All images © by Roberto Piperno, owner of the domain. Write to email@example.com. Text edited by Rosamie Moore.
Page revised in November 2009.
Basilica di S. Sebastiano (part one) (Book 3) (Day 5) (View C11)
In this page:
The plate by Giuseppe Vasi
The view today
Cecilia Metella and S. Nicola a Capo di Bove
In part two:
Circo di Caracalla (Circo di Romolo o Massenzio)
Valle della Caffarella
Sepolcro di Annia Regilla
Ninfeo di Egeria
SS. Annunziata (Annunziatella)
The Plate (No. 59 - ii)
S. Sebastiano is one of the seven basilicas travellers to Rome usually visited, in particular after 1552 when S. Filippo Neri promoted la Visita delle Sette Chiese, a special pilgrimage which was done in one day starting from S. Pietro and ending at S. Maria Maggiore, via S. Paolo fuori le Mura, S. Sebastiano, S. Giovanni in Laterano, S. Croce in Gerusalemme and S. Lorenzo fuori le Mura; the street which links S. Paolo fuori le Mura with S. Sebastiano is still called Via delle Sette Chiese.
The view is taken from the green dot in the small late XIXth century map of the environs of Rome. In the description below the plate Vasi made reference to: 1) S. Sebastiano; 2) Street leading to S. Paolo fuori le Mura; 3) Cecilia Metella. The small map shows also: 4) Circo di Caracalla; 5) S. Urbano; 6) Ninfeo di Egeria; 7) Sepolcro di Anna Regilla; 8) Church of Domine Quo Vadis; 9) Street leading to SS. Annunziata; 10) Valle della Caffarella. 8) is shown in another page.
Because of its archaeological and historical value the area along Via Appia Antica is protected from the construction of new buildings and from major modifications to the existing ones; for this reason little has changed since Vasi's time. In 1852 Pope Pius IX erected a column opposite the church to celebrate improvements made to the road from Porta S. Sebastiano to the junction with Via Appia Nuova.
In 1586 Pope Sixtus V replaced S. Sebastiano with S. Maria del Popolo in la Visita delle Sette Chiese; the decision was motivated by the poor condition of the church and with the lack of security of the area where it was located (you may wish to see the church as it appeared in a 1588 Guide to Rome).
Maybe the pope was also worried over the relevance given to a saint whose actual existence was uncertain and whose assumed deeds were not different from those of many other martyrs.
According to an account by St. Ambrose, Sebastian was an officer in the guard of Emperor Diocletian; he embraced the Christian faith and promoted the conversion of two guards; when Diocletian learnt about his behaviour, he sentenced him to death and ordered his fellow comrades to execute him; they tied him to a tree and shot some arrows at him; then they left the site believing Sebastian was dead, but he was not and he recovered thanks to the cures of a Christian matron; he then returned to the Imperial Palace to testify his faith and to be sentenced again to death; this time Diocletian ordered that he should be beaten to death in Circus Maximus.
The doubts about the likelihood of this account arise from the fact that Emperor Diocletian did not reside in Rome and that the Romans did not have a method for execution based on shooting arrows, because they were not skilled archers; the Roman army was complemented by units of archers, but their components were recruited in the eastern provinces of the empire.
The popularity of St. Sebastian grew in 680 when a pestilence ended after his relics were carried through Rome during a solemn procession; later on the depiction of his martyrdom (or to be accurate of his failed martyrdom) became a preferred subject for paintings and sculptors. Usually the saint was portrayed while he was tied to a tree (or to a column), but in the chapel dedicated to him in S. Sebastiano, Giuseppe Giorgetti preferred to follow the pattern which was established in 1600 by Stefano Maderno in the statue of S. Cecilia (another example of recumbent statue is in S. Anastasia).
The church was almost totally rebuilt in 1612 at the expense of Cardinal Scipione Borghese, nephew of Pope Paul V, by Flaminio Ponzio and Giovanni Vasanzio (Jan Van Santen). The latter supervised a group of very skilled joiners, gilders, sculptors and painters who decorated the wooden ceiling of the basilica.
S. Sebastiano was again included in la Visita delle Sette Chiese.
It is hard to say whether in Rome there are more eagles and dragons of the Borghese, or bees of the Barberini, or doves of the Pamphilj. Without a doubt Cardinal Scipione Borghese did not miss an opportunity to place his heraldic symbols in the decoration of S. Sebastiano.
The old church was surrounded by mausoleums; of these one was thought to have temporarily housed the bodies of St. Peter and St. Paul; they were placed under a large marble slab (platoma) bearing an inscription dictated by Pope Damasus (366-384); the mausoleum became known as Platonia and Cardinal Scipione Borghese built a grand entrance to it, which has not been used for many years and is in bad need of being protected from acts of vandalism.
Because Giuseppe Vasi was always very accurate in depicting all the details of buildings, the fact that he did not show the dome of Cappella Albani is rather puzzling. The chapel was completed when he drew his etching.
We know very little about Cecilia Metella, whose mausoleum is the most famous landmark of Via Appia Antica and a symbol of Ancient Rome; J. W. Goethe chose to be portrayed showing this monument in the background (see the painting by W. Tischbein in the introductory page of this website). Cecilia was the daughter-in-law of Marcus Licinius Crassus, a member of the first triumvirate and a very wealthy man. Most likely the construction of such an imposing building was meant to celebrate the importance of the family, rather than of Cecilia.
Pope Boniface VIII assigned the ancient monument to his relatives (the Caetani) who turned it into a small fortress which blocked Via Appia; its main building included the tomb of Cecilia Metella, while walls protected a larger area inside which the Caetani built S. Nicola a Capo di Bove, a rather large church.
The use of this section of Via Appia was discontinued after a new road was opened in 1574 by Pope Gregory XIII and the castle and S. Nicola a Capo di Bove fell into decay.
Read Lord Byron's verses dedicated to this site.
Read Charles Dickens's account of his visit to this site in 1845.
Go to part two.
You can see more of Via Appia in my pages about Via Appia from Cecilia Metella to Torre in Selci and Via Appia from Torre in Selci to Frattocchie.
Excerpts from Giuseppe Vasi 1761 Itinerary related to this page:
Next plate in Book 3: Basilica di S. Maria in Trastevere
Next step in Day 5 itinerary: Chiesa di S. Paolo alle tre fontane