Sant'Ambrogio della Massima is a 17th century monastic church near the Fontana delle Tartarughe, but is not easy to find. The postal address is Via di Sant'Ambrogio 3, in the rione Sant'Angelo. Pictures of the church on Wikimedia Commons are here. There is an English Wikipedia article here.
The dedication is to St Ambrose, the 4th century Archbishop of Milan.
According to the tradition, the monastery and church had their origins in a house occupied by St Marcellina, the older sister of St Ambrose, which was transformed by her into a convent in 353. It had been owned by their father. According to the same foundation legend, after the Council of Ephesus in 432 the convent church was dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary in response to her being declared "Mother of God" at that assembly.
However, the church is on the site of an ancient temple of Hercules and the Muses, mentioned by Strabo as having built in 187 BC and rebuilt in 179 by one Marcus Fulvius Nobilior. This edifice was part of the imperial triumphal processional route which was in use until the late 5th century at least, and hence it is not thought that the building was ruined before that time. The tradition is very dubious.
The first documentary reference is in the Liber Pontificalis of 803, which mentions a donation to the Monasterium Sanctae Mariae, nomine Ambrosii or "The monastery of St Mary, called 'of Ambrose'". This has been claimed as circumstantial support for the tradition, but the problem here is that the reference could be to anyone named Ambrose. He was probably involved with the foundation, which was probably not much earlier than the reference.
The oldest parts of the monastery fabric are about a century later than this, being the remnants of a tower which looks as if it is of the end of the 9th century. In the church itself, the south transept wall has recently been found to include ancient Roman fabric which was probably part of the temple. The cella of the temple has been located beneath the church.
In the 9th or 12th century or both - sources are unclear at this point - the church was rebuilt or substantially restored. The latter period is likely, as a Cosmatesque floor was provided then and its signature is on record: Jacobus fecit hoc opus. He was one of the Cosmati family. A 14th century drawing survives of this floor. Also, the vestibule leading from the monastery into the church shows evidence of work of this period.
The Catalogue of Turin of 1320 lists a Monasterium Sanctae Mariae de Maxima, which is almost certainly this convent. The name Maxima is puzzling; it literally means "The greatest thing of the feminine gender" in Latin, and there have been guesses as to what this could be. One candidate is the Cloaca Maxima, although this is some distance to the south. Alternatively, there is evidence that a late name for the Porticus Octavia was the Porticus Maxima and this seem to be the most likely origin.
In the 14th century the number of nuns was listed as twelve.
At the end of the 14th century, there are references to Sancta Maria de Maxima or Sancta Maria in Formosa, and also to Santo Stefano de Maxima. It is unclear whether these were two churches, or one with two altars. If the former, the two were united around 1200 and rededicated to St Ambrose. The convent and church has had his name since then. In support of the latter theory is the recording of an inscription on an altar to St Stephen in the convent church, which read: Ad laudem Sancti Stephani Domina Lucia de Mancinis Sancti Ambrosii Abatissa fieri fecit MCDXI die prima Decembris. ("To the glory of St Stephen, Donna Lucy de Mancinis, Abbess of St Ambrose, made [this] to be done on the first day of December 1411").
The 16th century saw the rebuilding of the monastery and then the church. Firstly, the northern range of the convent, containing the monumental entrance hall, was rebuilt by Giacomo della Porta in 1578. Then the western range (the one to the right as you face the monastery entrance) was rebuilt in 1606, to specifications by Donna Beatrice de Torres who was a nun here. The work was paid for by her brother, Cardinal Ludovico de Torres.
Franciscan tertiary disasterEdit
For the scandal here in the 19th century, see Hubert Wolf: The Nuns of Sant'Ambrogio, Oxford 2015.
The Benedictine sisters were expelled by the French in 1810, and never returned. Instead, they joined the convent of Santa Maria in Campo Marzio. The convent remained empty for four years, and was then assigned to the dispossessed sisters of Sant'Eufemia. However, they also moved away and eventually settled at San Paolo Primo Eremita. The premises were then assigned to a new community of reformed Franciscan regular tertiary nuns, which had split from the convent of Santa Chiara and had its original home at a house in the Via Graziosa from 1804. Later these nuns were at Borgo Sant'Agata, from 1814.
The founding superior of this community, one Maria Agnese Firrao, was a malignant fraud who was pretending to have the Stigmata and who falsely boasted of having visions, ecstasies and apparitions in order to be venerated as a saint. She also founded a secular Third Order congregation for those laywomen whom she had fooled, but the Holy Office made an urgent investigation and condemned her as an impostor in 1816. She was deposed and imprisoned in a convent at Gubbio for life, under disgrace and penance. The notice of deposition was displayed publicly, including on the door of St Peter's, and also published in newspapers. Mentally disturbed and deluded consecrated religious have always been a feature of Church life, but the speed and severity of her punishment is an indication of the success that she was having in advertising her "holiness" despite being a psychological and sexual predator.
Unfortunately, the convent was not suppressed and disciples of this person were allowed to remain in positions of influence. Instead, Pope Leo XII granted the nuns the empty convent of Sant'Ambrogio in 1828, and approved their rule of life.
It has been claimed that the sisters were Poor Clares, but this is incorrect. If they were, they would have had to belong to a congregation and be subject to regular visitations (external checks of the standards being kept), but as regular tertiaries they could exist as a completely independent convent. This proved disastrous.
In 1858 Princess Katharina von Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen, a widowed member of the royal German house of Hohenzollern, entered as a novice, and discovered that the young deputy superior and novice mistress, one Maria Luisa Ridolfi, had taken complete psychological control of the community. She was beautiful and charismatic, but an utterly corrupt and vicious fraud, worse than the foundress. The evidence suggests that she was an atheist bisexual psychopath from an impoverished background, who had used convent life to satisfy a lust for power. The abbess and community had connived in her claim that she was in direct and regular contact with Christ and Our Lady, and had privately set up an altar to the now deceased Firrao. Ridolfi was being supported in promoting this irregular cult by the Jesuit confessors of the nuns, Giuseppe Leziroli and Joseph Kleutgen, the latter being a famous theologian who nevertheless became besotted with Ridolfi. The princess discovered that the latter was in breach of her vow of chastity by indulging in an obscene correspondence with an American (the situation was actually much worse than that, as this "nun" was having sex with the novices and with the father-confessors). She complained to Kleutgen, with the result that Ridolfi put her in seclusion and tried to poison her. However the princess had a cousin at the papal court whom she contacted, with the result that the nuns were forcibly dispersed, the convent suppressed and Kleutgen put under serious censure after he refused to recant. This was done in 1859.
The book The Nuns of Sant'Ambrogio gives further disgusting details of the psychological and sexual abuse indulged in by the nuns, and the priests associated with them, after that author was allowed to study the documentation of the case. It seems clear that this included several murders. Kleutgen, Leziroli and Ridolfi got off lightly, as their crimes merited capital punishment at the time. Ridolfi was imprisoned as insane until the fall of the papal government in 1870, when she was released and vanishes from history.
Meanwhile, the princess sponsored the foundation of Beuron Abbey in Germany.
So, the convent was empty again. However, in 1861 Pope Pius IX granted the premises to Abbot Pietro Casaretto, at the time the superior of the abbey of Santa Scolastica in Subiaco, who wished to set up a Missionary College at which Benedictine monks would be trained as overseas missionaries.
Casaretto was in the process of attempting to reform the Cassinese Congregation, comprising several Italian Benedictine monasteries mostly of ancient foundation. His efforts were resisted, and as a result those monasteries accepting his reform split away in 1867 under the title of Cassinese Congregation of the Primitive Observance. This was the beginning of the Subiaco Congregation of the Benedictines (the name was changed in 1959).
In 1862 the church façade, by Maderno, collapsed. The reason seems to have been that it was only temporary in the first place, as the church had originally been planned with an extra nave bay which was never built. The replacement façade was a very simple affair, to the extent that Casaretto seems to have been his own architect.
In 1863 he oversaw a major re-ordering of the church, changing the nuns' choir into a sacristy and providing a gallery over the present entrance. In the course of this work he ordered the moving and mutilation of the Bernini altar in the church, and also the disposal of important works of art. For this he has been seriously criticized. Art historians at the time were apparently horror-struck at what he had done.
This College as an institution lingered on here until 1883, although for the final decade it was moribund. In its lifetime it mainly provided a Roman education for English-speaking monks. Casaretto's dream of a major missionary congregation of Benedictine monks proved a romantic fantasy, although the idea was better realized by the St Ottilien congregation. Evidence of the outreach survives in the abbeys of New Norcia in Australia, begun before Casaretto, and in the abbey formerly at Ramsgate in England which has now moved to Blackheath (Surrey -it refers to itself as "Chilworth Abbey" after the nearby railway station).
In 1873 the property of the monastery was sequestered by the Italian government, which remains in possession of the freehold. At first the Benedictines were left only with the church and a few rooms adjacent, and the rest of the complex was used as a school. The Subiaco Congregation had its General Curia or central headquarters at the abbey of Subiaco, and only maintained this little convent as a residence of the "procurator" or representative to the Holy See. However, in 1946 the Congregation was able to lease back part of the main monastery as its Curia, which it remains.
There was a major restoration of the church at the start of the 1960's, after water penetration damaged the interior frescoes. The damage is still evident in places, and the frescoes of the dome were lost.
At present, the Curia occupies the north wing of the monastery and its east wing; the other two wings are occupied by secular tenants. One of these recently was the Rialto Sant'Ambrogio, a nightclub that was famous for innovative music but which is now defunct.
In 2013, the historically rival Cassinese and Subiaco Congregations of the Benedictines were "merged" as the Subiaco Cassinese Congregation. In practice, this was a takeover of the former by the latter and the Curia of the consolidated congregation remains here.
As at 2017, the monastic community was expecting to vacate the premises in the near future and return the leasehold to the city. However, in 2018 the project to move was abandoned and the Curia is staying put.
The entrance to the church is firstly through a Baroque gateway. This is a large rectangular portal set into a white rectangular wall, with the convent on the left and a domestic building on the right. The surrounding marble doorframe has its central portion sunk on all three sides, and the top is stepped in order to accommodate a dedicatory inscription. This is protected by a horizontal protruding cornice. It reads: Moniales hujus ecclesiae B[eatae] Virgini Mariae ac S[ancto] Ambrosio de Maxima dicatae Ordinis S[ancti] Benedicti liberalitate Olympiae de Torres Abbatissae erexerunt An[no] Dom[ini] MDCXXII ("The nuns of the Order of St Benedict of this church, dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary and St Ambrose of Massima by the liberality of Olympia de Torres, the Abbess, erected [this] in the year of [Our] Lord 1622").
Going through this gateway, if you find the modern and ugly iron gates open, you will find yourself in a small, narrow courtyard. The further entrance into the church courtyard is not the one straight ahead, but the one on the left.
The courtyard onto which the church façade faces is entirely secluded. It contains a very interesting 17th century fountain, built in the form of a Classic nymphaeum which is now rather crumbly. The basin of the fountain is an ancient Roman marble sarcophagus with rounded corners and panelled decoration.
Apart from the façade, the church fabric is otherwise almost entirely invisible from the ground. However, at the river end of the Via del Portico d'Ottavia you can see the lantern of the dome peeping over the houses of the Ghetto -look on the horizon just to the left of the portico while standing outside the church of Santa Maria della Pietà.
The church has a Latin cross plan, with a short nave, rectangular apse, two transepts and a low central dome. This dome is octagonal, with a windowless drum, a tiled roof in eight triangular pitches and a proportionately large lantern. This last is in the form of a circular temple, with eight arched windows and a little lead cupola.
The stump of the medieval tower attached to the church at its bottom left hand corner was altered by Maderno to form a campanile. He added a storey in white marble for the bells, which has a large arched soundhole on each face and is crowned by a dentillate cornice. On top of this storey is a rebus or visual pun on the name of the de Torres family; a little square tower in two storeys, the upper narrower than the lower. Torres means "towers". The resemblance to the Pharos of Alexandria may have been deliberate.
The 17th century façade collapsed in 1862, possibly as a result of errors of workmanship during the restoration then just started by Casaretto. It was rebuilt in 1863, and now has very little embellishment. The entrance portico has three open arches, and has a sloping tiled roof which is hipped on either side. The nave frontage has three arched windows, the central one of which is blind. There is a triangular pediment with a blank tympanum.
Layout and main fabricEdit
The interior has four nave side chapels, two on each side, which occupy large arched niches. There are no aisles.There is an altar in each of the transepts, and another one in the sacristy which is entered through the left transept on the far side of the altar there. Here also is the vestibule leading to the monastery, entered through a doorway on the near side.
The chapel arches are separated by gigantic Ionic pilasters with swagged capitals, which are rendered in white. They support an entablature which looks as if it is in coloured marble (if it is not stucco), with the architrave and dentillate cornice in grey-veined stone either side of the frieze in pink breccia . Above this is the ceiling, barrel-vaulted with lunette windows and rendered in white, without decoration.
The dome is now undecorated, although sources describe it as having had frescoes depicting the four Evangelists. Presumably the ingress of water destroyed them. It was built by Torriani, and the pendentives were painted by Francesco Cozza with allegories of the four Cardinal Virtues. Justice (with a sword) conquers Envy, Prudence (with a mirror) conquers Chance, Temperance (with a bow) conquers Sensuality and Fortitude (with a column) conquers Fear.There is a 19th century gallery at the west end of the nave, which was added by Casaretto and was intended as the choir for the college students. It has three open arches, separated by Doric columns and a balustrade.
Chapel of St JosephEdit
The following descriptions are clockwise, from the left hand side of the entrance.
The first chapel on the left is dedicated to St Joseph, and was not affected by the Casaretto restoration.
It has an anonymous early 19th century altarpiece showing St Joseph Enthroned with the Holy Child, and SS Clare and Ambrose. An angel is taking dictation from St Ambrose, and St Clare is holding a monstrance. She is wearing her choir mantle so that her rope girdle is not visible, and demonstrates the original Poor Clare tradition by having bare feet without sandals. She is gesticulating at what the angel is writing, which seems to be Te ergo quaesumus, tuis famulis subveni, quos Pretioso Sanguine redemisti. This altarpiece is flanked by a pair of Corinthian columns in dark green marble veined in white.
To the left of the altar is a fresco of St Gregory the Great with the dove of the Holy Spirit whispering into his ear, and to the right is St Dominic. Above the arch is St Benedict Trapped by a Storm at the Prayers of St Scholastica. The tradition is that they were siblings, and she managed to have a night-long conversation with her brother after praying for heavy rain in the evening, which prevented him leaving for his own monastery. The work belongs to the Casaretto restoration.
Chapel of Our Lady, Queen of MonksEdit
The second chapel on the left is dedicated to Our Lady. It was furnished in 1622, but the present icon was added in 1863 by Casaretto. There are problems with this painting. The tradition that he fostered is that it was the icon before which St Benedict prayed, and he allegedly found it "below ground level" during restoration work at San Benedetto in Piscinula in 1846. However, the icon enshrined at that church has an identical story attached to it, as witnessed by the stone tablet outside its chapel. An examination of the picture here seems to indicate that only the head of Our Lady above her nose is originally mediaeval, and that the rest is 19th century painting. In other words, it is a pious fraud. The position of Our Lady's left hand, holding the Christ Child, is anatomically impossible. It is on record that Casaretto did not find the original fragment, but purchased it.
The polychrome marble decoration of this chapel is again rich. Fresco panels on either side and above the altar depict scenes from the life of Our Lady, and are by Giuseppe Cesari (nicknamed the Cavalier d'Arpino). Especially fine is the Annunciation above the arch. Unfortunately, the frescoes especially to the left have been damaged by damp.
The left transept has another spectacular Baroque altar, dedicated to St Maurus and with a fantastically curlicued and coved pediment. It came originally from Genoa, and was installed here by Casaretto when he converted the nuns' choir into a sacristy by installing the blocking wall in place of the enclosure grille. He had founded a monastery in that city, which is now defunct. The altarpiece shows the saint healing a cripple, and is by Ciro Ferri. The twin doorways on either side, with matching balustraded windows above, belong to the sacristy and were also installed by Casaretto. The small doorway in the left hand corner leads into the monastery vestibule.
Previously to Casaretto, the nuns in choir had a view through the grille and across the church crossing to the right transept.
The monastery is not actually adjacent to the church, so there is a vestibule and a rather complicated passage leading to it. On the wall of the former is a fresco of Our Lady and Child in the style of an icon, which looks mediaeval but is actually 17th century and has been repainted. The swirl of her bright blue mantle is effectively rendered. The curved top of the fresco was produced by pecking away the paintwork, again something apparently ordered by Casaretto.
Unfortunately, this fresco is reported as now being damaged by children of worshippers.
This used to be the choir of the Benedictine and Poor Clare nuns, but Casaretto turned it into the sacristy in 1863. The wall decoration is his, as is the balcony. As with many Roman churches, the sacristy here could function as a church in its own right as it has its own altar. Presumably when the weather was cold in winter, the monks could use this instead of the church.The altar is Baroque, and is by Bernini -one of his forgotten works. Unfortunately, Casaretto mutilated it when he moved it to here from its original location in the left transept. The reason why it was a finer artwork than the main altar was because this was the altar at which the nuns saw Mass from their choir.
It originally had a pair of Corinthian altar columns in red jasper, but Casaretto removed these for his new Chapel of St Marcellina and replaced them with the present Corinthian pilasters in French red marble which flank the altarpiece. The latter is an anonymous Crucifixion of the 17th century, a replacement for the original which was stolen.
Above the altarpiece is a separate representation of God the Father by Giovanni Francesco Romanelli, which is original to Bernini's design. Under the altar are enshrined the relics of a martyr called St Anatolia, as the inscription proclaims. The arms of the Colonna family are also in evidence.
Unfortunately, this altar has not being treated with respect and may be cluttered with liturgical paraphernalia. It is odd to see even a damaged work by Bernini being treated in this way.
The side walls of the sacristy are painted with trompe l'oeil frescoes giving the impression of windows matching those into the church, as well as of polychrome marble and stucco work. On the left is a depiction of St Benedict, and on the right is St Ambrose. The ceiling is a depiction of the empyrean, being a large blue roundel containing the dove of the Holy Spirit. Opposite the altar is the nuns' balcony, and above this is a representation of the Benedictine crest. This has a cross on three mountains, with the word PAX (peace) across it and above what looks like a cardinal's hat with tassels but in green. This is an abbot's hat.
The high altar was designed by Giovanni Maria Morandi, and has four black marble Ionic columns with sumptuously embellished capitals. The altar frontal itself, of alabaster and rare yellow and green marbles (giallo antico and verde antico) has a recess in its centre which displays what looks like a fragment of mediaeval Cosmatesque work. However, examination has shown that it is 19th century work.
Beneath the altar are the relics of St Polycarp, a very early Eastern martyr, and the inscription in Greek and Latin proclaiming this can be seen on the right side of the altar. It is thought that the relics came to Rome with the expatriate Byzantine community of nuns which settled at Santa Maria della Concezione in Campo Marzio in the 8th century. On the other hand, there is a suspicion that this martyr may be another Polycarp, one associated with St Sebastian.
This altar originally had an altarpiece by Ciro Ferri, depicting St Ambrose Healing an Infirm Man. However this also "went missing" at the start of the 19th century, and was replaced by a donation by Pope Pius VII which purported to show St Ambrose. However, Pope Paul VI visited the church in 1974, and the painting was cleaned in anticipation. It was discovered that it actually depicted Pope Pius V, and was by an 18th century Franciscan Capuchin named Fedele Tirrito. The subject made the painting unsuitable for the high altar of this church, so the pope donated a painting by Ambrogio Fumagalli depicting St Ambrose Reviving the Daughter of a Poor Man. This is now the altarpiece, and its modern style clashes somewhat with the Baroque ambience of most of the artworks of the church. Tirrito's work was moved to the adjacent monastery.
Above the main altarpiece is a smaller painting, an anonymous 16th century depiction of the Holy Family. It is not known who the fourth person in the composition is.
This altar was re-consecrated after the Casaretto restoration by Rosendo Salvado, missionary bishop and first abbot of the abbey of New Norcia in Australia.
The right transept altar is dedicated to the Crucifixion, and again is florid Baroque with putti sitting comfortably on two halves of a broken segmental pediment. The altarpiece is a copy of a Crucifixion by Francesco Trevisani to be found in San Silvestro in Capite, and is flanked by a pair of black marble Composite columns.
This altar was installed here by Casaretto to replace the Bernini altar that he moved into the sacristy, and apparently is also salvage from Genoa.
Chapel of St BenedictEdit
In the second chapel on the right is a statue of St Benedict by Orfeo Boselli, flanked by Corinthinan columns in yellow marble and with the altar frontal in red jasper.
This chapel used to be dedicated to St Stephen the Protomartyr, and was designed by Giovanni Battista Mola. The altarpiece depicting St Stephen was by Pietro da Cortona, and is now at the Hermitage Museum at St Petersburg. The re-ordering and re-dedication was by Casaretto in 1863, and the fresco work dates from this time.
Above the arch is a fresco showing St Peter Ordains St Stephen and His Six Companions.
Chapel of St MarcellinaEdit
This chapel was created by Casaretto, as before his restoration there was a side entrance from the street here. The polychrome stonework here has come from various sources. The Corinthian altar columns are in red jasper on either side of the altarpiece in a verde antico frame, and these was looted from the Bernini altar. The altarpiece itself is 19th century, and depicts St Marcellina Teaching Satyrus and Ambrose to Read. Satyrus was Ambrose's brother. It replaced the lost original, a Deposition from the Cross by Giovanni Francesco Romanelli. The polychrome marble altar frontal was taken from the abbey at Subiaco, and was mutilated by being cut to size before being installed here.
Above the arch is a 17th century work depicting The Holy Family Resting during the Flight to Egypt.
The monastery forms an irregular quadrilateral around a small garden courtyard, to the north-west of the church. Parts of the fabric are 9th century, although most is 16th and 17th century. The passage from the left hand transept ends up in the refectory or dining hall.In the refectory there is a fresco of the Deposition by Antoniazzo Romano, featuring Benedictine nuns bringing offerings. Also there is a painting by Baccio Ciarpi of The Death of St Benedict. This used to be the altarpiece of the little church of San Benedetto in Clausura, which was opposite San Carlo ai Catinari until demolished in the 17th century.
The monastery also has a 12th century crucifix, and Tirrito's former altarpiece featuring Pope Pius V.
There used to be shown a room in the 16th century part of the building, in which it was claimed that St Ambrose stayed. This was a rather outrageous pious fraud on the part of one of the resident monks in the 19th century, and was a garbled memory of a house chapel in the Benedictine nunnery. The latter also had a chapel to St Marcellina, which is what inspired Casaretto to provide one in the church to her.
The monastery may be visited by prior appointment only, which will only be granted if somebody on the staff has the time to attend. The same applies to the church on weekdays. Unfortunately, contact links are not now readily available since the congregation's website has been defunct for some time.
To get to the monastery, find the Fontana delle Tartarughe in the Piazza Mattei, and take the street at the south-east corner of the piazza. Immediately, straight ahead you will see a large green door. This is the main entrance to the monastery, which is usually kept locked. The usual way in is via the side entrance to the right, which has an entryphone.
To find the church, follow the street round to the right from the monastery entrance. It bends to the left, and straight ahead is a large gateway leading into a narrow courtyard. The church is through another gate in the wall on the left hand side of this, with its own little courtyard. You will not find this second gate open, except during a liturgy at the church.
The church is normally open only for Mass on Sundays (perhaps also on Saturday evenings), which is celebrated for a Nigerian expatriate group centred around the "Catholic Youth Organisation of Nigeria". The adjacent monastery normally does not use the church for services, except on special occasions.
The Nigerian Mass (in English) is at 12:00 (May 2019).
There is a solemn celebration on 7 December, the anniversary of the episcopal ordination of St Ambrose in 374. Other saints associated with the church have their feast-days as follows: Anatolia, 10 July. Benedict, 11 July. Marcellina, 17 July. Polycarp, 23 February. Satyrus, 17 September.
Poloromano.beneculturali web-page (unfortunately contains errors)