San Michele a Ripa is an 18th century former hospice church with a postal address at Via di San Michele 22 in the south part of Trastevere. The address is that of the complex of which it is a part, which dominates the Ripa Grande on the Tiber north-east of the Ponte Sublicio.

It should not be confused with Santa Maria del Buon Viaggio, which is a church of older origins swallowed up by the hospice complex. This is further to the south-east.


The dedication is to St Michael the Archangel, and the official name of the church as used by the Diocese is San Michele a Ripa.

Unfortunately, this results in confusion with the complex as a whole, which has the same name.

The church was once known by an older name, San Salvatore degli Invalidi. This seems to be because the original dedication was actually to the Transfiguration, not to St Michael, and the Nolli map of 1848 actually lists the church as the Chiesa della Trasfigurazione.


Ripa GrandeEdit

The church is not an old foundation, but the site on which it stands consitututed the mediaeval river quay for the handling of boat passengers. This was the Ripa Grande. Merchandise was mostly landed across the river, at the old Forum Boarium.

Foundation of institutionEdit

The church forms part of the enormous complex of the Ospizio Apostolico di San Michele, begun in the late 17th century.

Msgr Tommaso Odescalchi, nephew of Pope Innocent XI (1676-89), founded the original hospice on family property in order to look after orphaned and abandoned children and to teach them a trade. This was a private venture, one of many such at the time, but the pope took a decisive step in 1686 to concentrate the city's outreaches to orphans as well as other welfare initiatives on one single site. He chose this one. The original architect was Mattia de Rossi, who began the so-called Conservatorio dei Ragazzi in the same year. This is now the main courtyard of the complex.

The next pope, Alexander VIII, was not very interested but his successor, Innocent XII, commissioned Carlo Fontana to continue the work in 1693. This architect was to remain in charge subsequently. 


The next pope, Pope Clement XI, enlarged the project massively.

The Conservatorio dei Ragazzi was finished in 1701, and in the same year a wing was added along the present Via di San Michele to the south-west to serve as a male juvenile detention centre. This was the Carcere di Correzione Maschile, and was finished by Fontana in 1704. Then came a suite of offices for the Customs, the Caserma dei Doganieri, which occupied the southern corner of the site on the Piazza di Porta Portese. This was finished by 1709, and then Fontana rebuilt the little church of Santa Maria del Buon Viaggio as part of the premises. This was completed in 1714.

Foundation of the churchEdit

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Conservatorio dei Ragazzi accommodation for infirm old men was being built. This part of the project included the church for the complex. The Conservatorio dei Vecchi was erected by Fontana around a second, smaller courtyard to the north-east of the main one, and off the north-east side of this the church was built from 1710 to 1715.

The plan of the church as originally envisaged by Fontana was unusual. It was to be on the plan of a Greek cross, with four ample arms so that four separate congregations from the different parts of the complex could be accommodated to hear Mass at a central altar. However, only three arms were completed when Fontana withdrew from the project, leaving the church in the shape of a T.

Continuation with the complexEdit

Nicola Michetti succeeded Fontana. He began the Conservatorio delle Vecchie for infirm old women as a wing along the Via di San Michele to the north-west of the church. This was begun in 1714, and completed in 1717.

Then came a drastic intervention for the church. Michetti began the Conservatorio delle Zitelle for orphaned and abandoned girls around a third courtyard to the north-east of the church in 1719. This cut across the site of the proposed fourth arm of the church, originally intended to accommodate the girls. To compensate, a separate chapel was provided for them in this courtyard. This part of the project took some time, only being finished in 1729. Michetti then left.

Pope Clement XII then hired Ferdinando Fuga to add the last institution in the complex, in 1734. This was the women's  prison, on the Piazza di Porta Portese to the corner with Via di San Michele. It was finished in a year, and completed the enclosure of a fourth courtyard.

The Conservatorio delle Zitelle was extended to the north-east by Pope Pius VI in 1790, the architect being Nicolò Forti. This part of the complex had previously been left unfinished because of a dispute over land with the nuns at Santa Cecilia in Trastevere.

19th centuryEdit

This enormous complex was a century ahead of its time, and showed the enlightenment of the papal government in matters of social security and penology. In the rest of Europe in the 18th century, orphanages and prisons were disgusting and inhuman places and this state of affairs lasted well into the 19th century.

The church was finally provided with a sanctuary apse by Luigi Poletti from 1831 to 1834, converting the plan to that of a Latin cross. This was part of a wider intervention in the complex by the same architect, on the orders of Pope Gregory XVI. The other notable result of this was a set of buildings in the fourth courtyard forming an art school dedicated to work in marble and metal.


After Rome was conquered by Italy in 1870, the entire complex was granted to the Comune or city government. However, it lost the subsidies that it received from the former papal government. As a result, the city moved the orphanages and old persons' homes elsewhere and concentrated on juvenile detention. The rest of the complex was mothballed. This included the church, which is not in the list compiled by Diego Angeli in 1903.

In 1938, most of the reformatory was moved to the suburbs -see Cappella dell'Istituto Romano di San Michele. However, an annexe was kept open until 1972. The rest of the complex was either used for accommodating homeless people or transients, or was completely abandoned. 


The state of the complex had become dangerous by the 1960's, both physically as whole sections threatened to collapse and also socially as it became inhabited by derelicts and criminals. Hence, the Italian government regained possession in 1969 and immediately set about a massive campaign of restoration. The property was vested in the present Ministero per i Beni e le Attività Culturali, which took over a decade to put it in proper order. 

The complex now houses several departments of the Ministry, a list from the Italian Wikipedia being:


After being abandoned for an extended period, the church was almost converted into an art gallery to house overflow from the Palazzo Borghese. However, it has now been restored to liturgical use.

It is served by  its own diocesan priest, Don Enzo Pacelli.
2011 Michele a Ripa

The main door into the hospital.


No exterior identityEdit

The church is structurally included in and surrounded by the complex, and is invisible from the street.

Further, it does not have its own external identity within the complex. The main entrance is on the Cortile del Conservatorio dei Vecchi, which is the second courtyard in the complex and is accessed via the north-east side of the main courtyard. This second courtyard has two-storey arcades on all four sides, and the church entrance is on the ground floor arcade on the north-east side.

Above the church is a large hall with a fine wooden roof, apparently once used for drying the laundry of the inmates.


You can see the bellcote of the church from the viewpoint on the Aventine just east of Santa Sabina. This fine campanile, in pink brick, is by Fontana and is the only exterior sign that there is a church here.
2011 Maria del Buon Viaggio, belfry

Roof and belfry of San Michele from Aventine.

It has two well-separated arched bell-apertures in its first storey, flanked by blind brick pilasters supporting a cornice. On top of this is the smaller second storey, in the form of a triumphal arch with a triangular pediment on an entablature over the third bell-aperture, and sweeps on either side leading to ball finials. A third ball is on top.



In Fontana's original plans for the church, it was to have had a Greek-cross plan. The project was, however, modified to a T-shaped one. The T is made up of four square elements which, for the sake of clarity, can be called the nave, crossing, left transept and right transept. The idea was that the nave and two transepts could have three separate congregations, each segregated from the other two.

There is a shallow entrance bay separate from the main nave, and a transverse rectangular apse on the far side of the crossing.

Apart from the high altar in the apse, there are four other altars. One is on each side of the nave, and one is in the far wall of each transept.


San Michele a Ripa Grande

The nave, like the rest of the interior, is barrel-vaulted and is decorated in a cool white with recessed panels in pale blue on walls and vault. Apparently, the original decoration by Fontana was rich with much gilding but had been destroyed by the century of neglect that the church suffered.

The side altars are in large arched niches. Between these and the crossing are large rectangular niches containing doors. Above these are square galleries with solid balustrades, mirrored by a further two galleries on the other side of the side altars near the entrance.

The vault rests on a molded but undecorated entablature that runs around the church, supported by tripletted Composite pilasters folded into the corners of nave and transepts, and doubletted pilasters at the crossing. It has a window lunette on each side, above the altar.

The left hand altar has a large copy of the Transfiguration by Raphael as its altarpiece, merely hung in the arch without any aedicule or stone frame. The altar itself is, however, in polychrome marble work. 


Instead of a dome, Fontana provided a cross-vault with a large central tondo containing a stucco relief of the Dove of the Holy Spirit in glory.

The corners of the crossing have a pair of doubletted Composite pilasters each. The bottom left hand corner has a wooden pulpit attached, which has a separate ornate sounding-board with carved wooden swags.


The sanctuary has its barrel vault in the same white and pale blue scheme as the other vaults. However, its altar is in polychrome marble. The aedicule has four Corinthian columns in yellow Siena marble, supporting a triangular pediment in red marble with an epigraph on its frieze saying Iesu Christo Deo Salvatori on a blue background. The architrave, frieze and gable of the pediment are in grey-streaked marble, and the background to the columns is also in red.

The altarpiece is a statue of the Saviour by Adamo Tadolini, inserted into a round-headed niche with a grey-streaked marble archivolt. The columns stand on a high plinth which extends either side of the altar itself, and this is revetted with alabaster. The altar frontal incorporates alabaster panels also. The altar is elevated, and is approached by six steps.

In niches in the side walls are statues of SS Peter and Paul.


The transepts have an identical layout. Each has two of the square balconied galleries in the far wall, flanking a large arched niche containing an altar. 

The left hand transept has a portrait bust of Pope Sixtus V over the door in the end wall, embellished with a palm frond girdle and putti. There is a large rectangular window over the entablature above.The altar has a depiction of Our Lady.

The right hand altar is similar in design, but has Michael the Archangel Defeating the Devil as the altarpiece, which is a copy of a work by Guido Reni. There is also a sanctuary balustrade. The end wall here is identical in design, and has a bust of Pope Innocent XII over its door. The memorial to the left of the altar is of Bernardino Fazzini, 1837, who was the confessor of St Vincent Pallotti.


As the church is part of a government ministry complex, there is no free access apart from times of dedicated cultural events and exhibitions.


The church has a choir, the Corasmichele, under the direction of the priest in charge.

No up-to-date information on any regular liturgical activity seems to be readily available. The choir website (July 2018) gives a list of events up to the end of 2016, indicating that Mass then was being celebrated about four times a year.

The feast of the Archangels (including St Michael) is on 29 September, and it is worth having a look on that date to see if anything is going on as this is the dedication feast of the church.

External linksEdit

Official diocesan web-page

Italian Wikipedia page (of the complex)

Nolli map (look for 1128)

Choir's website

"De Alvariis" gallery on Flickr

Roma SPQR web-site with gallery

ICCD web-page

Info.roma web-page

"Beniculturali" booklet on Istituto San Michele (pdf)

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