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Sant'Anna dei Palafrenieri is a 16th century parish church on the Via Sant'Anna in Vatican City. Pictures of the church at Wikimedia Commons are here and at Yahoo Travel here. There is an English Wikipedia page here.

The dedication is to St Anne, mother of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The official title is Sant'Anna in Vaticano.


The grooms[]

This church is not an ancient foundation, but the association that built is has a long pedigree.

Its remote ancestry lies in the establishment by Pope Urban VI in 1378 of a Confraternita dei Palafrenieri (now usually spelt Parafrenieri), which was a pious confraternity or guild for the papal grooms. These parafrenieri of the papal stables first appear in the records in the 10th century as being in charge of the pope's horses. Since only the nobility or high clergy could afford horses, and were very keen to have them looked after properly, the parafrenieri  had a high status at the papal court from the start. They certainly did not do the actual feeding, grooming and shovelling out of the cacca di cavallo.

When the confraternity was formed it took St Anne as their patron, and seems to have originally based its activities at the (now demolished) church of Sant’Anna a Ripa as well as in the chapel of St Anne at Old St Peter's. In 1505 Pope Julius II gave them a charter, as the Venerabile Arciconfraternita di Sant'Anna de' Parafrenieri.

A long project[]

In 1565 Pope Pius IV authorized the confraternity to build a new church for themselves, and they chose Vignola as the architect. He adopted an elliptical plan, which he had inaugurated in church design at Sant'Andrea del Vignola and was to be very influential in the nascent Baroque style. However funds for the project did not materialize and, after initial progress, the work stalled. In 1572 money was found and the construction could go forward in earnest, but then the architect died in the follwing year, in 1573. His son, Giacinto Barozzi (1540-84), took over. The confraternity finally gave up on the project, and had the church consecrated in 1583 without a façade and with a pitched roof instead of the projected dome.

They tried again in the first half of the 17th century, when apparently Borromini began the construction of a façade in a style prefiguring his work at Sant'Agnese in Agone. However, work stopped again after only the lower part of the façade was built. It had to wait until 1700 when Alessandro Specchi was given the contract to finish it. Even then, progress was difficult and the work took until 1721.

Then the confraternity had a break from work while raising more money, before beginning the dome in 1763. This took twelve years, being finished in 1775 by Francesco Novana. At long last, the grooms had their little church which had taken over two centuries of struggle to build.

Madonna of the Grooms[]

In the process of building, the palafrenieri had an unfortunate experience when commissioning a painting for the main altar. They chose Caravaggio, who produced his famous painting the Madonna dei Palafrenieri  in 1605. The picture was on the altar for less than a month before it was rejected, and sold on to cardinal Scipione Borghese.

There were several apparent reasons for this. The work shows Our Lady with the Christ Child both treading on the Devil as a snake, and with St Anne looking on. The iconography caused several rather subtle theological objections to the work, but the weighty one was that Caravaggio had used one of his prostitute friends called Lena as the model for Our Lady (she also appears in his painting at Sant'Agostino). Also, the naked Christ Child has a foreskin which was obviously unhistorical -Jesus was a Jew. Further, some influential people didn't approve of Our Lady showing her cleavage or her bare foot (Caravaggio helped to promote the fashion for barefoot Madonnas, which has no ancient precedent).

The confraternity paid Caravaggio 70 scudi for the work, and sold it to Borghese for 100 so they did not do so badly at the time. It has, however, been embarrassed about the affair ever since (there is a hint of this on its website). The painting is now in the Borghese Gallery. To be fair, if the confraternity had kept it they would almost certainly have had it stolen by the batrachian occupation government under Napoleon, and it would not have returned here but to the Vatican Museums.

An online reproduction is here.


The dome was designed and built on the cheap. It quickly started to cause problems, and in 1800 a restoration was needed to stop the rain getting in. In 1882 the floor was relaid, and in 1903 a programme of decoration with stucco focused on the sanctuary was completed. This involved some fake marbling, which is now considered unfortunate (it was not part of the original decorative scheme, but this sort of fakery was popular in the 19th century).

The Vatican's parish[]

The confraternity enjoyed the use of their church until 1929. In that year, the Lateran Pacts with the Italian government gave the popes their temporal independence again and established the Vatican City as a sovereign state. Pope Pius XI considered it necessary to detach the ecclesiastical administration of this territory from that of the Diocese of Rome as a whole, and so established a Vicariate of the Vatican City which contains the Basilica of St Peter as a parish in its own right, and another new parish for the rest of the Vatican. 

Sant'Anna was chosen as the most suitable of the several little churches available for the latter, since it is right next to the international boundary and hence is easily accessible. Parish churches require open access for their liturgies, and the papacy was obviously already expecting the Vatican to be what would now be called a "gated community".

The church was handed over to the new Vicariate in 1930, and was restored and a new organ provided. It re-opened in its new rôle in the following year.

The two new parishes were given to the Augustinian Friars to administer, and they remain in charge. The parish of St Peter's is resposible for the pastoral outreach in the basilica itself, which Sant'Anna ministers to the residents of the Vatican. It also accepts burials of deceased residents in its crypt (or, at least it used to), something which is forbidden in the city of Rome.

There was another restoration in 1964, when the floor of the presbyterium was relaid in Sienese marble.

The confraternity accepted the church of Santa Caterina della Rota in lieu, and it is still a flourishing pious union at this location with its own website.


Layout and fabric[]

Beware of some of the plans of the church online, which have been laterally inverted.

The plan is based on a longitudinal ellipse inserted into a rectangle. The sides of the ellipse touch the rectangle, where the side altars are, but the ends do not. Two shallow bays are here, one for the entrance and one for the apse. The corners of the rectangle are occupied by ancillary accommodation (sacristies, parish offices), although the top left hand corner (to the left of the apse) was either never finished or has been demolished.

Vignola originally intended there to be two entrances, but the proposed one directly onto the present Via del Porta Angelica was replaced by a chapel.

The fabric is in pink brick, with architectural details in travertine limestone. This is obvious in the blank screen wall facing the Via del Porta Angelica, which on the left hand side has four shallow stone Doric pilasters (two in close alignment at the minor axis) over a blank horizontal stone frieze. Note that the right hand side of this wall has a separate design in a domestic style, because the accommodation here has two storeys.


As mentioned, the dome was finished as cheaply as possible and, as a design element, the exterior is a disaster with no attempt at a civic profile. The drum is quite high, in a yellow ochre render and with a molded cornice not at the roofline but just below it (this hints at a design change when work was already well underway). The plan is not elliptical, but is an irregular hexadecagon; in other words, the drum is made up of sixteen flat walls of unequal widths. Seven of these have round-headed windows, including one over the entrance. There used to be an eighth over the apse, but this is now blocked. The tiled dome roof has sixteen unequal flat pitches, with the largest pair at the sides being rectangular and meeting at a ridge. The result is ugly, but is invisible from the street (you can, however, see it from the dome of St Peter's). This design means that there is no lantern.


The façade has a good design, but unfortunately a large wrought iron set of gates with high stone gatepost pillars was installed right outside in 1930. This completely spoils the view from the Via della Porta Angelica, from which most photos posted online are taken.

You only have the right to walk up the footway to the church entrance right under the façade, and if you try to go into the street within the gates to take a photo, you are liable to be stopped by the Swiss Guard on duty. The parish website gallery has decent photos, however. See "External links".

The façade is entirely in travertine, with one storey and three vertical zones. The centre is dominated by an enormous propylaeum, behind which is the entrance bay of the church. A pair of gigantic attached Doric columns support an entablature and triangular pediment, the central sections of both of which are recessed to be in the same plane as the entrance and the side zones. The entablature is continued on the two wings of the façade, where it is supported by six Doric pilasters; the inner pair is partly hidden behind the columns, and the two outer pairs are slightly proud with their entablatures. These two wings conceal the ancillary accomodation flanking the church, which is lighted by a pair of rectangular windows in between the outer two pairs of pilasters.

In between the two pilasters nearest the entrance on each side is a round-headed niche containg a relief of a flaming torch, and with scallop decoration in the conch. The entablature has a simple proclamation of the church's former ownership: Venerabilis arciconfraternitas Sanctae Annae stratorum urbis (a strator was originally someone who put a saddle-cloth on a horse or the straw in its stall). A pair of angels sits on the pediment, and these are by Michael Maille and Francesco Moderati.

The entrance is Borrominiesque, with a high molded semi-circular archivolt on thin Doric pilasters almost touching the entablature. The tympanum of this contains a lunette window with a curlicued wrought iron guard. The doorway itself, which is large, is flanked by another pair of Doric pilasters set at an outward facing angle and with a pair of triglyphs below the capitals. Above the lintel is an elliptical tondo with a stucco relief of St Anne teaching Our Lady to read, and this is embellished with a dished molding, a pair of stucco cornucopias and a curlicued archivolt on top. It conceals much of the lunette.

Above the entablature there is a balustrade, which is solid where it angles over and behind the pediment but otherwise has pin balusters. On the corners is a pair of campanili, which also recall Borromini (although by Specchi). They are kiosks, octagonal in plan with four open arches separated by tripletted Doric pilasters which are supported by volutes. Above are two onion cupolas in lead with ball finials, and which are decorated with curlicues recalling that over the entrance tondo.



The interior, built to Vignola's design with some alterations, is elliptical on the major axis. The dimensions are 28 by 12 metres. On either side is a chapel on the minor axis, which is merely an altar inserted into a shallow arched niche with the archivolts borne by Ionic pilasters and decorated by floral swags in stucco.

The four sectors of the ellipse marked out by the apse, entrance bay and these two chapels are identically treated. Each has a doorway into the ancillary quarters in that corner, which is pedimented with stucco reliefs of putti above by Giovanni Battista de' Rossi, 1746. The doorway is flanked by a pair of gigantic Corinthian columns, eight in total in the church, which hold up an entablature which runs round the church below the dome. These travertine columns have fake marbelling in brown on white (which is showing its age), and the same is on the frieze of the entablature. The architrave and cornice of the entablature is picked out in light grey and white marbling.

This, and the other 19th century fake stucco marble work in the church is by Giacomo de' Rocchi.

Above the doorway pediments are four frescos of the life of St Anne, by an Austrian painter called Ignazio Stern. They occupy the locations of four windows which were here before the dome was built. The pictures are: St Anne Giving Alms, The Vision of SS Joachim and Anne Predicting the Birth of Our Lady, St Anne Teaches Our Lady to Read and The Apotheosis of St Anne.

The archways into the sanctuary and entrance bay are in the same style as those of the chapels, but the latter is obscured by a balconied gallery on corbels and with a bow front.


The interior dome is very simply decorated, in grey with white and dark grey highlights. Eight ribs focus on an elliptical oculus which contains a gilded stucco relief of the Dove of the Holy Spirit in glory. This is by Pietro Ricci. The ribs spring from plinths with the same brown and white marbling as the columns, and in between them are lunette vaults over the eight windows. The window over the apse is blocked, and bears a commemorative inscription on a marble tablet.

Side chapels[]

The chapels are identically designed. Each has an altarpiece in a yellow frame, on a grey background which has bishop's insignia in stucco under a triangular pediment. Fitting into the vault is an archivolt with a single arc of coffers, alternately containing rosettes and stars.

The left hand chapel is dedicated to St Charles Borromeo, whose enormous nose makes him readily identifiable in any portrait.

The dedication of the right hand one is not obvious -the rather dirty altarpiece actually shows St Giles as a monk in a black habit, having a vision of the Madonna and Child. The artist is possibly Ignazio Stern.


The sanctuary is a shallow rectangle with a small segmental apse containing the altar, as well as a shallow arched niche on either side. The right hand one contains the organ. The ceiling vault and the niche arches are decorated with stucco coffering; the vault has four ribs, four large tondos containing reliefs, and eight small ones making an overall octagonal pattern. The stucco work is mostly in white and light grey, with some highlights in gilt. There is a central lantern lighting the altar, which has eight small arched windows.

The altar is Baroque, in polychrome stonework, set into the apse which has its own richly decorated arch. The altarpiece is by Arturo Viligiardi, executed in 1926, and shows St Anne Teaching Our Lady to Read. It is in a realistic style with hints of the pre-Raphaelite, which was already old-fashioned at the time and which was soon to be consigned to oblivion by the patronage of Hitler and Stalin. Our Lady is a piccola bionda, and St Anne is holding a scroll rather than a book which is historically accurate (even if Our Lady's hair colour is not). The lilies and roses in the background are well executed.

The artist was more famous as an architect in the 19th century.

The altarpiece frame is a pretty arched aedicule with two Ionic pilasters in what looks like verde antico marble. On the archivolt is a small  pair of putti, with garlands on each side.


THe church is open:

06:45 to 12:00, 16:00 to 19:00. 

Note the unusually early morning opening time, 15 minutes before St Peter's.

The church is just inside the Via Sant'Anna gate of the Vatican, and you can go through this to visit the church when it is open. However, there is always a Swiss Guard on duty beside the entrance to ensure that you go no further if you do not have a pass. Unfortunately this means that the churches of San Pellegrino in Vaticano and Sant'Egidio a Borgo, which are just around the corner, are inaccessible. (Security rules have been tightened up in recent years, and it is no longer possible to obtain a pass without prior application -despite what they may say at the tourist information.)


The liturgical celebrations are (unfortunately the 6:00 Mass has been discontinued):

Weekdays. Mass at 7:00 (with Lauds), 8:00, 9:00, 18:00 (with Vespers, and Rosary before starting at 17:30).

On Fridays, there is Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament at 17:00, the welfare of families being the intention except on the first Friday of the month when it is for vocations.

Sundays and solemnities. Mass at 7:00, 8:30, 10:00, 11:00, 12:15, 15:30 (in English), 18:00 (with Vespers, and Rosary beforehand at 17:30).

Note the Mass in English. The Masses at the church are popular with pilgrims, especially those who find the crowds in St Peter's disturbing.

The feast of SS Joachim and Anne is celebrated with great solemnity on 26 July. Joachim was her husband. Before 1970 they were celebrated separately, but nowadays always together.

Until 1870, the festal celebration included a procession with an icon of the saint to the Ponte Sant'Angelo (outside Castel Sant'Angelo). This tradition ended when Italy was unified, and has not been re-established.

External links[]

Official diocesan web-page

Italian Wikipedia page

Parish website

Parish website gallery

"De Alvariis" gallery on Flickr

Roma SPQR page with gallery

Interactive Nolli Map Website

Info.roma web-page

Confraternity website

Roman Despatches blog with gallery