Sant'Eusebio all'Esquilino is an 18th century former monastic church, on ancient foundations and possibly containing 13th century fabric, at the north corner of the Piazza Vittorio Emanuele II (postal address 12A) in what is now the rione Esquilino (historically, rione Monti). The church is now parochial and titular, but is not a minor basilica. Pictures of the church at Wikimedia Commons are here.
The dedication is to St Eusebius of Rome.
The identity of the saint to whom this church is dedicated is a problem, since there has been serious historical confusion as to who this St Eusebius really was.
One tradition used to be that he was martyred with some companions in the reign of the emperor Valerian, about 255. The historical consensus now is that this particular martyr never existed, and so he has been deleted from the Roman martyrology.
There has been confusion with St Eusebius of Vercelli, a 4th century Italian bishop famous for making his cathedral clergy live a life in common as canons. He is counted as one of the founders of the Canons Regular -and was not a martyr. A fable was later invented that this bishop had been starved to death for supporting the Nicene creed against the Arian emperor Constantius II, but this is demonstrably false.
The revised Roman martyrology (2001) has decided against identifying the church's St Eusebius with this bishop of Vercelli, and has listed the saint merely as having given his name to the church. In other words, it is now admitted that no-one knows who he was.
The church's St Eusebius is now listed by the Roman martyrology on 14 August. (St Eusebius of Vercelli has his feast-day on 2 August.)
The church was financed by St Eusebius of Bologna (not St Eusebius of Vercelli), a friend of St Ambrose, and has its first historical mention in a graffito of the year 474 in the catacombs of Santi Marcellino e Pietro ad Duas Lauros.
However, archeological remains hint at an original construction date of about the turn of the fifth century. This means that it is one of the oldest churches of any sort in Rome. It was also one of the tituli or first parish churches, and was known as the Titulus Eusebii certainly by 499. Later tradition alleged that it was made so during the reign of Pope Liberius (352-66).
Ruins dating to ancient Roman times have been found south of the transept and behind the sanctuary. The style of wall construction appears to date from the end of the 2nd century, and epigraphs discovered here in 1875 suggests that a sanctuary of Jupiter (Iuppiter Dolichenus) was here or nearby. The suggestion that these remains were the original house church has no archeological backing.
The church was restored around 750, before being rebuilt later that century.
It was rebuilt again and re-consecrated by Pope Gregory IX in 1238. A tablet commemorating the rebuilding may still be found in the porch of the church, to the right of the door. Around the same time, the bell-tower or campanile was added.
The church was granted to the Celestine congregation of reformed Benedictines (now extinct) in 1289. This had been founded in 1259 by the Italian hermit Pietro da Morrone, later Pope Celestine V. He reigned for only nine months in 1294 before resigning, and was canonized as St Peter Celestine after his successor Pope Boniface VIII almost certainly had him murdered in prison. (That he was murdered is now certain.) The monks built a monastery, which still exists to the right of the church and which was elevated to the dignity of an abbey in 1627.
The high altar, presbyterium area and choir were remodelled by Onorio Longhi in 1600.
A rebuilding of the church was begun in 1711 by Carlo Stefano Fontana (nephew of the more famous Carlo Fontana) under the patronage of Cardinal Enrico Enríquez. He was definitely responsible for the façade (compare his façade at San Clemente), but apparently for not much else. If you look at the Nolli map (see "External links", below) you will see that the body of the mediaeval church was still intact in 1748.
The rebuilding was actually begun in 1753 by Nicolò Picconi, and it took about six years. He was the designer of the present interior, although the choir fittings and the high altar from the work by Longhi were kept.
There is an argument as to how much, if any, of the fabric of the 13th century church survives under the 18th century work. It is known that there used to be fourteen ancient columns in each nave arcade, and some of these might be entombed in the present pillars.
The original campanile was left alone, however.
The Celestine congregation was dispersed by the French Revolution, and was formally suppressed by order of the Napoleonic imperial government in 1810. It was not revived afterwards, but the complex was granted to the Society of Jesus who used the monastery as a retreat house. They in turn were expelled in 1873, when the monastery was seized by the state, and the future of the church was finally settled in 1889 when the parish was erected and staffed by diocesan clergy.
The monastery is now occupied by the Pubblica Sicurezza.
Before the late 19th century, the church was at the far end of a little piazza next to an important road junction, but the creation of the Piazza Vittorio Emanuele has radically changed the layout of the roads in the area.
The current titular of the church is H.E. Cardinal Daniel Nicholas DiNardo.
Layout and fabric
The church has a nave with aisles, with a presbyterium on a square plan flanked by sacristies. It shelters its nave and sanctuary, with sacristies, under one pitched and tiled roof. There is no external apse.
The façade dates from 1711 and, as a result of suburban development lowering the street level, has now to be approached by steps. Despite being late 19th century, these form a pleasing mock-Palladian aspect with two transverse upper flights meeting at the top of a longitudinal lower flight. There is an internal loggia, and the first storey frontage has four gigantic Doric pilasters supporting an entablature. In between these are five arches, with their own imposts, leading into the loggia. The central one is slightly wider than the others, with its arc decorated with volutes enclosing laddering and with a scallop shell on top. It has a statue of the Madonna and Child in front of it.
The second storey has five equally sized rectangular windows separated by four Ionic pilasters with swagged capitals. The pediments of the windows are treated playfully; three have ogee curves, and two are coved triangles (with inward curves). The pilasters support an entablature with a dedicatory inscription and the date, 1711. Above this is a triangular pediment with a statue of a saint at each end; one is St Eusebius and one is St Vincent, the minor patron of the church. However, the pediment is obscured by a large tympanum containing a seriously damaged coat-of-arms of Pope Clement XII. Two angels sit on top of this tympanum.
The actual entrance door to the church is flanked by a pair of marble plaques announcing indulgences offered to visitors. The older one on the right dates from the 1238 restoration, and that on the left records those conferred by Pope Gregory XIII in 1572.
The 13th century brick campanile can be seen peeping over the right hand side of the façade. It is actually at the northern corner of the monastery cloister, and is enclosed by monastic buildings.
There is a tiled pyramidal cap, and each face has three soundholes formed by an arcade with each arch separated by a limestone column with a cushion capital. Examination with binoculars will reveal brown ellipses above and below the soundholes, which are the ends of tie-bars inserted to hold the structure together. Above the soundholes facing the street is also what looks like a damaged disc of green serpentine, indicating that the campanile was originally decorated with polychrome stonework.
The window behind the high altar has an impressive Baroque exterior surround, which can be inspected from the Via Principe Amedeo. It is shaped like a trapezium with a curved top, and the stone frame is decorated with volutes, tassels, a scallop shell and a winged putto's head.
The adjacent monastery has a 16th century cloister, which is not on a classic square plan but is rectangular with cloister walks on two sides only. There is a fountain attributed to Domenico Fontana, who is also thought to have been involved in the buildings.
The complex is now a barracks for the police forces, and can be difficult to visit. Calling at the door to the right of the church is pointless; it is best to have a contact with somebody in residence there.
The coolly decorated Baroque interior by Picconi, mostly painted in a cream colour with some gilded stucco, has the arcade arches (four on each side) separated by gigantic doubled Ionic pilasters. The aisles are vaulted with shallow elliptical saucer domes.
The main nave ceiling is barrel-vaulted, with transverse ribs running between the round-headed nave windows. It displays a fresco of St Eusebius in Glory by Anton Raphael Mengs of 1757, or 1759 according to the notice in the church porch. This is the most important artwork in the church.
Over the triumphal arch is the coat of arms of Cardinal Enrico Enríquez, below which is a long inscription on marble executed to look like cloth and held up by two angels. This is an impressive piece of stucco work.
The high altar is a dominating Baroque work, with four Corinthian columns in red and white marble. The altarpiece is an icon of the Madonna and Child by Pompeo Batoni, (the notice outside the church door says the artist is unknown) set within a glory which is itself part of a stucco relief. The latter features two saints venerating the icon; the one on the left, vested in chasuble and holding the martyr's palm is St Eusebius, whilst the figure on the right is dressed in a deacon's dalmatic, hold a palm and is identified as St Vincent by the brief history of the church found in the porch. There is another painting inserted into the triangular pediment, depicting The Apotheosis of St Eustace, and the frame of this has its own segmental pediment. The artists responsible for icon and pediment painting seem to be unknown.
The published descriptions of this altar mostly rely on Nibby writing in 1848, and are erroneous. The altarpiece as it now is looks 19th century, and the icon is based on that of Santa Maria della Consolazione. The icon was taken out of the church during World War II for safekeeping, but the location where it was held was bombed. However, the icon survived despite considerable damage to its surroundings.
The relics perhaps of St Eusebius of Bologna, who financed the church, are interred beneath the altar. By tradition there are three saints here: Eusebius, Orosius and Paulinus. The latter two feature in the mediaeval romance and are certainly spurious.
There are two side-altars inside the sanctuary. The altar on the left has as altar piece The Election of St Peter Celestine (Pope St Celestine V) by Andreas Ruthard (1630-1703), who was a monk of the monastery. The altar on the right depicts St Benedict (possibly receiving his disciples Maurus and Placid), painted by Cesare Rossetti (c.1565-after 1623). Note - some references - including the description posted in the church porch - reverse the descriptions of these two altarpieces. According to that description, the altar on the left has columns of breccia corallina and the right has columns of breccia pavonazza.
Behind the high altar is a finely carved set of wooden choir-stalls from 1556, provided for the Celestine monks and apparently carved by one of them in walnut. Apparently before 1711 the choir was before the altar, instead of behind it as now. This arrangement is familiar from mediaeval monasteries in northern Europe, but has not been usual in Rome since the 17th century when an uninterrrupted view of the high altar started to be regarded as important.
There is a choir altar, with a Crucifixion by Cesare Rossetti. The conventual mass of the monastic community would have been at this altar on ordinary days. The picture of The Virgin Mary with Saints Eusebius and Vincent by Baldassarre Croce which was formerly the altarpiece of the High Altar also hangs in the choir.
There are four chapels (really, just altars) in the aisles on each side. The two inside the sanctuary have already been described above. They are worth looking at for the varied Baroque designs in differently coloured polychrome stonework (or plaster made to look like such), but the artworks that they display are mostly mediocre and have attracted little interest from commentators. (Thanks to De Alvariis for recording them -see "External links". Note, however, that the descriptions given by De Alvariis are inaccurate as to the locations of these altars inside the church.)
Starting from the bottom right hand corner, they are:
Immediately to the right of the entrance doors, an undistinguished statue of St Anthony of Padua. Note, this 'altar' does not have a mensa and may never have had one. Adjacent to it is a statue of St Anthony Abbot.
On the right hand wall of the church, the next altar features a 19th century painting of Our Lady of the Rosary (of Pompeii), showing the Madonna and Christ Child giving rosaries to St Dominic and St Catherine of Siena.
Next on the right hand wall of the church, before the sacristy door, the Sacred Heart of Jesus. If it's real, the yellow marble in the Ionic pilasters, frame, frontal and elsewhere is from SIena but it looks too lurid to be true.
And on the left of the church, starting from the bottom left hand corner:
To the left of the entrance doors, a shrine with an undistinguished statue of Our Lady of Lourdes.
On the left hand wall of the church, the next altar has a modern Pietà, but the columns flanking this look like alabaster.
The next altar has a polychrome glazed pottery statue of the Madonna and Child, entitled the Madonna della Vittoria, in a niche in blue with fleur-de-lys. Again, the aedicule is of high quality and does not deserve its contents. An engraving tells us that the altar was erected in 1900 by the residents of Scurcola Marsicana resident "here" (presumably in the city of Rome is intended) in honour of their patroness, the Madonna della Vittoria. Another inscription records renovation of the altar and the gift of the statue in 1950.
The church is open, according to the Diocese:
Weekdays: Mondays 7:30 to 9:00, 17:30 to 19:00; Tuesdays to Saturdays 8:00 to 12:00, 17:00 to 19:00 BUT 18:00 to 19:30 only all week in August.
Sundays and Solemnities 8:30 to 12:00, 17:30 to 19:30 (18:00 to 20:00 in August).
Mass is celebrated:
Weekdays, 7:30 (not August) and 18:30;
Saturdays, 9:00 (not August) and 18:30;
Sundays 9:00, 10:30 and 18:30.
The evening Mass is at 19:00 in June, July and August.
There is Eucharistic adoration on Fridays, and the Blessed Sacrament is exposed from 17:00 until 18:30 except for First Fridays when it is from 9:00 (that is, all day).
On the feast-day of St Anthony the Great of Egypt, 17 January, there is a blessing of animals in the piazza. This is an old tradition, and used to be performed in front of the church of Sant'Antonio Abate all'Esquilino until motor traffic made it dangerous in the 20th century. It used to be the case that farm animals were brought along, in the days when much of the land inside the city walls was still open farmland, and up to fairly recently horses were much in evidence. The blessing was so popular in the early 19th century that in 1831 the Diocese threatened priests of other churches with suspension if they copied it. Nowadays it only concerns pets, especially horrible little dogs that look like rats in platform shoes (lupe di Roma moderna, as the locals would say, the "wolves of modern Rome").