Oratorio del Gonfalone is a deconsecrated (in practice) 16th century oratory at Via del Gonfalone 32A, just off the Via Giulia in the rione Ponte. Picture of the oratory on Wikimedia Commons are here. There is an English Wikipedia page here.
The oratory should not be confused with the church of Santa Lucia del Gonfalone nearby, which was the parish church of the confraternity that built it -the Archconfraternity of the Banner (Arciconfraternita del Gonfalone).
The oratory is functioning as a music venue, not as a place of worship, and is usually described as deconsecrated.
However, there seems to be a doubt about this. The Diocese actually lists the premises as a church on its website, under the title of Santa Maria Annunziata del Gonfalone. There are two remarks to be made as a result.
Firstly, the actual definition of an oratory is a room or chamber for common prayer, without an altar. An altar was provided here, so the appellation "oratory" is not strictly correct.
Secondly, it seems that there was no formal deconsecration. Churches are rendered unfit for worship either by deconsecration, which is a ritual act, or by desecration which involves actual damage or profanation. Apparently the Diocese considers that desecration did not occur here either, and is making a claim that the premises are still consecrated. Further, it appointed a priest in charge (rettore) in 2016.
Santa Lucia VecchiaEdit
When the oratory was built in 1544, the site had been previously occupied by the ruins of an abandoned church called Santa Lucia Vecchia (St Lucy the Old) to distinguish it from Santa Lucia del Gonfalone, originally known as Santa Lucia Nuova (St Lucy the New) until the activities of the confraternity based in its parish led to the change of name.
This old church was first mentioned in the list published in 1187 of dependent parish churches attached to the basilica of San Lorenzo in Damaso. Back then it was known as Sanctae Luciae a Captusecuta. The source of the name is unknown, and later mediaeval scribes were obviously puzzled by it as they gave varying versions. Also, the name Sanctae Luciae iuxta Flumen ("by the river") occurs.
This church seems to have been too near the river, and so vulnerable to water damage. As a result, a new parish church with the same dedication was built nearby some time in the early 14th century (the first mention dates from 1352). This was Santa Lucia Nuova. However, the old church was left standing as Santa Lucia Vecchia, and the reason for this was possibly owing to the wish to preserve burial rights.
The remote origins of the confraternity that built the oratory was the Ordine degli Accomandati di Madonna Santa Maria, founded by supporters of Papal rule in Rome in 1264. This was approved by Pope Urban IV, was based at Santa Maria Maggiore and was made up of two canons of that basilica along with twelve Roman nobles. The purpose was penitence and prayer in common. A set of constitutions was drawn up by St Bonaventure, and approved in 1267. A later name was the Congregatione dei Raccomendati.
Pious confraternities for laypeople were very popular in the high Middle Ages. This one spawned many imitators in Rome and in other Italian cities.
The original headquarters was the church and hospice of Sant'Alberto all'Esquilino. This was located between Santa Maria Maggiore and Santa Pudenziana, around the west corner of the present Piazza dell'Esquilino. Pope Martin V (1417-31) moved the headquarters to Santa Lucia Nuova, although one of the progenitors of the 16th century confraternity was already involved there since at least 1352.
In 1486 a consolidation of the Raccomendati with other allied Roman confraternities created a new Arciconfraternità del Gonfalone.
Over the centuries this confraternity dedicated itself to various charitable activities, including participation in religious processions and celebrations as banner carriers (wearing white gowns with peaked blue hoods). One of its responsibilities was the putting on of a Passion Play at the Colosseum every Good Friday, which explains the decorative scheme of the oratory. This performance was suppressed by the pope in 1539 because of disorder, and replaced by the Stations of the Cross.
Gonfalone means “banner”, referring to the papal colours which they carried in processions, and was originally the confraternity's nickname.
Foundation of oratoryEdit
The confraternity obtained the old church in 1474, and made it its headquarters after the re-ordering in 1486. However, the Sack of Rome in 1527 seems to have caused the complete ruin of the building. So, the oratory was begun in 1544 as part of a new headquarters and completed in 1547.
From 1568 to 1575, a major fresco cycle featuring the Passion of Christ was executed by several artists, a project sponsored by Cardinal Alessandro Farnese who was the protector of the confraternity. The overall design is thought to have been the original responsibility of Jacopo Zanguidi, Il Bertoja.
The frescoes were begun after the carved wooden ceiling was installed in 1568, which bears the cardinal's coat-of-arms.
The façade was erected in 1580, which marked the completion of the project.
As well as arranging and participating in public ceremonies, the confraternity was also involved in charitable activities for poor and needy people and, in the period 1581 to 1765, in freeing Italians captured and enslaved in Muslim and Slavic lands. This basically involved collecting funds for ransoms, and then handing them over to the agents actually involved in the redemption.
In 1633, the façade was embellished in the Baroque style by Domenico Castelli.
After the French occupation of Rome in 1798, the confraternity was suppressed and the oratory shut down. However, after the definitive restoration of papal government in 1815 the priest-in-charge, Giovanni Battista Bussi (later a cardinal) undertook a programme of revitalization of the confraternity and renovation of the oratory. The restoration of the latter was finished in 1823, the frescoes being retouched by one Paolo Ponsi.
This was the same year as the confraternity's parish church, Santa Lucia del Gonfalone, had its parish suppressed. The edifice was given into the administration of the confraternity.
In 1861 there was a restoration by Francesco Azzurri.
After the city was conquered by Italy in 1870, religious processions were forbidden on the grounds of possible public disorder (a substantial anti-clerical faction had grown up among the city's residents, both among professional people and the working class). This removed one of the major reasons for the confraternity's existence. In 1893, the confraternity was required to register as a secular charity and abandon religious activities, or have its capital assets confiscated. This rendered the oratory functionally redundant.
The confraternity collapsed in the first years of the 20th century. As a result, the church of Santa Lucia was handed over to the Claretians who founded a convent there. They were also given the keys of the oratory.
In 1933, the latter was lent to Don Ariodante Brandi, a priest with an interest in missionary and social activity on behalf of the city's rubbish collectors (netturbini). However, the premises soon became used as a storage depot for the activities of the netturbini. This must have led to Mass ceasing to be celebrated here -but when? (Information on the details of this are not easy to come by, perhaps because of embarrassment at a disgraceful outcome.)
At any rate, the edifice was shut down and in a bad state by the mid 20th century.
However, the oratory was saved by becoming a music venue. This was the initative of Gastone Tosato, a choir director from Vicenza who arrived in Rome in 1936 and organized choirs for several of the city's churches. He founded the Coro Polifonico Romano in 1950, and identified the derelict oratory as a suitable base. Here he also founded the Complesso Strumentale del Gonfalone.
The city restored the premises, and they were finally opened as a music venue in October 1960. However, the frescoes still needed attention after years of neglect. As a result, their final restoration was begun in 1999, and the project completed in 2002. The interior is now in a good condition.
Layout and fabricEdit
The oratory has a simple rectangular plan, with a small transverse rectangular apse. There is a transverse rectangular vestibule before the main body of the building, which has its own pitched and tiled roof slightly higher than that of the nave. This vestibule incorporates former ancillary premises of the confraternity above it.
The small stucco Baroque façade was designed by Domenico Castelli, and unusually has three stories (the first two deriving from the original 17th century frontage).The first storey has four Composite pilasters supporting an entablature with a strongly projecting cornice. A pair of large rectangular windows with raised projecting lintels are between each pair of pilasters. The entrance door has a marble doorcase incorporating a relief of a winged putto's head, and over that is a damaged relief in a roundel with a dedicatory inscription. The second storey has four Ionic pilasters with swagged capitals and supporting an empty triangular pediment. There are three identically sized rectangular windows, the middle one having a raised segmental pediment over swags and the two outer ones being crowned with winged putto's heads again under little gables. Above the pediment rises the third story, which displays a blank rectangular tablet with chamfered corners under a segmental pediment. This is flanked by a pair of gigantic volutes, and beyond those a pair of empty plinths on the corners.
The windows do not light the oratory, but the ancillary premises just mentioned.
The interior layout involves a narthex or entrance hall, then a simple rectangular nave with a tiny rectangular apse.
The interior is one of the best examples of a 16th century Roman mannerist decorative scheme, and has given the nickname Sistine Chapel of Mannerism to the oratory.
The simple rectangular hall is lined by wooden choir stalls, and above them is a fresco cycle in twelve parts of the Passion. This was painted from 1568 to 1573 by Federico Zuccari and associates to an overall design thought to have been by Jacopo Zanguidi, Il Bertoja.
The far wall has the round-headed niche apse, containing a large altarpiece but no altar. The former depicts the Crucifixion, and is by Roviale Spagnolo 1557. The side walls have a pair of Doric pilasters each, embellished with grotesque decoration.
This apse is flanked by a pair of cantorie or opera-boxes for musical performers, each of which has a triangular pediment and a balustraded balcony on corbels.
The flat wooden ceiling, which is carved and gilded, is by Ambrogio Bonazzini and was executed in 1568. It depicts Our Lady with SS Peter and Paul, and also the coat-of-arms of Cardinal Alessandro Farnese.
The fresco cycle depicts the Passion of Christ in twelve large panels, which are separated by trompe l'oeil depictions of large spirally twisted Solomonic columns based on the ones around the shrine of St Peter. Above each column is a small monochrome depiction of an allegorical figure in an arched aedicule, and above the main fresco panels are shallower ones each depicting a prophet and a sibyl. It is not clear as to many of the identities of the prophets, sibyls and allegories.
The storyline of the cycle begins on the side wall to the right of the former altar.
Il Bertoja painted the first fresco, The Entry of Christ into Jerusalem and also the panel above showing the prophet Zechariah and the Eritrean Sibyl. Livio Agresti painted the next one, The Last Supper; the sibyl above is thought to be the Samian. There follows The Agony in the Garden by "Domenico di Modena" who might have been Domenico Carnevale and The Arrest of Jesus by Marcantonio del Forno. The figures above this are by Bertoja; the two little figures are King David and Judith. The next main panel shows Christ Before Caiaphas by Raffaellino Reggio, and then The Flagellation by Federico Zuccari which is to the right of the entrance.
The entrance interrupts the sequence. Above the door is an oil painting (formerly used as a banner) which depicts Our Lady protecting the Confraternity, with the Trinity above. This is by Cesare Renzi, 1575. The fresco above is of King Solomon, by Matteo da Lecce.
To the left of the entrance are The Crowning with Thorns and The Ecce Homo by Cesare Nebbia, The Journey to Calvary by Agresti again, The Crucifixion by Guidoni Guelfo di Borgo and The Deposition From the Cross by Daniele da Volterra. The last has also been ascribed to Giacomo Rocca, a pupil of his. Isaiah is the prophet above. Finally, there is The Resurrection by Marco da Siena. The figures above this last panel are identified as Jonah and the Cumaean Sibyl.
The sanctuary wall has two more pairs of prophets and sybils high up.
In the (inaccessible) crypt are visible some remains of the original mediaeval church of Santa Lucia Vecchia.
Ticketed access is available from Monday to Friday, between 10:00 and 16:00, but has to be booked in advance. You can visit either as an individual, or as a group which is slightly cheaper. The portal for this is on the Oratory's website is here.
The cost of an individual ticket in 2018 was 10 euros, and for groups 9 euros per person.
There is also the opportunity to visit on Saturdays and Sundays, but this involves a supplement of 70 euros.
The oratory is now a concert hall, not a place of worship. However, the Vicariate disputes this -even though the altar has been replaced by a small organ.