Churches of Rome Wiki

San Nicola in Carcere is a 16th century titular church and a minor basilica, and is also the regional church for those from Puglia and Lucania living in Rome. The address is Via del Teatro di Marcello 46 in the rione Ripa, north of the Bocca della Verità. Pictures of the church at Wikimedia Commons are here. There is an English Wikipedia page here.

The dedication is to St Nicholas of Myra, the patron saint of sailors and of children and the remote cause of the phenomenon of Santa Claus.

For some reason the church is erroneously being put in the rione Sant'Angelo in modern publications.


The Three Temples[]

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the church is that it incorporates the remains of three temples of the Republican era (2nd century BC) which used to stand in a row, side by side in the ancient Forum Holitorium with their entrances facing east. It is difficult to determine from the extant sources which temple was dedicated to which divinity, but the consensus is as follows:

The northernmost was dedicated to Janus, and had two rows of six Ionic columns of peperino at the entrance and eight down each side. Two survive to the north, and seven to the south embedded with their architrave in the church's north wall. Well-preserved parts of the podium also survive in the crypt.

The site of the middle temple is occupied by the church; it was dedicated to Juno Sospita and was in the Ionic style. Three columns survive embedded in the façade (out of six), and other remains exist in the crypt and also at the end of the left aisle.

The southern, much smaller temple was dedicated to Spes (hope personified as a goddess). It was in the Doric style, with six columns at the entrance and eleven down each side. Seven columns of the north side are embedded in the south wall of the church.

There used to be a fourth temple just to the north, the Temple of Pietas built by Manius Acilius Glabrio who was consul in 191 B.C., but this was demolished for the construction of the Theatre of Marcellus.


How the three temples became a church is a process which is completely obscure. A surmise is that the middle temple was converted into a church in the 6th century, but there is no documentary evidence at all. 

The name carcere, meaning "prison", is also puzzling. There is a reference in Pliny which reads ...Templo Pietatis exstructo in illius carceris sede ubi nunc Marcelli theatro est ("The Temple of Piety was built on the site of the prison where the Theatre of Marcellus now is"), but if this is the same prison it requires a memory of it to have persisted for at least seven hundred years.

Alternatively, one of the temples could have been used as a prison during periods of civic disorder during the early Dark Ages, such as the sacking of the city twice by barbarians in the 5th century or the Gothic Wars in the 6th. Citizens may have been imprisoned in order to extort ransoms. However, these theories again have no documentary evidence. The puzzle of the name caused people in the Middle Ages to mistake the church for the site of the Mamertine Prison.

The dedication to St Nicholas was perhaps as a result of the Greek population living in the area in the early Dark Ages, as the saint has always been popular in the Byzantine rite. However, he has long been popular in the West as well, and his shrine is at Bari (which is why this is the Puglian regional church).

Dedication inscriptions[]

The first certain documentary reference is an epigraph from the reign of Pope Urban II (1088-99), preserved in the right hand aisle. This is why the Diocese has the year of rebuilding as 1088.

Also in the right hand aisle is an epigraph recording the church's refitting and re-consecration on the orders of Pope Honorius II:

Anno D[om]inicae Incarnationis, MCXXVII, D[omi]ni Honorii II P[a]p[ae] IIII, XII die mense madii, ind[ictione] VI, dedicata est haec ecclesia in honore sancti Nicolai confessoris.

However, there is another epigraph cut into the second nave arcade column on the right. This is rather odd, in bad Latin, and is earlier. Although undated, it is thought to be 9th century:

De donis di, et sce. di genitrci Marie, sce. Anne, scs. Simeon et sce. Lucie, edgo Anastasius, maior domu, ofero bobis pro natalicies best. binea tabul. VI q. p. it portu, seu bobes paria II iumenta s. v. pecora XXX, porci X, furma de rame libras XXVI, lectus itrat V in utilia te pbr. sevaleo lecto, si trato at mansionaris equi sequentibus. + IC requiescit IG ante. 

This seems to do with an offering of farm livestock and a quantity of copper to a church. The problem is, it might have been carved onto the column elsewhere, before the column was brought to this church for its 12th century rebuilding.

Middle ages[]

The 1128 re-fitting involved a Cosmatesque or opus sectile floor, a schola cantorum like the surviving example at Santa Maria in Cosmedin nearby, marble ambones or pulpits and a bishop's throne in the apse.

In the 13th century the church was known as San Nicola Petrus Leonis, referring to the convert Jewish Pierleoni family who rebuilt the nearby Theatre of Marcellus as a fortress. They became famous Roman patricians in the Middle Ages, and the present campanile was their responsibility. 

There was a restoration in 1280, involving the church's crypt which was functioning as a confessio or place for pilgrims to venerate relics of martyrs. Under the present high altar are the relics of Mark and Marcellian, as well as Simplician, Faustinus and Viatrix. The first two featured in the 13th century fresco cycle in the crypt, as was noted in the 17th century. Also portrayed were SS Abundius and Abundantius, as well as a Flagellation and a Crucifixion. All these are lost, but a panel showing The Baptism of Christ and four tondi portraying prophets (Moses, Jeremiah, Haggai and Amos) were recovered and are now in the Pinacoteca Vaticana.

It seems that the serpentine urn now under the high altar was then being used in the crypt shrine.


The church was basically rebuilt in 1599, when the present Mannerist façade was added by Giacomo della Porta under the direction of Cardinal Pietro Aldobrandini.  The ancient temple remains were conserved, as was the mediaeval tower serving as a campanile

The church was restored three times in the 19th century, in 1856 when the altar was remodelled, in 1865 on the orders of Pope Pius IX and again in 1880.


Until the 20th century, the church stood on a little piazza which itself was on a narrow street. It was otherwise surrounded by old buildings, including a little confraternity oratory adjacent to the nave to the north. This had separate access from its own piazza, the Piazza di Monte Savello, and belonged to the Confraternity of the Blessed Sacrament attached to the parish.

20th century[]

In the 20th century, the edifice almost succumbed to the nationalist passion for excavating and exposing the surviving architectural remains of the Roman Empire. The surrounding buildings, many of them medieval, were demolished, leaving the church isolated. When Mussolini 's grandiose Via del Mare road scheme was executed, the present wide road was pushed through at a much lower level than the original street and hence the church is now only accessible in front by steps. An engraving by Vasi shows the streetscape before all this destruction (see the "Romeartlover" external link).

A further unfortunate result was that the surrounding area was depopulated (few people live around here even now), and this left the ancient parish unviable. It was suppressed in 1931, and the church made dependent on Santa Maria in Campitelli.


Traditionally a cardinal diaconate was established here in 731, but in reality the church became titular in the early 12th century. The first named cardinal was appointed in 1138.

The current titular deacon of the church is H.E. Cardinal Zenon Grocholewski. He was appointed on 21 February 2001.



The plan of the basilica is based on a T, with separate pitched and tiled roofs covering the nave and the longitudinal transept which does not protrude beyond the nave aisles. The presbyterium roof is also hipped. There is a semi-circular apse with conch, a separate chapel on the left hand side with its own little dome and conched apse, and a medieval campanile to the right of the façade.

It is thought that the 1128 rebuilding may have provided the church with its present plan as an aisled basilica. Previously, the central temple of Juno Sospita might have been converted to a church by demolishing the cella and filling in the gaps between the pillars, creating an unaisled nave. This is what happened at Santa Maria Egiziaca. To create aisles, these walls containing the original pillars would have been removed and the sides of the neighbouring temples used for walls instead. The central temple's original lines of side pillars ran down the middles of the present aisles.

An objection to this theory is that the present arcade pillars are not a matched set, which one would expect if the pillars of the central temple were available for re-use after the walls containing them were demolished. Were the temples already in ruins, and being pillaged for building materials, when the church was first established? Another concern is that the arcade columns are very high-status Imperial archtectural items using imported stone, not Republican ones using the local limestone and tufa.


The façade incorporates three ribbed columns from the original temple of Juno Sospita, two of which have been re-done in stucco to flank the entrance portico. The third one is tucked into the left hand corner in an unrestored state, rather sad and crumbly without its capital.

The work was probably designed by Giacomo della Porta for the 1599 remodelling, which he oversaw, and does not correspond to the actual dimensions of the edifice behind (the 20th century demolitions have made this more obvious). Also, it does not include the aisle ends; the left hand one is just a blank brick wall, and the right hand one is blocked by the campanile.

The actual design of the façade is all very incorrect (Vitruvius would not have approved at all), but is quite impressive. There are one and a half storeys. The two main columns of the first storey are only exposed in the half-round and have been provided with swagged Ionic capitals, with the volutes unusually curly. They support a projecting dentillated cornice via a pair of odd little pilasters, which amount to fragments of architrave and frieze. Also, this cornice does not extend across the entire width of the façade.

The central vertical zone of the first storey in between the columns is brought forward slightly. The oversize door has a plain moulded doorcase, surmounted by a raised blank triangular pediment over an inscription proclaiming that the church is indulgenced. Above this pediment is a large oculus (or round window) surrounded by a ring of twelve eight-pointed stars, this ring being broken by a benefactor's inscription running underneath the cornice. This latter reads Petrus SRE Diac[onus] Card[inalis] Aldobrandinus, or "Peter Aldobrandini, Cardinal Deacon of the Holy Roman Church". The oculus is flanked by a pair of panels showing reliefs of saints, the one on the left being St Nicholas and the one on the right showing two martyrs identified as Mark and Marcellian. Below each panel is a star and a swag, and there is another pair of stars to the left and right of the column capitals. The star was on the Aldobrandini coat of arms.

The little upper half-storey has four dumpy Doric pilasters supporting the crowning triangular pediment, which has a blank tympanum. The central panel has stars, swags and ribbons, there are four stars with volutes on the pilasters and a pair of candlesticks in relief in between the pairs of pilasters. Two large double volutes in shallow relief flank the pediment, and the pediment itself has three ball finials. The main one has a metal cross, while the other two have metal stars. This is an arrangement that dates from at least the 18th century.

North side of church, with campanile.


The campanile to the right of the façade is medieval, and was not changed during the 16th century rebuilding. It was originally a fortified tower, but when it was abandoned it was appropriated for the church. It is rather grim square brick tower with a gabled roof and arched sound-holes; the small pair facing the road differ in size while the pair facing the city centre are much larger and taller.

Side entrance[]

The right hand side entrance has a rectangular stone portal with an aperture in the shape of a Gothic arch. The spandrels have two roundels with traces of Cosmatesque decoration. This item was part of the 1280 restoration.



The nave has nine bays, the first one for the entrance and then eight with arcades into the side aisles. Then comes the transept, the centre of which functions as the sanctuary. Finally, there is the curved apse which now has no function. It is flanked by a pair of chapels. There is only one side chapel off the nave, on the left hand side.

Overall, the decorative elements on the walls are 19th century.


San Nicola in Carcere.png

The nave has seven ancient columns in the arcade on each side, supporting an entablature with modillions supporting its cornice. Very interestingly, the central nave wall above the arcade is thinner in the last three bays. If you look at the ceiling, you can see a gap on either side at the far end because of this. One interpretation is that the rebuilding by De Porta only involved the first five bays, and that this part of the nave has mediaeval fabric.

The central nave side walls have four windows in the first five bays, separated by three 19th century figurative fresco panels. The side walls in the far three bays have two such fresco panels, flanking a blank panel where there "should" be a window. The frescoes show scenes from The Life and Miracles of St Nicholas, are are by Marco Tullio Montagna.

The entrance bay contains the organ gallery. Above the organ are epigraph tablets recording the more recent restorations. Flanking this bay at the bottom end of the aisles are two custodians' chambers, the right hand one also being the first storey of the campanile.

The flat 19th century wooden nave ceiling is coffered in large panels, and is richly decorated in blue and gold with rosettes and tendrils. It was provided in 1868, and the coat of arms of Pope Pius IX is displayed. 

The side aisles have cross-vaults, which spring from pilasters with Renaissance "sort-of" Composite capitals and which are revetted in a dark greenish-grey marble.

The confessio or entrance to the crypt intrudes into the nave, and is surrounded by a U-shaped marble balustrade 


As mentioned, the ancient arcade columns are not a matching set. Most have Corinthian capitals and are of cipollino marble from Euboea in Greece, but the four nearest the presbyterium are Ionic and are grey granite from Mons Claudianus in the Eastern Desert of Egypt. Of the latter, the pair nearest the sanctuary have their volutes on the diagonal. The first three columns on the right are fluted, and the fourth is ribbed. This latter one is uniquely of marmor Chium, a red and white marble from the island of Chios in Greece which resembles the portasanta marble from Italy. On the second column on the right you can see a 9th century dedicatory inscription which may or may not relate to this church.


The 19th century ceiling of the transept is separate and higher, and the transept floor is also elevated over the original mediaeval crypt.

The high altar has a 19th century baldacchino with an ornate canopy on four red and white marble Corinthian columns. The altar itself is on an ancient green serpentine bath containing the relics of martyrs. (This item is often described incorrectly as of basalt, and also of "green porphyry" which sounds like a horrible colour combination. "Porphyry" means purple.) The Romans got the stone from near Sparta, so they called it Lapis lacedaemonicus.  

The relics in the altar are apparently part of those of SS Mark and Marcellian, who are mainly at Santi Cosma e Damiano. They were originally at Catacomba di Basileo (Basilica dei Santi Marco e Marcelliano).  

The apse behind the altar has allegorical frescoes from the 1865 restoration, to a scheme by Vincenzo Pasqualoni.

The left hand side wall has an Ascension by Lorenzo Costa. The facing wall has a memorial to Cardinal Giovanni Battista Rezzonico, 1783.

Side chapels[]

In the right hand aisle is a fragment of a fresco of the Madonna and Child by Antoniazzo Romano. Further along is an altar dedicated to the Trinity and the altarpiece, Trinity among Angels, is (perhaps wrongly) attributed to Guercino. Then comes a 19th century picture of St Francis receiving the stigmata.

To the right of the apse is the chapel of Our Lady of PompeiThe feast of Our Lady of Pompei, an Italian cult of Our Lady based on a shrine near the famous ruined city, is celebrated on 8 May. The altarpiece is a rather academic 19th century copy of the original icon.

To the left of the apse is the chapel of the Crucifix.  

The large external chapel off the left hand aisle is now dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe, and is a focus of devotion by Mexican expatriates. It contains a reproduction painted on silk of the famous miraculous painting, sent here from Mexico in 1773


The crypt can be visited on Thursdays, 10:30 a.m. to noon. The opening times used to be much more accommodating, and it is perhaps advisable to phone beforehand to check. The phone number is on the diocesan web-page.

Remains of the podia of the three temples are on view there, together with the narrow alleyways between them. A puzzling feature is the row of small rooms or cells cut into the podium of the central temple. These may have been small booths or shops selling high-value items associated with the temple cults.

The crypt used to be an ossuary, and there were a lot of old bones scattered about until fairly recently (mostly human, some rat) which made for a rather macabre visit. Presumably they have been cleared up by now.


The church is open 10:00 to 17:00 daily (tourist website 060608, January 2018)

Only worshippers are allowed in the church during Mass (see below).

The scavi are visitable 10:00 to 17:00, except Wednesdays.


Mass is celebrated (same source):

Weekdays 7:30, 8:00, 18:00;

Sundays and Solemnities 12:00.

Mass in the Extraordinary Form is celebrated at 18:00 on Saturdays.


For the archaelogical consensus on the identity of the temples, refer to:

Filippo Coarelli: Rome and Environs, English trans. University of California 2007, p313. This has a very good plan showing how the church relates to the remains of the temples.

External links[]

Official diocesan web-page

Italian Wikipedia page

Interactive Nolli Map Website (church)

Interactive Nolli Map Website (oratory and confraternity)


"De Alvariis" gallery on Flickr

Info.roma web-page

Roma SPQR web-page with gallery

"Romeartlover" web-page with Vasi engraving

"Roma Sotteranea" web-page

"Revealed Rome" web-page

List of cardinals

Roman Despatches blog with gallery