San Sisto Vecchio is a 4th century palaeochristian titular and conventual church at Piazza Numa Pompilio 8 in the modern rione Celio (the historic rione Campitelli). It is also a minor basilica. There is an English Wikipedia article here. (The church's presence on Wikipedia is poor, and there are no images on Wikimedia Commons apparently.)
2013: PLEASE NOTE THAT THE CHURCH IS CLOSED UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE, OWING TO MAJOR EMERGENCY REPAIRS IN PROGRESS (still under repair January 2022).
- 1 History
- 2 Exterior
- 3 Interior
- 4 Access
- 5 External links
From the evidence of its fabric, it is fairly certain that the basilica was erected in the 4th or early 5th century. As such, it is tempting to identify it with one of the tituli, the first parish churches in Rome. However, certainty on this has proved impossible.
There are two suggested tituli that this church might have been. The more popular option has been the Titulus Crescentianae, which the Liber Pontificalis apparently claims was founded by Pope Anastasius I (399-401). The entry reads [Hic] fecit basilicam, quae dicitur Crescentiana, in regione II, via Mamurtini in urbe Roma. By amending Mamurtini to Mamertina and identifying the latter with the present Via Druso, we are left with a tentative identification (bearing in mind also that the entry doesn't actually give the word titulus).
This titulus was first listed as such in the acts of a synod in 499, but also listed there is a titulus Tigridis, and this is the alternative suggestion of the church's early identity. However, the latter is also identified with Santa Balbina which is up the Aventine hill nearby.
It has been argued that the relics of Pope St Sixtus II were moved from the Catacombe di San Callisto to this church in the 6th century. The reason for this is that the Titulus Sancti Xysti appears in the acts of a synod held by Pope Gregory the Great in 595, and also in his writings. This is the first unequivocal documentary evidence for the church. However, the relics were more likely moved and the catacomb abandoned in the 9th century -the subject as to why and how Roman churches received dedications to saints is still obscure.
A monastery attached to the church is mentioned at the end of the 8th century, when Pope Leo III made benefactions. This was very likely to have been a community of Byzantine-rite exiles from the iconoclast policies of the Byzantine Empire, since Greek exiles dominated Roman monastic life at this period.
According to Hülsen, the name San Sisto in Piscina, which previous modern authors had claimed as early mediaeval, is a fabrication.
The Byzantine-rite monks would have been succeeded in the 10th century by Benedictinemonastics, who in turn would have suffered a collapse in monastic life in the 12th century.
Appearance of ancient basilica
The basilica was remodelled by Pope Innocent III(1198-1216), and severely reduced in size, probably in response to a failure of the monastery and subsequent dereliction. The present church is the result.
The original church had a classic basilical plan, possessing a nave with side aisles and a semi-circular apse but no transept. The dimensions were 47.4 metres long, 17.8 metres wide and 13.25 metres high. The arcades had twelve grey granite columns on each side, with foliage capitals of a derivative Corinthian style. The archivolts of the arches were in brick. There were twelve round-headed windows in each of the nave side walls. The apse had no conch, only a pitched roof, and had three windows in its curved wall. The entrance had a colonnaded atrium, and the actual frontage had three large entrance arches separated by a pair of columns. Above these were three round-headed windows. The floor was in opus sectile, or patterned polychrome marble work.
Pope Adrian I's restoration saw the three large entrance arches blocked up to create a single small entrance, possibly in response to worries about security.
Pope Innocent's work was radical, and was similar in impact to that at San Vitale. The aisles were demolished, and the arcades walled up to create a single nave. The apse was given a fresco cycle, fragments of which remain. The surviving Romanesque campanile was erected.
Dominicans arrive in Rome
In 1218 or 1219 the complex was given to St Dominic de Guzmán, who established a Dominican convent here under his own supervision. This was actually intended by Pope Honorius III to be a centre of reform for the Roman nunneries, which were in a horrible state at the time. The pope hoped that the saint would concentrate on this work at Rome, but the latter wished to establish his new religious order on a sound footing and he and his followers moved to Santa Sabina in 1220. That was the beginning of the glorious Dominican presence in Rome.
The present aula capitolare or chapter-house, the former Chapel of St Dominic, dates in part from this period and re-utilizes four of the original arcade columns of the basilica.
First Dominican nunnery
However, the pope's intention was not forgotten and St Dominic founded the first Dominican nunnery here in the following year. The nuns came from three convents in decay. The first, nearest one was just down the road at Santa Maria in Tempulo, and the nuns there brought a miraculous icon of Our Lady with them. (This is now at Santa Maria del Rosario a Monte Mario.) They also supplied much needed financial resources. The second was at Santa Bibiana, where the idea of reform split the community and caused a small group to join St Dominic. The third was apparently a nunnery at Santa Maria in Torre, which (if the sources are correct) was a predecessor of the present Santa Maria del Buon Viaggio.
In 1320, the Catalogue of Turin recorded that there were seventy nuns here as well as sixteen friars, presumably lay-brothers to do the heavy work as well as chaplains. The surviving apse frescoes were executed about then.
Pope Sixtus IV (1471-84) ordered a restoration, of which the doorcase of the side entrance to the church is a surviving part.
However, by the 16th century the buldings and the locality were judged to be unsatisfactory. The nuns were nervous in a locality which had become completely depopulated, and also complained of the risk of malaria. So, the construction of an entirely new nunnery for them nearer the built-up area was ordered by Pope St Pius V (himself a Dominican). This is the present Santi Domenico e Sisto.
Construction of this started in 1569, with the acquisition of the site. However, the project took a very long time to complete. Enough of the new convent was ready by 1575 for the sisters to move in, but the church was not completed until 1663. Part of the reason for this was that Pope Gregory XIII (1572-85) viewed the project with disapproval, and wished the old convent to be restored instead. On his orders, the present cloister was built and a new entrance provided by Giacomo della Porta.
Pope Paul V, on the other hand, gave positive approval to the scheme to move the nuns and so the project was restarted.
Initially the new convent and church was called San Sisto Nuovo, until it was noticed that St Dominic had no church dedicated to him in the city.
The friars took possession of the old convent, and so continued the Dominican presence there.
In 1724–1730, Pope Benedict XIII had the church refitted, giving it its present appearance. The work was overseen by Filippo Raguzzini, better known for the piazza outside Sant'Ignazio di Loyola a Campo Marzio. He kept the doorcase by Giacomo della Porta.
Included in the work was the provision of a clock, which was inserted into the penultimate storey of the campanile. The storey below this had its arches blocked up to support the weight.
The campanile and the apse were the only parts of the church to have their mediaeval fabric left visible externally.
The community was Irish in 1748.
The Dominican convent was suppressed in the French occupation after 1798, and for the next century the complex appears to have been disused. However, in 1893 Mother Antonia Maria Lalia (1839-1914) took possession of it as the first house of a new congregation of Dominican sisters active in educating girls. The Suore Dominicane Missionarie di San Sisto has since become established in Latin America and in Russia, and continue to have their mother house here. The Russian link was in response to an early interest of the foundress, and is echoed in the Ukrainian nationality of the present cardinal.
Part of the original convent became a girls' school, which remains here and has a good reputation. The full range of ages is taught. Also, the sisters run a guest house and a book bindery.
In 1914, the widening of the old Via Appia to form the present Viale delle Terme di Caracalla entailed the loss of almost half of the convent enclosure, making the left side of the church a street frontage where formerly it faced onto a large courtyard with ancillary buildings.
There was a restoration in 1930-5 under the supervision of Cardinal Achille Liénart , when some archaeological work was undertaken and the ceiling renewed. Further archaeological investigation was carried out in 1967-8, when it was possible to establish the form of the primitive basilica with a good degree of certainty.
The start of the 21st century was not kind to the church. Problems with opening times surfaced, and then it was announced that the roof was failing catastrophically. Presently (2016) the church is under repair, and is in effect a building site.
It should be noted that the cardinalate title is San Sisto, not San Sisto Vecchio.
Layout and fabric
The nave and apse of the church are under a single pitched and tiled roof, without any aisles or side chapels. The south cloister range of the convent hugs the right hand wall, and the left hand wall is hugged by a separate range intended as chaplains' accommodation. This means that the apse is the only part of the ancient church visible from the outside.
There is yet another range abutting onto the apse, but this is only of a single storey. Above, you can see a round-headed window and, above that in turn, a small oculus or circular window which lights the void between the interior conch and the roof.
The brick Romanesque bell-tower dates from the 13th century rebuilding, and is a familiar landmark at the busy road junction. It is set over the lower
right hand corner of the nave, and has three identical storeys over the roofline. Each face of each storey has an arcade of three arched soundholes with molded archivolts separated by limestone columns with imposts.
This campanile used to have a clock in the middle storey presumably inserted in the 18th century restoration, but this was derelict by the mid 19th century and the modifications for it removed in the 1930's.
The façade is of three rectangular planes, the middle one recessed, with horizontal rooflines. The two outer zones belong to the domestic convent accommodation flanking the church.
The central recessed zone is the church frontage. It has the late 16th century entrance by Giacomo della Porta, with a pediment raised on posts and strap corbels. At the top corners of the doorcase are little dragons, which feature in the coat-of-arms of Pope Gregory XIII.
This entrance is surrounded by a larger prothyrum consisting of a pair of Doric pilasters supporting a deep entablature and a broken segmental pediment. A round-headed window is inserted into the break in the pediment. Above, the line of the entrance pilasters is continued in two vertical relief bands, or blind shallow pilasters, up to the roofline, which are crossed by a wide horizontal string course with a round window in its centre. The façade has little sweeping curves at its top corners, with urn finials.
The church frontage also has a pair of quatrefoil windows embellished with short rays at the internal angles, flanking the central window on the other side of the pilasters. This motif is a signature of the architect, and appears also on the façade of his Santa Maria della Quercia. The design is repeated on the domestic frontages either side, and also on the side frontage facing the street.
The public entrance for the church is just round the side. The 15th century doorcase, in marble, originally belonged to the main entrance but was transferred here in the 16th century. It has an inscription commemorating Cardinal Pietro Ferrici, 1478.
The large cloister is north of the church, and has arcades on all four sides. It has frescoes by Andrea Casali, a pupil of Conca, which depict scenes from the life of St Dominic and which were finished in 1728.
The chapter house (aula capitolare) is also used as a convent chapel, dedicated to St Dominic. The roof vault is supported by four grey granite columns scavenged when the basilica was reduced in size at the start of the 13th century, and two of these have their original capitals. The frescoes on the walls are 19th century, by a French Dominican friar called G. Besson, and depict miracles in the life of the saint.
In the south range you can see how the outside wall of the cloister walk was adapted by walling up the arcade of the old basilica. Six of the columns are still in situ here.
Layout and fabric
The restrained late Baroque interior consists of a single nave with a flat ceiling. The decorative scheme is in a very pale yellow with details in white, and so the interior lacks much colour.
The side walls have two altars each, not recessed in any way but each defined by a pair of tripletted Ionic pilasters which support an arch into which a window is inserted. Interspersed with these altars on each side are three false doors within lower arches having molded archivolts and resting on doubletted Doric pilasters. Above these false doors are windows in the upper nave walls, six in total. The door at the bottom left is not false, being the main public access.
The flat wooden ceiling is simply coffered, and has oval central panels obviously intended for frescoes. Apparently Baccio Pontelli designed this ceiling in the 15th century (there is doubt about this), but the original paintwork has been lost.
The four side altars have 18th century pictures which have been listed as anonymous. Info.roma mentions the artists Emanuele Alfani, Carlo Roncalli and Bartolomeo Spranger.
The first altar on the right is dedicated to the Holy Dominicans, and the altarpiece shows the Madonna and Child with Dominican Saints. Featured are SS Dominic, Thomas Aquinas, Catherine of Siena, Rose of Lima and Pope Pius V.
The second altar on the left is dedicated to St Dominic under his special veneration of Santo Domingo in Soriano in Uruguay. He features in the altarpiece, a copy of the miraculous original picture, with side panels showing SS Catherine of Alexandria and Mary Magdalene.
The first altar on the left is dedicated to St Vincent Ferrer. On the wall to the left of this altar is a stone lid which was the ancient cover for the original reliquary in which the relics of St Sixtus were enshrined. The relics are said to be behind this -has someone checked in the ongoing restoration?
The sanctuary occupies the apse, which has a conch into which a rectangular window is inserted. Below this is a round-headed window in the apse wall. The triumphal arch has a molded archivolt resting on a pair of simple Doric pilasters clad in grey veined marble.
The apse conch has frescoes depicting scenes from the legend of Pope St Sixtus and St Lawrence (the latter was a deacon of the former), with the Trinity in the centre.
There are interesting 13th century fresco fragments to be found on the apse wall, although the state of preservation is not good.
To the left are visible some saints and angels, with panels identifiable as Pentecost and Events from the Life of St Catherine of Siena. To the right more saints are visible, together with the Presentation of Our Lady.
The dates of the frescoes vary. The left hand panel featuring angels is thought to be the earliest, dating to the start of the 13th century. Most of the rest is about 1320, perhaps of the school of Pietro Cavallini. However, the scene featuring St Catherine, and the saints accompanying it, is towards the end of the century.
As at 2016, there is no access to the church for any purpose while emergency repair works are carried out.
"De Alvariis" gallery on Flickr (he hasn't got inside yet)