San Tommaso ai Cenci is a 16th century former parish church, now used by a diocesan lay association, at Piazza Cinque Scole 3 in the rione Regola. This is the side entrance. Picture of the church at Wikimedia Commons here.
The dedication is to St Thomas the Apostle.
Like so many others locally this church is first documented in the 12th century, when it was listed among the dependents of the basilica of San Lorenzo in Damaso in 1163. It was one of the numerous parish churches founded for the built-up area in the 10th and early 11th centuries.
An early name is Sancti Thomae in Capite Molarum, "at the head of the mills". This refers to the floating water-mills for grinding grain, located around the Tiber Island in the Middle Ages where the river was constrained and so the current flowed faster.
An alternative name is Sancti Thomae Fraternitatis. This seems to refer to the church's being the headquarters of the Caput Romane Fraternitatis, who was the priest-chairman of a council of the city's secular clergy.
The Romana Fraternitas functioned from the late 12th to the 14th century, and was made up of twelve priests with their own churches ("rectors") who supervised many matters to do with the life of the ordinary clergy. Especially, they arbitrated in disputes between them, enforced disciplinary measures and mediated between them and the pope as bishop.
Francesco Cenci was a very unpleasant character, being violent, proflgate and sexually abusive. Unfortunately as a young man he succeeded to the hereditary position of head of the Camera Apostolica (papal finance department) in 1562, which gave him enormous power. He was repeatedly accused of sodomy, but never convicted -although he was banished from Rome by the pope for a time in 1590.
He was apparently especially cruel to his family, and allegedly made a habit of raping his two daughters. The pope forced him to have the elder one married, but the younger one called Beatrice could not escape. When he fled Rome in 1595 to esape his creditors he took his family with him, and they decided to rid themselves of him. In 1598 his son Giacomo finally killed him and tried to make it look like an accident by throwing the body from a height. His plan failed, and in 1599 Giacomo, his sister Beatrice and their mother were executed for murder. The youngest of the children, Bernardo, was imprisoned for life.
There was especial sympathy then and since for Beatrice, who was buried at San Pietro in Montorio although without a monument. However, historical truth has suffered badly from romantic fascination and a sober review of the case can be found here.
The church remained parochial for over two centuries. There was a restoration of the sanctuary in 1626.
A major re-ordering of the parishes of the Centro Storico took place in 1824, under the bull Super Universam issued by Pope Leo XII. This suppressed the parish attached to the church. Two years later, the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine based at the nearby Santa Maria del Pianto took over, but they did not stay here long.
After that a Confraternity of Coachmen (Confraternita dei Vetturini) was in occupation, and said Mass here for the soul of Beatrice Cenci on the anniversary of the Cenci executions (11 September).
The church apparently fell into disuse in the middle of the 20th century, and was closed down. However, it was restored from 1972 to 1977.
It is now the headquarters of the Famiglia Piccola Chiesa, which is a lay diocesan association devoted to catechetical and moral support for families. Its outreach is called the Movimento dell'Amore Familiare.
The promoter of this initiative is the priest in charge of the church, Don Stefano Tardani.
Layout and fabricEdit
If you look at the south end of the Piazza Cinque Soli, you will see a three-storey block rendered in
pink, with a cornice having modillions. This building incorporates the church on its ground floor. The row of three lunette windows light it, and the door with a triangular pediment and a little cross over it is now the main entrance.
There seems to be no campanile.
To the right of this entrance is a street, the Via Monte dei Cenci, which leads into a little piazza. Here is the actual façade of the church.
This has two identical twin triangular pedimented doorways with molded doorcases (the left hand one is walled up), and above these are two round windows with molded frames. The left hand one of these is also blocked. In between these is a large marble fresco frame with intricately carved vegetation (the fresco has perished). A marble tablet with an epigraph, eroded and hard to read, is below this. Finally, a pair of small square windows with stone frames is above the round ones.
Diego Angeli writing in 1903 describes how the custodian letting him into the church described the little stone set into the façade below the epigraph as being the memorial of a pet dog belonging to Francesco Cenci. He allegedly had the animal interred in the church.
This is an old urban legend.
The little church has a single rectangular nave of three bays, and a shallow rectangular apse which is narrower. There is one side chapel to the right, and two on the left with the main entrance in between them.
Diego Angeli writing in 1903 said: L'Interno della chiesa non continene opere d'arte. This is simply false.
The bays are separated by Doric pilasters done up to look like yellow marble, which support an entablature with the frieze in the same colour. The ceiling vault springs from this, and has the shield of the Cenci family at its centre. The heraldry features crescent moons, which occur elsewhere in the decoration.
A lunette fresco depicting Christ and the Samaritan Woman was discovered in the counterfaçade lunette in the 1972 restoration. It dates from the first two decades of the 17th century.
The frescoes of the four Evangelists discovered in the same restoration are of the school of Giuseppe Vermiglio. At this end are SS Mark and Luke.
In the top right hand corner is a large painting of the school of Vespasiano Strada, late 16th century depicting The Madonna and Child with Saints. There is a doctor (teacher), a friar and a virgin martyr.
The high altar fits snugly into the little arched rectangular niche, and the sanctuary intrudes into the nave area by means of a balustraded enclosure. There is no aedicule, but instead two of the entablature pilasters support the cut-off and posted ends of the entablature over the apse. Above these posts are the broken and separated portions of a triangular pediment, into which is intruded a 17th century picture of Our Lady of Sorrows.
A pair of sacristy doorways are in between the sanctuary pilasters and another pair of pilaster folded into the corners. Above these doors are two round-headed false doors in white stucco with gilded highlights, and above these in turn are the other two Evangelists by the follower of Vermaglio. These two are SS John and Matthew.
The altarpiece is in an ornate gilded frame with a little segmental pediment fitted into the vault of the apse. It depicts The Incredulity of St Thomas, and is by Giuseppe Vermiglio. The little plaque in the pediment above reads Dominus meus et Deus meus, which is what St Thomas said when he inserted his finger into the wound in Christ's side.
The altar itself is on a pair of white marble legs in the form of lion-headed caryatids, and these are ancient. In place of a frontal is a shallow marble basin bearing the heraldry of the Cenci, on a balustrade stem in brecciated white marble with grey veins which is itself on a triangular base featuring three dolphins. The latter is also ancient. The tradition is that this was the original baptismal font in which Beatrice was baptized.
The balustraded enclosure and the vine-leaf decoration of the apse vault date from 1626.
There are several online quotes of the following:
L'altare maggiore possiede una vera e propria meravigia: un tondo di murra turchina, una varietà di marmo di estrema rarità. L'unico che si conosca a Roma.
There is no such marble -it's so rare that it doesn't exist. Is the original author referring to the stem of the bowl? If so, he or she coined the phrase.
In the bottom right hand corner is now kept an 18th century double-sided confraternity banner for use in processions. It used to be over the high altar, where the painting of Our Lady now is, but was moved here in 1972.
One side shows Our Lady of Sorrows (a copy of the painting just mentioned), and the other shows Our Lady, Queen of Heaven.
Chapel of the CrucifixEdit
Off the right hand side is an external chapel dedicated to the Crucifix. It is a fine Baroque work, within an arched niche with Doric imposts revetted in grey-veined Carrara marble. The Cenci crescents are in the spandrels above the molded archivolt, which has a single row of coffered rosettes on its intrados.
The aedicule fits snugly within the niche. It is coved (convex), with a pair of doubletted Composite pillars in pavonazzetto marble supporting a curved entablature. Above this is a tondo with curlicues, festoons and acanthus leaves which contains, mysteriously, a Rod of Asclepius (a snake on a pole). A pair of putti bearing the Instruments of the Passion emerge from the side walls.
The painted wooden crucifix is 18th century. In 1965, when the church was disused, it was used to replace a 13th century Crucifixion of the school of Giotto, which is now in the museum of the Palazzo Venezia nearby.
Chapel of St Francis of AssisiEdit
The far left hand chapel, flanking the sanctuary, is dedicated to St Francis of Assisi. It was commissioned in 1612 by Ludovica Velli, who was the widow of Giacomo Cenci which is why the heraldry of both families features in the decoration (crescent and tree).
The contemporary fresco work is anonymous, but the school of Antonio Tempesta has been suggested. There is no proper aedicule, but the 18th century altarpiece showing St Francis in the Wilderness is in a very elaborate frame. The flanking frescoes show SS John the Baptist and John the Evangelist. The main vault shows the birth and death of the saint and his reception of the stigmata, while the arch intrados has winged heads of putti with the Dove of the Holy Spirit on top. The side walls show the saint tempted by the Devil, and the apparition to him of Christ and Our Lady at the Portiuncula. The other two saints depicted are Christopher and Pope Felix.
Chapel of Our Lady of SbarraEdit
The fresco work here is by Girolamo Siciolante da Sermoneta, and was completed in 1565. The panels are surrounded by grotesque detailing, and the fruit and flowers on the arch enclosing the lunette window are especially attractive.
The altarpiece depicts The Nativity, while the side walls show The Birth of Our Lady and The Annunciation. The vault has three frescoes from the legend of her birth, featuring her parents SS Joachim and Anne. They are: Joachim Driven from the Temple, The Annunciation to Joachim and The Meeting of Joachim and Anne.
Unfortunately, the polychrome stone inlay of the altar frontal has been almost completely destroyed.
Access and liturgyEdit
According to the tourist website 060608 (March 2018), the church is open:
Weekdays only (not Sundays) 10:00 to 12:00, and Thursdays 17:00 to 19:00.
Apparently, if the church is found closed at these times you can phone and enquire on
It seems that liturgical events do not occur on a timetabled basis.