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All images © by Roberto Piperno, owner of the domain. Write to romapip@quipo.it. 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
S. Sebastiano
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
S. Urbano
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.


The view in November 2009

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.

S. Sebastiano

Cappella di S. Sebastiano: (above) Statue of S. Sebastiano by Giuseppe Giorgetti; (below) decoration of the floor with the heraldic symbols of Cardinal Francesco Barberini: bees and the Sun

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).

Ceiling by Giovanni Vasanzio: (left) coat of arms of Cardinal Scipione Borghese; (right) martyrdom of S. Sebastiano by Annibale Durante

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.

Coats of arms and heraldic symbols of the Borghese: eagles and dragons

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.

(left) Façade of "Platonia"; (right) lanterns of the dome of the church and of Cappella Albani

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.

Painted cupboard in the Vatican Library showing views of the catacombs near S. Sebastiano in ca 1860

Cecilia Metella

(left-above) Eastern view of Cecilia Metella and Castello Caetani; (left-below) bucranii and festoons (the mausoleum was also known as Torre di Capo di Bove, Tower of Ox Head because of the ox skulls of its decoration); (right) Via Appia Antica

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.

Western view of Cecilia Metella and Castello Caetani

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.

(left) S. Nicola a Capo di Bove; (right) detail of its side windows

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.

(left) Inscription: CECILIAE Q·CRETICI·F METELLAE CRASSI meaning (tomb) of Cecilia, daughter of Quintus Metellus Creticus, wife of Crassus; (right-above) ancient relief modified with the addition of two coats of arms of the Caetani; (right-below) cinerary urns found in the vicinity of the mausoleum (at the time of Cecilia Metella, the Romans did not bury the dead or place them inside sarcophagi, but they cremated them and kept the ashes inside urns)

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:

Basilica di s. Sebastiano fuori delle mura
Dopo non poco cammino si trova sulla medesima via questa chiesa, la quale fu eretta, come si crede, da Costantino Magno sopra il cimiterio di s. Calisto Papa, e fu dedicata a s. Sebastiano, come protettore della Chiesa, ed ancora perchè quivi da s. Lucina matrona Romana fu portato il di lui cadavere. Fu ristaurata da s. Damaso, da Adriano I. e da Eugenio IV. finalmente poi fu rinnovata dal Card. Scipione Borghese. Prima la custodivano i monaci Benedettini, ora però sta in cura di quei di s. Bernardo. Nella prima cappella a destra si vede il sasso colle pedate di Gesù Cristo imprese, come dicemmo, quando apparve a s. Pietro: il bassorilievo nella cappella di s. Fabiano è opera di Francesco Papaleo Siciliano; il quadro a destra è del Cav. Ghezzi, e quello incontro, del Passeri; le pitture nell'altare maggiore sono d'Innocenzo Tacconi allievo del Caracci; la cappella privilegiata, ove è il corpo di s. Sebastiano, è disegno di Ciro Ferri, e la statua del Santo a giacere sotto l'altare è del Giorgetti. La porta, che siegue dopo la cappella di s. Francesca conduce al celebre
Cimiterio e catacombe di s. Calisto
Le sepolture de' ss. Martiri dicevansi Are, Grotte, ed ancora Arenarie. Sono queste come vie sotterranee alte circa due uomini, e larghe quattro piedi, facendo varie guide, ed aprendo diverse strade; onde se uno non viene accompagnato da pratici, e provveduto di lumi accesi, indispensabilmente si perderebbe, e più non ritroverebbe la porta: onde in alcuni luoghi vi è stato fatto un muro, acciò non vi si entrasse. Nelle pareti tanto a destra, che a sinistra sono incavati i sepolcri a tre ordini, in forma di cassoni con tavole di marmo, o di terra cotta, trovandosi in alcuni scolpite palme, croci, e talvolta il nome di quel martire con una ampolla del suo sangue, ed ancora li strumenti del martirio, contandosi, che in questo cimiterio siano stati sepolti 170. mila martiri, e vi stettero ancora per qualche tempo i corpi de' ss. Pietro e Paolo Apostoli. Similmente in questo luogo si congregavano i fedeli col sommo Pontefice in tempo delle persecuzioni de' Gentili, per celebrare i divini Misterj, e si vede ancora il sito più largo e so, nell'uscire della porta laterale della chiesa, con l’altare, e sedia Pontificale fatta di semplice marmo. S. Filippo Neri frequentava spesso questo santuario, e vi si tratteneva le intere notti in sante orazioni; perciò nel medesimo luogo ebbe diverse grazie da Dio, e lasciò a noi l'esempio di visitare questa chiesa, che è una delle sette privilegiate.
Molte anticaglie sono nelle vigne di questi contorni, ed è maravigliosa quella, nella vigna a sinistra, e poi seguitando si vede la
Torre di capo di bovi
Uno de' sepolcri, che stavano sulla via Appia, fu questo eretto da Metello Cretico per seppellirvi la sua figliuola Cecilia Metella, e fu di tanta magnificenza, che ancor dura il gran masso formato di travertini a guisa di torre sopra cui si alzava il nobile edilizio; e perchè vi si vede scolpita una testa di bue, da questa oggi porta il nome.

Next plate in Book 3: Basilica di S. Maria in Trastevere

Next step in Day 5 itinerary: Chiesa di S. Paolo alle tre fontane