San Marco is a 9th century minor basilica and parish and titular church, on ancient foundations. It is at Piazza San Marco 48, adjacent to the Piazza Venezia on its west hand side in the rione Pigna. Pictures of the church at Wikimedia Commons are here. There is an English Wikipedia page here.

The dedication is to St Mark the Evangelist, patron saint of Venice, and it is the the church for Venetian expatriates at Rome. The full official name is San Marco Evangelista al Campidoglio, "St Mark the Evangelist at the Capitol".

Also see Madonnella di San Marco.

History[edit | edit source]

4th century origins[edit | edit source]

The basilica was probably founded by Pope St Mark in 336 in honor of his own patron, st Mark the Evangelist, and if so it is one of Rome's oldest churches.

The Liber Pontificalis entry for this pope describes how he founded two basilicas, one for his tomb on the Via Ardeatina at the Catacomba di Balbina and another at a place called Pallacinae (hic fecit basilicam iuxta Pallacinas). The latter name is of uncertain origin, but the city basilica located here is plausibly (if not conclusively) identified with the present church. His basilica on the Via Ardeatina might be the recently excavated Basilica Anonima della Via Ardeatina, but the archaeologists could not find any evidence to identify it and an alternative identification there is with the basilica founded by Pope St Soter in the same area.

A later tradition stated that the pope founded the church on the site of the house where St Mark the Evangelist stayed at Rome.

First church[edit | edit source]

The basilica has its first documentary mention in the acts of a synod held by Pope Symmachus in 499. There it is described as the Titulus Marci, in other words as a titular church or early parish. The area of pastoral responsibility that this entailed covered the present rione Pigna, the Campidoglio and areas to the south.

Archaeological investigations in the late 20th century, underneath the floor of the present building, especially in the portico, have been very informative. The first was under the nave from 1947 to 1950, and the second under the portico in the 1980's.

The consensus resulting from the results of these is that Pope Mark took over a private house or domus, and converted an aula into a church with a single nave (not one with colonnaded side aisles, as previously thought). This was done by adding a semi-circular apse to one end of the chamber, where the entrance now is, and the archaeology shows that this apse was actually built into a pre-existing street 2.3 metres below the present floor level.

A small room of the domus with a mosaic floor was excavated, dating to around AD 200, and also areas of flooring in opus sectile of polychrome marble, laid in a geometric pattern.

In the 5th century a baptistry was added next to this apse to the left (west), with a plunge-pool font in the form of a cross which was lined with marble slabs.

It seems from the archaeology that the basilica had a serious fire in the 5th century or the next, as burnt debris was found in the metre-thick stratigraphy between this "first church" and the "second church".

Second church[edit | edit source]

The original edifice was reconstructed firstly in the 8th century by Pope Adrian I (772-795), when it is now thought that the single nave was replaced by a nave with side aisles and arcades. This was the "second church".

The floor was raised by one metre, as the sources reveal problems with flooding by the river -there was an especially serious inundation in 791. Pope Leo III (795-816) is on record as having completed the restoration in 809.

Foundations of a schola cantorum were discovered in the excavations, bearing painted decoration imitating polychrome marble work.

(It should be noted that some scholars have held to the view that the "second church" was built at an earlier, unknown date, that the present apse only was erected by Pope Adrian and was only restored by Pope Gregory -see below.)

Third church[edit | edit source]

Pope Gregory IV (827-844) was responsible for what is now considered to have been a complete rebuilding, resulting in the "third church" which is structurally the present building. If the latest scholarly consensus is accepted, this was very soon after the "second church" was itself finished.

The orientation of the church was reversed, with the old apse being demolished and replaced by a main entrance. The old entrance was replaced by a new apse, with a mosaic in the conch which survives. However, the three windows which the apse had were later blocked. The nave floor was raised further, and a confessio or devotional crypt provided for the veneration of relics of catacomb martyrs. The latter intervention was in the context of the Church's policy at the time of abandoning all the suburban catacombs except those at San Sebastiano, and bringing the known martyrs' relics into the city to be enshrined in its churches.

Here, the saints concerned were Abdon and Sennen, originally allegedly Persian and buried at the Catacomba di Ponziano on the Via Portuensis, and St Hermes whose suburban basilica, on the Via Salaria, has left remains as Sant'Ermete. More obscure were St Restitutus and companions, from the Via Nomentana at the twenty-sixth milestone.

Middle Ages[edit | edit source]

During the Middle Ages, the church was parochial and was administered by a college of secular priests, the Capitolo di San Marco. Although several parishes were carved out of its territory in the late Dark Ages, the church retained a precedence of honour. For example, the Pantheon (Santa Maria ad Martyres) was subordinate to it.

In 1145, the relics of Pope St Mark were brought from Velletri and enshrined under the main altar.

The campanile was built in a restoration in 1154, when a baldacchino or canopy was also provided for the high altar. This was inscribed, and a transcription survives which gives the names of the craftsmen, four brothers:

In N[ostro] D[omino], Mag[iste]r Cil. Prr. Card[inalis] S[ancti] Marci iussit hoc fieri, pro redemptione animae suae, ann[o] D[omi]ni MCLIIII, ind[ictione] II factum, est per manus Iohis Petri Angeli et Sassonis, filiorum Pauli.

Renaissance[edit | edit source]

The link with Venice arose in the 15th century. Cardinal Pietro Barbo, who was titular of the church before being elected as Pope Paul II in 1464, restored it in the period 1455 to 1471. He added the present frontage, including a second-storey loggia which he used for blessings and addresses as pope after finishing it in 1466.

He also provided the church with a roof in lead, a coffered ceiling, a Cosmatesque floor and windows with Gothic tracery in the central nave walls above the arcades. The ancient columns of the arcade were enclosed in piers (the lead roof was heavy), and chapels inserted into the side walls.

As part of the same building project, the pope built the Palazzo Venezia around the church, which was completed in 1477 and used as the papal residence. Pope Paul then declared San Marco to be the national church of the Venetians. (It would remain in this role until the Republic of Venice was conquered by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1797, which was the end of its very long independent existence.)

Leon Battista Alberti seems to have had some overall responsibility for the work on both church and palazzo, but the documentary evidence for this is not good. Giovanni De' Dolci is on record as having worked here in 1464. The façade with its loggia is now attributed to Francesco del Borgo instead of Alberti himself.

Back then, and until the late 19th century, the church stood on a small piazza which only occupied the area north of the line of the present Via di San Marco. The latter continued east to another small piazza containing Trajan's Column, and was later extended as the Via Panisperna to Santa Maria Maggiore. The church had the Palazzo Venezia to its west, north and east and the Palazzetto Venezia (a separate building) on the east side of its piazza. The Corso came to a crashing stop in a small Piazza Venezia, which only had narrow streets as alternative exits. All around were closely-packed medieval buildings, and narrow streets and alleyways.

The Palazzo Venezia remained the papal residence only until 1564, when Pope Pius IVgave it to the Republic of Venice as an embassy.

Baroque[edit | edit source]

In 1654 Nicolò Sagredo, the Venetian ambassador, sponsored a restoration supervised by Orazio Torrioni. This involved interior decoration, including the nave fresco panels, and the glazing of the windows, and took three years. 

In 1735, Cardinal Angelo Maria Querini ordered a major re-modelling in the Baroque style, the architect being Filippo Barigioni. As well as the fresco and stucco embellishments in the nave, this work included a new high altar, choir stalls in the apse and the columns in red and white Sicilian jasper in front of the arcade piers. 

The arches of the Loggia of Blessings were walled up and converted into large windows, thus turning the loggia into an enclosed room. 

Very fortunately, the proposal to replace the Renaissance ceiling with a Baroque vault was not carried out. Very unfortunately, the 12th century altar canopy was destroyed.

There have been no significant interventions in the church fabric since then, apart from the provision of an organ gallery by Giuseppe Valadier in 1796.

Modern times[edit | edit source]

After the defeat of Napoleon, the former Republic of Venice was annexed by the Hapsburg Empire. As a result the Palazzo Venezia devolved to the empire, which used it as an embassy until the First World War. The church lost its national status, but remained the one for Venetian expatriates and the titular cardinal was always a Venetian. In 1866, Venice was annexed by Italy and so the church became regionary.

In 1847 there was a restoration which involved the provision of a new roof, and during which the confessio or crypt under the sanctuary was discovered.

In the late 19th century, the Italian government started to clear the area to provide a site and setting for the Monument to Vittorio Emanuele II. In 1911 the Palazzetto Venezia was dismantled and rebuilt on the west side of the Piazza San Marco, in order to open up the Piazza Venezia as the transport hub that it still is. This radically changed the church's context, as did the trees planted in front of it by the Fascist government. An engraving by Vasi exists which shows the previous layout; see the external link below.

The Baroque remodelling of the Loggia of Blessings was reversed in 1916, converting it back into its original form. In 1932, the old buildings opposite the church on the south side of the piazza were demolished by the Fascists.

From 1947 to 1950, excavations under the nave floor found the flooring of the first church, and that of a second church on top of this. In the process, the confessio was restored and opened.

However, debate on the dating of the early remodellings of the church was inconclusive until another excavation under the portico in the 1980's.

The church has kept its parochial status to the present day, although the resident population of the parish area (which includes the Campidoglio) is low.

Cardinalate[edit | edit source]

The church has been titular from its earliest days, but the extant list of cardinals begins in 1073.

In 1973 Albino Luciani, the patriarch of Venice, was made titular priest of the church. He was elected pope in 1978, taking the name John Paul I.

The last titular of the church was Marco Cé, who was Patriarch of Venice until 2002 but died in 2014. The title was left vacant, and the rumour was that the traditional automatic promotion of the Patriarch of Venice to cardinal status had lost favour. This appeared to be confirmed in 2018, when Angelo De Donatis was created cardinal -he has no connection with Venice.

Exterior[edit | edit source]

Layout and fabric[edit | edit source]


The plan of the church forms a narrow rectangle. Firstly there is the loggia, the depth of which is actually a third of the length of the nave. Then comes the nave with side aisles, which has ten bays. Finally there is the sanctuary with an internal semi-circular apse, flanked by continuations of the aisles which end in a chapel on the right, and the sacristy on the left. 

The exterior fabric of the church is enclosed by the structures of the Palazzo on all sides except the façade. The nave and sanctuary are under one pitched and tiled roof (tiles replaced lead in the 18th century), while the aisles have lower pitches. The loggia has its own roof, pitched at right angles to that of the nave.

There are no external side chapels, as the chapels off the nave are incorporated into the fabric of the side walls.

Campanile[edit | edit source]

The brick bell-tower was added to the right hand corner of the nave just inside the entrance in 1154, and can be seen peeping over the façade. It has three storeys above the nave roof, separated by dentillate brick cornices and with an arcade of three arches separated by white marble columns on each face. Also, the fabric is decorated with roundels of dark green serpentine.

Façade[edit | edit source]

The 15th century two-storey Renaissance façade in white limestone was traditionally ascribed to Leon Battista Alberti, but is now considered to have been by Francesco del Borgo

It has a portico with three large arches, having rectangular piers with imposts. Half-round Ionic pilasters are applied to the piers, and the arches are filled with ornate iron gates. Above the entablature is the Loggia of Benedictions, which was completed by Giuliano da Maiano in 1471 and was used for Papal blessings when the pope lived in the Palazzo Venezia. It repeats the three arches, except that the applied pilasters are Corinthian and are in shallow rectangular relief. Each pilaster has a papal emblem with a lion's mask above which recalls the lion emblem of St Mark the Evangelist.

The present aspect of the Loggia of Benedictions is actually modern, dating from the early 20th century. Before then, the arches were blocked up and each contained a glazed arched window. The imposts of the loggia arches were continued across each blocking wall, creating three tympani each of which contained an oculus or round window. This conversion of the loggia into an interior chamber had been done in the 18th century. 

Portico[edit | edit source]

The portico of the church contains many interesting pieces of carved stonework, some of them ancient Roman and some from the palaeochristian basilica. They include little columns attached to the wall at the left hand end, alleged fragments of the 12th century altar canopy or ciborio demolished in the 18th century restoration. 

The wall at the right hand end has a wall tablet with a very long and tiresome description of the remodelling carried out by Pope Paul II.

To the right of the entrance is the funerary epitaph of Vannozza de'Cattani, moved here from her tomb in Santa Maria del Popolo in obscure circumstances. She was the mother of Cesare, Lucrezia, Giofrea and Giovanni Borgia, and their names were recorded with pride in the inscription on the tomb. Because of this, it is thought that enemies of the Borgias later looted the tablet, brought it here and used it as paving for the portico, laying it face down -an odd thing to do. A photo of it is here.

Near the epitaph is an early well-head carved out of a drum of a large ancient column, 9th or 10th century. It has a very crudely carved inscription on it, cursing anyone who sold water drawn from it. This reads:

De donis Dei et Sancti Marci, Iohannes presbyter fieri rogabit. Omnes sitientes, venite ad aquas et si quis de ista aqua pretio tulerit anathema sit.

The original well was almost certainly in the church, rather like the one surviving in San Bartolomeo all'Isola, but its exact location is unknown.

The marble Renaissance doorcase of the main entrance is thought to be by Isaia da Pisa. It has a pair of Composite fluted pilasters supporting a lintel richly decorated with sunbursts and swags. Above the lintel is a lunette with a bas-relief carved in 1464 and depicting St Mark

Before this entrance, and flanking it, is a pair of recumbent stone lions which are facing each other warily. The lion of St Mark is the symbol of Venice, but several other churches had this decorative detail in mediaeval times. See San Lorenzo in Lucina, for example.

Flanking the main entrance is a pair of matching wall memorials, to Tommaso Contarini 1634 and Daniel Contarini 1656. They had been ambassadors for Venice. There are two other smaller, simpler entrances into the side aisles on the other sides of these monuments.

Interior[edit | edit source]

Layout and fabric[edit | edit source]

San Marco.png

The church has a simple basilical layout, structurally consisting of a nave with aisles having twelve bays. There is no transept, and the central nave walls above the arcades run uninterrupted to the apse. These contain twenty-four round-headed windows, twelve on each side (one per bay), each with Gothic tracery creating two lights. These date from the 15th century remodelling.

The first bay is taken up by the three staircases down into the church, and the organ gallery. The following nine bays are the nave proper, and the last two bays comprise the sanctuary which is raised above a devotional crypt or confessio and is hence approached by stairs.

There are four side altars on each side of the nave, which are simply rather small barrel-vaulted niches on a shallow rectangular plan. These alternate with four cross-vaulted apsidal niches into which large funerary monuments have been inserted.

Entrance stairs[edit | edit source]

Unlike in most ancient Roman churches, the floor level in the 9th century was kept in later remodellings. Hence, the floor is now substantially below the level of the street outside and you have to descend a flight of stairs after passing through the entrance door.

Counterfaçade[edit | edit source]

Over the main entrance in this first bay of the nave is the organ gallery, 1796 by Giuseppe Valadier, which is impressive in its own right. The actual main entrance is flanked by a pair of doubletted Composite pilasters revetted in pink and grey marble, and on these the central section of the gallery is cantilevered out on stone beams. Above is a marble balustrade, topped by a railing in gilded wood featuring flaming torches as posts connected by festoons.

This gallery is inserted into what is structurally an apse, with a triumphal arch and conch. You can see this from the curved walls on either side of the entrance below the gallery, which have a pair of memorial busts. One is of Virginio Bracci, 1815 by Raffaele Tuccimei and the other of the painter Agostino Tofanelli, 1834 by Achille Stocchi.

The main part of the organ is in an aedicule inserted into the apse, which has doubletted pilasters matching those flanking the entrance. These support a triangular pediment raised on posts, into which is inserted a large coat-of-arms which breaks the cornice.

The organ itself is a very fine instrument, built in 1936 by the firm Tamburini di Crema. Details of it are here.

Nave[edit | edit source]

San Marco interior.jpeg

The nave has nine arcade archways on each side. These are actually double. In front, each arcade has a set of arches set on the most notable design feature of the church, a matching set of Composite columns in Sicilian jasper, red and yellow veined with white, with gilded capitals. These columns are free-standing. Behind the archivolts that they support are a second set of narrower archivolts, springing from piers revetted in what looks like Carrara marble in white with horizontal grey streaks. These piers are behind the jasper columns. The columns, and the stucco and fresco decorations on the nave walls above, are from the 1744 restoration.

In the first nave bay, the arches are surmounted by a pair of gilded cantorie or opera-boxes for solo musicians. After these, over the columns in the other bays are either stucco bas-reliefs or large fresco panels -these alternate. Then come the 15th century windows over a cornice, and then the ceiling. Note that nothing in the design of the nave side walls links the ceiling with the arcades.

The floor is in white and dark grey marble, 16th century. It has grave slabs from the 16th to the 18th centuries, and a fine Cosmatesque panel featuring a quincunx. This is a remnant of the Cosmatesque flooring which was laid in the entire church in the 15th century.

The rather splendid lectern at the top right hand side of the nave, showing the gilded lion of St Mark emerging from a green brecciated marble pillar, is worth a look.

Reliefs of apostles[edit | edit source]

The white stucco reliefs are in the form of inverted pentagons, since the spandrels in between the arches are incorporated into them. There are a total of twelve, for the twelve Apostles, four of which are in the sanctuary. They were executed in the four years after 1741 to designs by Clemente Orlandi. The artists and subjects as given by Titi in 1763 are:

Carlo Monaldi: SS James the Great (The Baptism of Hermogenes), Philip (The Baptism of the Eunuch), Matthew (The Call of St Matthew), Thomas (The Incredulity of St Thomas), James the Less, Paul.

Pietro Pacilli: SS Matthias, and Peter.

Andrea Bergondi: St Andrew.

René-Michel Slodtz: St John the Evangelist.

Giovanni Le Dous: St Bartholomew.

Salvatore Bercari: St Simon.

The last two are pretty obscure, to say the least. Titi's list was re-published by Nibby in 1838, and has been regurgitated uncritically since.

Nave frescoes[edit | edit source]

The fresco panels in between the reliefs listed above are from the Sagredo restoration in the 17th century. They feature two story cycles. The left hand ones deal with Pope St Mark, and the right hand ones with SS Abdon and Sennen. There are four large panels in each cycle. The artists are given as:

Right; Pier Francesco Mola, Francesco Allegrini, Giovanni Angelo Canini, Guillaume Courtois.

Left; Fabrizio Chiari, Allegrini, Canini, Courtois.

Two smaller panels are next to the cantorie (artists not listed). The arch spandrels below the frescoes are decorated with three fleur-de-lys on a blue background.

Ceiling[edit | edit source]

The coffered wooden ceiling dates from the second half of the 15th century, and is possibly the oldest in Rome (though the ceiling in Santa Maria Maggiore may be slightly older). It was made by Giovannino and Marco de' Dolci, and is coffered in identical blue squares each of which contains a gilded rosette. The gilding was by Giuliano degli Amidi. The coat-of-arms on a red background in three tondi is of Pope Paul II, and serve as a reminder of his 15th century remodelling of the church.

The ceiling coffers number six by twenty-four. This gives a total of 144, but three sets of four are taken up by the tondi so there are 132 rosettes.

Sanctuary[edit | edit source]

Layout[edit | edit source]

The sanctuary occupies the last two bays of the church, the far one of which is deeper than the other eleven. There are two parts to the sanctuary. The first is at the same level as the nave and is the external confessio, although that term properly belongs to the crypt. The second is the presbyterium, and contains the high altar and choir. It is raised up over the internal confessio, which is a set of underfloor crypt passages dating to the original 9th century church.

External confessio[edit | edit source]

The external confessio occupies the eleventh bay, and is flanked by the two sets of stairs to the presbyterium. It is protected by sets of intricately curlicued wrought iron railings between piers revetted with alabaster, and a matching central set of gates. Over it, on the edge of the presbyterium, is a balustrade with a central concave section into which the high altar is inserted. This altar has a frontal which is itself concave and decorated with verde antico and alabaster, and protruding from it is a large porphyry urn in the form of a bathtub. This contains the relics of the founder of the church, Pope St Mark, to which those of SS Abdon and Sennen were added in the 15th century (they were put back into the confessio in 1948).

Below the altar frontal is a large oval orifice, surrounded by a gilded palm leaf wreath on a grey stone background. This is topped by a pair of curlicues, on which two gilded angels sit. The opening is into the actual confessio or crypt, and is called a fenestrella confessionis. It was intended to aid the devotion of pilgrims. Behind it is a little chamber which is above the altar in the confessio underneath. There is another orifice looking into this chamber at the foot of the altar steps.

A pair of gilded standing angel candleholders are on the ends of the balustrade arc. The walls below the balustrade on either side of the fenestrella are revetted in polychrome stonework including alabaster, with two inscription tablets in bright orange and a pair of oval porphyry tondi at the outer ends.

All this work is of the 18th century, by Filippo Barigioni.

The floor, however, is Cosmatesque. The large modern Byzantine-style icon below the left hand standing angel is a recent addition, in the glykophilousa mode ("loving kindness").

Presbyterium[edit | edit source]

You go up one of two staircases to get to the presbyterium. This has a superb Cosmatesque floor too, focusing on a quincunx in the apse which is well worth detailed examination. It was laid in 1478.

The bay that it occupies is deeper than the others, and if you look at the side arches you can see how the archivolts spring from gilded frond corbels instead of directly from the piers. The piers of these two arches do not have jasper columns as companions, but are revetted in pink marble with red trim. Each archway contains an open screen consisting of a pair of porphyry columns supporting an curlicued entablature intruding into a triangular pediment.

Above the arches there is a pair of oval porphyry tondi with inscriptions, over which the nave entablatures curve.

A Paschal candlestick in the form of a pink marble column is to the right of the high altar.

One oddity to be noticed about the altar is that its layout meant that the priest has always faced the congregation when saying Mass, at a time when the norm was for him to face the altarpiece.

Former baldacchino[edit | edit source]

The four porphyry columns in the side screens look as if they came from the baldacchino or ciborio provided for the high altar in 1154 and destroyed in the 18th century remodelling. They would originally have been extremely high-status ancient Roman items. The little columns preserved in the portico hint that the form of the canopy might have resembled that extant at San Giorgio in Velabro.

Choir[edit | edit source]

The apse contains the stalls of the canons, arranged in a semicircle in one impressive piece of 18th century carpentry. Above them, the apse wall has three large paintings featuring scenes from the life of St Mark the Evangelist. The central one is by Giovanni Francesco Romanelli showing the saint preaching (note the lion, his attribute) and the two side ones show his martyrdom and burial and are by Guillaume CourtoisIl Borgognone.

Originally, the apse wall had three windows but these were blocked in the 15th century when the palazzo was built.

Apse mosaic[edit | edit source]

The apse mosaic dates from the 9th century, and was commissioned by Pope St Gregory IV (827-844) when he had the church rebuilt. It's in the Byzantine style known in an earlier example at Santi Cosma e Damiano, but it was probably made by Roman artists who imitated the style rather than Greek craftsmen who really knew it. The mosaic in this church, together with those at Santa PrassedeSanta Maria in Domnica and Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, are the last major ones executed in Rome for nearly three hundred years. 

There are two panels, one in the conch of the apse and one on the spandrels of the apse arch.

In the conch, Christ is shown standing in the middle. He is dressed in purple and standing on a golden carpet, with the Hand of God above him and the Dove of the Holy Spirit below him. To the left he is flanked by St Felicissimus, St Mark the Evangelist and Pope Gregory IV. St Mark has his hand on Pope Gregory's shoulder, meaning that he is introducing him to Christ. The pope has a square halo, which indicated that he was still alive when the mosaic was made. To the right are Pope St Mark, Pope St Agapitus and St Agnes. At the apex of the conch is the monogram of Pope Gregory 

Below the conch, in a separate register, the Lamb of God stands in Paradise with the four rivers flowing from it. He is flanked by the twelve apostles shown as sheep, processing from the two holy cities of Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Along the lower edge of the composition is an epigraph in golden letters on a blue background, which reads:

Vasta tholi primo sistunt fundamine fulcra, quae Salomonico fulgent sub sidere situ, haec tibi proque questo perfecit praesul honore, Gregorii Marce, eximio cum nomine, Quartus. Tu quoque posce Deum vivendi tempora longa, donet et ad caeli post funus sydera ducat.

("The enormous supports of the rotunda stand on a first-rate foundation, which shine situated beneath the Solomonic star. Gregory, the fourth of the name, leader, finished these for you and for your honour, famous Mark. You, therefore, ask God that he may grant him to live a long time and may lead him after death to the stars of heaven".)

The arch spandrels have five tondi above showing Christ and the symbols of the four Evengelists, and lower down SS Peter and Paul, all on a gold background.

Confessio[edit | edit source]

The confessio is contemporary with the church, 9th century, and amounts to a fake catacomb. Several churches in Rome were provided with these, at a time when the real suburbab catacombs were being stripped and abandoned. The city government had lost control of the countryside which was being overrun by marauders, and pilgrims were liable to be kidnapped and sold as slaves.

There are two modern staircases, on either side of the sanctuary next to the stairs up, and each leads to a passage which turns a right-angle, and then runs in a semi-circle around the line of the apse. At the apex of this, a blind passage runs to under the high altar.

At the bottom of the left hand staircase is visible a fragment of the opus sectile floor of the first church. Fabric of the second church is visible by the right hand staircase.

There was a restoration of the passageway in 1947, and the relics of the martyrs which had been put under the high altar were brought back here. At the end of the blind passage is a small and simple altar, and above this a transenna with an inscription recording the presence of the relics of SS Restitutus and companions. Similarly, at the junction of the blind passage with the main passage is a tablet recording the transfer of the relics of the Persian martyrs Abdon and Sennen in 1948.

The blind passage has a floor made of fragments of polychrome marble, and the original roof of travertine limestone slabs. The last slab, above the altar, has a hole in it which opens into the floor of the little chamber behind the high altar. This was the original relic chamber, and has unidentifiable traces of frescoes. The passage was originally revetted in marble, as remnants of iron clamps indicate.

Near the entrances have been displayed some modern artworks, notably drawings by Franco Spina which have attracted a critcal blog here. Also, there is a Last Supper done in resin -photo here.

The side chapels and monuments are described counter-clockwise, starting from the right of the entrance.

Chapel of the Resurrection[edit | edit source]

The nave chapels are merely arched niches with just enough room for their little altars. They, and the accompanying monument niches, were carved out of the 9th century side walls in the 15th century remodelling.

The first chapel on the right side of the nave is dedicated to the Resurrection (that is Easter), although the dedication used to be to St Andrew the Apostle. The altar is a miniature copy of an ancient sarcophagus, in red and yellow jasper with a table in purple-veined white marble. The altarpiece of The Resurrection is by Palma the Younger, executed about 1600.

The barrel vault has a foliated archivolt, and rests on a vine-leaf cornice. These details are 15th century. In the top of the vault is the Dove of the Holy Spirit, with a fresco of Our Lady to the left (the corresponding fresco to the right is lost). The back lunette has a fresco of God the Father, which is damaged. The fresco work is by Bernardino Gagliardi, 1654.

Monument to Cardinal Pisani[edit | edit source]

Next along the right hand aisle is the fantastic memorial to Cardinal Francesco Pisani, 1570. It is in the form of the frontage of a pentastyle Greek temple with the central column missing, and is in polychrome marble and alabaster. The revetted panel in alabaster below the temple is a simple display of wealth without artistic merit.

Above the monument is a fresco of a Sibyl by Gagliardi, shown as reclining on the cardinal's coat-of-arms.

Chapel of St Anthony of Padua[edit | edit source]

The second chapel on the right is dedicated to St Anthony of Padua, and was the Cappella Tomacelli. The altarpiece showing Our Lady with SS Anne and Anthony is by Lugi Primo, a Flemish painter whose real name was Louis Cousin. There are decayed 17th century frescoes in the vault

Monument to Luigi Oreste Borgia[edit | edit source]

The second monument niche contains a modern memorial to Luigi Oreste Borgia, a canon of the church who died in 1916. Its style is such that it could have been executed a century earlier.

Above is a damaged fresco of the Cumanian Sibyl by Bernardino Gagliardi again.

Chapel of the Epiphany[edit | edit source]

The third chapel on the right is dedicated to the Epiphany, and was the Cappella Specchi. The altarpiece, one of the better paintings in the church, is by Carlo Maratta and shows The Adoration of the Magi. Seriously damaged flanking fresco panels were by Courtois; it is impossible to make out the subjects now.

On the altar is a little circular bas-relief of the Sacred Heart, infinitely better artistically than what is usually to be had in this genre.

Monument to Cardinal Vidman[edit | edit source]

The third monument niche on the right contains a memorial to Cardinal Cristoforo Vidman, 1660. He was a Venetian of Austrian descent (his name was actually Widmann). The impressive work is by Cosimo Fancelli, with obvious allusions to Bernini. Note the rumpled shroud on the bust plinth, being manipulated by two putti -very Berniniesque. Also impressive is the pair of eagles holding the ends of a swag at the sarcophagus, executed in white marble. The rayed effect in the conch is achieved by using alabaster panelling, the same stone being employed for the sarcophagus.

Chapel of Our Lady of Sorrows[edit | edit source]

The fourth chapel on the right is dedicated to Our Lady of Sorrows, and preserves its 17th century decoration. It was the Cappella Vitelleschi. The frescoes are by Gagliardi; the altarpiece is a Pietà, and the side panels show SS John the Evangelist and Mary Magdalen.

There is a fragment of Cosmatesque paving outside the chapel.

Monument to Francesco Erizzo[edit | edit source]

The fourth monument niche on the right contains the impressive late Baroque memorial to Francesco Erizzo, 1700 by Francesco Maratti. The deceased was the son of one of the ambassadors from Venice. The work is in the shape of a squat obelisk, bearing a cameo portrait in a tondo of brown marble supported by a pair of flying angels. Above is the family coat-of-arms, with crowned lion supporters backed by a drape. This obscures a fresco of a Sibyl by Gagliardi.

The side door that comes next actually aligns with the main entrance of the palazzo on the Piazza Venezia. In the 19th century this door was how you got into the church.

Monument to Leonardo Pesaro[edit | edit source]

The next memorial is in a small niche which actually next to the stairs leading up to the sanctuary area. It is the funeral monument of a young son of a Venetian ambassador, Leonardo Pesaro who died aged sixteen. By Antonio Canova early in his career, it was executed in 1796 in the purest neo-Classical style, and has attracted much admiration since then. The decorative details, involving a swag hanging from the mouths of a pair of lions' masks, a wreath with ribbons and the acroteria (little projections) with acanthus leaf decoration, are all Classical.

Above is a lunette fresco of a battle scene.

Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament[edit | edit source]

The Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament is in the far right hand corner of the church, to the right of the apse. It amounts to a continuation of the right hand side aisle, and has a vestibule which connects to the raised area of the sanctuary via a wide archway containing a colonnaded screen. The dedication is to Pope St Mark.

The vestibule floor has the same 15th century Cosmatesque paving as the sanctuary. It contains a rectangular slab in imperial porphyry bearing the epitaph of Cardinal Marco Barbo, 1491. He had been a cousin of Pope Paul II.

On the pier at the top of the stairs to the right is a monument to Cardinal Giambattista Rubini, 1707 with his bust and shield backed by yellow Siena marble and his epitaph on a black marble plaque shaped like a manta ray.

The chapel itself was designed by by Pietro da Cortona in 1653. It has a plan based on a chamfered square, and is domed. The chamfered corners of the square are occupied by wide piers with slightly incurved faces, and from these spring four arches which outline the pediments. The dome itself sits on a cornice supported by these. It has a unusual design, since as well as a lantern there are four side windows in lunettes which touch the lantern oculus. This gives a Maltese cross effect.

The rich stucco decoration of the dome and pendentives is a joint effort by Cosimo Fancelli and Ercole Ferrata.

The altar is in the far arch. It was designed with the Blessed Sacrament in mind, and the tabernacle is an integral part of the design. A pair of Composite columns in red and grey marble support a split segmental pediment, and into the split is inserted a richly framed tablet with its own  pediment. This reads: Ecce tabernaculum Dei cum hominibus ("Behold, the tent of God is with men"). The tabernacle referred to is in the form of a miniature round temple, with columns in the same marble. The 15th century altarpiece portrait of Pope St Mark is by Melozzo da Forli.

The side arches are occupied by two large frescoes by Guillaume CourtoisIl Borgognone. The left hand one shows The Collection of the Manna by Aaron (the tradition was that a pot of manna was kept in the Ark of the Covenant), and the right shows The Sacrifice of Aaron. Above these are two lunettes with frescoes by Ciro Ferri, the left hand one being The Martyrdom of St Catherine of Alexandria, and the right hand one The Martyrdom of SS Cyprian and Martina. 

Sacristy[edit | edit source]

The sacristy is in the top left hand corner of the church, in the equivalent position of the Blessed Sacrament chapel to the right. The altar in here is the previous 15th century high altar, replaced by the present one in the 18th century. The altarpiece of St Mark the Evangelist is by da Forli. There are also fragments of 14th century frescoes from the school of Pietro Cavallini, which some think are by the master.

The real treasure in the sacristy is the magnificent sculptured holy oil cupboard or aumbry, commissioned by Cardinal Barbo. This was a joint effort by Mino da Fiesole and Giovanni Dalmata over the two years from 1474, and experts have identified the contributions of the two of them on stylistic grounds. Giovanni executed the relief to the left, depicting Jacob Receiving the Birthright of Esau, as well as the two angels, while Mino executed the relief to the right depicting Melchizedek Greeting Abraham and God the Father at the top.

Chapel of the Immaculate Conception[edit | edit source]

The vestible of the sacristy has an altar under its lunette window, and is hence a chapel dedicated to the Immaculate Conception of Our Lady. It is the Cappella Capranica. 

The artworks are by Pier Francesco Mola. The altarpiece shows the Immaculate Conception, and to the sides are frescoes of St Luke and St John the Evangelist.

Memorials in here are to Giovanni Luigi Priolo, 1801 to the left, and Gabrielle Scala 1796 to the right. The latter is thought to be the first sculpture in Rome by Felice Festa, and is a very accomplished neo-Classical work showing an angel (or genius, if regarded as pagan) leaning on an amphora.

By the stairs up to the chapel is an apsed niche containing the restrained 15th century monument to Paolo Capranica, 1476.

The side door besides the stairs leads to the courtyard of the palazzo.

Monument to Pietro Basadonna[edit | edit source]

The fourth monument niche on the left contains another spectacular Baroque memorial, to Cardinal Pietro Basadonna. This is "cool" Baroque, white on dark grey with no polychrome, and is by Filippo Carcani who was another of Bernini's sublime school. The allegorical figures are Fortitude on the right, and Faith on the left, and the high-relief carving of the drapery on these and on the portrait bust is impressive.

Especially enjoyable are two little cameo portraits of Death, lower down at the sides. In one he has a scythe, in the other an hour-glass. It has been said that the church is worth visiting for these alone. 

The monument conceals a shadowy fresco of a prophet by Gagliardi.

Chapel of St Michael the Archangel[edit | edit source]

The fourth chapel on the left is dedicated to St Michael the Archangel. The altarpiece of St Michael Defeating the Devil is by Mola. The chapel used to be dedicated to SS Vincent and Anastasius, hence the side wall frescoes depict them. They are by Courtois.

The frescoes in the ceiling vault have rotted away.

Monument to Luigi Prioli[edit | edit source]

The third monument niche to the left contains a memorial to Cardinal Luigi Prioli, sculpted by Francesco Moderati 1720. This has some similarity to the previous memorial, but is in a light grey striped marble and the rendering of the draperies is even more lively. The allegorical figures are Justice to the left, and Charity to the right. The former is accompanied by a putto bearing the fasces, and the latter is being overwhelmed by a pair of putti running riot.

Chapel of St Dominic[edit | edit source]

The third chapel on the left is dedicated to St Dominic, and the altarpiece showing him performing a miracle is attributed to Baccio Ciarpi.

The side wall frescoes depict St Francis of Assisi by Lazzaro Baldi, and St Nicholas of Bari by Ciro Ferri

The second monument niche on the left is actually empty, but contains fresco work from the 16th century remodelling.

Chapel of St Gregory Barbarigo[edit | edit source]

The second chapel on the left is the most impressive of the nave side chapels. It is dedicated to St Gregory Barbarigo, who was only canonized in 1960 and so is still, rather stupidly, being referred to as Beato Barbarigo by the parish website.

He was beatified in 1761, and in response the chapel was re-fitted by Ermenegildo Sintes in 1764. Unlike the other nave chapels, here space is taken from the side aisle by means of a curved balustrade in red and yellow marble with a little pair of wooden entrance gates. The curve is followed by an entablature above, on which is the Barbarigo coat of arms supported by an angel and a putto. This entablature is supported by a pair of massive Corinthian pillars in yellow marble with bronze capitals, and a matching pair flanks the altar. 

The altarpiece is a bas-relief by Canova, and depicts the saint giving alms. The round-headed frame is topped by festoons and a wreath in bronze.

Monument to Marcantonio Bragadino[edit | edit source]

The first monument niche on the left contains a memorial to Cardinal Marcantonio Bragadino, a nephew of the famous Venetian army commander Marco Antonio Bragadin. It is by Lazzaro Morelli, another of Bernini's school who demonstrates the master's influence here. The portrait bust is in an elliptical tondo from which two putti are recoiling violently -the effect is rather odd. The background is a curtain hanging down above a sarcophagus, all in dark grey marble.

An older, mistaken attribution to Antonio Raggi is still being propagated. 

Chapel of the Altare Pasquale[edit | edit source]

The first chapel to the left used to be the baptistry and was dedicated to St John the Baptist, but there is no font here now. The frescoes are attributed to Carlo Maratta, with an elliptical altarpiece showing the Madonna and Child which has almost completely perished. The side wall frescoes show allegories of Prudence to the left and Innocence to the right, for which the artist used a pretty bionda as a model.

The tabernacle on the altar is a fine piece, embellished with alabaster and with a bronze Lamb of God on top. The little wrought iron railings guarding the chapel are 17th century.

Scavi[edit | edit source]

Overview[edit | edit source]

After the mid 20th century excavations under the nave, the church floor was re-instated as a suspended concrete raft over the resulting void. This allows the remains of the first two churches to be viewed.

There were two excavations, a mid-century one under the nave and one in the Eighties under the portico. The latter led to a revision of the conclusions drawn from the former. Beware -some recent publications have not taken this into account (for example, "The Churches and Catacombs of Early Christian Rome" by Matilda Webb, 2001).

Domus[edit | edit source]

Remnants of the private house or domus from which the first church was fitted out by Pope Mark are to be found under the right hand aisle, mostly a longitudinal wall in brick. These remnants are not easy to date, and could be any time from AD 200 to a century later.

The most notable survival is a little room under the near end of the right hand aisle, which contains a black-and-white mosaic depicting a cantharus or drinking-cup with vine-scrolls.

First church[edit | edit source]

The revisionist opinion is that the original 4th century church had a single nave occupying the central nave of the present church. The surviving wall fragments are in so-called opus vittatum with courses of masonry alternating with bricks to give a striped effect. This is typical of the period.

This interpretation leaves the church with a sort of transept forming a Latin cross plan, or two rooms flanking the nave in front of the apse (the latter is now under the portico). This layout should be compared with that of the palaeochristian basilica of San Crisogono, which is similar. The right hand room is the one with the mosaic mentioned above.

The archaeologists revealed how this first apse intruded into a street surface, which has left several large basalt paving blocks of the typye familiar from surviving sections of the Via Appia.

Fragments of opus sectile paving were found, as well as traces of wall painting imitating marble revetting. There was a fresco showing red horses on a white background on the west (left hand) room wall.

There are apparently two other lengths of opus vittatum walling under the left hand aisle wall of the present church, which require explanation if the first church had no aisle here.

Second church[edit | edit source]

The ashy layer a metre deep gives witness that the first church must have been gutted by fire. It was demolished, the demolition rubble formed into a platform a metre high and the second church built on that. The floor was of opus sectile again, in a geometric pattern of small squares in a grid with diapered larger squares.

The notable surviving feature of this church was the schola cantorum, a walled enclosure in the nave for the choir and liturgical ministers. See the surviving example at San Clemente. Here, the enclosure was surprisingly long with a narrower section further down the nave (towards the present sanctuary). The walls of the schola had more imitation marble fresco work.

Access[edit | edit source]

The church is open, according to the parish website as at May 30, 2019:


10.00 - 13.00,

16.00 - 18.00 


10.00 - 13.00

16.00 - 20.00


16.00 - 20.00


The side chapels are rather poky and badly lit, so if you are interested in the artworks that they contain it is best to visit on a bright day.

The excavations (scavi) under the church have had guided tours in the past, but not on a regular basis. They would come under the aegis of Sotterranei di Roma (see web-page in "External links") if they are still being held. Those seriously interested might try contacting the parish office well in advance of a hoped-for visit.

Liturgy[edit | edit source]

Mass is now celebrated in the church surprisingly infrequently (parish website, May 2019):

Saturdays and eves of Solemnities 19:30;

Sundays and Solemnities 12:00 (not June to September), 19:00.

The Madonnella di San Marco, round the corner in the Piazza Venezia, now functions as the church's weekday chapel and Masses on weekdays (including Saturdays) are celebrated there:

7:30 and 19:30 (not Saturdays)

However, most people around here during the week go to Mass at the Gesù which is nearby.

The feast-day of Pope St Mark is on 7 October, that of SS Abdon and Sennen on 30 July and SS Restitutus and companions, 27 May.

External links[edit | edit source]

Official diocesan web-page

Italian Wikipedia page

Interactive Nolli Map Website

Parish website

"De Alvariis" gallery on Flickr (three pages)

Roma SPQR web-page with gallery

Info.roma page with aerial photos

"Rometour" web-page (English)

"Romeartlover" web-page with Vasi engraving.

Sotterranei di Roma web-page with photos

Photo of interior from back on Fotolia

"Gogoroma" web-page with small photo gallery

Annas Rom Guide (in Danish, very good photos)

List of cardinals

"Italysafeholiday" video on Youtube

Roman Despatches blog with gallery

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