment broken at the top.
The left hand side wall fresco shows the Four Crowned Martyrs being condemned by the emperor, and the right hand one shows them being placed in lead boxes before being thrown into the river. Above the altar is an Annunciation either side of the oculus, the dish of which is embellished in grotesque work.
The vault is provided with very wide double ribs, forming narrow panels containing frescoes of rather pretty angels. The central panel depicts Christ the King, and the four side panels show The Evangelists. The pendentives feature the martyrs again, each with his name in a label.
The sides of the entrance arch show the emperor Constantine and Pope St Sylvester, and the intrados has a tondo showing Our Lady as Queen. She is flanked by more grotesque work, including two oval monochrome tondi containing the tools of the marble-carver's craft.
The church, cloisters and Cappella di San Silvestro are open, according to the sisters' website (May 2015):
Daily 10:00 to 11:45, 16:00 to 17:45,
On Sundays and Solemnities the Cloisters are closed in the morning.
The Aula Gotica with its recently-discovered mediaeval frescoes will have restricted opening to the public as from summer 2015, involving a guided tour with a charge of ten euros. The opening arrangements are to be found here.
Note that the opening times given above differ from most posted online, and published in guidebooks. Up to recently, the times were more generous.
Also, access to the cloisters and to the Cappella di San Silvestro used to depend on asking one of the sisters -and there are very many descriptions of visitors ringing the convent doorbell in order to ask for the key of the chapel. However, the sisters are declining in numbers and are finding it difficult to attend to visitors in the way that they used to. There have been serious worries expressed that unsupervised access to the Cappella di San Silvestro might lead to the frescoes being vandalized.
The latest information is that the chapel now has an entry charge of one euro, but that you still ask for access at the convent entrance.
The cloister still has free access, but a donation is welcome. In the past the sisters would also show interested visitors the crypt, but do not expect this now.
HOWEVER, there is a strongly expressed opinion among those with influence that access to both cloisters and the chapel should nowadays be restricted to supervised guided tours. So, the access arrangements to these two parts of the complex might change at any time. Please check before visiting.
Being a traditional monastic community, the nuns celebrate the Divine Office in full (the information is from their own website):
Office of Readings 6:30, Lauds 7:45, Terce 9:30, Rosary and Sext 12:00, None 15:15, Vespers 18:00, Mass 18:30.
As above, except Mass 7:45 instead of Lauds, Vespers with Rosary 18:00, no evening Mass advertised by the nuns.
Sundays and Solemnities:
Office of Readings 6:45, Lauds 8:00, Terce 9:00, Sext 10:45, Mass 11:00, None 15:30, Vespers and Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament 18:00.
The feast of the Four Crowned Martyrs is celebrated as a Solemnity on 8 November.
Convent website (by the nuns)
Website for complex (by interested seculars involved in restoration)
Annas Rom Guide (in Danish)
Article on cloister (PDF)