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Santi Vincenzo e Anastasio alle Tre Fontane

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Santi Vincenzo e Anastasio alle Tre Fontane is a 12th century monastery church at the Abbey of Tre Fontane, the legendary site of the martyrdom of St Paul. The postal address is Via Acque Salvie 1, in the Ardentino quarter. Pictures of the church at Wikimedia Commons are here. The abbey has an English Wikipedia page here.

The dedication is jointly to St Vincent the Deacon and St Anastasius the Persian.

Other churchesEdit

The abbey is an ancient pilgrimage site, and has two other churches as well as the monastery church. These are Santa Maria Scala Coeli and San Paolo alle Tre Fontane, which have separate pages on this Wiki. The general history of the monastery is treated in this article, however.

Two further churches have Tre Fontane in their titles, but have nothing to do with the abbey. These are: Santa Maria del Terzo Millennio alle Tre Fontane and San Gregorio Barbarigo alle Tre Fontane.



The martyrdom of St Paul is mentioned by St Ignatius of Antioch, and later by Eusebius of Caesarea who added the detail that it occurred in the reign of the emperor Nero. The actual year is unknown, although AD 67 is usually quoted. The tradition that he was beheaded with a sword was deduced from his status as a Roman citizen, as this was the chosen method of executing malefactors of that class at the time.

The basilica of San Paolo fuori le Mura has been venerated as the site of his burial since very early times, and it seems that this was the site of his martyrdom, too.

The legend of his martyrdom at Tre Fontane does not occur before the 6th century, and there is a suspicion that it was invented to raise the prestige of an already existing monastery here. The locality is near the third milestone from the city on the ancient Via Laurentina, and this seems too far to have taken a condemned prisoner for execution. This wouldn't have mattered to St Paul, but it would have done to the soldiers doing the job.

The developed legend describes how St Paul was beheaded at a site now marked by the church of San Paolo, and that three springs of water emerged from the ground where his head bounced. Then his body was carried some distance back to the site of San Paolo fuori le Mura for burial.

Ancient timesEdit

These springs are referred to in modern published sources as having been the Aquae Salviae in ancient times. If so, could somebody give a reference to its use in any Classical source? The first documentary reference seems to be in a description of landholdings by Pope Gregory the Great, at the end of the 6th century (no monastery is mentioned).

There was something important around here in ancient times, because a road surface belonging to a branch of the Via Laurentina has been traced near the abbey entrance (the Arco di Carlo Magno). Another name preserved for the locality is Ager Herodis, and the surmise arising from this is that King Herod Agrippa II had a villa here in Nero's time.

Foundation of monasteryEdit

The monastery seems to have been founded in the 6th century, although there is apparently archaeological evidence that the site was used for Christian burials earlier than this.

A 9th century Italian monk-chronicler called Benedict of Soracte wrote that Narses, a leading general in the armed forces of Emperor Justinian, built a church here and had it dedicated to St Paul. This would have been in the mid 6th century, if correct.

The Libellus of Anastasius the Disciple, 628, mentions "George, a priest of the monastery of Cilicia on the Aquae Salviae". This indicates that the original foundation was by monks from Cilicia in what is now south-eastern Turkey. This country contained Tarsus, the birthplace of St Paul, and this might have been the original connection with the cult of the apostle.

Dark agesEdit

It is on certain record in the Liber Pontificalis that Pope Honorius I built a monastery here in 625, and staffed it with Byzantine-rite Greek monks. Monastic life in the city was to be dominated by Byzantine-rite monastics for a century. (However, in a rather sinister re-writing of history in the later Middle Ages, it was pretended that they never existed and that Roman monasteries were staffed by Benedictines in this period. This is entirely false.)

The head of the Persian martyr St Anastasius was enshrined here. He had been martyred on the orders of the Persian Shah Chosroes II in 624, and the relic was donated by Emperor Heraclius before 641. In about the year 650, a German pilgrim wrote an extant work called De Locis Sanctis Martyrum quae sunt Foris Civitatis Romae, which is a catalogue of sacred sites outside the walls of Rome. Tre Fontane is mentioned as being the place of the beading of St Paul (this is the first historical reference to the legend), and also as having the relic of St Anastasius.

The Miraculum Sancti Anastasii Martyris of the 8th century describes the monastery as having a church dedicated to Our Lady, and also one dedicated to St John the Baptist.

In the reign of Pope Adrian I (772-95), the monastery was destroyed by a fire "owing to the carelessness of the monks", and the pope facilitated a rebuilding.

A legend set in the year 805, but lacking contemporary documentation, is illustrated in decayed mediaeval frescoes in the Arco di Carlo Magno. According to it, the relic of St Anastasius helped Emperor Charlemagne to conquer the Tuscan town of Ansedonia from the Lombards, so he and Pope Leo III gave the monastery generous land-holdings in the area.


As mentioned, it was argued until the 19th century that Benedictines were at the monastery from the late 6th century. This malicious fantasy is now discredited, but a date at the end of the 8th century is still quoted for their arrival. This, again, has no contemporary documentation and relies on unreliable Benedictine historiography. The process whereby Roman-rite monks replaced Byzantine-rite ones in the city's monasteries is wholly obscure, but seems to have taken place in the 10th century.

The earliest evidence for Benedictine monks occupying the monastery dates from 1080, when it was put under the authority of the abbey of San Paolo fuori le Mura, itself governed by the abbey of Cluny

Foundation of Cistercian abbeyEdit

The Benedictine monastery here failed by the early 12th century. Pope Innocent II (1130-1143) began rebuilding the complex in 1136 (there is evidence of his work in the present fabric), and in 1138 donated it to St Bernard who was abbot of the Cistercian monastery of Clairvaux in France. 

St Bernard was very reluctant to found a community at Rome, and the pope had to insist. A foundation was made by Clairvaux at Scandriglia under Abbot Bernard of Pisa (Pope Eugene III from 1145), and Pope Innocent appointed this Bernard as abbot at Tre Fontane instead in 1140. This marks the foundation of the Cistercian abbey at this location.

A legend that St Bernard had a vision here of souls ascending to heaven from Purgatory is the origin of the name of the pilgrimage church of Santa Maria Scala Coeli.

Construction of abbeyEdit

According to the evidence of the fabric, construction began immediately but was fitted around buildings already put up by Pope Innocent. Work began on the transept and sanctuary of the church, at its east end. In 1145 to 1153, after the abbey's first abbot had been elected pope, the east range of the cloister was erected. Then there was a pause.

From 1180 for about ten years, the north and west ranges of the cloister were built, as well as the nave of the church. The monks got into trouble with the latter, as they tried to build a Gothic vault on inadequate foundations. This led to another pause in progress.

Finally, from the accession of Pope Honorius III in 1216, the west front of the church with its porch was completed and the unfinished vault given a permanent wooden roof. The consecration of the church took place in 1221. (An alternative year of 1244 is also quoted.)

The original dedication was to the Blessed Virgin Mary, as was the case with every Cistercian abbey church at the time.

Glory daysEdit

Even before the completion of the church, Pope Eugene had given the community here permission to spend the summer at the castle of Nemi. The problem was malaria, vectored by mosquitoes breeding in the wetlands in the valley just to the north. This was to prove an increasing problem in later centuries.

However, at first the famous farming ability of the Cistercian monks seems to have mitigated the disease problem by turning the marshes into meadows and so reducing the areas of open stagnant water.

The abbey entered an era of splendour in the mid 13th century, and itself founded four daughter abbeys: Casanova near Penne, Arabona near Manopello, Montalto di Castro at Maremma, Palazzolo on the lake at Albano and Ponza, the island in the Gulf of Gaeta.

In 1370, some relics of St Vincent the Deacon were brought to the monastery and it is at this point that the church has the dedication to Santi Vincenzo e Anastasio. On the other hand, at about the same time the head of St Anastasius was stolen and was only recovered when it was noticed at Santa Maria in Trastevere in 1407. Such an occurrence is evidence for trouble at the abbey.


The wealth generated by the abbey's agricultural activities was its downfall. Also in 1407, the first abbot in commendam was appointed. Commendatory abbots were non-monks (sometimes simple laymen) who were legally made abbots of monasteries simply in order to enjoy their income. The universal effect on monasteries suffering this abuse was serious decay. All canonical abbots here after about 1460 were commendatory, and some of them were high-profile cardinals.

However, at Tre Fontane a useful legal fiddle was employed to preserve monastic life. A "claustral abbot" was appointed to rule the community, thus giving the abbey two abbots. In 1518, the abbey was joined to the Tuscan Province of the Italian Congregation of the Cistercians, which improved supervision of the quality of the monastic life here (previously this had remained the responsibility of Clairvaux Abbey, rather too far away in France).

New churchesEdit

The existence of a commendatory abbot was not all bad, if he were a powerful prelate who could act as patron. In 1581, Cardinal Alessandro Farnese ordered the rebuilding of the pilgrimage church of Santa Maria Scala Coeli, which was completed in 1584.

The consecration of the new church involved the enshrining of the relics of St Zeno and his 10 203 (!) martyrs, who were allegedly Christian slaves working on the construction of the Baths of Diocletian. The legend states that they were massacred when the project was finished, and the bodies taken here. Apart from the impossibly high number of the companions (divide by one hundred to obtain a remotely possible number), again the locality is at too remote a distance to expect to carry a number of corpses. The massacre was allegedly outside the Porta San Sebastiano

It is not at all clear whether this St Zeno is the same as the one to be found in the basilica of Santa Prassede.

In 1599, Cardinal Pietro Aldobrandini rebuilt San Paolo alle Tre Fontane, employing the same architect who supervised the previous church, namely Giacomo della Porta.


The mediaeval Cistercians had worked their own farmland, using illiterate peasant monks initially called conversi, and later known as lay-brothers because they were not ordained as priests. Initially this was very successful, because a young male peasant (for the first time in monastic history) could have complete security from famine and plunder and a religious life in return for giving up sex. The equation was often a no-brainer. However, as secular society became more sophisticated and opportunities for such people broadened out, the lay-brother vocation lost its appeal. So, the Cistercian abbeys began to lease out their farmland instead of working it themselves.

Here, what that meant was that the marshland in the valley to the north began to spread, and malaria returned in a big way.

The church was restored in 1733, but was then allowed to fall into disrepair.

In 1783, the abbey transferred from the Tuscan Congregation to the Roman Congregation. This did not help, because pilgrims at the time reported a ruinous monastery inhabited by a few sick monks.


The French occupation of Rome at the end of the 18th century eventually forced the closure of the abbey, which was formalized in 1809. When the papal government was restored in 1814, none of the former monks wanted to return. After a pause, the complex was given to the Franciscans in 1826 but the malaria prevented them from setting up conventual life properly.


Finally, in 1868 the abbey buildings were granted to the Trappist Cistercians in 1868, who immediately restored the church. This was just in time for the new Italian government to sequester all monastic property in Rome in 1873. Here, however, a modus vivendi was reached.

It was still thought that malaria was caused by stagnant air (hence the name), so the government insisted that the monks implement a project to plant the entire area with eucalyptus trees from Australia which would freshen the atmosphere. (Many of the original trees planted still survive.) The monks used the oil from the leaves to make a liqueur called eucalittino, which was very popular among Romans (allegedly because good for colds, in reality also because intestinal worms find it disagreeable). Meanwhile, the malaria vanished because the marshes were finally drained.

Eucalyptus trees are thirsty, and might have contributed to a disaster in 1950. The water table fell, and the sacred springs stopped flowing. Since then the flow has been kept up artificially -but you can visit the abbey, and find the taps turned off.

This is still a working Cistercian monastery, and one of the most pleasant pilgrimage outings from Rome. 


Statue of St BenedictEdit

The abbey has a 19th century set of outer gates, and then a long driveway (the Via Acque Salvie) to the actual monastery.

Where the driveway bends to the left, there is a large 19th century statue of St Benedict in an aedicule. The saint is shown with a finger to his lips (the Trappists used to keep silence -not any more), and is accompanied by a raven holding a small loaf (the legend is that the bird took a poisoned loaf from the saint). The statue plinth has an epigraph Benedic gloriosae soboli tuae Italiae mundo ("Bless the world with you glorious offspring of Italy"). Below the aedicule is a large tablet with a series of ascetic epigraphs, the first two of which are from the Rule of St Benedict and the third is a traditional motto of the Benedictines:

Ausculta, O fili; Obedientia sine mora; Ora et labora; Huc properat, caelos optat qui cernere apertos, nec removet votum semita dura pium. Semper difficili quaeruntur summa labore arctam semper habet vita beata viam.

("Listen, O son; Obedience without delay; Pray and work; He hurries to this place who wishes to see the heavens opened, and he will not withdraw his pious intention from the hard path. The good and highest life is always sought with difficult effort, and has a narrow way.")

The aedicule is in brick, with the statue within an arched niche edged with a pair of basalt columns supporting imposts in limestone. This arch is set within a Gothic arch in brick with stone imposts, and in the point of this is a limestone tondo. This has a representation of the Medal of St Benedict.

Muster groundEdit

The driveway ends in a car park which was the mediaeval monastery's muster ground. Riders and those bearing weapons were not allowed into the monastery itself. A branch of the driveway to the left leads to the abbey's modern farm buildings, and here would have been the mediaeval service quarters, too. These would have included stables, bakehouse, winery, tannery and barns.

Arco di Carlo MagnoEdit

The opus listatum (brick and tufa) gatehouse of the abbey proper is named after Charlemagne. The present edifice is partly the result of a 19th restoration, when the chamber of the porter (gatekeeper) was apparently rebuilt. This has a lookout consisting of an arcade of six small arches separated by stone columns with imposts. Between the entrance arch and this lookout is a 19th century relief panel showing the Madonna and Child.

The entrance passage is vaulted in two bays, separated by a transverse arch in marble. The first bay contains very badly decayed but important frescoes executed when the church was being finished, around 1200. The theme is the conquest of Ansedonia from the Lombards by Charlemagne and Pope Leo III, and its subsequent donation to the abbey. The reason why the Cistercians displayed such an obscure historical event here is because there was a dispute over the large land-holding thus donated. The abbey of San Paolo fuori le Mura had a rival claim.

It is very difficult to make the scheme out now, but fortunately the frescoes were copied in 1630 when they were much better preserved. The vault showed Christ Pantocrator in a central tondo, surrounded by angels and the symbols of the Evangelists. The left hand wall had Charlemagne and Pope Leo arriving at Ansedonia in the top register, while below the emperor was depicted having a vision advising him to have the head of St Anastasius brought. The right hand wall had three registers. The top showed the arrival of the relic, the middle shows the fall of the city and its donation to the monks of Tre Fontane (shown anachronistically as Cistercians), while the bottom depicts the castles of the land-holding donated.

Outer courtEdit

Once through the gateway, you are in the outer court of the mediaeval monastery with the abbey church straight ahead. The church of San Paolo is up an avenue just to the right of this, and that of Scala Coeli further to the right. Nearer the gateway to the right used to be a spring, but this has been dry in recent years.

Just inside the gatehouse to the left is the shop and small bar, with an outside drinking area. Over to the left are the public toilets.

The centre of the courtyard has a statue of Our Lady on an old column, erected in the 19th century. This was put up after the ground was dug out to lower the courtyard level to that of the floor of the church loggia.

This outer court was where the mediaeval monks interacted with seculars on business, including women. The latter were not permitted to enter the monastery -a situation that still pertains.


The monastery's layout is typical of a Cistercian abbey, and one of the best plans available online of a generic Cistercian plan is here. However, be aware that the northern European Cistercians put their monastery buildings south of the church in order to catch the winter sun, while the southern Europeans put them north of the church to avoid the summer sun.

North of the church is a large square Romanesque cloister, with arcades on all four sides. To the east is the sacristy and chapter house, while to the north are the frater or dining hall and the kitchen. The west range had a dorter or dormitory over storerooms, since the early Cistercians slept in one room and did not have private cells. Further north would have been the infirmary, in effect a small sub-monastery for sick monks (it had the only other fireplace apart from the kitchen one), and the reredorter or toilets.

It used to be possible for male visitors to ask to see the cloister, but this is no longer the case. The monks have too much to do to be able to continue this courtesy.

Exterior of churchEdit

Layout and fabricEdit

The church is also very typical of an early Cistercian edifice, apparently symmetrical and on the plan of a Latin cross. However, irregularities in its plan have provided useful clues to architectural historians.

The edifice has a nave with side aisles, then a transept and finally a rectangular sanctuary. Two chapels flank the sanctuary on each side, accessed from the transept. The overall length of the church (not including the narthex) is 66.45 metres. The widths of nave with aisles is 22.57 metres, including the thickness of the walls.

The side aisles are not of the same dimensions. The northern one measures 42.72 by 4.6 metres and is 6.65 metres high, and the southern one is 42.81 by 4.14 metres and is 6.12 metres high. This is regarded as an important clue to the history of the church, allied to the assymetry of the transept. From the centre of the crossing, the latter measures 15.50 metres to the left, and 15.83 metres to the right. Also, the far left hand chapel is noticeably narrower than the right hand one.

It is thought that the present church is on the site of the original 7th century one, and alleged remains of the latter are preserved under glass in the floor of the transept. The east range of the cloister, north of the left hand end of the transept and including the sacristy and chapter house, was built around an edifice originally put up by Pope Innocent II before the Cistercians arrived and it is thought that the latter re-used the foundations of this and the previous Benedictine church in building the present church and the east range. 

The fabric of the church and monastery is either brick, or opus listatum which is brick interspersed with courses of limestone ashlar. Some construction using ashlar only is in the sacristy, which is evidence for 13th century alterations. Interestingly, the bricks in the sanctuary end of the church and the east wing of the cloister are salvaged ancient Roman ones, but those elsewhere including the nave are much more regular in size and it seems that these were newly made.


There are two campanili, at the sanctuary end of the church. On the gable end is a small bellcote with two arched openings side by side under its own gable, while over the sacristy to the left is a larger erection consisting of a slab in brick with a gable and three round-headed apertures at the top, arranged in a triangle.


The church has an early 13th century loggia or narthex, which was the last part of it to be 

Tre Fontane -Vincenzo ed Anastasio

finished. This has four ancient grey granite Ionic columns (not a matching set), which support a horizontal roofline entablature continued over short lengths of brick wall at either end. The architrave of this entablature is in marble, and where it meets the walls there are two imposts cut from a richly carved ancient Roman lintel. The columns stand on very high pedestals, the result of the 19th century lowering of the ground level outside. Before this, stairs led down into the narthex.

The frieze of the entablature shows shallow brick relieving arches, one over each portal, and in between these are 13th century pottery basins inserted into the fabric. The cornice has two rows of brick dentillation either side of a row of marble modillions. The single-pitched sloping tiled roof is orginal 13th century.

The centre of the marble architrave bears an inscription carved in the 16th century, which reads:

Innocentius II Pont[ifex] Max[imus], ex familia Anicia Papia et Paparesca, nunc Mattaeia S[ancti] Bernardi opera, sublato Anacleto schismate, eidem ac suis Cisterciensibus hoc a se restauratum monasterium dono dedit, anno Domini MCXL.

There are three doors leading into the church from the loggia, the central one being larger with a molded marble doorcase. The side entrances are not original but were provided in the late 17th century.

Traces of early 13th century frescoes were visible here in the early 20th century.

Nave frontageEdit

The nave frontage above the loggia is in naked brick (which was probably originally rendered), with the fabric including some stone slabs. It has five round-headed and splayed windows, three arranged in a triangle below and two flanking a large central round window at the level of the side wall rooflines. These windows have transennae or pierced marble slabs with circular perforations. The round window has mullions in a rose pattern, with a central circle surrounded by eight smaller ones forming the petals (octofoil).



There is a central nave of nine bays, with side aisles. Then comes a transept, which is wider each side than the nave with aisles. The sanctuary is rectangular, almost square, and the same width as the central nave. The far sides of the transept flanking the sanctuary have two chapels each, which are small rectangular rooms.

Visitors only have access to the first six bays of the nave. The rest of the church is part of the abbey's enclosure, and is cut off by a wrought iron screen.


The central nave and aisles are separated by arcades the arches of which spring from massive square piers. These do not have proper capitals, but each has a cornice of three molding strips instead. Above each arch is a round-headed window. 

You can see how the side walls of the central nave curve inwards towards their tops. This is because the monks originally intended a vault, before settling for the present wooden truss roof.

The floor is in brick. The aisles have cross-vaults, and are lit by little round-headed windows in the same style as those in the façade.

The walls are mostly in bare brick, and now there is not much decoration. This was certainly customary for early Cistercian churches, but archaeologists involved in a recent restoration have discovered that the interior walls were originally rendered and had extensive frescoes. Almost nothing of these survive. The inner faces of the piers now have frescoes of the apostles which date from the 16th century and imitate works by Raphael


The side walls of the nave continue over the transept. Beyond the last bay of the nave are two much larger arches, which access each end of the transept. The nave roof is also continued to the sanctuary. Here there is a triumphal arch, and the wall over this has three splayed round-headed windows arranged in a triangle, the central one being much larger. Above this is a rose window with quatrefoil mullions.


The sanctuary contains the monastic choir. It has a much lower roof than the nave, which allows for the windows just mentioned. The windows at the far end are of the same design, except that the large central window and the two small flanking ones are in a row. They have stained glass.


Much of the abbey's income comes from selling its produce, and nowadays that of other Cistercian monasteries. So, now there is a shop selling Cistercian produce from abbeys worldwide, and this doubles as a small bar where you can drink Trappist beer. This cannot be recommended too highly. 

The eucalittino liqueur is still available for sale, although (according to rumour) the amount of eucalyptus oil has been reduced. The oil is a systemic poison, although as an adult you would need to drink about 10 ml of the pure oil in one go to damage yourself. 

The biscuits in the shop are expensive, but then Italians have never regarded biscuits as a basic foodstuff (and the Anglo-Saxons have never regarded wine as a basic foodstuff -swap?).


The church is open, according to the abbey website:

Daily 6:30 to 12:30, 15:00 to 20:30. 

On Sundays, the afternoon opening is at 15:30.

By public transport, you get here by the 761 bus which runs between the metro stations at Laurentina and San Paolo. You have to walk north about 100 metres, and take the first driveway to the right. Cross the road at the bus stop if you are coming from San Paolo.

The bus journey from San Paolo is about four times the length of that from Laurentina, but if you want to combine a visit to the basilica of San Paolo with one to the abbey, then you will find the bus terminates and waits for passengers at the Largo Beato Riccardi which is south of the main crossroads west of the station at San Paolo.

The abbey website advises that the walk from Laurentina metro station is about twenty minutes. This has two caveats. Firstly, you have to find your way out of the station, and through the transport hub to the main road. Then you have to walk up the road, which is how the twenty advertised minutes are spent. They are not pleasant ones -the road is busy, and the suburb boring.

If you decide to walk back to the metro station at Laurentina, you will find a kiosk bar on the north (left hand) side of all the bus stops. If you haven't sampled the Trappist beer already (or if you have), you might need a bottle of Peroni after that wretched walk. The writer speaks from experience.


Mass is celebrated publicly on Sundays and major feast-days at 9:45.

External linksEdit

Official diocesan web-page

Italian Wikipedia page

Abbey website (June 2014: this is being upgraded, so link might die)

Info.roma web-page

Romeartlover web-page

Illustrated archaeological article


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