Santi Apostoli is an 15th century minor basilica, parish and titular church on ancient foundations, with a postal address is Piazza dei Santi Apostoli 51 in the rione Trevi, next to the Palazzo Colonna . Pictures of the church at Wikimedia Commons are here. There is an English Wikipedia page here.

The dedication of the church is to the Twelve Apostles, and the official name is Santi XII Apostoli. It is in the care of the Conventual Franciscans.


Basilica JuliaEdit

The first church on the site might have been founded in the time of Pope Julius I (337-352). in the Liber Pontificalis, he is described as erecting basilicam Iuliam quae est regione VIII iuxta forum divi Traiani ("the Julian Basilica which is in the eighth rione next to the forum of the divine Trajan").

In the past this has been taken to refer to a church on this site, but scholars have been sceptical for centuries. Especially nowadays, it is no longer generally held that all the ancient tituli were automatically replaced by later churches.


The first church we have certain knowledge about was founded by Pope Pelagius I (556-561). We know this because of a surviving inscription over the entrance door, which reads: Pelagius coepit, complevit Papa Ioannes, unum opus amborum par micat et praemium. ("Pelagius started it, Pope John finished it, one work of both of them, an equal reward shines.") As the inscription indicates, Pope Pelagius died while the church was still unfinished and It was completed by his successor John III (561-574), and dedicated to the Apostles St James the Less and St Philip.

The dedication supports a theory that the foundation was in commemoration of a final victory over the Ostrogoths and their expulsion from Italy by Narses, the army supreme commander and exarch of the Eastern Empire in Italy. The two apostles had a very popular cult in Constantinople at the time, and relics of the two apostles were brought from that city

Middle agesEdit

At the end of the 8th century, Pope Adrian I in a letter to Charlemagne mentioned that the church was richly decorated with mosaics. It is thought that it also had an atrium, the foundations of which may survive beneath the present piazza.

The church was restored by Pope Stephen VI (885-891). At the time the suburbs of the city were lawless and were prey to raiders, so many suburban churches and catacombs were abandoned. The relics of martyrs enshrined in them were collected and brought within the walls of the city to be re-enshrined. This was one of the churches which received a large collection of relics, notably those of SS Chrysanthus and Daria from the Catacomba di Trasone. The Catacomba di Aproniano on the Via Latina is known to have supplied relics, notably of SS Eugenia and Claudia.

In 1348 the church was severely damaged by an earthquake, and had to be abandoned. It was restored to use in 1417 by Pope Martin V whose family, the Colonnas, owned the surrounding area. The pope himself lived in a palace nearbly, possibly on the site of the present Palzzo Colonna. Afterwards the church was considered almost as the family chapel of the Colonna family, but in 1474 it was made a parish church and put in the care of the Franciscan Conventuals. This did not work in the long run; the church later passed into the care of a college of secular priests, and the parish lapsed. However, one of the Conventual Franciscan priest who served in this church in this period was Father Felix Peretti, later Pope Sixtus V (1585-90).

The two-storey entrance portico was rebuilt at the end of the 15th century by Baccio Pontelli under Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere, later Pope Julius II. The latter also built the palazzo which is now the convent, in the same building campaign.

The church was rededicated to all twelve of the Apostles in the 16th century.

At this time, the church was a typical aisled basilica with probably nine columns in each nave arcade. There was a main apse, but also apses at the ends of the transept in front of the presbyterium. In the main apse was an enormous fresco by Melozzo da Forlì, regarded as his masterpiece and painted in the 1470s. It showed the Ascension of Christ, and demonstrated the artist's grasp of the new technique of foreshortening. The main altar had a baldacchino with four porphyry columns, and there were twelve side chapels.


Pontelli's design for the portico was changed when Carlo Rainaldi walled up the arches on the upper level, inserted windows in the Baroque style and added the statues of Christ and the Apostles to the parapet around the year 1665.

A drastic new restoration took place under Pope Clement XI (1700-1721), carried out by a team of architects led by Carlo and Francesco Fontana . This amounted to a rebuilding; apart from the portico and the confessio or crypt in front of the high altar (then inaccessible), the entire edifice was demolished and rebuilt. The apse fresco by Melozzo was tragically removed in 1711 and divided into bits; the central figure of Christ was taken to the Quirinal Palace, portions ended up in the sacristy of St Peter's and others were used to decorate a chamber in the Pinacoteca Vaticana.

The twelve side-chapels were reduced to seven in the rebuilding. Other altars were later added when the crypt was dug out and refurbished in the 19th century.

The parish was re-established in the care of the Conventual Franciscans in 1745, and remains their responsibility. Their Generalate is adjacent to the church.

Modern timesEdit

The oddest event involving this church in modern times was probably when James Francis Edward Stuart (the "Old Pretender"), claimant to the throne of the United Kingdom as King James III, died in 1766. His body lay in state here for five days before his burial in St Peter's, with crown and sceptre and in royal robes.

The Franciscan Conventual Lorenzo Ganganelli was a priest here before he became Pope Clement XIV.

The present façade above the portico was designed by Giuseppe Valadier as part of a restoration in 1827. The nobleman who paid for it is commemorated in the inscription on the frieze, which reads: Iohannes Dux Torlonia frontem perfecit AD MDCCCXXVII.

Another restoration in 1873 dug out the ancient crypt, and decked it out to resemble an ancient catacomb -a solecism, as catacombs were never within the city walls by ancient Roman law. In this restoration, the ancient high altar of the crypt was discovered with the relics of the apostles Philip and James still in place.


By tradition, the cardinalate was founded by Pope Evaristus in the year 112 under the title of Sancti Philippi and Iacobi. This is very unlikely, as there is no such church among the ancient tituli. A priest called Epiphanius is listed as appointed in 494, and one called Agapitus or Rusticus (sources differ) died in 530. Pope John III established the title here in 555, and changed it to Santi XII Apostoli in 560.

The current titular of the church is Cardinal Angelo Scola, who was created cardinal on 21 October 2003.



The church has a short and wide nave with three bays, and an aisle on each side. The aisles are furnished as side chapels, three on each side, but there are no blocking walls between them. There is a long presbyterium, and an external apse which is three-sided on the outside. To the right of the apse is a large chapel in the form of a miniature basilica, and to the left is the sacristy.

The entrance loggia is at an angle to the major axis, making the left hand exterior wall longer than the right hand one. The space at the near end of the left hand aisle that this leaves is filled by the campanile.

Next to the church is the Palazzo Cardinalizio dei Santi XII Apostoli, finished in 1480 for the future Pope Julius II and still owned by the Holy See. It has served as the Franciscan convent, and escaped sequestration by the Italian government in the 19th century because the friars were there as tenants not as owners. It has two cloisters along the side of the church, the far one rectangular and the near one an irregular quadrilateral because the near building range follows the line of the church loggia. Beyond the far cloister is a third, the largest, and the range on the other side of it is on the Via della Pilotta.

On a piazza to the north-east of the church is the Pontifical Gregorian University, Rome's most famous Catholic university.


The exterior of the church, apart from the frontage, is invisible from the ground although you can get a glimpse of it from the top floors of the Gregorian University mentioned. The nave and presbyterium, architecturally treated as a single unit, are under a single steeply pitched and tiled roof which is lower than the false gable of the façade. The walls of the main nave have three large windows each, and the presbyterium has one on each side. The former have diagonal brick buttresses, six on each side with the middle four in pairs. The nave side chapels have little pepperpot cupolas.


As mentioned, the campanile is attached to the left hand side of the nave frontage, tucked into the near end of the left hand aisle. It has five storeys above the aisle roofline. The first is blank, while the following three have a large arched opening on each face. (If you think this is wrong for the side facing the façade -it's correct; the portion of the façade attached to the campanile is false, and the opening is hiding behind it.) The top storey has a round opening on each face, and the whole is topped by an ogee cupola in lead. The storeys are separated by slightly projecting fillets. The whole composition is painted to match the nave façade.


The façade is unusual, and makes the church look almost like a palace. In this it matches the two palazzi that are its neighbours; the Palazzo Colonna to the south, and the Palazzo dei Apostoli to the north. The three structures are conjoined.


In front of the actual church there is a 15th century Renaissance two-storeyed loggia with nine arches, attributed to Baccio Pontelli and financed by Cardinal della Rovere. The upper storey used to be open, comprising an extended verandah from which the Pope and other dignitaries could address the crowd and throw things. For another example of this, see San Marco. However, this upper storey was filled in with Baroque windows c. 1665 by Carlo Rainaldi. He also designed the balustrade, with statues of Christ and the Apostles. The bottom storey consists of nine large open arches, resembling an ancient aqueduct. The pillars are octagonal (actually, a square chamfered in cross-section), and have degenerate and derivative Composite capitals in a typical Renaissance style. The archivolts of the arches are triply ribbed, as is the architrave of the entablature separating the two storeys, which is not supported by the arches but by volute corbels.

The arches of the second storey match those below in size, but have triple mouldings with the outermost doubly ribbed. The wide piers between them are Doric, but include Ionic semi-columns which support the outermost moulding. The windows inserted by Rainaldi have balustrades, and each is in its own aedicule. This has a pair of Doric pilasters supporting a segmental pediment with a slight ogee curve and recessed within the pilaster capitals. The pediment contains a winged putto's head.

The central window of the nine is more elaborately decorated. The aedicule is slightly coved, the pilaster shafts are embellished with panels and rosettes and the capitals are doubled. The pediment here contains a putto's head with six wings -in other words, representing a seraph rather than an ordinary angel.

The second storey entablature is also supported by volute corbels. Unlike the one below, the cornice is supported by a row of small corbels. Above it is an open balustrade, interrupted by the plinths on which the thirteen statues stand.

Finally, the actual nave frontage was added by Valadier in a neo-Classical style in 1827. It is rendered in a pale orange, with architectural details in white. The four Corinthian pilasters support a slightly oversized entablature and pediment, with an inscription on the frieze and the cornice and pediment decorated with modillions (little stone brackets). The tympanum of the pediment is blank. The pediment itself is false, as there is nothing behind it (the roof of the nave only reaches the level of the cornice). Also false are the two screen walls either side that look like the ends of the aisles, as the aisle roofs are lower.

Contents of porticoEdit

The arches of the portico are protected by iron railings, so you cannot visit it when the church is shut. The portico itself contains several tomb slabs and other interesting bits from the mediaeval church, which are worth examining.

On the end wall to the right is a 2nd century AD Roman bas-relief depicting an eagle holding an oak-wreath tied with ribbon, and peering through it. It was found in the Forum of Trajan nearby, and donated by Giuliano della Rovere when he was cardinal under his uncle Pope Sixtus IV. (He later became pope himself, Julius II.) The relief is in the right hand side of the portico, and has an inscription added recording the donation: Tot ruinis servatam Iul[ianus] Car[dinalis] Sixti IIII Pont[ificis] nepos hic statuit ("Julian the cardinal, nephew of Pontifex Sixtus IV set [this] up here, saved from such ruins"). This relief has been enormously influential artistically, and was especially emulated by the Italian Fascists and the Nazis.

Below this bas-relief is a stone lion by Pietro Vassalletto, one of a family of sculptors active in Rome in the 12th century. The plinth it is on bears the ascription; unfortunately, the work itself has unfortunately been knocked about. The pair of lions in red marble flanking the doorway are of the same period; one of them is holding his lunch, a lamb. This pair used to support the pilasters of the church's entrance doorcase, and the column bases are visible on their backs. For another similar pair, see San Lorenzo in Lucina.

It is interesting to compare the two compositions. Vassalletto's lion does not look much like the real thing, but the anonymous red marble pair certainly do. It is more likely that the artist of the latter took an ancient sculpture of a lion as his model, rather than ever having seen one himself.

The fragments of marble transennae or screen-slabs were probably from the mediaeval schola cantorum, and recall those at Santa Sabina and Santa Maria in Trastevere.

To the left of the entrance is a neo-Classical memorial of 1807 to the engraver Giovanni Volpato, executed by Antonio Canova. A young woman is depicted sitting in front of a bust of the deceased, crying and wiping her eyes on her dress. She is an allegory for "Friendship in Mourning".

Other tombstones to note are a floor effigy of Gabriele Garra, a relative of Pope Sixtus IV, a much damaged tombstone of the 15th century and another of 1506 of a friar stated to have been from Bagnacavallo (the rest of his name is worn away). On the wall is a 15th century full-face depiction of a young man of the Colonna family (note the emblematic columns above him), flanked by a pair of cupids with downturned torches. The interesting this about this is the lack of an inscription, which leads to the speculation that the owner died in disgrace. A tentative identification with Lorenzo Oddone Colonna has been made, who was beheaded for opposing papal authority in 1484.

The tondi on the wall are by Luigi Roveri, and show several saints the majority of whom are Franciscan. They are: Joseph of Cupertino, Bonaventure, Francis of Assisi, Clare, Blessed Duns Scotus and Louis of France.


The Palazzo dei Apostoli can be entered at No. 51, the entrance of which is immediately to the right of the church portico. It has a Renaissance portal, with a pair of Doric columns supporting a cornice on inverted plinths. Behind the columns are doubletted pilasters in the same style, and the entrance itself has an arched doorcase. You will find the parish office through here. Note the stumpy tower on the street corner. Towers used to be very fashionable among the Roman nobility a century before this one was built, but were very quickly going out of fashion by the late 15th century.

The palazzo is sometimes called the Palazzo della Rovere, after the cardinal who built it. You may notice the carved emblem of the family on the walls, an oak tree.

There is a wall monument to Michelangelo in the second cloister, since he was buried here for a time in 1564 before his body was taken home to Florence. In the first cloister is a bas-relief of the Nativity by the school of Arnolfo di Cambio, and an early Christian sarcophagus. You will also find a double inscription in Latin and Greek, which was dictated by Basilios Cardinal Bessarion (1403-1472) for his tomb.



The wide and spacious but rather gloomy late Baroque interior was designed by Carlo and Francesco Fontana, and completed in 1714. It is impressive, and richly decorated in a basic colour scheme of white and gold. It is better to visit on a bright day, so as to be able to see the artworks better.

The nave has three domed chapels on each side, and there is another to the right of the apse. The sacristy occupies the corresponding position on the left. In front of the main altar you will see the entrance to the confessio or crypt, which contains another altar.

Tucked behind the third nave chapel on the right is the Cappella Bessarione, the funerary chapel of Cardinal Bessarion which was finally opened regularly to the public in 2010 after being lost to view for almost two hundred years. There is an admission charge (2011: Four euros.)


The 18m wide nave has six massive arcade piers, three on each side. Each has a pair of ribbed Corinthian pilasters supporting the entablature over the arcade, and the cornice of the latter has modillions (little brackets). This is all Classically correct, according to the requirements of the Corinthian order. The intradoses of the arches of the arcades have rich stucco decoration and are supported by Composite pilasters, a pair of each side, which look like red marble but may be scagliola.

The nave ceiling is barrel-vaulted, with lunette windows inserted. The fresco in the top of vault is by Giovan Battista Gaulli, nicknamed Baciccia. It was painted in 1707, only two years before he died and, although impressive, cannot be ranked with his earlier work at the Gesù. It depicts the Triumph of the Order of St Francis. The frescoes of the Evangelists and Angels were added in the 19th century by Luigi Fontana. The use of perspective is very good, and the angels appear to come out of the vault.

On the second pier of the nave on the right-hand side is the burial place of the heart of Maria Clementina Sobieska, wife of James Francis Edward Stuart (better known as the "Old Pretender"). Her actual tomb is at San Pietro in Vaticano. Her monument here is by Filippo della Valle. Her husband used to pray here every morning, until he himself died in 1766 and was laid in state here, before being buried with his wife at St Peter's. They used to live at the Palazzo Balestra opposite, so this was their parish church. The monument itself is rather fun, showing putti frolicking in clouds and drapery with a sunburst, all in white marble set on an urn in verde antico.

On the second pillar on the left-hand side is the monument to Cardinal Bessarion (1403-72), which is a 16th century relief portrait of him in a red marble tondo placed over a long epitaph. The one he composed for himself is in the second cloister of the convent. His mortal remains were transferred to this church as late as 1957. He had been born at Trebizond in what is now Turkey, although then a small independent empire, and went on to become a Basilian monk and a Greek Orthodox bishop in the Byzantine Empire. After the Council of Florence he was reconciled to the Catholic Church, and went on to be one of the most erudite Renaissance scholars in Italy as well as an archbishop and cardinal.

The nave floor, of black and white marble with an angular geometric design, is late 19th century.

The pulpit was executed by Sebastiano Cipriani, 1736.


The triumphal arch of the sanctuary is topped by a pair of stucco angels bearing the shield of the Franciscan order, which has two crossed arms with nail-holes in the palms. One is Christ's, the other belongs to St Francis after he received the stigmata. This stucco work is by Luigi Fontana, 1875.

The sanctuary in front of the apse has a pair of red marble Composite columns on either side, which support two cantoria. These look like opera boxes, and are for solo singers or small choirs. The apse itself has two more pairs of columns in the same style, but these support nothing but statues.

The high altar is placed against the wall of the apse, and does not have a canopy. The former mediaeval canopy, with its porphyry columns, was a sad loss. The previous apse was decorated with the famous fresco executed by Melozzo da Forlì in the 15th century, and if you wish to see the surviving fragments you have to go to both the Quirinal Palace and the Vatican Museums. In its place, the present apse has a large gilded Baroque glory covered in frolicking putti, inserted into a parabolic niche in the conch of the apse. To each side of this is a rectangular window inserted into lunettes of the same form.

Above the triumphal arch of the apse is a fresco of 1709 by Giovanni Odazzi, depicting the Rebel Angels Defeated by St Michael. Again the use of perspective is excellent, and the angels about to become demons really look as if they're falling out of heaven.

The round-headed 18th century altarpiece is possibly the largest painting on canvas in Rome, measuring 14 metres by 6.5 metres. It is by Domenico Maria Muratori, and depicts the Martyrdoms of the Apostles Philip and James the Less.

To the right of the high altar are the tombs of Count Giraud de Caprières (died 1505) and Raffaele Cardinal Riario (died 1521), tentatively attributed to Michelangelo (the cardinal was his original patron at Rome). To the left is a superb and ornate Renaissance monument to Pietro Cardinal Riario, by the school of Andrea Bregno and possibly designed by Bregno himself. The relief panel above the cardinal's reclining effigy, showing him and his brother being presented to Our Lady by SS Peter and Paul, is by Mino da Fiesole.


The confessio was created in the late 19th century, as a result of an archaeological excavation in 1873 which discovered the original crypt. The remains of this show it to have been at a slight angle to the major axis of the present church, and to have had a U-shaped plan. At the nave end was a small aisled hall, with three pillars on each side. At the curved end were two staircases leading down from the main church, and wrapped round the curve was an ambulatory or passage through which pilgrims could file to venerate the shrine of the two apostles which was in a little cubicle halfway along.

During the excavation, the relics of St James and St Philip were rediscovered in their original 6th century altar-shrine. This was a low stone plinth on a square plan, topped by a large slab which had a Greek cross carved in relief on it. Raising this slab revealed a small square cavity in which the relics were found; they were not left in situ, but moved to a new shrine after the crypt was reconstructed (not entirely to its original plan). Architectural remains from the earlier layout are visible.

You may visit the crypt if the gates are open. If there is a friar or custodian on duty in the church, ask him or her to turn on the lights if they are not already on, as it is quite dark down there.

Two staircases curve down under an arch bearing an inscription in golden mosaic: Corpora sanctorum in pace sepulta sunt, et vivent nomina eorum in aeternum. ("The bodies of the saints rest in peace, and their names live for ever."). At the bottom, there is a semi-circular area paved in polychrome marble, surrounded by four Doric columns beyond which is the present ambulatory. Off the latter are three arched niches. The tomb of Raffaele della Rovere (died 1477), brother of Pope Sixtus IV and father of Pope Julius II, is found on the left side. It was designed by Andrea Bregno.

The wall frescoes are reproductions of catacomb paintings, apparently inspired by those to be found in the Catacombs of Domitilla and executed 1876-1877. This is because, as well as the original relics of the apostles, other saints' relics were preserved here when they were taken from the catacombs in the 9th century to protect them from invaders. An inscription explains that one of those who helped move these relics was Pope Pope Stephen IV, who in 886 walked barefoot from the catacombs to the church carrying them on his shoulders. Unfortunately, damp has been damaging these frescoes.

The relics of the apostles are now kept in a reliquary of red and green marble underneath an altar in a deep barrel-vaulted niche at the other end of the crypt. The original shrine-altar is also on show, although it has been much restored and now has an ancient relief of a bucolic harvest scene on the front.

There is a statue of St Eugenia by Giuseppe Peroni, and one of St Claudia (the mother of St Linus, the successor to St Peter as pope) by Domenico Guidi. In the middle of the main floor of the crypt is a small well covered with a metal mesh; this is dedicated to the martyrs SS Chrysanthus, Daria, Protus and Hyacinth who were among those brought from the catacombs.

The side chapels are described in anti-clockwise order, starting with the near right hand side.

Chapel of St BonaventureEdit

The first chapel on the right-hand side of the nave is dedicated to St Bonaventure. Here on the altar is a 15th century Madonna and Child by Antoniazzo Romano, which was donated to the church by Cardinal Bessarion. It is a beautiful work, and interesting as a survival of a derivative Byzantine style in Rome at this late period. The altarpiece behind is by Niccolò Lapiccola, and shows Our Lady, St Bonaventure and Blessed Andrew Conti (or Andrew of Segni), who was a late 13th century Franciscan hermit from Anagni.

Chapel of the Immaculate ConceptionEdit

The second chapel on the right is dedicated to the Immaculate Conception. This was erected in 1858 by Luigi Gabet, after the demolition of the Baroque chapel dedicated to St Cyprian which had been fitted out by Sebastiano Cipriani in 1721. Gabet was responsible for much architectural work in Rome in the mid 19th century.

The altarpiece used to be by Francesco Coghetti, with a pair of flanking marble angels by Luigi Roveri (right) and Domenico Morani (left). However, recently the altarpiece was replaced by a work exectued by Corrado Giaquinto, which had been originally here before being sold and substituted by the Coghetti.

Here is a memorial to Vincenzo Valentini, 1842; he was a banker who restored several Roman palazzi, including the Palazzo Odescalchi near the church and the Palazzo Valentini (now named after him) near the Piazza Venezia.

Also one to Maria Clementina Sobieski, 1737 by Filippo Della Valle.

Chapel of St Anthony of PaduaEdit

The third chapel on the right is dedicated to St Anthony of Padua, and is the Odescalchi family chapel (their palazzo is on the other side of the piazza). Their coat-of-arms is inset in polychrome marble mosaic in the floor; the strange pointed things it contains are incense burners, the family emblem.

The altar is a spectacular Baroque composition in verde antico and alabaster, with four ribbed red marble Corinthian columns and a fantastically curved pediment. The altarpiece showing the saint is by Benedetto Luti, and the vault is painted by Giuseppe Nicola Nasini. The picture on the altar itself is of St Maximilian Kolbe, and is by Angelo Liberati 1965.

The appurtenances of this chapel are mostly the result of a re-fitting by Ludovico Rusconi Sassi, under the patronage of Baldassarre Erba Odescalchi and completed in 1722. Before that, it had been arranged by Carlo Rainaldi in 1649.

Bessarion ChapelEdit

The funerary chapel of Cardinal Bessarion is behind the Odescalchi Chapel, the building of which left it walled off and inaccessible until 2005. As mentioned, you will have to pay an entrance charge to get in.

The dedication was to Our Lady and SS Michael, John the Baptist and Eugenia.

It was completed and frescoed in 1483, but was apparently derelict and its frescoes whitewashed when the Odescalchi Chapel was built within it in 1723. Rather than demolishing the existing structure, the builders of the latter simply constructed it within the older chapel's walls and so left a very tight space between the new walls and the old. Remarkably, the arrangement was then completely forgotten about until restoration work on the adjacent Palazzo Colonna in 1959.

The importance of the discovery was immediately understood, but restoration work only started in 1989 and continued until 2005. Since the lower part of the fresco cycle had been destroyed, a metal walkway was installed to allow visitors to examine the surviving upper part. However, opening times were irregular until 2010, when it is finally hoped to allow visiting on a regular basis.

The frescoes were executed by Antoniazzo Romano with the help of Mino da Fiesole, and even in their damaged state are spectacularly colourful and impressively detailed. You will already have seem Romano's icon of Our Lady on the altar of the Chapel of St Bonaventure; it originally belonged here, and the place where it used to be in the lower register now has a copy. To either side of this are two mediocre portraits of SS Eugenia and Claudia. It is known from early descriptions that there used to be a fresco cycle here depicting scenes from the life of John the Baptist, and that this was destroyed by flooding and replaced by these portraits perhaps in the early 17th century.

The middle storey of the frescoes shows two scenes from stories of legendary apparitions of St Michael. The left hand one concerns the foundation legend of the shrine at Monte Gargano, whereby the saint appeared in 490 to the Bishop of Siponto (the city appears in the fresco) to ask that the shrine be founded in a cave on the mountain. The depiction here shows the saint appearing as a bull in the sacred cave, with archers shooting at it only to have their arrows bounce off.

The right hand one concerns the apparition of St Michael to St Aubert of Avranches, bishop of that city in France in the 8th century. This allegedly led him to found the famous shrine and monastery on the island of Mont Saint Michel, shown in the background. The figures in the fresco are standing on a beach, and include Basilian monks and Franciscan friars (Bessarion was one of the former). The richly dressed saintly archbishop allegedly has the features of King Louis XI of France, whom Bessarion had been trying to interest in a crusade against the Ottomans and who apparently was so insulting to the proposal that Bessarion's death was hastened in shock. To his left are two figures, one in purple with part of his face missing and one in vermillion. These are cardinals of the della Rovere family; the former is the future Pope Julius II, and the latter the future Pope Sixtus IV.

The upper storey of the frescoes consists of a host of angels adoring Christ in Majesty; unfortunately, only the lower edge of Christ's robe survives.

At the back of the chapel is an opening, through which you can see a porphyry urn which allegedly contains the relics of SS Eugenia and Claudia. They were among those brought from the Catacomb of Apronian on the Via Latina in the 9th century.

Chapel of the CrucifixionEdit

The Chapel of the Crucifixion is to the right of the presbyterium, and is in the style of a miniature basilica with a nave and aisles. The eight spirally fluted columns are probably originally from the 6th century church.

This chapel was founded by one Faustina Inquilina, but was re-fitted by Sebastiano Cipriani in 1724. There was another re-fit under Carimini in 1858, when the Marchese Sigismondo Giustiniani took over the patronage.

The altarpiece painting of SS Salome and Hyacinth is by Pietro Lucatelli, and the wall frescoes are by Domenico Bruschi 1875. The latter depict scenes from the life of St Francis, and the pilasters show him and St Anthony of Padua.

Chapel of St FrancisEdit

Pope Clement XIV (1769-1774) is buried in the last chapel on the left hand side, which is dedicated to St Francis of Assisi. The chapel was re-ordered in 1726, a minor tragedy because it entailed the destruction of a major work depicting Paradise by Giovanni Battista Ricci in 1590.

The pope's Neo-Classical tomb is by Antonio Canova, and was executed in 1783-1787. This was the first major work Canova accomplished in Rome, and it established his international reputation. It shows the pope seated on a throne on a granite plinth in the act of giving a blessing, and below him is a Classical sarcophagus on lions' feet. A young woman in a veil, "Temperance", is sitting miserably on the right. Another one with her hair in a fillet, "Clemency", has thrown herself onto the sarcophagus from the left. Note the little detail of a lamb next to the former girl.

The altarpiece of St Francis in this chapel is by Giuseppe Bartolomeo Chiari.

Also here are the monuments of Carlo Colonna (1753), and Maria Lucrezia Rospigliosi Salviati (1749). The latter, by Bernardino Ludovisi, is especially enjoyable; one of Ludovisi's trade-mark angels with ostrich-feather wings is peering into a sarcophagus, which contains a heap of bones with a skull on top. A putto at the bottom right looks as if he is thinking "Gross!". The former used to be ascribed to Ludovisi, but is now attributed to Giovanni Battista Grossi.

Between this chapel and the next is a memorial to Filippo III Colonna and his wife Caterina Aloysia, 1822 by Francesco Pozzi (not the famous 18th century engraver, who was dead by then). Note that Filippo gets a cameo portrait, but his wife does not. The sculpture of a woman with twin babies on top is of "Charity". Her naked foot on display is not Classical, because the big toe is longer than the second one; this indicates that the sculptor executed the work from life (at least, as regards the woman herself).

Chapel of St Joseph of CupertinoEdit

The second chapel on the left is dedicated to St Joseph of Cupertino, and has an altarpiece from 1777 by Giuseppe Cades. It shows the saint levitating, an ability for which he was famous.

The two ribbed Corinthian altar columns of verde antico, a rare green marble, are reputed to be the largest known in that type of stone. Strictly speaking it is a breccia with serpentine inclusions, and was quarried by the ancient Romans near Larissa in Greece. They were very fond of it, and called it lapis atracius; as a result, you can find it re-used in many churches and palazzi. 

The work is the result of a re-fit by Michelangelo Simonetti in 1777.

Chapel of Our Lady of SorrowsEdit

The first chapel on the left is dedicated to Our Lady of Sorrows, or the Pietà. The altarpiece showing the Deposition is by Francesco Manno, 1807. He supervised the re-fitting of the chapel for the Muti Papazzurri family in that year; this noble clan is famous for its patronage of the church of Santa Maria dell'Archetto nearby.

Located here is a fine neo-Renaissance monument to Giuseppe and Clara Vannutelli, 1861 by Vincenzo Luccardi.

On the altar of this chapel is a picture of St Joseph with the Christ Child, 1924 by Antonio Cianci, a priest-artist. Most of this sort of little altar picture in Roman churches is devotional trash, but this one is good.


The sacristy is to the left of the sanctuary, and is a large room. It was restored and decorated at the expense of Prince Alessandro Torlonia in 1883, and the frescoes on the walls and ceiling are by Domenico Bruschi. Apart from portraits of the popes involved in restorations of the church, the subjects depicted are the Baptism of Constantine, the Consecration of the Church by Pope Sixtus V and allegorical figures of Peace, Justice, Liberality and Religion.

The ceiling vault has a fresco by Sebastiano Ricci, 1701 depicting the Ascension of Christ.


Normally open daily, 07.00-12.00 and 16.00-19.00.

In winter the church can be very gloomy during the afternoon opening, but please do not be tempted to use a flash on your camera as this is a working parish church and you will cause offence.

The Bessarion Chapel is open on Fridays and Saturdays from 9:00 to 12:00


Mass is celebrated (Centro Storico database, accessed May 2019):

Weekdays 7:30, 8:15, 18:30.

Sundays: 9:00, 10:30, 12:00, 16:30 (in Sinhala), 18:30.

External linksEdit

Official diocesan web-page

Itallian Wikipedia page

Nolli map (look for 283)

"De Alvariis" gallery on Flickr

"Romeartlover" web-page with 18th century engraving

Info.roma web-page

Roma SPQR web-page (click for gallery)

Rinaldi's gallery

List of cardinals

Photo of Melozzo fragment in the Quirinale

Article on the Bessarion Chapel (Italian)

Article on the Bessarion Chapel (English)

[ Despatches - blog with gallery]

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