In the XVIIIth century the churches on the Aventine Hill were very remote from the more densely populated parts of
Rome. 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). In 1848 things had not changed much as noted by Anna Brownell Jameson in Christian art and Symbolism: For myself, I must say that I know nothing to compare with a
pilgrimage among the antique churches scattered over the Esquiline, the
Coelian, and the Aventine Hills. They stand apart, each in its solitude,
amid gardens, and vineyards, and heaps of nameless ruins; here a
group of cypresses, there a lofty pine or solitary palm.
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 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 past.
The Aventine, which is perhaps the highest, and now - from its coronet of convents - the most picturesque of all the Roman hills, is of irregular form, and is divided into two parts by a valley; one side, the higher, is crowned by the churches of Sta. Sabina, S. Alessio, and the Priorato, which together form "the Capitol of the Aventine;" the other, known as the Pseudo-Aventine, is marked by the churches of S. Sabba and Sta. Balbina. (..) The present interest of the hill is almost wholly ecclesiastical, and centres around the story of St. Dominic, and the legends of the saints and martyrs connected with its different churches.
Augustus J. C. Hare - Walks in Rome - 1875.
The "Capitol of the Aventine" was shown by Vasi in another plate and in more detail by Caspar Van Wittel in a view of from the river bank.
(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
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).
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 of the VIth century at S. Clemente they show a lower workmanship.
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.
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)
In 1914-1919 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
I saw Saint Sabina upon Mount
Aventine (in which they shew a stone cast by the Divell
at the head of Saint Dominicke, and broken by miracle).
Fynes Moryson - An Itinerary: Containing His Ten Years Travel Through .. Italy (in 1594)
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)
Hard by upon the same hill, stands St. Sabina, whither the Pope comes upon Ash-Wednesday in a Solemn Cavalcata, accompanied
with the Cardinals.
Richard Lassels' The Voyage of Italy, or a Compleat Journey through Italy in ca 1668
The quiet of S. Sabina was disrupted only on Ash Wednesday when the Pope led a grand procession from Palazzo del Quirinale in remembrance of a similar procession led by Pope Gregory the Great. The procession continues to take place and it is led by the Pope, but is very short as it starts at S. Anselmo.
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's 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; he and his elder brother Taddeo were involved in the decoration of many churches and palaces; he began his career by helping his brother in the frescoes of Palazzo Farnese at Caprarola; he lived in an interesting small palace he designed himself
Before the end of the century four principal tendencies may be differentiated in Rome. (..) There was first the facile, decorative manner of the arch-Mannerist Federigo
Zuccari, who combined in his art elements from the latest Raphael and from
Tuscan and Flemish Mannerism with impressions which had come to him from Veronese
and the Venetians. He was the truly international artist of the fin de siécle, constantly
travelling from court to court, Olympian in demeanour, prone to esoteric intellectual
speculations, superficial and quick in his production.
Rudolf Wittkower - Art and Architecture in Italy 1600-1750 - Penguin Books 1958
(above) Ancient reliefs in a small antiquarium at S. Sabina: (below) Renaissance lintel reused on a modern building near the church; the inscription "Omnium rerum vicissitudo est" says that all things are bound to experience changes/difficulties; similar moral sentences can be seen in other Renaissance houses, e.g. at that of Teodoro Amayden
Excavations under the church and the monastery have found evidence of several Roman walls which belonged to temples, baths and villas. Some of the ancient structures are clearly visible from the river bank.
(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 Pope left the
field to St. Dominic, to whom he made over the land on
this side of the hill. Henceforward the convent of Sta.
Sabina and its surroundings have become, more than any
other spot, connected with the history of the Dominican
Order; (..) there St. Dominic was ordered to plant the
famous orange-tree, which, being then unknown in Rome,
he brought from his native Spain as the only present which
it was suitable for the gratitude of a poor monk to offer
to his patron Honorius, who was himself one of the great
botanists of his time. Hare
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 brought 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 and the fine fountain at its entrance.
(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 (an account similar to that of St. John Kalybite). It is remarkable that today many weddings take place in this church which is dedicated to a man who was shy of marrying.
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 has been so much modernised as to retain no appearance of antiquity Hare
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. Similar to what occurred 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
I went to St. Alexius his
Church, where I saw the wooden Stairs, under which this Saint lodged for seventeen years in
his own Fathers House (after fifteen years absence) without being known to any Body, till
after his death. The body of this Saint lies under
the high Altar, together with that of St. Bonifacius the Martyr. Lassels
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.
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.
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. You may wish to see the Monument to Eleonora Boncompagni Borghese designed by Giovanni Battista Contini which was moved to this church from S. Lucia dei Ginnasi.
Cloister which houses a number of gravestones which were inside the church
The cloister of the convent, from which ladies are
excluded, blooms with orange and lemon trees. There
are only six Hieronymite brethren here now. Hare
Today the monastery houses a small comunity of Somaschi Fathers who follow the rule of St. Augustine.
Romanesque bell tower soon after sunrise in winter
One characteristic and beautiful feature of the Roman churches is the brick campanile. One finds these towers in all parts of the city. They date from the 12th century
for the most part. That of SS. Giovanni e Paolo on the
slope of the Celian hill is perhaps the most beautiful and from its setting it has a quaint picturesqueness. (..)
These campaniles are all built of dark brownish brick,
divided into many storeys by cornices of brick into which
are introduced little modillions or corbels of white marble
with a dentil course below them. The windows have two
lights grouped in pairs in the upper storeys, round arched,
with brick strings at the springing decorated with dentils.
Thomas Graham Jackson - Byzantine and Romanesque Art - 1920
Terrace with statue of St. John of Arc by Maxime Real del Sarte
A small terrace today separates S. Alessio from S. Sabina. They have placed there a small fountain from Borgo and a statue of Joan of Arc which was donated in 1935 by French sculptor Maxime Real del Sarte (1888-1954) to the City of Rome. It was placed in the terrace in 1954. The sculptor is known for several statues portraying Joan of Arc of which the most famous one shows the saint at the stake; that in Rome seems a copy.
Piazza dei Cavalieri di Malta with the modern church of S. Anselmo (left) and the
entrance to the Priory (right)
A short distance beyond S. Alessio is a sort of little
square, adorned with trophied memorials of the knights of
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. The church and the priory can be seen together from the river bank.
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.
(left) Entrance to the Priory; (right) view through the key-hole
Here is the famous View of St. Peter's through the Keyhole, admired by crowds of
The trees framing the view have a magnifying effect which goes away when one reaches the terrace at the end of the alley.
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 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 also 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). 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) Well and niche with an ancient bust; (centre) a decorated niche with another bust; (right) coats of arms of Orsini (above) and Aldobrandini (below) knights
Entering the garden we find ourselves in a beautiful avenue of old bay-trees framing the distant St. Peter's. A terrace overhanging the Tiber has an enchanting view over the river and town. In the garden is an old pepper- tree, and in a little court a picturesque palm-tree and well. Hare
View from Villa Magistrale: in the foreground Ospizio di S. Michele
(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 1892-1896 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.