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Santo Stefano Rotondo al Celio

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Santo Stefano Rotondo al Celio

English name: St Stephen's Rotunda at the Coelian
Dedication: St Stephen of Hungary, St Stephen the Deacon
Denomination: Roman Catholic
Type: National church Titular church
National church: Hungarian
Built: 5th century restored in 1543
Architect(s): Bernardo Rosselino
Artists: Pomerancio, Tempesta
Contact data
Address: 7 Via di Santo Stefano Rotondo

00184 Roma

Phone: 06 48 19 333 /

06 70 49 37 17

Santo Stefano Rotondo al Celio is the Hungarian national church, primarily dedicated to St Stephen the Deacon and also to St Stephen of Hungary. It has the status of a minor basilica, and is located on the Via di Santo Stefano Rotondo on the summit of the Caelian Hill. Pictures of the church at Wikimedia Commons. [1] There is an English Wikipedia page. [2]


Castra PeregrinaEdit

Back in the days of the imperial city, the Caelian hill was of course entirely built up. The summit seems to have been occupied by villas owned by patricians, while down the slope towards the Colosseum were multi-storey tenaments occupied by plebs. The present road network is substantially different from that which pertained back then, with the notable exception of the present Via di Santo Stefano Rotondo and the Clivus Scauri. This line of road probably originated with a Stone Age trackway running along the summit of the hill from the Palatine, in which case it is one of the oldest things in the city and millennia older than the little village of wooden huts called Rome that grew up in the 8th century BC.

The actual site of the church was occupied by the Castra Peregrina, which was the set of barracks housing Roman soldiers detached from provincial legions for special service in the city. They were originally used for supply and postal duties, but by the 2nd century were also a police force. The government found them useful for beating up troublemakers, because they had no worries about revenge being taken on their families. The camp was excavated next to the church in 1902, and also beneath the church from 1969 to 1975. Two 2nd century buildings were uncovered, and very interestingly the one under the church had a Mithraeum. This shrine for the worship of Mithras had been re-ordered in the 3rd century, and was one of the largest in Rome. It produced some interesting frescoes, including one of the Moon Goddess (probably a version called Sin), and fragments of a statue of Mithras.

The camp is known to have still functioned in the 4th century, and its clearance for the church would have needed the special authorization of the emperor. This is thought to have been given by Valentinian III (425-55). The siting of the church over the Mithraeum might have been deliberate, as apparently early Christians had a special hatred for Mithraism and there is evidence that the one at Santa Prisca was vandalized by them. The same thing may have happened here, as the Mithraeum was certainly still in use at the end of the 4th century and the cult statue seems then to have been smashed in situ.

Foundation of the churchEdit

The first church was considered to have been consecrated in the time of Pope St Simplicius (468-483) to hold the relics of St Stephen, deacon and protomartyr of the Church. His alleged tomb had been discovered at Kafr Gamala in the Holy Land in 415, where the monastery of Beit Jimal now is. However, recent dendrochronology dating on surviving original roof timbers indicates that the trees they came from were felled in 455. Hence the project was probably initiated by Pope St Leo the Great (440-61), who certainly founded another church dedicated to St Stephen -Santo Stefano Protomartire a Via Latina. In the foundations were found two coins of the emperor Libius Severus (461-5), indicating the start of actual construction in the early 460's.

The documentary evidence for the church's foundation is very poor. It was the first circular church in Rome, and so it has been thought that it was modelled on the Anastasis of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. This is not as straightforward as first appears. The diameter of Santo Stefano now is almost exactly the same as that of the Anastasis, but the former used to be a larger and more complex building. The church appears among the tituli in the synod list of 499 as Sanctus Stephanus in Coelio Monte with a priest named Marcellus, and this is the first documentary reference. It has also been thought (without evidence) that it may have been financed by the patrician Valeriani family, whose estates covered large parts of the Caelian Hill. St Melania the Elder, a member of this family, was a frequent pilgrim to Jerusalem and died there, so the family had connections to the Holy Land.

Original layout and formEdit

The original plan and architectural form were amazingly complex, and raise many unanswered questions about the building's original function.

The plan was based on four nested circles, on which was superimposed a Greek cross with wide arms. These arms ran from the second to the outermost circles. Proceeding from the centre outwards, firstly there was the extant circle of twenty-two Ionic columns supporting a trabeation (no arcade) and having an ambulatory behind them. This colonnade supported in turn the central drum, of brick and having a low and light conical tiled roof. A dome would have been impossible, as the colonnade would have been too weak to support it. The drum originally had a circle of twenty-two arched windows immediately above the roofline of the adjacent ambulatory.

The second circle was occupied by a second colonnade, of forty-four columns, which marked the outer limit of the inner ambulatory and which supported an arcade. This colonnade is now occupied by the outer wall of the church, in which the columns are still embedded. From this circle, the cross-arms ran north-east, north-west, south-east and south-west to the fourth, outer circle which was occupied by the original outer wall. Each of these cross-arms had its own pitched and tiled roof, joined onto the roof of the inner ambulatory mentioned. The columns of the second colonnade which formed the four entrance portals of these cross-arms are taller than the rest, as can still be seen.

The third circle, just within the outer wall, was marked by barrel-vaulted arcades forming outer ambulatories running just within the outer wall in between the cross arms. Another interpretation has these arcades as solid walls. In between these arcades (or walls) and the second colonnade further in were either four open courts, the favoured interpretation, or four unlit roofed chambers. Whatever these were, they were each entered through the second colonnade, or through two triple side-entrances from the flanking cross-arms.

When the building was first conceived, each section of outer wall in between the cross-arms had two entrance doorways, eight in all. Before or just after it was finished, however, six doors were blocked up and only the two flanking the north-east cross arms were left. There was originally no entrance vestibule outside the outer wall.

If the third circle was occupied by solid walls, anybody entering through one of these doors would have been faced with a blank wall. He or she would have had to turn right or left into one of the cross-arms to make an entrance. This would have made the building into a simple labyrinth.

The original decoration was rich. The original flooring of the rotunda has been excavated, and was of precious marble slabs (cipollino was used) laid in a pattern which included a cross radiating out to the cross-arms. Evidence of the use of opus sectile and of marble wall revetting was also found.

On the other hand, the recent restoration revealed that the original building standards were rather poor. As a result, the edifice has had a long history of instability and disrepair which affected how it was treated in subsequent centuries.

Interpretation of original designEdit

Romans would have been very familiar with circular mausolea or temples, and later converted several into churches. For example, of the temples the Pantheon was converted into the church of Santa Maria ad Martyres at the start of the 7th century. Of the mausolea, Santa Costanza only became a church in the 13th century although Santa Maria Genitrice a Via Appia was one by the 9th. However, there was no Roman precedent for Santo Stefano in its original form, and it is not easy to find one elsewhere. The Anastasis of the Holy Sepulchre was not then a church, but a mausoleum over the Empty Tomb and only had one colonnade and ambulatory. The Church of the Holy Apostles, founded at Constantinople by the emperor Constantine, was the first one to be shaped like a Greek cross, and was imitated at Milan by St Ambrose at the end of the 4th century. The best that architectural historians have been able to do is to suggest that Santo Stefano was a combination of these two inspirations.

How the building was originally used is an even greater mystery. Historians of Roman liturgy have failed to come up with any sensible suggestion as to how it could have functioned as a church, so perhaps it was not originally intended as one but as a large pilgrimage venue for the veneration of relics instead. The church of Santa Maria in Domnica is very near, and that could have been the place originally intended for saying Mass. The suggestion that the building design focused on a shrine of St Stephen in the centre is a reasonable one, but this begs the question as to what the cross arms were for. Were there four other holy relics to be displayed there? Nobody knows.

The blocking of six of the eight original entrance doors indicates that the project aims were reviewed very early on. This alteration destroyed the eightfold symmetry that the first scheme had, and introduced a major axis passing through two cross-arms and flanked by the two surviving doors. Since the church had a priest in 499 it must have had an altar by then, and this may originally have been in the cross-arm opposite the entrances.

Dark AgesEdit

According to a now lost epigraph, the church was decorated in a restoration by Pope John I (523-526) and continued by Pope Felix IV (526-530). Mosaics and marble work were mentioned, and the opus sectile fragments discovered in excavations may have come from this restoration. The inscription read:

Opus quod Basilicae beati martyris Stephani deflui a Johanne epo marmoribus inchoatum iuvante Domino Felix Papa addito musivo splendore storiche plebi di perfecit.

In the mid 7th century Pope Theodore I (642-9), from Jerusalem and probably a Greek, fitted out the north-eastern cross arm as a shrine-chapel for the martyrs SS Primus and Felician. This is the first recorded example of the relics of martyrs being transferred from their original burial place (in this case, on the Via Nomentana 14 miles from Rome) to within the city walls. He commissioned a mosaic, which survives, and buried his father here. The latter had been a bishop in the Holy Land.

If there actually was an important relic of St Stephen in the church at the beginning, its early loss was not recorded.

Middle AgesEdit

There was a major restoration and re-ordering of the edifice in the 12th century, which was ordered by Pope Innocent II (1130-1143). It is fairly clear that the motivation was to save the building from collapse. Firstly, an arcade of three transverse arches supported by Corinthian columns were built within the central space to support the roof and walls of the rotunda. Then, fourteen of the original twenty-two windows in the drum were walled up. Most importantly, it is now considered that it was in this restoration that the outer wall and arcades, together with three of the cross-arms, were demolished. The chapel of SS Primus and Felician was left alone. If this interpretation is correct, then the second colonnade was then blocked up to form the outer wall line as it now exists. The original opinion is that the demolition took place in the 16th century restoration, but it seems that the blocking walls were taken apart and rebuilt more firmly then and this is what caused the confusion for historians. The original marble revetting was apparently re-used, and also an altar was erected in the church's centre if it wasn't already there.

The 12th century restoration also provided the present entrance portico, and an adjacent monastery. By this time the Caelian hill would have become rural. The first bird's-eye-views of the city of the 16th century shows the church surrounded only by vineyards, and this seems to be what the hill was used for throughout the Middle Ages. After the collapse of the aqueducts the citizens would have drunk wine in preference to any water they could find, on the understanding that it is better to be drunk than dead.

The first religious order to have charge of the complex were the Canons of the Lateran, who must have had very little to do there. A community of reformed Augustinian friars, ancestors of the Discalced Augustinians, was in residence about the end of the 15th century. 

The church slowly slipped into complete disrepair again, and by the middle of the 16th century was ruinous. The Augustinians had moved to San Paolo alla Regola. The famous Renaissance humanist Flavio Biondo visited it then because he was under the delusion that it was a converted pagan temple, and mentioned marble-revetted walls and Cosmatesque decoration (both all now gone). He added that the church lacked a roof.

The HungariansEdit

A major restoration was ordered by Pope Nicholas V in 1453. The work was carried out by Bernardo Rosselino, who was advised by Leon Battista Alberti. Rosselino has been the one blamed for destroying the outer zone of the church, but this is now thought to have been unfair as explained above. He re-packed the outer wall in between the former arcade in order to try and make it weatherproof (in the event, not permanently). What he did do, which was not so forgiveable, was ruthlessly to clear out the medieval furnishings including ancient epigraphs. He also removed the surviving marble revetting. The latter probably ended up in some other church or private villa of a well-connected person.

In the following year, the church and monastery was granted to the Order of St Paul the First Hermit, also known as the Pauline Fathers. This monastic congregation was founded in Hungary in 1250, and had as its patron an Egyptian hermit of the early 4th century (see St Paul of Thebes). They became popular in eastern Europe in the later Middle Ages, although they are not well known in western Europe. At Rome, they were originally at San Salvatore in Onda before moving here.

From 1541 to 1649, most of Hungary was part of the Ottoman Empire. This caused the Pauline Order to decline seriously, and by the mid 16th century the monastery was moribund. However, a scheme was mooted then by the Hungarian Jesuits (especially by Stephan Szántó) for a seminary to train priests for Hungary, and they were granted the complex in 1579. By then, there was only one Pauline monk left there. Unfortunately, the new Hungarian College was hopelessly underfunded and lasted only one year before being united with the German College to form the German-Hungarian College (Collegio Germanicum et Hungaricum). This institution remains in possession.

The Pauline Order revived especially after the Hapsburg Empire conquered Hungary, and established themselves at the church of San Paolo Primo Eremita. They are now at Santi Urbano e Lorenzo a Prima Porta.

In 1583 a cycle of frescoes were executed on the inner wall, showing the suffering of martyrs in graphic detail. Jesuit seminarians were encouraged to go here to see them, and contemplate the fate that might await them as they went off as missionaries. The church did not otherwise have much of a rôle under the College, because the main church was at Sant'Apollinare alle Terme back then (it is now San Pietro Canisio agli Orti Sallustiani). However the situation changed radically in 1778, when the Hungarians lost their national church. This used to be a small basilica called Santo Stefano degli Ungheresi built at the end of the 8th century to the south of St Peter's. The location was the east side of Piazza di Santa Marta in the Vatican, but Pope Pius VI had it demolished to make way for his enormous new sacristy. To compensate the Hungarians the pope declared Santo Stefano to be their national church instead, and arranged for a chapel dedicated to St Stephen of Hungary to be added (the church's main altar remained dedicated to St Stephen the Deacon).

Modern timesEdit

Yet again, the church fell into disrepair in the 19th century. The blocking of the outer arcade proved not to be damp-proof, with the result that the frescoes peeled off the wall in places and were hence re-painted here and there. The problem became very bad in the mid 20th century, and in 1958 a long-term programme of restoration was announced. The opportunity was taken to perform archaeological excavations. The process proved very slow, and took just on half a century with the restoration only declared to be completed in 2009.

The college has no use for the monastery attached to the church, and passed it on to the Carmelite nuns who were expelled from Santa Teresa alle Quattro Fontane in 1880. It is now the Generalate of the Suore Missionarie del Sacro Costato. These sisters leased the building in 1953.

At present, the church is part of the Centro Storico marriage circuit and so visitors may find it being used for weddings at weekends.

The current titular of the church is H.E. Cardinal Friedrich Wetter, Archbishop Emeritus of Munich and Freising.



The church is obviously basically round, but there are large annexed structures to the east. From north going clockwise, these are: The monastery, the entrance loggia, the Chapel of SS Primus and Felician and the Hungarian Chapel.


The church has no civic profile, as it is hidden away behind trees and a high boundary wall. The small, unadorned rectangular gateway to the drive from the street helpfully has the church's name written over it, but is a nightmare to anyone who has to drive anything but a small car through the gap. As a result, tour buses park up in the Via di Navicella and force their passengers to walk.

If you go east a little way down the Via di Santo Stefano Rotondo from this gateway, you will come to an archway in the wall. The land beyond belongs to a hospital, but if the gate is open you can follow a path to the east of the church. Almost all photos of the exterior of the church are from this spot.

The exterior aspect had little attention from renovators through the centuries after the 12th century restoration, and hence presents a simple and rather stark aspect. The exterior walling is all in red brick, with no decoration except a dentillate cornice on the roofline of the drum. The windows of the drum have mullions forming two little arches and an oculus on top in each one, and you can see how most of the original row of windows were blocked up in the 12th century. The rows of little holes in the brickwork of the drum are putlog holes, for scaffolding.

The drum itself is 22 metres wide and the same tall. The church is now 42 metres wide, and was 66 metres when first built.

The outer wall of the church shows the colonnaded arcade which used to be here before it was blocked up; the arches of the arcade now contain either little oculi or larger lunettes and these light the church's ambulatory.

There is a little apse on the west side of the church, and this is the Blessed Sacrament chapel which was built in the 15th century. To the left of the entrance is the Primus and Felician Chapel under its own pitched and hipped roof, and to the left of this is the Hungarian Chapel under a cat-slide roof.


This was built in 1462 for the Paulinians. It is an undistinguished building, consisting of two blocks joined at a shallow angle so as roughly to follow the curve of the church. They do not themselves abut on to the church, but an extension joins on to it on the north-east side. Together with the entrance vestibule, this creates a tiny courtyard which has well in it (the entrance to this is via a door immediately on the right inside the vestibule).

Entrance loggia and vestibuleEdit

These were provided in the 12th century restoration. The loggia has five open archways, separated by four granite pillars with imposts but no capitals. Above the loggia is a parvise or large room with four tiny square windows, and this with the loggia is joined to the monastery on the right by a very narrow insert. The far side of this insert supports a bellcote of the 15th century, having two open arches for the bells intruding into a triangular pediment. Apparently the church never had a campanile.

The entrance to the vestibule is not central in the loggia, but to the left. There are badly faded frescoes on the loggia's inner wall, and on the lintel of the door is an inscription commemorating the restoration by Pope Nicholas V. This door enters into a corner of the vestibule, and you go through the latter to get into the church.

In the vestibule is (unless it's been moved) a medieval cathedra or episcopal throne formed by cutting down an ancient marble chair. By tradition Pope Gregory the Great gave a homily while sitting in it in this church, but it seems to be of the 13th century. On it is visible what seems to be the maker's name: Mag iohs which probably stands for Magister Johannes or "Master John".


Main edificeEdit

When you enter, you see a ring of columns forming an ambulatory, another ring embedded in the outer wall and a monumental triple archway supporting the drum.

There are sixty-eight ancient columns in the church, of which six are said to be marble and the rest, granite. The triple supporting arcade cutting across the diameter of the rotunda has two Corinthian columns, with matching pilasters on each side. The colonnade of the ambulatory has twenty-two Ionic columns supporting a trabeation, and it is fortunate that the drum never collapsed as a result. Arcading would have been stronger.

The original outer arcade had forty-four columns, and these can mostly be seen embedded in the wall in between the frescoes. You can see that these columns are not matched; some are shorter than others, and the degenerate 5th century capitals provided for them differ in size as a result. Those that once provided entrances to the cross arms are taller.

It is thought that the arcade columns came from government builders's stores rather than being robbed from earlier buildings, but the large pair of columns in the triple archway were probably spolia.

Strangely, different authors of guidebooks and books on Roman churches have given various totals for the number of columns. Even the famous historian Mariano Armellini got it wrong; the totals given above have been counted from the archaeological plan.

Opposite the entrance, inserted into the outer wall, is a little apse containing the Blessed Sacrament chapel which is lit by a large oculus. To either side against the wall, at ninety degrees, is a pair of altars dedicated to the Crucifix and Our Lady of Sorrows.


The outer wall all around its circuit is decorated with frescoes from 1572-1585 of The Agonies of Martyrs, by Niccolò Pomarancio and Antonio Tempesta. They were ordered by Pope Gregory XIII (1572-1585). The thirty-four panels contain terrifying and realistic depictions of torture and suffering, and have descriptive inscriptions in Latin and Italian. These name the emperors who ordered the executions, as well as giving appropriate quotations from the Bible. The squeamish, and families with children, may not appreciate these frescoes. For others, they are a good aid in understanding the sufferings of the martyrs and the great sacrifices they made for the Faith. Some of these panels were repainted in the 19th century after damp destroyed the originals.

The start of the fresco cycle depicts the Crucifixion, and follows with the Massacre of the Innocents and the martyrdom of the apostles. The doctrinal point being made in this arrangement is one given by St Paul, which is that the Crucifixion was in itself the wholly effective sacrifice for redemption but that the subsequent suffering of believers for their faith is mysteriously part of it.

The central altar was made in 1455 by the Florentine artist Bernardo Rossellino, responsible for the 15th century restoration. This is enclosed by a low octagonal screen, executed by Niccolò Circignani in 1580 and showing scenes from the life of St Stephen of Hungary.

Near the altar of the Crucifixion is a medieval memorial slab in the floor to Benedict, a priest of Santa Maria in Domnica, reading Archipr Benedictus Diac Sce Maria Domica.

Chapel of Primus and FelicianEdit

To the left of the entrance is the chapel of SS Primus and Felician. The chapel was commissioned by Pope Theodore I (642-649), who used one of the cross arms. The saints are depicted in a 7th century mosaic in the conch of the apse, and there are also frescoes depicting their martyrdom and burial executed by Antonio Tempesta in 1586. The present altar was designed and erected by Filippo Barigoni in 1736 after the relics had been examined and re-enshrined.

The chapel was shrunk by the insertion of two side walls in the 12th century restoration, and thus two narrow sacristies were created. You can see the doors to these in the side walls. When the monastery was inhabited by Paulinian monks this chapel was their choir, which must have been a tight squeeze.

The mosaic here is one of the rare examples from the 7th century in Rome; another is found in the Baptistery of San Giovanni in Laterano. The legend says that they were brothers from a patrician family, who visited Christians who were waiting for execution in the Roman prisons. They were spotted, arrested and interrogated separately. The judge told Felician that his brother, at the time some 80 years old, had lapsed from the Faith. But they both persevered, and they were thrown to the lions together. At the amphitheatre they were miraculously kept safe when the lions refused to eat them, and were taken to Nomentum (present-day Mentana) where they were beheaded and buried. There used to be a basilica over their shrine, but Pope Theodore had their relics transferred -presumably when this was destroyed. The unreliable legend obviously tries to take two genuine martyrs of Nomentum, who died at the start of the 4th century, and connect them to Rome.

The work shows the martyrs standing either side of a jewelled cross, on a golden background. They stand on a green meadow which is sprouting red roses. Over the cross is a tondo showing the head of Christ, which looks like a later addition. Below the work is a mosaic epigraph recording the dedication of the chapel. At the top is a small depiction of the starry heavens, with the hand of God the Father holding a wreath.

On the left is a tablet recording the burial here of the Irish king Donough O'Brien of Cashel and Thomond, son of Brian Boru, who died in Rome in 1064.

Hungarian ChapelEdit

This was provided in 1778, and has been the national shrine of Hungary at Rome ever since. It was especially popular when Hungary was under the Communists, since the heroic archbishop Josef Mindszenty was the cardinal here.

The chapel was designed by Pietro Camporesi. The high-quality marble floor has recently been restored by craftsmen from Hungary.

Liturgical notesEdit

The feast of St Stephen the Deacon is celebrated on 26 December and this is the station church for that day, meaning that the Holy Father will usually celebrate Mass here.

The feast of St Stephen of Hungary is celebrated with great solemnity on 16 August.

SS Primus and Felician have their feast-day on 9 June.


The church is rather hidden away, up a driveway on the south side of the west end of the Via di Stefano Rotondo.

There was a long period recently during which the church was almost always locked up, either awaiting restoration or actually being restored. The restoration ended in 2009, but visitors were still finding difficulty with access subsequently. However, the church's website is now displaying opening times for 2012 which will hopefully be accurate. They are:

9:30 to 12:30, 15:00 to 18:00. Closed all day Monday. In winter, the afternoon times are an hour earlier.

This is one of the churches in Rome which has an extended closure in August, when native Romans prefer to be on the beach and leave the city to the tourists. The advertised period is from 6th to the 27th.

The buses that go past the church (get off at Navicella -Villa Celimontana) are:

81; Risorgimento (near St Peter's) via Torre Argentina and Piazza Venezia to the Lateran.

673; Circo Massimo via Colosseum (south side), not very useful otherwise as it goes down side streets.

117; From the Lateran only, get off at first stop. Beware -return journey has a different route which is nowhere near the church. You still have to walk some distance west of the stop.

External linksEdit

Official diocesan web-page

Italian Wikipedia page

Church's website

"Nuovo Panorami" web-page (article in Italian)

"Archaeoroma" web-page with small gallery

Info.roma web-page

"Greatbuildings" web-page (has useful plan of former and present church superimposed)

Roma SPQR web-page with gallery

Stefano Rotondo "Romeartlover" web-page

"Knowingrome" web-page (with useful bibliography)

"Sacred-destinations" web-page (good gallery)

Piranesi engraving and some photos on Flickr

Photos on Panoramio

Youtube video

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