San Vitale is a minor basilica, as well as a parish and titular church, located at Via Nazionale 194/B in the rione Monti, and amounts to a fragment of an early 5th century basilica. Pictures of the church at Wikimedia Commons are here. There is an English Wikipedia article here.
The full official name of the church is Santi Vitale e Compagni Martiri in Fovea, as used by the Diocese. However, San Vitale is the familiar name used by almost everyone.
The cardinalate title is different, being Santi Vitale, Valeria, Gervasio e Protasio. It should be noted that this name does not apply to the church.
The church used to stand on the ancient Roman street known as the Vicus Longus, which ran between the Forum of Augustus and the Baths of Diocletian. It started at the latter establishment just where the church of San Bernardo alle Terme now stands, and ran down the valley between the Quirinal and Viminal hills. There were two tituli on it, this church and San Ciriaco which was near the baths.
In the Middle Ages, the area became completely depopulated and amounted to a pocket of countryside right up to the late 19th century. The Vicus Longus became the Via di San Vitale, which only ran from Via Mazzarino near Sant'Agata dei Goti to Via delle Quattro Fontane and on which the church was the only building. However, when the Via Nazionale was built from 1870 to 1880 this street was mostly destroyed. A short length survives at the eastern end, and also towards the west where it is known as Vicolo dei Serpenti.
The original dedication was to SS Gervase and Protase, alleged martyrs of Milan. In the 4th century there were no martyrs recorded as having suffered in that city in the time of persecution, and this caused a problem when it became the standard practice to consecrate the altar of a new church over the relics of a martyr or martyrs. St Ambrose, the famous bishop of Milan, claimed to have had a dream in the year 386 informing him of the existence of these two early martyrs, and two skeletons were dug up in the locality indicated in the dream. According to a letter that the saint wrote, there was "much blood" on the bones, and this has led to the suggestion that what was found was a Palaeolithic burial dressed in red ochre. The existence of the martyrs rests entirely on St Ambrose's dream and on subsequent miracles, and they are now listed in the revised Roman martyrology as martyrs of an uncertain date venerated from early times.
After the discovery of the bones, a completely unhistorical legend was fabricated to give the martyrs a biography. According to it, their parents were SS Vitalis and Valeria. The former was actually a martyr of Ravenna, where the Basilica of San Vitale commemorates him, and the latter was a very obscure martyr of the 4th century who might have been a virgin and whose place of martyrdom is unknown.
It seems that a small church was built on the site at the end of the 4th century, perhaps for Milanese expatriates (the city was the western capital of the Roman Empire at the time). As a result of a benefaction by a lady called Vestina, who gave her name to the titulus, it was rebuilt about 400 as a basilica with a central nave and side aisles. This was consecrated by Pope Innocent I in 402. The surviving record of a synod of Roman clergy held in 499 listed it as titulus Vestinae.
The dedication to St Vitalis was first recorded in 595, when it was referred to as titulus Sancti Vitalis.
The first restoration of the church on record was that of Pope Leo III, about 800, during which he donated many precious items to the basilica.
Original appearance Edit
There is enough of the original fabric left in the present edifice to reconstruct the appearance of the 5th century basilica. It had a central nave with side aisles, these being separated by arcades. Each arcade had fifteen arches, separated by grey granite columns which were either Corinthian or Composite. The side walls above the arcades had windows, one above each column. There was no transept, but instead three semi-circular apses -a large one for the sanctuary, and a smaller one at the end of each side aisle. Compare San Giovanni a Porta Latina, where the arrangement survives.
The central nave was fronted by a portico or narthex, which survives substantially intact. This has an entrance arcade of five arches, and there used to be three further arches at each end. The actual church initially had five matching arches as entrances, an access arrangement known as a polifora, and in the façade above the portico there used to be five windows.
At some stage, the entrance arrangements were altered. The five entrance arches were converted into three standard doorways, and the side arches blocked up. This seems to have been done in the 12th century by the latest. In that century, and possibly in the same campaign, a transept was created by inserting a triumphal arch on engaged piers to set off the last three bays of the central nave. Also, at some stage, the columns of the arcades were enclosed in piers.
There seems to have been a monastery serving the church in the early Middle Ages, which became a college of secular priests early on with the chairman of the chapter being the titular cardinal.
The church was massively reduced in size on the orders of Pope Sixtus IV, before the 1475 Jubilee. The motivation for this was that the old building had become ruinous. The aisles of the nave were demolished and the arcades walled up, to create the rather elongated single-nave edifice which exists now. The apse was left untouched, but the entrance doors were reduced to one and the windows on the façade replaced by a little round window or oculus.
Presumably partly because the secular Chapter had failed in its responsibilities, the church was granted to the Theatines after they were founded in 1525. However, such an isolated location was not of much use to an order dedicated to preaching and catechesis. So, the building was then transferred to the Jesuits in 1595 by Pope Clement VIII. They had opened a large noviciate based at Sant'Andrea al Quirinale, and Bernini had built that exquisite little jewel-box of a church for it. Initially the Jesuits thought that they had no need of a noviciate church large enough for "big liturgy" because liturgy was not their main interest, but when they realized their mistake they took over the old basilica as a subsidiary church with room enough for a congregation of some size.
Pope Clement also suppressed the ancient title of San Vitale in the same year, although it had been vacant since 1591. It is clear that the church completely lacked a pastoral function at the time.
The Jesuits immediately undertook a thorough restoration, paid for by Isabella Della Rovere. The ancient narthex was enclosed and converted into a vestibule by blocking up four arches of the front arcade, leaving lunette windows with fanlight tracery and with the columns enclosed in Doric pilasters. Above the central entrance was a large square panel containing the monogram of Christ (IHS) in glory, the symbol of the Jesuits. The four new lunettes had above them four hexagonal panels depicting the patrons of the church, and the portico was decorated with depictions of instruments of torture. This work was by Gaspare Celio, and has unfortunately been destroyed.
For some reason the oculus in the façade was replaced with a rectangular window. The interior was frescoed, this work being completed in 1603.
The Jesuits also demolished the adjacent convent, and left the church completed surrounded by the noviciate gardens with only a custodian's chamber to the right of the portico and a sacristy to the left of the sanctuary. A pathway was laid out down the slope of the hill (this included a flight of stairs), and along the right hand side of the church to a doorway into the portico next to the custodian's room.
The Jesuits were suppressed from 1773 to 1814, when the church was under the charge of diocesan clergy. The Jesuits got it back when they were re-founded.
The Italian government sequestered almost all the convents in the city in 1873, including the Jesuit noviciate. Hence, the church had to be served by diocesan clergy again. The cardinalate title was restored in 1880.
After the construction of the Via Nazionale in 1880 the previous very quiet area became rapidly and completely built-up and, as a result, the church was made parochial by Pope Leo XIII in 1884. The new road was actually the result of a proposal by Pope Pius IX in response to the obvious need for proper access to the city centre from the train station, but the Italian government after 1870 mutated this into a typical straight and level 19th century civic boulevard. As a result the church in its valley was left well below the new road level, and is now accessed by a rather alarming flight of steps.
The church was renovated in 1937, the work taking a year. The narthex was restored to something like the condition it had before the Jesuits, which unfortunately meant the destruction of the frescoes by Celio.
The church was again restored in 1956, when archaeological investigations were made of the fabric. This work was completed in 1960.
From 2009 to 2017, the church was home to the diocesan mission to Romanian expatriates of the Roman rite. Those of the Byzantine rite have their own church at San Salvatore alle Coppelle.
It should be noted that the church has been titular for two separate periods, under different titles. The ancient title of San Vitale was suppressed in 1595, and the church was made titular again in 1880 with the different title of Santi Vitale, Valeria, Gervasio e Protasio.
Gaetano Moroni, writing in 1841, asserted that the first recorded cardinal priest of the church was Gennaro Celio, appointed in 494 by Pope St Gelasius I. However, the received list begins with Teodino degli Atti, 1164.
St John Cardinal Fisher, who was martyred by King Henry VIII of England during the Reformation, was the titular of San Vitale in 1535.
Layout and fabric Edit
As it stands, the church is a very simple structure. It is a long, rather thin edifice under one pitched and tiled roof, having the proportions of a barn (the old basilica had fifteen bays distinguished by the lost arcades). There is an external semi-circular apse with its own tiled roof of eight sectors, and the entrance narthex which has a single-pitched tiled roof.
The church has not had a proper campanile in recent centuries. There is a tiny bellcote over the far end of the left hand side wall.
Narthex EditThe portico or narthex is the most ancient part of the church, possibly dating back to the 5th century and hence as old as the church itself. It was altered at the end of the 16th century by the Jesuits, but restored to its presumed original condition in 1938. The stucco with Mannerist frescoes by Gaspare Celio was scraped off to reveal the naked brickwork above the arcade, which was vandalism and also historically dubious since the brickwork would have been plastered when newly built.
The façade is very simple. The narthex is of brick, and has solid walls at the sides and corners. In front there are five arches with voussoirs of tiles on edge, and these are separated by four grey granite columns. These have debased Composite capitals carved in travertine when the narthex was built, and above these are imposts. The two outer arches have imposts only where they meet the walls, which looks odd. The roof of the narthex is pitched and tiled, and slopes up to the absolutely plain nave frontage which contains a rectangular window the sill of which is in line with the upper roofline of the narthex. This window was apparently once an oculus.
The narthex is actually not on a rectangular plan, but is trapezoidal. The left hand side wall is shorter than the right, and you can spot the irregularity by looking at the shape of the roof from the top of the stairs.
The finely carved wooden entrance doors have two relief panels depicting the martyrdoms of SS Gervase and Protase, one on each door. On the lintel of the marble doorcase is carved the shield of Pope Sixtus IV, embellished with ribbons and, between the lintel and a floating cornice, is an inscription recording that pope's restructuring of the church: Sixtus IIII Pon[tifex] Max[imus] a fundamentis restauravit, anno Iubilei MCCCCLXXV.
The 1930's restorers have left exposed in the church frontage two of the original four entrance arcade columns, in the same style as those of the narthex, together with the brick arcade voussoirs.
A tablet has been attached to the wall with an inscription commemorating the visit of Pope St John Paul II on 8 March 1992.
The church has a single nave with no arcades, but with two pilasters without capitals near the triumphal arch. These are survivals of a triumphal arch inserted in the 12th century There are two side-altars either side of the nave, which are not recessed into chapels but are enclosed in aedicules formed of a pair of Corinthian columns supporting an entablature and triangular pediment.
The church is unusual in having nothing that can be called a side-chapel.
The modern flat coffered ceiling is of varnished wood, and was inserted in 1938. It has some painted and gilded decoration in the coffers, with the central panel featuring a portrait of the church's patrons.
The floor was laid in 1937. It has an impressive central roundel in polychrome marble inlay, featuring the heraldry of Cardinal Kašpar Karel who oversaw the 1930's restoration.
The nave walls are completely painted with frescoes executed in 1603 by Tarquinio Ligustri, including scenes of martyrdoms which, when you first see them, appear to be simply bucolic landscapes with views and trees. You have to look closely to see the action. There are inscriptions under each scene, explaining whose martyrdom is depicted, and above each is a depiction of a prophet or a window. These scenes are separated by trompe-l'oeil columns painted on the flat walls.
The description is clockwise, beginning to the right of the entrance.
Up in the right hand corner of the counterfaçade is the prophet Micah. Then comes the first scene on the side wall, with St Andrew Stratelates and his companion soldier martyrs. The prophet Daniel is above, accompanied by one of his lions.
The first altar to the right has an aedicule with a pair of grey marble Corinthian columns supporting a triangular pediment. Above this is a window. The altarpiece, The Triumph of the Virgins, is by Giovanni Battista Fiammeri who was a Jesuit priest and also a sculptor (see his statues in the sanctuary). The central dominating figure is St Catherine of Alexandria, with St Barbara to the right. Is the one on the left St Thecla? The one holding the lamb is St Agnes.
The next scene features St Paphnutius, one of the Desert Fathers of Egypt who was mutilated for his faith. The bosky landscape is about as far from the Egyptian desert as you can get. Above is the prophet Jeremiah.
The following scene is of SS Marcellinus and Peter, with a window above.
The second altar to the right is dedicated to the Immaculate Conception of Our Lady, and has a pair of grey granite Corinthian columns. The altarpiece is by Fiammeri again, and shows Our Lady in glory with symbols associated with her. The mirror is the speculum iustitiae, the rose-bush is the rosa mystica and the door is the porta caeli. Behind the rose is the hortus conclusus, the "garden enclosed" (Song of Solomon 4:12). The tree by the stream to the right is an allusion to the first psalm: Sicut lignum plantatum secus decursus aquarum ("like a tree planted by flowing waters"). The palm tree on the left is the palm of En-Geddi (Sirach 24:14), and the lily is the lily of the valley (Song of Solomon 2:1).
On the pediment frieze of the aedicule is a quotation from Sirach 43:2: Vas admirabile, opus excelsi ("Wonderful instrument, a work of the Most High"). Above the aedicule is a depiction of King Solomon, the traditional prophetic originator of these symbols.
The scene next to the left hand pier depicts the martyrdom of Pope St Clement in what is now the Crimea (then called the Chersonense). The legend involves a chapel containing his relics emerging from the sea.
The second altar on the left is dedicated to the Crucifix (although the crucifix is apparently sometimes replaced with the Sacred Heart), and matches the one opposite. It has a pair of grey granite columns, and a frieze inscription Ut mederer contritis corde ("In order to heal the broken hearted"). Above is King David, with his harp.
The next scene features St Januarius, with a window above.
The first altar on the left has a pair of dark grey marble columns, and is dedicated to The Holy Confessors. St Francis features to the right in the altarpiece by Fiammeri, and a holy pope (St Gregory the Great?) to the left.
The first scene on the left features SS Martinian, Saturninus and Companions who were killed in North Africa by the Vandal king Genseric. Above is the prophet Zechariah. Finally, the prophet Ezekiel is on the left hand side of the counterfaçade.
The sanctuary is delineated by a pair of large square Doric piers, which now support nothing but which used to be part of a triumphal arch. They are decorated with fake polychrome marble revetting.
The apse has been preserved from the original basilica. The fresco in the conch depicts The Ascent to Calvary, and was executed by Andrea Commodi. Below is the high altar, the aedicule of which is coved (concave) to fit into the curve of the apse. It has a pair of black marble Composite columns supporting a segmental pediment with a contrasting red marble frieze. The pediment is defaced by a large stucco glory with gilded rays and putti, containing the IHS monogram. The altar itself is decorated with the heraldry of the Della Rovere family, and has an altarpiece by Commodi showing SS Vitalis, Valeria, Gervase and Protase.
Commodi also painted the flanking pictures in the apse. To the left is The Flogging of St Gervase, and to the right The Beheading of St Protase.
The triumphal arch of the apse has angels in its spandrels. To the left of the arch is Sampson Finds Honey in the Lion's Corpse, and to the right is The Battle of Gibeon. These are by Agostino Ciampelli. He was also responsible for the large paintings on the sanctuary side walls. To the left St Vitalis is depicted being racked, and to the right he is being buried alive. The label of the former work reads S. Vitalis equuleo torquetur. The ancient Romans referred to the instrument of torture now known as the rack as the "little horse" (equuleus).
Below each painting is a sacristy door, with a triangular pediment on which painted angels recline. The door is flanked by a pair of stucco statues in round-headed niches, which are by Fiammiferi again. To the right are St Augustine (left) and St Ambrose (right), and to the left St Gregory the Great (left) and St Jerome (right). These are the Latin Doctors of the Church.
In front of high altar is a modern altar pro populo used for Masses facing the people, which is a high-quality sculptural work by Federico Severino depicting the Triumph of the Lamb of God.
The church is open, according to its website (July 2018):
7:45 to 19:00 daily.
Mass is celebrated in Italian, according to the church's website (July 2018):
Weekdays 8:00, 18:30;
Sundays 11:30, 18:30.
There is Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament on Thursdays from 17:00 to 18:30.
The Romanian Latin-rite worshipping community has moved to Santa Maria in Campitelli.
SS Vitalis and Companions are celebrated with a Solemnity on 28 April.