San Giorgio in Velabro is a 7th century titular and convent church, heavily restored, at Via del Velabro 19 in the rione Ripa. Pictures of the church on Wikimedia Commons are here. There is an English Wikipedia page here.
The church is not parochial, neither is it a minor basilica. It should not be confused with San Giorgio e dei Martiri Inglesi, which is an English national church (this one is not).
The church is located in the ancient locality of the Velabrum. When Rome was just several hamlets of Bronze Age huts, three thousand years ago, it was where the stream that carved the Forum valley ran into the Tiber and formed a low, marshy area. Here was the lowest fording point on the river, a point later marked by the Pons Sublicius (Rome's first bridge), and the area's first trading site. (This later became the young city's cattle market, the Forum Boarium.) It was the reason that Rome first became a city.
The location has a special place in the legendary history of Rome as well, as the foundation legend of Rome claims that it was here that Romulus and Remus came ashore after being abandoned in a basket on the river as babies. The famous she-wolf then picked them up.
The origin of the name Velabrum is unknown, and had already been forgotten in Classical times. Plutarch thought that it had something to do with the ferry-boats used when the river flooded the area, and mediaeval chroniclers thought that it meant "golden marsh". The syllable vel might have been derived from an Etruscan word for "water". However, doubt has been raised about this and the word might pre-date both the Etruscans and the Latins (who, in Stone Age times, were scratching their fleas in the forests of the Alban Hills). If so, it might be one of the oldest human artifacts in Rome.
The Etruscan kings of Rome drained the Forum valley and the Velabrum by building the Cloaca Maxima, and this runs next to the church.
To the left of the church's entrance portico is the Arch of the Argentarii, believed to have been a monumental north entrance to the Forum Boarium erected in the year 204, and nearby is the Arch of Janus which is thought to have been put up to mark the visit of Emperor Constantius II to the city in the year 357. The Via del Velabro which this terminates is the south end of an ancient street that ran from the Forum to the river via the Horrea Agrippiana and along the slope of the Palatine next to the Imperial palace.
The earliest hint of a church here comes from an inscription dated 482, which was found in the Catacombs of Callixtus; this describes a lector (church reader) named Augustus as lectoris de bela bru. However, he might simply have lived in the Velabrum.
A late and unreliable legend asserts that Pope St Gregory the Great established a diaconia, a Church institution that cared for poor people, on the site of this church in the late 6th century.
The first reliable documentation derives from the Liber Pontificalis, a 10th century copy of an older document. According to this, a church here was built in the reign of Pope Leo II (682-683), and dedicated to St Sebastian. The relevant section reads: huius …iussu aecclesia iuxta velum aureum in honore beati Sebastiani edificata est, necnon in honore martyris Georgi. One scholarly suggestion is that this was a privately funded work, as the word iussu implies that Leo’s role was to grant the permit for construction. The use of the Latin verb aedificare hints that the church was built new, and was not a restoration of an older building.
An argument put forward for an earlier foundation of the church is its irregular plan. However, other churches built in Rome in the Dark Ages are similarly badly surveyed (see Santa Prassede, for example).
The Liber Pontificalis entry as it now stands describes the original dedication as being both to St Sebastian, believed to have saved Italy from a plague in 680, and to St George.
The dedication to St George is unusual for an early church in western Europe, as there is little evidence devotion to him in the West until the Crusaders brought it with them from the East in the 12th century
St. George was originally martyred and enshrined at Lydda in the Holy Land, and became venerated as an Eastern soldier-saint. The development of his cult at Rome, like that of St Anastasia at the basilica of Sant'Anastasia nearby, is witness to a flourishing Greek expatriate colony in the city in the 6th to 8th centuries.
Modern Western historians like to pretend that the Roman Empire came to an end in 476, to be replaced by something called the "Byzantine Empire". The inhabitants of Rome until the 9th century knew better, as they considered themselves as subjects of the Emperor in Constantinople, and that person as the direct descendent of Emperor Augustus. No emperor resided at Rome after Constantinople was founded, but the imperial palace was the seat of the Greek governor and his administration. Also, there was a large colony of Greek merchants around the river quays by the Forum Boarium. It is thought that either or both of these groups introduced St George to Rome, and his cult to this church.
In 741, Pope Zacharias I (741-752) ordered relics of St George, (his head, spear and part of his battle-standard) to be ceremonially transferred from the Lateran to this church. Some scholars consider that the dedication to him was made at this point, and not by Pope Leo.
Each year subsequently on his feast day, April 23rd, the Major Rogation to follow on the 25th was proclaimed at the church. The first evidence of his popularity in the city at large was the introduction of a Mass in his honour into the Roman rite under Pope Adrian I (784-91).
The church was completely restored by Pope Gregory IV (847-55). This project involved the building of the extant apse, a new portico, a sacristy, a schola cantorum (like the one nearby at Santa Maria in Cosmedin) and mosaic work (completely lost). The donation of fabric hangings is also mentioned; such wall drapery was important as church furnishings at the time, as surviving frescoes often depict them.
There is a scholarly opinion that he also rebuilt the arcades, which would make the present church almost entirely his work.
The church seems to have used the Byzantine rite during the 9th and even (unusually) into the 10th century. Epigraphs in Greek from the reign of Pope John VIII (847-55) have been found re-used as flooring, and give evidence that a Byzantine-rite monastery was attached to the church.
The Greek monks would have been replaced by a college of secular priests in the 10th century.
In the 12th century the campanile was built, and the present high altar with its baldacchino was provided.
In the 13th century the portico seems to have been rebuilt, although analysts are still arguing about the construction history of this part of the church. It is thought that the schola cantorum was destroyed in this century also.
In 1259 Cardinal Pietro Capocci, titular of the church, is recorded as providing a piece of land adjacent to the church for use as a garden for the officiating clergy. This is an early hint that the arrangement of providing individually salaried priests to serve the church was not working very well -the temptation was to take the money, and to live somewhere else more agreeable.
Cardinal Giacomo Gaetani Stefaneschi, a noted humanist, was titular deacon here from 1295 to 1343. He is credited with commissioning the apse fresco, long attributed to Giotto but now usually cosidered to be by Pietro Cavallini. The latter attribution depends on accepting stylistic similarities with his famous choir fresco at Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, and hence cannot be conclusive. A further art-critical point is that the work is not actually very good, so a "school of" attribution is hypothesized.
in 1347, Cola di Rienzo posted a notice of revolt against papal rule on the exterior of the portico.
In 1477, Raffaele Riario was corruptly made cardinal here by Pope Sixtus IV, despite being only sixteen. However, in his case civilization was the beneficiary because his massive artistic patronage is considered to have been the dawn of the High Renaissance in Rome. Especially, he invited the young Michelangelo to the city after the latter tried to pass of one of his own statues as ancient and inadvertently displayed his potential by being found out. The cardinal's importance lies elsewhere, but he did restore the roof at his first titular church.
In the 16th century the church's chapter had six prebendary canons, a number that dropped to five by the end of the century.
The 17th century saw several restorations. In 1601, the floor was raised to a level nearer that of the ground outside. In 1611, Cardinal Giacomo Serra sponsored a restoration which involved the provision of a small friary. He was from Genoa, and so invited the Discalced Augustinians of his home city to take over. The surviving prebendaries were got rid of by granting them pensions.
The portico was substantially restored on the orders of Pope Clement IX by 1669. The iron railings date from this time, and it is suspected that the inscription on the frieze does, too.
In 1704, Cardinal Giuseppe Renato Imperiali ordered another restoration involving the roof.
The central panel of the nave ceiling was given a fresco in 1774, which Angeli writing in 1903 describes as being by one Francesco Avalli. This remark has been propagated online. An alternative name mentioned is Benedetto Fabiani, but he is hardly less obscure. Angeli obviously did not visit the church, since the fresco had gone by the time he wrote.
The Napoleonic occupation of Rome at the end of the 18th century left the church derelict, and the Augustinians had lost interest. So, in 1819 Pope Pius VII granted it to the Pia Unione di Santa Maria del Pianto. This was a secular confraternity which had been founded by Pope Benedict XIV in the mid 18th century, and had been based at the church of Santa Maria del Pianto. It had an interest in caring for poor girls. The arrangement was regularized by the pope creating a small college of five secular canons, who were to provide free education under the aegis of the confraternity as well as taking care of the church. The overall administrator was Mgr Antonio Santelli.
The confraternity had previously been based at the (now lost) church of Sant'Aniano dei Ciabattini nearby.
Restoration work on the church was carried out in 1828 by Giuseppe Valadier, again in 1837 under Pope Gregory XVI and yet again on the orders of Pope Pius IX in 1869. These works involved alterations to the portico, and apparently unblocking of some windows (see article by Turco in "External links").
By the end of the 19th century, the ceiling fresco had vanished (the interior was photographed in 1895, and it is not visible).
Until the 20th century, the apse fresco was obscured. However, in 1910 the Italian government undertook a restoration of it which left it in its present state.
The most significant recent re-ordering of the church was done by Antonio Muñoz between 1923 and 1926. As head of the antiquities department of the Fascist government, he was able to superintend several ideologically motivated and radical restorations of mediaeval Roman churches, including this one. The aim was to remove later accretions, especially Baroque ones, and so tranform the buildings back to what he imagined to have been their original states. As a result, many 17th and 18th century artworks and sepulchral monuments were destroyed in these churches, and architectural features of the same periods replaced by modern "mediaeval" ones.
Here, the simple panelled ceiling was removed and replaced with the present one. Any stucco wall decorations were scraped off. The floor was lowered to its pre-17th century level, and funerary monuments and side altars thrown out. Fortunately, the idea of recreating the schola cantorum was not implemented.
It should be remembered that the present simple ambience of the interior is not mediaeval, but modern and the result of one man's interpretation of the church's archtectural history.
In 1939, the church and attached college was given into the care of the Order of the Holy Cross. This is an order of Canons Regular, or priests living a common life under a rule. The church and convent is now the order's international headquarters or Generalate.
On 27 July 1993, the portico was destroyed by a car bomb, which also blew a hole in the nave frontage behind it and seriously damaged the Generalate. This was part of a Mafia bombing campaign aimed at forcing the Italian government to rescind certain laws passed to suppress organized crime. The perpetrators of this outrage have been traced and convicted -see Giuseppe Graviano.
One theory at the time was that the location of the bombing was chosen because of the legend of Romulus and Remus mentioned above; in other words, it might have been a symbolic attack on Rome as the centre of the Italian government.
The portico was restored by 1997, although some damage was left unrepaired as a memorial. Fortunately the Italian government bore the cost.
The traditional foundation date of the cardinal diaconate is 590, by Pope Gregory the Great, but the first name recorded is in 1163.
The current titular of the church is H.E. Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi.
Layout and fabric
The church's original construction by Pope Leo II was on a simple basilican plan, consisting of a central nave of nine bays with side aisles, and which presumably included an apse (although the present one is 9th century). The dimensions are 23 metres by 14.3 metres, with the apse being 5 meters in diameter.
The church is famously "wonky", and the floorplan is actually trapezoidal with central nave narrowing towards the altar. It is 9.15 metres at its widest, and 7.30 at its narrowest. The right hand arcade is perpendicular to the entrance frontage and is straight, and so it is the left hand arcade that is at an angle. Further, this arcade has a slight bend inwards at the second column.
The right aisle side wall also has a noticeable bend inwards to it, about the fourth bay where there is a side entrance. It goes from 7.50 metres to 3 metres wide. The left aisle deviates very little in its width.
The axis of the church runs exactly from south to north.
The fabric is in brick. The nave, aisles and apse have separate roofs, pitched and tiled. The left hand aisle has three buttresses supporting the central nave wall, but the right hand one does not.
The 12th century brick Romanesque campanile is inserted into the near end of the left hand aisle. It has five storeys above the aisle roofline, the first one being blank. These storeys are separated by decorative projecting cornices, which are dentillated. The one between the top two storeys, as well as the crowning cornice below the tiled pyramidal cap, have stone modillions (little brackets).
The second and third storeys have blocked triple arcades of arches with single-molded archivolts, the springers being continued as string courses. The fourth storey have open arches in the same style, but the fifth storey (where the bells are) have stone columns with imposts in between the arches.
The nave frontage above the portico is very simple. The wall is rendered in an ochre yellow, and has a large oculus or round window. The gable has a crowning pediment, with modillions. However, old prints show that this pediment did not exist before the 19th century.
The frontage of the church is preceded by an external narthex or portico, which is also crooked. The right hand wall is perpendicular to the frontage, but the left hand one angles inwards. Hence, it is thought that the foundations at least date from the Dark Ages.
The floor of the portico is now 0.15 meters below street level. The original portico floor was discovered in 1924, and was 0.25 meters below the current level and also is 0.55 meters above the level of the ancient Roman road.
The portico itself has four ancient Ionic columns, on two plinths either side of the main central portal. The street surface slopes here, so these plinths keep the colonnade horizontal. One column is of cipollino marble (the ancient marmor Carystium) from Euboea in Greece, one is grey granite from Mons Claudianus in Egypt, and two are of Parian marble also from Greece. In between the columns are 17th century iron railings, interesting in their own right.
The corners of the portico are occupied by two solid brick piers, separated from the church frontage by two side portals. These piers have ancient stone imposts with a diaper pattern containing rosettes. Piers and columns support an entablature without an architrave, which runs across the entire front and down the sides. The front bears an inscription in Gothic lettering, purporting to be from the 13th century but probably re-carved in the 16th. It says:
Stephanus ex Stella, cupiens captare superna, eloquia rarus virtutum lumine clarus, expendens aurum studuit renovare pronaulum. Sumptibus ex propriis tibi fecit, sancte Georgi. Clericus hic cultus prior ecclesiae fuit huius, hic locus ad velum pronomine dicitur auri.
("Stephen of Stella, of uncommon eloquence and famous for the light of virtues, took care to restore the pronaos by spending gold. He did this for you, St George, out of his own resources. This cleric was head of the [liturgical] cult of this church, at this place called "golden curtain".)
Above the entablature are relieving arches in the brickwork, one for each portal below and with a carved lion mask at each end (perhaps Dark Ages). Then comes the roof, which is singly pitched and also hipped at each end.
Inside the portico, the nave frontal has attached several old epigraphs found in restorations. The doorcase of the actual entrance is intricately carved.
Arco degli Argentari
Adjacent to the church on the left hand side is the ancient so-called Arco degli Argentari, or Arch of the Moneychangers. It was erected in AD 204 in honour of Emperor Septimius Severus and the imperial family by the moneychangers and livestock merchants based at the adjacent Forum Boarium, as the rather tiresome dedicatory inscription makes clear:
Imperatori Caesari Lucio Sepitimo Severo, Pio Pertinaci Augusto Arabico Adiabenico Parthico Maximo Fortissimo Felicissimo Pontifici Maximo Tribunicia Potestate, XII Imperatori, XI Consuli, III Patri patriae, et Imperatori Caesari Marco Aurelio Antonino Pio Felici Augusto, Triubunicia Potestate, VII Consuli, III Patri patriae Proconsuli, Fortissimo Felicissimo Principi, et Iuliae Augustae, matri Augusti nostri et castrorum et Senatus et Patria et Imperatoris Caesaris Marci Aureliae Antonini Pii Felicis Augusti. Parthenici Maximi Britannici Maximi, argentari et negotiantes boari huius loci qui invehent, devoti numini eorum.
As well as Septimus Severus, as it survives the inscription commemorates his son the future emperor Caracalla, and his wife Julia Domna. However, it once also commemorated Caracalla's brother Geta, his wife Plautilla and father-in-law Plautianus. When Caracalla came to power, he got rid of all three with terminal prejudice and the Damnatio memoriae required that the inscription be altered and their representations in the reliefs chiselled out.
Calling it an arch is a misnomer. It is actually a rather small ceremonial gateway for the market, and consists of two piers supporting a flat architrave (no archivolt). The fabric is concrete, with relief-carved marble revetting on travertine plinths. (It is thought that statues of the dedicatees once stood on top.)
The vegetative decoration is very rich but mediocre, surrounding the figurative reliefs. Above the plinths bulls are shown being sacrificed, and above these is a band of sacrificial emblems. The visible reliefs above this are: Left pier, perhaps Caracalla (badly worn). Outer side of left pier, soldiers with a barbarian prisoner. Inside the portal, to the left Caracalla is offering a libation on his own -other figures were chiselled out. To the right Septimus and Julia are sacrificing with another obliterated figure. Eagles and Victories are above the relief panels, and Hercules and a Genius flank the epigraph.
The tiled roof is modern.
As far as the church is concerned, the important detail is that the right hand pier is actually incorporated into the fabric, and forms the bottom left hand corner of the edifice. This looks like a rare example of a post-Classical intervention to preserve an ancient monument on the part of Pope Leo II, as if the arch had not become part of the church it would almost certainly have been destroyed.
Layout and fabric
You have to go down some steps to enter the church. The floor was lowered in the 20th century to reveal the bases of the columns There is little decoration and very few artworks of interest, but the church gives a feeling of antiquity and serenity that may be worth a little of your time. If you visit in winter, you are liable to have the church to yourself.
The layout is simple. There is a nave of nine bays, with side aisles. The sanctuary is an external apse.
The nave columns are ancient spolia, and neither they nor their capitals are a matched set. There are sixteen of them. Most are grey granite and have Cornthian capitals, but the first two and last two on the right hand side are Ionic. The first four on the right hand side are fluted; two are pavonazzetto marble from what is now Turkey (the ancients did not get this purple-veined stone from Carrara as nowadays), and two are described as marmo Tirio which is presumably Thasian marble from Greece.
Most of the undecorated arcade arches spring directly from the capitals, but the last column on the left has an oblong impost and the springing is much wider above it. The archivolts
used to have simple stucco moldings, but Muñoz scraped these off.
The central nave side walls are also undecorated. Above each arch is a rectangular window, which now have geometric stone mullions or transennae, courtesy of Muñoz.
The attractive flat wooden ceiling is coffered in large rectangles, and is painted in blue with golden stars. It follows the right hand side wall, so you can see how the church narrows towards the altar by how the coffers on the left hand side are squeezed out. This work by Muñoz was a definite improvement over the previous ceiling, which was roughly panelled with floorboards.
The bottom end of the left hand aisle is occupied by the ground floor of the campanile, hence is walled off. The first column in the arcade here has been revealed by cutting into the wall, but before the 19th century was invisible. That is why you may still read that there are only fifteen arcade columns in the church, instead of the actual sixteen.
The counterfaçade bears epigraph tablets recording restorations, some of which have been moved from elsewhere in the church.
The sanctuary is raised, and approached by steps. Before Muñoz there were three steps, but since 1924 there have been seven. These steps intrude into the last bay of the nave.
The apse apparently contained a bishop's throne, but this is long gone. There is some Cosmatesque flooring, with a central cracked disc of imperial porphyry from the Eastern Desert of Egypt. The apse wall has a high dado of grey-streaked marble revetting, above which are five Corinthian pilasters in the same stone but separated by dark green marble revetting. In between the pilasters are three large round-headed windows, with geometric transennae by Muñoz again.
In between the steps, directly below the altar, is the confessio. This is an early 13th century vertical marble slab with an arched orifice, through which you can see the alleged relics of St George (part of his cranium, the head of his lance and part of his battle standard). The rest of the slab is decorated with fine but restored Cosmatesque work framing two rectangular panels of green serpentine from Sparta in Greece.
The walling either side of the confessio is revetted with pavonazzetto marble, as is the actual altar frontal. The latter has strips of Cosmatesque work down the sides. Those familiar with the liturgical controversies in the Catholic church over the last half-century may be interested to see that this altar has always had Mass said on it with the priest facing the congregation.
In front of the confessio is the modern lectern, made from a fragment of 9th century pluteus or sanctuary screen.
The baldacchino or canopy has four Corinthian columns in grey marble, supporting an open square cornice with Cosmatesque strips. In turn this supports twenty-eight little columns supporting a smaller cornice enclosing an octagonal aperture. This second cornice has twenty little columns arranged in an octagon, supporting an octagonal conical cupola which itself has a little lantern which is the tip of the cupola cut off and raised on another eight of the little columns.
The 13th century fresco in the apse depicts Christ the King standing on the cosmos, accompanied by the Blessed Virgin Mary and St George on his horse to the left, and St Peter and St Sebastian to the
right. The work is now attributed to Cavallini and his school rather than to Giotto, although the matter is not decided.
St George has a white horse, which is his iconographic attribute. If the horse is another colour, it carries another soldier saint (for example, a red horse belongs to St Demetrius). The palm tree next to Christ is a symbol here of the Resurrection.
The early 20th century restoration has left two frescoes of heraldic shields in the spandrels of the apse arch.
The aisles have open single-pitched roofs.
The end of the right hand side aisle now has the Blessed Sacrament chapel, which is just the tabernacle on two other fragments of ancient architrave set up to form a little altar.
The end of the left hand aisle has lost its former stairs, and now is nothing. In the wall here has been set a very intersting carved stone ring, which is thought to have been a window frame.
Halfway down the aisles are two former side entrances. Also, each aisle had two side altars which Muñoz removed. These were fine Baroque works, and their loss was vandalism. You can still see the scars on the walls where they used to be. The two nearest the entrance had ribbed Corinthian columns in pavonazzetto, supporting a horizontal entablature and with intricately detailed frontals in pietra dura. The two nearest the sanctuary each had a molded arch framing a statue, which was of St Sebastian to the left and the Madonna and Child to the right.
Fragments of old stonework have been kept in the aisles for centuries. Some is 9th century or older, especially the plutei or fragments of marble screen panels carved in scrollwork. There are fragments of window transennae which encouraged Muñoz to provide his own, and the Greek epigraphs found in the floor. The bit of pluteus carved with looping belts around foliated crosses might date from Leo II's original church.
Opening hours seem to be unclear at present, and different guidebooks and online sources give differing times. Unfortunately, the church website is coy.
Apart from the times of liturgy (see below), an unofficial source in 2017 advertises that the church is open on Tuesday, Friday and Saturday from 10:00 to 12:30 and 16:00 to 18:15.
So, you might find it closed on Mondays and Thursdays.
The Crosier Community celebrate their liturgical events in English. These are in the church in summer, but in the convent chapel in winter.
Mass is celebrated: Weekdays 7:30; Saturdays, Sundays and Solemnities 8:30.
The Divine Office is celebrated: Weekdays: 7:30 Lauds, 18:30 Vespers; Weekends: 8:00 Lauds, 19:00 Vespers.
If you wish to attend in winter, you have to ring the doorbell at Via del Velabro 19.
The church is very popular for weddings, and one is held here almost every Saturday. The brethren advertise that they will not do more than three weddings a day!
The feast of St George is celebrated on 23 April.
The church is the Station church for the first Thursday in Lent.
- Official diocesan web-page
- Italian Wikipedia page
- Pictures of the church at Wikimedia Commons
- Interactive Nolli Map Website
- Church's website
- Crosier website
- "De Alvariis" gallery on Flickr -exterior
- "De Alvariis" gallery on Flickr -exterior 2
- "De Alvariis" gallery on Flickr -interior
- Giovanni Rindaldi's photo gallery
- Article on the fabric of the church by Maria Grazia Turco (pdf)
- Info.roma web-page
- "Romeartlover" web-page
- Medioevo.roma web-page
- "Roma Segreta" web-page
- Photos of the bomb damage
- List of cardinals