In the XVIIIth century the churches on the Aventine Hill were very remote from the more densely populated parts of
Rome (you may wish to see a map of the rioni showing the distribution of the population in 1743). The neighbourhood was so quiet that its streets, as this 1756 etching by Giuseppe Vasi shows, were used as
bowling alleys (see a page on details of plates by Vasi showing how the Romans of his time enjoyed life).
The view is taken from the green dot in the map below. In the description below the plate Vasi made reference to: 1) S. Alessio (actually SS. Bonifacio e Alessio); 2) Monastery adjoining that church; 3) Ancient porch of S. Alessio. The small 1748 map shows also 4) S. Sabina; 5) Rocca Savella; 6) Entrance to Priorato dei Cavalieri di Malta; 7) Villa del Priorato aka Villa Magistrale; 8) approximate location of S. Anselmo.
(left) Bell tower of SS. Bonifacio e Alessio in May 2015; (right) S. Sabina in March 2009
A large modern building which houses the headquarters of the Dominican Order (see their website - it opens in another window) near S. Sabina impairs the view of SS. Bonifacio e Alessio. The Order had its headquarters at Convento della Minerva until the 1870s. Notwithstanding this change, this part of Rome and in particular the small square in front of S. Sabina retains the peaceful aspect it had in the XVIIIth century. It is not so quiet as in ordinary days on Ash Wednesday when the Pope leads a short procession from S. Anselmo to S. Sabina in remembrance of a similar procession led by Pope Gregory the Great.
According to the traditional account the church was built on the former house of Sabina, a rich woman who was converted by Seraphia, a Greek slave of hers, and who died in 114 during a persecution of the Christians. It is interesting to note that Seraphia is the name of the woman who wiped the face of Jesus and whom afterwards was known as Veronica (vera icona = true portrait). Excavations under the church and the monastery have found evidence of several Roman walls which belonged to temples, baths and villas.
(above) Mosaic inscription remembering Peter of Illyria, a rich priest from southern Dalmatia, the founder of the church; the two women at the sides of the inscription represent the Church of the Old Testament and that of the New Testament; (below) "transennae", panels of a balustrade separating the main altar from the nave
The construction of the church is traditionally dated 425; a few years later a large mosaic decorated its rear-façade; a long inscription celebrated the founder of the church and Pope Saint Celestine I, whose superior authority was recognized at the First Ecumenical Council of Ephesus in 431 (the first line of the inscription reads Celestine held the foremost and highest apostolic rank).
In 824 during a short period of economic development, Pope Eugene II placed a series of marble transennae between the altar and the rest of the main nave; when compared with those at S. Clemente they show a lower workmanship.
Vth century wooden panels: (left - from below) Scenes of acclamation; Jesus appears at the entrance to a church accompanied by an angel and is portrayed as a Byzantine emperor; (right - from below) Aaron turns its rods into serpents; the Pharaoh drowns in the sea; the Jews walk at the light of the Pillar of Fire (in 1836 a restoration gave the Pharaoh the face of Napoleon Bonaparte)
The entrance to the church shown by Vasi in the plate is a lateral one which was opened in 1441. The original church was preceded by a portico which was closed and eventually dismantled when the site was fortified. The main door of the lost façade retains some very old wooden panels with scenes from the Old and the New Testament, including one of the first representations of the Crucifixion at the very top of the door (it opens in another window). The panels were reassembled in the XIth century on a new support which was decorated with grapes.
In 1914-919 the interior of the church was freed from most of the additions made during its long history and in particular those made in 1586 by Domenico Fontana during the pontificate of Pope Sixtus V (you may wish to see the building as it appeared in a 1588 Guide to Rome). Many windows were reopened, the main altar was removed and some side chapels were either closed or demolished. Overall the design of the ancient basilica was made noticeable again. Its columns were not taken from other buildings, but they were expressly made for S. Sabina. Their design stuck to tradition i.e. it did not follow the Byzantine fashion for pulvini (impost blocks above the capitals) as occurred at Ravenna.
You may wish to read how Henry James described the darkness of the interior when he visited it in 1873.
(left) Gravestone of Munio of Zamora (d. March 1300), seventh Master General of the Dominican Order, at the centre of the nave; (centre) gravestone of Perna Savelli (d. January 1315) which is decorated with her family coats of arms; (right) gravestone of Bartolomeo Odescalchi (d. April 1566), an ancestor of Pope Innocent XI
The gravestone of a member of the Savelli family is a reminder that Popes Honorius III (Cencio Savelli) and Honorius IV (Jacopo Savelli) held their court in S. Sabina. The Savelli had a funerary chapel at S. Maria in Aracoeli with a gravestone very similar to that of Perna Savelli.
In 1219 Pope Honorius III gave the monastery of S. Sabina to St. Dominic.
(above-left) Detail of the monument to Cardinal Alessandro Bichi (d. 1657); (above-right) coat of arms of Cardinal Raniero D'Elci (d. 1761) in Cappella di S. Caterina da Siena; (below) gravestone of José Maria Larroca, 74th Master General of the Dominican Order (d. 1891)
When S. Sabina was brought back to its ancient aspect, many Baroque additions were demolished or removed; yet the church retains some works of that period. They show that death symbols and coloured marbles were very much in fashion at that time. Even though a law passed in 1870 prohibited burials inside churches, a few exceptions for the Master Generals of the Dominican Order have been tolerated.
(left) Cappella di S. Giacinto (St. Hyacinth of Poland); (right) detail of the fresco on the ceiling: it portrays a King of Israel and Noah: the latter is a self-portrait of Federico Zuccari holding a temple, a metaphor for the chapel, with the inscription "Anno Iubilei 1600 Federico Zuccari"
In 1594 Pope Clement VIII canonized Jacek Odrowaz, a Polish priest who was one of the first followers of St. Dominic. For the 1600 Jubilee Year Cardinal Girolamo Bernerio charged Federico Zuccari with the decoration of a chapel dedicated to the new saint. It was a period during which the Roman Catholic Church promoted realistic depictions of martyrdoms, but Zuccari excelled in portraits and his frescoes in S. Sabina are an elegant illustration of the Roman society of his time.
Cappella di S. Giacinto: details of frescoes by Federico Zuccari
(left) Walls of Rocca Savella; (right) Clivo di Rocca Savella, one of the
Silent Streets of Rome; (inset) view of the orange tree which replaces that planted by St. Dominic in the cloister of S. Sabina
The Savelli, one of the most powerful Roman families in the XIIIth century, built a small fortress with walls, towers and a moat in the area around S. Sabina. Pope Honorius IV preferred to hold the papal court there, rather than in the Vatican or in the Lateran. The fortress
was dismantled by Pope Sixtus V to make sure nobody could revive the fights among the Roman families or against the pope.
The walls now surround Giardino degli Aranci, a 1930s garden named after its orange trees. They are a reminder of the orange tree from Spain which was planted by St. Dominic. These trees were planted in many Roman gardens for purely decorative purposes, because their fruits are not edible.
You may wish to see Giardino degli Aranci at night.
(above) Some of the domes of Rome seen from Giardino degli Aranci; in particular
in this image the dome of S. Andrea della Valle seems to duplicate that of S. Carlo ai Catinari; (below-left) S. Pietro; (below-right) SS. Luca e Martina.
For more details and to identify all the monuments shown above see a Winter Grand View of Rome from Giardino degli Aranci
1754 entrance to the courtyard (left) and façade (right)
The life of St. Alexius is known through legendary accounts.
According to that which is popular in Rome he left the house of his father, a Roman senator, during the night following his marriage. He went to Syria where for seventeen years he lived as a beggar until he returned to Rome. His parents and his wife (who in the meantime took a vow of chastity) did not recognize him and just let him sleep under the stairs of the house, where he eventually died. It is remarkable that today many weddings take place in this church which is dedicated to a man who was shy of marrying.
The church was initially dedicated to St. Boniface of Tarsus, an early IVth century martyr, and its official name is Basilica dei Santi Bonifacio e Alessio.
Cosmati works from the old church: (left) two remaining small decorative columns which frame a XIIIth century inscription listing the relics housed in the church; (right) section of the original pavement
The church was originally founded in the IVth century, but it was rebuilt in the XIIIth century. A thorough modernization was completed in 1754 by Tommaso De Marchis. As in many other baroque modifications to earlier churches, the bell tower was not touched, but the small medieval porch, similar to that of S. Clemente, was replaced by a large building and the façade and the interior of the church were entirely redesigned.
(left) Canopy; (right) St. Alexius dying under the stairs of his father's house by Andrea Bergondi
The XVIIIth century decoration of the church suited the taste of the time, but today it does not attract the attention of many travellers. In the past the events of the life of St. Alexius were widely known in Rome and they were painted in the lower church of S. Clemente, but today his name sounds more Russian than Roman.
(left) Gravestone of Lope da Olmedo (1433); (right) bronze coat of arms on the 1591 gravestone of Cardinal Giovanni Vincenzo Gonzaga who was titular of the church
In the early XVth century the church and the adjoining monastery were assigned to the Hieronymites, a religious order founded in Spain in the late XIVth century. It followed the rule of St. Augustine, but its members were inspired also by the life of St. Jerome who spent many years as a hermit. Lope da Olmedo, Prior of the new Roman monastery, developed new rules for the order which were endorsed by Pope Martin V in 1424.
The Gonzaga were rulers of Mantua from 1328 to 1627 and nine members of the family were appointed cardinals.
Cloister which houses a number of gravestones which were inside the church
Piazza dei Cavalieri di Malta with the modern church of S. Anselmo (left) and the
entrance to the Priory (right)
This small and very unusual Roman piazza without a statue or a fountain was designed in 1765 by Giovanni Battista Piranesi, mainly known for his etchings depicting monuments of ancient Rome, for Giovanni Battista Rezzonico, Grand Prior of the Italian branch of the Order of Malta and nephew of Pope Clement XIII. He was appointed cardinal in 1770 by Pope Clement XIV. His brother Abbondio Rezzonico was Senatore di Roma and the two lived at Palazzo Senatorio.
(left) Inscription celebrating the construction of the square; (centre) a panel decorated with the Cross of Malta which you can see also in the image used as background for this page; (right) detail of
the decoration showing a tower, a heraldic symbol of the Rezzonico and in the background the flag of the Order
The elaborate decoration of the square is based on themes taken from the coats of arms of the Rezzonico and of the Knights of Malta. Piranesi redesigned also S. Maria del Priorato, a small church which stands on the very edge of the hill and which has a similar decoration.
(left) Entrance to the Priory; (right) view through the key-hole
Strangers are sometimes amused by catching, through the key-hole of the outer door, a glimpse, by the vista, of the dome of St. Peter's.
Rev. Jeremiah Donovan - Rome Ancient and Modern - 1844.
The trees framing the view have a magnifying effect which goes away when one reaches the terrace at the end of the alley.
South-eastern side of the square
When Piranesi designed the square the wall shown above bordered on a kitchen garden or a vineyard belonging to the Dominicans of S. Sabina, so there were no high trees behind it. The alley of cypresses leading to S. Anselmo was planted in the late XIXth century. It gives a rather sombre aspect to the decoration of the walls, considering that in modern times obelisks have often been associated with tombs. However this addition of gravity to the square envisaged by Piranesi is not without some charm.
Villa Magistrale (former Villa del Priorato)
The Military Order of the Hospitallers of St. John was officially founded in 1113 in Jerusalem. The Knights of the Order had an active role in the defence of many fortresses (e.g. Marqab in Syria), but eventually in 1291 they had to leave the Holy Land. For two centuries the Knights controlled Rhodes and the nearby islands before surrendering them to Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent in 1522. In 1530 they were assigned Malta by Emperor Charles V. They held the island until 1798.
In 1834 the Knights set their headquarters in Rome and the Italian Priory became the residence of the Grand Master, the Head of the Order. This explains why Villa del Priorato is now called Villa Magistrale (of the Grand Masters). A palace of the Order in Via Condotti, the former seat of its ambassadors in Rome, is similarly called Palazzo Magistrale. The Order possesses a small palace with a church at Foro di Augusto.
Villa Magistrale - Main hall which is decorated with portraits of the Grand Masters
Because of its long history the full name of the Order is Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St. John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta, but it is also known as SMOM - Sovereign Military Order of Malta, which appears on stamps and coins issued by the Order (it opens in another window).
View from Villa Magistrale: in the foreground Ospizio di S. Michele
You may wish to see a page on the funeral of Andrew Willoughby Ninian Bertie, 78th Grand Master of the Knights of Malta, which took place in 2008 at S. Sabina.
(left) Façade; (centre) interior; (right) bell tower
The church is adjoined by a series of large buildings which house Collegio Benedettino Internazionale and the residence of the Abbot Primate of the Benedictine Order, the head of a "Confederation" of Benedictine communities established in 1883 by Pope Leo XIII. The complex was built in 1892-896 in a pseudo-Lombard-Romanesque style. Its bell tower enjoys a commanding view over modern Testaccio.
Excerpts from Giuseppe Vasi 1761 Itinerary related to this page:
Ecco che inavvedutamente ci troviamo sull' alto del monte Aventino, uno de' sette
colli, aggiunto a Roma da Anco Marzio. Prese, secondo alcuni, il suo nome da Aventino
Re di Alba quivi sepolto, o secondo altri ab avibus, che in esso Remo ebbe di augurio;
o pure ab adventu; perchè dal Lazio i popoli solevano quì concorrere all'accennare
tempio di Diana atto da Servio Tullio. Vi abitò il Re Italo, e vi ebbe poi la casa
Vitellio Imperatore, e tanti altri soggetti principali della Repubblica.