S. Cecilia is the finest and best known church which Giuseppe Vasi depicted in his 1758 book of twenty etchings covering the nunneries of Rome. Because of its antiquity it could have been included in the third book of the series which showed the most ancient churches of Rome, but perhaps Vasi felt that it had been too modernized. As a matter of fact the Benedictine abbesses and nuns of S. Cecilia often belonged to the wealthiest Roman families and they could afford the restoration and embellishment of the church; in addition being the titular of S. Cecilia was regarded as a high honour by cardinals and they too supported improvements to the church.
The view is taken from the green dot in the 1748 small map below. In the description below the plate Vasi made reference to: 1) Part of the Monastery; 2) Vase which once stood at the centre of the courtyard. The map shows also: 3) Church of S. Cecilia; 4) Entrance to the courtyard; 5) Casa di Ettore Fieramosca.
The view in March 2008
In 1929 the ancient vase depicting a beautiful kantharos, an ancient drinking cup, was placed at the centre of the courtyard; this is the only change from Vasi's time, apart from a number of additional windows to allow nuns a more comfortable life. Those shown in the plate had panels which prevented them from seeing people in the courtyard and vice versa.
Early XVIIth century fresco inside the church. It portrays (left to to right): St. Cecilia, St. Stephen, Pope St. Urban I, St. Lawrence and St. Valerian. St. Stephen and St. Lawrence are not related to events of the life of St. Cecilia but are among the most popular saints in Rome
St. Cecilia is mentioned, from the primitive ages,
in the Canon of the Mass, and in the Sacramentaries and Calendars of the Church. She had consecrated her virginity to God from an early age; but
her parents obliged her to marry a nobleman, named Valerian, whom, with his brother Tiburtius, she converted to the Faith. The two brothers and an officer named Maximus first suffered martyrdom and
St. Cecilia shared their triumph a few days after, in
the pontificate of Urban I, A. D. 230 , under Alexander Severus.
Rev. Jeremiah Donovan - Rome Ancient and Modern - 1842
(left) Ancient columns of the portico; (centre) kantharos. This jar was a symbol of Dionysus; it was usually depicted in mosaics with a grapevine growing from it, as at Bagni di Erode Attico along Via Appia, but it eventually became a Christian symbol as at Bulla in Tunisia; (right-above) inscription found in 1900 stating an enlargement of "pomerium", the official boundary of the City of Rome, by Emperor Vespasian in 75 AD; (right-below) ancient funerary inscription on a wall of the courtyard
According to tradition the church was built by Pope Urban I on the site of Cecilia's house from which perhaps some its columns were taken. There are nine underground rooms below the current floor. Some of them are said to have housed events of the life of St. Cecilia, e.g. the heated bath where she was closed in a first attempt to kill her. Eventually an executioner was sent to behead her. Three stabs mortally wounded her throat, yet she did not die immediately.
In the early IXth century Pope Paschal I built an entirely new church above the previous one also because the level of the ground had risen owing to floods; notwithstanding the many changes which occurred in the following centuries, the building retains its original design, i.e. a basilica divided into three naves by rows of columns with a large apse at its end. The portico and the bell tower were built towards the end of the XIIth century and the interior was decorated with a Cosmati floor in the same period.
In 1724 Cardinal Francesco Acquaviva promoted a major renovation of the church by: a) modifying the fašade above the portico; b) removing the Cosmati pavement; c) changing the ceiling and d) adding an elaborate stucco decoration. In 1823 the ancient columns which separated the main nave from the two smaller ones were incorporated into pillars to strengthen the stability of the building. The overall result is harmonious, but the interior resembles the hall of a royal palace, rather than a site for prayer.
You may wish to see the church in a 1588 Guide to Rome.
Detail of th IXth century mosaic of the apse portraying Jesus Christ and (left to right) Pope Paschal I holding the model of the church and being introduced by St. Cecilia, St. Paul, St. Peter, St. Valerian and St. Agatha (to whom also the church is dedicated)
We owe to Pope Paschal I the mosaic decoration of the apses of two other churches: S. Maria in Domnica and S. Prassede where he decorated also a small chapel. The mosaic at S. Cecilia was partially demolished in the XVIIIth century; we know that it had side scenes similar to those at S. Prassede. You may wish to see a page covering this topic.
Canopy by Arnolfo di Cambio (other details can be seen in the historical section)
In 1293 Pope Nicholas IV embellished the church with a ciborium by Arnolfo di Cambio. It is similar, but it has a more refined decoration, than that which the sculptor/architect made for S. Paolo fuori le Mura in 1285. You may wish to see similar canopies at S. Maria in Cosmedin and S. Giovanni in Laterano.
Pietro Cavallini was the leading painter in Rome at the end of the XIIIth century. He worked by using both mosaics and frescoes. A large fresco by him on the rear fašade of S. Cecilia was partially damaged when in 1725 a choir for the nuns hid it from view. It can be seen by asking permission to the nuns, but they do not allow taking pictures of it.
Choir for the nuns
Other frescoes Cavallini made at S. Paolo fuori le Mura were destroyed by fire, but his mosaics at S. Maria in Trastevere testify to his talent.
The redesign of the interior of the church in 1724 led to the relocation of some of the gravestones and funerary monuments it housed. The Ponziani were an important family of Trastevere and they had their house near S. Cecilia.
Cardinal Paolo Emilio Sfondrati, nephew of Pope Gregory XIV, promoted a major restoration of the church in 1600 and on that occasion he ordered the opening of St. Cecilia's tomb. In 1606 he restored the ceiling of S. Agnese fuori le Mura.
Monument to Cardinal Adam of Easton
Several titular cardinals of S. Cecilia chose to be buried in the church and in some instances their tombs were not removed or destroyed: among them Cardinal Adam of Easton, a village near Norfolk; he had a pretty troubled life; he was made a cardinal by Pope Urban VI in 1381, but in 1385 he was arrested with five other cardinals and charged with plotting against the Pope; he was deprived of his title, but unlike his fellows he was not executed, because the Pope did not want to offend King Richard II; Cardinal Adam was restored to his role by Pope Boniface IX who assigned him S. Cecilia; in the meantime relations between Cardinal Adam and King Richard deteriorated and the Cardinal chose never to return to England; he ordered however that his funerary monument in S. Cecilia should be decorated with his king's coat of arms.
(above) Detail of the main altar; (below) statue of St. Cecilia (see a copy in the Brompton Oratory of London)
The devotion to St. Cecilia was greatly increased in the year 1600 when the embalmed body of Cecilia was found robed in gold tissue, with linen clothes steeped in blood at her feet, not lying upon the back, like a body in a tomb, but upon its right side, like a virgin in her bed, with her knees modestly drawn together, and offering the appearance of sleep. Pope Clement VIII and all the people of Rome rushed to look upon the saint, who was afterwards enclosed as she was found, in a shrine of cypress wood cased in silver.
Augustus J. C. Hare - Walks in Rome - 1875.
The opening of the tomb was attended by many witnesses including sculptor Stefano Maderno who portrayed the recumbent body of the saint as he saw it in a very evocative statue.
The bare throat shows the vain attempts of the executioner to sever Cecilia's head; she was left in agony and she passed away three days later.
The statue by Maderno became a pattern for similar representations of martyrdoms which can be seen in S. Sebastiano and in S. Anastasia; it was highly praised by Marquis de Sade, who described at length the marks on the neck of the saint and the posture of her hands in his Voyage en Italie.
Since then November 22, the Feast of St. Cecilia, was celebrated with great solemnity and a number of chapels (e.g. at S. Carlo ai Catinari) and works of art (e.g. at S. Nicola da Tolentino) were dedicated to her and to her patronage of music.
(above/middle) Details of the XIIth century mosaic above the portico; (below-left to right) St. Agatha, St. Cecilia and Pope St. Lucius I, whose relics are buried in the church
The association of St. Cecilia with music is due to a sentence in Passio Sanctae Ceciliae, a Vth century account of her life: in describing her wedding with Valerian, the text said: Cantantibus organis, Caecilia virgo in corde suo soli Domino decantabat (As the instruments were playing, the virgin Cecilia sang to the Lord in her heart). In the XVIth century, when the passage was adapted for use as an antiphon for Vespers and Lauds on Cecilia's Day the words in corde suo (in her heart) were dropped. This is the most likely explanation of why Cecilia became the patron saint of music and an organ became her symbol (the image used as background for this page shows it in the decoration of the church). Further studies on the text suggest that the original might have been Candentibus organis meaning: As the instruments (of torture) were being heated, a reference to Cecilia's martyrdom.
Detail from "Rest on the Flight to Egypt" by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio - 1596 (Galleria Doria Pamphilj). The painting shows the importance of music in Rome at the end of the XVIth century
In 1575 Pier Luigi da Palestrina composed Cantantibus Organis, a motet which eventually was included into a Mass by the same name. In 1585 The Congregation of Musicians under the invocation of the Blessed Virgin, Saint Gregory and Saint Cecilia was founded. Today it is known as Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia and it is the major musical institution of Rome.
It would take pages to describe the decorations of this church, which was packed with people. One could not see a stone of the structure. The columns were covered with red velvet wound around with ribbons of gold lace, the capitals with embroidered velvet conforming more or less to their shape - so too, with the cornices and pillars. All the intervening wall space was clothed in brightly coloured hangings, so that the whole church seemed to be one enormous mosaic. More than two hundred candles were burning behind and at the sides of the high altar, so that one whole wall was lined with candles, and the nave was fully illuminated. Facing the high altar, two stands, also covered with velvet had been erected under the organ loft. The singers stood on one: the orchestra, which never stopped playing, on the other. Just as there are concertos for violins or other instruments, here they perform concertos for voices: one voice - the soprano for instance - predominates and sings a solo while, from time to time, the choir joins in and accompanies it always supported, of course, by the full orchestra. The effect is wonderful.
J. W. Goethe - Italian Journey - November 22, 1786 - Translation by W. H. Auden and Elizabeth Mayer - Collins 1962.
(left) 1742 entrance; (right) coat of arms of Cardinal Troiano Acquaviva (putti by Agostino Corsini)
In 1742 Cardinal Troiano Acquaviva, a relative of Cardinal Francesco Acquaviva, built a new entrance (perhaps designed by Ferdinando Fuga) to the courtyard of S. Cecilia.
Cardinal Acquaviva did not hesitate to place a gigantic coat of arms above the entrance; as a matter of fact he was a very influential cardinal who was also the Ambassador of Spain to the Papal State; in this role during the 1740 conclave he vetoed the appointment of Cardinal Pier Marcellino Corradini, thus paving the way to the election of Pope Benedict XIV. Another titular cardinal of S. Cecilia, Cardinal Mariano Rampolla del Tindaro, was involved in a veto during a conclave: in 1903 Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria vetoed his appointment to succeed Pope Leo XIII to whom Cardinal Rampolla had been the Secretary of State for fifteen years.
Casa di Ettore Fieramosca
This part of Trastevere was heavily populated in the Middle Ages when the ancient river harbour of Rome was moved here. During the Renaissance and the following centuries the area lost its importance and this explains why it retains so many medieval houses. A fine example of a medieval fortified house stands opposite S. Cecilia. It is named after Ettore Fieramosca, a nobleman from Capua, who in 1503 led a team of 13 Italian knights against a similar French team in a tournament in Barletta (near Bari). The building is dated XIIIth century and it had a small porch supported by ancient columns. According to tradition Fieramosca lived there in 1512 when he was at the service of Fabrizio Colonna, Duke of Paliano.
A medieval house in Piazza dei Mercanti
The small houses and the stables close to the river are now charming trattorias.
Excerpts from Giuseppe Vasi 1761 Itinerary related to this page:
Quivi nella propria casa sofferse per tre giorni il martirio la s. Verginella, la quale prima di morire,
venendo visitata da s. Urbano Papa, lo preg˛, che dopo la di lei morte convertisse quel luogo in chiesa,
o per dir meglio in oratorio, come costumavasi in que' tempi. Ma poi essendosi nel Pontificato di
s. Pasquale I. ritrovato nel cimiterio di s. Calisto il corpo della santa Titolare con quello di s. Valeriano
suo sposo, e di s. Tiburzio suo cognato, nell'anno 821. vi fu fatta una magnifica chiesa nella forma, che
ancor si vede, ed in essa con solenne festa furono trasportati quei santi Corpi. Per lungo tempo stettero
nel monastero i monaci Umiliati; ma essendo questi soppressi, da Clemente VIII. fu conceduto il
monastero, e la chiesa alle monache di s. Benedetto. Il Card. Paolo Emilio Sfondrati, essendone titolare,
orn˛ la confessione, o vogliamo dire altare maggiore, con quattro preziose colonne di marmo bianco e
nero antico, e varj ornamenti di pietre orientali, di metallo e d'argento. Sotto l'altare si vede la statua della
Santa a giacere scolpita in candido marmo da Stefano Maderno nell'atto, come fu trovato il suo corpo;
l'immagine per˛ della ss. Vergine in un tondino fu dipinta da Annibale Caracci. Accanto alla sagrestia, si
conserva ancora la stanza, ove la santa Vergine nel bagno fu ferita a morte, e vi sono delle pitture a
fresco credute di Guido Reni, e de' paesi del Brilli. Dopo il deposito del Cardinal Sfondrati colle statue
fatte da Carlo Maderno, segue la cappella delle reliquie, la quale per essere molto ricca e nobile, resta
nella clausura, e per˛ dalle monache si scopre per favore. Il quadro di s. Andrea, e la Maddalena, sono del
Baglioni, il quale dipinse il s. Pietro, e il s. Paolo, ed ancora il martirio di s. Agata; ma la flagellazione alla
colonna, e la santa Titolare nel sotterraneo, ove si custodiscono i sagri corpi, con molte altre reliquie,
sono del Cav. Vanni, e le pitture a fresco nella gran volta sono del Cav. Conca, dipinte nell' ultima
ristaurazione fatta dal Card. Francesco Acquaviva.