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Sant'Aniceto nel Palazzo Altemps is a 17th century private chapel in the Palazzo Altemps that has the status of a church. The postal address of the museum is Piazza di Sant'Apollinare 46, which is in the rione Ponte. The church entrance is at Via della Maschera d'Oro 8.

The dedication is to Pope St Anicetus.


Altemps family[]

The Palazzo Altemps was built in the latter 15th century, but only obtained its present name when it was purchased in 1568 by the Austrian cardinal Mark Sittich von Hohenems. His family were lords of Hohenems in westernmost Austria, but he ended up obtaining his fortune in Rome through having an uncle as pope, Pius IV. The Italians found his name impossible and rendered it as Marco Sittico Altemps, hence the name of the palazzo.

The cardinal had the palace rebuilt by Martino Longhi the Elder, and this is basically the building we have today. He died in 1595 and was buried in Santa Maria in Trastevere, but was unfortunate enough to witness the beheading of his illegitimate son, Roberto Altemps, for abducting and raping a girl. The then pope, Sixtus V, wished to demonstrate that the Roman nobility were not above the law, and refused clemency. Such abuse was part of society back then, and was considered acceptable if the abductor then married his victim. However, Roberto was already married and so was condemned for adultery (not kidnapping and rape). The family found the verdict incomprehensible, and suspected that the real reason for it was that Roberto had married an Orsini. The pope was a Peretti, and the two clans did not get on. The rancour can be discerned in the decoration of the church, commissioned by Roberto's son Giovanni Angelo Altemps.

Pope Anicetus[]

All the palazzi in Rome at the time would have had at least one private chapel somewhere on the premises. The one in the Palazzo Altemps is singular in that it contains the shrine of a saint, Pope St Anicetus. This gave it the status of a church, and the liturgy was celebrated publicly there on the saint's former feast day of April 17th.

Pope Anicetus reigned in the middle of the 2nd century (his actual dates are uncertain), but his extant story is legendary and it is historically false that he was a martyr. In 1604, Pope Clement VIII gave Giovanni Angelo the alleged relics of the pope to be enshrined in his chapel, which was a very unusual gift. The sources seem a little confused about where the relics came from; the usual assertion is that they were brought from the Catacombs of St Callixtus on the Appian Way, but these were lost and unknown at the time. Alternatively, they had been in store at the Vatican after the demolition of Old St Peter's.

The relics were enshrined under the high altar, in an ancient basin of giallo antico marble quarried in what is now Chemtou in Tunisia. This was apparently dug up somewhere in or around the Villa of Maxentius on the Appian Way. The Altemps family then promulgated the completely false story that Pope Anicetus had been beheaded as a martyr, and this falsehood was included in the Roman martyrology until its revision in 2001.

Fitting out the church[]

Giovanni Angelo employed Onorio Longhi, Flamino Ponzio and Girolamo Rinandi as architects in his church project, which was finished in 1612. No expense was spared. He had the result dedicated to Our Lady of Clemency (Madonna della Clemenza) as well as to St Anicetus, which was taken as a comment on the beheading of his father. This may have been a factor in the delaying of the consecration, until 1617. However, this special title of Our Lady is also associated with Santa Maria in Trastevere where Cardinal Mark was buried.

Between 1619 and 1622 the wall frescoes were executed by Antonio Circignani, nicknamed Il Pomarancio, which have as their theme the martyrdom of the saint and the mercy of God. He also did the friezes of putti at the bases of the vault, but there is doubt as to whether he managed to finish the vault fresco. Polidoro Mariottini is now considered to have completed this.

Later history[]

From 1725 to 1732 the family leased the palace to Cardinal Melchior de Polignac, French ambassador to the Holy See, who lived here in great luxury and cultural distinction. When they got it back, they restored the church in 1753

The family kept possession until the 19th century. The male line died out in 1853, and the inheritor, Lucrezia Altemps, married a French official called Jules Hardouin who then inherited when his wife died leaving a daughter Maria. She married Gabriele d'Annunzio in 1883, but the marriage collapsed in 1891 and the fallout from the scandal led to the palazzo being ceded to the Holy See.

The Pontifical Spanish College was here from 1894 to 1969, when it decamped to the suburbs and left the palazzo in a very bad state. See Cappella del Collegio Spagnolo.

The Italian government acquired the property in 1982. Up to 1997 there was a thorough restoration, and then it was opened to the public as a branch of the Museo Nazionale Romano. This it remains.

Extraordinary form[]

Recently, this church has hosted celebrations of Mass in the Extraordinary Form ("Tridentine Mass") under the aegis of the Opera Familia Christi.


The church has no exterior presence, as it is completely within the fabric of the palazzo. As a church it should have had at least one public bell, but if ever there was a campanile on the roof of the palazzo there is not one there now.

Despite its status, the church had no direct access from the street. Unlike the Barberini family at Sant'Agnese in Agone , the Altemps family did not regard their private church as having a public function.



The church is now officially Room 27 of the museum, in the north-east corner of the second storey of the palazzo, the piano nobile. The entrance is through a door on the right hand side of the fireplace in the old ballroom, the Salone del Camino, and its right hand wall runs along the loggia which overlooks the courtyard from the north.

The plan looks rectangular, but is actually slightly trapezoidal. The two side walls diverge slightly to the triumphal arch, then become parallel in the presbyterium. The altar and shrine are in an apse which is almost a three-quarter circle; the left hand side wall of this is curved, but the right hand one is straight because of the window into the loggia.

There is a roughly circular room with an entrance just by the left hand side of the steps into the apse, and another entrance just by the triumphal arch. This has fenestration looking out into the Vicolo dei Soldati, onto which the north façade of the palazzo faces. Two other rooms occupy the space between the façade and the church; a rectangular one has entrances from the above room and the nave, and a square one leads from this rectangular room to the ballroom where it exits to the left of the fireplace. The rectangular room is the sacristy, while the two others were external chapels.

Behind the altar is a rectangular niche, invisible from the nave because the altar is in the way. Also, just to the right of this is a very interesting tiny triangular room which is now a broom cupboard but used to be a coretto, which is a side-chamber where someone could attend to a liturgy in a church or chapel without being seen.

Below the apse is a semi-circular confessio or crypt, which is (of course) in the first storey of the palazzo and has two exits into the rooms around it.


The entrance into the nave emerges under a gallery supported by four Doric columns in pink marble veined with black. These support an entablature with a dedicatory inscription, above which is a balustrade. There is a little round window high on the right hand side here.

The interior is sumptuously decorated, with all surfaces either frescoed, gilded or revetted in polychrome marble. As mentioned, the nave has a cycle of frescoes by Il Pomarancio, with the interesting ones on the left hand side. There, two panels show the saint immediately before and after his martyrdom, with a third panel to the left showing Christ carrying his cross. These are the first historical assertions that the pope was martyred. Below and in between the fresco panels are panels of different rare coloured marbles and breccias.

On the right hand side, there is only one fresco panel because there are also two large rectangular windows which look out onto the loggia. This shows the saint being arrested.

The ceiling has a shallow elliptical barrel vault, and the sides of this have two charming processions of putti holding symbols of martyrdom (on the left) and of torture (on the right). The putti also frolic all over the vault itself, which is a symbolic depiction of the Glory of St Anicetus.

Over the door into the sacristy is a marble tablet recording the foundation of the church by Pope Clement and Giovanni Angelo Altemps. Then, immediately in front of the triumphal arch, is a pair of fresco panels showing two evangelists, SS Mark and John.

Sanctuary and apse[]

The triumphal arch is inserted into the vault, and because it is circular and not ellipitical it has triangular sections on either side of the archivolt as infill. These are decorated with curlicues in gilded stucco. The archivolt is supported by a pair of Corinthian columns in pink and white brecciated marble with gilded capitals.

Sant'Agapito, altar.jpg

The sanctuary is decorated with panels by Il Pomarancio showing scenes from the life of Our Lady. 

The apse has a half-dome rather than a conch, because there is an oculus. The decoration is in gilded stucco on white, with tondi and trapezoidal panels. There is a balustered railing limiting access to the sanctuary area.

The spectacular altar is set over the ancient basin containing the relics, which is in giallo antico marble with lions' feet and which dates to the 2nd century. A pair of black marble Corinthian columns support an oversized segmental pediment also in gold and white, and these flank an area panelled in red marble. On this floats a little aedicule in green and gold, which frames an icon of Our Lady of Clemency. This is a Spanish copy of 1915 of the original at Santa Maria in Trastevere.

The birds[]

The best thing in the church is an exquisite strip of five small panels under the first painting on the left hand side, which  show five birds (thrushes and finches) perched on twigs. These are of delicate opus sectile work in rare coloured minerals, including mother-of-pearl and lapis lazuli (blue). The presence of this work here is a small puzzle; it seems to belong to a piece of furniture rather than a church wall, and might have have been part of the extensive collection of antiquities and curios accumulated by Cardinal Mark. The date is thought to be 16th century, however. There has been a rather sad attempt at a matching set in paint on the opposite wall.


The confessio below the altar has a vault in wood, into which is inlaid marquetry work depicting flowers in mother-of-pearl. There are eight panels here in oils, depicting events in the life of St Anicetus, and these are by Ottavio Leoni.


The coretto is usually overlooked, and is not open to visitors. There is no access from the church, but rather from a corridor running off a room which is on the other side of the door at the east end of the loggia. The decoration of this tiny space, where one person could stand and listen to a Mass being said on the altar, was intended to evoke a chamber in an ancient catacomb. This romantic feature is a witness to the excitement generated by the discovery of the catacombs of St Priscilla in 1578. There is here a fresco of a corpse in its loculus, which however is dated to the 18th century rather than to the original 17th century project.

Sacristy area[]

The roughly circular room accessed from the left hand side of the apse was the chapel of the palazzo while the church was being fitted out in the 17th century. It has a fresco on the vault showing the Glory of the Martyrs.

The sacristy itself has a set of vestment wardrobes in walnut wood, dating back to 1614. The names of the carpenters have been preserved: Lorenzo & Giovan Petro Acciar Modesti.

The last side room was a chapel dedicated to St Charles Borromeo, and has a fragment of an ornate cope of his.


The church can usually only be visited by paying the entrance fee for the museum, but there are lots of interesting ancient sculptures to see here as well as the rest of the palazzo and its surviving decorative schemes.

Unfortunately visitors to the church are restricted to the nave and sanctuary, and are not allowed into the apse or confessio.


Mass in the Extraordinary Form has been celebrated recently on Sundays at 11:00.

The church is not listed by the Diocese, but obviously is still consecrated. Priests are known to have obtained permission to say a private Mass here, which would be obtainable from the Ministero dei Beni Culturali

The feast-day of St Anicetus is now 20 April, and a Mass should be celebrated here on that date. The former feast-day, before 1970, was 17 April and this is sometimes quoted in online sources.

External links[]

Museo Nazionale Romano web-page

Italian Wikipedia page

"Associazionepetra" web-page

"Leapwithoutanet" blog page

Photos included in larger gallery of Palazzo on a Picasaweb gallery

Old photo from Rikko77 on Flickr

Modern photo from Starlightworld on Flickr