San Paolo alle Tre Fontane is a 16th century pilgrimage and titular church at the Abbey of Tre Fontane, the legendary site of the martyrdom of St Paul the Apostle. The abbey complex is at Via Acque Salvie 1, a dead-end street off the Via Laurentina in the Ardeatino quarter, but the Diocese gives the postal address as Via Laurentina 473. Pictures of the church at Wikimedia Commons are here. There is an English Wikipedia page here

The dedication is to St Paul the Apostle



The background history of the Abbey of Tre Fontane is to be found in the Wiki page on the abbey church, Santi Vincenzo e Anastasio alle Tre Fontane.


The martyrdom of St Paul is mentioned by St Ignatius of Antioch, and later by Eusebius of Caesarea who added the detail that it occurred in the reign of the emperor Nero. The actual year is unknown, although AD 67 is usually quoted. The tradition that he was beheaded with a sword was deduced from his status as a Roman citizen, as this was the chosen method of executing malefactors of that class at the time.

The basilica of San Paolo fuori le Mura has been venerated as the site of his burial since very early times, and it seems that this was the site of his martyrdom, too.

The legend of his martyrdom at Tre Fontane does not occur before the 6th century, and there is a suspicion that it was invented to raise the prestige of an already existing monastery here. The locality is near the third milestone from the city on the ancient Via Laurentina, and this seems too far to have taken a condemned prisoner for execution. This wouldn't have mattered to St Paul, but it would have done to the soldiers doing the job.

The developed legend describes how when St Paul was decapitated, his head bounced three times and springs miraculously sprang up where it touched the ground in the process. Further, his neck didn't spurt blood but milk (a bizarre and very interesting detail, as it hints at a heretical source for the legend). Then his body was carried some distance back to the site of San Paolo fuori le Mura for burial, and the church here was founded on the site of the martyrdom.

Ancient timesEdit

These springs are referred to in modern published sources as having been the Aquae Salviae in ancient times. If so, could somebody give a reference to its use in any Classical source? The first documentary reference seems to be in a description of landholdings by Pope Gregory the Great, at the end of the 6th century (no monastery is mentioned).

There was something important around here in ancient times, however, because a road surface belonging to a branch of the Via Laurentina has been traced near the abbey entrance (the Arco di Carlo Magno). In the mid 19th century a track paved with polygonal basalt blocks was found leading to the present church, which you can see in the present avenue. The blocks might have been reused when the Christian sanctuary was established, but it is morally certain that the ancient Romans did something with the springs. It is a pity that the archaeological record of the whole site is so poor.

Another name preserved for the locality is Ager Herodis, and the surmise arising from this is that King Herod Agrippa II had a villa here in Nero's reign.

An excavation carried out next to the church in 1878 (and very badly published) reported the finding of some ancient stone-pine cones, three pine logs and some coins from the reign of Nero. This is interesting because the received legend mentions a grove of stone-pine trees at the site of the apostle's death. 

Foundation of churchEdit

A rather dubious mediaeval source places the foundation of the monastery in the mid 6th century, but the earliest documentation in the Liber Pontificalis records that Pope Honorius I built a monastery here in 625, and staffed it with Byzantine-rite Greek monks. No good historical evidence exists for a church here earlier than this.

The first monastery was on the site of the present one, and it is thought that the main church was at the sanctuary end of the abbey church of Santi Vincenzo e Anastasio alle Tre Fontane. However, back then it was dedicated to St Paul. 

An original source, the Libellus of Anastasius the Disciple 628, mentions "George, a priest of the monastery of Cilicia on the Aquae Salviae". This indicates that the original foundation was by monks from Cilicia in what is now south-eastern Turkey. This country contained Tarsus, the birthplace of St Paul, and this might have been the original connection with the cult of the apostle and the abbey church's original dedication.

Original shrineEdit

Before the 16th century rebuilding, the layout here was not actually a church but was a devotional shrine focusing on the springs -a sort of Christian nymphaeum, as it were. 

A restoration in 1867 revealed features of the original layout. The site was on three levels, corresponding to the three springs issuing from a slope in the ground, with paving in white marble slabs. The lowest level was entered though a gateway of which a pair of column bases were found. A floor in opus sectile work was also found, in polychrome marble with purple porphyry and green serpentine inclusions. This plausibly belonged to a chapel, and is now at the entrance of the present church. 

Also found were fragments of marble plutei, and epigraphs mentioning St Paul as well as Pope Sergius I (688-9). These were interpreted as recording a restoration of the complex by the pope. A published fragment reads: Ac palma posita est temporib[us] Sergii Papa[e], annu secundu [sic]. This is the year 689.

An Armenian graffito was found dating to 1267, evidence that pilgrims from the Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia were visiting here. It basically said "Remember Stephen".

A description by Onofrio Panvinio survives from the 16th century, mentioning a gateway with a vestibule, three terraces with a spring of water in each and three chapels or oratories "one more beautiful than the other two". Andrea Bacci in his De Thermis of 1563 reported that the waters of the springs were "thick, smoky and somewhat warm" (crassae, fumosae et cum aliquali tepore).


The present church was begun in 1599 on the orders of Cardinal Pietro Aldobrandini, and completed two years later. The architect was Giacomo della Porta, and if you compare this church with Santa Maria della Scala (completed just beforehand by the same architect), you can see the similarity in style. 

It has functioned as a pilgrimage church ever since. There was a major restoration in 1867, after the monastery had fallen into decay and in the year before the Trappists arrived.

The church is now adminstered by diocesan clergy, and the brethren at the monastery are not in charge.

Loss of springsEdit

The water table fell owing to urban development, and the springs dried up in 1950. They were then maintained by pumping, but apparently the water is now polluted and dangerous to drink. This seems to be why they are now left dry. You could not drink the water in the church, but some was piped down to an outlet in the monastery courtyard where visitors could drink it.


Mauro Piacenza was appointed cardinal-deacon of the church in 2010, the first time that any one of the churches at Tre Fontane has been titular.


Layout and planEdit

First impressions of the layout can be misleading, because the façade is actually on the left hand side of the church. The major axis follows the slope of the hill from which the springs used to flow, which is from your right to your left as you face the façade.

The façade fronts an entrance vestibule. The nave of the church is rectangular, with an apse at each end. One of these contains the high altar (to the left as you enter), the other is a side chapel.

The fabric is in pink brick, with architectural details in travertine limestone. Away from the entrance frontage, the exterior walls are rendered in white. The roof is tiled and gabled, but unusually the ridge is transverse to the church's major axis.


The brick of the façade is left bare.

The entrance frontage amounts to a propylaeum, with two pairs of brick Ionic pilasters having

Tre Fontane -Paolo

swagged capitals. If you look closely, you will see that each capital has a star on top (one has fallen off). This comes from the coat-of-arms of the Aldobrandini family.

The pilasters support an entablature, and a triangular pediment having modillions (small brackets). On the frieze is an inscription extolling Cardinal Aldobrandini: Petrus diac[onus] car[dinalis] Aldobrandinus S[anctae] R[omanae] E[cclesiae] Camer[arius] f[ecit]. 

The doorway has a molded marble doorcase, and over this is a raised segmental pediment above the date MDIC (1599). The posts supporting the pediment also have stars. Above this pediment is an ornate plaque with curlucues, swags and a putto's head, which reads: S[ancti] Pauli Apostoli martyrii locus, ubi tres fontes mirabiliter eruperunt ("The place of the martyrdom of St Paul the Apostle, where three springs miraculously broke out"). 

On pedestals at the ends of the pediment are two statues, of SS Peter and Paul by Ippolito Buzio 1599.

Above the propylaeum, the roof gable is concealed by a segmental pediment with modillions, set on a plinth. There is a recessed screen wall to either side, edged by a pair of gigantic double volutes.



There is a vestibule between the entrance and the nave of the church. This has a repaired 7th century (?) polychrome marble floor, in opus sectile work, which was discovered in 1867.

Here are two relief sculptures of SS Peter and Paul, commissioned by Pope Pius IX for the 1867 restoration. One was for the alleged 18th centenary St Paul's martyrdom (AD 67), the other to celebrate the defeat of Garibaldi by Papal troops at the Battle of Mentana in the year of the restoration (rather sad, as the papal government was to be overthrown only three years later).

On the counterfaçade above the entrance is a lunette fresco showing the apostle's body being taken to San Paolo fuori le Mura. The tablet below this records the rebuilding by Cardinal Aldobrandini.

The stained glass windows above the relief sculptures, and elsewhere in the church, are from the 1867 restoration.


San Paolo e le Tre Fontane

The nave is a transverse rectangle, with a ceiling vault entablature supported by blind pilasters coupled at the top and revetted in grey-streaked marble. 

In the centre of the floor is an ancient mosaic, installed in 1867 and apparently looted from the ruins of Ostia Antica. The original location is described as a "mithraeum near the imperial palace", which would be somewhere in the north-west quadrant of the city. The work is 2nd century, and depicts allegories of the Four Seasons.

In the far right hand corner of the nave, coming from the entrance, is a broken marble column enclosed in an ironwork screen. St Paul was allegedly tied to this before being beheaded, but this seems to be a late detail added to the legend and the item is probably just a piece of spolia taken from (unknown) Roman ruins nearby.


Facing the entrance are three aedicules over the original three springs. The design is identical and they are on the same level, but if you look into them you will see that the original springs get lower, right to left. This is because the present church was built on a platform levelled out over the original sloping ground level.

Each spring aedicule has a pair of Corinthian columns on high piers, in black and white marble, supporting an entablature with a red marble frieze and a cornice with modillions. Over this is a segmental pediment with a yellow marble tympanum and more modillions in the curve. The aedicule encloses an apsidal niche panelled in yellow, black and white marble and which has a large scallop shell in its conch. In between the column piers is a screen with its own segmental pediment and containing a grated aperture.

Over the two aedicules to left and right are two stained glass windows, but the central aedicule has an apse behind it with two small rectangular windows in its curving wall. The conch of this apse has a fresco depicting The Apotheosis of St Paul, with the apostle being presented to the Trinity by St Stephen. On the wall behind the aedicule is another fresco depicting The Martyrdom of St Paul. 

In the lunette above the apse is St Paul Before Porcius Festus, over a tag saying Civis Romanus Sum. St Paul used his status as a Roman citizen to appeal to the emperor, which is why he was taken to Rome.

Each aedicule used to have a relief of the head of St Paul by Nicolas Cordier, but these have been stolen.

The sound of the gurgling of the spring water used to fill the church, before the water was turned off recently.


The church has two altars, in apses facing each other. The aedicules have very similar designs, and are agaist the apse walls. Each has a pair of Corinthian columns in pink and white marble, supporting an entabature and a slightly oversized segmental pediment. The frieze of the entablature is in the same marble, and this entablature is extended along the curve of the apse wall on each side. 

The altarpieces are within molded round-headed frames, with a pair of Aldobrandini stars in the spandrels. The altar of St Peter has a copy of The Martyrdom of St Peter by Guido Reni (the orginal is in the Vatican galleries), and that of St Paul has The Martyrdom of St Paul by Bartolomeo Passarotti.


The church is open, according to the abbey's website (July 2018):

Daily 8:30 to 12:30, 15:00 to 19:00. 


Mass is celebrated (abbey's website, July 2018):

11:30 on Sundays, also 17:00 on Saturdays (for Sunday).

External linksEdit

Official diocesan web-page

Italian Wikipedia page

Web-page on abbey website (site is being remodelled, link may change)

Community content is available under CC-BY-SA unless otherwise noted.