When Giuseppe Vasi developed the plan for his book on the parish churches of Rome in 1756 he was aware that the subject matter would not appeal too much to the travellers who bought his books to have a memento of their Roman stay. He therefore chose some churches which had a link with ancient Rome, similar to S. Nicola in Carcere which was built inside a temple, or were placed next to another monument (e.g. S. Maria in Trivio near Fontana di Trevi). Moreover in this etching he added a touch of local colour by sketching a melodramatic scene: two men fighting for a woman and one of them showing a knife (an enlargement of the scene can be seen in the image used as background for this page).
The view is taken from the green dot in the small 1748 map here below. In the description below the plate Vasi made reference to: 1) Ancient columns; 2) Street leading to S. Maria della Consolazione; 3) Fountain in Piazza Montanara; 4) Street leading to S. Galla. 3) is shown in detail in another page. The small map shows also: 5) S. Omobono; 6) S. Maria della Consolazione; 7) Ospedale della Consolazione. The dotted line in the small map delineates the borders among Rione Sant'Angelo (small area on the left), Rione Ripa (left lower quarter) and Rione Campitelli.
The view in March 2009
The net of small houses surrounding S. Nicola in Carcere was pulled down in 1926-1930 in order to open Via del Mare, a large road linking the centre of Rome with its southern suburbs and eventually with Lido di Ostia, its modern beach. The church and nearby Palazzo Orsini/Teatro di Marcello were freed of many later additions. The bell tower was returned to its likely medieval aspect. It might have originally belonged to the Pierleoni who had other properties in the area.
Western side of S. Nicola in Carcere and in the background (far left) S. Maria in Cosmedin; (inset) models of the three temples which were totally or in part incorporated into the church; they were dedicated to (left to right) Janus, Juno Sospita and Spes (Fortune)
At this church there
are evident remains, not of one only, but of two, and perhaps three temples, whose columns
are incrusted in the lateral walls on each side.
The antiquaries have assigned these triple vestiges to the Temple of Piety, built by Glabrio,
to the Temple of Piety raised to the Roman
matron and to a Temple of Juno Matuta. This
is sufficiently bold, when, if we follow Pliny,
the first did not exist in his time (..) and when Juno Matuta is only known
to have stood somewhere in the Forum Olitorium.
John Cam Hobhouse - Dissertations on the Ruins of Rome - 1818
The excavations which isolated the church shed light on the timing of the construction of the temples and on their likely dedications. This part of ancient Rome was a very busy one because it housed Foro Boario (cattle market) and Foro Olitorio (fodder market). The three temples however were not built by tradesmen, but by order of the consuls during the Punic Wars. Their maintenance however might have been entrusted to guilds of those who worked in the two markets. A large arch in this neighbourhood was dedicated to Janus and Juno Sospita (she who favours) was worshipped at a shrine near Lanuvium.
The three temples were all restored at the time of Emperor Augustus: elements of the central temple to Juno Sospita can be seen on the fašade of the church and by visiting an underground crypt; six travertine columns of the temple to Janus can be seen on the southern side of the church, while a row of seven peperino columns of the temple to Fortune are visible on the northern one. Two isolated columns of the latter temple stand in a small archaeological area between the church and Teatro di Marcello.
The name of the church is S. Nicholas, "in
carcere Tulliano". But the Tullian prisons
could never have been here nor any where, except on the Clivus Capitolinus hanging over
the Forum. (..) The name of the church is a very admissible evidence for the contiguity at least of a prison;
and as the columns cannot have belonged to
that structure, they may be assigned to any of
the temples or basilicas noted as being in that
quarter. (..) The
hole to which strangers are conducted by torchlight at the base of the columns can hardly
have any reference to the ancient dungeon. Hobhouse
The original church is thought to have been built in the VIIth century when Rome was part of the Byzantine Empire; this would explain its dedication to St. Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, one of the most important Greek saints. The church was rebuilt in the early XIIth century. The reference to a prison (in carcere) is probably linked to a Byzantine jail which existed in the vicinity.
In 1599 Cardinal Pietro Aldobrandini, nephew of Pope Clement VIII, restored the church; the new fašade was designed by Giacomo Della Porta; the many stars which decorate the fašade are a heraldic symbol of the Aldobrandini. You may wish to see how it appeared in a 1588 Guide to Rome.
(left) Interior: (right-above) inscription indicating that the church was reconsecrated in 1128; (right-below) detail of the ceiling showing the coat of arms of Pope Pius IX
In 1865 the interior of the church was largely redecorated and repainted at the request of Pope Pius IX. In general XIXth century redesigns did not add much to the artistic value of a Roman church. At S. Nicola in Carcere however architect Gaspare Servi managed to draw the visitor's attention to the beautiful ancient columns of the central nave. They did not come from the temple to Juno Sospita, but were taken from other ancient buildings.
Musei Vaticani: detached XIIth century frescoes portraying Moses and Amos from the crypt of S. Nicola in Carcere: the inscriptions contain words taken from the Pentateuch and Amos 4:13
(left) Fašade; (centre) detail of the fašade; (right) inscription opposite the church
Originally the church was used as a chapel by one of the three hospitals which were merged into Ospedale della Consolazione and it was called S. Salvatore in Portico; in 1575 it was acquired by the guild of the tailors; it was almost entirely rebuilt and it was dedicated to St. Homobonus, a XIIth century merchant from Cremona who donated his properties to the poor and who worked as a tailor to comply with To Clothe the Naked, the third Work of Mercy according to the Roman Catholic Church. You may wish to see a directory of churches belonging to a guild.
An upright ancient marble slab opposite the church is interesting for its two inscriptions: the upper one was written by two praetores aerarii, Roman magistrates who were in charge of the public treasury which was located in nearby Tempio di Saturno, along the same ancient street (Vicus Iugarius). It states that the area is public property and it is dated late Ist century BC. The lower inscription was added in 1556 (2309 after the foundation of Rome) and it celebrates Pope Paul IV as preserver of the ancient monuments.
Archaeological area behind S. Omobono
The archeological area around the small church was identified in the 1930s and many interesting remains of the very early days of Rome were found. Today's level of the ground is higher than that at the time of Ancient Rome, but it is lower than that at Vasi's time. The area is very near the river and it was often flooded before the 1880s.
The platform upon which a very ancient temple stood was identified under the foundation of S. Omobono. The walls were made of raw bricks and the rest of the building was made of timber. It was decorated with terracotta reliefs and statues which gave it the aspect of a Greek temple. It is not far from Vicus Tuscus, where many Etruscans lived. The Etruscans used terracotta instead of marble for the decoration of their temples and for their sarcophagi (see statues from a temple at Veii and the Sarcophagus of the Spouses - they are both at Museo Nazionale Etrusco di Villa Giulia). A IInd century BC temple with similar terracotta statues was found in 1878 near S. Gregorio al Celio.
Musei Capitolini: findings from the archaeological area
The fragments have been identified as belonging to a sculptural group portraying Dionysus and Ariadne at the side of a grapevine shrub and to another one depicting Heracles ascending Mount Olympus escorted by Athena. They are dated ca 540-510 BC and they show how the Etruscans were familiar with the Greek pantheon. This process most likely originated from the many Greek vases which the Etruscans bought in the Greek towns of southern Italy and Sicily.
Centrale Montemartini: Relief from the monument donated to Rome by Bocchus I, King of Mauretania
Bocchus I was the king of Mauretania (today's western Algeria) who betrayed his son-in-law Jugurtha, King of Numidia (today's eastern Algeria/western Tunisia) and delivered him to the Romans. In return he was given the western part of Numidia. In order to show his loyalty to Rome, and in particular to Silla, in 91 BC he sent to Rome (or ordered to be built) a monument celebrating his delivery of Jugurtha. Fragments of the base of the monument were found near S. Omobono, but the original location of the monument must have been on the Capitoline Hill, together with other gifts made to Rome by allied cities/countries.
Centrale Montemartini: frieze from the office of the "Fabri Tignarii" (joiners/carpenters)
Guilds played a major role in the organization of economic activities in ancient Rome. All those who earned their living from their work (manual, entrepreneurial or professional) had to join a recognized guild. A temple/meeting hall of the Fabri Tignarii has been found at Ostia. The relief shown above indicates that they had an office also in Rome. It was situated on the Capitoline Hill because they were in charge of the maintenance of its temples. As a matter of fact during the XVIth century the carpenters' guild was assigned a space at Palazzo dei Conservatori, very near the likely location of the ancient office.
This church, similar to many other Roman churches, is associated with a miraculous image of the Virgin Mary; it was painted to comply with the will of a criminal who was hanged in 1385 at Rupe Tarpea which stands to the left of the church; the image was placed on a wall facing the execution site; almost a century later an innocent man who was being hanged in the same spot was supported by an invisible hand after he prayed to the image. A small chapel was built to house the painting which became known as Madonna della Consolazione; in 1600 a church designed by Martino Longhi the Elder replaced the chapel.
(left) Fašade; (right) sacred image by Niccol˛ Berrettoni on the apse of the church; it was painted to celebrate the end of the 1656-1657 plague
Some minor guilds contributed to financing the construction of the church and in return they were assigned a chapel. The upper part of the fašade was completed in 1827. Originally S. Maria della Consolazione stood on just three steps, but because the level of the square was lowered in the 1930s, sixteen steps are now required to reach its entrance. You may wish to see how it appeared in a 1588 Guide to Rome.
(left) Interior; (right) sacred image on the main altar which was repainted by Antoniazzo Romano in the second half of the XVth century
The interior gives the impression of a church which was not much cared for, but some of the chapels already existed and were lavishly decorated. The chapels are pretty large which explains the size of the church, especially its width (which is more noticeable by looking at the fašade).
(left) Cappella dell'UniversitÓ degli Affidati; (right) Cappella della Compagnia dei Vignaroli e dei Cavatori di Pozzolana: The Raising of Lazarus by Antonio Circignani, son of Nicol˛ Circignani il Pomarancio, best known for his frescoes depicting martyrdoms
When considering the large number of Roman churches or chapels built by guilds, one must take into account that it was a social, if not legal, obligation for the members of the guild to have a place of worship. Some guilds were very rich, those which had a chapel at S. Maria della Consolazione not so much and yet this is not perceptible from the decoration of their chapels.
The Affidati were owners of sheep or cattle who had the right to pasture their animals on public ground (the contract they signed was known as fida).
In some instances guilds joined forces to build and maintain a chapel: the Vignaroli cultivated a vineyard for a proprietor and received part of the produce. The Cavatori di Pozzolana searched for pozzolana, a volcanic stone used to make mortar. They often pulled down ancient buildings to reuse their mortar or excavated tombs to use their construction materials.
Ceiling of Cappella della Compagnia dei Vignaroli e dei Cavatori di Pozzolana by Antonio Circignani
(left) Reliefs on two entrances; (right) 1500 well in the courtyard
Ospedale della Consolazione was founded at the beginning of the XVIth century by uniting three
small existing hospitals. It was modified and enlarged several times, but it gradually lost importance and in 1936
it was closed. Eventually most of the wards were demolished, but the oldest part of the hospital with two nice Renaissance portals was spared. The building is now used for other purposes. The coat of arms with three crosses is a reference to the original hospitals.
The male and female hospitals, for they may be considered distinct establishments, are separated by the public road or via della Consolazione, which is obstructed at night by chains drawn across to prevent vehicles from impeding or disturbing the repose of the sick.
Rev. Jeremiah Donovan - Rome Ancient and Modern - 1844.
Next plate in Book 6: S. Grisogono.
Next step in Day 5 itinerary: S. Giorgio al Velabro.
Next step in your tour of Rione Campitelli: Portico di Monte Caprino.
Next step in your tour of Rione Ripa: S. Giorgio al Velabro.
Excerpts from Giuseppe Vasi 1761 Itinerary related to this page:
Molto antica, e celebre Ŕ questa chiesa dedicata, secondo alcuni, al s. Vescovo di Mira, secondo altri, al Pontefice s. Niccol˛ I. e fu detta in carcere, per lo carcere, che quivi era stato, non giÓ il Tulliano, come erroneamente si dice; ma quello della plebe eretto da Appio Claudio, e perchŔ era nimico della plebe, lo chiam˛ Casa della Plebe; egli per˛ fu il primo, che per aver forzata Virginia vi morý uccidendo se stesso; e per˛ carcere di supplicio lo dice Livio; onde in questo si crede, che sia stato il celebre vecchio condannato a morir d'inedia, e che dalla figliuola veniva industriosamente, fingendo di andare a trovarlo, nutrito ogni giorno col latte delle proprie mammelle: per il qual atto di pietÓ filiale fu quivi presso eretto un tempio da C. Quinzio, e M. Attilio Consoli, e vi fu posta una statua dorata, la quale fu la prima, che si vedesse di quel metallo in Roma; ma poi fu demolito da Augusto per la fabbrica del divisato teatro. Questa chiesa conserva la sua antichitÓ, ed Ŕ ornata di colonne striate, e tabernacolo di marmo, sotto di cui sono de' corpi di santi Martiri. Fu altresý detta la chiesa di Pier Leone poichŔ quý presso ebbe quella nobilissima famiglia la sua casa, e per˛ in essa Ŕ il suo sepolcro. Quindi camminando poco pi¨ oltre, e voltando a sinistra, si vede la
Anticamente dicevasi questa piccola chiesa s. Salvatore in Portico, forse per il vicino portico di Ottavia, come diremo nel ritorno. L'anno 1573. l'ottennero i Sartori, i quali la riedificarono, e vi mantengono il culto divino. Dopo pochi passi si vede la
Era quivi nella strada pubblica un'immagine della ss. Vergine, e compiacendosi Iddio circa l'anno 1470. di
dispensare delle grazie, e miracoli ai fedeli, che ricorrevano con devozione a quella s. Immagine, le fu
edificata la chiesa sotto il titolo della Consolazione: e sempre pi¨ crescendo le offerte, dopo aver
provveduto di tutto il bisognevole alla chiesa, ne furono eretti due spedali, uno per gli uomini, e l'altro
per le donne, ora destinati per li soli feriti, e ferite. Con disegno di Martin Lunghi il vecchio fu
poi fatta di nuovo la chiesa, ed adornata di nobili cappelle con marmi, e pitture, notandosi, che
nella prima a destra evvi la prima opera fatta a fresco da Taddeo Zuccheri.