ROMAN ITINERARIES – BORGO DISTRICT – ITINERARY 54
BORGO DISTRICT – ITINERARY 54
Let’s start the Itinerary 54 of the Borgo District from the point where we interrupted the previous Itinerary, that is the final portion of Via della Conciliazione.
Via della Conciliazione – Piazza Scossacavalli – Via Pio X – Via del Borgo di Santo Spirito – Via dei Penitenzieri – Piazza di Porta Cavalleggeri – Via di Borgo Pio – Via dei Tre Pupazzi – Piazza del Catalone – Via del Falco – via del Mascherino – Via di Porta Angelica – Piazza Risorgimento
THE PALACE OF THE PENITENTIARIES
Move now in front of the Palace of the Penitentiaries, undoubtedly the most beautiful palace of the street since the times of Pope Sixtus IV, who reigned between 1471 and 1484. Attributed to the architect Baccio Pontelli, it was built by Cardinal Domenico della Rovere around 1480: the name of its first owner, with the family motto “Soli Deo“, is still visible on the beautiful marble windows.
In the palace also lived the Cardinal Francesco Alidosi, one of the favorites of Pope Julius II, who according to the chronicles was so cowardly to abandon the fortress of Imola, at that time in the state of the Church, recently conquered by the Pope at the head of his army fighting against the Este family of Ferrara. As a result of this behavior was found murdered in Ravenna in the winter of 1511, perhaps by the Pope’s nephew, Francesco Maria della Rovere.
The palace is called “of the Penitentiaries” because it later hosted the Penitentiaries, the religious confessors of the Basilica, to whom full absolutory faculties are still assigned today. Currently the building is used almost entirely as a hotel, while some rooms accommodate the headquarters of the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre, whose banner on solemn occasions flies on the flagpole of the building, which has a tower equipped for the event.
The building has some resemblance with the Venice Palace, both for the squat and quadrangular tower that for the windows with the Guelph Cross. The very spacious inner courtyard is porticoed, with the walls illusionistically frescoed to simulate a inexistent loggia; also the halls of the second floor are finely frescoed, and one of the ceilings is an absolute masterpiece frescoed by Pinturicchio with mythological figures inside the compartments.
THE ORATORY OF ST. MARY ANNUNCIATED
Let’s continue your Itinerary taking you on the left side of Via della Conciliazione, up to Via Pio X, on which stands, with the façade facing the Tiber, the small Oratory of St. Mary Annunciated, which has a history closely linked to that of the adjacent Hospital of the Holy Spirit. The church dates back to the second half of the 13th Century, but both the sacred place and the nearby hospital were restored in 1446 by Pope Eugene IV: inside it operated the Confraternity of the Holy Spirit, which over time became increasingly important until, with a papal bull in 1607, Pope Paul V elevated it to the rank of Archconfraternity.
The construction of the present oratory began only in 1744 thanks to the architect Pietro Passalacqua: the architect reproposed the scheme already adopted in the Church of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem, with an elegant and graceful wavy facade reminiscent of the Baroque works of Francesco Borromini.
However, the small church was destroyed in 1940, due to the works for the demolition of the “Spina of Borgo”, and rebuilt in 1950 with identical forms to the original but in a rather unfortunate position, resulting today hardly visible to tourists and Roman citizens.
THE INTERIOR OF THE ORATORY
Its 18th Century interior is decorated with stuccoes and small loggias opening on rounded corners. The four paintings on the walls, made in the 18th Century by Angelo Massarotti and placed in stucco frames, represent The Wailing of the Dead Christ, The Death of Mary, The Birth of Mary and The Nativity.
On the left wall there is also a lunette painted in the 16th Century by Giovan Battista Montano that represents The procession of St. Gregory the Great which took place in 590, in order to pray to heaven for the end of the plague that was devastating Rome: this is, as you already know, the event linked to the apparition of the Archangel Michael in the act of sheathing his sword, a vision that caused an angelic statue to be placed on top of Hadrian’s Mausoleum.
Some works come instead from the demolished Church of St. Michael the Archangel, such as the painting by Antoniazzo Romano depicting a Madonna and Child and the bronze group of St. Michael the Archangel fighting with Lucifer, by Albert Lefeuvre (XIX Century).
Before exploring the paragraph concerning the Hospital of the Holy Spirit, it is good to mention the topic of the Scholae for foreigners in Vatican territory. In the past, as we have already mentioned, here was the Circus of Nero, the site of many persecutions of Christians; for this reason, this place became the center of continuous pilgrimages from all over the world. The pilgrims, however, needed to eat and sleep, since most of them had no personal possessions.
So the Church, in collaboration with the various governments of the country of origin, interested in maintaining good relations with the Papacy, promoted in this area next to the Vatican Basilica the construction of a series of national Scholae, which were intended to assist their citizens. One of the first Scholae was the Teutonic Schola, of which the cemetery and the church of the same name still remain today, inside the Vatican City State; there were also the Schola Saxonum, which was located where the Hospital of the Holy Spirit is today, the Schola Longobardorum, located where the Cavalleggeri Gate is today, and the Schola Francorum, which was located where the Church of St. Michael the Great is today.
In the Middle Ages these Scholae played a predominant role in defending Christianity and the Papacy against recurring barbarian invasions, particularly during the Saracen invasion of the 9th Century.
THE HOSPITAL OF THE HOLY SPIRIT IN SASSIA
The Schola Saxorum, probably the most important of these associations, however, had a short life: not only in 827 it was heavily damaged by a massive fire that broke out in the Borgo District, but a few years later it was also sacked by the Saracens, so that in the 12th Century the church and the buildings used for its assistance were just a pile of bricks in total abandonment.
Hence the project of a modern hospital, which would serve both as a hospice and as an emergency room for abandoned children. According to Giorgio Vasari, the architect of the original project was Marchionne Aretino, who completed the construction in 1204 at the behest of Pope Innocent III. In spite of the numerous funds offered by the Pontiffs, the hospital had not a happy life: during the first decades of the 15th Century, only a couple of friars worked there, until Pope Eugene IV founded a Confraternity, contributing generous legacies for the running of the vast organization.
It was also Pope Eugene IV who wanted that in the Hospital of the Holy Spirit was dedicated great assistance to abandoned children, and next to the main entrance of the building was set up the infamous “Wheel of the Exposed“: inside it was possible to insert the baby in total anonymity, and then rotate the wheel and give the possibility to the friars to take care of the newborn. The only obligation for whoever delivered the unwanted baby was to let them know if the baby had been baptized or not; at that point a bath with hot wine was taken and the baby was entrusted to a nanny.
The most nefarious day for the Hospital of the Holy Spirit was May 6th 1527, when the Lansquenets of Charles V invaded the halls of the hospital, killing and raping women, old people and children, and throwing their bodies into the Tiber. It is enough to think, about this disaster, that at the time of the invasion Rome counted 85.000 inhabitants, and that at its end the population was reduced to 40.000.
In the 17th Century, with Pope Alexander VII, the Hospital of the Holy Spirit was expanded by several rooms, becoming also a school of medicine, with an anatomical theater, a school of obstetrics and a school of surgery. The Unification of Italy transformed the hospital into the Pious Institute of the Holy Spirit, as part of a central administration that unified all the Roman hospitals.
THE ARCHITECTURE OF THE HOSPITAL
Looking at the façade of the hospital, keeping the Tiber behind you, it is possible to see the modern extension on the left, while on the right you can see the ancient building dominated by an elegant octagonal tiburium opened by numerous mullioned windows, giving a feeling of extreme lightness.
The wing on the right, characterized by the octagon, was built in 1471 by Pope Sixtus IV, in a style halfway between the Late Gothic and the Renaissance; entering inside, it is possible to admire beautiful courtyards of the late 15th Century and inside the rooms an important cycle of frescoes, dedicated to the works of the Popes who have followed one another in the construction of the hospital. Under the octagon, visible from all the aisles, rises the dome canopy attributed to the great Venetian architect Andrea Palladio, as his only Roman work.
The palace that, inside the hospital, served as the administration until the advent of the Italian State was the Palace of the Commendatore, famous for its bizarre six-hour clock, surmounted by a cardinal’s hat and having as its pointer a sinuous lizard. The palace, built in the second half of the 16th Century, is the masterpiece of the architect Nanni di Baccio Bigio, also thanks to the beautiful loggia courtyard with its wide arches.
THE MUSEUM OF SANITARY ART
Inside the Hospital of the Holy Spirit you can visit, when it is open, the Museum of Sanitary Art, one of the most curious and important in Europe in this sector. The museum preserves, among other things, the oldest litter and the oldest ambulance ever known, as well as ancient surgical instruments, with the reconstruction of a pharmacy and an alchemist’s laboratory of the 16th Century.
THE CHURCH OF THE HOLY SPIRIT IN SASSIA
As well as the hospital, the Church of the Holy Spirit in Sassia was rebuilt for the first time by Sixtus IV on top of the already existing one, built at the behest of Pope Innocent III. A further rebuilding of the church took place immediately after the Sack of Rome, and the project was entrusted to the most prestigious Florentine architect of the time, Antonio da Sangallo the Younger, who completed the building in 1544 (except for the façade). The consecration ceremony took place with a solemn rite on May 17th 1571, under the administration of the Commendatore; the façade was instead realized by Ottaviano Mascherino in 1590.
The bell tower by Baccio Pontelli, entirely visible from Via dei Penitenzieri, is prior to this second rebuilding, and it is an elegant exampe of 15th Century architecture, lightened by mullioned windows with marble columns.
The façade is decorated by a scenographic staircase that makes it stand out in its plastered sobriety without any trace of marble; divided into two floors, it is adorned by a portal that ends in a triangular tympanum and by a large central window surmounted by the coat of arms of Pope Sixtus V. On the left you can see a window from which the Veil of Veronica was exposed on the first Sunday after the Epiphany: it was specifically brought in procession from the nearby Basilica of St. Peter.
THE INTERIOR OF THE CHURCH
The large nave has five large chapels at the sides, no transept and closes in a large apsidal choir. The polychrome wooden ceiling was realized on a design by Antonio da Sangallo the Younger and presents strong analogies with that of the Farnese Palace, realized by the same architect.
All the side chapels present the same scheme: an altar made of polychrome marble flanked by two paintings and surmounted by a frescoed calotte. On the right, observe the first chapel, dedicated to the Holy Spirit and decorated in 1588 with the Pentecost painted by Jacopo Zucchi, and the second chapel, dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin and frescoed in 1578 by Livio Agresti with Stories from the Life of the Virgin.
On the left, we suggest you to admire the first chapel, dedicated to the Immaculate Conception and hosting on the altar a sculptural group by Ignazio Iacometti (1885) representing St. Louis Gonzaga and a young man, and the fourth chapel, dedicated to the Holy Cross and featuring a pictorial decoration by Livio Agresti (1577) with Scenes from the Genesis on the apse and a beautiful Deposition on the altar (recalling both the Borghese Deposition by Raffaello Sanzio and the Pietà by Michelangelo Buonarroti).
The high altar has a rich polychrome marble composition, and it is surrounded by the frescoes realized by Jacopo Zucchi in 1583 and representing God the Father blessing, the miracles of Christ, Saint Peter and Saint Paul. Interesting is also the sacristy, completely surrounded by large carved wooden furniture, with an altar also of wood decorated with gold leaf.
THE GATE OF THE HOLY SPIRIT
Exit the church and walk along Via dei Penitenzieri until you reach the imposing Gate of the Holy Spirit, which was meant to introduce you to Via della Lungara by connecting to the Settimiana Gate, but in truth it was never completed because of the quarrels between Antonio da Sangallo and Michelangelo. However, the gate has a powerful charm, representing a remarkable example of 16th Century military fortification.
THE CHURCH OF ST. LAWRENCE IN PISCIBUS
After a few steps, you will find yourself in front of the ancient Church of St. Lawrence in Piscibus, so called because in the Middle Ages there was a lively fish market next to it. The oldest mention of this church dates back to 1143, although its origin would be even more remote (perhaps the 6th Century). In the 16th Century, the church was incorporated into a majestic noble palace owned by Cardinal Francesco Armellini, who carried out the first restoration works.
In 1659 it was completely rebuilt in baroque forms by the powerful Cesi family, but this decoration was dismantled in the 20th Century, when the small church was saved from the destruction caused by the creation of Via della Conciliazione, but was deprived of the façade, hidden behind the buildings and brought back to the original Romanesque decoration.
The interior is divided into three naves by eleven ancient columns, walls and apse are made of brick without any kind of decoration and the altar is made of a simple cylindrical block of marble. The church was deconsecrated and transformed at first into a study room and then into the atelier for the sculptor Pericle Fazzini, and then was reconsecrated by Pope John Paul II.
THE CHURCH OF SAINTS MICHAEL AND MAGNUS
From the main door marked by number 41 you will have access to the ancient Church of Saints Michael and Magnus. It was built in the 9th Century by order of Pope Leo IV and entrusted to the Schola Frisonum, a Germanic community that had also founded a hospice attached to the church, originally dedicated only to St. Michael. In 1084 the church was destroyed during the clashes between Emperor Henry IV, who resided in the Schola, and the Normans who came to free Pope Gregory VII.
In spite of the following restoration, still in 1440 the church was in ruins, being extinct the Schola for which it had been built. In 1446 Pope Eugene IV entrusted the whole complex to the archbishop of Ravenna Bartolomeo Roverella, as a reward for the restoration works carried out in it. In the following years, after being dedicated also to St. Magnus at the beginning of the XVII Century, the church was restored by Urban VIII, Benedict XIII and Benedict XIV: nevertheless, at the beginning of the XVIII Century, the church was closed because of its state of abandonment, to be then restored again in 1754 by the architect Carlo Murena for the will of Pope Clement XII, who reconsecrated it in 1759.
Invisible from the street because of the tall buildings, you can access the simple 18th Century façade of the church by walking up a steep staircase that leads to a small courtyard. The bell tower of the 13th Century is visible only from St. Peter’s Square, next to the fountain on the right: it was probably built reusing ancient materials coming from Nero’s Circus.
The interior of the church has three naves divided by pillars, which during the 18th Century restoration incorporated the ancient Roman columns. At the end of the left aisle there is a door that leads to the Holy Staircase, where the faithful, as still happens today for the more famous Holy Staircase of St. John in Lateran, climbed on their knees as penance.
Now leave the church to find yourself not far from one of the entrances to Vatican City, the one called St. Martha’s, located just after the coIonnade on the left of those who look at St. Peter’s. Also on this side you will come to the Palace of the Holy Office, a 16th Century building with a 20th Century façade and an airy porticoed courtyard with three orders.
On the same side, a little further on, opens the Cavalleggeri Gate Square, and shortly after the small Oratory of St. Peter, founded to bring food relief to the poor of Rome. The Cavalleggeri Gate gave access to the Borgo District through the Leonine Walls, the remains of which are visible together with the papal coats of arms, just around the corner on the right, next to the fountain that pours water into the beautiful sarcophagus.
Further on, on the same square, there is the audience hall designed by the architect Pier Luigi Nervi.
Move now to the right side of the colonnade and therefore of the Borgo District, ideally divided in two by Via della Conciliazione, and reach the Angelic Gate, also called St. Anne’s Gate thanks to the church dedicated to the Mother of the Virgin Mary, which is located just after the access gate, permanently guarded by a Swiss Guard.
Just in front of the gate extends the area of Borgo Pio, with a straight street built in the middle of the enlargement of the Borgo District wanted by Pope Pius IV: in this area are still visible some original buildings, untouched by the gutting of the “Spina”, which we will examine from the end of the street to the gate of the Vatican City.
Above the store marked with number 8 you can see, for example, the old white writing on a dark red background “Antico Forno” (ancient bakery), and inside there is actually still working a wood-burning oven dating back to the 16th Century, when the street was opened. At the corner with number 27 there is a nice aedicule of 1797 with a plaque that prescribes the indulgences linked to the cult of the Virgin. After a while, on the right, there is Via dei Tre Pupazzi (Street of the Three Puppets), so called because of a stone bas-relief depicting three unidentified characters; further on, in the small Catalone Square, which looks like a small courtyard enclosed between the houses, there is a pretty little fountain with an inscription referring to Acqua Marcia, one of the most ancient waters used in Rome since the II Century BC.
Continuing on and taking Via del Falco, you can admire at number 18 the beautiful Rococo palace designed in 1743 by Giuseppe Sardi, an architect famous in Rome for having designed the Church of the Magdalene, a splendid example of Roman Rococo interior.
Go now to the Risorgimento Square, which is grafted in the modern Prati District and has therefore lost any ancient feature, and turn left following the Vatican Walls: you will come across the remains of what was once the original Angelic Gate, so called because of the first name of Pope Pius IV, who wanted to erect it to dedicate it to the Guardian Angels.The marble angels that decorated the facade of the door are now embedded in the wall, with palm branches in their hands, but the door was once famous because on it were exposed in evidence some iron cages containing the heads of those condemned to death, as a warning about the severity of papal justice.