All images © by Roberto Piperno, owner of the domain. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org. Text edited by Rosamie Moore.
Page revised in January 2010.
Chiesa di S. Prassede (Book
2) (View B8) (Rione Monti)
In this page:
The plate by Giuseppe Vasi
Cappella di S. Zenone
A Poem by Robert Browning
The Plate (No. 127 - ii)
Subura (Subburra according to Vasi and Suburra in modern Italian) was a quarter of Ancient Rome which lay to the north of the Fora of Augustus and Nerva and which was populated by ordinary people; it had many inns and brothels which gave to the term Subura a derogative connotation, but it was also the quarter where the Christian faith spread more rapidly. This explains the presence of three ancient and large churches very close one to the other: S. Maria Maggiore, S. Pudenziana and S. Prassede. Vasi dedicated only a minor etching to this very old church because its exterior was almost completely hidden by other buildings and only a small porch indicated its presence.
The view is taken from the green dot in the 1748 map below. In the description below the plate Vasi made reference to: 1) S. Prassede; 2) Strada della Nuova Subburra.
(left) The view in April 2007; (centre) the porch; (right-above) ancient capital; (right-below) medieval capital
The XVIIIth century building to the left of the porch has not been modified in a substantial way, whereas the medieval houses to the right of the porch and the loggia above it were incorporated into a XIXth century construction. The porch is very similar to those of S. Clemente and S. Maria in Cosmedin; it was built in the XIIth century making use of ancient columns and capitals (which were also used as bases for the columns); however the capital of the left column is a medieval copy of that on the right column. The street is now called Via di S. Martino ai Monti, another old church in this area.
(left) XVIth century portal; (right) interior
The porch is not the immediate entrance to the church, but it leads to a small courtyard; this can be observed in other very old churches: also in S. Clemente, S. Agata dei Goti and S. Silvestro in Capite the church is preceded by a courtyard; this design was linked to practices of the Early Christians when the admission to the community of believers was subject to a period of learning during which the cathecumens (those who are instructed) attended the religious services (or part of them) outside the church. In Byzantine churches this section is sometimes incorporated into the building and it is called the narthex (see the decorated narthex of St. Saviour in Chora in Costantinople and the porches which had the same purposes in Hagia Sophia in Trebizond). The practice of adult baptism was discontinued in Rome when the Christians became the wide majority of the population.
(left) The Good Shepherd on a IVth century sarcophagus; (centre) detail of the sarcophagus with the bodies of S. Prassede and S. Pudenziana; (right) XVIIIth century altar which incorporates elements of the Cosmati pavement
The fašade was redesigned in the late XVIth century: at that time its upper part had a decorated window (you may wish to see it in a 1588 Guide to Rome).
S. Prassede was built in the IXth century by Pope Paschal I; it replaced a nearby church by the same name the existence of which is first recorded in the Vth century; according to tradition Prassede and her sister Pudenziana were daughters of Pudente, a Roman senator converted by St. Paul; Prassede became a very popular saint for having gathered the blood of three thousand martyrs with a sponge and filled a (lost) well with it.
(left) Coat of arms of Pope Clement VIII by Agostino Ciampelli; (centre) Flagellation by Paris Nogari (a reminder of the Sacred Column which was brought to Rome in 1222 by Cardinal Giovanni Colonna and is housed in a chapel of the church); (right) XVIIIth century statue of Prudence
The new church was a large building with a spacious central nave and two minor ones separated by ancient columns (probably taken from the ruins of Terme di Traiano); the apse was decorated with mosaics and it was preceded by an arch which also was decorated with mosaics (you may wish to see a page on the Golden Mosaics of Rome).
The original design of S. Prassede was modified in the early XIIIth century when the structure of the building was reinforced by incorporating some columns into pillars and by adding three arches to support the ceiling. In the late XVIth century, at the initiative of Cardinal Carlo Borromeo other changes were made and in particular two thirds of the windows were closed in order to strengthen the walls and to make more space available for educative paintings. In the XVIIIth century Francesco Ferrari designed a new altar and a new pavement replaced the old XIIIth century Cosmati work. In the XXth century many late Renaissance and baroque additions were cancelled and a modern "Cosmati" pavement replaced that of the XVIIIth century.
The result of all these changes is that the interior of the church lacks that harmony which for instance can be observed in S. Maria Maggiore, which also underwent many modifications; the details however are extremely interesting.
Cappella di S. Zenone
Exterior: the two black columns, their capitals and the cornice fragment are all ancient as is the funerary urn placed above them; the inner band of mosaics portrays the Virgin Mary between Sts. Valentino and Zenone and eight women; the outer band portrays Jesus Christ and the Twelve Apostles; the two characters in the upper corners are perhaps Moses and Elias; those in the lower corners are XIXth century paintings portraying Pope Paschal I and another pope.
Pope Paschal I built a small funerary chapel for his mother Teodora while she was still alive; the chapel however was dedicated to Zenone, a martyr of whom we know little besides the name. Its decoration was based on very fine mosaics and on an elaborate reutilization of ancient materials; its beauty was appreciated throughout the centuries and the chapel was also known as Giardino del Paradiso.
Deesis (iconic portrayal of Jesus Christ between the Virgin Mary and St. John the Baptist): the missing central figure of Jesus Christ was metaphorically represented by the light coming through the window
The image used as background for this page is based on a mosaic portraying S. Pudenziana.
A Poem by Robert
Robert Browning and his wife Elizabeth Barret Browning spent many years in Rome. The following
poem shows how much he was acquainted with the different marbles and stones of Rome and it
portrays in an ironic way the importance given by Romans to their tomb.
You may wish to read it in
conjunction with a page on The Stones of Rome and pages on the Papal Monuments.
THE BISHOP ORDERS HIS TOMB
AT SAINT PRAXED'S CHURCH
Rome, 15 -
Vanity, saith the preacher, vanity!
Draw round my bed: is Anselm keeping back?
Nephews - sons mine... ah God, I know not! Well -
She, men would have to be your mother once,
Old Gandolf envied me, so fair she was!
What's done is done, and she is dead beside,
Dead long ago, and I am Bishop since,
And as she died so must we die ourselves,
and thence ye may perceive the world's a dream.
Life, how and what is it? As here I lie
In this state-chamber, dying by degrees,
Hours and long hours in the dead night, I ask
"Do I live, am I dead?" Peace, peace seems all.
Saint Praxed's ever was the church for peace;
And so, about this tomb of mine. I fought
With tooth and nail to save my niche, ye know:
- Old Gandolf cozened me, despite my care;
Shrewd was that snatch from out the corner South
He graced his carrion with, God curse the same!
Yet still my niche is not so cramped but thence
One sees the pulpit o' the epistle-side,
And somewhat of the choir, those silent seats,
And up into the airy dome where live
The angels, and a sunbeam's sure to lurk:
And I shall fill my slab of basalt there,
And 'neath my tabernacle take my rest,
With those nine columns round me, two and two,
The odd one at my feet where Anselm stands:
Peach-blossom marble (1) all, the rare, the ripe
As fresh-poured red wine of a mighty pulse.
- Old Gandolf with his paltry onion-stone (2),
Put me where I may look at him! True peach,
Rosy and flawless: how I earned the prize!
Draw close: that conflagration of my church
- What then? So much was saved if aught were
My sons, ye would not be my death? Go dig
The white-graped vineyard where the oil-press stood,
Drop water gently till the surface sink,
And if ye find... Ah God, I know not, I!..
Bedded in store of rotten fig-leaves soft,
And corded up in a tight olive-frail,
Some lump, ah God, of lapis lazuli,
Big as a Jew's head cut off at the nape,
Blue as a vein o'er the Madonna's breast...
Sons, all I have bequeathed you, villas, all,
That brave Frascati villa with its bath,
So, let the blue lump poise between my knees,
Like God the Father's globe on both his hands
Ye worship in the Jesu Church so gay,
For Gandolf shall not choose but see and burst!
Swift as a weaver's shuttle fleet our years:
Man goeth to the grave, and where is he?
Did I say basalt for my slab, sons? Black -
'Twas ever antique-black I meant! How else
Shall ye contrast my frieze to come beneath?
The bas-relief in bronze ye promised me,
Those Pans and Nymphs you wot of, and perchance
Some tripod, thyrsus, with a vase or so,
The Saviour at his sermon on the mount
Saint Praxed in a glory, and one Pan
Ready to twitch the Nymph's last garment off,
And Moses with the tables... but I know
Ye mark me not! What do they whisper thee,
Child of my bowels, Anselm? Ah, ye hope
To revel down my villas while I gasp
Bricked o'er with beggar's mouldy travertine
Which Gandolf from his tomb-top chuckles at!
Nay. boys, ye love me - all of jasper (3) then!
'Tis jasper ye stand pledged to, lest I grieve.
My bath must needs be left behind, alas!
One block, pure green as a pistachio-nut,
There's plenty jasper somewhere in the world -
And have I not Saint Praxed's ear to pray
Horses for ye, and brown Greek manuscripts,
And mistresses with great smooth marbly limbs?
- that's if ye carve my epitaph aright,
Choice Latin, picked phrase, Tully's every word,
No gaudy ware like Gandolf's second line -
Tully, my masters? Ulpian serves his need!
And then how I shall lie through centuries,
And hear the blessed mutter of the mass,
And see God made and eaten all day long,
And feel the steady candle-flame, and taste
Good strong thick stupefying incense-smoke!
For as I lie here, hours of the dead night,
Dying in state and by such slow degrees,
I fold my arms as if they clasped a crook,
And stretch my feet forth straight as stone can point,
And let the bedclothes, for a morthcloth, drop
Into great laps and folds of sculptor's-work:
And as yon tapers dwindle, and strange thoughts
Grow, with a certain humming in my ears,
About the life before I lived this life,
And this life too, popes, cardinals and priests,
Saint Praxed at his sermon on the mount,
Your tall pale mother with her talking eyes,
And new-found agate urns as fresh as day,
And marble's language, Latin pure, discreet,
- Aha, ELUSCEBAT quoth our friend?
No Tully, said I, Ulpian at the best!
Evil and brief hath been my pilgrimage.
All lapis, all, sons! Else I give the Pope
My villas! Will ye ever eat my heart?
Ever your eyes were as a lizard's quick,
They glitter like your mother's for my soul,
Or ye would heighten my impoverished frieze,
Piece out its starved design, and fill my vase
With grapes, and add a vizor and a Term,
And to the tripod ye would tie a lynx
That in his struggle throws the tyrsus down,
To comfort me on my entablature
Whereon I am to lie till I must ask
"Do I live?, am I dead?" There, leave me, there!
For ye have stabbed me with ingratitude
To death - ye wish it - God ye wish it! Stone -
Gritstone, a-crumble! Clammy squares which swear
As if the corpse they keep were oozing through -
And no more lapis to delight the world!
Well, go! I bless ye. Fewer tapers there,
But in a row: and, going, turn your backs
- Ay, like departing altar-ministrants,
And leave me in my church, the church for peace,
That I may watch at leisure if he leers -
Old Gandolf, at me, from his onion-stone,
As still he envied me, so fair she was!
(1) Maybe cottanello; (2) Cipollino; (3) Diaspro
Excerpts from Giuseppe Vasi 1761 Itinerary related to this page:
Chiesa di S. Prassede
Sulla medesima piazza di s. Maria Maggiore corrisponde quest'antichissima chiesa, eretta da s. Pio I.
circa l'anno 160. nelle Terme di Novato nel vicolo Laterizio ad istanza della santa Titolare, la quale in
tempo delle persecuzioni, quivi nella sua casa nascondeva, ed alimentava quanti Cristiani vi capitavano,
e per˛ aggravata di dolore, ed afflizione per vedere strapazzati tanti Cristiani in questo luogo medesimo,
se ne morý, e si vede in mezzo della chiesa un pozzo in cui si dice, che ponesse il sangue, e i corpi
de' ss. Martiri, e a sinistra della porta maggiore una gran pietra, sopra cui la santa Vergine dormiva, ed
affliggeva il suo corpo. ╚ in quella chiesa la celebre cappella di s. Zenone, detta prima Oratorio, poi
orto del Paradiso, ed ancora s. Maria libera nos a poenis inferni; e vi sono riposti i 230.
corpi di s. Martiri, e nell'altare, quello del medesimo s. Zenone con quello di s Valentino, e nella
cappelletta si custodisce la colonna, a cui fu legato il nostro divino Salvatore mentre fu flagellato,
e per˛ non Ú lecito alle donne di entrarvi. Da Pasquale I. fu eretta di nuovo, e fu ornata di mosaici
circa l'anno 822. .
Quindi s. Carlo Borromeo, essendone Titolare, rinnov˛ la chiesa, e vi fece il tabernacolo ornato con quattro
colonne di porfido, mentre da principio era tutto di argento massiccio, e dall'una, e dall'altra parte vi pose le
statue di s. Prassede, e di s Pudenziana, i corpi delle quali stanno sotto il medesimo altrare. Il Card. Alessandro
Medici, che fu poi Papa Leone XI. fece dipingere nella nave di mezzo li misteri della passione del nostro
Redentore; l'orazione all'orto, e la Croce in collo, con anche gli angioli, e li otto Apostoli fu i pilastri sono di
Gio: Francesco Cosci Fiorentino; il Ges¨ condotto da Pilato, di Girolamo Maffei; la coronazione di spine, di
Baldassare Croce; l'Ecce Homo del Ciampelli; nell'altro vi oper˛ Paris Nogari ed altri, e i chiari scuri in tinta gialla
li lavor˛ Cesare Rosetti. La ss. Nunziata sopra la porta con Apostoli e putti sono di Stefano Pieri, e le pitture nella
porta di fianco del Ciampelli. Il santo Abate nella prima cappella a destra si crede dell'Alberti; il Cristo morto in
quella, che siegue, Ŕ di Giovanni de' Vecchi, la volta, di Guglielmo Borgognone, e i due laterali, di Ciro Ferri, mentre
era giovane; il quadro con Ges¨ Cristo alla colonna nella santa cappella Ŕ opera di Giulio Romano, e quello, che si
vede in sagrestia col ss. Crocifisso, e due Santi inginocchioni sono del Ciampelli; il quadro nella cappella che
siegue, Ŕ di Guglielmo Cortese, quello dell' altra, di Federigo Zuccheri, e la volta del Cav. d'Arpino. Custodiscono
questa chiesa i Monaci di Valombrosi, i quali godono ancora le stanze de' Cardinali Titolari, nelle quali abit˛ s.
Carlo Borromeo quando dimorava in Roma.
Resta questa chiesa voltata non giÓ verso la piazza di s. Maria Maggiore, ma verso la nuova strada della Suburra,
che forse sarÓ l'antico vicolo Laterizio, e vi si vede l'umile portico sostenuto da due rozze colonne.
Next plate in Book 7: Chiesa di S. Bernardo alle Terme
Next step in Day 2 itinerary: Chiesa dei SS. Silvestro e Martino ai Monti
Next step in your tour of Rione Monti: Chiesa dei SS. Silvestro e Martino ai Monti