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San Bartolomeo all'Isola is a late 10th century titular church and minor basilica with a postal address at Isola Tiberina 22. Pictures of the church at Wikimedia Commons are here. There is an English Wikipedia page here.

The dedication is to St Bartholomew, apostle and martyr.


The church is in the charge of the Franciscan Friars Minor, helped by the Community of Sant'Egidio.

The DIocese has listed it as available for liturgical celebrations in the Oriental rites.


Ancient temple[]

It is not known when the Tiber Island first became part of the city, although it may have been a convenient and safe place to lodge even in Stone Age times. It is now clear that there has been an island in the river or its marshes for a very long time, since it is the remnant of a side-vent of the ancient volcano that created the adjacent Capitoline.

The first temple on the island was dedicated, appropriately, to the river-god Tiberinus. But, in 293 BC, the city suffered a serious epidemic and the Senate decided to send an embassy to Epidaurus in Greece to ask the favour of Aesculapius, the Greek god of medicine. The priests of the shrine gave the visitors a sacred snake to take back to Rome as a totem, but when the ship tied up at the end of the voyage the snake escaped from its box, slithered off the boat into the river, swam to the island and found a hole to vanish into. This was taken as an omen that a temple to the god should be built on the island, which it promptly was. The church is on its site.

The temple and its precinct was rebuilt in the 1st century AD. The porticoes of the sanctuary functioned as a hospital, and the site had this function right to the end of the Empire in Rome. In fact, it seems that a hospital of some kind remained on the island all the way through the Dark Ages until the church was built, and also from then on until the present day.


The church was not of ancient origin, but was begun in the year 998 on the orders of Otto III, Holy Roman Emperor. It seems that it was fitted exactly onto the foundations of the old temple. The initial motivation seems to have been that the emperor wished to honour his friend St Adalbert of Prague, who had been martyred by the Old Prussians in that year. An arm of the saint was enshrined here. Also, the emperor wished to enshrine the relics of other saints that he had collected, notably SS Paulinus of Nola (not a martyr), Exuperantius, Sabinus, Theodora, Marcian and Marcellus as well as Abundius and Abundantius (although there is a query about this). The original dedication of the church was Sancti Adalbertus et Paulinus.

It used to be thought that the ancient columns used in the arcades came from the old temple, but they are not a matching set and are thought to be too small to have belonged to the temple itself. It seems that the spolia of columns and bases were pillaged from the sacred complex as a whole, and assembled together in an obviously ad-hoc manner. However, the holy well on the altar steps, with its 11th century carved well-head, does seem to be an in situ ancient structure.

The carving of the emperor on the well-head shows him holding the church, and this is depicted as having a single aisle. If this is a true representation, and not artistic licence, then the original church had only one nave arcade and the other must have been added in the 12th century. At present it is not possible to decide this point.

St Bartholomew[]

However, these saints were joined by the relics of St Bartholomew. This apostle was, in the Latin tradition, martyred by being flayed alive in the Roman province of Armenia (now that part of Turkey around the city of Sivas). Hence, his attribute in art is his flayed skin. The first historical reference to the relics is in 507, when Emperor Anastasius I gave them to the new city of Dara in Mesopotamia.

Then, mysteriously, an alternative set of relics began to be venerated on the island of Lipari off Sicily, and the story developed that they had been washed up by the sea there miraculously. These relics were transferred to Benevento in 803, and were taken to Rome by Emperor Otto II when he conquered that city in 983. It seems that the emperor's intention was to take them back to Germany, but his death at Rome prevented that. So, his son Otto III included the relics with the others in his new church, which was completed around the year 1001. The dedication of the church was then changed; this alteration in the dedication is a good hint that it was not originally Otto III's intention to enshrine the apostle here.

The first documentary reference to the dedication to St Bartholomew dates from 1088.

The islanders of Lipari, meanwhile, have continued to have a special veneration for the apostle to the present day.


Amazingly, very soon after it was finished the new church became a cathedral. The diocese of Santa Rufina used to have its cathedral at the basilica erected over the site of the martyrdom of SS Rufina and Secunda, the site of which has been the subject of confusion. The traditional location is what is now the suburb of Selva Candida, and this is also described as the ninth milestone on the Via Cornelia. However, in modern texts this is also rendered as the fourteenth milestone on the Via Aurelia, which is a long way away. Historians have tended to confuse these two roads.

Wherever it was, this basilica was ruined in barbarian raids in the 9th century and abandoned. The bishop of the diocese took up residence on the Isola Tiberina, and the church apparently became his cathedral since he was living next to it. The boundary between the dicoese of Rome and the diocese of Santa Rufina at the start of the 11th century was the Tiber, so Trastevere, Isola Tiberina and the Leonine City with the Vatican were all in the latter diocese. Despite St Peter's obviously remaining a Papal basilica, the bishop of Santa Rufina had episcopal rights there in liturgical celebrations.

However, the bishop of Porto also took up residence on the Isola Tiberina at the same time, and lived next to the church of San Giovanni Calibita. Pope Benedict VIII in 1019 gave this bishop rights over the island and the basilica, so it could have been that the two bishops shared this church as their cathedral. Santa Rufina would have been in territorial possession, while Porto would have had the authority of a papal bull. One wonders how they got on.

This state of affairs continued until 1124, when the two dioceses were merged into one as Porto Santa Rufina and the Leonine City was united to the diocese of Rome. The cathedral was moved to Cerveteri, but the island and Trastevere stayed part of the united diocese until the late 14th century.

The church was parochial in the Middle Ages and later.

12th century[]

The church has had repeated problems with flooding by the river. As a result, it has needed several restorations. The first recorded was by Pope Paschal II in 1113, who left an inscription above the entrance. This reads:

Tertius istorum rex transtulit Otto piorum corpora qui[bu]s domus h[a]ec sic redimita. Viget Anno D[omi]n[i]c[i] Inc[arnationis] MCXIII ind[ictione] VII m[ense] ap[ri]l[is] die III t[e]mp[o]r[e] P[a]sc[ha]l[is] II p[a]p[a]. Qu[a]e domus ista gerit, si pignora noscere qu[a]eris, corpora Paulini credas Bartholomei. ("King Otto the Third transferred the bodies of the pious ones, with which this house is thus crowned. It flourishes in the year of the Lord's Incarnation 1113, in the seventh indiction, the third day of the month of April in the time of Pope Paschal II. If you seek to know the tokens this house bears, [they are] the bodies of Paulinus and Bartholomew.")

The bell-tower was built in 1118 as part of this restoration. However, the work as a whole seems to have been interrupted by flooding, and it was only completed in 1180 under Pope Alexander III. It is believed that it included providing a mosaic for the entrance façade, since the tiny fragment that survives seems to be of this period rather than of the following century. (The present Baroque façade is an add-on, and the original mediaeval façade is hidden behind it. At the top of the latter, usually inaccessible to visitors, is a mosaic depiction of Christ giving a blessing and holding a book with the inscription Ego sum via et veritas et vita. This is in a style which seems to correspond with another mosaic at Santa Francesca Romana dating to 1161.)


At the start of the 12th century, a famous monastery and hospital were founded at London, England, in emulation of the church and hospital here. King Henry II of England had a jester at his court called Rahere, who fell seriously ill (perhaps of malaria) while on pilgrimage to Rome. While being nursed at the hospital on the island, he had a vision of St Bartholomew telling him to found a hospital dedicated to him in London. Since his jesting had made him a fortune, he was able to establish a monastery of Canons Regular of St Augustine and a hospital for them to run at a place on the western outskirts of the mediaeval City of London called Smithfield. The monastery was destroyed in the Reformation, but half the church survives along with Rahere's tomb. The hospital has had an uninterrupted history, and is still important in London (being usually nicknamed "St Bart's"). The monastery church is St Bartholomew the Great, a rare example of Romanesque architecture in London. The original hospital chapel is now the church of St Bartholomew the Less.

13th century[]

Pope Martin IV ordered another restoration, which was completed in 1284. It involved laying Cosmatesque flooring (bits of which survive), and a baldacchino with porphyry columns (which does not). The artist responsible for the latter was Ognissanti Callario de' Tederini. Also, the façade was embellished by further mosaic work which was described as being on a gilded background.

16th century[]

The church was entrusted to the Franciscan Observants (now incorporated into the Friars Minor) in 1524, and they established a convent here. Their first edifice was erected to the right of the church, and survived until the late 19th century.

The 16th century was a disaster. Rainfall in the Tiber drainage basin was heavy in that century, and as a result there were major floods which damaged the church in 1530, 1557 and 1598. The one in 1557 washed away the right hand exterior wall, and the damp penetration destroyed most of the mosaics on the façade. Tragically, this led to despair on the part of the authorities; the relics of the saints were moved to St Peter's, and the church was left abandoned in dereliction for twenty-five years.

Then there was a restoration in 1583 ordered by Pope Gregory XIII and overseen by Cardinal Giulio Antonio Santorio, during which the collapsed side wall was rebuilt. Also, the mediaeval baldacchino was replaced with a new one which re-used the porphyry columns. An ancient porphyry basin was brought into the church two years later, and used as the reliquary under the main altar when the relics of the saints were brought back home. Previously the relics had been kept in a porphyry urn in the crypt, and the fact that they were stored together has raised suspicions about which bit of bone belongs to whom.

A tablet listing the indulgences granted to pilgrims, and authorized by this pope in 1581, can be found to the right of the main entrance in the loggia.

17th century[]

In 1601 the former sacristy, to the left of the apse, was converted into a chapel for the Confraternity of Millers which operated several water-mills on the river nearby. Here were enshrined the relics of SS Paulinus, Adalbert, Exuperantius and Marcellus. The first-named became the patron of the Confraternity, and the chapel was dedicated to him in 1636. The Confraternity moved out in 1846.

In 1608, Cardinal Michelangelo Tonti gave Antonio Marziale Carracci the commission to decorate the side chapels. He managed four of them during his work until 1621, although many of the resulting frescoes have since been badly damaged. They are arguably the only important post-mediaeval works of art in the church.

The church was heavily restored in a major project ordered by Pope Urban VIII in 1624. The architect was Martino Longhi the Younger, with at least some help from Orazio Torriani who we now know designed the façade in 1639. This façade was an add-on, lengthening the church. The decoration provided in the restoration was in the Baroque style, giving the church its present appearance.

In 1638 the surviving convent range to the left of the church was built. This meant that the convent had two wings, on either side of the present trapezoidal piazza thus creating an impressive architectural ensemble focusing attention on the new façade. The right hand wing has since been demolished. In 1694 the friars opened a Missionary College here, which survived until the late 19th century.

Around this time there had grown up a strange custom on the feast-day of St Bartholomew (24 August), whereby water-melons were thrown into the river and children would dive in after them. This was stopped in the early 19th century, after too many children had ended up in the floating watermills and been battered to death by the water-wheels.

Modern times[]

There was further embellishment on the interior, carried out from 1720 to 1739 under the supervision of Cardinal Juan Álvaro Cienfuegos. The mediaeval Cosmatesque floor was ripped up in the process, presumably because it was too damaged to be worth repairing. Also, the ceiling was painted, the cantoria for the organ installed over the entrance and stucco decorations added to the nave.

The church was maltreated by the French occupiers of the city under Napoleon, and was restored as a result of damage to the sanctuary in 1801. Incredibly, in 1829 the Renaissance baldacchino was demolished and the four porphyry columns taken to the Gallery of Tapestries in the Vatican Museums. They can be seen there, though one wonders how many visitors notice them or know where they came from.

Pope Pius IX ordered another restoration in 1852, which also mostly involved the sanctuary. A new main altar was provided, and frescoes painted.

After 1873 the Italian government confiscated the convent, allowing the Franciscans the use of a few rooms next to the church. The left hand wing became the premises of a Jewish hospital, and the right-hand wing was converted into apartments for Trastevere slum-dwellers displaced by the building of the Tiber embankments. However, scouring by the river around the island damaged the new embankments, and in response the government demolished this wing at the end of the century in order to make the river bed slightly wider. The missionary college had to close in 1885.

The parish was suppressed in 1906.

The last flood was in 1937, and hopefully flooding is now a thing of the past because catchment reservoirs have been built in the upper reaches of the river. You can see the level the river reached in this flood marked on a plaque in the left hand side of the entrance loggia. Another tablet with a flood-line is on the wall round the right hand corner of the façade. This dates to 1870, just after Rome had been conquered by the Kingdom of Italy. This major flood was memorable because Pope Pius IX gave the new secular government a propaganda coup, by declaring that the disaster was God's punishment of the people of Rome for rejecting Papal rule in a plebiscite. This crass remark was not forgiven by many ordinary Romans.

In 1994 the complex was entrusted to the use of the Community of Sant'Egidio, although the Friars Minor retain canonical possession.

There was a final restoration in 2000, which involved repainting the façade in the original 17th century colour of cream instead of the previous rusty red. In the same year, the church was made into a shrine of those suffering martyrdom for their Christian faith in the 20th century. A large icon of these "Modern Martyrs" was inaugurated as the main altarpiece, and the six nave chapels were each given the theme of a geographical area of persecution. The church is now a centre of research into modern persecutions of Christianity, and this work is being undertaken and supervised by the Community of Sant'Egidio.

The church has lacked a pastoral justification, especially since the adjacent church of San Giovanni Calibita takes care of the hospital. However, it has recently been declared available for the celebration of any of the Oriental rite liturgies of the Catholic church. This is especially useful to those worshipping communities of the Byzantine rite who do not have their own church in Rome for nationalistic reasons.


The first cardinal was appointed in 1517 by Pope Leo X.

The present cardinal is Blase Joseph Cupich, appointed in 2016 to succeed Cardinal Francis Eugene George, O.M.I. who had died in 2015.



As mentioned, the piazza is trapezoidal and has the surviving convent block on its left hand side. The corresponding edifice on the right has gone. In the centre of the piazza is a short 19th century stone monument known as the guglia or "spire", which is by Ignazio Jacometti of 1869. It is in the form of an quadrifrons aedicule on a plinth, topped by a heavily decorated neo-Baroque pyramidal finial ending in a ball and cross. There is a statue in a niche on each side, and the inscriptions tell you who they represent: SS Bartolomew, Francis of Assisi, Paulinus of Nola and John of God.

This structure was commissioned by Pope Pius IX, allegedly to commemorate the First Vatican Council which is mentioned in the dedicatory inscription. It actually replaced a free-standing column which was knocked over and smashed by a badly controlled wagon in 1867. This feature was known in the 19th century as the Colonna infame, because once a year on it was posted an official list of prominent people who had not received Communion at Mass during the Easter season. According to the rule of the Catholic Church, this entails automatic excommunication.

The inscription reads: Pius IX Pont[ifex] Max[imus] in columnae locum quae plaustrum impetu quassata conciderat pecunia sua fieri erigique iussit anno Christiano MDCCCLXIX Concilio Vaticano ineunte. ("Pius IX, the chief priest, ordered [this] to be made and put up using his own money in the place where the column fell which had been shattered by a collision with a cart, in the Christian year 1869, the Vatican Council having started".)

There used to be an obelisk standing on this spot in ancient times. Fragments of it are in various museums worldwide.

The doorway in the former convent building to the left leads to the oratory of Santa Maria Addolorata dei Sacconi Rossi, which is now deconsecrated.


The church is basilical in plan, having a nave of eight bays with side aisles. There are six nave chapels, three on each side, and these were created by breaching the original outer walls. The presbyterium is in the centre of a transept, which does not extend beyond the lines of the outer nave walls, and behind the main altar is a segmental apse.

In front of the church is a portico, added to the original structure in the 17th century. This has three doorways and five transverse bays, and is of the same width as the nave. Above the portico is the so-called "Room of the Mosaic", which contains the 12th century mosaic fragment of Christ from the original façade. This chamber used to be the convent choir, used by the friars in residence for reciting the Divine Office.

There is a large chapel on either side of the church. These do not fit well into the overall plan, and are obviously ancient. The left hand one is trapezoidal, with the far wall narrower than the entrance one. The right hand one has its exterior side wall slightly out of line with the nave wall, being stepped out. In between these two chapels, behind the apse, is the sacristy (which is inaccessible to visitors).

There is a campanile over the near end of the left hand aisle, behind the left hand side of the portico, and attached to the right hand side of the church is a narrow range of modern buildings which now comprise the Franciscan convent and offices. These sit above the aisle on this side.


The edifice is of brick, which is rendered. However, it is known that the early medieval parts of the fabric incorporate bits of carved ancient Roman stonework, and some of this was revealed in recent repair work on the original façade behind the portico.

The roof is pitched and tiled in a T shape over nave and transept. The two large chapels have their own roofs with single pitches, shallow on the left and steep on the right. The apse and sacristy are covered by a single pitch which, unusually, continues as a cat-slide from the far pitch of the transept roof.


The bell-tower was built in 1118, as part of the first major restoration of the church. It is a typical Romanesque example of the period, rather stumpy and in exposed red brick. There are three storeys visible above the nave roofline. The first has two narrow arched openings on each face, the second has three but the third has an arcade of three arches on each face with marble columns supporting block imposts. The tops of the storeys have cornices decorated with dentillations and modillions (little brackets). Above the arches on each face is a row of decorative roundels, three in each row for the first storey, and four for the other two. Mostly these are of green marble, but some seem to have been ceramic bowls. There is a final tiled pyramidal cap.


The Baroque façade was added with a portico in the 17th century, but the original medieval façade is still intact behind this.

The former has two storeys, and these are divided into three vertical zones corresponding to the nave and aisles behind. The two aisle zones are recessed, as is the middle third of the central zone all the way up to the gables of the pediment. Since 2000 the overall colour of the render has been a warm cream.

The first storey has three entrances which are all the same size and style, having molded archivolts on Doric pilasters. Four free-standing grey granite Doric columns on high plinths flank the main entrance, delimiting the two unrecessed zones of the central part of the façade. Above them is an entablature running the full width of the façade, with an inscription which reads: In hac basilica requiescit corpus S[ancti] Bartholomaei Apostoli ("In this basilica rests the body of St Bartholomew the Apostle"). This entablature is in travertine limestone, as are the supporting doubletted Doric pilasters flanking the side entrances. In between each pair of columns is a large round-headed niche with scallop decoration on the conch.

The second storey has five large rectangular windows, and below them a thin string course runs across the façade. Between this and the entablature below are five blank rectangular tablets with very wide relief frames. The windows have Baroque frames in relief, and the central three also have raised pediments over swag and tassel decoration. The central window pediment is triangular and empty, while the two others are segmental and have winged putto's heads in their tympani.

The crowning triangular pediment only occupies the central nave frontage. Its tympanum bears a relief depiction of the emblem of the Franciscans, being the crossed arms of Christ and St Francis showing the wounds in their palms. The aisle frontages are crowned by a pair of gigantic volutes of which each has an angular kink -a nice touch. The outer corners have flaming urn finials.



There are fourteen ancient marble columns in the nave arcades, seven on each side, which were formerly thought to have come from the original temple. This is now considered unlikely, since they are too small. However, two of the bases are tentatively identified as possibly belonging to the temple; the fifth, on right and left. The columns are of different heights, and the bases are a mixed bunch so the builders of the church played at mix-and-match. You can see how they chose a tall base for a short column, and vice versa. However, in places they had to make do with mortar to fill a gap -rather a risky thing to do, although no harm came of it.

The columns are of three different types of rock, which are all claimed to come from Egypt. They are: one in alabaster (sixth on right), two in green marble (third on right and fourth on left) and the rest in red granite (of differing hues, some more brown than others and with the second on the right and the sixth on the left looking greenish). The granite came from Aswan, which is a very long way away.

The Composite capitals are a set, and as seen are part of the 17th century restoration. The detailing, with exaggerated volutes, is actually in stucco. Above them, the arcade archivolts on each side form a continuous molding topped by a projecting cornice which is not supported by any pilasters. Above these in turn are three large round-heade windows, and then the flat ceiling.

The finely carved and painted ceiling, in large coffering panels, dates from 1624 and the frolicking putti are original. However, the three large panels were repainted by one of the friars, Bonaventura Loffredo, in 1865. The middle one shows St Bartholomew Scorning the Idols, and the other two are The Immaculate Conception and St Francis Receiving the Stigmata.

The bowed cantoria or balcony above the main entrance is 18th century. It is supported by two red marble columns with capitals matching those of the arcades, and has a balustrade topped with vine-scroll metalwork. The organ is here.

The triumphal arch is on two gigantic Doric pilasters, and is decorated with curlicues and swags of flowers. At its apex is a heraldic shield.

Nave side chapels[]

Apart from the frescoes by Carracci, the artworks in the nave side chapels are mediocre and of little interest. The chapels themselves are little barrel-vaulted alcoves, with rich Baroque decoration and each with a window above the altar. These windows now have modern stained glass in abstract patterns, and look rather incongruous in the Baroque context although worth a glance in their own right.

The displays of artifacts relating to the New Martyrs may change from time to time, apparently. For an up-to-date description of the exhibits, see the church's website (link in "External links").

The descriptions are clockwise, from the bottom left.

The first chapel on the left is dedicated to St Anthony of Padua, and has had its frescoes by Caracci touched up in the 19th century. It displays mementoes of the New Martyrs of Africa and Madagascar.

The second chapel on the left is dedicated to Our Lady of Peace, and was decorated by Caracci. It displays mementoes of the New Martyrs of Spain and Mexico.

The third chapel on the left is dedicated to the Crucifixion, and the frescoes here by Caracci have not been well preserved. It displays mementoes of the New Martyrs under the Nazis.

The third chapel on the right is dedicated to St Francis of Assisi and has an altarpiece showing SS Francis and Bonaventure by Antonio Fiorentini. The same artist was responsible for the frescoes on the walls of the Life of St Francis. The chapel displays mementoes of the New Martyrs under Communism.

The second chapel on the right is dedicated to St Charles Borromeo. The frescoes by Caracci are the best of his in the church; he also executed the altarpiece of the saint. The chapel displays mementoes of the New Martyrs of Latin America.

The first chapel on the right is dedicated to St Frances of Rome, but was formerly dedicated to St Margaret of Cortona. It displays mementoes of the New Martyrs of Asia, Oceania and the Near East.

Sanctuary and transept[]

The transept and sanctuary are one architectural space, and have a raised floor level because of the crypt underneath. You go up to the main altar via six steps, which have a short balustrade on either side at the top. In the middle of the second step is the 11th century holy well.

The transept ceiling is in the same style, and of the same age, as the nave one. The wall fresco in the apse behind the altar is the Martyrdom of St Bartholomew by Francesco Manno of 1806, but the Christ in Glory in the conch above and the other wall and ceiling paintings here are by Loffredo again.

The 19th century altar has no canopy, and now bears a large modern icon of the New Martyrs, installed in 2000. The altar itself is made from a very impressive stone bathtub of imperial porphyry, a stone of genuine rarity which comes from only one quarry in the Eastern Desert of Egypt. It has ring handles carved in relief, and a lion's mask. Above the latter is affixed a little bronze tablet reading Corpus Sancti Bartholomai Apostoli, since it is here that the apostle's relics are enshrined. The authenticity of the relics is disputed, however, as it has been claimed that they are the relics of St Paulinus of Nola. The latter were meant to have been taken home to Nola in 1909, but there is a suspicion that there was a mix-up.

Remains of the original mediaeval Cosmatesque floor survive in two places.

At the right end of the transept is the entrance to the Orsini Chapel, now the Blessed Sacrament Chapel. Outside it, either side of the door, is a pair of medieval stone lions of the 12th century. These would originally have supported the doorcase of the main entrance (stilofori or "columns supporting"), and are an example of a fashion accessory that several Roman churches displayed at the time. You can see a pair in place at Santi Apostoli, also at San Lorenzo in Lucina.

On the right hand wall, near these lions, is a bronze bowl enclosed in a metal grating. This is meant to have been the original container for the relics of the apostle when they were at Benevento in the early 9th century, but is actually a work of the late 10th century from a Muslim milieu. It was probably from Sicily, and intended as a hanging incense burner since you can see four sets of three rivets on it which would have held the chains. It certainly could have held the relics when the emperor took them to Rome, and would have been new at the time.

The well[]

There has been some dispute about how old the well is, but now somebody has taken the trouble to put a camera down it to look at the construction. It is 10.25 metres deep, and is of opus quadratum work of a type which dates it to the early Republican period when the shrine to Aesculapius had been set up. Hence, this is the oldest structure on the site. There is some doubt about how it functioned; if suppliants to the god were allowed to draw the water for themselves, then it indicates that the church is not on the site of the temple because only priests would have been allowed in. However, it might have been that the priests drew all the water from the well, and brought it out of the temple to perform lustration ceremonies on the suppliants. The latter is more likely, since it is very difficult to find another site for the temple on the island.

The really interesting thing about this well is that it was the focus of the church being built around it at the end of the 10th century. The temple was closed at the end of the 5th century, so the existence and (presumably) the use of the well in ritual had continued for half a millennium afterwards. Nobody knows how the site functioned during this time, but it must have had a ritual element for the continuity to have been kept.

The little well-head is contemporary with the first church, and is a superb piece of work attributed (tentatively) to Niccolò di Angelo. It was made from the base drum of an ancient column, and shows four figures in relief standing under a richly decorated colonnaded arcade. The figures are: Christ holding an open book; a bishop (either St Paulinus or St Adalbert); Emperor Otto III, with a very Germanic moustache and holding a disc with an image of the church, and St Bartholomew holding a book and the knife used to flay him. Letters above the figures add up to an inscription that reads: Os putei Sancti circumdant orbe rotanti ("The saints surround the mouth of the well as the orb rotates", literally.) There is another inscription on the lip of the well, but grooves formed by ropes used to draw water for centuries have defaced most of it.

Apparently there is no water down there now.

Chapel of the Millers[]

To the left of the sanctuary is the chapel of the Romanorum Molendinariorum or the Roman confraternity of millers. It was converted from the former sacristy by order of Pope Julius III, and was originally dedicated to St Paulinus of Nola. After the restoration of 1583 the relics of SS Adalbert and Paulinus were enshrined here, and the chapel was given to the millers in 1604. They left in 1846, and St Paulinus was taken to Nola in 1909. So, the chapel is now usually described as dedicated to St Adalbert. His arm is in a little metal box within a glass case here, near the door on the right which leads into the present sacristy.

In ancient times, the city of Rome was supplied with flour mostly from mills powered by donkeys or slaves. However, the ancient Romans did know about water mills (strangely, they never invented the windmill -or the wheelbarrow, for that matter). In the city, the two aqueducts terminating on the crest of the Janiculum, the Aqua Traiana and the Aqua Alsietina, dropped their excess water down a slope to the river which was steep enough for the driving of watermills. By tradition, when these aqueducts fell into disuse the millers took the stones and invented ingenious floating watermills on the river, using the current channelled between two boats on which the mill sat.

These floating mills survived until the mid 19th century, and supplied most of the city's flour in the Middle Ages. The Tiber Island had five moored alongside, out of a maximum of about twenty on the river. The thorough restoration by the confraternity in 1626 has left some very interesting views of these mills in the frescoes (unfortunately damaged), as well as on a marble tablet commemorating the work on the left hand side.

The ceiling, of 1704, shows the Apotheosis of St Paulinus. There are remains of the original Cosmatesque floor. The frescoed altarpiece, of 1665, shows The Assumption of Our Lady, with SS Paulinus, Adalbert, Exuperantius and Marcellus. Above it is an Annunciation of about the same date.

Orsini chapel[]

This is to the right of the sanctuary, and as the Blessed Sacrament Chapel is now a place for private prayer. The altarpiece fresco, only discovered in 1904, shows The Madonna and Child with SS Theodora, Abundius, Abundantius and Marcian and is of the beginning of the 13th century. Unfortunately it has been touched up in subsequent centuries, although the surviving blue background in genuine ultramarine is as bright now as when it was painted.

The altar beneath has an impressive frontal in polychrome marble opus sectile work, and has an inscription proclaiming that St Theodora the Matron (i.e. a married woman) has her relics here.

On the left hand side wall is an iron cannonball. This was fired from a French cannon during the siege of the city in 1849, when the Roman Republic was being suppressed. It smashed through the outer wall of the chapel, but lost momentum in the process and ended up sitting on the altar. This was regarded as miraculous, so it was inserted into the wall and an inscription put on a tablet beneath. This reads:

Bellicum hoc tormentum in perduelles a Via Aurelia iactum exeunte Iunio MDCCCXXXXIX disiectoque antico pariete huc immissum Sosipitatrice Maria opifera super altare inopinato constitit Franciscalium que incolumitatem posteris refert. ("This war-shot, thrown against the enemy from the Via Aurelia at the end of June 1849, broke up the ancient wall and came in here. By the help of Mary the saviour it stopped unexpectedly on the altar and [now] tells the safety of the Franciscans to posterity".)


This used to be accessed by means of a stairway in the sacristy behind the apse, but is now reached via a little garden just to the left of the transept. It is usually inaccessible to visitors, despite a restoration in 1975.

The vaulting is held up by two rows of little columns, three on each side. Some of the cushion capitals display the Imperial eagle, rather crudely carved, and these obviously derive from the first church.


Opening hours are:

Weekdays 9:30 to 13:30, 15:30 to 17:30.

Sundays 9:30 to 13:00.

The Office of the Basilica is open from 19:30 to 13:30 on Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays. You can ask in here about guided tours, and also about getting into the crypt.

Alternatively, for guided tours e-mail:

It is hoped to establish a small museum, but nothing has been posted on the church's website about this yet.


At present (2017), Mass is only advertised on Sundays at 11:30.

The Community of Sant'Egidio holds a prayer liturgy at 20:00 on Mondays, and 20:30 Tuesdays to Fridays. Please note that the church is only accessible then for those joining in, not in any way for visitors.


Overall width: 20 m, length: 51 m.

Narthex width: 20 m, length: 6 m.

Nave width: 9 m, length: 21 m, 7 columns two meters apart on each side of the nave.

Transept width: 20 m, length: 6 m.

Apse radius: 3 m.

Chapel width: 6 m, length: 12 m, two chapels on either side of the apse.

External links[]

Official diocesan web-page

Italian Wikipedia page

Church's website

Interactive Nolli Map Website

"De Alvariis" gallery on Flickr

Info.roma web-page

Roma SPQR web-page with gallery

Romeartlover web-page

Thayer's web-page

Tesoridiroma web-page

Armellini's history (p. 620)

Gallery on Flickr

List of cardinals

Roman Despatches - blog with gallery