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San Bernardo alle Terme is a 16th century monastic and titular church resulting from a conversion of an ancient Roman building. It is at Via Torino 94, just off Piazza di San Bernardo and opposite Santa Susanna in the historical rione Monti (the present rione Castro Pretorio). Pictures of the church on Wikimedia Commons are here. There is an English Wikipedia article here.

The dedication is to St Bernard of Clairvaux.


Ancient rotunda[]

The edifice is actually ancient, being substantially a rotunda 22 metres in diameter which was part of the complex of the Baths of Diocletian. This enormous public facility, completed in 306, occupied a rectangular site measuring 380 by 370 metres, and was surrounded by an enclosure or peribolos wall. The main bath buildings are now occupied by the church of the former Carthusian monastery of Santa Maria degli Angeli.

The main entrance into the enclosure was on the north-east side, now under the cloister of the old monastery, and there were two subsidiary entrances on the north-west and south-east sides. The south-west wall incorporated an enormous semi-circular area or exedra, and it is thought that this might have been used as a theatre with wooden stands. Flanking this was a pair of pillared halls which might have been libraries (there is doubt about this), and then came a pair of identical rotundas at the enclosure corners to the west and south. The exedra is marked by the arc of modern buildings on the Piazza della Repubblica.

Both of the rotundas survive, aided in this by the fact that the brick walls are massively thick. This is a good hint that they originally had domes. The present church is the western one, and the southern one is in the Via del Viminale. The latter looks good from the street, but the invisible side is ruined and modern buildings have intruded into it.

The rotundas were identical. Each had four portals, two being entrances from outside the bath enclosure. The third portal led into one of the library buildings, and the fourth into the bath enclosure itself. In between the portals were four semi-circular statue niches.

It is obvious that these rotundas were entrance foyers for visitors to the baths, especially since the library buildings could only be accessed via them. Other uses suggested have been as places to relax or to play ball games, but these are poor guesses; there would have been too much through foot traffic for either.

The Feuillants[]

The rotunda was converted to a church of a new monastery for the Feuillants. These monks comprised a reform movement of the Cistercian monastic order, which itself was an early 12th century reform of the Benedictines, and which had a great similarity to the later Cistercian reform known as the Trappists.

The reform started at Les Feuillants Abbey near Toulouse in France, and was instigated in 1577 by the abbot, Jean de la Barrière. (Feuille is French for leaf.) The accent was strongly on penitential practices in excess of those to be found in the original Benedictine rule, such as allowing only four hours' sleep per night on a hard surface and eating only food made from barley flour, oats and vegetables (no salt).

The reform proved popular, and In 1587 Pope Sixtus V established the church of Santa Pudenziana as one of its monasteries. However other established Cistercian monasteries were hostile, and so a separate congregation was established in 1589 which founded new abbeys in France and Italy. In 1595 new constitutions were adopted, which toned down the savagery of the original penitential regime.

In Italy the monks were known as Foglianti.

Foundation of the monastery[]

Caterina Nobili Sforza, Countess of Santa Fiora and a niece of Pope Julius III, founded a second Feuillant monastery in the city in 1594 and paid for it out of her private fortune. The rotunda was converted into its church in 1598, and consecrated in 1590

Who was the architect?

The Quirinal in the Middle Ages had reverted to countryside, but from the latter part of the 16th century a continuous series of different convents were founded along the road from the present Piazza del Quirinale to the Porta Pia. This abbey was one of them; at the time of its foundation, the surroundings were still mostly vineyards.

Monastery layout[]

The abbey buildings lay to the south of the church, fitting in between the rotunda and the ancient exedra. The church apse, and the monastic choir behind it where the monks celebrated the Divine Office, were included in a block of building (the barrier between the two has been removed to convert the choir into a larger presbyterium). Then came a large cloister with arcades on all four sides but ranges of buildings only on three; the west side only had a screen wall. Domestic buildings such as kitchens were to the south of the cloister. The main entrance to the abbey was to the east of the church, which led into a long path down the side of the east cloister range. Next to the entrance on the east side was the monastic guesthouse. On the west side of the church was another entrance into a garden, and this survives (as does part of the garden).

The abbey had many gardens and vineyards, especially a large one occupying the exedra which was the main vegetable garden. At the apex of the curve of the latter was the (now demolished) chapel of Santa Caterina dell' Esedra, which the foundress had built to her memory.

The church stood back from the main street on its own little piazza, with walled gardens on both sides. The one to the east belonged to the abbey's guesthouse, but that to the west was attached to the Roman headquarters of the Tuscan Camaldolese Congregation. This stood on the street front, and has been demolished as well (it had an interior private chapel, but no attached church or distinct chapel building).

Later history[]

In 1592, Jean de la Barrière was accused of Protestant sympathies. There must have been some truth in this, because he was degraded and deposed as superior before being sent here to live under supervision. However, he was exonerated and reconciled with the help of St Robert Bellarmine just before  his death in 1600.

In 1630 the congregation was divided, and a new congregation set up which comprised the Italian monasteries. This was known as the "Reformed Bernardines", nicknamed the Bernardoni. In the 18th century, the two monasteries of San Pudenziana and San Bernardo had ended up in two different reform congregations; the former was in the Bernardoni but the latter was in a congregation known as the "Reformed Cistercians of the Holy Spirit". The permutations and combinations of the various Cistercian congregations at this time can be difficult to work out.

The church was restored in 1670, and the overtly Baroque decoration especially of the façade is thought to date from this restoration.

The Feullaints in France were suppressed during the French Revolution, but the Italian monasteries including this one survived briefly until closed down during the Napoleonic occupation. After the restoration of Papal government to Rome, the monastery joined the Congregation of St Bernard (Congregazione Cistercense di San Bernardo d'Italia) which is part of the "Cistercians of Common Observance" (as distinct from the "Strict Observance" or Trappists).

A major re-ordering of the parishes of the Centro Storico took place in 1824, under the bull Super Universam issued by Pope Leo XII. This made the church parochial.

In 1857 the dome lantern almost crashed through the dome, and had to be removed. This restoration by Pope Pius IX is commemorated in an epigraph over the entrance.

The abbey was sequestered by the Italian government in 1872, and used as army barracks for several years. In 1901 it was demolished for redevelopment, which created the Via Torino. The nearest modern building to the church on the east hand side of this street, number 94 built in 1909, was rented back to the Congregation of St Bernard as part of a small monastery which includes the surviving old north range of the cloister. The monks retain possession of the church.

The parish was suppressed in 1906.

At present, five Cistercian monks are based here. The headquarters of the congregation is the abbey of the Madonna dei Lumi at San Severino Marche, and the Generalate of the Order of Cistercians of the Common Observance is at Piazza del Tempio di Diano 14 on the Aventine (this has no church or chapel with a separate architectural identity).


The church was titular from its consecration, in 1670.

The previous titular priest was H.E. Varkey Vithayathil, C.SS.R., who was appointed on 21 February, 2001. He was the Indian head of the Syro-Malabar rite until his death in 2011. The present titular is George Alencherry, appointed in 2012 and who holds the same responsibility.


Layout and fabric[]

The layout of the church looks circular, of course. The north-west portal of the ancient rotunda, the one that led into a library hall, is now the entrance. The opposite entrance is now occupied by the sanctuary, which used to be the monastic choir. The other two ancient entrances are occupied by side chapels.

To the right of the presbyterium is the Chapel of St Francis, a small one-storey add-on attached to the monastery block containing the sanctuary.

The ancient rotunda is in brick, and this can be seen from the Via Torino angle where the church wall is not rendered with stucco.

On top of the rotunda is a decagonal drum for the dome, and this is capped by a tiled decagonal dome which has ten triangular pitches which are, interestingly, not all of the same size. The ones round the back are smaller, giving the impression that the dome is octagonal when looked at from the entrance side (this architectural quirk has fooled some well-informed people; see the "Romeartlover" web-page in the "External links").

This arrangement seems to be because the ancient rotunda is not quite circular, but is actually slightly oval (not elliptical -think of the outline of an egg).

This dome used to have a prominent lantern with ten round-headed windows separated by Doric pilasters, and a semi-spherical cupola with a ball finial. The lantern had to be removed in the 19th century restoration, because its weight was cracking the dome. In its place is now a much lighter lantern, installed in the late 20th century, which is made up of 32 panes of glass joined in a hexadecagon with a conical sheet metal cap and a cross finial.

Each face of the drum is coved (concave), and bears a large blank horizontal elliptical tondo in a molded stucco frame embellished with curlicues. This design element amounts to a Baroque feature, and seems to date from the 1670 restoration. Each pair of drum faces is separated by a squat pilaster with an inset rectangular panel. The drum is rendered in pale orange, with architectural details in white.

The convent block containing the apse and choir has its own pitched, hipped and tiled roof and joins onto the surviving north cloister range.

Perched on the roof of the latter, and attached to the side of the choir block on its far right hand side, is a little campanile. This is in the form of a cubical kiosk, with a little tiled cupola on a drum in the shape of a chamfered square and finally a large finial like a miniature version of the cupola. This campanile would just be visible from the Via Torino, but the trees in the garden get in the way.


As mentioned, the façade is rendered in stucco in the same colour scheme as the drum and much of it is from the 1670 restoration. The roofline is a strongly protruding cornice with dentillations, but this only goes as far as the shapeless buttresses on either side (which seem to be there so that you can't see that the rest of the church is bare brick).

The decoration is applied rather than pretending to be part of the architecture. The large single entrance has a raised triangular pediment over an inscription commmorating the 1857 restoration, and over that is a fresco of St Bernard Holding the Cross and MandylionThis is in an extremely ornate early Baroque frame with curlicues, rosettes, a scallop shell, swags, flaming urns and a little segmental pediment.

To each side of the doorway is a pair of large Doric pilasters in shallow relief on a high plinth, supporting a fragment of cornice rather than a proper entablature. These pilasters enclose a large empty round-headed niche with scallop decoration in the conch, and with an ornate frame topped by  a segmental pediment. Above this is a blank tablet, also with an ornate frame, and at present the two of these display the coats-of arms of the pope (left) and cardinal (right).

Above each pair of pilasters is another, smaller and shallower pair of Ionic pilasters with swagged capitals and displaying hanging garlands. These pilasters reach the roofline cornice. Each pair encloses another empty round-headed niche, but this one has a cobra-hood finial with swags instead of a pediment.

Detail of façade.


Layout and fabric[]

The structure is cylindrical, dominated by the dome which has a diameter of 22 metres (about 55 feet). The decorative scheme, in white and pastel orange with the dome all in white, gives an impression of cool, restrained elegance which contrasts with the polychrome Mannerist and Baroque riots across the road at Santa Susanna and Santa Maria della Vittoria respectively. The original artworks and sculptures here are Mannerist, too.

The predominantly white decor is because the only natural light that comes into the church is through the dome oculus.

The magnificent interior of the dome is coffered in octagons, which decrease in size towards the oculus at the apex. There are nine rings of them, giving the impression of a work by Escher. The lantern here allows in the only natural light that enters the church, and inside it is a stucco representation of the Dove of the Holy Spirit.

The interior dome has no drum or pendentives, but sits directly on a ring cornice. This is supported by tripletted Ionic pilasters, with three in each quadrant having their capitals connected by stucco swags. In between each set of three pilasters are two round-headed niches containing statues, eight in all.  The apse and side chapels are entered through large archways of identical size, with their molded archivolts reaching up to the cornice; the same arrangement exists at the entrance, where there is a wooden interior doorcase. 

To the right of the presbyterium is the doorway into the Chapel of St Francis; the identical doorway on the left leads to the sacristy and convent.

Statues and memorials[]

The eight statues of saints are in stucco. They are gigantic, over 3 metres tall, and are by Camillo Mariani. He finished them in about 1600. From the near right hand side, the saints depicted are: Augustine (reading from a book -he is a Doctor of the Church), Monica (as an old lady -his mother), Mary Magdalen, Francis of Assisi, Bernard (note the little building he is holding -he is counted as a founder of the Cistercians), Catherine of Alexandria (with her spiked wheel), Catherine of Siena and Jerome (improperly dressed, as a hermit in the Syrian desert. The lion with him properly belongs to St Gerasimus of the Jordan).

Several memorials have been affixed to the wall below the statues, of various ages and interest. The large and intricate neo-Renaissance one under the statue of St Catherine of Alexandria, to the left of the apse, is to the sculptor Carlo Finelli who died in 1853. It is by Rinaldo Rinaldi, who was from Padua.

Under the statue of St Mary Magdalen is a tablet commorating Blessed Clemens August von Galen, cardinal of the church and archbishop of Münster in Germany under the Nazis. He was beatified in 2005.

Side chapels[]

The side chapels contrast with thre rest of the church in having polychrome marble fittings. The altarpieces of both are by Giovann Odazzi.

The chapel on the left is dedicated to St Robert of Molesmes, regarded as the original founder of the Cistercians (although he died as a Benedictine abbot), and the altarpiece depicts The Mystic Marriage of St Robert to Our Lady. The altar has a pair of Composite columns in white, grey and black brecciated marble with gilded capitals, and these support two fragments of a split and separated segmental pediment. Into the gap is inserted a tablet with a winged putto's head, and this has its own triangular pediment. A pair of stucco angels recline in the spandrels of the arch, the pilasters and archivolt of which are in red marble.

The chapel on the right is dedicated to St Bernard, and has the arch in the same style. The altarpiece shows The Ecstasy of St Bernard, and refers to a vision that he had of Christ descending from the cross to embrace him. The altar has a similar pair of columns, which support a triangular pediment into which the round-headed altarpiece intrudes. Above this is a tablet bearing the Dove of the Holy Spirit in a glory.

Jean de la Barrière[]

To the right of the door into the Chapel of St Francis is a painting by Andrea Sacchi of Jean de la Barrière, founder of the Feuillant reform. It is capsule-shaped, set in a curlicued frame in a greyish-green marble. This is itself inserted into an aedicule, with a pair of red marble columns and a triangular pediment over a frieze in alabaster. 

The Feuillants used to celebrate their founder privately on 25 April, and he can be found described with the title "Venerable" which indicates that they initiated a cause to have him canonized. However, he was never beatified and so this shrine has no altar (it is forbidden to celebrate Masses in honour of unbeatified persons).


The present sanctuary is a vaulted space lit by a pair of windows high up on each side, which are inserted into lunettes. The vault itself is merely whitewashed. This space used to be the rather cramped monastic choir, separated by a screen from the main church. Until this barrier was removed, the main altar stood in a shallow niche like the altars in the side chapels.

The back of the sanctaury has a curved apse. This has no conch above, but stops at a large arch into which the church's organ is inserted.

Unusually, both the present high altar and the "people's altar" (for Mass celebrated facing the congregation) are of polychrome stonework. The latter is fronted with alabaster, and the former now bears the tabernacle together with a Calvary. There is no altarpiece.

Chapel of St Francis[]

The Chapel of St Francis is accessed through the door to the right of the presbyterium. It is a rather small rectangular room, with an altar having a stucco statue of St Francis Receiving the Stigmata by Giacomo Fancelli. The altar has a pair of Corinthian columns in what looks like yellow Sienese marble. These support a split segmental pediment, with a mob of winged putto's heads in the gap.

The chapel vault is in white with gold ribbing, meeting at a gilded stucco Dove of the Holy Spirit.

The German painter Johann Friedrich Overbeck, founder of the Nazarene art movement, died in 1869 and has his monument in the far left hand corner. The effigy is shown as if lying in a loculus or grave-niche in a catacomb. The sculptor was Karl Hoffmann.

There is an attractive monument to Giuseppe Dynasta Villapiana and his sister Karolina of 1864, with busts showing them as they really looked and dressed.


The church is open from 6:30 to 12:00 and 16:00 to 19:00.


The Sunday Masses are at 18:00 on Saturday (anticipated), and at 11:00 on Sunday. (September 2018 -it is reported that the Saturday anticipated Mass is now cancelled.)

Mass on weekdays is at 7:30.

Every day is celebrated all the canonical hours of the Divine Office, at which anyone can participate when the church is open to the public (this is for weekdays only;  the information is several years old, and may be out of date):

Vigils 5:00, Lauds 6:30, Terce 8:00, Sext 12:15, None 15:00, Vespers 18:00, Compline 21:00.

Please only contribute vocally if you can do so properly, without distracting the brethren.

External links[]

Official diocesan web-page

Italian Wikipedia page

Interactive Nolli map website

"De Alvariis" gallery on Flickr

Rinaldi gallery

Info.roma web-page

Roma SPQR web-page with gallery

"Laboratorioroma" web-page

"Romaincamper" web-page

Youtube video

"Italianvirtualtour" panorama of interior

Roman Despatches - blog (with gallery)