San Silvestro in Capite is a 16th century conventual, national and titular church of ancient foundation at Piazza di San Silvestro 17/A in the rione Colonna. Pictures of the church at Wikimedia Commons are here. There is an English Wikipedia page here.
It is not a minor basilica.
The dedication is to Pope St Sylvester, called in Capite because the famous relic of the alleged head of St John the Baptist was enshrined here from the 13th century (it used to be in the lost nearby church of Santa Maria in San Giovannino, which is why the dedication here is not to St John).
In the earlier Middle Ages the church was called Sancti Silvestri inter Duos Hortos ("between the Two Gardens").
Note that it is not listed as the National Church of Great Britain (di Gran Bretagna). This subtle point arises from the serious complexities involved in describing the national identities of the inhabitants of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (see the "Talk Page" of this Wikipedia article for a demostration). From the viewpoint of the Roman Catholic Church, Ireland is a separate entity under one hierarchy, while Great Britain as an island consists of three nations (England, Wales, Scotland) each with its own hierarchy.
Scotland used to have its own national church, Sant'Andrea degli Scozzesi, but bizarrely abandoned it in the later 20th century. Wales has never had a national church in Rome. So, nowadays this church here is meant to be shared by the three island nations of Britain.
The Pallotines in charge describe the church as "The Church for the English-Speaking Peoples in Rome", which in practice has meant that the congregations at the English language Masses contain a large number of Filippinos. Some English expatriates have decamped to San Tommaso di Canterbury at the English College as a result (although this is not a national church).
The English also have their own national church at San Giorgio e dei Martiri Inglesi.
In ancient times the neighbourhood of the church was called the Campus Agrippae, which was urbanised in the 3rd century. The Ara Providentiae was just to the north, a counterpart founded by the emperor Tiberius of the more famous Ara Pacis to the west of the Via Lata (the present Corso).
Direct archaeological evidence of this is lacking, as also of the large Temple of Sol Invictus founded by Aurelian shortly after 274. This is thought to have been either on the actual church site, or on the next block west adjacent to the Corso. This was a very rich and important institution, and the documentary sources are summarized here. Excavations under the church in 1906 were inconclusive, although evidence of a Mithraeum was found under the piazza in the 15th century.
This temple has been seriously confused with the Serapeum on the Quirinal, which has left extant remains and which features in several old engravings. Beware of this confusion being propagated in online sources.
The first monastery here was actually begun by Pope Stephen III, and completed by Pope Paul I in 761. The documentary sources in the Liber Pontificalis and elsewhere are unusually good although there are controverted points of interpretation.
The institution was one of those founded specifically to receive relics of martyrs from the catacombs, which at the time were in the process of being abandoned. This was because the city's authorities could no longer guarantee protection from marauders to anyone ouside the city walls. The convent originally contained an oratory, apparently in an upper storey, dedicated to St Sylvester and St Stephen I whose relics were enshrined here. The relics of many other martyrs thus transferred are listed on two tablets at the entrance of the present church, the most important being St Tarcisius from the Catacombe di San Callisto.
The main church or basilica, richly decorated, was dedicated to "St Dionysius", who was almost certainly St Denis of Paris. This was probably in order to please King Pepin the Short of the Franks with whom the Papacy had formed a useful alliance and to whom Pope Paul wrote to report the foundation.
The monastery was initially staffed by Byzantine-rite monks who worshipped in Greek, probably refugees from the iconoclast persecution at Constantinople. Monastic life at Rome in this century was dominated by refugee monks from the East.
Most expatriate monastics of eastern rites in Rome went home or elsewhere over the course of the late 9th century. As a result, Pope Agapetus II donated the complex to the Benedictines in the mid 10th century; they had recently established themselves in Rome (and were then to pretend that they had been there since the late 6th century). At the same time, he gave the monastery the possession of the Column of Marcus Aurelius in order to safeguard that ancient monument. (Note that this column was confused with the Column of Antoninus Pius in mediaeval times, and hence in sources.)
Another donation to the portfolio was the monastery and pilgrimage shrine of the Basilica e Catacomba di San Valentino.
The dedication of the church mutated from St Denis to the present St Sylvester during the 12th century, when the monastery is found listed as SS Stephani, Dionysii et Sylvestri. This was probably the result of the relics of the two popes being transferred to the church from their oratory.
The present name of in Capite is first found in 1194.
This was an independent abbey, with its own abbot. It set about rebuilding its complex in 1198. This project included the present campanile, and was finished in 1216. Unfortunately, the various Benedictine monasteries in the city had became seriously corrupt in this century. The origin of the problem was that Benedictine monasteries owned landed estates, and so the monks qualified as nobility under the Holy Roman Empire. At Rome, this led to a situation where "monks" were bearing weapons, having mistresses with illegitimate offspring and enjoying private incomes. The result was that almost all Benedictine monasteries (except San Paolo fuori le Mura) were suppressed in the 13th century.
Poor Clares rebuild
So, in 1286, Pope Honorius IV gave the complex to the Poor Clares, also known as the Second Order of St Francis. They were to remain in residence for almost six hundred years. Many of the failed Benedictine monasteries became Franciscan in the course of this century, such as Santa Maria in Aracoeli and San Cosimato in Trastevere (also a major Poor Clare nunnery).
Oddly, the nuns did not take on the dependent priory of San Valentino and this was simply abandoned.
The nuns decided to rebuild in the 16th century. They employed Francesco Capriani (nicknamed Da Volterra) to start work on the convent in 1588. Then he focused on the church from 1591 to 1601, being assisted from 1595 by Carlo Maderno. Structurally this resulted in the present building, consecrated in 1601.
In 1667 a campaign of interior decoration was begun, when Carlo Rainaldi renewed the sanctuary and high altar and provided the organ. Work by various Baroque artists went on until 1697, giving the richly embellished interior now here. Mattia de Rossi was in charge from 1687, having taken over from Rainaldi.
Poor Clare nunnery
The result was a large nunnery, which occupied the entire city block as far east as the Via del Moretto. It had an atrium courtyard in front of the church, which survives, and two large cloisters to the east. The first one, the well cloister, had arcades on all four sides while the second, larger one had arcades on three sides (not the north) and a central garden. The latter was necessary, since the nuns were not allowed out. The convent was unusual in having no vegetable gardens or vineyards attached, owing to the city location.
The nuns had a surprisingly good source of revenue in the Column of Marcus Aurelius, which had passed to them. Climbing to the top for the view was a popular tourist attraction from the Middle Ages, and the nuns were able to auction ticketing rights to the highest bidder.
From 1738 to 1740, the convent had restoration and extension work done on it by Antonio Tommaso De Marchis. In the process, the campanile had several of its openings filled in and was provided with a clock.
The nunnery had two especially famous relics. The best-known one, still in the church, is the head of St John the Baptist. By tradition this was brought to Rome by expatriate Greek monks, but in fact it emerges into history here in 1140 when it was venerated in an adjacent little church called San Giovanni in Capite (later Santa Maria in San Giovannino). The nuns got hold of it at or soon after inheriting the monastery in the 13th century.
Scholars suspect that the head originally belonged to a local Roman martyr called St John the Priest, and that it came from his church at the Catacomba ad clivum Cucumeris.
The second relic is a version of the ancient icon of Christ called the Mandylion or Image of Edessa, known as the Holy Face of San Silvestro. The Mandylion was allegedly an imprint on a cloth that Christ made of his face and had sent to King Abgar of Edessa (now Urfa in Turkey). It vanished when the Fourth Crusade sacked Constantinople in 1204, but claims that it is the same as the Shroud of Turin have been made.
The San Silvestro version is first recorded in 1517, when the nuns were forbidden to expose it for veneration in case it caused confusion with the Veil of Veronica at St Peter's. After the final suppression of the convent it was taken to the Vatican, where it was kept in the Matilda Chapel. However, since the latter's remodelling as the Cappella Redemptoris Mater it seems to have dropped out of sight.
The icon seems to be painted on a board, and is not an image on cloth.
During the Roman Republic of 1849, the nuns were violently ejected at the suggestion of Alessandro Gavazzi, an apostate priest, in order that Garibaldi and his volunteers could use the convent as barracks.
The nuns returned after the French conquered the city for the pope, and remained until 1876. Then they were finally expropriated, and the convent earmarked as the Central Post Office of the city. The complex was mostly rebuilt in 1878 by Giovanni Domenico Malvezzi, although he kept the arcades of the well cloister and these are now incorporated into the 19th century fabric.
The church was granted to the English Catholic expatriate community by Pope Leo XIII in 1890, having been put in the care of the Irish province of the Society of the Catholic Apostolate, nicknamed the Pallottines. They remain in charge. In the same year the city was impressed when the Pallottines set up an electric lighting system for the church, apparently the first for any Roman church edifice.
In 1906, a confessio or devotional crypt was excavated in front of the high altar, and various sculptural fragments discovered in the process are now on the walls of the atrium.
The campanile was restored to its original appearance in the early 20th century, losing its clock in the process.
The cardinalate title was established in 1517.
The last deceased titular priest of the church was Desmond Connell, Archbishop of Dublin, Ireland. He was appointed on February 21, 2001, and died in 2017. The two previous cardinals were English: John Heenan 1965-75 and Basil Hume 1976-99.
The present incumbent is Louis-Marie Ling Mangkhanekhoun, from Laos and appointed in 2017. This is a French-speaking country, and the loss of the cardinalate's connection to the British Isles has raised some comment. The rumour is that friction between various national identities among the English-speaking expatriates here might have had something to do with it.
The street façade does not belong to the church, but leads into a courtyard or atrium with the church on the far side. It is rendered in orange, with architectural details in limestone or white render.
This monumental early 18th century composition fronts domestic accommodation, traditionally in this position reserved to the convent chaplain. There are three vertical zones, the central one being slightly recessed. Four gigantic derivative Ionic pilasters are at the corners, doubletted around the angles and with grooved panels below the capital volutes. These support an entablature with a dedicatory inscription on the frieze, mentioning popes Sylvester and Stephen. Between each pair of pilasters are two windows with molded frames, a square one above a vertical rectangular one.
The very large entrance has a molded doorcase in the same style, with a raised triangular pediment broken at the top. Into the break is inserted an elliptical tondo with garlanded curlicues, and this contains a representation of the Mandylion mentioned above which is held by a pair of putti in relief.
Above the entablature is an attic plinth, in the centre of which is the crowning finial which is an incurved truncated triangle bearing a cross and embellished with curlicues and tassels. It also bears a plaque displaying what looks like a bunch of roses.
On the attic are four large statues on projecting plinths. These are: Pope St Sylvester by Lorenzo Ottoni, Pope St Stephen by "Michelangelo Borgognone" (actually Michel Maille), St Clare by "Giuseppe Mazzoni" and St Francis by "Vincenzo Felice" (the last two names are as dubiously given by Carletti writing about the church and convent in 1795).
The adjacent building on the right is the Central Post Office of 1878. Armellini hated it (orribile), but it is actually not a bad piece of architecture with a symmetrical, vaguely Venetian frontage. The ambulatories of the 17th century well cloister survive behind it.
In 1198, during the reconstruction of the church by the Benedictines, a tall bell-tower, known
as a campanile, was added next to the top left hand corner of the atrium. This tower is a familiar local landmark, and consists of seven storeys in brick separated by projecting cornices. The first storey has two separate arched openings, the second one has arcades of three brick arches while the top five have a pair of arches on each face separated by a limestone column with impost. These arches have double archivolts in brick.
The brick fabric of the campanile is embellished by plaques of purple porphyry and green serpentine, and at the top is a molded cornice with dentillations. There is a tiled pyramidal cap.
Much of the church's fame and attraction has come from this centuries-old campanile,
restored to its original condition in the last century. There used to be a bronze cockerel on its cap dating from the time it was built, but this has been removed to safety.
The church has an atrium, which isolates it somewhat from the life and noise of the world outside. There is a jet of drinking water on the left as you go in. The courtyard floor is in red brick decorated with a large white diagonal cross, which extends to each corner of the vacant space.
On the walls surrounding this and in the loggia are fragments of early Christian and pagan monuments, as well as other interesting bits of sculpture with dates up to the 18th century. These derive from excavations in the church around the start of the 20th century, the erection of the Post Office and also from restorations in the church itself. Note the ancient sarcophagus to the left, and several ancient columns re-erected to the right. There are some mediaeval grave-slabs, including one belonging to a bishop. In the loggia is a mediaeval tablet listing the feast-days of the saints whose relics were enshrined in the church.
One very important epigraph which at least used to be here was a record of the restoration of the Basilica e Catacomba di San Valentino by one of the Benedictine abbots in the 11th century.
The actual church façade is of two storeys, and is very simple. The first storey has an internal loggia entered through three arches, separated by Doric pilasters supporting an entablature. The second storey has matching Ionic pilasters with tiny volutes, supporting a triangular pediment. There are no decorative elements. The windows light a chamber above the loggia.
The church is on a rectangular plan, of five bays. The first bay is an entrance vestibule, with two chambers on either side (the left hand one is the ground floor of the campanile). Then comes a single nave with three identically sized chapels on each side. Then comes a transept with a dome over the crossing, and finally a semi-circular apse.
The interior is richly decorated with fresco and stucco work, much of the latter being gilded. The entrance vestibule that you first enter has a low frescoed vault, with some interesting allegorical virtues in the lunettes.
Then you pass into the nave, via an arcade on two columns. The nave itself has arcades of three arches on either side leading into the side chapels, and these are separated by gigantic Composite pilasters revetted in red marble and with embellished capitals. The archivolts of the arches have gilded garlands.
Two recurring symbolic themes in the church decoration are the head of St John the Baptist on a plate and the face of Christ on a veil. These refer to the two famous relics that the church once possessed (the latter, the Mandylion or Holy Face of San Silvestro, is now at the Vatican). One of the best examples of this can be seen on the pulpit.
The barrel-vaulted ceiling rests on the entablature that the pilasters support. The fresco painting in the vault depicts the Assumption of Our Lady, and is by Giacinto Brandi, 1682. It is a seriously impressive piece.
The stucco decorations of the triumphal arch into the transept are by Camillo Rusconi, who shared with Maille the task of sculpting the angels and putti disporting themselves here, in the transept vaults and in the sanctuary. It is thought that Mattia de Rossi provided the designs for these.
The organ was provided by Rainaldi in 1686. It is over the entrance, and has an amazingly intricately carved case.
The transept has a false dome (it doesn't feature in the exterior), and a confessio or devotional crypt below it in front of the sanctuary. In front of this in turn is the altar pro populo for Masses facing the congregation; the older arrangement confined the sanctuary to the apse.
This confessio is a late addition, dug out in 1906 and supported by rather thin Ionic columns in a pink-blush marble. It holds relics from the suburban catacombs, brought to the first church that was built here in the 8th century. A medieval list of the saints whose relics were brought here is in the loggia by the entrance door. You may be able to enter the crypt, where you will find huge blocks of ancient masonry possibly of Republican date. There is a Roman mosaic of birds at a bath on the wall.
In the slightly elliptical dome, best seen from in front of the confessio, is the Glory of the Father by Cristoforo Roncalli, nicknamed Il Pomarancio. The dome sits on pendentives defined by the triumphal arch at the end of the nave and the three arches of the apse and the two transept chapels. The pilasters supporting these are revetted with a pinkish-grey marble.
The relics of Pope St Sylvester, Pope St Stephen I and Pope St Dionysius were re-enshrined in the high altar when the new church was consecrated in 1601.
It was thought that this high altar was originally designed, or at least influenced by, Michelangelo. Piero Soderini, who was a patron of the church and a friend of Michelangelo, possibly commissioned the piece while Michelangelo was creating the façade for the Medici’s San Lorenzo in Florence. A series of letters has been discovered which indicates that Michelangelo and Soderini were at least in contact about the subject of the altar.
The present arrangement is by Carlo Rainaldi, who designed it in 1667. The altar aedicule is against the far side of the apse, and is a large sculpted slab in grey with gilded details which look Renaissance. A pair of thin Corinthian pilasters support an entablature and triangular pediment, and on the frieze is the inscription Speciosus forma prae filiis hominum. Below this is a large tympanum bounded by an archivolt, with angels in the spandrels and containing a niche with a statue of a saint (Tarcisius?). The statue niche is flanked with faces within six wings, which are seraphim. The tympanum of the pediment has a little fresco of the mandylion.
The frieze inscription is from the second verse of Psalm 45: "You are the fairest among the sons of men". This psalm especially appeals to nuns -read the last few verses to see why.
Just above the altar table is a Baroque shrine containing the relics, obviously by Rainaldi and differing in style from the main aedicule. A pair of angels dressed in gold flank four fluted Corinthian columns in yellow marble with bronze capitals, supporting a bowed entablature and an incurved and five-pointed triangular pediment. This shrine encloses a bronze grille decorated with a gilded glory. There is no figurative altarpiece as such.
You can see two square grilles to the sides of the altar, which opened onto the nuns' choir behind the apse. Above these grilles are paintings attributed to Orazio Borgianni (or, at least, the school of Caravaggio ). They depict messengers from Emperor Constantine seeking Pope Sylvester hiding on Monte Soratte to the right, and the martyrdom of Pope Stephen to the left.
In the conch of the apse above the altar is the Baptism of Constantine by Pope Sylvester by Ludovico Gimignani, painted about 1688. Sylvester was Pope during the reign of Constantine, and legend claimed that he had baptized the emperor. The legend is simply untrue, because the pope was dead by that time. The stucco angels sitting on the archivolt are by Maille.
The low bronze screen separating off the sanctuary, with garlands and putti, is worth examining.
The side chapels are described in anticlockwise order, beginning to the right of the entrance.
Chapel of St Anthony of Padua
The first chapel on the right is dedicated to St Anthony of Padua, and is the Cappella Tedallini Bentivoglio, and the paintings are all by Giuseppe Bartolomeo Chiari 1696.
The aedicule has two Corinthian columns in red Sicilian jasper, supporting a split segmental pediment. This design feature is repeated in the other nave chapels, although the figurative stucco embellishments may vary. The altarpiece shows St Anthony and Pope St Stephen venerating the Madonna and Child.
The side wall frescoes show St Anthony resurrecting a dead man, and Pope Stephen eliciting the destruction of an idol by lightning. The lunettes show the former saint preaching, and the latter being martyred. The ceiling has a flat oval panel supported by pendentives (again a common design feature for the chapels), and the frescoes here feature angels and putti enjoying themselves.
Chapel of St Francis
The second chapel on the right is dedicated to St Francis of Assisi. The altarpiece depicts the Stigmata of St Francis, painted in 1616 by Orazio Gentileschi who was one of Caravaggio's admirers (it shows).
The other frescoes in here are by Luigi Garzi. To the right the saint is making his first vows as a religious, to the left he is preaching and the ceiling shows his Apotheosis.
Chapel of the Holy Spirit
The third chapel on the right is dedicated to the Holy Spirit. The oil paintings in here are by Giuseppe Ghezzi, with the altarpiece depicting Pentecost. Our Lady is prominent, so this picture is also called Our Lady of the Cenacle.
The side walls show St John the Baptist, baptizing Christ and reconciling penitents. There are more angels and putti in the ceiling, while the lunettes have Popes Paul I and Stephen III being inspired to found the church.
The right hand transept end is the Cappella Colonna, and is richly decorated in polychrome marble with an impressive altar aedicule designed by Maderno. On the altar in the right transept is a 17th century painting of the Blessed Virgin with Saints by Baccio Ciarpi. The saint depicted on the extreme right has been identified as a portrait of St Philip Neri.
The vault frescoes here are by Gimignani, with the stucco work by Rusconi including the four angels disporting themselves in the central garland.
The side walls have two works by Virginio Monti, concerning the head of St John the Baptist. They show Salome with it in the presence of Herod, and its being brought in procession into Rome.
Chapel of St Tarcisius
The left hand transept chapel has a very similar decorative scheme to the one opposite. The vault frescoes are by Gimignani again, but the stucco angels here are by Maille.
The interesting altarpiece is by Terenzio Terenzi, nicknamed da Urbino, and is apparently his own composition. It shows the Madonna and Child with four saints: Nicholas of Bari, Paul, Mary Magdalen and Catherine of Siena.
The side wall works by Monti show the martyrdom of St Tarcisius, and the attack on Pope Leo III in 799.
Chapel of the Immaculate Conception
The third nave chapel on the left is dedicated to the Immaculate Conception of Our Lady, and is entirely decorated by Gimignani. The altarpiece depicts her with a mob of putti, the lunettes show the Annunciation and the Nativity and the vault shows the Eternal Father.
However the side walls which show the Visitation and the Adoration of the Magi are by Pier Francesco Mazzucchelli, and are the only works in Rome by this important artist.
Chapel of SS Marcellus and Joseph
The second nave chapel on the left is dedicated to Pope St Marcellus and St Joseph. Garzi executed the altarpiece and side wall paintings in 1705; the former shows The Vision of St Marcellus, and the latter The Death of St Joseph and The Holy Family. The vault has more angels by Gimignani.
Chapel of the Crucifixion
The first nave chapel on the left is dedicated to the Passion, and is renowned for its collection of works by Francesco Trevisani. He had travelled from Florence to Rome in order to work on this commission, which he finished in 1696. Having been a miniscule figure in the art world up to that point, Trevisani was launched into the public eye and became well known for his frescos.
The altarpiece depicts the Crucifixion. The side walls show The Agony in the Garden, and Christ Falls on the Road To Cavalry. The lunettes show The Agony in the Garden, and The Mocking of Christ. The vault shows The Exaltation of the Holy Cross.
Chapel of St John the Baptist
The relic of the head of St John the Baptist is now displayed in a room to the left by the entrance. The reliquary is from the 13th and 14th century, but has been restored.
The authenticity of the head is uncertain, as the head of St John has also been venerated in other places -notably the great basilica of Damascus which is now the Umayyad Mosque. Also the historical record of this particular head begins late, in the 12th century. Nonetheless, it has given the church its name in Capite and is still the object of veneration by pilgrims.
The church is open (tourist website 060608, August 2015):
Weekdays 7:00 to 19:00;
Sundays 9:00 to 12:45, 15:30 to 18:30.
Note that the natural lighting in the church is not good, which is unusual in a Baroque church. A visit on a bright day is advised; in winter, the ambience can be very gloomy and the artworks hard to make out. PLEASE don't use a flash when taking photos!
There are two regular Sunday Masses in English, but none apparently on weekdays.
Mass is celebrated (Centro Storico database, accessed May 2019):
Sundays 10:00 (English), 12:00 (Italian), 17:30 (English).
Until 2019, Mass on Weekdays was advertised at 12:00, 18:30 (extra Mass Saturday 17:30). In Italian. There was Eucharistic Adoration after the 12:00 Mass. However, these events seem no longer to be advertised.
(The church's online presence has suffered recently -2018.)
Church's website (July 2018: Apparently hacked, and frozen.)
Church's second website (July 2018: Gone 404)
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