The dedication is to St Francis Xavier.
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San Nicolò de Forbitoribus
The site concerned used to be occupied by a mediaeval church named San Nicolò de Forbitoribus, which was possibly first mentioned in 1192. There is a definite reference in a bull of Pope Urban V (1362-70), and in 1405 it was recorded that the campanile fell onto the church during a storm.
The name Forbitoribus refers to the guild of cutlers or knife, razor and scissor makers, but it is unclear whether this was just a nickname deriving from workshops round about, or whether the guild had actual rights in the church.
In 1551 the Camaldolese were granted the church, which had fallen into ruins, and they built a small monastery next door. The dedication was changed to Sant'Antonio (St Anthony of Egypt). The monks were here until 1631, when the Jesuits were able to obtain and demolish the entire complex by offering property near the Piazza Venezia in exchange. The Camaldolese re-established themselves at San Romualdo.
The oratory was built by the Jesuit Pietro Garavita, after whom it was named, in 1631. He was interested in evangelizing the farm-workers of the Roman Campagna who came into the city, usually either to frequent the markets or to help out with the hay harvest in summer. In the latter period, they lived in shanties and caves around the Forum and the Esquiline, and were notorious for their lack of religious instruction. This was hardly their fault, as the countryside around Rome was in a semi-derelict state and was infested with malaria. There were very few working churches or chapels back home for them, and almost no clergy wishing to minister to them.
The new oratory was dedicated to Our Lady of Pity (Santa Maria della Pietà) as well as the famous Jesuit missionary St Francis Xavier. It was intended as the headquarters of the Missione Urbana, a group of priests dedicated to this evangelization, and was funded by charitable donations.
It was rebuilt in 1677, to a plan large enough to make the building bigger than many old Roman churches. However, its former status as an oratory rather than as a church can be spotted by noting the lack of a campanile. However, the Diocese now regards it as being a church.
Mantelloni and after
It was later used by the Congregazione della Santissima Comunione Generale or Mantelloni, a secular penitential confederacy at the Collegio Romano. They used to flog themselves (and allegedly each other) in the oratory before going out in procession in voluminous black cloaks, hence the nickname. The intention was to foster regular reception of communion at Mass, but the extreme nature of their public penance led to disorder and their activities had to be controlled. There was a lot of local gossip in the 18th century as to how penance had become a subsidiary motive for what was going on.
The Society of Jesus was suppressed between 1773 and 1813. Afterwards, the Jesuits used the building as the centre of activity for all the Jesuit lay associations in Rome. It was also used for concerts of music (of very high quality) and also for regular expositions of the Blessed Sacrament. There was a restoration in the latter 19th century.
The oratory fell into disuse in 1925, but was restored again in 2000.
Layout and fabric
The oratory is on the corner of a junction of two narrow streets, and is aligned north to south. There are two architectural elements. The entrance façade faces a two-storey block with a flat roof which contains the vestibule and upper rooms. The actual oratory is a rectangular nave with a large semi-circular external apse which is slightly narrower.
The fabric is in pinkish-yellow brick.
If you look down the street to the right of the façade, the Via del Collegio Romano, you will see a covered passage connecting the oratory and the College by means of a bridge over the street. This, the Arco dei Gesuiti, was built in 1716, and allowed college students to access the oratory without having to go outdoors.
The façade has two-storeys, of pinkish brick with architectural details in travertine limestone.
The first storey has four Doric pilasters supporting an entablature with a strongly projecting cornice, and a dedicatory inscription on the frieze. The latter reads: Matri Pietatis et Francisco Xaverio Indiarum Apostolo MDCXXXIII ("To [Mary] Mother of Piety and Francis Xavier, Apostle of the Indies, 1633"). The entrance has a triangular pediment broken at the top. This storey also has a pair of large rectangular windows, with floating cornices over their lintels.
The second storey has a row of three rectangular windows, and above these a corresponding row of three quatrefoil windows. The roofline is horizontal.
The interior consists of a narthex or vestibule, and an aisleless nave with a barrel-vaulted ceiling into which dormer windows are inserted. The presbyterium is an apse with a conch, and the triumphal arch of this has an oculus which directs natural light onto the altar. Around the apse runs a passageway or ambulatory, and this is accessed via two pairs of doors on either side of the triumphal arch as well as by two curtained doorways flanking the main altar.
On the ceiling vault of the vestibule there is a fresco cycle by Lazzaro Baldi showing scenes from the life and visions of St Francis Xavier.
The two holy water stoups have a motif of a crab holding a crucifix in its claws. This alludes to a story that the saint, while on his way by sea to Malacca (now in Malaysia) threw his crucifix into the sea while praying for a storm to abate. When he landed on the beach (there was no harbour), he was met by a crab holding the lost crucifix.
The nave has four bays, marked by four windows on each side inserted into the ceiling vault.
The entrance from the vestibule passes under a gallery supported by a pair of Ionic columns, and the organ is here. The balustrade is ornate, with caryatids in place of balusters, and above this is a mesh screen to protect the anonymity of choral singers accompanying the liturgy (the Church's requirement in former centuries was that the liturgy was never treated primarily as a musical performance). The rectangular window over the organ pipes looks out over the flat roof of the vestibule block.
All interior wall and ceiling surfaces are frescoed in the Baroque style, some from the 19th century restoration. However, some 17th century frescoes survive. The main panel in the ceiling vault shows The Apotheosis of St Francis Xavier. The side walls have non-figurative decoration which is painted to resemble stucco work -rather poor.
There is a shrine to St Francis Xavier to the right of the altar, comprising a 17th century silver bust-reliquary (the main shrine of the saint is at the Basilica of Bom Jesus at Goa, India). In the corresponding location to the left of the altar is a pretty Baroque painting of the Madonna and Child, in an elaborate oval frame designed as a garland of roses.
The stalls along the side walls, in carved walnut with gilded decoration, are originals from the 17th century. There is a floating pulpit sticking out from the left hand side wall, on brackets and accessed through a door in the wall.
The triumphal arch of the sanctuary is supported by a pair of gigantic Composite pilasters revetted in what looks like yellow brecciated marble (is this real?), and this design feature is replicated by four pilasters in the apse itself. The altarpiece shows St Francis Xavier Preaching in the Presence of the Holy Trinity by Sebastiano Conca, and the paintings on either side are of St Michael (left) and the Guardian Angel (right). The altar is right against the wall of the apse, and has no canopy. Instead, above the altarpiece is an icon of the Madonna and Child in a gilded stucco glory. In the conch vault are frescoes of angels, and two stucco statues of angel candleholders in the style of Bernini are on plinths flanking the altar.
Above the side doorways are cantoria or opera-boxes for solo musicians, with heavily ornate bronze screens above the balustrades.
The Ristretto degli Angeli, formerly an upstairs meeting-place for students from the Collegio Romano, has stucco work by Giovan Battista Maini and painting by Gaetano Sottino who was from Sicily. The silver reliquary bust of St Francis Xavier, already mentioned, used to be in another room called the Sacello di San Francesco Saverio.
The Oratory is apparently only open for liturgical events, and only those attending these are allowed in.
Visitors interested in viewing the interior and its artworks are advised to contact the administrators of Sant'Ignazio di Loyola a Campo Marzio. The church office phone number is 06 6794560 (Mondays to Fridays 10.00-13.00).