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Page revised in August 2009.
Piazza di Termini (Book 2) (Map A2) (Day 2) (View B7) (Rione Monti)
In this page:
The plate by Giuseppe Vasi
Terme di Diocleziano
S. Maria degli Angeli
The granaries of the popes and S. Isidoro in Thermis
Fontana delle Najadi
Termini is today the word used to designate the Central Railway Station of Rome, just as in London you say Euston or Waterloo. The name is derived from the baths (in Latin Thermae) built at the beginning of the IVth century by Co-emperor Maximian and dedicated to Emperor Diocletian. Piazza di Termini is actually inside the premises of the baths, next to which Pope Sixtus V built a villa in the late XVIth century.
The view is taken from the green dot in the 1748 map here below. In the description below the plate Vasi made reference to: 1) Rovine (ruins) delle Terme Diocleziane; 2) Chiesa di S. Maria degli Angeli; 3) the site of excavations made in 1750, which are shown in detail in A; 4) Granaries. The small map shows also 5) Fontana delle Najadi; 6) S. Isidoro in Thermis.
Today a key traffic roundabout (rotary), Piazza di Termini is called Piazza della Repubblica or Piazza Esedra because of its exedra (semicircular) shape.
In 1911 the XVIIIth century façade of S. Maria degli Angeli was demolished to uncover the remaining walls of the calidarium (the heated hall of the ancient baths).
Terme di Diocleziano
The baths were built between 298 and 306 and, although dedicated to Emperor Diocletian, they were meant to celebrate the success of a campaign led by Maximian in today's Algeria and Morocco to defend those Roman territories from the attacks of Berber tribes.
These baths exceeded in size those built in 217 by Emperor Caracalla, but their decoration was not as impressive. It ought to be noted that Maximian, when he was not campaigning, did not reside in Rome, but preferred to live in northern Italy, whereas Diocletian rarely moved from his palace in Nicomedia, near Nicea.
Today some halls of the baths house a section of Museo Nazionale Romano.
S. Maria degli Angeli
In 1561, at the request of Antonio del Duca, a Sicilian priest, Pope Pius IV agreed to turn some halls of the baths into a church dedicated to Mary and the Seven Angels. Michelangelo developed a project based on the utilization of the enormous aula basilicale which stood between the natatio or frigidarium (the cold pool) and the tepidarium, where the bathers rested at an agreeable temperature. The hall was embellished by eight gigantic grey granite columns which Michelangelo restored; he also decorated the hall with coloured marbles which were still easy to find in XVIth century Rome.
S. Maria degli Angeli was substantially modified by Luigi Vanvitelli in 1749, just before the time of Vasi's plate; he changed its orientation from east-west to south-north: he opened a new entrance between the remaining walls of the calidarium and tepidarium; he also used part of the natatio to place there the apse and main altar. The aula basilicale became the out of proportion transept of the new church. Vanvitelli however could not rely on original columns and marbles, so these are painted brickwork. One can easily identify the original parts by touching them because they have a lower temperature than that of the walls.
You may wish to see the interior of the church as it appeared in a 1588 Guide to Rome.
In 1703 Pope Clement XI built a sundial, where it is not the shadow which shows the time, but the light. At the astronomical noon a sunbeam, entering the church from a coat of arms near the ceiling, crosses a meridian line drawn on the floor. The intersection point changes according to the various periods of the year; these are indicated by inscriptions and by inlays showing the signs of the zodiac and the stars of the related constellation. The sundial allows also the calculation of Easter and the position of the Pole-star. According to Francesco Bianchini, the astronomer who made the calculations for the sundial, the choice of S. Maria degli Angeli, a church rather remote from the centre of papal Rome, was due to the stability of its walls, then some 1,400 years old.
It is interesting to note that Vasi wrote in his 1761 itinerary of Rome that in oggi non corrisponde più al segno (today the meridian line is no longer accurate). In 1847 Pope Pius IX finally abandoned the Italian hour and a few years later decreed that the exact noon time should be determined by the observatory of Collegio Romano and made known to the public by a cannon shot fired from Castel Sant'Angelo (today from Janiculum).
The Granaries of the Popes and S. Isidoro in Thermis
It is estimated that after the 1527 Sack of Rome the city had only about 30,000 inhabitants. During the second half of the century the population grew significantly and by the year 1600 Rome had nearly 100,000 inhabitants. The growth was in part due to the many charitable institutions which were founded as part of the Catholic Reformation effort to reshape Roman society. According to President de Brosses who visited Rome in 1739, beggars were a quarter of the population (and statues another quarter). The responsibility for ensuring a constant supply of basic commodities fell on the Papal government.
There is a general consensus that the papal decision to directly buy (also abroad) a large part of the commodities needed for the functioning of charitable institutions, was a key factor in the abandonment of the Roman countryside. An effect of this policy was the need to store mainly wheat and oil in very large quantities, to strengthen the bargaining position of the papal state.
Prefettura dell'Annona, a special department of the administration, was founded in 1560 to purchase and store basic commodities. In 1575 three halls of the baths which stood to the left of the church were turned into a granary by Pope Gregory XIII; the choice of this location was also due to the fact that there was no risk that the Tiber could flood it. Between 1609 and 1612 Pope Paul V enlarged the granary by adding to it new halls.
At the beginning of the XVIIIth century Pope Clement XI came to the conclusion that the granaries were not up to the needs of the city. It was decided to turn a circular hall at the south-eastern corner of the baths into another granary. Carlo Fontana, the architect in charge of the project, eventually preferred to build a new granary and the ancient circular hall was not modified. A similar hall at the south-western corner was converted at the beginning of the XVIth century into Chiesa di S. Bernardo alle Terme.
In 1754 Pope Benedict XIV visited the granaries (of Pope Paul V) and promoted their restoration and the construction of a small church dedicated to St. Isidore the Farmer, an XIth century Spanish day labourer, who is the patron saint of farmers. He is particularly venerated in time of drought as he is said to have caused a fountain of fresh water to burst from the dry earth.
In 1764 Pope Clement XIII added a depot for storing olive oil and celebrated the event with a large coat of arms. Because most of the inhabitants of Rome were not able to read the inscriptions, sheaves of wheat and branches of olive-trees provided an alternative means of making known the purpose of the buildings.
Today parts of the granaries have been brought back to their original shape and are part of Museo Nazionale Romano; S. Isidoro in Thermis is deconsecrated and it is used for conferences or small exhibitions.
Fontana delle Najadi
After the annexation of Rome to the Kingdom of Italy in 1870, the new government made Piazza di Termini a key element of the expansion of the city required by its new role as capital of a large country. In 1885 a large fountain was designed at the centre of the square and in 1901 sculptor Mario Rutelli decorated it with four Naiads (water-nymphs) in the act of taming: the sea nymph a horse, the lake nymph a swan, the river nymph another horse and finally the nymph of underground waters a reptile.
Rutelli prepared a group of statues for the centre of the fountain: tritons, a dolphin and an octopus; the proposed addition was labelled as fritto misto (mixed fried fish) and relocated to the gardens of Piazza Vittorio Emanuele.
In 1911 Rutelli added the statue of a man holding a fish which is more consistent with other Roman statues (in particular Fontana del Moro by Bernini). Usually the many streams of spouting water do not allow a clear view of the statues. During the maintenance of the fountain it is possible to understand why Rutelli's Naiads were so criticized and charged with being (in today's words) soft-porn.
Excerpts from Giuseppe Vasi 1761 Itinerary related to this page:
Next plate in Book 2: Piazza delle Quattro Fontane
Next step in Day 2 itinerary: Porta Pia
Next step in your tour of Rione Monti: Villa Peretti