MONTI DISTRICT – ITINERARY 2
MONTI DISTRICT – ITINERARY 2
The Monti District Itinerary 2 starts from Via di San Giovanni in Laterano to discover the “multilevel” Church of St. Clement and the Ludus Magnus, finally ending at the Church of Saints Peter and Marcellin.
We start our second stroll taking, from St. John in Lateran Square, the street with the same name, also known as “stradone” (large road), that goes straight towards the Colosseum and that once was crossed by the papal procession that, as already mentioned in Itinerary I, went from the Vatican to the Lateran Basilica.
Walking along Via di San Giovanni in Laterano, on the sidewalk to the right, you reach the intersection with St. Clement Square, where the beautiful prothyrum of the homonymous Basilica is located.
Via di San Giovanni in Laterano – Via Labicana – Via Merulana – Via delle Terme di Traiano – Via Nicola Salvi – Via del Colosseo – Via del Buon Consiglio – Via dei Frangipane – Via degli Annibaldi – Via Cavour – Salita dei Borgia – Piazza di San Pietro in Vincoli – Via delle Sette Sale – Via del Monte Oppio – Via dei Quattro Cantoni – Via Sforza – Via dell’Olmata – Via Paolina – Via in Selci
The Basilica of St. Clement is one of the best examples of historical stratification that Rome offers to its visitors. The underground of the Basilica, in fact, preserves the remains of a mithraeum and other Roman buildings, as well as those of the primitive church.
St. Clement was the fourth of the Popes: based on the report of St. Irenaeus, St. Clement would have known the two apostles Peter and Paul, turning this Pope into a sort of witness of early Roman Christianity. There is also a letter sent by Pope Clement to the church of Corinth, which should be the first letter that a bishop of Rome has addressed to the church of another community.
According to tradition, in the 8th Century the Saints Cyril and Methodius, destined to convert the Slavs, recovered and brought to Rome the relics of St. Clement, together with the anchor that was tied around his neck during the execution of his martyrdom.
THE EVOLUTION OF THE CHURCH
What you can visit today is actually the Basilica built by Pope Paschal II (1099-1118) and extensively renovated by the architect Carlo Stefano Fontana between 1713 and 1719, at the behest of Pope Clement XI, whose name recalled that of the first Clement.
Currently the church is run by Irish priests and one of them, the Dominican Joseph Mullooly, together with the archaeologist Giovanni Battista de Rossi, began excavations underground the church in what they believed was the crypt. The excavations were very accurate and brought to light the oldest basilica, whose existence was not suspected and which was probably destroyed by the sacking of the Normans led by Robert Guiscard in 1084. However, the discoveries did not stop here because, below this oldest basilica, the remains of important Roman buildings were also found. We highly recommend a visit to this whole basilica complex, so that you can understand all the historical phases of the built up area.
Let’s try to turn back the clock, from the oldest to the most modern buildings, so that you can understand exactly how the buildings have evolved.
ST. CLEMENT AT THE TIME OF THE ANCIENT ROME
The Roman buildings (more exactly from the Flavian period) can be divided into two distinct complexes, with one of them serving as a substructure for the primitive basilica and the other only partially affected by the construction of the apse of the same. The first building is in square work with blocks of tuff of the Aniene: inside, the space is divided by a series of symmetrical rooms, arranged around a central porticoed courtyard. This particular layout, characterized by a few narrow entrances and the absence of shops and inns outside, led to the idea that the building was reserved for special tasks that required continuous surveillance and protection. It has been hypothesized, with strong probability, that it was the so-called “Moneta“, the workshop of the imperial mint where Roman coins were minted (the word “money” derives from it), which existed in this area from the age of the Flavians until the last official minting.
Between the two buildings runs a suggestive and narrow Roman alley, which appears even more mysterious imagining it as it could be in its time, for example at night, completely dark and very dangerous.
The other building consists instead of a series of rooms decorated with stuccoes and connected by a corridor that surrounds an inner courtyard. Probably in these rooms the oldest cult of Clement had to rise, in the one that the sources remember as Titulus Clementis, with a church adapted in a private house. One of the rooms of this second building was however converted in a false cave, whose interior was furnished to resemble a mithraeum.
Mithras, an oriental deity, particularly dear to soldiers and men at arms, was believed to be born from a rock and sent by the sun to capture a bull destined for ritual sacrifice. The vault was to be adorned with stars, while along the walls stood out the great pews where the followers could lie down to consume the agape together and, at the bottom, in the apse, stood out an altar with the relief of “Mithras killing the bull“, having on the sides the two genies of death and resurrection: Cautes and Cautopates.
This mithraeum, however, maybe used also by the gladiators of the Colosseum, shows clear traces of a violent destruction, probably operated by Christians who saw in the cult of Mithras a dangerous “spiritual competitor“.
THE FRESCOES OF THE LOWER BASILICA
Going back to the level of the primitive Basilica, it can be noted that it preserves, also because it has been restored, the entire plan including the narthex, now adorned with many fragments found in excavations and a series of frescoes, the most important of which (9th Century) is that of the Particular Judgement, with the representation of Christ among Saints Clement, Andrew, Cyril and Methodius, accompanied by two archangels.
Entering the nave, you can admire other 9th Century frescoes depicting scenes from the life of Jesus who, in the Crucifixion, appears no longer dressed in the Byzantine colubium but wearing a thong, derived from Carolingian artistic iconography.
On the left, after another fresco depicting the Death of St. Alexis, we come to the most prestigious historical and artistic fragment of the church: a fresco dedicated to St. Clement, where we can see the Saint being chased by the soldiers of the patrician Sisinnio who, confused by God, tie a column in its place and try to take it away. The scenes are accompanied by dialogues written next to the characters. Clement says: “For the hardness of your heart you deserved to draw a stone“. Sisinnio says to his people: “Pull, you sons of bitches. Gosmario, Albertello, pull. Carvoncello, push from behind with the pole.” This is one of the very first cases of vulgar language used inside an ecclesiastical building.
Still interesting are other fragments of frescoes, such as the “Descent of Christ to Limbo“, and a Roman sarcophagus from the second half of the second Century A.D. with the myth of Phaedra.
THE UPPER BASILICA
Going up to the upper Basilica, we can now observe its façade, which houses a beautiful central window and is concluded by a tympanum. Next to it is the small bell tower and, at the centre of the four-sided portico, an elegant little fountain with an octagonal basin.
THE ARCHITECTURE OF THE CHURCH
The basilica is divided into three naves ending in as many apses and divided by ancient columns, now smooth and now fluted, which the Fountain completed with Ionic stucco capitals. The floor is cosmatesque, with marble inlays forming geometric designs, and splendid is the gilded coffered wooden ceiling, decorated with the emblems of Pope Clement XI and the painting of the Glory of St. Clement.
Between the windows of the main nave you can admire the figures of the Prophets, painted in the early 18th Century, and scenes from the life of St. Clement, while on the counter-façade stand out the depictions of Saints Cyril and Methodius.
In the centre of the main nave, with fragments belonging to the first basilica, the Schola Cantorum has been reconstructed with the lecterns for the religious and the crowd of the faithful and the cosmatesque candelabrum. Interesting, among the decorative elements, is the monogram of Pope John II (532-535), the first Pontiff to change his name at the time of his election, since his baptismal name was Mercury, the name of an ancient pagan deity.
THE APSE OF THE CHURCH
Surmounting the ciborium in the form of a small temple, supported by four pavonazzetto marble columns, is the extraordinary mosaic in the apse basin which represents, in the centre, Christ crucified between the Madonna and St. John. On the four arms of the cross twelve white doves represent the apostles. The Cross itself is born from the acanthus, symbol of eternal hope and, from this, branches and vegetal spirals are developed all over the mosaic surface containing allegorical figures of medieval Christianity such as flowers, peacocks, fountains and cornucopias that symbolize the water of life, the abundance of Grace and the splendour of Paradise. Four deers drink from the four rivers that flow from the Cross and are symbols of the Gospels. The Cross itself is approached by a series of characters, faithful and doctors of the church who remember, in the inscription, how the church is similar to the vine invigorated by the Cross. At the extremities are the cities of Bethlehem and Jerusalem which represent the essential stages of Christ’s earthly journey: Birth and Resurrection.
The lower part of the apse wall bears a 13th Century fresco, much restored, depicting Christ with the Apostles, while the fresco of the triumphal arch, unfortunately partly covered by the wooden ceiling, is still very beautiful: here, among the Evangelists and Saints, appears the “Christ Creator of the Universe“, according to the most classical iconography of Byzantine origin.
THE ST. CATHERINE’S CHAPEL
In the left aisle, not to be overlooked, is the “funerary monument of Cardinal Antonio Venier“, who died in 1479, the masterpiece of Isaiah of Pisa, with columns and marbles from the tabernacle of the lower basilica, wanted by the presbyter Mercury, later to become as said Pope John II.
Along the wall of this nave there are some sinopias, recovered in 1952 during the restoration of the chapel of St. Catherine, where you can see the preparatory drawings of the scenes of the beheading of the Saint.
The chapel of St. Catherine of Alexandria was decorated with the Stories of the Saint, between 1428 and 1431, by the painters Masaccio and Masolino di Panicale, with the first of the two who died in Rome in 1428, probably murdered.
This chapel is one of the most precious jewels of early Italian humanist painting and the Stories of St. Catherine vibrate with clarity of drawing and pictorial intensity. In the same chapel, on the opposite side, there are also the Stories from the life of St. Ambrose, while outside, on a pillar, there is a large St. Christopher.
THE LUDUS MAGNUS
Take now Via di Giovanni in Laterano in the direction of the Colosseum, also called Via Sacra (Holy Road) because of the famous papal procession.
Along the street, once upon a time, you would have seen other churches, such as St. Nicholas at the Colosseum and St. Mary of the Ferraris. Above all, however, there was here the house of Pope John II who, due to an error in the epigraph that recalled the Pope, ended up being mistaken for that of the legendary Popess Giovanna who, proceeding in procession, just elected (after having pretended to be a man), gave birth right along this road.
Once you reach Via dei Normanni, in front of the buildings of the municipal estate, you can admire the results of the demolition work that took place in 1937, with the excavation of the Ludus Magnus. The Ludus Magnus was the most important gladiator barracks in Rome, built during Domitian’s empire and connected to the underground part of the Colosseum by a special tunnel. The Ludus Magnus has a rectangular plan, with a porticoed courtyard in the centre around which there are a series of small rooms for the gladiators’ quarters: examining the modest archaeological area, there is the oval arena of a small amphitheatre used by gladiators for training and equipped with a tiny cavea from where athletes, friends and relatives could watch the training.
In these barracks were the warehouses of the scenery used to furnish the arena during the gladiators’ games, the armory, the infirmary, the surgery room, the gymnasium for gymnastic training and the recreation rooms where the gladiators could converse, have a drink and maybe play dice. The whole structure was very similar to that of the modern military barracks.
Now take Via Labicana, which walks under the Oppio Hill almost parallel to Via di San Giovanni in Laterano.
The street takes its name from the city of Labico to which it was heading, originally starting from the Esquilina gate, known today as “Arco di Gallieno” (Gallieno’s Gate), next to the church of St. Vito between Victor Emmanuel II Square and St. Mary Major.
THE CHURCH OF MARCELLINUS AND PETER
Just before the crossroads with Via Merulana is the former 18th Century convent, once belonging to the Church of Saints Marcellinus and Peter, one of the oldest titles in Christian Rome dedicated to Marcellin the priest and Peter the exorcist who suffered martyrdom under the Emperor Diocletian. The two Saints were later buried in the catacomb, named after them, located along the Via Labicana at Torpignattara near the so-called Mausoleum of St. Helena, where there is still another church that Constantine wanted to build for our two Saints.
It is believed that the very first church was built at the will of Pope Siricius (384-399), but it was renovated several times until, at the request of Pope Benedict XIV, it was completely rebuilt by the architect Theodoli in 1751. Situated on a lower level than the current street, it has a cubic structure marked by pilasters, a triangular tympanum and a stepped dome inspired by the Piedmontese rococo style. The interior is in the shape of a Greek cross, and on the right pillar there is a bas-relief with the figures of Saints Marcellin and Peter next to a small tree on which the Arab phoenix, symbol of the Resurrection, is perched. On the high altar you can admire a XVIII Century painting by Gaetano Lapis with the scene of the Martyrdom of the Two Saints.
Leaving the church, take via Merulana passing by the church of St. Anne, built in 1885 and rebuilt in 1927 in neo-Renaissance style with a bell tower above the facade. The interior has a single nave and the altar of Our Lady of Lourdes is characteristic, set in a small grotto, which has a small jet of blessed water on the left.
THE BRANCACCIO PALACE
Continuing along the road in the direction of St. Mary Major you will first reach the Brancaccio Theatre and then the Brancaccio Palace, property of the homonymous family of Neapolitan origin, built between 1892 and 1896 on the plans of the architect Luca Carimini. The palace, which has an rusticated covering on the lower floor and windows flanked by columns with triangular tympanum, opens with a large door with three entrances while in each of the four elevations there is a large serliana. The palace has the characteristic elements of Roman Mannerist architecture, but it is above all famous for the furniture (furniture, carpets and chandeliers) of the early 20th Century and for a series of splendid frescoes by Francesco Gaj (1835-1917) depicting members of the Brancaccio family and their friends, in what can be considered a rare gallery of historical-private paintings.
THE SEVEN HALLS
The Brancaccio Palace also had a large garden that occupied almost the entire Oppio Hill: today this garden is reduced to a small area full of tall trees that are what remains of an elegant botanical garden. Another section of the garden was expropriated about a century ago to ideally reunite the Roman monument it contained, the so-called “Seven Halls“, to the garden on the Oppio Hill and then to the Baths of Trajan.
The Seven Halls are actually nothing more than cisterns containing the water used by the Baths of Trajan, and probably also by the previous Baths of Titus. The name, in reality, is misleading, because excavations have shown that the cisterns were in reality nine instead of seven. The walls and floor are covered with “opus signinum”, a special waterproofing Roman cement that was laid to fill the edges to facilitate the cleaning of the cisterns. Through two openings, with relative stairs, it was possible to access the cisterns for the necessary water control and current maintenance, while in the corners of the niches of the facade you can still see the housings of the large bronze taps that regulated the flow of water that reached the baths through pipes.
The archaeological excavation, however, revealed something else.
In fact, the remains of at least a thousand skeletons, mostly female, were found completely buried and covered with quicklime. This was the mass grave for the nuns who died during the terrible plague of the 17th Century, the same one mentioned by Alessandro Manzoni in “I Promessi Sposi” (The Betrothed).
THE BATHS OF TRAJAN
In front of the Seven Halls there is a view, included in the Park of the Oppio Hill, of the remains of the Baths of Trajan, built by the Roman Emperor Trajan on part of the remains of the Domus Aurea after the fire of 104 AD.
Paradoxically, the fire favoured the different orientation of these large thermal baths, which could be positioned without respecting the main axis of the Domus Aurea, as the smaller thermal baths of Titus had had to do before. Thus the calidarium of Trajan’s baths was exposed between midday and sunset, at the point of maximum sunshine: this architectural layout was respected by all the subsequent great Roman baths, such as those of Caracalla, Diocletian and Decius. The architect of these baths was the same author of the Forum and the Markets of Trajan, Apollodorus of Damascus, who legend wants to have him killed by Hadrian, who could not stand the criticism of those moves to his designs of buildings covered with domes that in fact Apollodorus called “pumpkins“.
Within a large enclosure served by rooms, halls and nymphaea and closed on the back side by a large exedra was built, separated by large gardens, the thermal complex itself equipped with changing rooms, swimming pool, gyms, tepidarium and calidarium as well as mud and thermal water pools. In this place, the Romans could relax, wash themselves, exercise, read and meet friends.
THE DOMUS AUREA
Next to the south-western corner of the Baths of Trajan are the remains of the Baths of Titus, which today are scarcely visible, of much more modest proportions.
Going down through the gardens of the Oppio Hill you reach the entrance to the remains of the Domus Aurea, which, apart from the periods when archaeologists and restorers work there, it is possible to visit: the extraordinary virtual reconstruction of the Domus, visible through special viewers, is worth the ticket price by itself.
The Domus Aurea was wanted by Nero as a grandiose and sumptuous residence after the fire of 64 AD had destroyed the Domus Transitoria, which connected the imperial houses of the Palatine with those of the Esquiline. The architects were Severo and Celere and the decoration of the palace complex was carried out by the painter Fabullus. Suetonius left us a worthy testimony of this domus: in the vestibule stood a colossal statue of Nero, 30 metres high, and then there were luxurious porticoes and a pond as big as a sea, huge buildings like cities, gardens full of country houses with fields, vineyards, pastures and woods and all sorts of domestic and wild animals.
It was a literally gigantic place: just think that the Colosseum today occupies the place of the pond and that a large part of the complex was terraced as a roof garden and equipped with triclinia, libraries, peristyles and porticoes.
THE DECORATIONS OF THE DOMUS AUREA
The Domus Aurea also played another role in the flourishing of early Renaissance Italy when artists such as Ghirlandaio and Giovanni da Udine, who had penetrated the ruins of the Neronian house still buried in the earth, found and copied Roman ornamental drawings made of mythological decorations, medallions, racemes and plant candlesticks, animals and figures of gods or allegorical figures, all within drawings that marked the spaces of the walls and impressive in the vivacity of red, green, black, yellow and blue on a white background. These paintings, from the name given at that time to the ruins “grotte” (caves), were called “grotesque” and became the most sophisticated way to decorate rooms and corridors of the homes of Popes, churchmen and princes.
The walls were adorned with gold, gems and mother-of-pearl, the ceilings had perforated ivory slabs and furniture and the most important circular hall had a dome rotating like day and night. Some bathrooms were provided with sea water and some with sulphurous water.
Now take Via Nicola Salvi (from which you can enjoy an extraordinary view of the Colosseum) and take Via del Colosseo to reach Via del Buon Consiglio. Along the street you can see the deconsecrated Church of the Virgin Mary of Good Counsel, also dedicated to St. Pantaleo and, since 1587, also to St. Biagio after the nearby church dedicated to this saint was destroyed. The exterior, very simple, is the least important part: a legend tells that in the basement, where the body of St. Pantaleo was kept hidden, there is a well of miraculous water. For this reason, for decades, exorcisms were held in this church on spiritual people.
VILLA SILVESTRI AND THE MARGANI TOWER
Back again on Via del Colosseo, you can see the large building of the Pio Istituto Rivaldi, once called Villa Silvestri. This villa was built by Antonio da Sangallo the Younger for Eurialo Silvestri, a gentleman of Pope Paul III (1534-1549). The steps of the villa once went as far as the Basilica of Maxentius, along the entire ridge of the Velia which had not yet been cut for the opening of Via dei Fori Imperiali.
Inside survive splendid lacunar ceilings adorned with the coats of arms of the ancient owners and imaginative grotesque paintings.
Now walk along Via degli Annibaldi where, at the corner with Via Cavour, stands the Margani Tower. Mighty in shape, with a travertine beak crowning, the tower was built in the 12th Century and rearranged in the 15th; today the tower, to which a bell cell has been added, serves as a bell tower for the nearby Church of St. Francis of Paola.
CHURCH OF ST. FRANCIS OF PAOLA
St. Francis of Paola, born in the Calabrian town, was a Franciscan at the age of twelve, lived a long time in the woods of Sila and at the age of nineteen he founded the Order of Minims inspired by a very hard and inflexible discipline. His miracles can be defined very scenic, like the one in which he crossed the Strait of Messina sailing on his cloak lying on the water since the ferrymen did not want to accompany him on the other side: for this reason, St. Francis of Paola became the protector of sailors.
The interior of our church has a single nave with architectural stucco decorations in baroque style: artistically important is the funerary monument of Pallavicini, by Ferdinando Fuga, while the sacristy is adorned on the ceiling by the beautiful painting of the Madonna appearing to St. Francesco di Paola, by Sassoferrato.
THE CLIMB OF THE BORGIAS
Observe now the Climb of the Borgias which passes under the arch of the palace of the same name. The climb follows the Roman “Vicus Sceleratus” (wicked road), so called in memory of the episode in which Tullia, daughter of the King of Rome Servio Tullio, passed with her chariot over the body of her murdered father.
The Borgia Palace once belonged to the Margani family, but Roman tradition has it that Vannozza Cattanei, who had four children by Pope Alexander VI Cesare Borgia, including the famous and beautiful Lucrezia Borgia, who was described as a criminal and a poisoner by the evil tongues of the time.
THE ST. PETER IN CHAINS’ BASILICA
At the end of the climb you arrive in the St. Peter in Chains’ Square, where the façade of the basilica of the same name appears, also nicknamed Eudossiana to remember Eudossia, wife of Emperor Theodosius II, who gave her daughter Eudossia Minor, wife of Valentinian lll, a part of the chains of St. Peter found in Jerusalem. Eudossia Minor gave them to Pope St. Leo the Great and he, having placed them next to the other chains of St. Peter’s which were kept in Rome as relics, witnessed in amazement the miracle of the immediate joining of the two sections of the chain into one.
The church already existed under the pontificate of Sixtus lll (439-440), and recent excavations have even identified parts of the first Domus Ecclesiae of the 3rd Century. In 532, Pope John II was consecrated there and, in the 6th Century, Pelagius I had the relics of the Maccabees placed inside a sarcophagus which, found during excavations in the last century, is today placed under the altar of Confession together with the urn of the chains.
The façade consists of pillars on whose capitals you can see the symbol of the oak tree, present on the heraldic coat of arms of two Popes, Sixtus IV and Julius II, uncle and nephew respectively.
The portico is considered the work of Baccio Pontelli (1450-1492) and is closed by a gate decorated with the coat of arms of Clement XI (1700-1721).
THE INTERIOR DECORATIONS
The interior has three apsidal naves, with the central one with a coffered ceiling adorned with a fresco depicting the miracle of the chains. The sacristy still preserves a marble inlaid floor that is believed to come from the Baths of Trajan.
In the left aisle is interesting, for lovers of the taste of the macabre in a typically baroque key, the funerary monument of Mariano Vecchiarelli, with the deceased one represented between two skeletons to symbolize the transience of life.
Then follows an important mosaic of the 7th Century where Saint Sebastian, dressed as a soldier, is depicted old and bearded, following the original Byzantine iconography and not the later Roman one that transformed him into a beautiful young man.
In the right aisle, at the first altar, you can admire the canvas of St. Augustine, a valuable work by Guercino.
At the end of the nave, on the right, you can be enraptured in front of the funeral monument of Pope Julius II, the work of Michelangelo Buonarroti and his best collaborators. In reality, this mausoleum was to be much larger in size (the artist initially designed as a real mountain with forty-two decorative statues) and located in St. Peter’s Basilica at the behest of Pope Julius II, but with the death of the Pontiff and the subsequent election of Leo X, the project was first shelved and then resized and transferred to St. Peter’s in Chains for his execution.
So was accomplished what Michelangelo himself had called “the tragedy of the burial“. Some of the great artist’s masterpieces, already destined for this tomb, can be found today at the Accademia Gallery in Florence and the Louvre.
The architecture of the monument had the function of receiving as a frame or backdrop the statue of “Moses” seated, holding the tables of the law.
Moses, with his frowning, proud and penetrating gaze, sits solemnly enriched in the expression of his face by a flowing beard, while the rays of Divine Wisdom emerge from his forehead. He is the figure of a leader devoted to his faith who looks with reproach at disobedient subjects. On one knee you can see a clear line of fracture linked to a well-known legend according to which Michelangelo struck the statue in that point with a mallet shouting, overpowered by the realistic appearance of this: “Why don’t you speak?”.
On the sides are the statues of Lia and Rachel, symbols of the active and contemplative life that Michelangelo commissioned Raphael of Montelupo to complete.
It remains at this point to visit the cloister, the masterpiece of Giuliano da Sangallo, consisting of an elegant four-sided portico with Ionic columns and capitals and a well in the centre. Prior to this cloister, in the same area, stood the Villa of Julius II when he was still a cardinal: it was in this very villa that the future Pope, a great connoisseur and art collector, kept the Apollo del Belvedere found at Anzio, before taking it to the Vatican, where it is now displayed in the Octagonal Courtyard.
If you want to see this marvellous statue, please consider to book the Vatican Museums Tour of Rome Guides.
Leaving the Basilica of St. Peter in Chains, follow Via delle Sette Sale passing by the Institute of the Little Sisters of the Poor and the Faculty of Engineering, built in the Umbertine age, which required the destruction of chapels and oratories such as those of St. Mary in Monastery and St. Agapito in Vincula.
Via delle Sette Sale leads you to the Church of St. Martin ai Monti, dedicated to Pope St. Sylvester and St. Martin Bishop of Tour.
THE TWO SAINTS
The first one, who according to tradition converted and baptized Constantine, is celebrated on New Year’s Eve. The location of the Pope’s feast on December 31st brings us back to the legend of when he went to the Roman Forum to hunt a dragon, which was fed by the vestals, but to reach it he had to go underground on a staircase of 365 steps (as many as the days of the year): the victory over the dragon would have meant the end of the old year, and the new one would have opened in the sign of Christianity.
St. Martin, on the other hand, linked to the short summer of 11 November, is known to have shared his cloak with a poor man trembling with cold and then to have been thanked in a dream by Jesus. Having become a Christian, Martin used to clean his slave’s shoes as a sign of humiliation; after leaving the army, he began preaching first in Pannonia, then in Liguria and finally in France, where in 370 he was consecrated bishop of Tour. Mocked by the rich and part of the clergy, he ruled the diocese with great Christian spirit for 27 years and at the moment of his death he lay on the ashes dressed only in cilice.
THE ORIGINS OF THE CHURCH
In the Liber Pontificalis this church is also called “Titulus Equitii“, alluding to the Domus Ecclesiae built in the houses of Equizio, presbyter of Pope Sylvester. In fact, on the back of the church, in the direction of the church of St. Lucy, there is a brick facade of the Roman age preserved up to the second floor, on which there are five openings of shops and five large windows. In the area there must also have been a famous Fountain of Orpheus, also mentioned by the poet Martial in one of his epigram: the fountain was decorated with statues depicting the myth of “Orpheus and Ganymede“.
On the other hand, there are many Roman remains in this area. The eastern side of the church of St. Martin ai Monti rests on blocks of tuff from the nearby Servian Walls, and in the basement of the church are the remains of a building from the first half of the third Century A.D. consisting of a large central hall and a vestibule with three doors that opened onto the road, with traces of frescoed plaster.
THE MODERN CHURCH
The church of St. Martin ai Monti was extensively renovated under Pope Sergius II and then by Leo IV (844-855). In the 17th Century the church underwent a profound renovation by the architect Filippo Gagliardi and today a staircase leads to the façade with two orders of pilasters and a large tympanum. On either side of the central portal are two bas-reliefs with the figures of Saints Sylvester and Martin.
The interior has three naves divided by 24 ancient columns with capitals on which the architrave rests. The ceiling of the nave replaces the older one donated by St. Charles Borromeo, which was destroyed by fire. Among the most important works are, to the right of the entrance, the “Ecstasy of St. Charles Borromeo” by Filippo Gherardi and, on the high altar, the tabernacle and the candelabra by the Belli, important Roman silversmiths. Next to this altar is the access to the crypt, where is kept the famous 9th Century fresco with images of Saints and the budding Cross and a 6th Century mosaic depicting St. Sylvester.
A curiosity, present at the beginning of the left aisle, is a fresco painted by Filippo Gagliardi, depicting the interior of the Basilica of San Giovanni in Laterano, in the architectural situation before Borromini’s intervention.
Do not leave the church without having admired, in the sacristy, a silver votive lamp that, according to tradition, would have been created by melting the tiara of St. Sylvester.
THE CHURCH OF ST. PRAXEDES
After leaving the church, take Via di San Martino ai Monti up to number 8. You will see a small marble altar, once the base of a statue offered by Augustus, at a compitum, a crossroads shrine, to Apollo Sandalario. Returning towards Via Paolina, you will find the narrow Via di Santa Prassede which leads to the medieval prothyrum of the Basilica di St. Praxedes, surmounted by a 19th Century loggia and flanked by 18th Century buildings.
This spectacular Church is included in the Monti District Tour, organized by Rome Guides.
THE ORIGINS OF THE CHURCH
Legend has it that Praxedes was the daughter, together with Pudenziana, of Senator Pudente and that she was converted to Christianity by St. Peter, who was staying with her father at the time. Praxedes died young and was buried in the Catacombs of Priscilla: her life was a shining example of Christian charity, as when she cleansed the bodies of martyred Christians with a sponge and collected their blood in a reliquary.
The Titulus Praxedis is already mentioned towards the end of the 5th Century. The present basilica had a first reconstruction with Pope Paschal I (817-824) who moved the relics of 2000 martyrs from the catacombs of St. Alexander on the Via Nomentana: the relics, however, did not have a quiet life, because the next Pope Eugene II moved them to St. Sabina on the Aventine.
Other restoration and renovation works were carried out by the architect Rossellino in the 15th Century for Nicholas V and then others were carried out at the behest of Innocent VIII (1484-1492) and Pius IV (1559-1565).
The courtyard in front of the church, today an internal space among several buildings, preserves the remains of a colonnade with Corinthian capitals that perhaps belongs to the basilica of the 5th Century.
The brick gabled façade, decorated in the centre with an elegant portal, recalls that of the Curia at the Roman Forum.
THE INTERIOR OF THE CHURCH
The access to the basilica takes place laterally on Via di Santa Prassede, and next to it you can see the volume of the Chapel of St. Zenone also erected by Paschal I. The interior of the church has three naves, separated by ancient columns with Corinthian capitals, on which stands an architrave obtained with reused Roman frames.
The central nave, with a beautiful cosmatesque floor, is decorated with frescoes depicting Stories from the Passion of Christ.
Next to the entrance, a porphyry disk indicates the place of the well where the Saint collected the blood of the martyrs and that would have been the stone on which she slept.
In the left aisle there is the Olgiati Chapel, built by Martino Longhi at the end of the 16th Century and decorated with frescoes by Cavalier d’Arpino, while on the altar there is the altarpiece depicting “Christ with Veronica”, painted by Federico Zuccari (1540-1609).
In the crypt, in a strigilated sarcophagus, are the relics of Ss. Praxedes and Pudenziana.
THE CHAPEL OF ST. ZENONE
In the right aisle there is the Chapel of St. Zenone, at the entrance of which there are two black granite columns, joined by an architrave on which there is a cinerary urn. Here the body of Zenone, priest and Christian martyr, was brought from the catacombs of Pretestato.
The Chapel of St. Zenone is probably the most precious document of Byzantine art in Rome, erected as a mausoleum for the mother of Pope Paschal I, Theodora.
The facade is decorated with medallions with images of Our Lady and Saints, including Timothy and Praxedes, and then Christ with the Apostles. The square chapel has a marble inlaid floor and a cross vault, decorated with mosaics with the figures of Christ, the Virgin Mary, St. Praxedes and Theodora, with the square nimbus of the living. In the niche above the altar is the mosaic depiction of the Madonna and Child. On the right, in a small room, there is the so-called Column of the Flagellation of Christ, of blood jasper, brought to Rome from Jerusalem by Cardinal Giovanni Colonna in 1223 and to whom St. Charles Borromeo was very devoted.
From the Chapel of St. Zenone you enter a room where is the funeral monument of Cardinal Alain de Coetivy, who died in 1474, by Andrea Bregno. On the pillar in front of it is the elegant funeral monument of Bishop Santoni, whose portrait inserted in an oval frame is a youthful work by Bernini.
THE MOSAICS OF ST. PRAXEDES
The triumphal arch, the apse and the basin of the apse preserve the mosaics of the time of Paschal I. In the apse basin you can see Christ blessing in the clouds, with Saints Peter and Paul, Praxedes, Pudenziana, Zenone and Pope Paschal I on either side. Below these figures flows the Jordan, depicting the saving water of Baptism, and at the top the hand of God holds a crown on the head of Christ.
In the apsidal arch is depicted the Agnus Dei with the symbols of the Evangelists and the 24 old men of Revelation, while on the triumphal arch finally appears the Heavenly Jerusalem where the Apostles live together with the figures of Mary, Christ, St. John and the Saints Pudenziana and Praxedes.
Out of the church take Via di San Martino ai Monti and go back on Via Giovanni Lanza to the back of the Church of St. Martin. Here stand two high towers, built with Roman brick, which were before the Arcioni and Cerroni families and then passed to the Capocci and Graziani families.
ST. LUCY IN SELCI
Following now Via in Selci, with its still medieval atmosphere, where in Roman times was the Portico of Livia, you will now see the monastery of St. Lucy in Selci, built by annexing adjoining buildings. Until recently it was possible to see near the entrance the wheeled door where anyone could take or leave something without disturbing the cloistered nuns.
Attached to the monastery is the Church of St. Lucy in Selci, named after the street paved with large stones (selci). The primitive church is due to Pope Simmaco (498-514) and stands on the remains of a Roman building.
You enter the church through a portal concluded by a broken tympanum, the work of Carlo Maderno. The single nave interior preserves a Borrominian chancel and an image of God the Father, painted by Cavalier d’Arpino. The baroque stuccoes of the altar of St. Lucy are the work of Giovanni Lanfranco (1582-1647). Of the Borromini high altar, rebuilt in the 19th Century, only the grate remains, while the temple ciborium with polychrome marble is elegant.
CHURCH OF SAINTS JOACHIM AND ANNE
Leaving the church, continue along Via in Selci, walking next to the former Monastery of the Paolotte, where an extraordinary discovery took place in 1744: a Roman treasure consisting of marble sculptures, crystal candelabra, silver horse harnesses, gilded statuettes and various silverware. It was the wedding trousseau of Secundus and Proiecta, from the famous family of the Apronians: a sepulchral inscription by Pope Damasus (384) commemorates the young deceased. The treasure was left to the Paolotte nuns, who quickly dispersed it, but the people thought the treasure belonged to a fantastic Polish king and the nearby flight of stairs was named Via del Monte Polacco (Polish Mountain Street).
The Church of Saints Joachim and Anne, actually dedicated to St. Francis, is not far away and is introduced by a staircase with a monumental facade, built and consecrated in the middle of the 18th Century. The church, decorated inside with white stuccoes, was built where, in Roman times, stood the Temple of Juno Regina, protector of women giving birth with an adjoining sacred forest, where the bright goddess made her apparitions and where the Temple of Mephitis, local goddess protector of both water and springs, was also to be found.