In the XVIIIth century the Aventine Hill had a rather rural appearance and this is evident in the etching by Giuseppe Vasi; two ancient Roman aqueducts which provided the hill with an ample supply of water were not rebuilt by the popes and so the Aventine was very scarcely populated; apart from medieval monasteries (S. Saba, S. Sabina and S. Alessio in addition to S. Prisca) there were only farms and Ortaccio degli Ebrei, the Jewish cemetery.
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) S. Prisca; 2) Augustinian monastery adjoining the church; 3) Street leading to S. Saba. The small map shows also 4) Ortaccio degli Ebrei and 5) Vigna Maccarani Torlonia.
The view in May 2006
The farms have been replaced by a residential development, but the almost total absence of shops and the limited impact of traffic keep the Aventine
away from the congestion of other parts of today's Rome.
S. Prisca has gained a modern bell tower and it has lost the coat of arms of Pope Clement VIII; the frames of the monastery windows have been simplified. Apart from these minor modifications the view has not changed.
(left) Façade; (right) coat of arms of Pope Calixtus III
According to tradition Prisca was a young girl who was baptized by St. Peter; she was sentenced to death in the circus by
Emperor Claudius, but the lions refused to touch her and she was eventually beheaded.
A IIIrd century small oratory, probably dedicated to Prisca, was unearthed in 1776 in the proximity of the current church which was built in the Vth century.
In the XVth century a fire destroyed the first three bays of the church. A lengthy inscription and a coat of arms celebrate the repairs made by Pope Calixtus III in 1456, but the building remained shortened, an indication of the reduced importance of the area.
(left) Detail of the façade showing a 1600 inscription celebrating a restoration by Cardinal Benedetto Giustiniani;
(right) inscription and coat of arms of the said cardinal
Cardinal Benedetto Giustiniani belonged to a family of Genoese origin, but he was born in Scio (today Chios), an island of the Aegean Sea which was ruled by his family. When the Ottomans occupied the island the Giustiniani came to live in Rome and owing to their wealth they soon became one of the most important families of the city. Cardinal Benedetto Giustiniani commissioned Carlo Lambardi a new façade for S. Prisca and he restored the whole building. He and his brother Vincenzo assembled in their Roman palace an important art collection. You may wish to see the church as it appeared in a 1588 Guide to Rome.
(left) Interior; (right) ancient column walled into a pillar
In the XVIIIth century Pope Clement XII promoted a new restoration of the church; notwithstanding the many changes that occurred throughout the centuries S. Prisca retains its original design: it has the shape of an ancient Roman basilica i.e. a large rectangular hall with two rows of columns dividing it into three naves with an apse at its end.
(left) IInd century AD capital which according to tradition was used as a baptismal font by St. Peter; (right) Martyrdom of S. Prisca by Anastasio Fontebuoni (early XVIIth century)
Relief portraying Mithra found at S. Prisca
In 1933 excavations were made to strengthen the foundations of the church, but they were expanded when the structure of a large ancient Roman house was unearthed; it included a mithraeum, a small underground hall for the worship of Mithra, a Persian god. Archaeologists have found evidence proving that it was built before 202 AD (during the reign of Emperor Septimius Severus), an indication of when this oriental belief penetrated the Roman upper classes (at that time the Aventine was the residence of wealthy families).
(left) Marble inlay portraying Sol Invictus, the god Sun, which was found in the Roman house underneath S. Prisca (now at Museo Nazionale Romano); (right) detail of another relief portraying Mithra slaying the bull and showing a scorpion, a snake and a dog biting the bull (at Museo di Villa Giulia); the image used as background for this page shows another detail of this relief; for yet another
detail see a page on S. Clemente with more information on Mithraism
In many mithraea archaeologists have found a relief (or a statue as at Ostia) on a small altar at the end of a narrow hall; almost all of them portray Mithra in the act of slaying a bull; the two are surrounded by animals and human beings having a symbolic meaning; it is generally thought that the animals represent constellations: the bull indicates the constellation of Taurus, the dog Canis Minor, the snake Hydra and the scorpion Scorpio. These constellations together with that of Corvus (raven, shown in another section of this relief) were all aligned with the celestial equator
during the spring equinox in that age.
The Greco-Roman world, after having located the gods in deep forests (see a page on the shrine of Dodoni) and later on having believed that the gods inhabited the highest mountains (see a page on Mount Olympus), eventually reached the conclusion that they lived above the clouds (a relief of Arco di Tito portrays an eagle carrying the divinized emperor to Heaven); during the same period the Greco-Roman world moved from the cult of a host of deities to that of Jupiter and his merry family and eventually to that of a pre-eminent god (Mithra or Sol Invictus).
The Jewish Cemetery in ca 1930
The Jews of Rome had their cemetery near Porta Portese Antica; when Pope Urban VIII built the new walls of Trastevere the cemetery was expropriated because it stood on the path of the new fortifications; in 1645 the Jews were allowed to bury their dead in a piece of land on the northern slope of the Aventine, not far from the Ghetto, where in 1556 they had been forced to live.
View of the street between the two sections of the Rose Garden of Rome (in the background: the ruins of the imperial palaces, the cypresses of Circus Maximus and the bell tower of SS. Giovanni e Paolo)
In 1895 the Jewish Community was assigned a space inside Cimitero del Verano and eventually in 1934 the remains of those buried in Ortaccio degli Ebrei were relocated there. The whole area around Circus Maximus was redesigned and the old cemetery became a public rose garden.
Apart from the monasteries and the churches, very few other buildings of the Aventine are old; the farmhouse of Villa Maccarani Torlonia has not been replaced by a modern development, because its garden and the building itself retain some ruins of the baths built by Emperor Decius in the middle of the IIIrd century AD.
Musei Capitolini: (left) late IIIrd century AD basalt statue portraying Hercules as a child, but bearing the skin of the Nemean Lion (First Labour) and holding the Golden Apples of the Hesperides (Eleventh Labour); (right) mosaic depicting two theatrical masks (IInd century AD)
The baths were built on the site of a previous luxury private residence, perhaps that of Emperor Trajan. This explains why some very fine mosaics of the IInd century AD were found in the presumable area of the baths, which we know were still used in the Vth century.
Museo Nazionale Romano: detail of a "Nilotic" mosaic (IInd century AD) found at Villa Maccarani Torlonia
Excerpts from Giuseppe Vasi 1761 Itinerary related to this page:
Molto celebre è questa chiesa, non già per il famoso tempio di Fauno, e di Diana, che quivi quivi presso furono, nè per il magnifico palazzo di Trajano, o per le terme di Decio; ma per essere stata qui la casa s. Prisca figliuola di un Console Romano, illustrata poi dalla presenza del Principe degli Apostoli, il quale vi battezzò molti gentili convertiti alla fede, fra' quali la s. Titolare, ed il di lei padre. E perchè ella nell'età di 13. anni, e nell'anno XIII. di Claudio I. sofferse, gloriosamente il martirio per amore di Gesù Cristo, fu chiamata Protomartire di Occidente nel suo sesso, poichè s. Tecla diceva dell'Oriente, perchè martirizzata nel V. anno di quell'Imperatore. Perciò fu quivi in suo onore eretta la chiesa, la quale nell'an. 772. fu ristaurata da Adriano I., e poi da Calisto III. nel 1455. il quale vi pose alcuni versi pieni di erudizione. Finalmente nell'anno 1600. fu rinnovata dal Card. Benedetto Giustiniani Genovese conservando però l'antico altare sotterraneo, e consessione di marmo, sotto cui stanno i corpi de' ss. Aquila, Priscilla, e Prisca. Il quadro dell'altare è del Passignani, ed il convento è abitato da' frati Agostiniani.