ROMAN ITINERARIES – RIPA DISTRICT – ITINERARY 45
RIPA DISTRICT – ITINERARY 45
The Ripa District Itinerary 45 will ask you to go back across the Fabricius Bridge, leaving the Tiber Island, pass the Forum Holitorium and go towards the area of the ancient Forum Boarium and the Mouth of Truth.
Sant’Omobono – Via di San Giovanni Decollato – Via Bucinazza – Via dei Fienili – Via di San Teodoro – Via del Velabro – Via dei Cerchi
THE GENERAL REGISTER OFFICE
The modern building of the General Register Office, covered with bricks and adorned with a marble reproduction of the Capitoline She-wolf, was built between 1936 and 1937 on a project by the architect Ignazio Guidi along the road that in the fascist period was called Via del Mare (Road of the Sea): the palace, inside of which stands out the beautiful fresco of the Roman Carnival by Orfeo Tamburi, probably stands on the site of the ancient Tiberine Port (during the construction work the architects found the remains of several warehouses), the one that first connected Rome with Ostia and that continued to be constantly used until the Emperor Claudius built the Harbour of Ostia, destining the Tiberine Port to an area of warehouses for the storage of goods.
THE VIA DEL MARE (ROAD OF THE SEA)
The opening in the fascist era of the Via del Mare (today fragmented into Via del Teatro di Marcello and Via Petroselli), designed to direct the urban development of Rome towards the sea and transform Rome into a real maritime city, led to extensive demolition of the medieval alleys, which radically changed the appearance of the area: many churches were destroyed, including St. Gregory de Gradellis (so called for the steps that descended towards the river), St. Mary in Tofella (located in the demolished Montanara Square), St. Catherine of the Lion Gate (located almost opposite to St. Nicholas in Jail) and especially St. Mary in Portico, adorned with an apse decorated with paintings of the school of Giotto.
THE AREA OF ST. OMOBONO
Arrived in front of the crossing of the Palace of the General Register Office, you will see on the opposite side of the street the archaeological area of St. Omobono: here, at the time of Ancient Rome, there was the Vicus Iugarius, the street where the great poet Ovid lived (before Augustus exiled him on the Black Sea, at the borders of the Empire) and whose name is still remembered by the modern road that follows the same route. The ancient road connected the Roman Forum with the Carmentalis Gate passing under the Capitoline Hill, next to the area of the Temples of Fortuna and Mater Matuta, whose remains are visible today in the archaeological area of St. Omobono.
THE ARCHAEOLOGICAL SITE
The archaeological area of St. Omobono is one of the most complex stratifications that can be admired in Rome. Since the VI Century B.C., in an area characterized at most by simple huts, two twin temples arose (one of which is currently under the church), both on a high podium and preceded by an altar. In particular, the Temple of Fortune is attributed by scholars to one of the legendary seven kings of Rome, Servius Tullius, who wanted to celebrate with this building his patron deity, to whom he dedicated 26 temples in the city.
The deity linked to the second temple, Mater Matuta (translated as “morning star”), was instead a goddess linked to navigation, which protected from shipwrecks and indicated the route: it was very popular among sailors and foreign merchants who docked near the Tiber Island. The commercial exchanges were therefore protected by the two deities, creating in this area a sort of international sanctuary.
The archaeologists, during the excavations, have identified at least seven different levels of terrain in chronological order, finding artifacts of great importance and high quality as terracottas depicting Hercules and Minerva, a donarium of the Republican era related to the conquest of the city of Volsinii by Marcus Fulvius Flaccus and a series of bricks related to the restoration of the imperial age.
THE CHURCH OF ST. OMOBONO
The Church of St. Omobono stands on a primitive early Christian church dedicated to St. Savior in Portico, so called because of the proximity of the nearby Porticus of Octavia or a minor portico where, in ancient times, was the market for cosmetic essences and aromatic herbs. Already in a serious state of neglect, the church was assigned in 1575 to the University of Tailors, who dedicated it to its patron, St. Omobono.
This saint lived in the 12th Century and was the heir of a very wealthy family. He married, but without having children, he donated (despite the disappointment of his wife) all his goods to the poor and lived as a tailor, to fulfill in this way the evangelical precept to dress the unclothed ones. The church was restored several times, but the most radical restorations were carried out between 1940 and 1942 on the occasion of the archaeological arrangement of the area.
The façade, covered with bricks, is divided by pilasters with a central round window and two empty niches, destined to the statues of the saints Stephen and Alexis, never placed. The inscription reports the dedications to Mary, St. Omobono and St. Anthony of Padua, while on the dome you can see a weather vane adorned with a pair of open scissors, emblem of the University of Tailors.
THE INTERIOR DECORATIONS
The interior has a single nave, with a coffered ceiling decorated with a painting by Cesare Mariani depicting the Coronation of Mary between Saints Omobono and Anthony. The apse is decorated with Mary and Baby Jesus between Saints Savior and Alexis, while above there is the Glory of Christ enclosed in the heavenly mandorla and accompanied by musician angels, painted in 1510 by Pietro Turini.
In the second section on the left you can see the altar dedicated to St. Omobono, with the beautiful canvas of the 17th Century painted by Spadarino: St. Omobono is depicted in the act of giving his clothes to a poor man, according to an iconography that recalls that of St. Martin who sacrifices half of his own cloak.
Leaving the church, take Via di San Giovanni Decollato, take the stairs that lead to Via Bucimazza (from the name of an ancient Roman family that in the Middle Ages had its home here), follow Via dei Fienili and finally reach Via di San Teodoro, which runs along part of the ancient Vicus Tuscus, which together with the Vicus Iugarius crossed an area that, in the imperial age, had become one of the most infamous of Rome.
From here you will finally arrive in Via del Velabro, a word of Etruscan origin which means “pond” and which recalls the ancient marsh that ran from the Tiber to the Roman Forum.
It was here at the Velabro that Aeneas and his companions landed, and it was also here that the basket with Romulus and Remus ran aground, later found and suckled by the she-wolf: be careful, however, because with the word “lupa” the Romans indicated not only the animal, but also the prostitutes, and therefore the twins could have been suckled by a woman accustomed to selling her body.
THE CHURCH OF ST. GEORGE IN VELABRO
Now reach the Church of St. George in Velabro, already mentioned in the 7th Century in the Liber Pontificalis of Pope Leo II and originally dedicated to St. Sebastian. It was the Pope of Greek origin Zacharias, in the 8th Century, who dedicated it to St. George, a saint much venerated in Constantinople and to whom the Byzantine soldiers, present in this area with the Greek community, were devoted.
In the 9th Century, Pope Gregory IV built the portico and rebuilt the apse and the sacristy. Although the church was gradually distorted by the continuous baroque and neoclassical restorations, it was restored to its original form in 1926 by architect Antonio Munoz, lowering the floor, removing the most modern altars, reopening the walled windows and demolishing the elegant baroque façade. The work was highly criticized at the time: many scholars expressed various perplexities about the architect’s work, stating that the severe façade returned a deformed image of medieval architecture, lacking the original taste for color and corresponding only to the imaginary Middle Ages of the modern era.
Unfortunately, in the night between 27 and 28 July 1993, the church was the target of an attack, with a car bomb parked near the façade: the explosion caused the almost total collapse of the portico in front of the church, the opening of a large breach, serious damage to the internal frescoes and the static instability of the bell tower.
THE PORTICO OF THE CHURCH
The portico, between two brick pillars decorated with a frieze in the upper part, is divided by four ancient columns with Ionic capitals and closed by a gate.
On the left there is the beautiful bell tower of the XII Century, divided into five floors and marked by elegant triple lancet windows.
Inside the portico there are two windows of the original church (today walled up) and several archaeological fragments found in the surroundings, among which the ones of the ancient dedicatory inscription of the nearby quadrifrontal arch, which alludes to the tyrant Maxentius defeated by the Emperor Constantine or to the tyrant Magnentius defeated by the Emperor Constantius.
THE INTERIOR DECORATIONS
The entrance portal to the church is decorated with beautiful ancient Roman frames. The interior has a nave and two aisles, but it has an irregular plan since it rests on pre-existing Roman structures. The naves are divided by eight columns of granite and pavonazzetto marble of Roman age, with Ionic and Corinthian capitals of medieval workmanship. A marble cippus of the XI Century serves as the back altar.
Based on the principles of Romanesque architecture, the presbytery is raised to highlight the hierarchical difference between the clergy, already on the path to a perfect life, and the ordinary faithful.
The high altar consists of a slab with cosmatesque motifs resting on four small columns, while four other columns with Corinthian capitals make up the ciborium supporting an architrave with mosaic decoration and a truncated pyramid cover.
Under the altar, in the confession, would be preserved the head of St. George, his sword and a strip of the banner of the Saint. Admire especially the apse, with the beautiful fresco of the 13th Century depicting Christ, the Virgin Mary and Saints George, Peter and Sebastian, painted by Pietro Cavallini: the presence of both St. George and St. Sebastian testifies to the fact that at the end of the 13th Century the church was still dedicated to both saints.
THE ARCH OF THE ARGENTARII
On the left side of the façade of St. George in Velabro, literally attached to the church itself, you can admire the curious Arch of the Argentarii: in reality it is not an honorary or triumphal arch, but a sort of ancient gateway to the Forum Boarium, built at the expense of the bankers of Ancient Rome (called “argentarii“) and dedicated to Emperor Septimius Severus, his wife Julia Domna and their sons Caracalla and Geta.
The dedicatory inscription, however, hides a little secret, which has already been mentioned in the Itinerary dedicated to the Roman Forum. In the inscription there are the names of the Emperor, his wife and his young son Caracalla, but the name of Geta is missing, as it was erased: you may remember that Geta was killed by his brother Caracalla, who then ordered the Damnatio Memoriae, which consisted in erasing the name and the effigy of the condemned man from all monuments in the empire. From the inscription the names of the prefect of the praetorium Fulvio Plauziano and of his daughter Plautilla, who became the wife of Caracalla, were also erased: they were condemned to the Damnatio Memoriae too.
The pillars show in the lower part some bulls intended for sacrifice, accompanied in the upper part by the sacrificial instruments. On the inner side you can see a portrait of Caracalla, some Roman soldiers with a barbarian prisoner and again the same Caracalla sacrificing to the gods on a small portable altar; on the opposite side you can see the Emperor Septimius Severus performing a sacrifice together with his wife.
Above, between the Corinthian capitals of the corner pilasters, appear garlands, eagles with banners and symbolic characters including the personification of the Genius of the Roman People and the god Hercules.
THE ARCH OF JANUS
Almost in front of the Arch of the Argentarii stands a monumental four-sided arch, traditionally referred to as the Arch of Janus, built in travertine and Carrara marble: the four large pillars support a cross vault, lightened inside by empty amphorae, with a technique typical of the building of the Late Roman Empire.
On the outside, the pillars are adorned with a series of shell-shaped niches that in ancient times were flanked by small columns. In the keys of the fornices you can see the figures of Rome and Juno seated and Minerva and Ceres standing.
The name of the god Janus does not really show any connection with this monument. The arch, as testified by the partial inscription preserved in the portico of the Church of St. George in Velabro, was erected by Constantine to celebrate his victory over Maxentius or by Constantius to celebrate his triumph against his adversary Magnentius: to build it, a point was chosen along the route of the ancient Via Trionfale, before it joined the Via Sacra of the Roman Forum.
The particular shape of the arch served to emphasize the importance of the chosen point, which was at the intersection of two routes and therefore symbolically represented the connection between the underworld of the infernal gods and the heavenly apotheosis of those who crossed the arch purifying themselves.
In the Middle Ages, the arch was fortified by the Frangipane family, obtaining the nickname of Tower of Boethius: in 1827 its medieval superstructures were demolished in order to bring the building back to its original conformation, but in doing so, also the brick testimonies of the ancient attic were lost, already covered with marble, because it was believed to be medieval and instead, originally, had probably supported the group of statues of Constantine or Constantius.
THE CHURCH OF ST. ELIGIUS OF THE FERRARI
Reach now the nearby Church of St. Eligius of the Ferrari, built on two previous churches dedicated to St. Martin and St. James and entrusted in 1453 by Pope Nicholas V to the University of Ferrari (knife-grinders, blacksmiths, armorers and key-makers), which dedicated it to its patron saint, St. Eligius of Noyon, who lived in the 6th Century and was famous for his work as a craftsman and goldsmith. The dedication of the new church actually commemorates all three saints: James, Martin and Eligius.
In the 16th Century, a hospital and an oratory were added and, in the 17th Century, the church was renovated. Today it shows a brick façade marked by pairs of pilasters with travertine bases; above the portal, you can notice the bust of St. Eligius, a large window and on the top an elegant tympanum.
THE INTERIOR DECORATIONS
The interior has a single nave, rich in stucco and marble, and on the 17th Century ceiling you can see the coat of arms of the University of Ferrari. The first altar on the right is the one of the farriers and vets, decorated in the 16th Century with Scenes from the life of St. Anthony and Jesus, while the canvas on the altar represents the Holy Family with the little St. John. The third chapel on the right is also very valuable, decorated in the 18th Century with Scenes from the life of Saint Francis.
On the left, the third altar is linked to the swordmakers and is decorated with a beautiful Crucifixion, a copy of the canvas made by Scipione Pulzone and now kept in the Church of St. Maria in Vallicella.
The windows of the apse are decorated with the coat of arms of the University, while on the high altar you can admire a painting of the Madonna and Child Jesus between Saints Martin, James and Eligius, painted in the 16th Century by Girolamo Siciolante.
If possible, before going out, visit the Hall of Relics, including the silver reliquary containing the arm of St. Eligius (a gift from the cathedral of Noyon), and the Oratory where you can admire the banner of the University in 1725 and a 18th Century painting by Pompeo Batoni depicting the Madonna and Jesus appearing to St. Eligius and St. Amperio.
THE CHURCH OF ST. JOHN BEHEADED
A little further on is the Church of St. John Beheaded, which you can rarely visit, since it is open only once a year, on June 24th: if you were to be in Rome on that day, do not miss the opportunity to access it. However, let’s proceed with the historical and artistic story of this building, which you can also explore further on the Confraternity’s official website.
The church was built towards the end of the 15th Century together with the cloister, the convent and the oratory by the Archconfraternity of the Mercy of St. John Beheaded.
This Archconfraternity, originally from Florence, received in 1490 by Pope Innocent VIII the authorization to carry out also in Rome its own work of charity, consisting in the religious assistance of people condemned to death by decapitation and in the care of the burial of corpses. The baskets in which the severed heads were collected were then burned on June 24th of each year, on the occasion of the feast of St. John the Baptist, who died precisely by cutting off his head.
In addition, thanks to a privilege obtained from Pope Paul III, every August 29th the Archconfraternity could free a person sentenced to death, in memory of the finding of the head of St. John the Baptist, which took place on that date in Syria. The freed prisoner became the protagonist of a thanksgiving procession in the midst of a cheering crowd. The Confraternity, which still exists, assists today the families of the prisoners while the church is officiated by the Franciscans.
THE DECORATIONS OF THE CHURCH
The church, restored several times during the 18th Century, has a brick façade characterized by four Doric pilasters, a beautiful 16th Century portal with an overhanging semicircular window and two simple niches.
The interior has a single nave, with a nice coffered ceiling decorated with the cross, the lily of Florence and the head of St. John the Baptist. On the first altar on the right there is a Nativity by Jacopo Zucchi (1585), while the wall is decorated with the figures of the apostles Philip and Thomas. On the second altar there is the Incredulity of St. Thomas by Giorgio Vasari (1580), while on the wall you can see the figures of the apostles Bartholomew and Thaddeus. On the third altar you can admire the Visitation by Pomarancio (16th century), while the walls are frescoed with the apostles Simon and Matthias.
Looking now at the left wall, the first altar is decorated with the Assumption of the Virgin Mary by Francesco Zucchi, flanked by the apostles John and James Minor. On the second altar you can see the canvas painted in 1580 by Giovan Battista Naldini and depicting St. John the Evangelist subjected to the martyrdom of boiling oil (in memory of this episode a chapel designed by the architects Antonio da Sangallo and Francesco Borromini was erected near the Latin Gate, which we will examine in one of the next Itineraries), with the apostles Matthew and James the Greater on the sides. Finally, the third altar is decorated with a modern wooden crucifix, with the figures of the apostles Peter and Andrew on its sides.
The high altar, consecrated by Benedict XIII, is an 18th Century work in polychrome marble, while the ciborium was designed by Antonio Munoz in neo-Renaissance style and is therefore a modern work. On the back wall, to the right, is the Beheading of the Baptist by Girolamo Muziano, to the left the Resurrection of Lazarus by Giovanni Balducci and in the center another Beheading of the Baptist, painted in 1553 by Giorgio Vasari.
The decoration of this church constitutes a clear visualization of the Christian message of heavenly mercy. The figures of the apostles allude to the ecumenism of the Church of Rome and emphasize the fact that these were all martyrs. The preaching of the Baptist recalls the salvation announced by Christ, while the beheading of the Baptist was to act on the ultimate conversion of the condemned man. Finally, the resurrection of Lazarus and the Assumption were meant to signify the heavenly reward and resurrection, which the condemned man would have obtained by death if he had redeemed his soul in the last moments of his life.
THE ORATORY OF ST. JOHN BEHEADED
The Oratory, where the Archconfraternity currently meets, was restored in 1950 and has a 16th Century statue of St. John the Baptist on the entrance door. Inside, on the altar you can see the Deposition of Christ painted by Jacopino Del Conte, with on the sides the Apostles Bartholomew and Andrew painted by Francesco Salviati.
You can also admire paintings depicting the Dance of Salome (Pirro Ligorio, 1550), the Capture of St. John the Baptist (Battista Franco, 1540), the Baptism of Christ (Jacopino Del Conte, 1541), the Preaching of St. John the Baptist (Jacopino Del Conte, 1535), the Birth of St. John the Baptist Announced to St. Joachim (Jacopino Del Conte, 1550), the Birth of St. John the Baptist and the Visitation (two works by Francesco Salviati, 1551).
This last canvas is quite famous, because many critics have noticed how the character with the beard unmistakably resembles Michelangelo Buonarroti.
THE CLOISTER OF ST. JOHN BEHEADED
Now exit from the Oratory and go to number 22, entering the beautiful 16th Century cloister: under the three porticoed sides there are several sepulchral tombstones, two 14th Century styliphoric lions and two 16th Century wooden altars with statues of St. Sebastian.
From the cloister (in which the first public art exhibitions of Rome were held, promoted by the Archconfraternity) you can access the famous Historical Chamber, which is a real museum, although small, of papal justice. Here are preserved the basket in which the head of the young Beatrice Cenci was collected, the hood of Giordano Bruno, the wooden tablets with sacred images that the friars gave to the condemned to kiss before execution, the lanterns that gave light to the last night of these, the paper, pens and inkwells for those who wanted to make a will.
THE MITHRAEUM OF THE CIRCUS MAXIMUS
Return now to Via dei Cerchi, in whose first section archaeologists have identified and found several monuments of Ancient Rome: the Ara Massima of Hercules, the Temple of Hercules Invictus, the Aedes Florae, the Aedes Cereris and the Trigemina Gate, just to mention the most important ones. Today some of these buildings are partially visible, while others are located under the road surface and under the buildings built over the centuries near the Church of St. Mary in Cosmedin: the offices of military conscription, the offices of the annona, the electoral registry, the pasta factory Pantanella and the warehouse of the costumes of the Opera House.
Just under this building, in 1931 was found, at a depth of 14 meters, an imposing building of the II Century AD built in brickwork, which in the III Century was adapted to a mithraeum. The mithraeum was dedicated to the cult of the god Mithras, a divinity of Persian origin, symbol of light and purification of sin, initiatory way to moral perfection and resurrection from the dead, whose natal day fell on the winter solstice, the same that was later chosen by Christians to fix the anniversary of the birth of Christ.
It is possible to visit the room of the furnishings of the cult, the atrium where the statues of the geniuses of light (Cautes) and of darkness (Cautopates) were kept, and the temple room where the adepts gathered (women were not admitted to the cult) and took their places on the side benches distributed according to the seven degrees of their hierarchy. Above them the ceiling was adorned with stars and the room decorated to resemble a cave.
In the mithraeum is preserved a beautiful marble relief, commissioned (as you can read on the inscription) by Tiberius Claudius Hermes: it depicts Mithras who, led by a raven, in the presence of his genes Cautes and Cautopates, the sun and the moon sacrifices the bull that at the same time is attacked by a scorpion which stings his testicles, while a dog and a snake drink the blood that flows from the deadly wound.
In Rome there are many splendid mithraeums: if you would like to visit, for example, the mithraeum under the Church of St. Clement, please contact the Cultural Association Rome Guides to request this tour.