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Santo Stefano del Cacco

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Santo Stefano del Cacco is a heavily restored 9th century (?) monastic church at Via di San Stefano del Cacco 26 in the rione Pigna.  Pictures of the church at Wikimedia Commons are here. There is an English Wikipedia page here.


The dedication is to the deacon and protomartyr St Stephen.

The church first emerges into documented history with the name Sancti Stephani de Pinea, after the locality. Its present strange appellation is usually translated "St Stephen of the Macaque (a type of monkey)", but there is doubt about this.

The more popular etymology is that an ancient Egyptian statue of Thoth, the baboon-headed god of wisdom, was found near the door of the church in the 14th century after having been part of the furnishings of the ancient Iseum Campense on the site. A traditional detail is that the finder was Cola di Rienzo in 1345.

The sculpture was called in Italian the macaco (macaque), and cacco would then be a corruption of this word.

The original statue allegedly ended up in the Vatican Museums, but if so it is not on display (the two Thoth baboons on show there were obtained from Karnak in the 19th century).

The alternative etymology rests on a quotation by Iohannes Caballini de Cerronibus, writing in the mid 14th century and quoted by Hülsen. It reads:

Ecclesia Sancti Stephani de Pinea, penes quam stat simulacrum Caci pastoris Euandri.

Cacus was the half-human monster allegedly killed by Hercules at the site of the present Santa Maria in Cosmedin, and it seems that there was a statue of it near the church.



According to a surviving fragment of the Severan Marble Plan, the church stands on the site of the cult chamber of the Temple of Isis and Serapis, also known as the Iseum Campense after its location in the Campus Martius. 

The ancient Romans had a great admiration for the civilization of ancient Egypt, as well they might because the Pyramids at Giza were already over 2500 years old when Augustus became emperor. One result of this was the popularity of the cult of Isis, a truly ancient goddess, and of Serapis who was invented by the Ptolemaic rulers of Egypt from the 3rd century BC. 

There were several Isea in rome. This one was the most important. The actual temple containing the statues of the two gods was under or just to the north of the present church, and then came a public throughfare which is now the Via Pie di Marmo. To the north of that was a large open rectangular enclosure called the dromos, which contained many ancient Egyptian sculptures and several small obelisks some of which have been discovered over the centuries. The putative macaco might have been one of these.

It may be noted here that the surviving large marble foot called the Pie di Marmo was probably from the main cult statue of Isis. This temple is also claimed to be the source of the Madama Lucrezia, although this is much less certain because the identification with Isis depends only on the large knot in the gown that the statue wears -allegedly a symbol of Isis, although obviously hardly an exclusive one.


The church was founded in the Dark Ages, but the circumstances are unknown. One suggestion is that Pope Honorius I was responsible, about 630. A further speculation is that the original foundation was of a cemetery chapel, the former temple having been used as a Christian burial ground out of contempt.

However, the only good evidence seems to be from a description given by Il Bruzio of the 9th century apse mosaic before it was destroyed in 1607. According to him, Pope Paschal I (817-24) was shown holding a model of the church, which indicates that he either founded the church or completely rebuilt it.

When it emerges into the historical record in the later Middle Ages, it is described as a parish church dependent on the ancient titulus of San Marco and this is what it would have been at the start.

Middle agesEdit

The present church preserves the plan of the original one, although it seems unclear as to how much of the fabric is original. From its present position set back from the street, it seems clear that there was originally an external loggia or narthex such as the one at San Lorenzo in Lucina and possibly a full atrium such as at San Clemente (although much smaller).

Under Pope Paschal II (1099-1118) a restoration of the apse took place, involving artists recorded as "Gregorius and Petrolinus".

There was some kind of further major restoration in 1160, when a Romanesque campanile was added and the portico rebuilt.


There were too many parish churches in the mediaeval city, and the Sack of Rome in 1527 gave the opportunity for a shake-down over the rest of the century. Many such churches ended up with religious orders or confraternities.

This church was granted to the Sylvestrine Benedictine monastic order in 1563, although the parish was not suppressed, and the monks founded a small monastery next to it as their Roman headquarters. This convent was in a block added to the front of the church, where the portico used to be.

This reformed order of Benedictines had been founded by St Sylvester Gozzolini in 1231, and had the peculiarity that it was centralized around a single abbot. This is not the Benedictine tradition, hence the reform was approved as a completely separate monastic order in 1247. About this time, the new order had founded a Roman monastery at San Giacomo alla Lungara, but this had closed down in the early years of the 16th century.


The Sylvestrines began a major project of renovation in 1607, by stripping and restoring the apse. This destroyed the 9th century mosaic. Then, between 1638 and 1643, the church was given a Baroque makeover resulting in its present appearance. Also, a small façade was added to the convent block in front of the church in about 1640.

It is thought that the work was designed by Paolo Maruscelli, and executed by one Antonio Canziani (at least as regards the façade).

The cult of the Holy Name of Mary was introduced here in 1685, after the feast of the same name had been introduced by Pope Innocent XI after a victory over the Turks at Vienna in 1683.

Stefano di Cacco

Modern timesEdit

There was a restoration in 1725. In 1823, the ancient parish was suppressed together with many other small ones in the Centro Storico.

In 1857 to 1865 there was another restoration, involving the floor which was re-laid with marble salvaged from the burnt-out San Paolo fuori le Mura. The nave ceiling was also frescoed.

In 1870, the convent was confiscated by the State but the monks were allowed to continue in charge of the church. However, in the 1930's an arrangement was entered into whereby the convent became the headquarters (the Curia Generalizia) of the Sylvestrine order. This has the name Sant Stefano Protomartire (not Cacco). The order ceased to exist as such in the mid 20th century, when it joined the Order of St Benedict as a congregation. This has made little practical difference.

The interior was restored in 2007, and the façade finally just after that after having been in a dirty state for years.

Holy Face of JesusEdit

The church has been a centre of the devotion to the Holy Face of Jesus since the mid 20th century. In fact, one of the chief promoters of the devotion, Blessed Maria Pierina, had some of her visions concerning it while here.


Layout and fabricEdit

The actual church is completely surrounded by buildings, and is invisible from the street. 

The plan is basilical, having a nave of seven bays with arcades on each side. There is no transept, but an external semi-circular apse. Off the left hand side aisle is a block of three external chapels, one for every other bay and separated by very thick walls. The right hand side aisle only has two chapels, off the second and third bays. The first bay of that aisle is intruded into by the Romanesque campanile.

The edifice is "wonky", in that the front and back walls are not at right angles to the side walls. Neither are the arcades parallel to the side walls, or perpendicular to the end walls.


The campanile is very difficult to see, and there is no view of it from the street, but a photo of it is here. It is in an unrestored state, and the main convent block wraps around its east side.

It is in brick, with three storeys above the aisle roofine separated by cornices with dentillations and modillions. Each face used to have an arcade of three arches separated by thin stone columns, but these have been blocked up or altered. The tiled pyramdial cap has a stone finial looking like a mushroom, which is allegedly the pinecone of the Pigna.


The little two-storey façade is attached to the frontage of the convent, and is not part of the church. In fact, it is not even on the church's major axis -the corridor leading to the nave from the door is on a diagonal.

There are two storeys, now (since the recent restoration) rendered in a pale tan with architectural details in white. The first storey has two wide panels in white supporting an entablature without an architrave and with a strongly projecting flared cornice, and in front of these panels is a pair of Doric pilasters with the base molding of their capitals extended across the panels as little string courses. There are posts between pilaster capitals and the cornice.

The single doorway has a molded Baroque doorcase, and a triangular pediment raised on posts with triglyphs. In between the posts is a tablet with a dedicatory epigraph: 

D[icatum] Steph[ano] Prot[omartyri], Cong[regatio] Monac[horum] Silvestrinorum.

The second storey has a pair of Ionic pilasters on much narrower backing panels, and these support a deep entablature with a step-molded architrave and a triangular pediment. There is a little square window in the tympanum of the pediment. This storey has a large central rectangular window, with a molded Baroque frame embellished with a pair of thin festoons below a raised segmental pediment.



The church has a central nave with arcades into side aisles. In total there are seven bays, but the last two bays of the central nave are included in the sanctuary.

The second, fourth and sixth bays of the left hand side aisle have external side chapels, as do the second and third bays of the right hand side aisle. Two more chapels occupy the ends of the aisles, flanking the sanctuary, making a total of seven side chapels in all.

Nave Edit

Twelve ancient columns of rare stone have been reused in the church arcades. It is easy to guess that they came from the temple of Isis formerly here, but they are in fact not a matching set.

Five of the columns are bigio antico, or grey marble from Africa. Two are cipollino from Greece, one is pavonazzetto from Turkey and four are grey granite from Mons Claudianus in the Eastern Desert of Egypt.

The columns have matching oversized Ionic capitals supporting arches, on which rest the two side wall entablatures. Above every other arch is a window. The ceiling is barrel-vaulted, with lunette embrasures over the windows. 

The decoration of the nave walls and ceiling is mid 19th century, as is the marble floor. The fresco in the central panel of the ceiling shows The Apotheosis of St Benedict, and was executed by an unknown artist in 1857.

The side aisles are cross-vaulted. The counterfaçade has a fine balustraded gallery containing a late 17th organ in a gilded wooden case, perched above the entrance.


The sanctuary is marked off by a three-sided balustrade in polychrome marble work, which projects into the nave. It has an apse with a conch, and the triumphal arch of this forms a crescent lunette under the nave vault. This contains the unusual feature of an elliptical oeil-de-boeuf window.

The altar is free-standing, and has no aedicule or altarpiece because the choir stalls of the monks occupy the curve of the apse behind it. These form an impressive piece, in walnut and dating from 1668.

There is now a crucifix, painted on a flat board, suspended over the altar. 

The apse wall above the choir stalls has three frescoes. The central one shows The Stoning of St Stephen, and is by Cesare Nebbia.  The flanking frescoes show St Charles Borromeo and St Francesca Romana, and are by Cristoforo Casolini. He also executed the three frescoes in the conch, the central one showing The Mystery of the Trinity and the two flanking oval tondi containing angel musicians.

The fine gilded stucco decoration in and around the apse is by Rocco Solari, 1608.

The chapels are described in anticlockwise order, starting at the right side of the entrance.

Chapel of the Guardian AngelEdit

The first chapel on the right is dedicated to the Guardian Angel, and the altarpiece is a rather bad copy of a work by Pietro da Cortona now in the Palazzo Barberini. You can see the original here.

The pietra dura altar frontal is good.

​Chapel of St JosephEdit

The second chapel on the right is now dedicated to St Joseph, although its original dedication was to the Nativity. The anonymous altarpiece is 18th century, and depicts the death of the saint.

The PietàEdit

In between this chapel is an arched and railed-off niche containing the church's most famous artistic treasure, a Pietà by Perino del Vaga 1519. It was his first independent commission.

The original work is the brighter rectangle. Later it was surrounded with more fresco work by an anonymous artist, which includes a Golgotha in the background. Unfortunately, the entire compound work has suffered badly from the attentions of "restorers" and is in a poor condition.

​Chapel of Our Lady, Consoler of the AfflictedEdit

The chapel at the far end of the right hand aisle is dedicated to Our Lady, Consoler of the Afflicted (Consolatrix afflictorum), which is one of the titles given to her in the Litany of Loreto. It has a pair of Corinthian columns in red and cream marble with gilded capitals, supporting a horizontal entablature without any pediment.

The altarpiece is a 17th century wooden figurine, with cloth dress and mantle behind glass in a round-headed niche. This was one of the images in Rome which was rumoured to have cried when the French occupied Rome at the end of the 18th century.

​Chapel of the CrucifixEdit

The chapel at the end of the left hand aisle is dedicated to the Crucifixion. The aedicule is in gilded wood. The altarpiece is a damaged early 17th century fresco showing SS Lawrence, Anthony the Abbot and Sylvester Gozzolini venerating the crucified Christ. This might be by Cristoforo RoncalliIl Pomerancio, or of his school. He was a parishioner here.

The frontal is in fine pietra dura work. If you look over the aedicule, you will see that the far aisle wall is crooked.

There used to be a 17th century wooden crucifix over the fresco, but this was removed in the last restoration.

​Chapel of St MatthewEdit

The third chapel on the left is dedicated to St Matthew, and was re-fitted in 1870 in a rather brightly coloured neo-Baroque style. The rather alarming altarpiece showing a putto dictating the Gospel is by Cesare Mariani. The cupola pendentives feature more fat little putti, and the cupola itself an angelic orchestra.

This chapel was formerly dedicated to St Nicholas.

​Chapel of St Sylvester GozzoliniEdit

The second chapel on the left is dedicated to St Sylvester Gozzolini, and has rich polychrome marble fittings including a pair of Ionic aedicule columns in black marble and a very good tabernacle in the form of a miniature round temple.

The anonymous 18th century altarpiece is described as depicting St Sylvester Receives the Rule from St Benedict, but this can be questioned. The putative St Sylvester has no halo. There are two anonymous virgin martyrs in the background. This could be a votive piece in celebration of a young monk's profession, in the style of Carlo Maratta.

The two lunette frescoes in tondi are by Cesare Mariani 1870, and depict a miracle performed by St Sylvester and his receiving Communion from Our Lady.

​Chapel of the Holy FaceEdit

The first chapel on the left hand side is now dedicated to the Holy Face. The 20th century icon of the Veil of Veronica is a focus of serious devotional attention (although one could wish the pot plants to be somewhere less cruel to them). It is by Suor Zeffirina-del-Sacro-Cuore Mariani, 1945.

The original dedication was to the Holy Name of Mary, and the polychrome marble and stucco fittings are by Giovanni Battista Ferrabosco, 1641. The side wall frescoes are original, and are by Giovanni Baglione. They depict SS Charles Borromeo and Philip Neri to the left, and SS Stephen and Paul the First Hermit to the right.

The aedicule has two columns in red Sicilian jasper. The central curlicued window is inserted between the two fragments of the split pediment, on which putti are sitting.


The sacristy dates from 1564. It contains several interesting paintings, including St Aurea Going to Her Martyrdom by Luigi Garzi and The Birth of the Virgin by Sebastiano ConcaThe Apotheosis of St Nicholas by Giovanni Odazzi used to be the altarpiece of the St Matthew Chapel.


The church should be regularly open on Sundays and solemnities, 10:00 to 12:30, and for the liturgical celebrations mentioned below.


Mass is celebrated publicly on Sundays and solemnities at 11:30.

Solemnities include those of St Stephen on 26 December, and St Sylvester Gozzolini on 26 November.

On the first Thursday of the month, there is a liturgical celebration of the icon of the Holy Face.

In the past the Divine Office and weekday Masses of the brethren could be attended, but this seems to have stopped several years ago owing to declining numbers.

External linksEdit

Official diocesan web-page

Italian Wikipedia page

Nolli map (look for 860)

"De Alvariis" gallery on Flickr

Info.roma web-page

"Roma Segreta" web-page

Article on Santo Volto

Article on the Pietà

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Website of Sylvestrines

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