All images © by Roberto Piperno, owner of the domain. Write to email@example.com. Text edited by Rosamie Moore.
Page revised in April 2009.
Chiesa di S. Sabina (Book 7) (MapC3) (Day 5) (View C10) (Rione Ripa)
In the XVIIIth century the churches on the Aventine hill were very remote from the centre of
Rome. The area was so tranquil that its streets, as Vasi shows, were used as
bowling alleys. To some extent this is true even in the XXIst century. The view is taken from the green dot in the map below. In the description below the plate Vasi made
reference to: 1) S. Alessio; 2) Monastery adjoining the church; 3) Porch of S. Alessio. The small 1748 map
shows also 4) S. Sabina; 5) Rocca Savella; 6) Entrance to the Palace of the Knights of Malta.
A large building which houses the world headquarters of the Dominican Order (see their website) impairs the view of S. Alessio. Notwithstanding this change, this part of Rome retains the atmosphere which Henry James described when he visited it in 1873.
The construction of the church is traditionally dated to 425; a few years later a large mosaic decorated its rear-façade; a long inscription celebrated the founder of the church and Pope Celestine I, whose superior authority was recognized at the First Ecumenical Council of Ephesus in 431.
In 824 during a short period of economic development, Pope Eugene II placed a series of transennae between the altar and the rest of the main nave; when compared with those of S. Clemente they show a lower quality.
The main door retains some very old wooden panels with scenes from the Old and the New Testament, including one of the first representations of the Crucifixion. The panels were reassembled in the XIth century on a new frame decorated with grapes.
S. Sabina was largely modified by Domenico Fontana during the pontificate of Pope Sixtus V (you may wish to see the building as it appeared in a 1588 Guide to Rome): these alterations were critically reviewed in the XXth century and many of them were pulled down in order to restore the ancient aspect of the church.
S. Sabina is the first of the Lenten Stations and the pope leads a procession to the basilica on Ash Wednesday in remembrance of a similar procession led by Pope Gregory the Great. The gravestone of a lady of the Savelli family is a reminder that Popes Honorius III (Cencio Savelli) and Honorius IV (Jacopo Savelli) had their court in S. Sabina.
In 1594 Pope Clement VIII canonized Jacek Odrowaz, a Polish priest who was one of the first followers of St. Dominic. For the 1600 Jubilee Year Cardinal Girolamo Bernerio, known as Cardinal d'Ascoli, charged Federico Zuccari with the decoration of a chapel dedicated to the new saint. It was a period during which the Roman Catholic Church promoted the realistic depiction of martyrdoms, but Zuccari excelled in portraits and his frescoes in S. Sabina are an elegant illustration of the Roman society of his time.
When S. Sabina was brought back to its ancient aspect, many Baroque additions were eliminated; yet the church retains some works of that period. These show that death symbols and coloured marbles were very much in vogue at that time. Even though a law passed in 1870 prohibited burials inside churches, a few exceptions have been tolerated. You may wish to see the 2008 funeral of Andrew Willoughby Ninian Bertie, Grand Master of the Knights of Malta, which took place in S. Sabina.
The Savelli, one of the most powerful Roman families in the XIIth - XIIIth centuries, built a small fortress with walls, towers and a moat in the area around S. Sabina. Pope Honorius IV preferred to hold here the papal court, rather than in the Vatican or in the Lateran. The fortress was dismantled under Pope Sixtus V to make sure nobody could revive the fights among the Roman families or against the pope.
The walls now surround Giardino degli Aranci, a 1930s garden named after its orange trees. They are a reminder of the orange tree planted here by St. Dominic to whom Pope Honorius III gave the monastery of S. Sabina in 1219. The terraces overlooking the river offer great views over Rome.
You may wish to see Giardino degli Aranci at night.
The life of St. Alexius is known through legendary accounts. According to that which is popular in Rome he left the house of his father, a Roman senator, in the night after his marriage. He went to Syria where for seventeen years he lived as a beggar until he returned to Rome. His parents and his wife (who in the meantime took a vow of chastity) did not recognize him and just let him sleep under the stairs, where he died. It is remarkable that today many weddings take place in this church which is dedicated to a man who was shy of marrying.
S. Alessio was built in the Xth century, but a large modernization was completed in 1754 by Tommaso De Marchis. As in many other baroque alterations of churches, the bell tower was not touched, but the small medieval porch was replaced by a new building.
The Gonzaga were Dukes of Mantua from 1327 to 1707 and several members of the family were appointed cardinals; in Rome they had a piece of land on the Aventine and a villa (Villa Tuscolana or la Rufinella) in Frascati.
The Knights of Malta
This small piazza was designed in 1765 by Giovanni Battista Piranesi
for Cardinal Giovanni Battista Rezzonico, Grand Prior of the Knights of
Malta and brother of Pope Clement XIII.
The elaborate decoration of the square is based on themes taken from the coats of arms of the Rezzonico and of the Knights of Malta. Piranesi modified the little church of S. Maria del Priorato which stands on the very edge of the Aventine and which has a similar decoration.
The key hole of the door offers a surprising view of St Peter's dome.
Excerpts from Giuseppe Vasi 1761 Itinerary related to this page:
Next plate in Book 7: Chiesa di S. Maria del Rosario
Next step in Day 5 itinerary: Veduta di Ripa Grande
Next step in your tour of Rione Ripa: S. Maria in Cosmedin