In this 1753 etching Giuseppe Vasi showed a luxury coach crossing Piazza S. Maria in Trastevere; it was however a rather unusual event; the rich did not live in Trastevere, the quarter of Rome on the other side of the River Tiber (trans Tiberim); Palazzo S. Callisto, the imposing palace to the left of the basilica was not the mansion of a noble family, but a hostel for the friars of S. Paolo fuori le Mura who lived there in summer, when the location of their monastery was unhealthy.
In the etching Vasi depicted also aspects more in line with the everyday aspect of Trastevere: two men carrying a large basket and a carriage entering the square from Stradone di S. Francesco a Ripa. They transported commodities from Porto di Ripa Grande, the river harbour of Rome, to Ponte Sisto and the city centre.
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) Palazzo S. Callisto; 2) S. Maria in Trastevere; 3) Deanery of the church. The map shows also: 4) Chiesa di S. Callisto; 5) Cappella di S. Maria della Clemenza; 6) the "smallest house of Trastevere".
The view in May 2010 (in the early morning)
The two small fountains shown in the plate, most likely troughs for horses and donkeys, do not exist any longer, the piazza has a modern paving and minor changes have affected the fašade of the church. To take a photo of Piazza S. Maria in Trastevere which is evocative of the past, however is not always easy; during most of the day and late into the night a crowd sits on the steps surrounding the fountain and at dawn a "carpet" of bottles and cans litters the square.
The inhabitants of Trastevere have always felt very proud of their rione, which even today retains a distinct character, also because its borders are clearly identifiable. In 366, at the death of Pope Liberius (the founder of S. Maria Maggiore), the inhabitants of Trastevere supported Ursinus against Damasus, who eventually became the next pope; the episode is described by Ammianus Marcellinus: Damasus and Ursinus, being both immoderately eager to obtain the bishopric, formed parties and carried on the conflict with great asperity, the partisans of each carrying their violence to actual battle, in which men were wounded and killed. (..) Ultimately Damasus got the best of the strife by the strenuous efforts of his partisans. It is certain that on one day one hundred and thirty-seven dead bodies were found in the Basilica of Sicininus (most likely S. Maria in Trastevere), which is a Christian church. And the populace who had been thus roused to a state of ferocity were with great difficulty restored to order. I do not deny, when I consider the ostentation that reigns at Rome, that those who desire such rank and power may be justified in labouring with all possible exertion and vehemence to obtain their wishes; since after they have succeeded, they will be secure for the future, being enriched by offerings from matrons, riding in carriages, dressing splendidly, and feasting luxuriously, so that their entertainments surpass even royal banquets. Roman History - Book 27 - Translation by C. D. Yonge.
The rivalry between the inhabitants of Trastevere and those of the other rioni is documented well into the XIXth century.
The inhabitants on this side differ in many respects from those on the other side of the Tiber. They pride themselves upon being born "Trasteverini", profess to be the direct descendants of the ancient Romans, seldom intermarry with their neighbours, and speak a dialect peculiarly their own. It is said that in their dispositions also they differ from the other Romans, that they are a far more hasty, passionate, and revengeful, as they are a stronger and more vigorous race. The proportion of murders (a crime far less common in Rome than in England) is larger in this than in any other part of the city.
Augustus J. C. Hare - Walks in Rome - 1875
(left) Fašade (you may wish to see a larger view of the portico and of its statues); (right-above) detail of the bell tower; (right-below) detail of the deanery
S. Maria in Trastevere was rebuilt in the XIIth century by Pope Innocent II, who belonged to a family of Trastevere; because his appointment was challenged by an antipope who resided in the Vatican, he wanted S. Maria to be a church which could withstand comparison with the great basilicas. Gigantic columns from Terme di Caracalla were employed; the apse was decorated with a large mosaic and a tall bell tower was built to the right of the church; in the following century also the fašade was decorated with a mosaic. All these features made it similar to S. Maria Maggiore. You may wish to see the church as it appeared in a 1588 Guide to Rome.
In 1702 Carlo Fontana modified the portico for Pope Clement XI, but overall the fašade retained its original aspect (the image used as background for this page shows a detail of the railings closing the portico).
The entrance to the deanery has a reference (Fons Olei) to a miraculous event (the flowing of oil, probably petroleum) which occurred in 38 BC and which was interpreted by Jews who lived in Trastevere as an announcement of the coming of The Messiah.
(left) Main door (on the last day of Festa de' Noantri); it is decorated with fragments of ancient lintels; (right-above) medieval sarcophagus; (right-below) section of a IXth century balustrade with a relief showing peacocks drinking from a vase, a typical Early Christian symbol which is depicted in a very crude manner
In 1580-595 Cardinal Marco Sittico Altemps, nephew of Pope Pius IV, renovated the interior of the church; many medieval tombs, inscriptions and decorations were removed and affixed to the walls of the portico.
Interior (it resembles that of nearby S. Grisogono which was built a few years earlier)
The upper part of the main nave and the arch at its end were redesigned in 1617 and their current decoration was made in the second half of the XIXth century as a consequence of a series of changes promoted in 1866 by Pope Pius IX. Notwithstanding them and the fact that the church was built in the XIIth century, the interior of S. Maria in Trastevere brings to mind that of an early Christian basilica.
The mosaics which decorate the apse include prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah holding inscriptions making reference to the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ: Ecce virgo concipiet et pariet filium (A virgin shall conceive and bear a son - Isaiah 7:14) and Christus dominus captus est in peccatis nostris (Our Lord, the Christ has been taken in our sins - Lamentations 4:20). These references and a long inscription in the lower part of the apse were all meant to justify from a theological point of view the image of Mary enthroned with Jesus for which there were no iconographical precedents in Rome (the mosaic in the apse of S. Maria Maggiore was made a century later).
Mosaic of the apse: central section: in addition to Mary, Jesus and St. Peter it shows Pope Innocent II holding a model of the church (far left) and five Roman martyrs
St. Peter is dressed in what was assumed to be the costume of a Roman senator while Mary is portrayed as a Byzantine empress. Two other inscriptions explain and justify the scene: (Mary) Leva eius sub capite meo et dextera illius amplexabitur me (His left arm is under my head, and his right arm embraces me) (Song of Solomon 2:6) and (Jesus) Veni electa mea et ponam in te thronum meum (Come my chosen one and I will place my throne in you) (from a medieval commentary to the Song of Songs).
Remembering the date of the composition before us, about a century and a half before the time of Cimabue and Giotto, we may hail in it, if not an actual Renaissance, the dawn, at least, that heralds a brighter day for art, compared with the deep gloom previous.
Charles Isidore Hemans - A History of Medieval Christianity and Sacred Art in Italy - 1872
In 1291 the decoration of the apse was completed by Pietro Cavallini who depicted events of the life of Mary in a series of small mosaics. They are very lively and show the passage to a new style of painting which eventually displayed all its potential by means of frescoes, rather than mosaics.
Relief in the Monument to Cardinal Philippe d'Alenšon (d. 1397)
Philippe d'Alenšon was made titular cardinal of S. Maria in Trastevere in 1378, shortly after the return of the Popes to Rome. In 1388 he acquired the more prestigious title of Bishop of Ostia, but he chose to be buried at S. Maria in Trastevere. The decoration of his sarcophagus reflected the dedication of the church because a relief showed the Dormition of Mary, a subject which was depicted also in one of Cavallini's mosaics. The Koimesis Theotokou (Falling asleep in death of the Mother of God) is typical of Byzantine art, because in Rome Mary's passing away was usually portrayed as her being assumed to heaven.
(left) Monument to Cardinal Pietro Stefaneschi (d. 1417) by Magister Paulus; (right) Cupboard for the Holy Oil by Mino del Reame (ca 1480)
Pietro Stefaneschi was not the titular cardinal of S. Maria in Trastevere, but he was born in Trastevere and one of his ancestors had paid for the mosaics made by Cavallini. He lived through a very turbulent period: some of the popes he served were eventually regarded as antipopes. He attended the Council of Costance as adviser to (Anti)Pope John XXIII.
The monument strikes the viewer because of its colour, but there is clear evidence that in the past reliefs and statues were very often painted, a practice which goes back to Classical Greece.
In the late XVth century a gilded decoration replaced the use of colours. You may wish to see other examples of similarly decorated works of art at S. Maria in Aracoeli and S. Pietro in Vincoli by Andrea Bregno, the leading sculptor in Rome at that time.
In 1617 Cardinal Pietro Aldobrandini commissioned Domenichino, one of the most famous painters of the time, a new ceiling for S. Maria in Trastevere. It is one of the last wooden ceilings in the churches of Rome; they were replaced by barrel vaulted ceilings which were decorated with illusionistic frescoes. You may wish to see a page on this topic.
Cappella Avila by Antonio Gherardi (1680)
Notwithstanding the antiquity and beauty of S. Maria in Trastevere, the wealthiest families of Rome were not much interested in having their funerary chapels there because Trastevere was an ill-famed neighbourhood. In a way this has been a positive development because it has limited the changes to the original design and decoration of the church. Cappella Avila is one of the few exceptions.
Antonio Gherardi (1644-1702) was chiefly a painter and was known for his ceiling at S. Maria in Trivio, but in the XVIIth century it was not unusual for a painter (e.g. Pietro da Cortona) or a sculptor (e.g. Gian Lorenzo Bernini) to be asked to design a building and Gherardi designed a chapel which would have pleased Bernini, because of its light effects (you may wish to see three chapels by Bernini). Eventually Gherardi designed a chapel at S. Carlo ai Catinari which is regarded as his masterpiece.
(left) Monument to Cardinal Stanislaw Hos (Hosius) (d. 1579); (right) Cappella della Madonna della Cupa: altar by Zenobio del Rosso (1762)
Two inscriptions in the lower part of the monument to Polish Cardinal Stanislaw Hos enlighten about his deeds: Haec scripsi vobis de eis qui seducunt vos (I am writing these things to you about those who are trying to lead you astray - John 2:26) and Catholicus non est, qui a Romana Ecclesia in fidei doctrina discordat (He is not a Catholic, who disagrees with the Roman Church in doctrines concerning the faith). He was an able advocate of the papal theological positions and he succeeded in limiting the spread of Protestantism in Poland and Bohemia. He was made titular cardinal of S. Maria in Trastevere shortly before his death. Both Cardinal Primate of Poland Jˇzef Glemp (1929-2013) and his predecessor Stefan Wyszynski (1901-981) were appointed titular cardinals of the church.
Many churches of Rome were dedicated to Mary because they housed a miraculous image of her. S. Maria in Trastevere did not have such a miraculous image until 1624 when a painting was found in a dark (cupa) passage near Villa Nobili Spada and moved to the church. It is attributed to Perin del Vaga (1501-547). Henry Benedict Stuart, brother of Charles Edward aka Bonnie Prince Charlie, was made cardinal in 1747 at the age of twenty-two and in 1759 he opted for the title of S. Maria in Trastevere. In 1761 he was made Bishop of Frascati where he spent most of his life. He commissioned a new altar to house the miraculous painting and he placed his unique coat of arms outside the chapel.
(left) Decoration of the entrance to the chapel (you may wish to see an enlargement of its golden coat of arms - it opens in another window); (right) painting by Pasquale Cati portraying a session of the Council of Trent and a personification of Religion. Another work by Cati can be seen at S. Lorenzo in Panisperna
Cardinal Altemps dedicated a chapel to Madonna della Clemenza (Mercy) in memory of his son Roberto, who is buried in a monument next to the chapel. He was sentenced to death by Pope Sixtus V for having raped a young girl. His father called out for mercy, but the Pope was unmoved and Roberto was beheaded (you may wish to learn more about this episode).
(left) Decoration of the ceiling; (right) painting portraying Pope Pius IV and Cardinal Altemps
Cardinal Altemps was titular of S. Maria in Trastevere from 1580 to his death in 1595. He chose to be buried in the floor of the chapel he had founded rather than in a monument. You may wish to visit Palazzo Altemps.
The fountain: in the background Palazzo Leoni
This fountain has a very troubled history, which is summarized in four inscriptions roughly saying: 1) a very old fountain was restored at the time of Pope Alexander VI and Pope Gregory XIV built conduits to supply it with Acqua Felice; 2) Pope Alexander VII built new conduits to supply it with Acqua Paola; 3) in 1692 Carlo Fontana redesigned the fountain for Pope Innocent XII; 4) in 1873 the fountain was rebuilt using bardiglio (a grey marble), rather than travertine and the coats of arms of Pope Innocent XII (see the plate by Filippo Juvarra) were replaced by those of the City of Rome.
Detail of the fountain
Palazzo S. Callisto
The titular cardinals of S. Maria in Trastevere lived in a palace to the left of the church; it was rebuilt in the second half of the XVIth century by Cardinal Giovanni Morone; in 1608 Pope Paul V assigned it to the friars of S. Paolo fuori le Mura as a compensation for a monastery they had on the Quirinale hill, which the Pope wanted to pull down in order to enlarge Palazzo Pontificio sul Quirinale. The design of the building was modified by Orazio Torriani, but it retained the appearance of a private property, with only some details of the decoration making reference to St. Paul and his sword. Today Palazzo S. Callisto is an extraterritorial property of the Holy See.
Detail of the entrance
(left) S. Callisto; (right) the "smallest house of Trastevere"
Pope St. Callixtus I was killed by being thrown into the well of a house
near S. Maria in Trastevere in 222. In the VIIIth century a church was built on the site of his martyrdom. In 1610 the friars
of S. Paolo fuori le Mura rebuilt the church which was designed by Orazio Torriani and which is located very near their palace.
The "smallest house of Trastevere" is at the end of a narrow alley opposite S. Callisto.
Excerpts from Giuseppe Vasi 1761 Itinerary related to this page:
Era quivi la casa di Ponziano nobile Romano, in cui il santo Pontefice, in tempo delle persecuzioni della Chiesa; ritiravasi spesso con altri fedeli per fare orazione, e per battezzare quei, che si convertivano alla Fede. Il Santo essendo poi fatto prigione, ed aspramente battuto, con un sasso legato al collo fu buttato nel pozzo, che era nella medesima casa, e che ora si conserva in questa piccola chiesa, la quale essendo da Gregorio III. rinnovata nell'anno 741. ancora si mantiene piuttosto in forma di oratorio, che di chiesa. Da Paolo V. fu conceduta ai monaci Benedettini insieme col palazzo eretto giÓ del Card. Morone sul disegno di Orazio Torrigiani, in cui hanno formato un bel monastero, per abitarvi quando non possono stare in quello di san Paolo fuori delle mura, e ci˛ in ricompensa del monastero, che avevano sul Quirinale, ove ora Ŕ il palazzo Pontificio. Segue dopo la piazza e la
Dalla contrada, o vogliamo dire Rione, in cui sta, prende il moderno nome questa antichissima e celebre chiesa:
da principio per˛ fu detta Fons olei, e poi ad Presepe, e vanta di essere stata la prima, che fosse eretta in onore
della ss. Vergine.