San Cesareo in Palatio is a late 16th century titular and formerly conventual church rebuilt on old foundations, at the start of the Via di Porta San Sebastiano in the historic rione Ripa. Pictures of the church at Wikimedia Commons are here. There is an English Wikipedia page here.
The dedication is regarded as being to St Caesarius, an obscure martyr venerated at Terracina. The legend concerning him describes him as a 2nd century African deacon martyred in that town, but the story is fictional. The revised Roman martyrology of 2004 merely lists him as a martyr of unknown date.
The name has led to serious confusion. The original San Cesareo in Palatio was a church in the imperial palace on the Palatine, attached to a monastery which has left some archaeological evidence -see Oratorio di San Cesareo in Palatio. When that church was lost in the late Middle Ages, a confusion arose and contemporary scholars thought that the documentary sources referred to this one. As a result, when this church was made titular in 1600 it was given the erroneous title properly belonging to the lost church.
San Cesareo in Palatio is still the official name of the church, preferred by the Diocese. Those who appreciate the error can be found using the alternative name of San Cesareo de Appia. A spelling of Cesario also crops up.
The foundation legend of the Palatine church states that, in the 4th century, Emperor Valentinian III was cured at the shrine of St Caesarius at Terracina, the alleged site of his martyrdom. The emperor then decided to move his relics to Rome, and had them enshrined in the Palatine church. However, it has been suggested that the martyr never existed, and that the name of the original Palatine church derives from the Latin word Caesarium or one of its derivatives, meaning "belonging to Caesar" and referring to the palace. It now seems impossible to settle this question.
Given the above suggestion, the original dedication of this monastic church when it was founded in the 8th century might have been to St Caesarius of Nazianzen, if the foundation was by Byzantine-rite monks, or to St Caesarius of Arles if by Latin-rite ones.
In the legend, St Caesarius was martyred with a priest called Julian. In the later Middle Ages, the relics of both of them were venerated at this church but were then moved to the basilica of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme. Julian has been deleted from the Roman Martyrology.
In 1936, some work on the floor of the church revealed ancient remains beneath it dating from the 2nd century AD. These comprise the outlines of two interior spaces separated by a pair of columns, and the larger space (at the altar end of the church) sports a large black-and-white mosaic amounting to four hundred square metres. This is embellished with tritons and sea creatures, so a reasonable guess was made that the remains belonged to a bathing establishment. A further guess is that this was the Thermae Commodianae recorded in the Regionary Catalogues.
Unfortunately, it has been reported that the mosaic is been damaged by damp. It used to be viewable by visitors on application, but has not been so for several years. The writer has not tracked down a picture of it.
The excavations mentioned above also revealed the foundations of what is thought to be the first church here, built in the 8th century. It had a single nave with two apses (con due absidiole), an unusual feature. The ancient Roman floor level was raised by about 1.5 metres, and the walls provided with four external pilaster buttresses on each side.
However the first time the church is mentioned in written sources is in 1192, so nothing is certainly known about its early history.
Prescinding from what is known about the area in the Dark Ages, as well as hints in the mediaeval sources, it seems reasonable to surmise that the church was part of a monastery. That this monastery was of the Byzantine rite also seems possible. Many monastic refugees from Islam and the Iconoclast policies of the Byzantine Empire had settled in Rome in the 8th century, and their high standards of erudition made them very influential. The papal Curia came to be dominated by speakers of Greek in this period.
The church on the Palatine certainly had a Greek monastery attached, which adds to the historical confusion.
Early middle ages
Two early documentary references preserved in the Liber Pontificalis may (or may not) refer to this monastery. The biographies of Pope Leo III (795-816) and Leo IV (847-65) mention a monasterium Corsarum with an oratory of St Caesarius near the church of San Sisto Vecchio. The name Corsarum indicates that the monks or nuns came from Corsica; an alternative, less likely interpretation is that it depends on a local family called the Corsa who emerged into history in the 11th century.
The reliable documentary reference mentioned above of 1192 is in the Catalogue of Cencio Camerario, which lists both churches dedicated to St Caesarius; this one is distinguished by the suffix de Appia.
The 1936 excavation revealed that the original 8th century church was rebuilt in the early Middle Ages. This work involved the demolition of the two apses and their replacement with a single one, the further raising of the floor by about 40 centimetres and the rebuilding of the walls. The new walls had small splayed windows ringed with brickwork. Also, a narthex was provided.
Monastic life in Rome, whether Byzantine or Latin rite, suffered a downturn in the 9th century and the former rite vanished from the city in the 10th. In the latter century the Benedictine version of monasticism became dominant in Rome, and it seems that the complex here became a Benedictine nunnery. The foundation of a new monastic community here in the early 11th century fits in with the rebuilding visible in the archaeological evidence, even if there seems to be no documentary evidence of the event.
However, Benedictine monasticism in the city then suffered a complete and disgraceful collapse in the 13th century, and the church seems to have been simply abandoned then.
In 1302, the ruinous church was given to the order of the Fratres Cruciferi by Pope Boniface VIII, in order to become the nucleus of a hospice with thirty beds for pilgrims. The church was on the main pilgrim route from the mediaeval built-up area to the catacombs at San Sebastiano fuori le Mura along the Via Appia, these catacombs being the only ones accessible to visitors throughout the Middle Ages. This religious order was known as the Crutched Friars in English, and as the Crociferi in Italian; the latter needs to be distinguished from a religious order of knights called Bethlehemites, also known by this name.
There was a restoration of the church fabric as part of the conversion of the complex, and the side windows were made larger. Trace evidence of this survives in the left hand side wall.
The Anonymous Catalogue of Turin of about 1320 lists the church and hospital as San Cesareo in Turrim, and mentions that there were four brethren there but no priest. This hints already that the establishment was having problems.
The Crociferi had a rather unfortunate history (they were eventually suppressed), and the little hospice here seems to have failed. The complex then became home to a new community of Benedictine nuns, on a date in the later 14th century that seems uncertain.
This nunnery in turn became degenerate, and in 1439 was suppressed by Pope Eugene IV. He obviously did not know what to do with the church, because he merely made it dependent on the nearby San Sisto Vecchio.
Casina del Cardinale Bessarione
After the nuns were expelled, Cardinal Basilius Bessarion took up residence next door in 1460 (until recently, documentary evidence that he actually lived here was lacking, but has recently been traced). To obtain his country villa, he had the old hospice mostly rebuilt on an enlarged site; some of the medieval fabric survives in its south-west angle.
This Casina del Cardinale Bessarione survives intact, and until fairly recently was a museum open to the public. It has been owned by the City since the late 19th century, and was opened as a museum in 1936. Unfortunately, visitor numbers were very low and it was closed at the end of the 20th century. After archaeological investigations and a restoration, it is now used as a hospitality suite and temporary office accommodation. Hence it is private. It's not likely to open as a museum again. Guided tours of the Casina are occasionally offered by Roman historical and cultural groups.
The present church is the result of the intervention of Cardinal Caesar Baronius, titular of the nearby Santi Nereo e Achilleo. He was one of the most noted scholars of Rome at the end of the 16th century, and as a historian of the Church took an interest in the edifice. He adopted the mistaken view that the church was identical to the ancient Palatine chapel, and this led to a personal initiative to have the building restored. If it had not been for this, the church would have become completely ruinous and would have vanished, as the landowners round about would have taken its stone for repairing their vineyard walls.
Pope Clement VIII authorised the restoration, almost amounting to a rebuilding, and this took place in 1602-1603. Meanwhile, he had raised the church to titular rank in 1600 in response to Baronius's erroneous historical analysis, and so the incorrect name of San Cesareo in Palatio came to be. The first cardinal was Sivestro Aldobrandini, who was the pope's nephew and only a boy -not to be confused with the pope's father of the same name.
Although the church was described in contemporary sources as "rebuilt from the foundations", this in reality was not so. Mediaval walling was re-used, as can be seen from an inspection of the fabric. The project involved a spectacular new ceiling, and also the installation of several mediaeval fittings with Cosmatesque decoration which are now the most interesting items in the church. Nobody knows where these came from, but they were obviously thrown out in restorations of other churches. That they came from the Lateran basilica is plausible, although they may have come from several sources. They demonstrate Baronius's antiquarian interests.
No attempt was made to rebuild any part of the former hospice/convent complex to the left of the church, apart from the Casina mentioned. Instead, a small priests' house was attached to the right hand wall and this survives to the present day.
The Casina next door was given by the same pope to the newly-founded Clementine College, which remained in possession until 1873. However, the church was given into the care of the Somaschi Fathers and so lost its connection with the site of the former convent.
By the time of the Nolli map of 1748, the Casina was apparently being run as a roadside inn or osteria. The position was useful, because it was a third of the way to San Sebastiano from each of the nearest built-up areas, these being at the Lateran, the Velabro and the Colosseum. Two-thirds of the way was another osteria opposite the church of Domine Quo Vadis, which survives in business. These were useful staging-posts on the pilgrim walk to or from the catacombs.
The locality was then completely given over to vineyards, and the church had no pastoral function or devotional shrine to attract visitors. The Somaschi seem to have left by then, as they are not listed in the map, and so the church would have reverted to the responsibility of San Sisto and ultimately to that of the clergy of the Lateran, where it remains.
In the mid 19th century, Pope Pius IX took an interest in the church and ordered it to be restored.
The next major restoration was in 1936, when the opportunity was taken to survey the building and excavate under the floor. The mosaic there was discovered then.
The church was restored again in the years 1955 to 1963.
The church has been dependent on the parish of San Giovanni in Laterano, and the priest in charge is Mons. Maurizio Milano of the Diocese of Rome. The previous rector, the popular Mons. Giacomo Orlandi died in March 2016.
The mid 20th century restoration was not a great success. The church has had serious problems with rising damp in recent years, and cannot maintain its own fabric from its small income. This mostly comes from marriage fees. Serious concern was expressed before the Italian government agreed to fund a restoration which was scheduled to be taking place for about nine months from a date in 2013.
The church was first made titular in 1517 under the title of San Cesareo in Palatio, but the title was suppressed in 1587. As mentioned, it was made titular again under the same title in 1600 and remains so.
The present titular is Cardinal Antonio Maria Vegliò (as of June, 2012).
Apart from the motor traffic, the ambience of the church's setting has hardly changed since the 18th century. Small villas with large gardens hide behind the high walls of the vineyards that they replaced, a process that was not complete by the end of the 19th century.
Just to the west of the church is Via di Porta San Sebastiano 2, which is a gateway into the Parco di San Sebastiano. This little-known open space was laid out in 1925, and gives a good view of the church. Alternative entrances are at Via delle Terme di Caracalla 55, and on the Piazzale Numa Pompilio.
The church's setting is attractive, surrounded by trees. The actual street façade is set slightly back, creating a tiny piazza, and on the right hand side of this is the rustic-looking priests' house. The left hand side has the garden gate of the Casina, to the east of the church. This garden is another very attractive open space, but unfortunately now inaccessible to ordinary visitors. If you carry on down the street you will find a little gate labelled number 8, with a "Beware of the Dog" sign on it; this used to be the museum entrance.
Opposite the church you will see an ancient pink granite column, originally quarried at Aswan in Egypt, which is rather forlorn on its high plinth on a scruffy piece of grass. This is part of the 1603 restoration, and the ornate Baroque capital features a star which is to be found on the coat-of-arms of the Aldobrandini family to which Pope Clement VIII belonged.
Layout and fabric
The church is on a simple rectangular plan, with a single nave having no aisles but with a separate semi-circular apse having a lower elevation.
The fabric is in brick, with a pitched and tiled roof on the nave and a pitched apse roof which looks as if it has been tiled in a continuous curve instead of in sectors as is usual.
Into the corner between the apse and the far right hand wall is the campanile, which is an unadorned tower with its top storey having a large arched sound-opening on each face with Doric imposts. Unusually, these openings have little balustrades with balusters. The cap is a shallow tiled pyramid.
Although the Casina garden is now closed, you can still look across it from the park and see the right hand side wall of the church. The medieval fabric of the lower part has been left obvious by the 1936 restorers, and the blocked medieval windows are visible.
The rather restrained early Baroque façade was designed by Giacomo della Porta, and was a very late work of his. There are two storeys, but the treatment of the relationship between these is unusual. The first storey is treated as a very high plinth, and on either side of the door is a shallowly recessed vertical rectangular panel with a stepped edge. The single entrance doorway has a molded doorcase, over which is an inscription proclaiming the church's title. The doorcase is flanked by a pair of Tuscan pilasters, and is protected by a prothyrium which has two Doric columns supporting an entablature and a triangular pediment with dentillations. This has tiling on its gable, and intrudes into the second storey.
This second storey has four Ionic pilasters with exaggerated volutes decorated with swags and winged putto's heads. In between the capitals are flower swags with ribbons and the Aldobrandi star, and if you look at the corners of the façade here you will see a pair of odd devices like three skewed crosses joined together. These come from the Aldobrandini heraldry as well.
A string course runs across this storey behind the pilasters, and above it in the middle is a large rectangular window. Below this is a raised Baroque panel decorated with curlicues and cut into by the entrance pediment. In between the pairs of pilasters are two large rectangular panels in molded Baroque frames, one above the other; the lower have tassel at the bottom, and the upper have winged putto's heads at the top.
The pilasters support an entablature with a blank frieze and a dentillate cornice, and the triangular crowning pediment also has dentillation. The tympanum of this has yet another panel with curlicues.
All these panels, a total of eight, apparently used to be decorated with frescoes but these have since disappeared through erosion. The 1834 watercolour portrait of the church by Achille Pinelli, to be found at the Museum of Rome at Trastevere, depicts the three uppermost with surviving frescoes. The tympanum one shows Our Lady in a glory, the top left hand one a monk in a black habit (St Benedict?) and the top right hand one, a bearded saint in Roman dress accompanied by a small boy (St Joseph?). (The work of this artist always needs to be treated with caution. He was not accurate in details; for example, here he shows the entrance columns as square pillars instead of being round as they are).
Layout and fabric
The layout is a simple rectangle, with an attached apse having a conch. It amounts to an enjoyable instance of what the early Baroque age imagined a mediaeval church to look like. However, the insistent glorification of Pope Clement VIII which continues here is somewhat excessive.
The nave has six bays, which are differentiated by arcades of six blind arches on either side wall. This arrangement is often the result of side aisles in a church being demolished and the arcades walled up, but here the church was built like this.
The archivolts of the arcade arches are molded, and slightly separated from each other. They spring from wide Doric pilasters each of which has a panel in a white-on-black brecciated marble in a molded frame. Below each capital is a strange device consisting of one side of an Ionic pilaster capital, below which is a triglyph. Above each capital is a vase in shallow stucco relief, out of which is flying a pair of cherubs in fresco. The archivolts touch an otherwise unsupported entablature running round the church, with a frieze in the same black and white marble and a cornice with modillions and double dentillation. The archivolts have strap finials on their keystones.
The first two and the last one of the arches on each side are empty and undecorated. The last two are part of the presbyterium, as the final bay is incorporated into the sanctuary. The third arch on each side contains a side altar, which is in the form of an aedicule with a pair of Ionic columns in a black-on-white veined marble which contrasts with that used for the pilasters. These columns support an entablature and triangular pediment.
If this church were in the city centre, most of the side arches would have been filled with altars. That there are only three altars in the church here indicates that three was the maximum number of priests expected to be in residence.
A bombastic epigraph announcing the involvement of Pope Clement VIII in the rebuilding is over the entrance, and this has the coat-of-arms of the pope.
17th century artworks
The nave walls above the arcades have three windows each. In between these are fresco paintings which were executed by Cavaliere d'Arpino and Cesare Rosetti as part of the 17th century rebuilding project. A further two flank the window over the entrace. They depict the Life and Martyrdom of St Caesarius, and also feature two saints named Hippolytus. The latter were included as a further compliment to Pope Clement VIII, who was baptised as Ippolito. One of these was St Hippolytus of Rome, who existed historically, and the other was St Hippolytus of Porto, who did not but was a mistaken duplication of the former.
The splendid 17th century flat wooden coffered ceiling has two large central cross-shaped panels. One has Clement VIII's coat-of-arms (the Aldobrandini family), and St Caesarius is depicted in the other one. The square coffers in blue and gold repeat the heraldic attributes of the pope.
In the conch of the apse is a mosaic with an uncommon subject, God the Father Adored by Angels. It was executed by Francesco Zucchi from a design by Cavalier d'Arpino. To either side, on the spandrels of the triumphal arch, is a pair of frescoes making up a depiction of the Annunciation -Our Lady is on the left, and the archangel Gabriel on the right.
There is a fresco of Our Lady above the bishop's chair at the back of the apse. This from the 15th century, but was placed here in the rebuilding. The original provenance seems to be unknown.
The Cosmatesque fittings are of unknown provenance also. They may have been brought here from San Giovanni in Laterano, or from several sources; the latter is perhaps more likely, since an examination of the items shows that some of them were assembled from disparate parts. Also, as to be expected, there was much repair and restoration done when they were installed and after.
Some of the work is of very high quality, and includes a pale blue colour which is unusual in surviving Cosmatesque work.
Beginning at the entrance, the first two items are the frontals of the two side altars. These have the same pattern as the frontal of the main altar, involving a central tondo of dark green serpentine from Sparta in Greece, flanked by a pair of rectangular panels in imperial porphyry from the Eastern Desert in Egypt.
The ambo or pulpit is on the left by the sanctuary, and is obviously a composite work involving more serpentine and porphyry panels as well as twisted barley-sugar columns. The little carvings at the base of the columns of the pulpit itself repay examination; you can see the symbols of the four evangelists, as well as the Lamb of God, a griffin and Adam and Eve with the Tree of Knowledge.
The transennae or pair of screens flanking the entrance to the sanctuary double up as lecterns. Again they are composite; the exquisite main slabs with rectangular panelling are embellished with a pair of barley-sugar columns and a pair of architraves. The lecterns themselves are in the form of angels, and look 17th century.
The sanctuary floor is raised over that of the nave, so the frontage of the main altar is double-deckered. The lower storey features a pair of angels, drawing back curtains from a niche with a diapered bronze grating. This is an arrangement appropriate to enshrined relics, but there has never been anything like that here. Nowadays there is a 20th mosaic of St Caesarius in the niche; one wonders if the restorers hoped to recover his actual relics when they built this. The angels are thought to have been looted from a 15th century tomb by Paolo Romano.
The floor in front of this pseudo-shrine, in between the pair of staircases leading to the sanctuary, is Cosmatesque around a central rayed serpentine tondo.
The actual altar frontal has the same overall pattern as those of the side altars, but is incredibly detailed and is the besti thing in the church. There are four animal and bird motifs: a pair of doves flanked by a pair of sheep and horses respectively, while the central tondo has a pair of polychrome phoenixes or birds-of-paradise. Note the poor repair to this tondo.
The baldacchino or ciborium of the main altar is 17th century, with four Ionic columns in broccatellone marble. Its cupola contains a fresco of the Holy Spirit in glory surrounded by putto's heads, with the four Latin Doctors of the Church in the pendentives.
There is a pair of cantoria or enclosures for singers and musicians flanking the sanctuary. The main fabric of these is 17th century, with marble panelling as appropriate, but strips of Cosmatesque work have been included.
The episcopal chair is behind the altar, set against the far wall within a niche with a gable. This is one item that is unlikely to have come from the Lateran.
The church is only regularly open on Saturdays, 10:00 to 16:00 and on Sunday mornings, 10:00 to 12:00, according to a notice on the door in November 2018. Apparently, this is owing to a lack of funds to pay a custodian to be present. As of 16th February 2019, this notice was no longer on the door of the church and the church was closed at 1.30pm.
The church is very popular for weddings, so you may find it being used for one on Saturday. The income that this generates amounts to most of the church's financial resources.
A Mass is celebrated at 11:30 on Sundays and solemnities (unofficial source, 2017).