Santa Balbina is a monastic church, possibly 4th century, which is titular and a minor basilica. The address is Piazza Santa Balbina 8, which is in the rione San Saba. Pictures of the church at Wikimedia Commons are here. There is an English Wikipedia page here.
The dedication is to St Balbina, who is historically an obscure personage. The revised Roman martyrology contents itself with describing her as being venerated at her basilica at Rome, and dating her from before 595 (which is the date of the first documentary evidence of the church). In other words, no historical facts are known; the martyrology does not now refer to her as a virgin or a martyr.
She appears as a virgin martyr in the legend of Pope St Alexander, as being interred in the catacombs of Praetextatus in about the year 130. Unfortunately, the story is romantic fiction and historically worthless. The saint is described as being the daughter of one Quirinus, a tribune martyred and buried with her, and the high altar of the church contains their alleged relics together with a companion, Felicissimus.
There is another historical reference in which the name Balbina occurs. Pope Mark was described as being interred in the coemeterium Balbinae (Catacomba di Balbina) on the Appian Way, near the Catacombe di San Callisto. A basilica was built over his tomb and named after him, which may be the recently discovered Basilica Anonima della Via Ardeatina (although this is uncertain).
The name is odd. It relates to the early Roman surname Balbus, literally "stammerer", and might have originated with a slave or freedman of the family. Alternatively, the original saint might have been a slave who stammered and was given the nickname which she kept.
A tentative conclusion is that the saint was not a martyr, but a female patron of the Church who sponsored both the catacombs and the basilica. Given the unusual name, it is unlikely that we are dealing with two personages here.
Balbina is a patron of sufferers of scrofula, which is tuberculosis of the lymph nodes of the neck (tuberculous cervical lymphadenitis). This is uncommon nowadays, but may return once antibiotics become useless.
Ancient Roman house
The church is set into the archaeological context of a large house of the ancient Imperial period which, according to brick stamps, was erected in the reign of Hadrian (130-8). This has numerous sections of surviving wall in opus mixtum (square stone blocks framed in brick). It is known that the property was given by the emperor Septimius Severus to Lucius Fabius Cilo, who was consul in 193 and 204, and it might have been the Privata Hadriani or the emperor Hadrian's private house in the city. Cilo's possession was confirmed by the discovery of a lead water pipe with his name upon it in 1859. Also, the location is shown on a surviving fragment of the Severan Marble Plan as belonging to him.
The house is described as a domus in the Regionary Catalogues of the mid 4th century, which is positive evidence that there was no church here then.
4th century basilica (?)
The present church occupies the remnants of what is interpreted as a spacious basilical hall in opus vittatum, which consists of tufa ashlar courses alternating with brick. The building style puts it in the second half of the 4th century. The dimensions are 24 by 15 metres.
What is actually discernible of this structure now consists of the side ranges of the church. Each of these consists of six large niches, alternatively semi-circular and square, with a straight backing wall. The present piers in between the niches used to come further forward, making the original niches deeper. The putative front and end walls of the basilica were not traced by the archaeologists.
The interpretation of this arrangement as a roofed basilica depends on the solidity of the surviving walls, together with the fact that opus vittatum was used for load-bearing constructions elsewhere. An alternative interpretation is that the two facing rows of niches might originally have been an open-air monument, with statues or memorials in the niches and no central roof. There is no positive evidence to prove this, however.
When the present loggia was built in the early 20th century, early 4th century foundations were discovered just inside the entrance, comprising a semi-circular wall around a semi-circular plinth. The later church façade cut through these. The excavator suggested that these were evidence of an early church, being possibly an apse, but the interpretation has not found favour. The remains could have been of a fountain or a garden feature, for example.
Origins of the church
It is impossible to know whether the putative basilical hall was built as a church originally, or was converted into one later. There is no documentary evidence of any kind of the church's foundation, or as to why it was dedicated to St Balbina, so the question would only be decided if an archaeologist found positive evidence of cultic activity of the late 4th century. None is so far forthcoming.
The first documentary reference is from 595, in the reign of Pope Gregory the Great. In a list of priests attending a synod in this year there appears the titulus Sanctae Balbinae. It has been suggested that a titulus Tigride in a previous synod list of 499 is this church, but this is merely a guess -and guesswork on the locations of the early Roman tituli has fallen out of scholarly favour.
The tradition that the church was consecrated by Pope Gregory is wishful thinking, based on the lack of documentary evidence for the church before his reign. However, the lower courses of the apse have been interpreted as being of the 6th century, and this is taken as evidence that the church was constructed in its present form around the time of his reign.
The next documentary mention is in the Liber Pontficalis for Leo III (795-816), who is described as having the roof repaired (there is no evidence for his restoration in the present fabric, although he might have been responsible for a lost apse mosaic). By this time, an attached monastery would probably have been occupied by Greek monks of the Byzantine rite. It is unknown as to when and by whom the monastery was founded, although it is possible that it dates back to the late 6th century. Because of barbarian incursions in the Dark Ages, notably by Muslims and Lombards, the convent was fortified -and a mediaeval crenellated tower survives as a reminder of this worry. Such barbarians could sail up the Tiber, and hence bypass the city walls.
By the end of the Dark Ages, the church and monastery was one of several fortress-monasteries on the Aventine. However, apart from the monks almost nobody else lived on the hill, and the land was converted into vineyards. It remained in this state until the 19th century, and there were still vineyards in the immediate locality in the early 20th.
In the Byzantine-rite monasteries of Rome, Greek monks would have been replaced by Latin-rite Benedictines in the early 11th century at the latest. The property of the monastery here passed to the monastery of San Paolo fuori le Mura, but the monastery here seems to have been abandoned in the 11th and 12th centuries. In the latter century the church became ruinous, and the apse conch with its old mosaic collapsed. The church was to struggle to justify its existence for the next millennium, until the present day.
A survey of the church fabric reveals that it was restored and rebuilt several times in the Middle Ages. In the early 13th century, the monastery was restored and given into the care of the canons of Santa Maria in Cosmedin nearby. The resulting monastery building, with its defensive tower, was separated from the church by a vineyard which indicates that only about half of the original monastery was restored.
In 1489 Cardinal Marco Barbo, nephew of Pope Paul II, reconstructed the roof and left an epigraph on one of its beams: Marcus Barbus, Venetus, episcopus Praene[stinus], card[inalis] S[ancti] Marci, Patriarcha Aquile[iensis], an[no] D[omini] MCCCCLXXXIX. "Praeneste" is the modern Palestrina.
There was an odd tendency in the late Middle Ages to give the dedication as San Salvatore. We find S. S. della Balbina, in Barbina, in Malvina, in Barbina, as if the saint was being forgotten. Despite claims that this was possibly the original dedication of the church, it is thought that the renaming was because of an icon of Jesus Christ being venerated there from the late 14th to the early 17th centuries.
Doorways were knocked through the side walls into the niches at some stage before the 16th century, as can still be discerned because they damaged the medieval frescoes inside. This seems to have been when the niches were converted into store-rooms or barns, and would have had blocking walls or partitions separating them from the church. These have left no traces.
Girolamo Francino published a woodcut of the church in 1588, showing its external appearance. There was a loggia with a single-pitched roof, with an entablature along the roofline supported by four Ionic columns fronting massive brick pillars. In between these were three large arched portals with the archivolts springing from Doric side-pilasters. The two side portals had had blocking walls inserted to just over half their height.
The frontage of the nave, above the loggia, had three oculi or round windows which were new at the time, having replaced three windows in 1571. The central one was larger than the other two. The gabled roofline was given a false pediment by the use of a brick cornice with stone brackets.
The conch of the apse had a mosaic depicting Christ, possibly 9th century.
16th century restorations
There was a series of restorations in the later 16th century. Firstly, in the reign of Pope Pius V the fabric was strengthened in a way which hints at worries about its stability. Firstly, the six large round-headed windows in the upper nave wall on each side were reduced to three. The four windows in the apse were blocked up. The three windows in the façade were reduced to oculi, as mentioned. The six niches on each side of the nave were blocked up, except one on the north side and two on the south.
The next intervention was in the reign of Pope Sixtus V. Cardinal Pompeio Arrigoni effected a restoration in 1590, which was partly self-serving. The columns of the portico were replaced with Doric pilasters, which was little better than looting because the cardinal then apparently re-used the columns in his villa at Grottaferrata, the Villa Muti.
In 1599, in the reign of Pope Clement VIII, the interior was renewed and the apse was frescoed. This surviving fresco replaced the long-lost mediaeval mosaic and was executed by Anastasio Fontebuoni, a Florentine.
Apparently, during the early 17th century the church was abandoned. However, there was some sort of restoration in the Jubilee year of 1650. The complex was granted as a Roman headquarters to the Congregazione dei Pii Operai Catechisti Rurali in 1698, and remained in its possession until 1798. However, their headquarters settled at San Giuseppe alla Lungàra in 1732.
During this period, the church and convent continued their complete rural isolation. The Nolli map of 1748 shows access by means of a narrow lane from the present Viale delle Terme di Caracalla, which eventually ended up at Porta San Paolo after running through the vineyards and along the inside of the old city wall (the present Viale Giotto). The convent was arranged around three sides of a garden cloister without arcades, the west side being simply walled, and the mediaeval fortified tower was in the south-west corner. From this, a covered passage led along the west side of the convent vineyard to the church.
College and reformatory.
The French occupiers sequestered the property in 1798, and sold it off. When it was reclaimed it was put under the charge of the Chapter of St Peter's, which restored the church in 1813 and opened an agricultural college in the convent (the Pontificio Istituto Agrario). There was another restoration in 1825.
The college did not prosper, and in 1854 the convent was converted into a reformatory for male juvenile offenders, run by the Fratelli di Nostra Signora della Misericordia. The work required the expansion of the old convent, which involved building new wings to the west of the cloister, and in between church and convent on both sides of the old vineyard.
In 1879 the complex was acquired by Padre Simpliciano della Natività, an Alcantarine Franciscan friar and the founder of the Suore Francescane dei Sacri Cuori (Capua). He established here the Istituto di Santa Margherita da Cortona for, as it was described, donne peccatrici ravvedute. In other words, it was a place for reforming prostitutes. The sisters of his order took over in 1884, and have been here ever since. Beware of confusing them with other congregations with similar names. The church, however, remained in the care of the Vatican Chapter.
The institution quickly acquired a dubious reputation in the late 19th century, as the citizens speculated as to whether the inmates were there voluntarily or were being coerced. Of course, they might have welcomed safety from their pimps. Chinnery, who wrote a pilgrim guidebook in this period, called it "an ugly penitentiary", and reported that the church was being neglected.
In 1897, the institution morphed into an orphanage. The convent was given a separate dedication, to St Dorothy.
The church's present appearance is a result of a drastic restoration carried out between 1927 and 1930 by Antonio Muñoz. This architectural historian was responsible for restoring several old Roman churches to what he thought they would have looked like in the Middle Ages, often on slight archaeological evidence. He had a tendency to treat important Baroque architectural elements and decorative schemes with contempt. As inspector of monuments in Lazio 1914-28, and then head of the cultural department of the Fascist city government until 1944, he had both the funds and the power to execute his projects.
Here, what he did was to re-open all the windows closed or reduced in the 1571 restoration. Further, he provided them with geometrical tracery imitating those that he found evidence for at Santa Sabina. To be fair, he also made the church watertight for a further eighty years. Inside, he relaid several fragments of ancient mosaic from elsewhere to form a floor (these apparently came from the excavations necessary for the Via dei Fori Imperiali, and are undocumented).
The institution has become a nursing home for the elderly, and the convent buildings were restored for the purpose at the start of the 21st century.
The church is served by the diocesan clergy responsible for the nearby parish church of San Saba. However, there is no pastoral justification for its existence since the resident population in the immediate locality is low. It has been part of the centro storico marriage circuit in recent years, until 2009.
From 2009 untll 2013, the church was undergoing restoration which was completed in the latter year.
The first cardinal listed is Simon d'Armentières, 1297. John Kemp, archbishop of Canterbury in England and Chancellor to the king there, was appointed in 1440.
The present titular of the church is Péter Erdő, who was appointed on 21 October 2003.
Via di Santa Balbina
When the country lane that used to run past the church was replaced by a main road, the latter was cut through the brow of the ridge in front of the church and, in the process, left a section of the original lane surviving. It is worth looking at this mediaeval survival, which runs to the south of the church façade. It is narrow and has high walls on either side, dating from the centuries when all this area was given over to vineyards.
Layout and fabric
Structurally, the church is a basilica with a central nave and aisles and this is what it looks like from outside. There is a large external apse, and a large entrance loggia the same width as the central nave. This is accessed by a short flight of stairs.
The fabric is mostly of brick, with a little stone in the ancient courses and some patches of render surviving. Muñoz was indulging a fantasy when he imagined that the mediaevals liked bare brickwork. The exposed fabric is a very interesting palimpsest of different ages, but if you get around to the south side to look at it be careful of the bee hives that may be here.
The 19th convent building joins onto the church to the right of the apse. Here, there is a small slab campanile in brick attached to the top of the edge of the nave roof, which has a tall and narrow arch to hold two bells. The top is gabled, but not properly pedimented. This structure has been claimed as mediaeval, but is probably 19th century.
There are three large round-headed windows over the loggia, six on each side of the nave and four in the apse. All of these have geometric mullions by Muñoz, which are attractive and better than plate glass. The false pediment of the façade is formed by a course of bricks forming a projecting cornice supported by little stone brackets.
The large loggia has three arched portals, with the brick archivolts springing from Doric columns with stone capitals. The separating pillars have applied Doric pilasters which reach the roofline, the capital decorations being continued under the latter to form a false entablature. There is a small heraldic shield over the central portal, featuring a lion rampant bend over all, with a cardinal's hat above. This is the crest of Cardinal Marco Barbo.
The portals are blocked by ugly pressed steel railing screens.
The interior of the loggia is bare, but has a collection of tombstones and sculptured slabs on its left hand side wall, collected by Muñoz. Among them are marble slabs, one incised with a cross, which he interpreted (on no real evidence) as transennae of a schola cantorum. On the nave wall at this end of the loggia is a coat of arms of Pope Innocent VIII, preserving its original colour. There is also a large tablet with an epigraph commemorating the Muñoz restoration.
The interior of church is on a basilical plan, but there are no arcades or side aisles as you might expect from the outside appearance. In place of aisles, there are five large niches on each side which are separated by thick walls; these are alternatively semi-circular and square (three to two). These niches are entered through completely undecorated arched portals, and the ends of the blocking walls between them are also undecorated. The walls are all plain, in a very pale ochre, apart from the apse fresco.
In the far left and right hand corners of the nave are two more niches which serve as entrance lobbies; the right hand one is the present church entrance, while the left hand one used to serve as a chapel.
Above the niches on each side is a row of six large windows with Muñoz transennae, which were his trademark; he unblocked three of them in the restoration.
The floor of the nave is fascinating, consisting as it does of several panels of ancient but restored black-and-white mosaics. Flowering plants and birds figure as well as geometric patterns, and there is one famous panel at the right hand side showing the signs of the zodiac. Several of these mosaics were taken by Muñoz from the excavations for the Via dei Fori Imperiali, since he was responsible for the (hurried and badly recorded) archaeolgical surveys before Mussolini's grand parade route was pushed through the Imperial Forums. The laying of these mosaics was completed in 1939.
Further areas of the floor near the sanctuary are laid with bits of ancient marble slabs, including red rosso antico, green verde antico and grey-streaked cipollino.
The trussed roof is the surviving one of 1489. There has never been a ceiling, and one of the transverse truss beams bears a dedicatory inscription with the year.
An ancient elliptical funerary sarcophagus for a child has been converted into a holy water stoup by the side entrance by putting it on a fragment of an ancient breccia column. It has strigillate decoration, with a portrait of the deceased toddler. Three ancient amphorae are attached to the wall behind it.
Stefano de Surdis tomb
On the counterfaçade, just to the right inside the entrance, is the best thing in the church. It is the spectacular Cosmatesque tomb of Stefano de Surdis, who was the papal chaplain (not a cardinal). There is an inscription by the artist: Johs filius magis Cosmati fecit hoc opus; he was Giovanni di Cosma, and he executed this work in 1303.
The deceased is shown recumbent on a catafalque with drapery, itself placed on a tomb chest with intricate geometric mosaic decoration in the typical Cosmatesque style. This has been restored in modern times.
On limited archaeological evidence, Muñoz provided a schola cantorum which is an enclosure for the church singers in an early church. It is a pair of low screen walls of plain marble slabs, and takes up the last two bays of the six-bay nave. The actual sanctuary begins at the middle section of the last bay, with the marble screen following its boundary.
The apse conch displays a fresco by Anastasio Fontebuoni of 1623, depicting Christ in Glory with SS Balbina, Quirinus and Felicissimus. To either side of the apse's triumphal arch are depicted St Peter (left) and St Paul (right), with painted panels of false polychrome marbelling over the archivolt.
This fresco replaced a (?) 9th century mosaic of Christ.
Under the high altar in the apse is a sarcophagus of red Sicilian jasper in the form of an ancient bathtub containing the alleged relics of St Balbina, her father St Quirinus and St Felicissimus. The rest of the altar is made up of a green brecciated marble, alabaster and a white marble with grey veins. The altar has always stood away from the apse wall, and there is no altarpiece or canopy.
In its own round-headed niche in the middle of the apse wall is a marble bishop's throne with intricate Cosmatesque work dating to the 13th century, although much restored. It is lit by two little windows in the sides of the niche.
To the left, there is a small square niche with an old frescoed cross on its back wall. This is an aumbry, or former cupboard for the holy oils. Nearby is a red marble table attached to the wall and supported by a pair of baluster legs in white and grey marble, and this is a credence table for preparing the elements for Mass.
The sacristy, on a trapezoidal plan, is to the right of the apse. It seems to have been the site of the mediaeval campanile, which fell down or was demolished at an unknown date.
The chapels are described in anticlockwise order, starting at the bottom right hand corner.
Chapel of Padre Pio
The niche immediately to the right of the main entrance demostrates clearly how these niches were used as external storage spaces at some stage. The doorway has been hacked through a 14th century fresco of the Madonna and Child; Jesus is holding a cross. Four damaged figures of saints are in attendance, and the donor of the work is shown kneeling by the throne on the left.
The niche has been transformed in recent times into a little chapel dedicated to St Pius of Pietrelcina, by the addition of a portable altar and a statue of Padre Pio.
Chapel of St John Capistrano
The second niche on the right hand side is dedicated to St John of Capistrano, and the anonymous 18th century altarpiece (in very bad condition) shows him having a vision of Our Lady.
Chapel of Our Lady of Lourdes
The third niche on the right hand side shows another 14th century fresco, very badly faded and perished -but two saints venerating somebody formerly in the middle can be made out. The modern statue of Our Lady of Lourdes is surrounded by a host of plaster putti stuck to the wall.
Chapel of the Crucifixion
The fourth niche on the right-hand side was the only one on this side not blocked up in 1571. It was converted into a chapel dedicated to the Crucifix, and the altarpiece is a marble relief of the Crucifixion dated to 1460. This is attributed to Mino da Fiesole and Giovanni Dalmata. It has an inscription recording its transfer here from Old St Peter's in 1650: Sanctissima haec imago olim in Vaticano, in ara Petri Cardinalis Barbi, inde e crypta huc translata fuit anno iubilei MDCL. The link with the family of Cardinal Marco Barbo was why it was brought here.
The Blessed Sacrament is now reserved here; note the twisted spiral stone candlestick on which the votive lamp is kept.
Chapel of St Margaret of Cortona
The fifth niche on the right was a chapel dedicated to St Margaret of Cortona, and the 19th century former altarpiece shows her being invited into heaven by Christ. This picture is also neglected and damaged, but gives a good idea of the penitential character of the saint. The strange object made out of small iron plates is a discipline, with which she used to beat herself. Her dog features in the portrait.
Chapel of St Peter
Opposite the entrance lobby by which you came in is another one, now disused. This used to be a chapel dedicated to St Peter the Apostle, and the fresco fragments include a fairly intact panel showing him being crucified upside down. Around this are faint traces of an earlier fresco cycle.
The glass case on the floor contains a little lead box thought to have been a reliquary.
Chapel of St Anthony
The fifth niche on the left is now a chapel dedicated to St Anthony of Padua, with a modern statue of the saint standing a neo-Baroque portable altar of better quality than usual.
The fourth niche on the left is now used to keep the processional crucifix used in the Good Friday liturgy, and the lower walls show faint remnants of frescos. Here used to be an anonymous 18th century picture showing Our Lady with SS Bernardine of Siena and Francis de Sales.
Chapel of Our Lady of Fátima
In the third niche on the left is a 13th century fresco of the Madonna Enthroned with Four Apostles which, with Christ the Redeemer above, in a tondo, is attributed to the school of Pietro Cavallini. The little altar has a Cosmatesque cross on its frontal, and came from a demolished house in the Piazza Venezia. Nowadays it supports statues of Our Lady of Fátima with her seers.
The fresco also is a palimpsest, and traces of an earlier one can be seen beneath it.
The second niche on the left contains the painting that used to be in the chapel of St Anthony, together with bits of mosaic and architectural fragments left by Muñoz. No traces of frescoes are left here.
The first niche on the left has been partitioned off as a broomcupboard, and is invisible.
There have been problems with visiting the church for a very long time. Even at the end of the 19th century, visitors were advised to call at the convent and ask as to whether one of the nuns could let them in. This advice has been repeated until recently, but the problem since the late 20th century has been that the surviving nuns are too busy to be available.
In 2013, a notice was displayed at the entrance advising that the church was open:
12:30-13:00, Monday to Friday.
10.30-11.30 on Thursday and Sunday only.
(NOTE: In 2017, those wishing to visit were being advised to phone 320 7276453.)
Note that the railing gates closing off the front loggia are rarely open. To visit the church, go through the former entrance to the right of the façade, straight on through the courtyard and enter via the door in the top right hand corner. This brings you into the church just by the sanctuary.
The best time to visit the church is 10:30 on the Thursday, when you may have it entirely to yourself. Note the liturgical event mentioned below otherwise, and take care not to cause a disturbance.
In 2017, Mass was being celebrated on weekdays at 6:30, and Sundays at 10:00 except the last Sundays of the months of September to June when it was at 11:00.
The feast-day of St Balbina is celebrated here with solemnity on 31 March.
The church is the Lenten station for Tuesday of the second week in Lent.
A notice (2013) advertises Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament from 12:30 to 13:00, except weekends.