ROMAN ITINERARIES – RIPA DISTRICT – ITINERARY 46
RIPA DISTRICT – ITINERARY 46
The Ripa District Itinerary 46 will take you to the Aventine Hill, starting with the Circus Maximus, a large grassy area with gently sloping sides between the Palatine and the Aventine.
Circus Maximus – Piazzale Ugo La Malfa – Via della Valle Murcia – Piazza del Tempio di Diana – Via Marcella – Piazza Albania – Via Icilio – Piazza dei Servilii – Piazza Sant’Anselmo – Piazza dei Cavalieri di Malta – Via di Santa Sabina – Piazza Sant’Alessio – Piazza di San Pietro d’Illiria – Clivo di Rocca Savella – Via della Greca
THE CIRCUS MAXIMUS
Even though today it may seem unbelievable to you, here once stood the immense tiers of seats for at least 150,000 spectators, and in that valley once towered the obelisks that today stand in the People’s Square and the Square of St. John in Lateran. Here the bigas and the quadrigas raced, but this was also the place of the famous Rape of the Sabine Women, which was used by Romulus, the first king of Rome, to repopulate his community marked by a terrible shortage of women. The pretext was to invite the Sabines to the games and the celebrations held in honor of the god Consus, a divinity connected to the agricultural cycles of the ancient agrarian populations of Latium.
In the Circus Maximus there were always many other pagan festivals, such as the Ludi Apollinares or the Ludi Magni Circensi.
According to tradition, the Circus Maximus was built for the first time by the Etruscan kings, participating in the monumentalization of what scholars call “the great Rome of the Tarquins”. Probably the first Circus Maximus was built in wood, but it was later rebuilt and embellished several times, both in Republican and Imperial age, with restorations performed by Augustus, Caligula, Claudius, Nero, Domitian, Antoninus Pius, Caracalla, Aurelian, Diocletian, Constantine and Constantius.
THE ARCHITECTURE OF THE CIRCUS MAXIMUS
The circus consisted of two long and two short sides, one curved and the other straight but transverse. At the center of the curved side stood the triumphal arch, which some sources claim was erected by Vespasian and Titus for their victory in Judea (excavations have brought to light the foundations of this monumental entrance), while the other side was placed obliquely to allow the chariots, which began the race coming out of their cages (carceres), to find themselves all potentially at the beginning of the straight at the same time, something like what happens today in athletic races for the 200 meters. Excavations carried out in the first half of the 20th Century brought to light, on the curved eastern side, the archaeological evidence of the walls that supported the first two tiers of seats in the stands.
The starting signal was given by a magistrate, who dropped a large white handkerchief. The chariots had to make seven rounds of the track, around a sort of high sidewalk called “spina“, marked at the extremities by two large conical marble elements called “mete“. On the spina there were small temples, sacellums and aedicules: moreover, on a long horizontal pole were fixed seven bronze eggs, dedicated to the Dioscuri, and seven bronze dolphins, related to Neptune. At each turn of the carts, an egg and a dolphin were overturned so that the public could know how many turns were missing at the end of each race.
On the side of the Palatine, the Circus Maximus was adorned with a monumental pulvinar, a loggia where the images of the gods who had previously “marched” in the parade of the inauguration of the races were placed: the show was therefore offered to these gods, among whom (after a ritual banquet) the deified emperor would sit too.
The races of the circus were almost always offered to the people by the Emperor, by the magistrates or by the patricians with electoral ambitions, who in this way managed to gain electoral favor.
THE TWO OBELISKS
The Emperor Augustus had the obelisk of Ramses II erected in the Circus Maximus, which was later recovered by Pope Sixtus V and placed in the People’s Square, while three centuries later the Emperor Constantius placed the other obelisk coming from Karnak in the Circus Maximus, which Sixtus V then had raised in the Square of St. John in Lateran. Aurelian dedicated the Circus Maximus to the Sun because, according to a symbolic interpretation of the time, the Augustan obelisk was one of its rays and the seven turns of the chariots represented the cycle of time and the life of the men, to which were linked the two symbols used to keep count of the turns made: the eggs, allusive to the birth of the universe, and the dolphins, reference to Neptune to whom the horses were dear.
THE FIRE OF NERO
The Circus Maximus suffered several accidents in its long existence, such as the partial collapse of the stands that repeatedly killed several spectators. The most important event linked to the history of the Circus Maximus, however, is the fire of Nero, which exploded in the Circus in 64 AD and destroyed most of Rome. Between the entrances of the Circus Maximus, indeed, merchants used to open stores and taverns where citizens could drink, gamble or meet the sweet pleasures of Venus. Probably, it was in one of these buildings without the most basic safety rules that a brazier overturned, causing the fire to spread throughout the city. It was the fire for which Nero was unjustly blamed, and he then equally unjustly identified the Christians as the voluntary authors of the fire, thus beginning a violent persecution that saw among its victims even the apostles Peter and Paul.
THE CIRCUS AT THE END OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE
Abandoned in the following centuries, it became like the other roman monuments a quarry for building material; invaded by water and then covered with earth, the Circus was surrounded by medieval structures, churches and convents. Still standing is the small and elegant Tower of the Moletta, perhaps built in the 12th Century by the Frangipane family and well known because inside it lived in 1213 the first Roman follower of St. Francis of Assisi, Iacopa dei Settesoli (who perhaps also hosted St. Francis himself for a few days). Taking advantage of the water flowing nearby, the tower ended its function of medieval fortress and was transformed into a small mill.
In 1852, in the valley of the Circus Maximus was inaugurated the first gasometer of Rome, which was demolished only in 1943.
THE AVENTINE HILL
Now leave the valley of the Circus Maximus and go up to the Aventine Hill.
There are many theories about the origin of the name “Aventine“: according to someone it derives from the birds (aves) seen by Remus, according to others from the oats (avena) that were cultivated there, according to others still from the Latin expression “ab adventu” for the gatherings of the plebs that took place during the feasts of Diana. An ancient legend says that on the hill would have been buried Aventinus, king of Albalonga, after that a lightning bolt had hit him, killing him and divinizing him at the same time.
TEMPLES AND HOUSES
On the Aventine Hill, at the time of Ancient Rome, there were the temples of Mercury, of Iuventas, of Diana, of Minerva (where now is the Church of St. Prisca), of Ceres, Libero and Libera, of Juno Regina (where is the Church of St. Sabina), of Vertumnus, of Consus, of the Moon, of Luppiter Liber, of Libertas, of Flora and of Luppiter Dolichenus (near the present Church of St. Alexis). On the Aventine there were also very luxurious houses, such as those of the poets Ennius and Nevius, of the emperors Trajan and Vitellius and of the rich friend of Trajan Lucius Licinius Sura, who built on the hill also his baths (Surane Baths), which were later joined by the Decian Baths.
THE HILL OF THE PLEBS
In spite of these luxurious residences, the Aventine was always considered the neighborhood of the plebs of Rome, who retreated here in the historic secessions that marked their struggles against the patricians for the achievement of political and legal rights.
In 451 BC, for example, the plebs retreated to the Aventine after Virginio had preferred to kill his daughter Virginia, rather than see her go enslaved to a client of Appius Claudius, as the court had judged with an unfair sentence. This was the final abuse that caused the rebellion of the plebs against Appius Claudius, who did not depose the power and ruled in a kind of collegial tyranny with other patricians. The plebs, camped menacingly on the Aventine, unleashed a violent crisis, which forced Appius Claudius to commit suicide and grant the plebeians the rights they demanded.
The Aventine was also the place and the last defense of Caius Gracchus, and the Italian deputies who refused to attend the Italian Parliament after the heinous murder of Giacomo Matteotti by Mussolini’s fascist squads were nicknamed “aventiniani“.
THE AVENTINE IN THE MIDDLE AGES
The Aventine was literally devastated by the violent sack of the Goths, led by Alaric in 410 AD: the hill, in ancient times rich in springs and characterized by entire forests of myrtle, the plant sacred to Venus, after the sack of the Goths depopulated and became so desolate to be chosen by the monks as the site of their hermitages or their small religious communities. Pope Silverio moved here in 537, trying to escape the Byzantines commanded by General Belisarius who, on behalf of Justinian, was trying to bring Rome back into the orbit of Constantinople.
Several centuries later, Otto III, the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, settled here to exercise a greater political authority over the religious authority of the Popes. The castle built by Otto III was then occupied by the Savelli family, and from here Cencio Savelli came out in 1216 to be elected Pope with the name of Honorius III, the pontiff who approved both the rule of St. Francis of Assisi and the rule of St. Dominic of Guzman.
THE MODERN AVENTINE
Until the end of the last century, the Aventine, as evidenced by the watercolors of Ettore Roesler Franz, was a lonely and suggestive hill for the religious atmosphere that derived from the churches and convents that stood there. At the beginning of the 20th Century, the hill was transformed into an elegant residential area where the ancient religious buildings are historical and monumental presences.
THE MONUMENT OF GIUSEPPE MAZZINI
The ascent to the top of the hill starts from Piazza Ugo La Malfa, which according to legend was the one from which Remus would have observed the six vultures flying in the sky (so much so that the square was named, at the time of its inauguration, after the two twins of the Roman legend), and was renamed in memory of the Italian politician Ugo la Malfa, one of the fathers of the Italian Republic.
On the square stands the marble monument to Giuseppe Mazzini, marked by the large bronze statue of the patriot, made by Ettore Ferrari in 1929 but inaugurated only twenty years later, because the fascist regime preferred not to exalt excessively the figure of the republican and democratic Mazzini. The high reliefs that surround the high podium represent an allegorical frieze, depicting Italy that frees the oppressed people from the chains of servitude, Time unmasked, the triumphant breaking of the martyrs of liberty led by winged victories on horseback and the Italian cities that stretch out united towards Rome liberated and united to the homeland. On the back of the monument there are medallions with the portraits of some Italian patriots.
The sculptor Ettore Ferrari was Grand Master of Italian Freemasonry from 1904 to 1917 and a reference to Masonic iconography was seen, in the high relief, in the figure of a man in a wide leather apron to whom a woman (personification of the Virtue) holds out a hammer and chisel to “square the stone”.
THE MUNICIPAL ROSE GARDEN
Take Via della Valle Murcia, bordering on both sides of the road the Municipal Rose Garden, where more than a thousand varieties of roses are cultivated in addition to 5000 other different plants: the most beautiful can win the annual International Competition Rome Prize.
Although it may seem incredible, this place has always been linked to flowers and their exaltation: the historian Tacitus, in his Annales, stated that here there was a temple dedicated to the goddess Flora, whose celebrations (floralia) took place in spring in the Circus Maximus since the III Century BC.
THE OLD JEWISH CEMETERY
On the right of the square, close to the municipal rose garden, there was a small cemetery reserved for the Roman Jews, which in Nolli’s topographical map is indicated as “The Jews’ Ugly Garden“. The land had been purchased in 1645 by the Society of Charity and Death, which enlarged it first in 1728 and then in 1775. However, following the edict on the Jews, issued by Pope Pius VI in 1775, it was forbidden to the Jews to place tombstones or inscriptions in memory of their dead in the cemeteries; those that already existed were therefore destroyed by the papal authority, while some were furtively moved and walled up in the Ghetto. The merciless edict was abolished only in 1846 by Pope Pius IX, and immediately the cemetery became covered with tombstones and memorials.
The Jewish Cemetery of the Aventine was closed in 1895 on the occasion of the new urban development of the hill, but it was completely demolished only between 1930 and 1935 to open the Via del Circo Massimo. At that time the cemetery land was transferred by the Roman Jewish community to the Verano Jewish Cemetery, while some of the large cypresses that survived the demolition still stand in the flowerbeds of the area.
THE CHURCH OF ST. PRISCA
Take a left for the Clivo dei Publicii, which recalls the Gens Publicia who lived here and the ancient Roman road that took its name from it, the Vicus Publicius. Once you pass Largo Arrigo VII, the street takes the name of Santa Prisca and reaches the square of the same name, where the Church of St. Prisca stands.
This church commemorates the young Roman noblewoman, daughter of Aquila and Priscilla, who hosted in his house St. Peter, who converted many pagans and baptized Prisca at the age of thirteen, before she suffered martyrdom at the time of Claudius: but since the ferocious animals that had to tear her to pieces refused to do so, the Emperor gave the order to behead her.
The remains of the saint were found in the III Century AD by Pope Eutychius and transferred to the church that takes its name from her. This explains why scholars claim that the Church of St. Prisca (perhaps originally dedicated to her parents Aquila and Priscilla) is one of the oldest in Rome: an excavation of 1776 has indeed brought to light the remains of a building of the III Century AD.
Until the 11th Century, St. Prisca was officiated by the Basilian monks of St. Mary in Cosmedin, and then passed under the Benedictines. In the Middle Ages it was elevated to the rank of Roman abbey and at that time it was particularly devastated by the Norman raids (1084). In the meantime, the “changes of management” continued: in 1414 it passed to the Franciscans, in 1455 to the Dominicans and in the 16th Century to the Augustinians, who still administer it. The church was restored several times: by Cardinal Giustiniani in 1660, by Pope Clement XII in 1728 and by his own friars in 1798, after the damages caused by the French occupation.
The church has a simple but elegant baroque façade made in the 16th Century by Carlo Lambardi, squeezed between the buildings that flank the short access ramp, with a beautiful portal flanked by two ancient granite columns, a large circular window with a marble frame and a triangular tympanum.
THE INTERIOR DECORATIONS
The interior, divided into three naves by beautiful Ionic columns, was shortened in the 17th Century by three sections, becoming much shorter than it actually was.
On the back wall, during works carried out for the construction of the sacristy, the arches of the original church came to light. Although they suffered serious damage in the fire of the 15th Century, they still preserve fragments of the oldest 8th Century frescoes.
Admire the Chapel of Baptism, whose baptismal font was carved out of a splendid composite capital dated to the end of the II Century AD, adorned with ovoli, rosettes and acanthus leaves. Despite the obvious chronological contrast, religious tradition has it that in this font St. Peter baptized both St. Prisca and her parents Aquila and Priscilla.
The frescoes of the presbytery, depicting the Martyrdom of St. Prisca and the transport of her relics, are the work of Anastasio Fontebuoni of the early 17th Century.
Past the triumphal arch with the coat of arms of Pope Clement XII and approaching the apse, you can admire the angels supporting medallions and the altarpiece of the high altar with St. Peter baptizing St. Prisca, painted in 1600 by Passignano.
The crypt of the church, dated between the 9th and 10th centuries, was frescoed by Anastasio Fontebuoni with Scenes from the life of St. Peter, in which you can see the baptismal font located above. Under the baroque altar, the relics of Aquila, Priscilla and Prisca are preserved.
THE MITHRAEUM OF ST. PRISCA
From the right nave, when it is open (it rarely happens…), you can access the area of the archaeological excavations, which have brought to light the remains of the I Century AD of the house of Licinius Sura, the remains of another building with two naves identified as the ancient house of Aquila and Priscilla transformed into a church (domus ecclesia) and especially a mithraeum, immediately considered among the most important of Rome, which preserves the traces of a violent destruction suffered at the beginning of the V Century AD, perhaps by the same Christians who at that time were tenaciously intolerant towards the followers of the god Mithras.
At the entrance of the mithraeum were placed in two niches the statues of Cautes and Cautopates, of which remains the first transformed into Mercury. In the niche at the back is placed a large relief built with amphorae covered with stucco and depicting “Saturn” that, according to the legend, introduced in Latium the agriculture. Behind him you can see Mithras killing the bull. To the left of this niche is graffitied the date of the inauguration of the temple: November 18th 202 AD.
The walls of the Mithraeum are still adorned with paintings over the benches, where the initiates sat. These include a man dressed in red with a Phrygian cap and the inscription “honor to the fathers from the East to the West protected by Saturn”; a haloed young man holding a globe in one hand and the inscription: “honor to the protectors of the Sun and honor to the Sun”; the legs and an arm of a figure and the inscription: “honor to the Persian and honor to Mercury”; another barely identifiable figure and the inscription: “honor to the lions protected by Jupiter”; then a figure holding a flap of the cloak of the previous figure bearing a round object and the inscription: “honor to the Nymph, protection of Venus”. Therefore, these are the representations of the levels of the initiatory Mithraic hierarchy. On the opposite wall are the figures of six initiates, indicated by the rank of lions and their respective names, who carry with them the animals of the sacrifice: a bull, a cock, a ram and a pig. Finally, there is the representation of a cave where the “god Mithras and the Sun God” banquet assisted by two people wearing a mask with a raven head.
Near this fake templar cave there are other rooms including the apparatorium, that is the sacristy of the worshippers of Mithras.
THE DECIAN BATHS
In front of the Church of St. Prisca is the farmhouse of the ancient vineyard Maccarani Torlonia, in which have reappeared the remains of the Decian Baths as well as building evidences of the medieval age. The baths were to serve the refined and wealthy customers of the Aventine Hill, unlike the nearby Baths of Caracalla, more massive but intended for mass use.
The baths, built by Emperor Decius in 242 AD, were still well preserved in the Renaissance and were sketched on specific engravings by Andrea Palladio. It is from these baths that come the colossal Hercules as a child in green basalt and the relief with Endymion asleep visited by Selene, preserved in the New Palace of the Capitoline Museums and visible joining the Tour of the Museums and Galleries organized by Rome Guides.
Archaeologists have found in the area another building lavishly decorated with mosaics and paintings, and have assimilated it to the private residence of Trajan (Privata Traiani) before he became the Emperor and then went to reside on the Palatine: perhaps Decius had his baths built right on the ancient home of Trajan.
THE ALBANIA SQUARE
Cross Piazza del Tempio di Diana (where the temple of the same name is presumed to have been), walk down Via Marcella (which commemorates the holy Roman matron of the V Century AD who, once widowed, retired to live as a hermit in her house on the Aventine with her daughter Principia, after having distributed all her wealth to the poor), cross Albina Square (named after another matron famous for her Christian virtues) and finally reach Albania Square.
This square was once called Raudusculana Square, in memory of the ancient gate that opened here and where the Clivus Publicius ended. The square took the name of Albania in 1940, after it was annexed to Italy in 1939; on that occasion the equestrian monument of Giovanni Castriota Scandeberg, by Romano Romanelli, was placed there.
If you look carefully, you will notice that on the Albania Square you can see the remains of three sections of the so-called Servian Walls, for an approximate length of 36 meters and a height of 8 meters, made of square blocks of tuff.
THE CHURCH OF ST. ANSELM
Take Via Icilio and reach Piazza dei Servilii (name of an ancient Roman family whose members were consuls and orators), where the ancient Lavernalis Gate opened, dedicated to the goddess Laverna, protector of thieves and swindlers, in whose honor there was an altar close to the gate. Today in its place is the mighty bastion, called the Colonnella, commissioned by Pope Paul III and built by the architect Antonio da Sangallo the Younger.
Now go up to the St. Anselm Square, passing next to the wall of the garden of the church from which tall cypresses stand out. This was the route of the ancient Vicus Armilustri which led to the Armilustrum, the place where the Roman army, having returned from their military campaigns, purified their weapons. You will then reach the Church of St. Anselm, where the Abbot Primate of the Benedictine order resides and where the International Benedictine College is located. The land for the building of the complex was donated by the Sovereign Military Order of the Knights of Malta in 1892, at the wish of Pope Leo XIII.
The church was designed by the Abbot Ildebrando of Hemptime, in neo-Romanesque Lombard style and was built by Francesco Vespignani; at the center of the quadriporticus you can see the statue of St. Anselm, a famous theologian who lived in the 11th Century and became Archbishop of Canterbury.
The façade of the church is adorned with single lancet windows, while the interior is divided into three naves by powerful and very shiny granite columns. In the apses you can see mosaics depicting angels, made by Father Radbodus Commandeur; under the high altar are preserved the relics of St. Anselm, while the crypt is adorned with sixteen altars.
In the atrium of the monastery is inserted, in the floor, an ancient Roman mosaic in black and white depicting Orpheus who with his song tames the animals.
THE KNIGHTS OF MALTA
Now leave the gate of St. Anselm to enter the solemn Square of the Knights of Malta, enclosed by the wall surrounding the properties of the Order and by walls adorned with neoclassical decorations, alluding to the military and religious glories of the Hierosolimitan Order and by pairs of small obelisks. This urban decoration was invented by the great engraver Giovanni Battista Piranesi, who received the commission from the nephew of Pope Clement XIII, Prior of the Knights of Malta in 1765. Overlooking the square is the main door that leads to the properties of the order, on which stands the famous “keyhole” from which you can see, in perfect perspective, the dome of St. Peter’s framed by the hedges of the park: be prepared for a long line to be able to put your eye on that keyhole!
The history of the Order of the Knights of Malta on the Aventine began when, in 939, Alberic II had Pope John x strangled in the St. Angel’s Castle and John XI elected. Alberic II then had his palace on the Aventine transformed into a Benedictine monastery, entrusting it to Oddone of Cluny. In the 12th Century, the monastery passed to the famous Templars, whose order had been created for the defense of Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem. However, when the Templar order was suppressed in 1312 by Pope Clement V, the monastery passed to the Knights of Jerusalem, who held it until the 15th Century when Pope Paul II gave them back their property at the Forum of Augustus and granted the monastery to the Sovereign Military Order of Malta.
THE CHURCH OF ST. MARY OF THE PRIORY
Giovanni Battista Piranesi, author of the most beautiful Roman views, was the author of the renovation and of the new façade of the church of the Order, entitled to St. Mary of the Priory, while in ancient times it seems to have been dedicated also to St. John and St. Basil.
The façade is crossed by two pairs of pilasters decorated with swords in relief and supporting capitals with figured towers in the center (coat of arms of the papal Rezzonico family). The swords allude to the military and moral virtues of the Knights of Malta. The classical portal is closed at the top by a tympanum on which there is an eye framed by an oak crown: in the tympanum is the coat of arms of the order between military trophies and panoplies, while above stands the cross of Malta.
The interior of the church, in the shape of a Latin cross, has a single nave with side niches and an apse. The vault is decorated by stuccoes with trophies, labariums and ships and in the center is the cross of Malta. Below the trabeation, within medallions, are the portraits of the Apostles. In the first niche on the right is the monumental tomb of the humanist Baldassarre Spinelli, whose remains are contained in a Roman sarcophagus from the III Century A.D., adorned on the front with the figure of the defunct holding a volumen (symbol of culture) in his left hand, while behind him are Minerva (symbol of wisdom) and the nine Muses.
The following chapel houses the funeral monument of Giovanni Battista Piranesi, depicted with the Roman toga to symbolically pay homage to the famous engraver as an example of great civic and moral virtues.
The high altar, designed by Piranesi and made by Righi, features the Glory of St. Basil surmounted by the globe between angels, to remind us that the original seat of the Order of Malta was first located at the Church of St. Basil at the Forum of Augustus.
On the right of the presbytery you can see the tomb of the Prior Bartolomeo Carafa (1405), depicted in arms while the funeral inscription is flanked by pairs of twisted columns framing the coat of arms of the Carafa, surmounted by the crest. On the left, in a fluted Roman sarcophagus, is the tomb of Grand Master Riccardo Caracciolo, whose image is carved on the lid and signed by Pietro Marmoraro.
THE VILLA OF THE KNIGHTS
If accessible, you can continue the visit by entering the villa, renovated by Piranesi, where the second floor houses all the portraits of the Grand Masters of the Order in chronological order; in the room of the current Grand Master is preserved the canvas that was once on the high altar of the church, painted in the 17th Century by Andrea Sacchi.
Inside the villa is the small museum of the Order, which stores documents, testimonies and memorabilia, while the garden still has the appearance designed by Piranesi, adorned with a fountain and a well that bears the date of 1244 and the name of Pietro of Genoa, Grand Master of the Templars of Italy.
THE CHURCH OF ST. ALEXIS
Take now Via di Santa Sabina until you reach the St. Alexis Square, where stands the Church dedicated to St. Alexis and St. Boniface.
THE TWO SAINTS
The Church is linked to a beautiful legend connected to St. Alexis, but originally it was dedicated to St. Boniface, indirectly connected to the same Alexis. The legend says that Boniface led a dissolute life together with Egle, Alexis’ mother; when she converted to Christianity, Boniface did the same, leaving then for Tarsus, in Cilicia, where he suffered martyrdom by decapitation. The remains were repatriated and given to Egle, who proceeded to bury them.
Towards the end of the first millennium, Pope Benedict VII entrusted the church to the Basilian monk Sergius, Metropolitan of Damascus, who transformed it into an abbey from where missionaries departed to Christianize the Slavic peoples: it was then that the church was also dedicated to St. Alexis.
Alexis was born in Rome in the V Century to the wealthy patrician Euphemianus and his wife Aegle. Euphemianus was famous for his charity, as every day he offered three meals to the poor in his own home. Alexis was born when his parents were old and he married while still young, but on his wedding night, deciding to maintain his chastity, he left his wife, hurried to the nearby port on the Tiber and embarked. He arrived to the city of Edessa in Asia Minor and here he began to live on alms, sheltering in the porch of the church dedicated to the Virgin Mary. The messengers sent by his father sought him out but, once they met him, they did not recognize him and returned to Rome reported to his parents that their son was to be considered missing. After eighteen years, however, Alexis returned to Rome and, without being recognized, settled in a basement of his father’s building. Here, never identified, he lived of the charity that the same parents gave him, ignoring who he was, for other seventeen years. Feeling close to death, he wrote his confession and exhaled his last breath while a voice thundered in the sky of Rome: “Look for the man of God on the Aventine in the house of Euphemianus“. Euphemianus himself, the Emperor Honorius and Pope Innocent set out to find the man announced: once he had taken his confession, Euphemianus realized that he was standing in front of the mortal remains of his son Alexis, who was now to be considered a saint.
THE DECORATIONS OF THE CHURCH
Pope Honorius III rebuilt the church and had the relics of the two saints placed under the high altar. The church was renovated in 1750 by the architect Tommaso De Marchis, commissioned by the cardinal Quirini: it was on this occasion that the floor was raised, losing the ancient mosaic that decorated it.
You can enter the church by crossing a partially walled four-sided portico, on the right of which is a small fountain decorated with a spire with the portraits of the two saints. The portico has elegant columns inserted in the pillars, while a tympanum surmounts the main central arch, above which is a second floor with windows alternating with pilasters with Corinthian capitals on which runs a balustrade with flaming marble vases. Observe the beautiful Romanesque bell tower with five orders, built by Honorius III, and the 18th Century statue of Pope Benedict XIII placed under the portico.
The façade of the church has five large windows and a beautiful cosmatesque portal decorated with a pair of angels holding candelabra.
The interior of the church has three naves divided by pillars with Corinthian capitals. The coffered ceiling dates back to the XIX Century, while on the floor you can still see remains of the cosmatesque decoration. On the right you can stop at the tomb of Princess Eleonora Boncompagni Borghese, designed in 1695 by Giovan Battista Contini and coming from the demolished Church of St. Lucy of the Gymnasiums. In the right transept is the chapel commissioned by Charles IV where an icon of the Virgin Mary dating back to the 13th Century is kept and that the religious tradition (denied by the historical dating) would consider venerated by St. Alexis himself.
Approach now the valuable dome ciborium supported by columns of Greek marble, while in the apse (frescoed in the 19th Century by Cesare Gavardini) are placed two small columns that were already in the previous church of Honorius III: they were part of a group of 19 columns, and today they frame the inscription that remembers the relics of Saints Boniface and Alexis.
THE BAROQUE “STAIRCASE”
The most important work, both artistic and religious, is in the left aisle. In fact, you will find an octagonal well closed by a heavy wooden lid with the edge smoothed by the touch of the hands of the believers: it would represent the well where the saint, an anonymous guest of his own house, drew water every day for the family that gave him shelter. At the end of the nave there is a plaster staircase, created by the theatrical imagination typical of the Baroque age, designed to inspire in the soul of the worshipper a feeling of emotion: indeed, the staircase recalls the legend of St. Alexis, narrated in the famous frescoes of the lower Basilica of St. Clement. The statue, by Andrea Bergondi, depicts St. Alexis assisted by angels at the moment of his death.
From the presbytery you can now access the crypt where, in an altar with a canopy, are preserved the relics of St. Thomas Becket, who became Archbishop of Canterbury after having been confidant and collaborator of King Henry II of England and then killed by the sovereign in the same cathedral in 1161 because Thomas began to oppose the policies of Henry II, not respectful of the autonomy and privileges of the Church.
The walls of the crypt (in which is preserved the legendary column of the martyrdom of St. Sebastian) are decorated with frescoes of the 12th and 13th Centuries depicting the Mystic Lamb, the symbols of the evangelists and various saints.
THE CHURCH OF ST. SABINA
Proceeding along Via di Santa Sabina you come to Square of St. Peter of Illyria, founder of the church and convent of St. Sabina.
According to tradition, Sabina was beheaded during Hadrian’s empire because she was converted to Christianity by her trusted slave Serafia, who was stoned to death instead. In 425, during the pontificate of Pope Celestine I, St. Peter of Illyria founded the church, whose works continued under Pope Sixtus III (432-440). According to tradition, the famous procession of Pope Gregory the Great began from the Church of St. Sabina in order to implore the end of the terrible pestilence that was scourging Rome and that was announced to him by the Archangel Michael, who miraculously appeared above Hadrian’s Mausoleum (which for this reason began to be called St. Angel’s Castle).
The church was renovated several times in the following centuries: in the 9th Century Pope Eugene II embellished it with a splendid silver ciborium (which disappeared in 1527 during the terrible Sack of Rome), while in the 10th Century the church was joined to the fortress of Alberic II, becoming the reference point for the Emperor’s followers, who were buried in St. Sabina in those years. In the following century the fortress passed to the Savelli family and Pope Honorius III, a member of the Savelli family, granted St. Dominic the church, still officiated by the Dominicans.
The medieval aspects of the church underwent radical transformations at the behest of Pope Sixtus V, who entrusted the restoration to his favorite architect Domenico Fontana: the schola cantorum, the iconostasis and the ciborium were demolished, a new high altar with a large canopy was erected and some windows were walled up. Other renovations took place during the 17th and 18th Centuries, but the restorations carried out by Antonio Munoz at the beginning of the 20th Century eliminated the baroque superstructures of the church and brought it back to its supposed medieval splendor, with a somewhat artificial flavor.
Archaeological excavations in the vicinity of the church have revealed four sections of the so-called Servian Walls, some remains of houses dating back to the Republican age, renovated in the Augustan era and finally transformed in the I Century AD into a sanctuary of the Egyptian goddess Isis. Archaeologists have also found the remains of a thermal bath adorned with frescoes and those of a domus of the III Century with a large hall, perhaps identifiable in the residence of the St. Sabina’s family.
THE WOODEN DOOR OF ST. SABINA
You can access the church from the St. Peter of Illyria Square, where the side of the church is adorned with an arched portico with coIumns. Originally, the portico rested not on the current white columns, but on black marble columns, which are now preserved in the Chiaramonti Museum in the Vatican. Go under the portico, where numerous fragments of the medieval church and two fronts of Roman sarcophagi reused as Christian tomb slabs are preserved.
The entrance door to the Church of St. Sabina is a real jewel unique in Rome, as it retains (at least in part) the original wooden doors, decorated with 18 relief panels surviving of the original 28. They are one of the most important examples of Italian sculpture of the 5th Century: the panels, framed by spirals and plant elements interspersed with various animals (symbolic of the saving grace of the Church), show scenes from the Life of Jesus, Moses, Elijah and Daniel, including the first scene of the Crucifixion of Christ ever represented in Italy. The tiles were restored in 1836 and on that occasion the restorer retouched the scene of the crossing of the Red Sea, reworking the face of the pharaoh to portray the face of Napoleon Bonaparte, thus humiliating the great Corsican leader, who had died fifteen years before in the distant exile of St. Helena.
THE INTERIOR DECORATIONS
The interior of the church has a nave and two aisles divided by twenty-four fluted columns; above the arches, beyond the capitals, runs a frieze obtained with polychrome marble from the Roman era. On each column you can glimpse military insignia surmounted by a cross, symbolizing the major authorities of the Church on the civil imperial power. The walls of the church were originally covered with marble inlay, of which only scant traces remain today.
Turn around now, however, and look at the counter-façade. You will see a long metrical inscription, which affirms the primacy of the Pope as bishop of Rome and which recalls both Pope Celestine I and St. Peter of Illyria; on the sides you can admire two large allegorical female figures, one representing the Church of Jerusalem holding the Old Testament and the other depicting the Roman Church carrying the New Testament. All of this was done in a splendid polychrome mosaic that was originally completed along the walls of the nave by the figures of the Apostles Peter and Paul and the Evangelists, while on the triumphal arch were the figures of earthly and heavenly Jerusalem, Christ with the Apostles and the four Evangelists. This latter iconographic series has been reconstructed in modern times with frescoes.
Now visit the church, starting from the right aisle and pausing at the Chapel of St. Hyacinthus, one of the artistic jewels of St. Sabina: entirely frescoed in the 16th century by Federico Zuccari with Stories from the Life of St. Hyacinthus, it presents on the altar the canvas painted in 1600 by Lavinia Fontana, one of the most famous female painters of Italian art.
At the center of the nave is the funerary slab of Munoz da Zamora (1380), general of the Dominicans, unique in Rome for its mosaic decorations.
In the left aisle is the Chapel of St. Catherine of Siena, designed by Giovan Battista Contini in 1671 and decorated with precious marbles and frescoes by Giovanni Odazzi (18th Century) with Scenes from the life of St. Catherine; on the altar you can see the canvas painted in 1643 by Sassoferrato depicting St. Dominic and St. Catherine of Siena receiving the rosary from the Madonna.
In the presbytery, using the original fragments, the ancient schola cantorum has been reconstructed, with the plutei decorated with plant racemes and the cross. The apsidal basin was frescoed in 1560 by Taddeo Zuccari, who replicated the representation of the previous mosaic.
THE DOMINICAN CONVENT
If the door is open, you can enter for a few minutes in the convent, which preserves the 13th Century cloister surrounded by a portico with single or twin columns with capitals in lotus leaves, visiting the cell of St. Dominic where a canvas with the saint in prayer is preserved. In this convent taught the great Dominican St. Thomas Aquinas, who was often a guest of the convent.
In the garden of the convent St. Dominic planted his famous orange tree, of which he had brought the polypone from Spain: according to tradition, it would be the first orange tree transplanted in Italy, and in 1379 St. Catherine of Siena brought as a gift to Pope Urban VI five oranges she candied and collected from the plant of St. Dominic.
THE GARDEN OF THE ORANGE TREES
Leave St. Sabina, to go near the fountain resting, in the square of St. Peter of Illyria, against the wall of the ancient Savelli Castle: it consists of a mask, probably depicting Ocean, which was initially placed by Giacomo della Porta in the Roman Forum using under it the large pool that today is in the Quirinal Square. In the 19th Century, the mask was then transferred to the Leonine Port where it served as a fountain until, for the construction of the embankments on the Tiber, it reached its present location, together with the granite basin that you can see and that comes from a thermal bath of Ancient Rome.
The interior of the castle is now transformed into a garden, which for the many plants that distinguish it is now called Garden of the Orange Trees, in obvious reference to the famous and already mentioned orange tree of St. Dominic. The park was designed in the early 20th Century by the architect Raffaele De Vico, author of many other garden arrangements in the capital: from inside you can see the apse and the side of St. Sabina, but above all you can overlook the terrace from which you can enjoy one of the most beautiful panoramic views of Rome.
Leaving the park, take the Clivo di Rocca Savella, ancient name of the lost castle: along this road archaeologists found in 1935 the remains of the Temple of Luppiter Dolichenus, whose archaeological material is now exhibited in the Capitoline Museums, and the Temple of Ceres, Libero and Libera, erected by the dictator Aulus Postumius in 494 BC.