San Lorenzo in Fonte is a relatively unknown little 17th century former confraternity church (now conventual), on older foundations and located at Via Urbana 50 in the rione Monti. Pictures of the church at Wikimedia Commons are here.
The dedication is to St Lawrence, the 3rd century Roman deacon and martyr. The official name is as given, but the church is also known as San Lorenzo in Carcere or Santi Lorenzo ed Ippolito.
According to the legend, after St Lawrence was arrested and condemned at what is now San Lorenzo in Miranda he was imprisoned here (hence Carcere), and had a blind pagan as a fellow prisoner. The saint converted his companion to Christianity and, lacking water to baptise him, prayed for some with the result that a spring of water miraculously started flowing from the floor of the cell (hence Fonte).
When the jailer, St Hippolytus (in Italian Ippolito), learned of this he was converted in turn and hence also martyred. The legend contains a pun on his name (Hippos lutos is Greek for "horse let loose"), for it alleges that he was tied by the ankles to a pair of unbroken horses who were then turned loose to drag him to death. Modern scholarship, accepted by the revised Roman martyrology, considers this saint to be spurious, a duplicate of the famous early Church father St Hippolytus of Rome.
Ancient remains Edit
So much for the legend. In reality, to the left in the nave a long and narrow stairway leads to a Roman well, now underground some 18 metres to the southwest of the church. This well is faced with opus reticulatum which places it in the Republican era, about the 1st century BC. It is associated with a Roman house, now lost but recorded in the 17th century. Back then, the visible ruins had a nymphaeum with a mosaic made up of shells, a porticus or colonnade above it and the remains of an aqueduct. Only the well survives.
A drawing of the ruins made by Pietro Santi Bartoli in 1684 is extant.
The origins of the church are entirely unknown, and it is only a guess that it began as the church of a small parish in about the 10th century. The Via Urbana on which it stands is one of the few ancient streets in Rome which have had a continuous use through the centuries, and in the Middle Ages the city's built-up area reached to here -although open countryside was just to the east.
The first documented reference is very late, at 1348 which is the date on a document in the archives of Santa Maria Maggiore. The Anonymous Catalogue of Turin has an entry which reads: Fratres Sancti Marci duos which indicates that two "Brothers of St Mark" were in charge. This entry seems to refer to an obscure penitential congregation of monks at Mantua, based at a church dedicated to St Mark there and called the Calendatios. They seem to have been part of the contemporary eremitical movement associated with the Camaldolese.
However, they could not have been there long because the church was soon attached to Benedictine nunnery, which lasted until 1518.
There was a renovation of the old edifice in 1543, in the reign of Pope Paul III, but the church was subsequently rebuilt in 1628 in the reign of Pope Urban VIII. The architect was Domenico Castelli, and the patrons were a confraternity of Papal functionaries called the Congregazione Urbana dei Cortegiani. They seem to have been advocates or pleaders at court. Next to the church they founded a hospital for infirm members of the confraternity.
The 17th century interior decoration of the church is attributed to Andrea Camassei, Giovanni Battista Speranza and Marco Caprinozzi.
The façade was remodelled in a late neo-Classical style in 1800.
The church has been served by the Oblates of St Joseph (Oblati di San Giuseppe) since 1918. This clerical congregation was founded in Asti by St Joseph Marello in 1878, and it has developed a notable presence in Rome (64 priests are listed by the Diocese for 2018). Their Generalate used to be next door, but has been moved to Via Boccea 364. See Cappella degli Oblati di San Giuseppe.
They have an Italian nickname: Giuseppini d'Asti.
There was a restoration in the 1930's, which involved alteration to the façade.
After the Oblates moved their Generalate the complex here was converted to a pilgrims' hostel, the Ostello Marello. This has earned a good reputation among those seeking cheap accommodation in the Centro Storico. The female branch of the oblates, the Oblate di San Giuseppe, are in charge. They give the impression of being a happy community.
Meanwhile, the original confraternity still exists under the name Congregazione Urbana dei Nobili Aulici. However, the President and his council are all Oblates.
The church has a single nave, continued by a deep rectangular sanctuary of the same width. A matching pair of side chapels flank the entrance into the sanctuary, giving a Latin cross plan. A third side chapel is off the right hand side of the nave.
Only the façade is visible from the street, since the church is abutted by buildings on both sides. To the right is the convent of the oblate nuns, number 50/A, and to the left is the Ostello.
The engaging little 19th century single-storey façade is dwarfed by neighbouring buildings. It looks as if it is stucco done up to look like white stone, and has four gigantic shallow Doric pilasters supporting an entablature and triangular pediment. There is a simple dedicatory inscription on the frieze: SS Laurentio et Ippolyto martyribus.
The 16th century entrance doorway has stepped moulding on its doorcase and a raised oversized segmental pediment, which is over an epigraph reading Congregationis Urbana This is a reminder of the confraternity that built the church. Above the door is a pair of vertical rectangular windows either side of an archivolt supported by two little Doric pilasters. Inside the panel thus created is a thin red cross. Previously this arched architectural feature was a round-headed window, but it was blocked in the 1930's. In between the pairs of gigantic pilasters are two round-headed niches which contain frescoes, one of St Lawrence and the other of St Hippolytus.
Running across the façade from the top of the entrance pediment and behind the pilasters is a simple string course. Below it, the walling is done as rusticated ashlar stonework.
The attractive Baroque campanile or bellcote was built in 1734, according to the wishes of Pope Clement XII. It is in the form of a triumphal arch, with the arch elongated and containing the bells. Above this is a tablet with the year on it (difficult to see without binoculars). There is a pair of gigantic volutes flanking this, supporting a corniced gable.
Note the gridiron of St Lawrence on the weather vane.
The church has a single nave which is very small, and which has a chapel on the right hand side. On the left hand side is the entrance to the underground area. Two further chapels flank the entrance to the sanctuary.
The nave has four bays, which are separated on each side by shallow blind pilasters revetted with what looks like pink marble. Each of these is flanked by a pair of narrow pilaster strips in slightly lower relief, having a decoration of a row of rosettes within circles. These panels spring from a yellow fake marble dado which runs round the interior (the pilasters themselves reach the floor). The pilasters have no capitals, but they support a cornice (not a proper entablature) which is posted out over them and the side strips. These posts are embellished with gilded egg-and-dart ornament in lieu of capitals.
The cornice runs around the interior, and the barrel-vaulted nave ceiling springs from it. There are two deep lunettes in each bay, the edge-ribs of which meet to form a false cross-vault. These ribs delimit three large kite-shaped sections which contain fresco work in imitation of stucco, in white with two shades of grey and gilded highlights. The central section has an oval wreathed tondo containing the Dove of the Holy Spirit accompanied by putti, while the other two are hexagonal and contain a putto each holding an Instrument of the Passion.
The floor of the nave has simple marble tomb-slabs. The architect Carlo Fontana was buried here.
The counterfaçade has a floating gallery with a coved (concave) central section, embellished with vine-scrolls on its solid balustrade. This has five decorative tondi, with putti and heads of saints.
The first bay of the nave has portrait of St Joseph Marello the founder of the Oblates to the left, and a crucifix in a little glazed niche to the right. Over these, and continuing down the nave, are Stations of the Cross commissioned by the Oblates. They are in an unusual style, featuring only the head of Christ at the various stages of his Passion.
The second bay of the nave has two doorways, that on the left going down to the Prison and Well and that on the right leading into the sacristy. In front of the former there is a striking polychrome statue of St Lawrence, looking youthful in a bright red dalmatic (the liturgical vestment of a deacon, which is what he was). Above the doorway to the well is the inscription ADITUS AD CARCEREM ET FONTEM S.LAURENT ("Entrance to the Prison and Well of St Lawrence"). Abive the sacristy door is written THESAVROS ECCLESIÆ DEDIT PAUPERIBVS ("He gave the treasury of the Church to the poor." Before being martyred, St Lawrence distributed the goods of the Roman Church to the poor rather than hand them over to the civil authorities.)
The third bay has the Chapel of the Immaculate Conception on the right, over which is a very good polychrome Baroque monument to Giovanni Oliviero 1633. The tondo contains a portrait of him. Opposite this on the left is an anonymous picture described as The Madonna and Child with SS Margaret of Cortona and Elizabeth of Hungary.
The triumphal arch is supported by a pair of square Doric piers clad in what looks like a pinkish marble, which support a pair of posts with exaggerated cornices. The elliptical archivolt springs from this, and has a stucco Baroque dedicatory tablet on its keystone embellished with two foliage sprays and a scallop shell. In front of the piers are large polychrome statues of St Joseph and the Sacred Heart.
The sanctuary has a semi-circular apse with a conch, which has rays and is embellished in grotesque decoration in yellow, grey and white. The triumphal arch of this is supported by a pair of pilasters revetted in green marble, and the same stone is used in revetting the walls between pilasters and altar.
The barrel-vaulted sanctuary ceiling has a pair of window lunettes, but these do not meet. In the centre is a tondo with a monochrome depiction of SS Lawrence and Hippolytus.
The marble floor has depictions of a gridiron, symbol of St Lawrence (he was, according to his legend, roasted on one).
The polychrome marble high altar has an aedicule which is coved (concave). A pair of doubletted Doric pilasters on the diagonal support a triangular pediment with a broken cornice, into which the round top of the altarpiece intrudes. The sides of the pediment are incurved, and the pilasters are revetted with pink marble edged with yellow. The altarpiece depicts the Baptism of St Hippolytus, and is by Giovanni Battista Speranza (1600-40) although an attribution has also been made to Andrea Camassei. To the left of the altar is a depiction of the Martyrdom of St Lawrence, and to the right St Lawrence Distributing Bread to the Poor. Both of these are attributed to Speranza too, although the latter has an alternative attribution to one Marco Carpinozzi. These pictures have white-veined black marble frames.
Flanking the altar are two floating yellow marble credence shelves, which now bear a pair of angel statues -one with a pink gown, and one in blue.
Chapel of the Immaculate Conception Edit
The external chapel off the right hand side of the nave is dedicated to the Immaculate Conception of Our Lady. It has a little vestibule entered through curlicued wrought iron gates, which has a statue of Jesus the Nazarene. The actual chapel is apsidal, and is separated from the vestibule by a pair of free-standing Doric columns in what looks like pink granite. There is an arch over the portal between the columns. The altarpiece is a stock statue of the Immaculate Conception, in a gilded round-headed niche. The walls of the chapel and vestibule are revetted in a white and grey brecciated marble, but the upper surfaces are whitewashed.
Chapel of Our Lady of Sorrows Edit
The chapel to the right of the triumphal arch is dedicated to Our Lady of Sorrows, and the altarpiece is an icon of her within a gilded glory. The barrel vault has gilded stucco decoration containing a fresco of God the Father by Speranza.
This chapel has two panels for paintings on its side walls; both are blank. There is a little polychrome marble balustrade at the entrance. On the floor at the entrance to the chapel is the opening to a burial vault marked PRO MVLIERIBVS. (For Women)
Chapel of SS John and Paul Edit
The matching left hand chapel has an anonymous 17th century altarpiece showing SS John and Paul. There is much less decoration in here, and the ceiling vault is blank. The chapel has lost its frescoes by Speranza, which are recorded as having depicted SS John the Evangelist, Mark, Petronius and Jerome. On the floor at the entrance to the chapel is the opening to a burial vault marked PRO VIRIS. (For Men)
The prison Edit
The underground area is accessed by the door in the left hand side of the nave. It leads into a downward sloping tunnel with a stepped ramp, which turns right at the bottom to pass through a portal made up of ancient travertine limestone ashlar blocks. Here is a late 16th century relief of Christ Leaving the Tomb. The actual prison is the tiny room beyond the antechamber, with ancient opus reticulatum (stonework laid in a diaper pattern) on the walls. The holy well is through a small rectangular wall aperture at floor level. It is flanked by a pair of tiny Ionic columns, and over it is a 17th century bas-relief of The Baptism of St Hippolytus.
Unfortunately, the well seems to have dried up recently. The water was still considered to have had healing properties in the late 20th century, but probably derived from the stream that once flowed down the valley into the Cloaca Maxima, and could not have been considered fit to drink in medical terms.
Apparently there is a connection to this underground area from the tunnels of the Linea B metro line.
In October 2019, a sign at the church door advertised the following opening hours:
07:00 to 12:00, 14:00 to 22:00.
If you are looking for the Ostello Marello, note that it is the big building to the left of the church. The doorway to the right of the church belongs to the private convent of the oblate sisters -please don't ring the bell!
The underground area is not accessible to ordinary visitors. There seem to be no guided tours available online, but individuals have been able to make special arrangements to visit recently.
In October 2019, a sign at the church door advertised the following:
Weekdays 18:00 (with vespers); Saturdays and vigils of feastdays: 18:30; Feastdays: 11:30
The feast of St Lawrence is celebrated with great solemnity here on 10 August.