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Page revised in September 2009.
Monastero e Chiesa di Santa Susanna (Book 8) (Day 2) (Map A2) (Rione Trevi) (Rione Monti)
In this page:
The plate by Giuseppe Vasi
Mostra dell'Acqua Felice
S. Maria della Vittoria
The Plate (No. 148)
This plate shows three important monuments of the period of transition from Late Renaissance (or Mannerism) to Early Baroque style; it also shows the development of this part of Rome which was brought about by Acqua Felice, an aqueduct built by Pope Sixtus V. The aqueduct was completed in 1587, S. Susanna was entirely renovated in 1595-1603 and S. Maria della Vittoria was built in 1608-20.
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. Susanna; 2) S. Maria della Vittoria; 3) Strada Pia (linking Piazza del Quirinale with Porta Pia); 4) Fontana dell'Acqua Felice in Piazza di Termini. The dotted line in the small map delineates the border between Rione Trevi (upper left corner) and Rione Monti.
In 1926-32 a new street (Via Barberini) was opened to link Piazza Barberini with Stazione Termini, the central railway station of Rome. This led to pulling down the part of the nunnery which stood to the right of S. Susanna. The plate shows some trees behind S. Maria della Vittoria; they belonged to a villa owned by the Barberini; this villa, together with many others (including that of the Ludovisi), was replaced by modern buildings towards the end of the XIXth century.
This fountain is called "Mostra" (worth being seen) because of its imposing design: it celebrates the aqueduct built by Pope Sixtus V to restore an adequate supply of water to the Esquilino, Viminale and Quirinale hills. Initially the monumental end of the aqueduct was planned to be built opposite S. Maria degli Angeli, but it was eventually placed along Strada Pia to make it more visible.
The design of the fountain by Domenico Fontana was inspired after that of a Roman triumphal arch, although it did not have a central higher arch as in Arco di Costantino or Arco di Settimio Severo. This pattern was followed a few years later in Mostra dell'Acqua Paola and in the XVIIIth century in Fontana di Trevi.
The central statue and the two side reliefs depict episodes of the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt (the gathering of manna, Moses making water spring from the rock and Joshua selecting the soldiers for the battle of Rephidim against the Amalekites).
During the Renaissance some characters and episodes of the Old Testament were widely popular as it is proved by some of Michelangelo's masterpieces (the statues of David and Moses and the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel).
The unhappy execution of the central statue and the complexity of the episodes narrated in the reliefs however led to abandoning these biblical subjects in the decoration of later fountains.
Acqua Felice was called after Felice (Peretti), the name of Pope Sixtus V before his appointment. This is explicitly said in the long inscription. The coat of arms was considered a masterpiece by Filippo Juvarra (see his drawing).
The church of S. Susanna was built by Pope Leo III in the early IXth century. It probably replaced a minor building. You may wish to see the fašade as it appeared in a 1588 Guide to Rome.
In 1587 the church was assigned to the Cistercian nuns; a few years later S. Bernardo alle Terme, a friary for the Cistercian monks was built opposite S. Susanna.
The nuns, with the financial help of Camilla Peretti, sister of the pope, and of Cardinal Gerolamo Rusticucci, promoted the enlargement of the nunnery and the total renovation of the church. The new S. Susanna was completed in 1603 by a fašade designed by Carlo Maderno which is regarded as the first baroque fašade. Maderno used as a starting model the fašade of il Ges¨, but he created more light effects by increasing the stepping out from the wall of the central columns and of other architectural elements. This technique influenced the design of many other Baroque fašades.
The church was dedicated to S. Susanna, a martyr of the IVth century who lived in the area; according to the traditional account she refused to marry the son of Emperor Diocletian because he was not a Christian and for this refusal she was put to death. The guidelines issued by the Roman Church in the frame of its Counter-Reformation effort recommended the decoration of churches with events of the life of the martyrs.
The likelihood of the life of S. Susanna was very questionable and for this reason the decoration included also events of the life of biblical Susanna; the scene where she is seen while bathing by two old men was very popular; many oil paintings meant for the bedrooms of the rich portrayed this scene; the pious subject was thought to have a positive effect on the accomplishment of marital duties (see in an external link a painting by Tintoretto).
The frescoes by Baldassare Croce were retouched after a few years by Matteo Zaccolini to make them appear to be cloths hanging on the walls of fake chapels.
The martyrdom suffered by S. Eleuterio was represented in a very dynamic and vivid way in a chapel dedicated to S. Lorenzo. Both saints were placed on a grill, but in addition Eleuterio's body was tied to a horse and dragged through the streets of Rome (an episode taken from Book 22 of Homer's Iliad: Achilles tied the dead body of Hector to his chariot and dragged it around the walls of Troy). Eleuterio was pope in 175-89 and his martyrdom (not only its circumstances) was very uncertain so the painters were free to unbridle their fantasies.
S. Susanna does not have chapels belonging to noble families, however there are some minor funerary monuments with typical features of the XVIIth century.
S. Maria della Vittoria
S. Maria della Vittoria was built in 1608-20 at the expense of Cardinal Scipione Borghese, nephew of Pope Paul V and it was dedicated to St. Paul the Apostle (a saint rather neglected in the list of Roman churches). In 1622 the dedication was changed because the new church was chosen for housing a sacred image which favoured the victory of the Imperial (Catholic) army against the Protestants at the battle of the White Mountain, near Prague.
The fašade was designed by Giovanni Battista Soria, a favourite architect of Cardinal Scipione Borghese for whom he built also S. Gregorio Magno al Celio and S. Grisogono. In all three fašades he placed eagles and dragons, the heraldic symbols of the Borghese.
The dedication of the church to a war event was emphasized in its decoration and in particular in the fresco of the ceiling where heretics are portrayed near horrible monsters and their books are torn apart. The painting is surrounded by a very rich gold and stucco frame which was completed in 1700; it follows a pattern established in il Ges¨ in 1679.
The church and its chapels enjoyed the patronage of the richest Roman families and all sorts of marbles were employed for its decoration.
The Cornaro chapel is perhaps the richest of all the chapels; it was designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini who coordinated a team of sculptors and high level artisans. Cardinal Federico Cornaro commissioned Bernini the chapel in 1645, at a time when the artist was not enjoying the favour of the papal court.
Cardinal Federico Cornaro belonged to an important Venetian family which included Caterina Cornaro who was Queen of Cyprus in the late XVth century. In boxes at the two sides of the altar Bernini portrayed members of the Cornaro family; while Cardinal Cornaro is engrossed in watching the ecstasy of S. Teresa, the other men in the box are busy chatting.
More on the design of Cappella Cornaro in three chapels by Gian Lorenzo Bernini.
Excerpts from Giuseppe Vasi 1761 Itinerary related to this page:
Next plate in Book 8: Monastero dei SS. Domenico e Sisto