San Bonaventura al Palatino is a 17th century convent church, which is located on the Palatine at Via San Bonaventura 7. This is in the rione Campitelli. Pictures of the church on Wikimedia Commons are here. The German Wikipedia page is good (there is no English one yet), and is here.
Castellum of aqueduct
The friary was built on the site of the castellum, or terminus of a branch of the Claudian aqueduct which was built by the emperor Domitian to supplement the water supply to the Palatine complex. Remains of this aqueduct can be seen in the valley occupied by the Via di San Gregorio.
There was enough interest already in the ancient ruins on the Palatine for the site to be examined and recorded by Pirro Ligorio in 1552. The ruins of the castellum were substantial, but were almost completely cleared to make way for the friary. However, the convent refectory or dining hall is thought to have utilized an ancient cistern; see the PDF article in the "External links" below for a detailed discussion.
The origins of the friary here lie in movements for reform within the Franciscan order of friars, which were very active in the late Middle Ages and had a complicated history. (The available descriptions online in English are not very good, but are better in Spanish.)
One of these was the Alcantarene Friars Minor or Discalced Franciscans, founded by St Peter of Alcantara in Spain; the reform was very strict, with a penitential lifestyle (any sort of footwear was prohibited). To the friary at Escornalbou belonging to this reform was professed in 1641 a widower called Miquel Baptista Gran, who took the name "Bonaventure of Barcelona". In 1658 he was sent to Rome, where he was at Santa Maria in Aracoeli and also served as doorkeeper at Sant'Isidoro a Capo le Case. Despite not being a priest, his spiritual integrity and zeal for reform won him influential disciples and he became associated with another Franciscan reform movement called the Reformed Friars Minor of the Strict Observance.
In 1662, Blessed Bonaventure of Barcelona (he was beatified in 1906) founded the Ritiro di San Bonaventura here. A ritiro was a "retreat house", an original feature of the Franciscan movement; it was a place of penitential solitude, where friars could withdraw from secular society for a time or permanently. Cardinal Francesco Barberini was the financial patron, and with his help the new church and friary were begun in 1675 on land that belonged to his family. Blessed Bonaventure died here in 1684, and the project was finally finished in 1689.
The friary became the mother house of a small Italian Franciscan reform movement of its own, called the Riformella or "Little Reform".
Beware of the year 1625, quoted in several sources as that of the foundation of the friary. The mistake derives from the book on Roman churches published in 1891 by Armellini. The years quoted above are from Walter Buchowiecski's Handbuch der Kirchen Roms 1997.
St Leonard of Port Maurice
The most famous person associated with the friary was St Leonard of Port Maurice. From Porto Maurizio in Liguria (now part of Imperia), he became a friar of the Riformella in 1697 and studied at San Bonaventura. After the old friary at San Miniato was donated to the Riformella, he was based there and also founded a ritiro at Icontro near Florence. He was one of the greatest missionaries in Italy in the 18th century, and is most famous for his propagation of the devotion of the Stations of the Cross. He established a set of these on the street leading to the friary, which survive, and also in the Colosseum which was consecrated as a church -Santa Maria della Pietà al Colosseo. The confraternity responsible for administering the devotion at the Colosseum had its own chapel in the Forum -Oratorio della Via Crucis nel Foro Romano.
The saint died at San Bonaventura in 1751, and is enshrined here under the high altar.
When the Nolli map was published in 1748, the Franciscans in charge here were called "Observants of the Retreat". However, later on in the 19th century the friary was in the charge of the Alcantarene Franciscans whose main church in Rome was Santi Quaranta e San Pasquale Baylon in Trastevere.
There was a major restoration in 1849, and the present appearance and layout of the convent dates from this. The southern half of the convent was demolished, and the area subject to archaeological investigation. The church was given a ceiling vault, and a large window inserted into the façade to improve the lighting. The work was paid for by Carlo and Alessandro Torlonia, as a marble tablet inside the entrance proclaims.
In 1873, the friary was sequestered by the Italian government, together with almost all the other convents in Rome. The motivation was to provide accommodation for civil servants, members of the armed forces and other government employees in the new capital of Italy, but it is clear that the government did not really know what to do with this property. The friars were allowed to rent the church and a few ancillary rooms, but the rest of the friary was used as dormitory accommodation for immigrant workers on the major engineering projects in the city such as the Tiber embankments. This cannot have been very welcome to them, because the friary was known for having some of the poorest accommodation of any of Rome's convents (as appropriate to an order vowed to corporate poverty).
In 1897, Pope Leo XIII decided to enforce a union between four Franciscan orders, mainly because the lapse of time had blurred any distinctions between them. These were the Observants, Alcantarines, Reformed and Recollects and the resultant new consolidated order was simply named as the "Order of Friars Minor". (The Franciscan Conventuals and Capuchins were not involved.) As a result the friary here passed to the Friars Minor, in whose charge it remains.
The friary was fortunate to survive an early 20th century campaign by nationalist "archaeologists" to demolish it. They did succeed in destroying St Leonard's Stations of the Cross in the Colosseum, but one of the agreements in the Lateran Treaty in 1929 was that the Holy Father could make the Stations there on Good Friday. Moveable ones are set up for the purpose.
One way in which the friars here now make a living is in making the church available to the Centro Storico marriage circuit. It is one of the more popular churches in the list, so you may find a wedding going on here especially on a Saturday.
Layout and fabric
As it now stands after the early 19th century demolitions, the friary consists of the church aligned west to east, a tower block abutted against the apse wall, a range running east of this, and three other ranges arranged around a tiny cloister to the south side of the church. The south walk of this cloister merely had an arcade. The north cloister range abuts the right hand wall of the church.
The fabric of the friary is best viewed from the archaeological zone, as it is not much visible from the public entrance.
The church has a short two-bay nave without aisles, and a rectangular apse. Unlike many churches in Rome, the pitched and tiled roof is at the same height as the façade gable. The apse has its own pitched roof, slightly higher. The campanile is on the right hand roofline of this, and is a simple slab with an arched opening for a single bell and a gable on top.
The garden has a famous fountain, and the terrace on the north side of the friary has a spectacular view of the Colosseum.
Stations of the Cross
The approach road turns a right angle just before reaching the friary, and along the left hand side of the final length of the street are a series of the Stations of the Cross. Each has its own aedicule, with an arched niche topped by a gable forming a false pediment. The Stations themselves are of painted terracotta, but are not the originals set up by St Leonard of Port Maurice. These were by Antonio Bicchierai, but unfortunately his Stations did not survive the weather. They were replaced in 1772 by a sculptor called Giovanni Franchi, and painted by Corrado da Rimini.
The last two stations are attached to the façade, either side of the entrance door.
The façade is very simple, lacking pretension. The single doorway has a molded Baroque marble doorcase, and
above this is a statue of St Bonaventure in a round-headed niche. There is a curlicued scroll below his feet, identifying him. Above the statue in turn is a large lunette window containing stained glass. The façade as a whole has a slightly raised white frame, which attaches to the slightly protruding roofline gable. The rest of the façade (apart from the Stations) is merely render, painted in a dull redddish pink.
The short two-bay nave has two chapels on each side, inserted into shallow arched niches with Doric archivolts. The 19th century ceiling vault is coffered in a geometric pattern with small squares surrounding large rectangles, and is simply painted in white and dark grey. It rests on an incomplete entablature (no architrave) which runs down each side of the nave. Over the entrance door is a large modern stained glass lunette window, featuring St Leonard Venerated by Angels. It also shows the Colosseum.
The presbyterium is the third bay of the church, and is separated from the nave by a triumphal arch which is merely a protruding part of the vaulting with coffering on the intrados and no spandrels. This springs from a pair of pilasters, which are treated decoratively as jutting parts of the nave wall with the nave entablature forming what look like Doric capitals at their tops. The vault here is treated identically to that of the nave.
On the side walls are two cantoria or galleries for singers; the left hand one has a window over it. Flanking the high altar are the entrances to a pair of side chapels which amount to little rooms; above these are two corretti or little galleries with round-headed mesh screens.
The church is dominated by the enormous aedicule of the high altar, which has a pair of free-standing Corinthian columns on high plinths. These are of what looks like yellow Sienese marble, and support an entablature and triangular pediment. The entablature frieze has a long dedicatory inscription in small lettering, hard to read.
The large round-headed altarpiece depicts Our Lady Immaculate as Queen of the Three Orders of Franciscans. It is by Filippo Micheli da Camerino, and shows Franciscan friars, Poor Clare nuns and noble members of the Third Order (or Tertiaries) venerating the Immaculate Conception.
St Leonard of Port Maurice is enshrined under the altar.
The church has six chapels, four in the nave and two flanking the high altar. They are treated anticlockwise from the right of the entrance.
The first chapel on the right is dedicated to the Crucifixion. The altarpiece is a Calvary by Giovanni Battista Benaschi of 1677. This painter is more familiar from his works at Naples, and painted in a Mannerist style rather old-fashioned for the time. The picture features Our Lady, St John the Evangelist and St Mary Magdalen in the centre.
The second chapel on the right is dedicated to three Spanish Franciscan saints: Paschal Baylon, Salvatore Horta and Diego D'Alcalà. The altarpiece by Giacinto Calandrucci, and depicts the three saints sharing a vision of the Holy Family (including St Anne). Interestingly, an angel is presenting the Blessed Sacrament to the Madonna and Child -in this picture, Jesus Christ is depicted twice.
The chapel to the right of the high altar is dedicated to St Anthony of Padua, and the left hand one to St Francis. The altars enshrine the relics of two obscure alleged Roman martyrs from the catacombs, named Colomba (right) and Flavian (left). The two altarpieces are by a Polish artist named Cetowicz (this may be misspelt).
The second chapel on the left is dedicated to Our Lady, and the altarpiece of the Annunciation is by Benaschi again. The relics of Blessed Bonaventure of Barcelona are enshrined under the altar here.
The first chapel on the left is dedicated to St Michael the Archangel, and the altarpiece of him is also by Benaschi.
St Leonard's cell
You can ask to visit the cell in the friary that was occupied by St Leonard. This was in the part of the friary turned into a workers' hostel by the government, but it was restored as a little museum of the saint in 1933.
The painted crucifix that he used on his preaching tours is kept at the right hand side of the presbyterium, and there should be a picture of Our Lady that he used in the same way on the left side (this may have been moved).
Visiting the church is a nice opportunity to see an Italian friary, and a welcome escape from the crowds in the Forum. It's located in the archaeological area of the Palatine hill, for which there is an entrance fee.
However, despite appearances the road to the friary (but no further) is a public street with free access. This is a cul-de-sac entered just south-west of the Colosseum, and the friary is right at the end. There is no access to the friary from the archaeological zone, neither any way of getting into the zone from this street. After you visit the friary, you have to go all the way back to the Colosseum (but do visit San Sebastiano al Palatino, which is on the same street -if it is open).
Mass is celebrated:
Monday to Friday 6:50 -with Lauds (7:00 in summer); Saturday 7:30 -with Lauds; Sunday 19:00 (8:00 in summer).
Lauds on Sunday is at 8:00 (7:30 in summer) in the convent chapel (not the church).
Sext is celebrated in the convent chapel at 12:45 -not Sundays.
Vespers is at 19:00 Mondays to Saturdays, followed by Meditation (Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament on Thursdays). On Sundays it is at 18:40. In summer is is at 19:30 daily, in the garden (that's what the convent website says).
"De Alvariis" gallery on Flickr (Best online photos of friary.)